STORY #1: Head in the Sand
3 Weeks Before the 12th Great Jedi War
The shabby durasteel benches of the Sand Pit were packed with sentient bystanders watching the vicious fights below. The rabble occupying the stands were largely Human, though tight clusters of non-Humans were huddled together, dotted sporadically throughout the arena. However, despite the diversity of species in the crowd, it was clear that most had a tendency for violence. Many in the stands often locked eyes with one another, shooting passive aggressive glares or uttering obscenities, attempting to goad the other into entering the ring. Others stood away from the bleachers, more curious folk who were interested in watching the fighting rather than partaking in it themselves. Others still were speaking idly in small groups and enjoying a cold beverage near the concession booth, while some even bundled around the ring itself, hoping to see the action firsthand. Such was life in the Pit.
Laren Uscot, the notorious Pantoran mercenary and Aedile, sat somewhere in the middle of the crowded stands, nursing a rather sour ale that he could not quite get a taste for. His amber eyes seemed to drift lazily across the breadth of the establishment, though in truth, he was ready to react with honed aggression at a moment’s notice. The Sand Pit was not a place where one could simply let loose and drop their guard, unless they wished for their friends and family to find their body in a back alley the following day, stripped of everything from credits to clothing.
No, the Sand Pit was filthy, in more ways than one. Most of the Force-wielding types avoided it, and not just because of the metallic, sour whiff of sweat and blood. The Sand Pit was a place for the Willing, those associates of Plagueis who could not even begin to fathom the precious Force that supposedly bound the universe together. And yet these individuals survived, including Laren. Some even thrived, witnessing the Subjugates they ruled over get knocked down or brutally killed during the matches. Of course, commoners made up the large bulk of the crowd: those who had settled on the Plagueian homeworld, as well as travelers and traders passing through looking for a bit of sport. The Willing lacked gifts with supernatural abilities, but some might have considered their penchant and skill for combat - as well as their lust for blood - equal even to the ruling Sith. Of course, when assignments weren’t plentiful, the population of the Willing was kept under tight control, with most killing or at least planning to kill their rivals in hopes of taking their jobs and the credits that would come with them.
Crack! Laren’s eyes drifted to the current scuffle once more, where a Human’s skull had been split open. The cut was small in diameter, but clearly deep, and the man - most likely a washed up Ravager or Wraith - could barely stay on his feet. The mercenary suppressed a small grin at the carnage, impressed with the injured fool’s stubborn fortitude. The bout was already lost, but he still stood in the face of his massive Nautolan opponent. The final blow was the only real interest that Laren had in the mess of a match below. He would have been more invested if there had been a truly skilled opponent. With enough motivation, he might have considered entering the ring himself.
The Human fighter opened his mouth, likely intending to say something, but the bulky Nautolan charged head first into him. The two fell to the ground in a tangled heap, though the green-skinned humanoid quickly gained the advantage. His massive, gnarled fists hammered into the Human’s face with relentless fury, breaking his foe’s jaw and multiple teeth, much to the vocal delight of the bystanders. A moment later, two droids and a large Trandoshan thug tore the two apart. The droids proceeded to drag the now limp body of the Human away, blood trailing after him, while others led the victorious Nautolan out of the ring as he triumphantly shook his reddened fist in the air.
Funny, Laren thought, his fingers warming up his glass of ale. I feel like this round was one of the tamest I’ve watched tonight.
As he contemplated this reality, four rusted B1 battle droids, armed with metal pipes and wooden clubs, entered the ring from each corner. Without any unnecessary pomp, the droids began bashing each other with their weapons and running into one another clumsily, much to the drunken glee of the crowd. One intoxicated Bothan hollered so loudly that the poor Zeltron in front of him slapped her hands over her ears, spilling her pint of Corellian ale in the process.
“Get ‘em, you filthy clankahs!” shouted someone from the morass.
“Wreck it up!” shrieked another. The bellowing and screeching were feral, coming from all sides, some interjections not remotely making any sense. They growled and whinnied like animals waiting for fresh meat.
Aaah, intermission. Laren allowed a sly grin to grip his features.
He wasn’t wrong. While the duelists and brawlers either prepped for their turns or got bandaged up behind the wings, antiquated droids did the honor of entertaining the mindless masses by simply wailing on one another with blunt objects. Usually, they wielded pipes and clubs, as they did now. Other times, to make it more interesting, they tried and failed to mimic hand-to-hand combat. The results were pretty straightforward: Once a head got knocked off or sparks literally started flying, the fight was over. It was one of the perks of invading a Geonosian hive and taking away their outdated toys.
A sharp, curt laugh burst through the incessant noise, just unique enough to be noticed, and a voice that sounded wrung out from war rang in Laren’s ears.
“I always enjoy this part. Just some good old fashioned mindless carnage.”
Laren turned his head and spotted the tall, haggard frame of Ronovi Tavisaen as she hunched over her spot on the bleachers, just one row above him. He was surprised he hadn’t seen her when he walked in; after all, she was far from subtle in appearance. She was dressed in her black uniform breeches, but the stiff and formal jacket that she typically wore in her role as the Dread Lord’s bodyguard had been discarded, revealing a gray tunic that hung loosely across her torso. Even in the Pit’s dim lighting, Ronovi’s scars - especially the large one on the left side of her jaw - stood out vividly, the smaller ones forming white constellations on her lips, nose, and chin. As she gazed upon the melee below, her blue cybernetic eyepatch contrasted deeply with the red and rusty brown painted murals of Krayt dragons along the walls, a spot of color in an otherwise monochrome space. And of course, she was taking steady drafts of whiskey from a simple steel flask. Whyren’s Reserve, most likely, imported from the deepest corners of the galaxy and somehow made affordable on Aliso.
The mercenary meticulously regarded the woman behind him, his hand instinctively twitching to reach for the blaster on his hip. He caught himself, though Ronovi’s honed senses had clearly noticed, her one good eye focusing on Laren intently. He became acutely aware of both the saberstaff and the DH-17 pistol strapped onto the woman’s belt. Slowly, he let his hand relax, placing it with the other on his mug of ale, continuing to cradle the wretched beverage.
He knew little of the eccentric warrior that sat behind him beyond the official dossiers kept by Plagueian agents and officials, though being this close, he could come to a few conclusions on his own. Of note, she had been Headmaster of the Shadow Academy - though if he recalled correctly, the one with the shortest reign. As he delved deeper into his memory of reading Ronovi’s large file, he recalled reading that she was the Second Hero of the Invasion of New Tython. Essentially, she had killed more Jedi than he had fingers, with the exception of whoever the First Hero was, a feat that was beyond impressive - and one that Laren once believed to be impossible. The dossier went on, but the conclusion in his mind was clear.
In short, she’s dangerous, he thought, coolly meeting Ronovi’s stare with a level gaze of his own. He had no doubt that at any moment, she could rip him to shreds with her bare hands if she chose to do so, and she’d likely manage to finish her drink in the process. But her presence, not to mention her history, also presented an opportunity.
“I thought you enjoyed being in it,” he finally quipped back, referring to the organized violence below.
Ronovi shrugged. She straightened her back, stretching her long legs and working out some kinks in her neck. “Those were the good old days,” she said. “Back when I was a teenage adrenaline junkie with a lot of anger issues and way too much time on my hands.” She paused, obviously thinking about what she had just uttered. “Okay, the anger stuff hasn’t gone away. And I still have too much time on my hands. But the whole underground fighting thing… it feels like a closed chapter, y’know?”
Laren hesitated, regarding the activity in the ring with a thoughtful expression.“You can always revisit closed chapters in old books,” he said, deciding to run with Ronovi’s perhaps unintentional metaphor.
He looked back at Ronovi and was taken aback by her flat, unimpressed stare. It didn’t help that she also had that garishly noticeable cybernetic built directly into her face. That eyepatch was more than perturbing; it was intentionally disarming.
“Okay, I’ll drop the whole ‘acting deep’ spiel. I take it you’re not the type,” he said, throwing his hands up sheepishly.
“I worked in the Shadow Academy, my man,” Ronovi replied with a deep, throaty chuckle. “I’m used to ‘acting deep.’”
A rumbling of groans and cheers accentuated her words, just as the Pantoran and Epicanthix both turned to look at the ring again. One of the scrappy B1s had attained the upper hand in the free-for-all, bashing its pipe into an opponent’s head and leaving a remarkably pronounced divot.
“I mean,” continued the Epicanthix, watching the display with a simpering grin, “if you want me to ‘revisit that chapter,’ I’m more than happy to take you on next round. See what you’re made of.”
What in the all the icy hells have I just done? Laren thought bleakly. He was a master of his chosen martial art, and more than skilled with a blaster. But against the raw power and brute strength of the bloody Second Hero of New Tython?
“That… will be unnecessary. Another time, perhaps,” he managed to reply calmly. At least, he hoped it sounded calm.
A chill suddenly ran down his spine, contrary to the intense heat of the Sand Pit. Ronovi was the one who had almost destroyed the Shadow Academy, after all. Laren knew all too well about the Horizons Crisis, and Farrin was not the only one who acknowledged the stories from it. He had learned plenty of eyewitness information about the climactic event itself - most of it coming from one Arden Karn - and how Ronovi was a hair’s breadth away from eradicating everyone within the halls of Lyspair for the sake of wiping out a plague that hadn’t even started in the Academy at all. The woman’s erratic behavior was the epitome of a cautionary tale, one popularly told even in Brotherhood initiate courses to this day. Laren was unsure as to whether Ronovi revelled in her infamy or detested it. Did she really feel strongly one way or the other? She had attempted to bring spirit to the Academy, surely, but all had been lost to hubris and fanaticism. To dark lore. To all the secrets and old practices that the Pantoran both abhorred and was profoundly curious of. It all terrified him deeply. His hands shook against his glass, and he desperately hoped that Ronovi didn’t catch on.
He quickly managed to regain control of his fear, using an old Echani technique to calm his nerves and focus his conscious thoughts. He imagined a pool of water in his mind, the place where his thoughts roamed and crashed through his consciousness in waves. With an effort, he recalibrated his will, turning that pool into a clear shard of ice. He then centered himself around that shard, containing his emotion for the battle ahead. This battle, however, would not be fought with fist or blade, but rather with words and time. The value of the information that Ronovi had, let alone her association with it, could not be ignored. And Laren, as Praetor to the Headmaster, would go to any lengths to get it.
The final bout among the mindless droids concluded, with the majority of the rusted hulks limbless from their consistent beating. Numerous cronies entered the ring to remove the metallic husks with trained efficiency, while simultaneously two new fighters entered the arena. The combatants seemed untrained, or at least badly trained, and Laren immediately lost interest,. He turned back to see Ronovi taking a long swig - which quickly became a small chug - from her flask. Laren gulped, and at that moment, he decided to fully commit to the task at hand.
“There is, however, another chapter of your story that I want you to revisit.”
Ronovi drew the lip of her flask away from her mouth slowly and delicately, as if she were withdrawing from a gentle kiss. The duel below was already getting ugly. The two humans looked ready to draw blood. Failed Ravagers, Laren assumed, molded into gladiators for their entertainment. Chances were that one of them would be dead by the time the fight was over, or at least crippled.
“Still using the same extended metaphor,” Ronovi finally responded. “You’re consistent, if anything.”
“Consistent folks tend to stay alive. You certainly have…” Laren’s voice trailed off uncertainly as he watched the woman imbibe her whiskey.
“So what info are you needling me for? Remember…” Ronovi’s tone shifted, and she spoke in a strange, sing-song voice. “Any game you can play, I can play better…”
Her lilting, improvised tune was accompanied by a wet, crunching sound. One of the combatants had taken the opportunity to wreck the other’s nose in the most peculiar way. In fact, it didn’t even seem that the nasal bone had actually been broken, but if a well-informed viewer looked closely, they could see an angry swathe of clotted lumps beneath the skin of the Ravager’s face, forming an angry, red parabola beneath his left eye. All of the cartilage in his nose had been torn out due to the force and angle of his opponent’s strike, and the blood began to pour out copiously from both his nostrils, as if a tap had been turned on to full capacity.
“I’m not -” Laren stopped, sighing and looking into his murky ale. “Needling. Am I?” Looking back at Ronovi, he said in a normal tone, “My search, you could say, is broad. I’m new and relatively unknown to the ‘game.’ Where best to find potentially juicy tidbits than with someone like yourself?”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. The odd duo observed the clumsy battle below, Laren with feigned interest and Ronovi with feverish intent. The match ended as many had before: One champion, one dead man. Returning to her flask, Ronovi then appeared to polish off her whiskey, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and propped her elbows against the dilapidated metal of the bleacher behind her.
“Look,” she said. “I’ve heard about you. The non-Force sensitive finding his golden opportunity in a Force-sensitive world. Quaestor, Taskmaster, now Aedile. I know Selika isn’t fond of you.” She let out a short, brisk laugh. “Though, to be fair, she isn’t fond of most people.”
“You don’t say?” Laren snickered.
“I also know you split time between the Paladin and Aliso,” the Epicanthix continued, as if she hadn’t heard the Pantoran’s quip. “I did that, too, only it was between Lyspair and Port Ol’val, in the Dajorra system. Not the most comfortable or convenient of flights, but it taught me the best of both worlds, if you catch my drift. Only with what you’re doing…well, like I did, you have a boss. A good one. May as well just listen to him.”
“I wish I had just one boss.” Laren regarded Ronovi for a moment, his expression souring much like the taste of his drink. “You Sith - you thrive upon betrayal, yet you expect the unquestioning loyalty of those deemed subservient.”
“That’s a pretty strong assumption you’re making about me, isn’t it?”
“No, I’m more referring to the Sith as a whole. Specifically, what I’m saying -”
“I’m saying that you don’t need my advice,” interrupted Ronovi, seemingly growing impatient, given her snappy tone and her creased brow. “You shouldn’t always make a cocktail of opinions, so to speak. I’ve made that mistake before, and it causes…well, it creates unnecessary inner conflict. I didn’t really listen to anyone at the Academy save for Taigikori…not that I’m mourning his death or anything. And once I was in charge…well…”
She trailed off, leaving Laren to stew over her non-answer. This was not the way he wanted this conversation to end. He wearily watched the latest drawn out feud in the ring finally conclude, with a crying Twi’lek combatant nursing a bloodied face as he was escorted from the Pit. He broke his gaze away just in time to see Ronovi tilt her flask toward her mouth, though not a single amber drop descended from its metal maw.
“Looks like I’m bone dry,” she commented, examining her empty vessel. “You up for some more concessions?”
Laren looked down at the glass of ale he held loosely in his right hand. He had forgotten about the drink, not intending to consume more than necessary that night. And yet he knew of Ronovi’s reputation when it came to alcohol. Laren resigned himself to chugging the remainder of the putrid ale, hoping to impress the former Headmaster. Her expression remained muted, and he belched softly. If this was a sign of things to come, then he would never drink with the woman again. And yet, he had to continue. Onwards and upwards!
“Take another drink,” he declared. “On me. Your flask might be dry, but this conversation is far from over.”
“Ooh, a thinly veiled threat.” Despite her barbed words, Ronovi was smiling. “I like you, Uscot.”
The peculiar duo stood up together, stepping off of the raggedy durasteel bleachers and walking side by side toward the concession booth. Given that many of the spectators were still engrossed in the next round of matches, there was - perhaps to Laren’s misfortune rather than fortune - no line. A stout Duros with a scar running down the right side of his face happened to be operating the stand, where steam and smoke rose in gray and white plumes from an active grill behind him. Rows of bottles and cans were on display, informing the next drunk-to-be of the booze selection, as well as a small array of spigots showing ales on tap. Laren inhaled and took in a tornado of smells, from spices to barley to salt - unless the salt was, in fact, all the perspiration in the space. The Pit was not exactly well-ventilated, so it got hot quickly, which might also have explained how his beverage had become more disgusting by the minute.
The Duros was busy watching the latest match against two Cathars - it was ‘cat fight night’, after all - and not exactly paying attention to his wares, so Laren cleared his throat loudly. No response. He almost thought the vendor’s eyes had glazed over; maybe he had died standing up (he wouldn’t put it past anyone here). He was ready to clear his throat again when, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a large knife rise from a cutting board close to the grill, its blade shining with grease and fat. The Pantoran stared with a feeling of impending doom as the knife glided gently through the air, then shifted his gaze toward Ronovi, who stood as casually as she could while the fingers twitched on her right hand.
This sort of Force trick must have been like breathing to her - natural, instinctive - so she did not flinch when she allowed the knife to land tip-down - thunk - into the nearest hard surface by the spigots. Laren, of course, couldn’t help reacting, his shoulders shooting up as he spotted just how close the blade had gotten to making contact with the Duros’s hand. The Duros tore his gaze away from the fights, clearly startled, and examined the potential weapon beside him, its slender body wobbling as it held firm against the wood. Then he set his sights on Ronovi, who was now wearing a very thin, impatient smile, and sighed.
“What’ll it be, Tavisaen?” he intoned in a low, gravelly voice. Laren blinked. Clearly, this was not the first time that the Epicanthix had screwed with the guy.
“Tankard of lum for me, Zir,” replied Ronovi. She then pointed at her newfound compatriot, who was still holding his empty glass. “This scrappy fellow here…well, I guess he’s fine with his swampwater.”
What? Laren thought. No whiskey for the champion?
“Coming right up,” grunted Zir, and with a large, gray hand, he fetched a tall, glassy stein from behind the counter.
While the barkeep was busy mixing the specialty beverage, Laren snatched a datapad, which displayed the drink menu, off the counter. He wasn’t a large drinker by any means, but he could hold his own if the need arose. At least, he thought he could. He perused the menu’s contents idly at first, not seeing anything that caught his eye. Mead, ale, lum, wine - none of it interested him much. However, his eyes soon drifted to the bottom of the drink list, where Laren found an odd and clearly intense product listed in bright, bold letters.
“What in the frozen hells is that?” Laren asked, lifting the menu in front of Ronovi’s face and pointing at it.
End of Part 1