Team Old & Busted: House Taldryan
Members of Team Old & Busted:
GM Jac Cotelin - #6
DP Halcyon Rokir Taldryan - #43
DJM Keirdagh Taldrya Cantor - #83
DJM Shadow Taldrya - #84
DA Benevolent Taldrya Whiner - #2706
Invasion Staging Point Above Krayiss II
5 Days Before the Invasion of Rhelg
Coryn Vance and his elite team of Brotherhood Special Forces, the Nephilim, had been transferred to the Cotelin only twelve hours earlier. In what was a standard application of Army "hurry up and wait policies", his commander Brant Altaris had mustered the team and got them and their kits onto the massive Star Destroyer in less than two hours. The squad was then told to bunk down and wait. That was ten hours ago, and Coryn was anxiously awaiting orders.
The Nephilim, Grand Master Ashen’s personal team of soldiers, were not picked for just any mission. In the middle of one of the most audacious offenses that the Army of the Iron Throne had undertaken in its history, Vance knew not to expect an easy assignment to follow the taking of Krayiss II. It wasn’t much of a surprise when he was summoned to the ready room that had been assigned to the Nephilim and saw Altaris standing with his arms crossed staring at the red visage of the Deputy Grand Master, Raken.
Snapping a smart salute to the Shadow Hand, Vance stood next to Altaris and raised his eyebrows in question. "Corporal Vance reporting as ordered, sir." A look of irritation seemed to pass over the Deputy’s eyes as Vance spoke to Altaris and ignored him, but he quickly buried it beneath his somber demeanour. The Nephilim, after all, were notorious for only showing deference to the Grand Master himself, and no other; doubtlessly a side-effect of their indoctrination, and for the mission Raken had in mind, perhaps a beneficial one.
Raken turned his gaze upon the soldiers. The Monster looked down at them with a combination of anger and suspicion, leaving Vance to feel as though he was being both simultaneously evaluated for fitness, and as a minor insect that the blood red Elomin wished to squash at the first possible instant.
"Corporal Vance," the Elomin growled, "I am here to brief you on a mission that has been selected specifically for you, on the orders of Grand Master Ashen himself. Sergeant Altaris speaks quite highly of your abilities to deal with troublesome Dark Jedi, and we’re going to make full use of your skills."
Vance nodded quickly. "Whatever my Lord desires, sir. I am ready."
"Don’t be too sure, Corporal. Recently, a unit of Dark Jedi from Taldryan, known collectively as the Old Folks’ Home, has been stirring. This unit, containing some of the most powerful Dark Jedi in the Brotherhood was largely a sedentary force until just recently. Their return to the fight has shifted the balance of power in the Brotherhood, and the Grand Master is… wary at the timing of this resurgence." Raken paused briefly to see if the soldier had any questions to ask, when Vance did not speak up, the Elomin continued.
"The return of Jac Cotelin and his compatriots could be what we need to ensure victory in this war; it could also be our downfall." Raken thrusted a finger at Vance’s chest. "You, Corporal, are to ensure that they are not allowed to become a liability to the Brotherhood. You will take command of a joint force strike team that will be assigned to Cotelin personally. Obviously, we cannot let the members of the Old Folks’ Home be aware of our plans to monitor them. As far as every other member of your team is concerned you have been assigned as a personal honor guard to the former Grand Master as a personal favor from the current Grand Master. Is this understood?"
"Yes, sir. Treat the Taldrya like mushrooms. Pretend to be an honor guard for the old bastard. Make sure they don’t pose a threat to the Dark Lord," Vance parroted sharply. Raken’s eyes briefly flashed with joy at the straightforward talk of the soldier.
"Yes, Corporal. I think you’ll do just nicely. Carry on."
Invasion Staging Point Above Krayiss II
4 Days Before the Invasion of Rhelg
“There was a delay with the briefing materials,” Vance began as he strode quickly into the darkened briefing room. A quick glance showed him all the members of his joint force were accounted for. Most of the faces were new to him, but Vance had studied their dossiers to prepare for the mission. He did not want to be caught unprepared when working with Dark Jedi. “Everyone is here so we can immediately begin.”
A blue glow illuminated the faces of all the men and women seated within the room; their faces having long been memorized by the Epicanthix. The glow was provided by a holographic representation of the planet they would be invading: Rhelg.
“I am Corporal Coryn Vance. I have been asked by the Grand Master to provide this briefing, as well as placed in charge of the honor guard for Lord Cotelin...”
Coryn was interrupted by the sound of a large grunt from the back of the briefing room.
“Was there a problem, Lord Cantor?”
Keirdagh Taldrya Cantor, first Justicar of the independent Brotherhood, leaned forward to look at the Corporal. The azure light cast harsh shadows on his haggard face; each line and crevice detailing the long years he had toiled in service.
“So, you will somehow be able to protect against something that not even a Grand Master can face down?”
“That is the job,” Vance answered as he locked gazes with the old Sith Master. Keirdagh looked like he was going to shoot another vitriolic comment, but Jac laid a hand on his shoulder, forestalling it. Instead the Sith Master let out another grunt and leaned back once more in his seat. “Lord Cotelin will be in overall command of this mission and shall have final say in all matters. Our objective is the fortress of Ludo Kressh”.
The planet disappeared, replaced with an image of a massive fortress nestled within range of mountains. As the projection changed, Coryn took a moment to glance at the back of the room. The Grand Master was seated in the very middle of his team, his face belying the weight of wisdom that so many years in service and command to the Brotherhood had afforded him. To his immediate right was Keirdagh and seated to the farthest right was Shadow, the current Combat Master. The Obelisk Master was completely nondescript in both manner and appearance, hiding the power he commanded and the merits he had achieved through the years.
To Cotelin’s left was the green-haired Prophet and former Shadow Hand, Halcyon Rokir; Coryn knew the man well from his time in service to the Dark Lord, and knew what he was capable of. Next to him was the Adept and ostensibly the leader of the Old Folks’ Home, Benevolent Whiner. Despite having long served as a Tribune in the Brotherhood, Whiner was largely a mystery to the Nephilim due to his unfathomable nature.
“The fortress is located within one of the more inhospitable portions of the planet,” Vance continued as he re-focused on the briefing. “ Reconnaissance has provided detailed terrain analysis. We are unable to utilize any form of vehicle in this area and instead must be inserted nearly 50 klicks away from the base of our objective.”
The image zoomed out with a red marker showing the insertion point, and giving all others in the room a view of the terrain that they would have to traverse to reach the fortress.
“The entire area is barren tundra and the proper equipment will be awaiting us. Those of us without the use of the Force must be especially careful; we do not have anything to fall back on. Lords, I understand you will be able to stave off the effects of the elements with the Force, but I still recommend you utilize the same equipment as us. Your powers may be better utilized later.”
“This is not our first mission, Corporal,” Halcyon stated bluntly. “We understand the stakes and will prepare accordingly.”
“Of course, my Lord. ” Coryn mentally chided himself. The Horizon Plague had opened his eyes to the Dark Jedi and their ways; many used the Force as a crutch. Most could not be trusted, but these were not common Jedi and he must tread lighter.
“We depart at 0700. Our shuttle is in Hanger Bay 3, so we shall all meet there. Further details have been sent to each of your personal datapads for further review, as well as equipment pick-up locations. Lords, your equipment shall be sent directly to your quarters. The One Sith have not been seen near the fortress itself, but we have no other intelligence on what obstacles we may face so we are preparing for multiple scenarios. Questions?”
“Why the rush?” Shadow asked from the wings.
“We will be taking the fortress as the main elements of Task Force 64 arrive in-system. The One Sith will be distracted allowing us free access to our objective.”
No other questions were forthcoming. Soldiers and Jedi alike knew they were heading into the unknown where anything could be lurking around each corner.
After the briefing room had cleared, Vance wasted no time in retiring to his assigned quarters. “Quarters” may have been stretching things, though. A Cotelin-class Star Destroyer was over a kilometer long and had space for over ten thousand people, but the Iron Throne's elite guard was assigned to a series of small rooms next to the main cargo hold. The room Vance was splitting had smelled disgustingly organic when he had first entered it–like someone had left something to rot until word came down that they had some "special guests" arriving.
Vance leaned back in his cot, and reviewed what his instincts had whispered to him earlier. All in all, he had probably gotten more information by watching his assigned task force than they had received in the briefing instructions. The soldiers seemed to have at least adequate training; he didn't catch any fearful looks or snarls of bloodlust that signified inexperience. Warriors like that get themselves, and everyone around them killed.
Vance’s datapad chirped with an incoming call, Master Ashen's credentials. The Corporal accepted the call, then waited a brief moment for the encryption handshake to settle on a secure channel. A live view of the Grand Master in his battle attire appeared on-screen.
“My Lord,” Vance greeted the image, quickly bowing his head in deference.
"Corporal Vance,” the Dark Lord acknowledged with a curt gesture. “Sergeant Altaris informs me that you've just finished going over the battle plan with your strike team. I trust there aren't any complications?"
"Some blustering and bravado from certain Elders, my Lord; the rest will fall in line. Everyone else will follow orders, I'm just not sure if those orders will be mine, theirs, or someone else's..."
"You suspect a traitor?"
"Not certain yet, my Lord, but your Shadow Hand mentioned the possibility."
Muz's face wrinkled in concentration; either considering possibilities or communicating telepathically with an advisor. The pause was long enough that Vance began to wonder if he had perhaps said too much. Shortly, the stress lines melted off the Dark Lord's face as he responded.
"I'd like to reiterate how important it is that my suspicions stay private, Corporal. Make no mistake, there are enemies to this Brotherhood embedded within our Houses, and I will have them exposed.” The image flickered briefly, the Dark Lord’s rage physically affecting the equipment on his end. “In the meantime, Cotelin and his retinue will be allowed to carry out whatever little game they're playing. Do what you must to ensure I get an accurate report of the activities on Rhelg."
"Understood, my Lord." The Dark Lord’s image blinked out of existence, leaving Vance with only the dull thuds of the heavy lifters in the cargo hold stomping around to compete with his racing thoughts.
The message couldn't be clearer; at least one member of this "Old Folks’ Home" was suspected by the Iron Throne of being an agent of the One Sith, and he was about to drop onto a hostile planet with them. Journeymen and some Equites could be outmatched if you were quick, but there was absolutely no room for error if he had to take down an Elder or worse—a rogue Grand Master.
Invasion Staging Point Above Krayiss II
4 Days Before the Invasion of Rhelg
Vance was methodically going through his equipment and packing anything he would need to traverse the surface of Rhelg. Weapons, ammunition, rations, and medical supplies were all standard fare for a four-day trek, but the harsh environment of Rhelg required something more. The thermal cape he was rolling up was worn over the armor and helped retain body heat, while the cold weather backpack would protect him from hypothermia.
The team's objective was the fortress of Ludo Kressh, located in the northern hemisphere of the planet. The terrain would be difficult and dangerous to cross. Mountain ranges, glacial fjords, and subzero temperatures would make the journey an unpleasant one. Worse still, the atmospheric conditions of the planet were unstable, and blizzards were expected.
Vance finished his packing as the sound of the bay door whooshed open. He turned to see Altaris enter unescorted, a look of concern etched into his red features. Another problem, Vance assumed, as he came to attention. Altaris quickly waved him off and joined him at the equipment table.
"Sergeant," Vance greeted him cautiously. He swept the excess gear off the table and leaned against it. The sergeant was a large man, heavily muscled, and always in control. He was almost the same shade of crimson as the Shadow Hand, but Brant Altaris inspired calm in his troops, rather than fear.
"Vance," the large man sighed heavily. "I know this mission isn't what you asked for—"
"This again?" Vance pushed himself off the table and squared off with his Sergeant. "I told you before, it will not be a problem."
"You may be better now, but you're used to dealing with Jedi you can stand toe-to-toe with. If you can take them in a fight, you feel you're in control. These Elders are beyond any one of us. You know that."
"I have my orders," Vance replied, sharply. "The Dark Lord has given me this task, and I will not let any… personal issues stop me from completing the mission."
A sudden beep cut the conversation short. Vance tapped his wrist-communicator to answer the call. "What?"
"Sir," a voice crackled in response. "The ships are prepped for departure."
"Understood." The device chirped once more as the message ended and Vance turned back to the Sergeant. "I have it under control," he reiterated. Despite his… issues with Force-users, he could work alongside the Dark Jedi as long as they stayed on task.
Vance grabbed his gear and stalked out of the room. He might have heard a faint "good luck" as he passed beyond the door, but he couldn't be sure. A brief walk brought him to hangar bay three. His soldiers, and the Dark Jedi, were already gathered together with gear similar to his own. Vance noted that the two groups seemed to be standing away from each other, which he believed was for the best.
The soldiers came to attention as he stepped into view, but the Jedi seemingly ignored his arrival. Vance quickly saluted and ordered his men at ease. Everyone had already received instructions and, at the sight of the Corporal, began moving towards the docking tubes. Connected to the Cotelin were the VT-49 Decimators, Augur and Vanguard. Vance boarded Augur with half his men. The other half were riding with the Jedi.
Vance quickly made his way to the cockpit, nodding to the captain as he entered. "We head for the Rhelg System."
The two Decimators detached from the Cotelin and separated themselves from the rest of the fleet. The whole of the Iron Throne’s Task Force 64 was massing above Krayiss II and would soon be launched on a full-scale invasion to Rhelg. Seeing the raw strength the Brotherhood possessed reassured Vance. Whatever may come of the mission, reinforcements would not be far behind. But until then, he had his work cut out for him.
VT-49 Decimator Augur
En route to Rhelg System
4 Days Before the Invasion of Rhelg
The jump to the Rhelg System was a short one from the staging point at Krayiss; the troops didn't have time to do much else than grab some water and mill about idly. Vance, for his part, was doing some Teras Kasi exercises when the captain interrupted over the intercom.
"We're a few minutes out, everybody. Secure your gear, weather is supposed to be rough this time of year.”
Vance sidestepped past a pair of soldiers putting away their sabacc cards, and walked up to the communications console. Still feeling calmed and in control by the familiar movements of his forms, he raised the Vanguard over comm-link to discuss the plan of attack.
"Our intel suggests the One Sith fleet has massed on the far side of the Rhelg System in an attempt to out-manoeuvre our main fleet,” Vance explained. “Once we revert to realspace, we are to cut engines and maintain strict radio silence until we are in the shadow of the planet. We will then proceed to our landing coordinates to drop troops, and the Decimators will go back out the way they came in and rejoin with the fleet."
"And if they decide to come over here and greet us with extreme prejudice?" asked the Vanguard's captain. "These aren't exactly built for taking on a fleet."
"Hopefully they will think this is just a scouting mission," Vance suggested. "They will send no more than a token fighter resistance to force us off."
A dry voice came over the intercom. "Won't that let them know we're coming? They can dig in; get ready for us.” Vance guessed that was Benevolent, the only Taldrya not to speak up during the original briefing.
"Yes, but the fleet they're expecting won't move for three more days. Enough time for them to wear themselves out and become complace–"
Jac sharply cut off Vance. "That's very well, Corporal. But I think you underestimate our enemy.”
The Augur's captain motioned to Vance; they were about to hit realspace. "We have our orders, my lord. Starting with the radio silence; we're almost to the Rhelg System. Augur out.” Vance looked up from the console just in time to see the stars fade back to single pinpricks, with the bright star of Rhelg partially eclipsed by the planet.
Vance stayed on the bridge the whole way down; watching first for any sign of reaction by the enemy fleet, then for a glance at the terrain. It was for naught in both cases: the fleet didn’t respond, and the cloud cover obscured everything until they practically bounced off the snow upon landing.
“Now I see why you’re hiking in,” the Captain shook his head. “Looks like your target is unapproachable from above in those conditions. We wouldn’t have had such a smooth landing if I tried to land it any closer.”
Thinking back to the landing they did have, Vance agreed wholeheartedly. “I think I’ll take my chances with the snow.” He picked up his gear and joined the disembarking team on the loading ramp. A small distance away, the other Decimator was unloading in much the same manner. The Taldrya were standing together, chatting in a relaxed manner. Vance whistled sharply, calling them over to discuss their route.
“Good to see you made it planetside, my Lords,” Vance began. “We have a four day hike ahead of us, and I would like to get started as soon as possible. Briggs, James, take point. Master Keirdagh, Master Shadow, you two will provide a rear g—”
“Frag that,” Keirdagh protested loudly. “I don’t take orders from you.”
Vance stared down the irate Dark Jedi, but held himself in check. “It is a simple tactical consideration,” he explained. “My men are trained for this mission. That is why I think it is best if—”
“I really couldn’t give a damn what you think is best, Corporal,” Keirdagh snarled. “I’m not taking orders from Ashen’s pet nek.”
“The Dark Lord—”
“—isn’t commanding this mission,” Jac interrupted. “I am. You’re in charge of my honor guard. See to them.”
Vance silently stormed off, his frustration almost getting the better of him. Simultaneously, the Decimators lifted off, leaving the team deep inside enemy territory with no possible backup for the next three days. The mission was already off to a great start.
12 Klicks to Objective
1 Day Before the Invasion of Rhelg
Damn this place, Vance thought, rubbing his hands against his chest for warmth. He knew what he was getting into with this mission–a four day trek across the frozen tundra of Rhelg–but that knowledge did little to prepare him physically. The same could be said of their equipment; despite all of the best equipment credits could buy, thermal kits included, there was little that could be done in a place like this to keep the chill out of a man’s bones.
Their morning briefing complete, it was readily apparent that Vance was no longer welcome among the Dark Jedi. He walked towards his men, traveling from one clique to the more welcoming next. Two days they had been hiking together, and yet there was still no trust between the two factions. It would always be that way. Just as Vance distrusted the Taldrya, so too did his men. Rightfully so, the feelings were reciprocated by the Dark Jedi.
“...look at them over there,” proclaimed one of the squad members, kneeling near a flash heater as the others packed their thermal tents and other belongings. “Dishonorable sc–“
“Private Clarke,” Vance interrupted as he approached. “You will keep your discussion to the mission at hand and discard these thoughts from your mind.” The Corporal looked over to the Dark Jedi. He was sure that, for just the briefest moment, he caught the knowing gaze of Benevolent. “Just because you are out of earshot does not mean these men cannot hear you, or read you.” Vance had been struggling with his men since they arrived, trying to keep them focused on the task at hand. The soldiers had no respect for the Taldrya, not even for the eldest among them. That was fine, except for the penchant of Dark Jedi to dismember those who openly show disrespect.
“Besides, Clarke,” chided Private Volokh, “I am pretty sure the bearded one saved your hide more than once yesterday.” The others laughed, including the beleaguered Clarke, but Vance remained stoic.
The attacks the day before had been small encounters, bands of thieves and mercenaries. The foes had quickly been dispatched, but Vance knew there would be more. The terrain allowed for such: the varied landscape, hills, and mountains gave cover to would-be assassins. As for the equipment that would normally be used to detect the movement of their enemies, it worked as well in the distorted atmosphere as their dropships. Typically the only warning Vance had to the oncoming assault was the sound of igniting lightsabers moments before they were attacked.
The contingent leader donned his cold weather pack and motioned his soldiers to follow. They mustered into formation around the Dark Jedi, Vance leading the way and three soldiers marching on each flank. The Taldrya themselves walked dispersed among the men. Unlike the prior days’ march, there was no playful discussion between the Dark Jedi. Something had changed in their demeanor, a rift between friends. Vance could not discern the source, but he could feel the tension in the air.
Cotelin strode forward to walk at Vance’s side. “Corporal Vance,” the Grand Master started, “as we turn through that bend in the mountain pass ahead, we will be set upon on our right flank. At least twenty strong. Prepare accordingly.”
Vance gave the former Dark Lord a puzzled look. The place Cotelin warned of was over two klicks in the distance. How could he possibly know of this enemy when the day before they had been ambushed multiple times? Vance thought.
“Because, Corporal Vance,” Jac explained out loud, “to give you such a warning yesterday would have removed the challenge. We wanted to see what you were made of.” Cotelin fell back to walk with Shadow, leaving Vance to ponder the impending “challenge” and the power of the Force.
Challenge, indeed, Vance thought to himself as he ran forward. The Corporal was in the midst of the battle, close quarters where he excelled. The Dark Jedi advanced at his sides, their sabers deflecting blaster bolts and slicing through any man they approached. Shadow’s saber worked defense not only for himself, but for the Corporal as well; more than once, Vance’s charge would have been ended but for a saber swinging before him. Vance took out those targets he could get to first, though those were few and far between.
The man before the Nephilim was aiming down at Halcyon, hoping to steal a kill while the Prophet was engaged with three other enemies. Vance struck into the assailant with his left shoulder, knocking the shot off course. At the same time, the Nephilim dug his blaster into the man’s side and pulled the trigger. The discharge rang loud and the man dropped. Without giving his victim a second thought, Vance brought his blaster to bear again. He fired three quick strikes at a female combatant across the way, downing her before she slammed her vibroblade down on Clarke’s back.
The battle had come at precisely the spot that Cotelin predicted, though the number of assailants was greater than expected. Moreover, these men were better trained than the prior bands of thieves; they all wore similar black garb and had a determined way about them.
Lightning arced past Vance’s right side, the blue streaks stopping a soldier in his tracks and releasing from him screams of agony. A green blade spun to the Corporal’s left, leaving another foe without most of his face. Two golden blades whirled in the hands of the former Dark Lord, their golden lights slicing through the husks of two helpless victims.
And, only minutes after the fight started, the sound of deactivating sabers told Vance that the fight was over.
Vance quickly confirmed everyone was operational after the brief but furious firefight. He called out to his troops and the Taldryan strike team. "Form up everyone, keep your weapons ready. We need to get back on the move," he barked, his voice still rough and loud with the adrenaline rush of battle.
"Wait," spoke up Benevolent, while holstering his trusty Bryar pistol. "We need to search the bodies, and then hide them." As he began to bend to his task, Vance felt himself bristle at the delay.
"Belay that," Vance growled, "we need to get moving. We’re on the clock here people. We need to hit that fortress in time with the invasion starting if we have any hopes of breaking through their defenses. We can’t sit here and rifle through carrion and then waste time hiding them."
The tone of his voice apparently struck a nerve, as the five Dark Jedi rounded on him. Four of them conspicuously rested their hands on their lightsabers, and Keirdagh actually ignited his golden blade while staring at the Nephilim commando. Sensing that the situation was quickly advancing out of control, Vance held his hands wide from his body, and was saved by the iron tone from the former Grand Master. "Yacko, hold and deactivate. Ben, explain yourself."
"Someone sent these men. Someone will want to know where they went, and why they aren’t responding. We’re supposed to be on a covert mission, not knocking on the door. They’re clearly Mercs," Benevolent stated matter of factly, "nobody would blink if they took off because it was cold. They might ask more questions about a bunch of corpses. Second, these guys were better trained and armed than the scum we’ve seen before, wouldn’t you say, Private?" asked Benevolent, shifting his gaze to the Private who Vance had quieted earlier in the day. "It might behoove us to know more about what we’re about to walk into."
"That seems perfectly reasonable," responded the viridian-haired Prophet, "wouldn’t you agree, Corporal?"
Making sure Cantor’s lightsaber was shut off, even if he had pointedly ignored Cotelin’s command to put it away completely, Vance nodded slowly. "You’re right, of course. I’m glad someone was thinking ahead. Troopers, get it done. Clarke, you’re on sentry with me and Volokh. Bring any items of import to Lord Cotelin."
Vance, happy for any excuse to escape the watchful eyes of the Dark Jedi from Taldryan, strode off a few dozen meters in the direction of his objective and shook his chrono out of his sleeve. He double checked to make sure they would make their objective in time. "It’ll be close," he muttered to himself, while gazing at his breath condensing in the cold air in front of him.
Thinking back on the exchange following the battle, Vance came to two conclusions. First; they were definitely lucky to have these Taldrya around, even if they were completely untrustworthy. Second; Benevolent’s emphasis on the word "scum" made it clear to him that if he and his team were leery of the Taldrya, they were more than reciprocating the feeling.
The sounds of earth being lifted and dropped thudded through the tundra to his feet and ears, followed by silence. Eventually, he heard crunching footsteps as the rest of the team caught up with him. Keeping his eyes on the trail ahead, he felt someone walk up beside him. Not breaking his stride, Shadow Taldrya dropped a charred, but recognizable unit patch on the snow in front of him.
"Black Sun. Apparently this bunch hasn’t been gobbled up by the other gangs that took over after it crumbled. That makes them dangerous, and that makes you lucky to have us." Vance considered firing back a retort, but the suave Dark Jedi Master was already well past him.
Vance lingered for a moment until two of his men caught up. "Anything to report, Specialist Graden?"
"No sir," replied the soldier. "But I did learn that it’s much easier to bury corpses when you can move rock and dirt with your mind. These fellas are handy at times."
"Indeed," Vance replied.
1 Klick to Objective
30 Minutes before Task Force 64 arrives In-System
It had been a hard slog, with the troopers and Dark Jedi pulling nearly double time into the early morning, but they had made it to their objective in relative stealth. They were positioned on a ridge overlooking the entrance to the Fortress, where they had mercifully managed a few hours of fitful sleep, even if they’d doubled the sentries. Vance had poignantly ignored the half-hearted offer from the former Grand Master to rest his troops and let the Dark Jedi take the watches.
While he grudgingly would admit that he and almost everyone on his team owed the Taldrya their lives at least once from the trek in, he could not simply begin to believe that these men were unlike any other power hungry and volatile zealots he’d had to dispatch over his years in service to the Iron Throne. He also couldn’t help noticing the growing tension between the Dark Jedi themselves. Whether it was the proximity to the target, or some subtle shift in group dynamics, he couldn’t tell, but something was going wrong, and he didn’t want all his people sleeping when it happened.
Cotelin approached and crouched beside him, careful not to crest the ridge and expose their positions, and tapped Vance on the shoulder. "Suit up. They’re here." As he finished his statement, multiple sonic booms of craft entering atmosphere at high speed in the distance rebounded off the cliff faces. The Dark Brotherhood’s invasion of Rhelg had finally begun in earnest.
Vance crawled back and out of the line of sight of the temple. He rose and moved toward the remaining members of their contingent, but noticed that the former Grand Master did not move to follow. Instead, the Grand Master remained at the cliff’s edge, peering over at their target.
“Lord Cotelin,” the Corporal urged, “we must move.” For a few more moments, the Dark Jedi did not stir. Then, suddenly, the former Dark Lord slid back from his perch.
Walking to Vance’s side, Cotelin had a strange look upon his face. “I don’t believe you have an appreciation for where we are headed, Corporal.” The soldier did not reply, instead he respectfully walked next to the elder. “This fortress. This temple. The power there is beyond anything you can comprehend. I am not sure what you have been told of this place, but you are unprepared.”
The Grand Master paused. “I fear we may be unprepared as well.” Cotelin lingered again, both in step and speech, seemingly struggling to admit to the words he was stating, “I am drawn to it.”
The former Dark Lord continued without Vance, and the latter stopped to think on the Dark Jedi’s statements. There was something about this place, this fortress, that he could not explain. The fortress itself was impressive, to be sure. The structure was constructed in such a way to keep it hidden, built deep within the canyon walls. It looked like it had once been the centerpiece of a massive series of structures, but the other smaller structures had been burnt and destroyed. Yet still standing was the fortress of Ludo Kressh, its massive and sharp walls intimidating all that came to it. Vance knew that it would be even more impressive up close; these Dark Jedi were crazed for their rituals and carvings. Their old language would be found all over.
Vance’s thoughts were interrupted by another wave of sonic booms, their echos carrying into the canyon. The battle above was starting, and they needed to move.
As he joined with the others and moved to the front of their lines, Vance looked back again at Cotelin. And then he gave each of the others a once over. These Taldryan elders had started their journey jovial as kin, almost annoyingly so. Now, there was a distance between them all that even Vance could sense. This was more than an argument between friends. There was something wrong.
The first chance he got, Vance would give warning to his men. At the start, the soldiers simply failed to trust the Dark Jedi. At least then he knew the clear divisions. Now, Vance was unsure how to handle the situation when the Dark Jedi couldn’t trust each other.
Vance brought his forearm up, fist-closed, telling the rest of the group to hold still. He had taken up the vanguard position for the last klick. They were now only a few dozen meters away from the entrance of the fortress; its very presence drawing even his own men towards it. The sounds of the greater battle could still be heard, but were not as deafening as they had been earlier in the day. The skies had been filled with fire as the One Sith and Brotherhood forces battled for supremacy. It had provided the perfect cover for the team to move unmolested.
Turning around, Vance used hand gestures to silently move his team into place, while the Dark Jedi made their way toward his position. Their gazes were directed at the fortress; Vance noticed the hungry looks in each of their eyes.
“We have spotted sentries posted around the perimeter of the entrance,” Vance whispered when they were all in range. “Odds are there will be more waiting just inside.”
“I’ll attack to draw them out,” Shadow volunteered as he stared at the entrance. “The rest of you can attack when they start running.” He turned his gaze on Vance. “Soldiers will cover us.”
“You’ll cause more chaos than anything else,” Halcyon nearly hissed. “I can lead the way and draw them off much more effectively. I won’t just bull-rush them and hope for the best.”
The Dark Jedi’s eyes flashed dangerously and Vance took a small step back. Again, it was unlike the elders to argue over tactics. The briefing the Dark Lord had given him both praised and cursed their bonds of loyalty to one another. He noticed Shadow’s arm lower, almost involuntarily, towards the weapon at his belt.
The former Grand Master’s hand settled on the Obelisk’s wrist. “Shadow’s right,” Jac stated. Something passed silently between the two before Shadow relaxed and backed off a step. “The chaos will work to our favor here. Corporal, get your men into position and signal when ready. Shadow will go on your mark.”
Vance nodded in assent, moving as quickly as he could in the snowy-ice. Feel free to charge right into their guns, he thought to himself as he got closer to his soldiers. The Dark Jedi were ready to explode. He had seen a smirk appear on Shadow’s lips when Jac took his side and Halcyon’s hand was almost on the hilt of his lightsaber, too. The rest of his team had gathered around him as he kneeled down in their midst and explained the situation, pointing out each of their positions. Within minutes they were all on the move once more with Vance signalling the go-ahead.
Shadow was a blur. His sabers slipped expertly into his palms and ignited with deadly brilliance as he flew over the icy surface. The sentries spotted the lone figure instantly and moved to intercept. Flaming bolts of red filled his path. He batted away the incoming fire as he fell upon the mercenaries. The very wind announced his arrival as it slammed into the first group of sentries, sending them tumbling backwards. More combatants came streaming out of the fortress, each one displaying the Black Sun insignia.
On cue the other Taldrya made their own appearances, a dazzling display of color as their lightsabers were unleashed. The wind whipped up, blanketing the area in snow as deadly Force displays bombarded the Black Sun mercenaries. Teamwork was no longer a concept shared by the elders as each one made his own path toward the fortress.
The rest of the soldiers did their best to see through the mayhem caused by the Dark Jedi as they provided cover fire. Vance yelled out orders, trying to be heard over the din of blasters, lightsabers and lightning. From the corner of his eye he saw movement as white-clad figures came around a corner.
“They’re flanking us!” he yelled out, getting the attention of his soldiers. The bulk of them twisted around to where he was looking just as the mercenaries unleashed a hail of blaster fire. The two closest were instantly killed as their bodies were almost incinerated from the initial volley. The rest of the soldiers took cover where they could, but were being overwhelmed. Nearly two squads of enemy combatants were coming at them.
“We need reinforcements!” Vance screamed at the Taldrya as he dove behind a pillar of ice. The Dark Jedi either chose to ignore him or were oblivious as none bothered to turn in his direction. Seething, Vance gripped his Dissuader tighter. Two quick breaths were all he gave himself as he hurtled from his cover to engage the enemy. The slugthrower sent a flurry of acid-filled ammunition into the group of mercenaries. The screaming came immediately as the acid quickly ate through their thin armour.
Vance was in their midst. He switched tactics as his weapon became an extension of his arm, using it in melee to disable those closest to him. The mercenaries were clearly uncomfortable with close-range combat, most tripping over themselves to get out of range. The rest of Vance’s team used the opportunity to box them in. Vance’s thermal cape got shredded, but his specialized Nephilim armor managed to turn away the worst of the blaster fire, both friendly and not, as he worked to subdue the enemy. High risk paid off for the Nephilim as he managed to turn the tide before any more of their number had been killed.
As the battling died down Vance spun on his heel; anger boiling inside him from being ignored by the Taldrya , but his voice was stopped by the gaze of the Grand Master.
“Bury your dead, Corporal,” Jac ordered. “There is more to do.” Without waiting for a response Jac turned back to look at the Fortress. The mercenaries were dead, but they were faced with an entrance that was sealed and barred them from their objective.
A brief moment of silence was all they could afford, but Vance knew his men needed to honor their fallen comrades. He left them to their grisly task of filling the shallow graves with frozen earth and walked towards the entrance. The Dark Jedi had cleared the mercenary bodies away themselves. Vance winced at the thud of bodies thrown haphazardly out of the way with the Force.
The grand entrance before them stood sealed. The former Grand Master held his right hand pressed firmly against the cool stone, eyes closed in concentration. Vance watched and waited for a moment, but nothing seemed to be happening. The distant sounds of the greater battle reminded him of the cost in lives of their delays. A quick gesture brought one of his men forward.
"Specialist. Prep the charges," Vance ordered. "We're blasting through this door."
"Stop," the former Grand Master's voice froze the soldier in place. Vance's eyes narrowed warily as Jac stalked away from the door towards him. "Corporal. This fortress has stood thousands of years and is a bastion of the Dark Side of the Force." Jac glared at him. "You will not simply blast through its walls and risk destroying the artifacts and knowledge held within."
"Need I remind you, my Lord, that it was you who urged haste?" Vance argued through gritted teeth. "Or that the entrance was sealed because your Jedi were running off half-cocked and—"
He slowly rose into the air, clutching uselessly at his throat. Keirdagh stepped into view, his arm cast out, fist clenched. The Dark Jedi’s eyes were calm, but resolute. It somehow made him seem more dangerous than if he had been filled with rage.
“We do not explain ourselves to you,” Keirdagh stated calmly. “It’s time you realize that.”
"Release him," Jac commanded. Keirdagh held Vance for a moment longer before relaxing his grip.
Vance dropped to the ground gasping for breath. Keirdagh stalked off towards the entrance without another word. Specialist Graden moved forward, hand going for his weapon, but Vance shook his head emphatically. Escalating things now would result in too many deaths.
"Corporal," Jac said, drawing Vance's attention back, "you and your men will leave the entrance to us." Before he could utter another word in protest, Jac had turned back to the door.
Vance pulled himself to his feet and shook his head angrily. This mission, and the Dark Jedi, were getting worse all the time. Their earlier actions confused him, perhaps even were cause for concern, but there was little he could do. His training made him an excellent Jedi killer, but these Elders were beyond what he could handle alone. Yet again he wished the rest of the Nephilim were at his side. The soldiers with him were good men, but they were woefully unprepared to handle Dark Jedi.
Jac knelt before the doors and shut his eyes. Vance watched as the former Grand Master's still form. His body seemed bathed by a blood-red aura. It matched, Vance suddenly realized, with the glow emanating from the sealed entrance.
"Klajze kia nuyak xuontai," Jac spoke with a commanding tone. Vance didn't recognize the language, but he could feel something as the strange, guttural words rolled off the former Grand Master's tongue. The words held power. "Kots sis ruonis!"
For a moment nothing happened. Then, with a terrible resounding crack, the sealed door split down the middle. With a violent sound of stone grating on stone, the door sunk inwards and then began to slide slowly open, revealing nothing but darkness within. Jac remained kneeling a minute longer, then slowly pushed himself back to his feet.
"Let's go," he said simply.
The Dark Jedi entered first with the soldiers following cautiously behind. Vance cast a sharp look around the exterior and fingered the Dissuader at his belt, then fell in behind his men. They had all gone only a few steps into the darkness when the Taldrya suddenly stopped. Vance could only just make out their outlines, all but one—obviously Cotelin—seemed to be shaking. Gasps were torn from their lips and were suddenly silenced. The Dark Jedi became still.
The hissing sound of a lightsaber igniting froze Vance in place. In the midst of the Jedi, a white blade shone dangerously in the black. Vance was about to order his men back, wary of another ambush. Then, the dim light moved toward and revealed strange bundles on the floor. It’s holder moved onward, using the saber to guide his way.
Vance stepped through his men and ordered them to spark up their glow lamps. Pale yellow light lit the vestibule and the men suddenly shouted. Scattered around the entrance were bodies—merc bodies—cut down by means of a lightsaber. But none of the Dark Jedi with the team had done this. Vance's thoughts raced as he tried to understand what this could mean.
"My lords?" he asked, uncharacteristically unsure.
"The One Sith are here," Shadow explained. He disengaged his lightsaber now that the room was lit by the soldiers. The Obelisk Master knelt beside one of the still corpses and pressed two fingers to its neck. "Cold," he announced to the others. "These have been sitting for a while."
"Which means," Keirdagh rumbled, "they made it here before us."
"But who killed these men?" Vance demanded. "Those wounds can only be made by a lightsaber."
"Curious indeed," Jac mused unhelpfully.
The Dark Jedi gathered together in whispered conversation. Vance ordered for more lights and waded through the haphazardly strewn bodies to look around. The light of his own glow lamp revealed more details about the battle. The stone walls of the fortress were blackened by repeated blaster fire and deep gouges he assumed came from a lightsaber blade. Blood was spattered on everything. Whatever had happened, the battle had been bloody and violent.
Perhaps one of their own had turned against them.
Vance turned towards the Taldrya. Whatever their discussion, it seemed they had come to some form of agreement. The former Grand Master stepped away from the pack and strolled towards Vance. "It's obvious the One Sith are already within the walls of this fortress." Vance thought that was fairly obvious, but held his tongue. "We're going to do a full sweep through each room," Jac continued. "Until we eliminate the threat, we cannot claim the fortress as ours."
Vance quickly ordered his men into teams, each following behind one of the Dark Jedi. They swept through the outer parts of the fortress quickly. Vance would have been impressed by the opulence of the place, but the piles of bodies found in each hall and chamber made him think of nothing but a tomb. A shout from a soldier of one of the other teams drew his attention. The others quickly found their way over to see what was discovered.
The massive arched doors stood at least a dozen feet high, forged out of steel-blue marble threaded with gold. Inlaid within the stone were various Sith runes, but Vance could not decipher them. To either side stood a menacing statue—carvings of ancient Massassi set as if to prevent access to the room beyond. They were meant to push back the fearful and weak. Vance felt as if the cold eyes of the statues were judging him and finding him wanting.
"Lord Cotelin, another door." Vance quipped, adding perhaps too much sarcasm. Silence answered him, and Vance turned to look at the wizened old Dark Jedi; Cotelin’s eyelids were closed, but his eyes were moving rapidly underneath. Something about these doors had the old man stumped, and Vance snorted to himself at the knowledge, somewhat uncharitably.
"Oh frag this," grumbled Keirdagh. The bearded man jostled his way forward, and slammed his heavily muscled frame into the doors. The boom that reverberated down the hallways was louder than any sound that should have come from flesh hitting stone.
"Keirdagh!" snapped Cotelin irritably, his eyes flaring with candescent anger, but any further rebukes died on his lips as dust slowly shook itself free from the nearly invisible cracks and the massive doors began to swing open inward. Locking his piercing emerald gaze on the Grand Master, Keirdagh raised a questioning eyebrow, and then turned and walked into the room. The exchange between the two—the curtness of it—raised yet another warning in Vance’s mind. The Corporal motioned for two of his soldiers to stand guard outside the doors, mirroring the statues there, and followed the Dark Jedi in through the massive doorway.
The room they entered was as opulent and gaudy as Vance had come to expect from the ancient Sith Lords. The marble of the doors had continued on into the room, but it was now veined with red and gold deposits, all of which intertwined into yet more cruel Sith symbols. The vaulted ceilings disappeared in the murk not exposed by their glow lamps. More statues of ancient Sith Warriors in full battle regalia lined the walls. The floor was made of polished black obsidian, with a massive rendition of Ludo Kressh’s mark inlaid in solid gold.
These details, however, registered in Vance’s memory as mere impressions, because sitting in the midst of the flared blades of the symbol was a throne that took most of his attention. The throne was carved in the likeness of a bent and broken Naga Sadow, Ludo Kressh’s primary rival for power, his face crying out in agony where the owner’s feet would rest. Towering above the throne was the base of yet another statue, this one hewn in much finer and refined details, or it would have been had it not crumbled at the knees some untold time ago. The shattered ruins of the statue, undoubtedly of Ludo Kressh himself, lay scattered across the ground, precious gems and metals flaring in the lamp light.
While he’d been taking in the sights of the room, the four elder Dark Jedi had gathered around the ruins. The sounds of an argument were starting to rise above the whispers that normally heralded the Taldrya talking amongst themselves. "Let it go Yacks, it’s not yours to claim."
"I’m not claiming it, Halc, I’m looking at it," bit out Keirdagh.
"Yacks, give it to me now," whispered Shadow.
"No, give it to me!" spat Halcyon.
"Over my dead body!"
Keirdagh continued to hold the item in question; it appeared to be an elaborate armband in obsidian with golden filigree. He slowly turned toward Shadow, whose last objection crossed a line for the Sith. Vance could see a look of fury building in Keirdagh’s face, a look that Vance had slowly been getting accustomed to since this mission started. The grizzled old veteran bellowed "ENOUGH OF THIS!" loud enough to cause the room to shake.
The violence of his Force enhanced scream seemed to snap the bickering Jedi out of their argument. Looks of red fury were replaced by glacial calm as Keirdagh spoke. "I do not claim this as my own; we’ll discuss its ownership later, over no-one’s dead body. We will leave it here, on the throne, until this place is secure."
From behind Vance, the sound of a lightsaber being ignited seemed to disagree with the sentiment. Fearing another attack by One Sith agents, Vance twisted violently, only to find himself face to face with Benevolent, his face marred by harsh lines and his eyes emanating a sickly yellow light.
Master of Teras Kasi or not, trained agent of the Iron Throne or no, when Benevolent charged him, Coryn Vance knew that he was a dead man. He had no time to prepare a defense; there was no time to reach a weapon or shift his weight, and there would be no stopping the mad Adept’s rush.
Not once did the thought of Dark Jedi coming to his aid cross his mind as he was flung bodily out of the way by Shadow. As he hit the deck and rolled, he heard an exclamation of pain, the Adept’s blade clearly exacting its revenge on Shadow for his selfless act of saving the Nephilim.
“Bastard...” Shadow cursed the Adept. Rage transformed his normally mirthful features as he placed a hand over the wound at his side.
Benevolent smiled viciously and moved to attack again. “The power of Ludo Kressh will be ours!” he screamed.
“Shoot him!” Vance yelled from where he lay, bringing his own weapon to bear.
Bolts of fire immediately filled the room. Benevolent deflected them all with ease, sending two blasts back to strike one of the soldiers in the chest. The Dark Jedi’s blade moved so swiftly, Vance almost lost track of it. “You dare turn your pawns on us?” he bellowed at Vance. With a swift gesture, Benevolent reached out with a clawed hand and cut down the two men guarding the door with an invisible blow.
The soldiers collapsed with agonized screams. Benevolent ignored their plight and turned back to face the rest of his brethren. Shadow rose to his feet, anger masking his pain, and stepped decisively forward.
“He’s mine,” Shadow announced, his voice dripping with menace. Despite the wound at his side, he moved swiftly across the throne room floor to attack the deranged Dark Jedi. Growling in rage, the Obelisk Master ignited his own blade.
With a quick gesture by Vance, the blaster fire ceased around the Dark Jedi. With Shadow in the midst now, he could not guarantee a clean shot on Benevolent. The Corporal held, and so did the remaining troopers. While Benevolent was occupied by Shadow, Vance moved quickly to check on his fallen comrades. He sprinted to the side of the first, sliding the final meter on his knees.
The sight was gruesome and told the story of instant death. Blood and internals leaked from every orifice of the human corpse. His pores were red and swelling. It was as if the man’s internal organs had been ruptured from the inside. Dread swelled inside Vance. He only knew of one class of Dark Jedi powerful enough for such a feat.
But Cotelin was distracted and had not engaged anyone. Vance looked to the throne, expecting the elder Lords to stop the infighting, but the Grand Master and the green one were in a quarrel of their own. Vance could not hear the argument, but the focus was clear: they were competing for the riches of the ancient Dark Lords. To them, the battle of their brethren caused no second look.
As for the bearded one, he only stood watch as sabers flared back and forth. The look on his face told of an internal struggle. The ignited saber in his hand told of a desire to intervene, but he didn’t move.
Something else was going on here, Vance knew. Power surged into these men; obviously corrupting them against each other. And in the middle of it all, Vance and his soldiers were struggling to survive.
The second corpse lifted into the air and surged across the room. It followed the direction of Benevolent’s hand as it plunged toward Shadow. The injured Taldrya quickly swung upward with his saber, slicing the husk in two and causing the halves to sail past either side of him. Shadow growled as he saw some blood splatter on his combat attire. With inhuman speed, he crossed the threshold to Benevolent and came on the attack.
At every angle, Shadow thrust his saber at his foe. His attacks were parried and countered, and soon Shadow was back on the defensive. Benevolent pushed forward hard. His strikes were not meant to find a weakness to exploit; each swing was fueled by rage and intended to be a killing blow.
A gust of air caught Shadow in the chest, sending him hurtling back toward the throne. Vance heard the Dark Jedi roar in pain and saw him clutch his injured side as an invisible force twisted and mangled the injury. Benevolent marched forward, hand outstretched, and hatred deep in his eyes.
Vance watched him close his fist and yank backward, ripping the lightsaber from Shadow’s hand with the Force. He stepped closer. As Shadow reached out to call his saber to him, Benevolent pushed back, pinning Shadow’s body and limbs to the ground with unfathomable power. To the extent he could move, Shadow writhed in pain. Benevolent moved ever closer.
The fallen Taldrya began to shout. “Ben!” Shadow cried, his voice rasping with pain and anger. “I’ll kill you! You son of a bitch, I’ll KILL YOU!” Benevolent Whiner stepped forward again.
Vance saw his moment and drew his Dissuader. The weapon was ripped from his grasp and thrown far across the room. He tried to call out, but his voice caught in his throat. Vance reached for a secondary blaster, but found himself lifted upward and tossed like a rag doll. He barreled end over end and slammed into a wall, sliding down to the hard floor.
The Corporal regained his composure quickly and looked up again, feeling completely helpless in the fight. Benevolent Whiner stood directly over Shadow Taldrya, his saber in both hands, blade pointed down for the plunge into Shadow’s chest.
A flash of light blinded Vance to what happened, and a deafening sound pierced through his ears. The Corporal blocked his eyes from the light. He rubbed them quickly, hoping to get a sense for what was going on. As the focus came back, he saw Keirdagh standing over the fallen Shadow, determination in his countenance. A shattered lightsaber—Benevolent’s lightsaber—lay at their feet.
Vance wiped his eyes again. There, surrounding the defending Taldrya, were multiple copies of Benevolent; a powerful illusion. Keirdagh did not seem to know the difference between them, his head darting back and forth. Behind him, Shadow pulled himself to his knees and called out for the others to assist. Finally, Jac and Halcyon were paying attention.
Then, by the massive doors to the chamber, Vance saw it. A shadow of a figure, barely visible, quickly strode from the hall. The Corporal only noticed it when it leaned down to pick up Shadow’s fallen lightsaber.
“By the door!” Vance called out. A dozen bolts of lighting reached out from the hands of three Dark Jedi as Keirdagh, Halcyon and Jac dispatched illusions on their way to the door. But it was too late; there was no sign of Benevolent. Their “friend” was gone. Vance looked towards the throne and saw the fallen statue of Ludo Kressh seemed to be laughing at their troubles. The armband was gone too.
“Where the hell were you two!” Keirdagh yelled out as he stomped towards Jac and Halcyon. Vance made his way near, feigning to check on another comrade while he listened.
“Everything appeared to be under control,” Halcyon answered calmly, although his eyes seemed focused on something not present in the room.
“We had more pressing concerns,” added the former Dark Lord, his focus on some stones in his hand. “The two of you should have been able to subdue Ben,” Jac continued. “He should never have been able to escape.”
Vance watched the former Justicar shake in anger, biting down on his lip hard enough to draw blood, as he attempted to keep his next retort buried. Shadow had gingerly walked over to the group still holding his side. A quick look flashed between him and Keirdagh, but Vance didn’t think the others noticed. Something had changed within the two of them that the Grand Master and Prophet were not a part of.
“We need to find Ben,” Shadow stated simply, his voice hoarse from exertion. Though still pained, he seemed to be standing straighter.
“Of course. We need that armband back.”
Another knowing look crossed between Shadow and Keirdagh at Halcyon’s response, but neither said a word as they moved away. Keirdagh walked directly towards the Corporal. Vance rose to his full height, readying himself for another confrontation with the bearded Dark Jedi.
“Good job back there, Corporal. You kept your head and that’s what we needed.” Vance managed to keep most of the shock from his face, but not enough for it to be completely lost on the Sith. “Don’t get used to this,” Keirdagh growled, “but we need your head in the game.”
“What about the others?” Vance asked, testing how far the Dark Jedi’s patience would allow him to go.
Keirdagh gazed at him in silence for a moment. “This place,” he paused, “affects us. We have power here, but it seems there is a cost.”
“And you? Are you sure you are not affected?”
“Me? I’m always a cranky old bastard, but I’m too damned stubborn to let a little extra power go to my head. Don’t worry about me Corporal, I’ll be fine,” the Sith responded as he glared balefully at the Nephilim. “We need to get Ben back and deal with whatever else is going on here. How many men do you have left?”
Vance stopped and took stock. The battle within the throne room has proven costly for them, with three falling to the crazed Adept. The others were busy gathering the dead together and dragging them off to the side. Vance could see most of them were nursing some form of injury.
“Including the earlier attacks, we have lost five so far, so we’re down to seven, including myself.”
Another grunt escaped Keirdagh’s throat as he surveyed the same area. “Get them together, Corporal. We’re heading out.”
Frustrated with the lack of time to regroup and plan, Vance acted on the command. He knew at some point that he would need to steal time away from his team to check in with the Dark Lord, but this was not the time. Vance caught the attention of his soldiers with a whistle as Keirdagh called out to the Dark Jedi. The two groups slowly formed up, but distrust still kept them separated. As one they headed out of the throne room, following the path of the traitorous Dark Jedi.
Distrust permeated in the air as the Taldryan Elders moved deeper into the bowels of Ludo Kressh's fortress. Trained in observation and collection, Vance did not require mastery within the Force to know a seismic shift had altered the group dynamics of Dark Jedi. Something was eating at the very souls of the Force users and their internal struggles threatened to doom this operation. Darth Ashen had sent Vance to observe and monitor the Taldryan elite, but the mission had spiraled out of control and the odds of surviving were diminishing with each moment passed.
Remaining at the the rear of the formation, the Nephilim corporal activated the hidden audio and visual scanner on his utility belt. Designed by the Brotherhood's military industrial complex, the recorder operated on a wireless burst transmission package. With the mission's success in jeopardy, Vance intended to deliver at least a small portion of intelligence to the Grand Master. Darth Ashen and his sycophants could study the madness and despair on display and potentially use it to their advantage in the future.
The command of Cotelin's voice broke the Nephilim's train of thought.
"Corporal, bring your men to the front and establish support by fire positions. Benevolent is not the only antagonist ahead."
“Antagonist, Jac?” Shadow asked as Vance and his men walked by. “Really?” Cotelin didn’t respond to Shadow’s tease. It seemed clear to the Corporal that something was still wrong with the old Dark Jedi. Jac seemed tense, focused. He was not the same as he was prior to them entering the stronghold. Before, Cotelin had been introspective, but there was an ease about him, a sense of knowing. Here, he was different.
“My Lord,” Vance prodded, “can any of you sense where the Adept has gone? Is he still in the facility?” The Nephilim checked his weapon as he spoke. He couldn’t tell without fully disassembling it whether the Dissuader had been damaged by Benevolent. Vance would need his full complement of weapons by the end, he was sure.
Shadow began to answer in the negative when the Grand Master interrupted. “He is below, in the bowels of this fortress.” The response brought confusion to the group. Both Vance and Shadow began to object to the idea that there was a subfloor, knowing that the team had thoroughly searched the facility before and found no such trace. But Halcyon spoke over them.
“The passage is here,” Halcyon stated while beckoning the team down a side corridor. The seven soldiers, Vance, and Dark Jedi followed the former Deputy Grand Master into another room that sat diagonally across from the throne room. The room was a large square, and on each wall was a series of doors. The doors varied in size and shape, three adorning each wall. The vast majority of them were blocked, however; large boulders behind the doorways showed where the various passages had collapsed when the facility was abandoned. The only two remaining entrances were straight across from the team. One led up and the other led down.
“Halc,” Keirdagh demanded, “you were the one that searched this room. Any reason you didn’t bother to tell us about it?”
Halcyon shrugged and pushed past Vance on his way to the downward passage. “My armband wasn’t in this room. It was irrelevant.” The Elder disappeared under the archway and began his descent down what seemed to be a winding stairwell. Vance caught the worried glance that past between Shadow and Keirdagh and grimaced. One by one, they followed after Halcyon.
Vance took up the rear but held back for a moment. When the rest of the team was out of earshot, he reached into his pack and pulled out his holoprojector. Nervous that he would be heard, or worse yet, that a Dark Jedi would sense the action, Vance turned the volume low and tried to keep his thoughts elsewhere.
When Muz Ashen appeared in blue before him, Vance was quick to report. He recapped the recent events, including the strange behavior of the Taldrya and the loss of Benevolent.
“This was as I expected, though I hoped things would be otherwise,” the Grand Master mused. “You have done well, Corporal Vance.”
“My Lord,” Vance stated inquisitively, “you knew this would happen?”
The Grand Master did not seem pleased to be taking questions from the Corporal. He paused, and for a moment Vance thought he had delved too far with his questioning. But the Grand Master answered. “Your team was sent to eliminate a known threat. The Taldrya are capable. If they survive and neutralize the facility’s defenses, then I will have chosen the right force.” Ashen paused. “If they don’t, it’s just as well.”
The holoprojector flicked off and Vance was left alone in the passage entrance. Realizing that he had lingered too long, Vance quickly pocketed the holoprojector and darted into the stairwell. There, a few steps ahead, he almost ran into Shadow. The Obelisk Master was coming back up the stairs, likely looking for the Corporal. He stopped and looked up at the Nephilim. Vance stared back from just a few steps above. He knows, Vance thought.
“Come,” Shadow commanded, turning and working his way back down the winding stairs.
“Master Shadow,” Vance began in conversation, “thank you for saving me from that traitor back there.”
“Ben is not himself,” the Taldrya commented.
“And you, my Lord?”
Shadow stopped upon hearing the question. “I’m fine... now,” he muttered, “but I’m not sure about the rest. You need to watch yourself and your men.” The Elder hopped down the last few steps and jogged forward to meet up with the rest of the team. Vance followed closely behind.
The strike team moved swiftly through the winding passages. The paths were narrow, so while they were less likely to be ambushed, they also had little cover if they got pinned down—it grated on everyone’s already fraying nerves. Luck was finally on their side, however; the small rooms that broke up the monotony of the slab walls were barely occupied. Stashes of unguarded supplies, meager barracks, and unoccupied meeting rooms were all that was left behind to greet them. There were clearly others living in the fortress, but something had caused the occupiers to gather deeper within.
Rokir was the first to spot the guards down the last corridor, his whole body perking up like a nek catching a whiff of its prey. The only warning Vance had was the sudden snap-hiss of a green blade igniting. Though he would never admit it publicly, his first thought was to look around to make sure the traitor Taldrya hadn’t flanked them and came back to finish the job.
He snapped his Dissuader forward, covering Rokir and the former Grand Master as they raced to eviscerate the rear guard. It turned out to be an unnecessary gesture; the fight was over as fast as it had begun. Not many could withstand either the former Grand Master or the Dark Prophet on a good day, let alone when they were both so focused on recovering that armband.
Vance lowered his gun and signaled to continue securing the area before jogging up to survey the damage. Cotelin had his eyes closed and arm extended; clearly concentrating on something.
“My armband is nearby,” he muttered. “Below us.” His eyes flashed open. “Gather your men, Corporal. We’re going to retrieve them.”
Out of the corner of his eyes, Vance caught a worried glance pass between Shadow and the bearded one at the mention of whose armband it was. Regardless of their concerns, the team was going deeper into the fortress and they were either going to retrieve that accursed armband or all die trying.
The team slowly moved deeper into the bowels of the stronghold. The floor slanted down at an angle, and the path seemed to wind around in circles. The crevices and signs of civilization they had seen before stopped quite suddenly. Taking the place were primitive drawings scrawled along the walls and floors of the wide corridor. A little time had been taken for the Dark Jedi to study the markings, but the effort was quickly left to be when they turned out to be indecipherable.
“Perhaps Ben can make some sense of it, once we have him back to normal,” Shadow commented, but the others remained silent.
The passage began to widen and level after a hundred meters. Vance could see light flickering in the distance around a bend, and based on the Dark Jedi each moving their hands closer to their lightsabers, the Corporal knew there was trouble ahead. The sounds emanating from the room ahead began to grow louder, from a low rumble to the indiscernible buzzing of many people speaking at once. He signaled to his men to be prepared and placed his hand at the ready near his Dissuader.
Keirdagh, who was leading the group, signaled for them all to stop. Vance watched the faces of the Taldryan men as unheard communication flashed between them. Shadow seemed to motion to his injured side; it appeared to be healing at an incredible rate, but still seemed to bother the Obelisk Master. A moment later, the bearded one grunted, tucked into a crawl and moved around the corner slowly.
They waited, and then a quick nod from Shadow indicated that the “all clear” was heard from the former Justicar. Slowly, like Keirdagh had, the Dark Jedi crawled forward. Vance followed with three other soldiers, leaving four of his men to guard the rear. The Corporal pushed himself ahead to see around the bend, opening his sight to the top of massive circular chamber. The cavern was nearly fifty meters wide, and almost as tall.
It was clear to Vance that they were not on the ground floor of the chamber; lights flickered from beneath him and sound echoed upward from a gathering below. Vance looked ahead at the Dark Jedi; they were sprawled in front of him, peering over the edge of an overhang. To their left, Vance could see that the overhang extended into a walkway that snaked around the edge of the chamber down to the floor.
The walls of the chamber were covered in carvings and statues, each of those then detailed with old Sith text and runes. Vance recognized the same symbol that he had seen in the throne room and on the outside of the fortress; the runes were carried below into the intricate carvings. The statues stood within archways and between columns that littered the wall, each depicting a male having a distinct countenance and garb. The stone visages all peered down to one central point, which the Corporal could not yet see.
These visages were stacked, archway upon archway, until they reached the flat smooth surface of the ceiling. There, the Corporal saw inlaid in a red stone a monstrous version of the facility’s main rune. The symbol stretched from one side of the room to another; light bounced and reflected off of it, leaving the air and walls below it seeped in red. Vance gazed at the sight, wondering at the manpower that would be needed to accomplish a feat. Unlike the throne room, there were no signs of ruin and decay; the chamber was pristine.
After motioning to his troops that they should hold their position, the Corporal elbow-crawled forward to take the last open spot on the ledge between Cotelin and Rokir. Knowing that he would need to report this in detail, if he made it out of this mess alive, Vance tried to absorb every detail of the room below.
The chamber opened up to a massive gathering area. Ten meters below, the spiraling walkway met the ground. The bottom of the chamber was as wide as the top, with matching carvings and artwork all around. But on the far side of the room, almost to the opposite wall, a deep chasm cut across the chamber. It was just wide enough that no man could jump across alone, and dark enough to hide its depth. Across the chasm was an elevated dais, on which, and against the far wall, was a statue at least triple the size of the others. It matched the ruined visage that Vance saw in the throne room; the Nephilim knew it was in homage to Ludo Kressh himself.
Before the massive stonework was a single figure robed and cloaked in black. Prostrate in front of her, across the chasm, were nearly a hundred others. Men and women of every race, shape, and coloring lingered before the dais, mindlessly peering forward just like the statues on the wall, some mumbling unknowns into the air. The reek of unwashed bodies was horrendous.
The sight of such a number of foes made the Corporal’s heart race. Even with four Dark Jedi, they could not risk direct confrontation with this small army. Vance began to push away when Cotelin turned to catch the Corporal’s attention. Wait, Vance heard in his head. And so he resumed his position on the side of the ledge.
The sounds below stopped suddenly as the shadowy figure raised its head and began to speak. It was a woman.
“Open your minds to the teachings of the great Ludo Kressh. I am his prophet. I am Elara Koressh, and you will hear me.”
The cloaked woman began to speak in low, breathy tones as she began to preach a sermon on the greatness of the fallen Sith Lord Ludo Kressh. It was essentially all of the same zealotry that Vance had heard time and again while serving the Grand Master. Though he knew better than to dismiss the skills of the Jedi as parlor tricks, Vance had come to know better than most just how much of their supposed power came from people’s beliefs in their infallibility, rather than power itself. Keirdagh’s basso rumble sounded quietly to his right “I can’t see Ben anywhere. Jac?”
“I cannot see the armband anywhere, no.” Suddenly, the tension that had been slowly building up between the Taldrya seemed to break like a dam, as Keirdagh reached over and grabbed the Grand Master by the back of his neck and bodily turned him so they were face to face.
“I asked about Benevolent, Jac, and not some fragged trinket.” Though he was doing his best to keep his voice down, the fury that was stealing itself into his words raised it to higher levels. “I asked about one of our own! What the hell is wrong with you?” Fearing that the brute’s voice would have alerted the denizens below, Vance rolled over and quickly passed hand signals to his remaining troops behind him, indicating that they should get prepared for a fight.
“Keirdagh, unhand me,” whispered the former Grand Master, his tone cold enough to freeze water...
Vance tried to tune them out. Putting action to his own commands, while keeping his back pressed firmly against the rock, Vance began to pull his Dissuader from his holster, but thought better of it, and signalled Graden to pass him up one of the rifles that had been recovered from their fallen comrades.
“I’ll hang on to your skinny ass neck long as it takes to shake some kriffing sense into you, Jac!”
“Guys, keep it down!” hissed Shadow.
The Corporal did his best to ignore the increasingly angry tones that were being traded back between what he had been told were two of the Dark Brotherhood’s staunchest allies. Vance began to focus on checking his rifle, making sure he was ready for the storm that was sure to follow. As he finished making sure the charge in his power pack was full, and clicked it back into place, the low level drone of fanatical drivel from below suddenly ceased.
“Behold!” shouted the crazed figure from below, “we have guests among us, who have not yet seen the wisdom of Kressh!” Cursing to himself, Vance rolled and took aim with his blaster rifle, realizing that the time for stealth had past. Before he could line up a shot at the leader though, she whipped off her cloak. Standing before them was a short woman, grasping an ancient war sword, her arm clad in a familiar looking piece of ancient armor. “Come my children; let us greet our honored guests!”
The huddled masses of humanoids rose as one, and turned to face the ledge that the team was sat upon. Suddenly, the pressing weight of Rokir and Cotelin was gone from beside Vance, and he could see their forms falling to the ground in front of him. “Oh for the love of Sith, what the hell?” asked an exasperated Keirdagh from beside Vance. The two powerful Dark Jedi hit the ground running and seemed to dive into the sprawling horde, using the Force to fling bodies in every direction, clearly in a mad dash to reach Koressh’s location.
As the melee below took shape, Vance lined up his sights, set his rifle on his shoulder and began opening fire, trying to clear a path for the two men’s mad rush. His aim was true; thrall after thrall fell to the energy blasts. As he lined up his next shot, Vance recognized the face of his victim and hesitated for a brief moment before switching targets. “Shadow, 3 O’clock! Benevolent!”
Shadow, seeing his friend in mortal danger—as much from being flung into the chasm by his own former allies as of being picked off by sniper fire—leapt to his feet. “Yacks, we have to get him!”
“Dammit!” spat Keirdagh, as he too clambered to his feet, and the two remaining Taldrya leapt down into the fray. Sensing the opportunity to exact some revenge for his fallen comrades, Vance hurried the rest of his soldiers forward.
“Boys, anything down there that didn’t come on planet with us are your targets. Take them the frag out.” The soldiers set up into two fire teams, one standing, one kneeling, and began to unleash hell onto the scene below. The glare of unleashed energy bathed Vance in a pool of reddish light, and all he could do was smile.
"Concentrate fire on the stairs. Don't let them overrun us," Vance shouted, his rifle picking off a group of thralls with three well-placed shots.
The battle below was becoming too chaotic to follow. He could barely track the glowing blades of the Dark Jedi in the press of so many bodies. Out of the corner of his eye, Vance saw that Cotelin and Rokir weren't truly fighting a battle. Instead, they were simply clearing a direct path towards the chasm and the alleged Prophet waiting on the other side.
An arcing bolt of lightning raced upwards at the soldiers. Vance instinctively pulled back out of the line of fire, but one of his men wasn't as quick. The poor bastard took the full extent of the attack and pitched forward over the ledge. His scream terminated the moment he hit the floor below.
Vance growled with rage and propped himself up to lean back over the ledge. The creature that had fired the blast was preparing another attack. Vance took aim and squeezed the trigger. Once. Twice. Two red bolts slammed into the Force-user’s chest and he went down.
"Corporal!" One of his men shouted a warning. "Thralls on the ledge!"
Vance risked a quick glance to his left and saw half a dozen of the beasts land on the ledge opposite him and his men. These had ignored the stairs in favor of a Force-assisted leap. Vance cursed and shouted orders. Instantly, two of his men turned and fired a concentrated volley at the heart of the new threat. Two thralls fell to their blasts, but that only enraged the others.
"Here they come," Vance yelled in warning.
Moving faster than he could track, the mindless Force-users rushed forward, howling their rage. One crashed bodily into Graden, knocking the soldier onto his back. Vance rushed forward and planted his boot in the creature's face, kicking it off of the specialist. He followed up with a well placed bolt to the thrall's face, taking pleasure in the way the features melted into an unrecognizable mess.
His pleasure was short-lived, however—a reeking body crashed into Vance and smashed him against the wall. Long, yellowed fingernails slashed at his throat, but he used his rifle to block the thrall's hands. With a quick twist, he shifted the weapon in his hand and brought it down like a club against his attacker’s head. Three sharp blows and the thrall became still.
A forceful shove pushed the body off him and Vance jumped to his feet. He could no longer see any of his men on the ledge. There were only the thralls. Dozens of them now, clawing at each other to reach the front of the pack. To be closer to him. The bodies of his men were sprawled inelegantly across the floor. Some had been torn apart by brute force, others had been shredded by Force attacks. They had fought bravely to their last breath.
But Vance was alone.
In a moment of desperation, Vance looked down at the chamber below. It was chaos below. Thralls and parts of thralls littered the ground in two distinct patterns. The first was an almost uniform line—the work of Cotelin and Rokir. The other was in an ever-expanding circle around Shadow and the bearded-one as they fought desperately towards the idle Benevolent.
In that glance, Vance saw no hope of rescue. Keirdagh and Shadow were fully engaged, back-to-back and surrounded. Cotelin and Rokir had cleared their path and were relatively unmolested, but they were not focused on the battle at hand. No. They had eyes only for the Prophet, the gaping black maw of the chasm all that separated the two from the object of their desires.
Vance cursed. He cursed at this situation.He cursed at the traitorous Dark Jedi. He cursed at himself for even thinking to rely on the Force users. He would survive this. He had to. He was Nephilim. The thralls gathered to attack.
He didn't give them a chance. Vance sprinted towards their center, spraying bolts of red fire as he ran. Vance's rifle was shredding the enemies with every step, until he was face-to-face of the front most. With a roar of rage, he smashed the butt of his gun into the thrall's face and pushed past it. At close range, his rifle was useless, but he used it as a blunt object until it was ripped from him.
Hands free, Vance balled his fists and struck out viciously at everything around him. His strength had grown in proportion to his rage, the power the Dark Lord had bestowed upon him coursing through his veins. Bones cracked under his blows. The cries of the thralls rose around him, drowning nearly everything else out. The sharp odors of blood and gore assaulted him, but he fought on against their ever-increasing number.
He was going to be overwhelmed, he knew, but the thought just fed into his rage. As he fought, a deep, groaning noise froze him in place. A thrall dove at his legs, snapping him back into action. Another groan sounded and the ground shook unsteadily. Vance realized with shock that the ledge they were fighting on was beginning to fall apart. The weight of so many bodies and the violent, explosive Force attacks had weakened the entire structure.
Adrenaline surged through him. Vance picked up the thrall at his legs and tossed it bodily into the pack. With deft, panic-fueled movements, he drew his Dissuader and unloaded the clip. The acid-filled slugs sent the thralls reeling back and cleared a path towards the stairway. The entire ledge shook dangerously, but Vance centered himself and ran. He sprinted past the crush of mindless flesh and dove for the stairs. He slammed into the banister, bruising a couple ribs, and pushed off as the ledge began to crumble.
Vance flew down the banister, picking up speed as the stairwell shook beneath him. Behind him he could hear the ledge as it crashed down just as he hit the ground. Vance had managed to stay on his feet as he took in lungfuls of air. Popping a new magazine into his Dissuader he saw the two ‘sane’ Taldrya break through a horde of thralls and engage their traitorous brother head-on. There was a vacant look in Benevolent’s eyes as his stolen saber shone brightly in the dimly-lit area. Shadow’s viridian shoto stopped the initial attack as Keirdagh came in from the other side. A sudden swipe of Benevolent’s hand sent the former Justicar sailing backwards. Shadow faltered for an instant in surprise at the surge of power he saw from the Adept.
He shouldn’t be that powerful, Vance thought to himself, seeing the surprise in Shadow’s face. His eyes continued to scan the area, seeing no one else come near the battle between the teammates. He tried to find his own opening in the match, but he had no clear shot of the traitor.
“Ben, this isn’t you!” Shadow yelled angrily as he parried another powerful blow. A second, hidden blade—Shadow’s assassin blade—shot out from his left wrist and moved to tear into Benevolent, but the Adept slipped around the attack and instead managed to strike an elbow into Shadow’s chest.
“Dammit, Ben. Get a hold of yourself!” Shadow screamed out as he stumbled back to catch his breath. The words seemed to fall on deaf ears as Benevolent continued to move forward, not allowing Shadow to compose himself. The white blade rained down on the older Obelisk as he frantically used his years of training to defend himself. Vance began to line up a shot as he saw Shadow on the verge of defeat. He stayed his fire when Keirdagh suddenly appeared behind the attacking Adept and brought down the hilt of his lightsaber with a resounding CRACK.
Benevolent immediately dropped to his knees; his eyes rolling back into his head as the rest of his body slumped to the floor.
“You talk too much,” Cantor growled at Shadow before immediately turning around to face the remaining enemies.
The former Justicar’s golden blade cut a deadly path through the throng of mindless foes. There were only a handful remaining. Between the crazed Taldrya launching dozens into the deep chasm, the other Dark Jedi ripping their blades through flesh, and Vance taking pot shots at the remainder, the team made thorough work of the many foes. They left a mess, too. Bodies and body parts were strewn everywhere, and the stench of death was rising.
Shadow bent down and grabbed his fallen comrade by the arms and dragged him to safety before falling to the floor himself in exhaustion. Vance saw the Sith had everything in hand as he holstered his pistol and moved toward the two Obelisk.
“Where are the rest of your men?” Shadow asked. The ashen look that crossed Vance’s face told him all he needed to know. Shadow nodded his condolence as Keirdagh came up behind them. He had also seen the look on the Corporal’s face and wordlessly used the Force to maneuver the bodies of the fallen soldiers so that they all lay together.
“We can do something more for them later,” he simply said. Vance offered him a small nod of thanks. “Now, where the kriff are Jac and Halc?”
Vance had forgotten about the two other Taldrya in the confusion, his head turning from side to side looking for them. “I lost track of them when I was attacked by the horde of thralls,” he told the other two.
“Yeah, and nothing through the Force,” Cantor stated as he also scanned the room. “Not many places to hide in here. And it looks like that crazy lady disappeared right along with them.”
“Behind the altar,” Benevolent managed to croak as he came around. “There’s a passage behind the altar.”
“Awake already? Head’s harder than it looks,” Keirdagh commented, getting an angry glare from the Adept in response. Vance had un-holstered his weapon the moment Benevolent had begun to speak, the gun pointed squarely at his head.
“I’m fine. I promise not to try and eat your liver or something,” the Adept’s words were light, but Vance could feel the hurt in them. “Just glad I can still remember my own name,” he said as he rubbed the back of his skull.
Vance slowly re-holstered his weapon, never taking his eyes off the Adept.
“You have one minute to rest,” Keirdagh said, “and then we go Sith hunting.”
After their brief but essential respite, Ben lead the group around the corpses to the altar. Strange instruments lay scattered about; tossed aside either in the chaos when the strange leader had fled, or when Cotelin and Rokir had blasted their way through. Vance didn’t give them much thought; he turned briefly so his recorder could catch a brief glance at each in turn. Even if Vance didn’t know what they were for, surely someone on the receiving end of the signal would be able to find out.
A strange gesture from the Adept caused a slab of solid stone grind and groan, sliding away to reveal a passage leading further downwards. The doorway was so small that they’d have to enter single file--Vance wondered to himself whether Cotelin or Rokir had wasted time fighting to be the first through. Shadow led the four, followed closely by Keirdagh. Vance would’ve preferred to be last, still not entirely trusting of the man who had recently held a saber to his throat, but he was waved on by Ben. “Gonna jam it open...never trust these garbage locks. They look older than the fortress, and that looks decrepit enough”. Vance nodded and entered the tunnel. He heard the Adept mumble as he passed, “this forsaken place won’t be my tomb”.
After the passage, the pathway widened out just a little more. Two by two might’ve been possible in a pinch, but they’d have to be careful not to knock over the torches hanging in their sconces. Suddenly, Shadow ran ahead. Vance was about to ask one of the others, but then he heard a noise; the groan of someone in pain, somewhere ahead.
Around the corner, slumped against the wall and obviously concentrating on healing his wounds, was Rokir. Vance whipped out his Dissuader just in case, but like Ben he seemed much calmer. “It’s alright Corporal,” Rokir assured, “whatever that was is out of my head.”
“Picked a fight with Jac?” asked Keirdagh, gruffly.
“Yeah. I managed to get to the tunnel first, but he caught up to me”. He gestured to the fresh man-sized dent in the wall. “I know he was about to kill me, could see it in his eyes. But then...he must have sensed something. It was like he completely forgot about me and ran off.” Rokir picked himself off the ground with a grunt. “He must’ve gone for that One Sith and her armband”. Vance glanced down the passage, watching the torches flicker. The pathway continued to widen as they travelled deeper into the cave.
After giving Halcyon a brief once over, Keirdagh signaled that they should resume the chase. For his part, Vance made sure to stay behind the Prophet, with his Dissuader a quick jerk away from unloading a couple more acid-filled shells into the green-haired one’s skull.
I’ve had way too much of this karking, flip-flopping loyalty crap, he thought to himself, as they trudged on through the subterranean caverns. Even for caves, these ones started to take on the appearance of rough-hewn and hasty works, as though they were entering a section with no need for elegance or grace.
Keirdagh held up a fist, indicating that everyone should halt, and even to Vance it was apparent why. When the quiet sounds of their shuffling feet died away, the crack of energy and hum of lightsabers could be heard floating down the tunnel. Apparently, the former Grand Master had cornered his prey and she was making a fight of the proceedings. Motioning forward with two fingers crooked, the quartet settled into two columns behind the old Sith and rushed forward. It was a short haul, with Vance listening to the cacophony below, and trying to keep track of Halcyon to make sure there were no more mysterious betrayals.
When they did come to a halt, it was in a scene vaguely reminiscent of the room behind them, in that they were staring down into a room from a ledge. The room itself could not have been more different, however. Whereas before, they had clearly been in a room meant for majesty and occult ceremonies, the room they found themselves in now could only be described as having one purpose—pain. The chamber was obviously the dungeon. Vance had been exposed to horrors beyond count—and was still being exposed to more as this mission went on—but he knew that the vision in front of him was a match for anything he’d encountered before.
Strung from suspended avian cages were scores of skeletal remains—bodies that had been left hanging in their cramped confines to wither and die. Along the gently sloping ramp toward the bottom were holes, barely more than a shoulders-width wide, chained and barred. The holes, more often than not, had the limbs of the entombed reaching out with scores in the rock beneath their long since rotted hands.
At the bottom of the slope, amongst the petrified remnants and waste of the dungeons inhabitants, stood Jac Cotelin and the so-called Prophet of Ludo Kressh, Elara Koressh. They appeared to be locked in a battle of wills, and from the fact that Cotelin had both of his golden blades within an inch of the Prophet’s flesh, it appeared as though he was winning.
“Guys. We can’t let Jac get that armband. If he gets that much power on top of his own, we’re finished.” Halcyon’s quiet and earnest voice cut through the sounds of humming lightsabers below.
Immediately, Vance spun and trained his pistol on Rokir, fearing a recurrence of the madness that had taken hold of him earlier. “How are we to trust your word on that, my lord?” snarled Vance. “You left me and my men to die so you could get that little trinket. Now you want to have our help in getting it back?”
“It doesn’t matter if he’s playing us or not, Corporal,” sighed Keirdagh, audibly fatigued. “Something is seriously wrong here—a mere disciple of the One Sith should not be able to stand toe-to-toe with Jac for any amount of time. Either that sword, or that armband, is giving that schutta power she shouldn’t have. We can’t let Jac, with his mind as screwed up as it is, get even more power.” Vance visibly braced himself for conflict as Keirdagh’s face hardened in the way he had come to associate with him getting ready to kill something. “Ben, Shad—keep Elara pinned. Halc, hit the bitch with everything you’ve got, then back me up with Jac.”
Looking at Vance, Keirdagh’s green eyes seemed to soften a bit. “Corporal, you’re not equipped for this fight. Stay out of the way.”
With that, the grizzled old veteran Force leapt off the ledge and down into the pit below. His Taldryan allies followed him almost instantly, leaving Vance seething. He knew the old man was right; he knew he couldn’t stand up to one Grand Master-level entity, let alone two, but it pissed him off. He was a Nephilim; appointed and imbued with powers by the Dark Lord of the Sith himself.
“Dammit,” he whispered, fingering the trigger on his recovered blaster rifle, while inching down the ramp. Dammit if the old bastard wasn’t right.
The golden blades of the former Dark Lord whipped violently around the sleek form of the Prophet. Vance could barely follow the movement, yet he marveled in the accuracy of the dance. It was almost as if both opponents were anticipating the movements of the other, then adjusting off the adjustments. Dark Lord Ashen had once commented that a duel of equals was often more a duel of wits; a battle to see who could plan their moves the farthest out and compensate on the fly. Vance could see what he was referring to as Elara Koressh and Jac Cotelin picked at each other in expected, yet flowing movement.
That was, until the unexpected came. The elder flashed a look at the incoming Taldrya, and batted away the blade of the Kressh Prophet. He shot both hands forward, buffeting Elara with numerous strikes of air and sending her toppling backward. With a fire in his eyes unlike any Vance had ever seen, the Grand Master quickly split off from his foe and directed his attention to the incoming additions.
“YOU WILL NOT TAKE IT FROM ME, LORD ROKIR!” screamed Cotelin before he attacked the former Deputy Grand Master.
A flash erupted between Cotelin and Rokir, forcing Vance to cover his eyes. When he looked back, the former Dark Lord was upon them. Cotelin was focussing his power on Halcyon, furiously batting at the green one with his dual blades.
Keirdagh flowed in and out of the fight. It was clear to Vance that they were only attempting to hold off the mad man; the bearded one did not take advantage of openings in Cotelin's defenses, instead playing extra defense for Halcyon.
Cotelin's determination didn't fade, and Vance watched as the duelists paired saber strikes with the Force. It seemed as though the Grand Master had multiple limbs; as he swung down with a blade, Halcyon would recoil from an invisible strike, or have his arm batted away. This made the Prophet's defenses suspect, but with Keirdagh's assistance, they held Cotelin at bay.
Vance inched closer and turned to see how the others fared. The Kressh prophet was quickly intercepted as she rose to her feet. Shadow and Benevolent traded off of her, spinning and pushing her back away from the Grand Master. Unlike the other fight, this one was deadly on both ends. There was a raw determination in the Taldrya to dispatch this foe, and their movements mimicked that feeling. The Corporal was amazed by the effortless teamwork that was displayed by Shadow and Benevolent; as if they were one, they combated the lady, holding her to a stalemate.
A familiar sizzling sound turned Vance back to Halcyon and Keirdagh. The Prophet was backpedaling quickly, his body being buffeted by quick shots of blue electricity. Vance saw the Grand Master, as quick as the eye could see, parry the bearded one over and over, but in between strikes, drop a saber, unleash hell on Halcyon, and recall the blade again for defense.
The move was effective for a moment, but a quick swat of Keirdagh's hand flung one golden hilt across the floor. Rage washed over the former Dark Lord as he turned directly to Keirdagh for the first time. The second golden blade receded and the hilt zipped to Cotelin's belt. For a moment, he stared at Keirdagh and then dove in.
Vance expected the bearded one to dodge or buttress the attack, but Keidagh did not move. His arms seemed pinned to his sides, and his legs frozen like a statue. Cotelin battered the chest of his friend with blow after blow, his fists moving with inhuman speed. Keirdagh roared in pain until the swift kick of Halcyon to Cotelin's face put an end to the barrage. Free again, Cantor doubled over in pain.
A lightsaber hilt slid across the room towards Vance. Halcyon had tackled Cotelin and ripped the second saber from the Grand Master's belt. Vance picked up the hilt and quickly dropped it out of sight in one of the torture pits that littered the room. When he turned back he saw the three Taldrya exchanging visible and invisible blows. A gash opened up on Halcyons chest where Cotelin had clawed at him through the air. The Grand Master himself was bleeding from the side of his head where Keirdagh had bashed him with the hilt of a saber. When that didn't work, Keirdagh tackled the Grand Master; it took everything they had to keep the disarmed Grand Master from regaining his footing.
The Corporal was glad to see his allies have control over Cotelin, but knew the fight would need to end soon. The Grand Master was not giving up, and Vance was sure that giving him more time to rage would not end well. Were it any other group Vance might have unloaded his Dissuader in the lot of them. But since that would be unacceptable to the Dark Lord, Vance controlled his urges and stood watch, tracking both fights for some chance to assist.
Vance watched impotently from the sidelines as the Dark Jedi battled, but it was killing him to do so. Shadow and Benevolent had pinned the One Sith in, cutting off her escape, but now they were struggling to contain her.
Shadow's short blade desperately intercepted the sword, his muscles rigid with effort. Benevolent kept to the edges of the fight, attacking at whatever openings Shadow managed to create. Unfortunately, there never seemed to be a true opening. Vance had seen the the two fight several times since their mission had begun, but he had never seen them so overwhelmed by a single enemy. His hands itched with the desire to dive in.
Unable to find an opening, Benevolent improvised. While Shadow distracted, Benevolent raised his arms upwards. Slowly at first, the metal cage hanging above them began to shake. Then faster, until it broke free of its chain and went hurtling towards the duelists. Vance wasn't sure how, but Shadow seemed to have sensed the incoming attack. He slashed violently at his opponent then backflipped high into the air.
The cage crashed right on top of the Sith. Vance let an involuntary shout of victory, but stilled when the metal began to shriek. He dove to the ground as the cage exploded into pieces of shrapnel, slicing through everything at chest height. A glance showed him the two Dark Jedi had avoided the attack, but it revealed that the false Prophet was unharmed.
The Sith's hand flung out viciously at Benevolent. Unseen force smashed into the Adept like a sledgehammer, sending him flying through the air and into a wall. He hit with a resounding crash, the dark stone shattering beneath his weight, then fell to the ground unmoving. Vance winced at the sickening impact, but his eyes were instantly drawn away as Shadow rushed in.
The Obelisk was lost to his rage. His attacks were reckless, brutal, and wasted. The One Sith deflected the short blade of the shoto, effortlessly overpowering her opponent. Their blades locked, grinding together in an explosion of sparks. But the Dark Jedi was slowly being pushed back. With a wicked sneer, the One Sith slammed her right knee into Shadow's groin. The pain seemed to overwhelm him for a moment and his grip shook.
She acted swiftly. With an elegant spin, the Sith knocked Shadow's weapon out of the way and followed by kicking the hilt out of his hand. The viridian blade instantly snapped off as it sailed out of sight.
Vance was already moving. Faster than he had ever moved before. The war sword flashed as it fell, moving as if in slow motion. The entire scene seemed to freeze as adrenaline and the dark power within him pushed Vance beyond mortal limits. The eyes of the so called Prophet were lit with a mad glow, fully succumbed to whatever power she had tried to possess.
Even as he ran, Vance knew it was a useless gesture. He was only human. Nephilim. Almost a god—but still standing far below. But it didn't matter. The Dark Jedi… Shadow, despite their animosity towards each other, had risked his life to save Vance. He would repay the debt with his blood.
The blade was mere inches from the Dark Jedi's neck when Vance crashed into the One Sith. His flying tackle threw both him and the false Prophet to the ground, the sword spinning wildly through the air.
With a fierce growl, she attacked him. The blows came faster than he could see them. Sharp. Painful. He felt every attack as though all his nerve-endings were on fire. He felt his nose break when she struck his face, the hot flush of blood spurting down over his lips and chin. With every passing moment she seemed less and less human. She was so lost to the power within her, Vance wasn't even sure she was still in control of herself.
"Die, you insolent FOOL!" She screamed in his face. Her hands grasped his neck and squeezed as she lifted him off the floor.
"Bitch," he croaked, barely intelligible. "You first."
The grenade in his hand detonated, an explosion of crushing light and sound. The pressure of the blast threw him and the One Sith to opposite sides of the dungeon. Vance hit the ground hard nearly blind, his entire body throbbing in excruciating pain. Despite the quality of his armor, it had only managed to absorb some of the effect of the concussion grenade. The Sith hadn't been so lucky.
Despite the pain, Vance managed to raise his head as legs swept by him. Shadow was stalking angrily towards the fallen Prophet, his eyes still aflame. As he neared, a lightsaber hilt appeared to fly towards him. Vance saw Ben toss the hilt of Shadow's own weapon to him. He caught it almost on reflex as he stepped over Elara Koressh.
"This ends. Now." The brilliant white blade extended. It was the last light Vance saw, as the world faded from him.
Vance felt the shadow of a hand pass over his face. With pained effort his eyes opened, the light piercing in its sudden brightness. It took some moments for his sight to focus, finally seeing the former Grand Master hovering over his face. He began to try to get up and move away from the man, scurrying backwards on his legs, but Shadow’s voice stopped him.
“Relax, Vance. It’s over.” He saw Shadow’s offered hand as well. Reluctantly he grabbed onto it and the Obelisk pulled him back up to his feet.
“What happened?” he asked as he saw all five Taldrya standing around him. His hand went to his head automatically as he felt dozens of needles digging into his skull.
“You saved the day,” Halcyon said matter-of-factly, placing a hand on his shoulder. Vance immediately felt the pain in his skull ease. A soothing sensation seemed to envelope him as the various wounds he had suffered in recent hours were pushed away. “Jac has been tending your wounds,” Rokir explained.
“Yeah, you had the crap beat out of you,” Shadow added.
“Appreciated,” Vance responded, ignoring the jibe. He could hardly argue the point. Despite the healing, he could still feel the bruises and cuts. He released a weary breath, still looking warily in Cotelin’s direction. “Now, will one of you tell me what the hell happened in there?”
“You saved mine and Shadow’s lives diving in like that. Foolish, by the way,” Ben quirked an eyebrow, “but it gave us the opening we needed.”
“The fortress?” Vance questioned looking around at the dungeon.
“Ours,” Shadow confirmed. “Whatever thralls that managed to survive our assault fled when the power binding them broke.”
“We don’t really know what hap—”
“It’s called spirit invocation,” interrupted Cotelin. “A powerful, yet dangerous form of Sith magic... With enough power, one can summon a spirit to cross over from the Netherworld of the Force. By binding the spirit to herself, Elara Koressh gained immense power, but at a terrible cost.” The former Grand Master shook his head, sadly it seemed to Vance.
“The rage of the bound spirit can overwhelm all those in the vicinity of the caster and the strength of the ritual can be affected by several factors—such as being near the deceased’s remains, or where they have left a strong imprint of themselves...”
“The fortress,” Vance realized. Jac gave him a small smile and nodded.
“This fortress was the home of Ludo Kressh for many years. He had imbued his essence into its very walls. As I said once before, it is considered hallowed ground to most Sith.”
“Anyways,” Shadow continued the story, “when the ‘Prophet’ died, all that power raged out of control. The spirit escaped in search of a new host. Fortunately, we managed to work together and bind the power into the nearest artifact we could find—the war sword.”
Jac revealed the sword to Vance. This was his first true look at the weapon. It was fierce in its design. A weapon from a different era, one made for the sole purpose of war. It seemed to shimmer with an ethereal glow. Vance shivered just looking at it.
“That is the essence of a powerful Sith Lord,” Jac said as he saw Vance’s look. “The sword is useless to us now, but I am sure that Muz will enjoy this relic.”
“What about the armband?”
“It’s safe,” he heard Rokir say without any further explanation.
Vance gave the man a hard stare, but didn’t argue. There was little he could do about it in his current condition. He wasn’t even sure whether or not he should. So much had happened in such a short time, he wasn’t sure if he could truly trust the Dark Jedi, but... something had changed between them. They had fought by his side and he theirs. Bonds are forged in the heat of war.
The Taldrya moved away from him, sensing what he needed to do next. Vance made his way outside of the dungeon and located a recessed corner that would give him some measure of privacy. Once more, he removed his holoprojector and activated it. Within moments, the glowing figure of the Dark Lord appeared before him.
“My Lord,” Vance bowed reverently. “Success is ours. The fortress has fallen and the One Sith leader defeated. We have even located a powerful Sith artifact.”
There was a moments pause from the Grand Master as he digested this news. His face revealed no trace of emotion, whether surprise or relief. He remained, as always, impassive. “So long as the fortress is secured, Corporal. A second team has been en route for days and will arrive shortly to relieve you.
“I expect what remains of your team to report to me directly on the Avenger II. Immediately.”
The image cut off before Vance could acknowledge the command. He looked at the inactive holoprojector for a minute before returning it to his kit. Orders given, he turned and strode purposefully back to the waiting Dark Jedi.
Aboard the Avenger II
Contested Sith Space
Several days in the future...
The team exited the shuttle and stepped onto the hangar deck of the Super Star Destroyer Avenger II in generally high spirits. Their trip out from the fortress, getting past the strange interference field that made air travel impossible had taken longer than the trip in. Coryn Vance however, found that the time had passed much faster. The division between himself and the Taldryan Jedi was gone. The last of their conflict finally burned away when the Taldrya had joined with him to honor his fallen soldiers before transferring command to the Grand Master’s relief force.
Now, Vance felt as though he had earned the respect of this venerable set of Dark Jedi, and they in turn had earned some of his own. But after the long trip, all anyone could think of as they entered the hangar was taking a long, hot shower. The Dark Lord however, seemed to have different plans for them. As Vance led the way off the shuttle, he noticed an honor guard lined up behind an ensign at the foot of the ramp.
“Corporal Vance,” the man saluted. “You and your team are required to report to Lord Ashen on the bridge. At once.”
“Now wait a damned second,” objected Keirdagh from behind him. “Look at us, son. We’re bloody and covered in sweat, mud, and who knows what else. Tell your master we can report to him after we’ve had a chance to clean up.” It suddenly became apparent to Vance that the honor guard ahead of him may have been there for more than show, and he began to speak up, before he was interrupted by Cotelin’s calming voice.
“This was to be expected, Yacks, we’ll go see the Grand Master now. Let’s get this out of the way.” Stepping around Vance and the still bristling Keirdagh, Cotelin motioned serenely to the young officer. “Lead on, ensign.”
Visibly relieved at not having to make an issue out of Ashen’s orders, the ensign bowed to the former Dark Lord and said, “thank you, Lord Cotelin, for your understanding.”
The turbo lift stopped, and Vance was in the rear of the car. Despite Cotelin’s earlier calming words, the tension had grown subtly on the trek through the nearly 20 kilometer long ship. As it was, when the doors finally opened, it was almost all Vance could do to keep from sighing in relief. Exiting the lift as a group, the ensign nodded to Vance and returned to what he could only assume was his normal station. This left the rest of them to make their own way across the bridge to Lord Ashen’s command throne. As everyone began to walk forward, Keirdagh rushed out ahead, and turned, putting an open palm on Cotelin’s chest. The Taldrya all seemed to understand, and stopped as one.
Whatever was said, or went unsaid, was clear enough to the Jedi there. Keirdagh, taking Ludo Kressh’s war sword from Cotelin’s grasp, turned and gestured for Vance to continue. Vance turned, and as he returned walking towards the Dark Lord, was keenly aware of the fact that no more feet were hitting the deck behind him. As he drew nearer to his Lord and Master, Vance knelt down at a respectful distance.
“Reporting as ordered, my Lord.”
After a few seconds, hearing nothing, Vance twisted his head to the right to where he had expected to see Keirdagh also prostrated beside him. Instead, he saw only two booted feet, planted firmly on the deck. Glancing up at Keirdagh’s stern countenance, and then to the Dark Lord’s unreadable visage, the tension that had built in their long journey to the bridge had seemed to have redoubled, instantly. With slow, deliberate movement, Keirdagh lifted the war sword of Ludo Kressh, as though he planned on presenting it to the Dark Lord, and then dropped it at the Grand Master’s feet. The sounds of the clanking steel reverberated around the bridge as Keirdagh turned smartly on his heel, and marched back to his comrades, leaving Vance prostrated and stunned in front of the Dark Lord.
“Rise, Nephilim, and report,” the Dark Lord commanded. His rage at the slight offered to him by the former Justicar made his words come out terse and pained sounding. Standing, Vance took one glance back at the Taldrya who he had fought and bled with. The reactions of the team were exactly what he would have expected. Cotelin was looking at the Dark Lord with an apologetic gaze. Shadow was openly grinning at his old friend’s cantankerous nature. Rokir was doing his best to remain stoic, and professional, while Benevolent was doing his best to appear bored, and to keep his right arm tucked into the folds of his robes.
As the quintet turned and walked out of the bridge as one, Vance looked up at the Grand Master and, despite his better judgement, opened his report with a highly unprofessional comment. “My Lord… I have to say it. I think I’m really starting to like those guys.” Now that the group of Taldrya were out of earshot, Muz himself let out a sigh.
“They have their uses, Corporal. But damn them for being a pain in my ass.”