A Tale of Two Worlds

(Laren Uscot) #1

STORY #1: Head in the Sand

Part 1

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

(Laren Uscot) #2

Part 2


Ronovi blinked. “Listen, I see where you’re pointing, but that’s a big list.”

Before Laren could speak, Zir returned with a large tankard of lum that was filled nearly to overflowing. Laren ignored the bartender, using his fingers to zoom in on the drink he found so puzzling. Ronovi, meanwhile, seized her tankard with eager anticipation, taking a long draw from it. After a moment, she set the tankard back down on the counter, sighing in satisfaction. Knowing her, the vessel was probably now only half full.

“This,” Laren said, pointing at the now zoomed-in name. “The house special listed at the bottom.”

Ronovi glanced at the menu with mild interest, then grinned. “The Sandy Sith,” she recited, her eyebrows rising in what must have been a mix of curiosity and delight.

“Yeah, that’ll put some hair on your chest,” Zir commented as he returned to washing his murky glassware.

“Sorry, it’ll do what to my chest?” Laren exclaimed, looking at Zir. He didn’t answer. Laren glanced at Ronovi and spotted an amused smirk forming on her face. Why was she amused? He didn’t like that she was amused.

“The Sandy Sith’s our staple cocktail at the Pit,” Zir cut in. “It’s got good stuff. Kowakian rum, Lyme’s rose juice, some Corellian nectar.”

“They say if you’re a reluctant fighter here looking for a ticket out, all you gotta do is pound three Sandy Siths, and you’re a free man,” added Ronovi.

“Yeah, free to be tossed out the door,” Zir muttered under his breath.

“I’m sorry, what?” Laren asked warily.

The Duros frantically waved his hands in front of his gray, scarred face. “Let’s put it this way, blue man: you best try your luck in the ring before drinking half of one of these.”

Laren looked at Ronovi. “It’s a trap, isn’t it?”

“Well, in a way, it does work in your favor,” retorted Ronovi. “I saw one guy get through two Sandy Siths before deciding to dance in the middle of the ring and then vomiting and passing out. The Subjugates sure had fun cleaning that up.”

“He didn’t have to fight that evening, either way,” Zir added. “But he got messed up real bad by a Zabrak the next time he got sober.”

Laren looked between Ronovi and Zir, and suddenly an opportunity popped up in his mind. An opportunity that he quickly realized was also, just as he suspected, a blatant trap. The blasted woman was clearly interested in the Sandy Sith, not to mention drowning herself in drink in general. But drinking was also a part of Ronovi’s personality, even her way of life. Perhaps if Laren could prove himself at her own game, maybe she might be more malleable and let out some secrets of the Shadow Academy, or anything else for that matter. But the thought of drinking even one of those dangerous beverages made his stomach churn with anticipation.

Thought ultimately became action, however, and a moment later, he slammed down a handful of credit chips on the bar.

“Six,” he demanded. “Now.”

Zir hesitated. “…All for you?” He looked to Ronovi, then back at Laren. “You’re going to die.”

“Are you kidding? They’re for both of us.”

“You’re - you’re buying me a drink?” Zir asked. He even blushed a little.

“No, you bloody fool. The two of us,” Laren said, pointing between himself and Ronovi.

“What are you playing at, Uscot?” Ronovi demanded, and of course, she wouldn’t stop staring at him.

“We’re going to have a little competition, you and I,” Laren began determinedly. “Three drinks, three rounds. I pound a drink, I ask you a question. You pound a drink, you give me an answer. Simple enough?”

Ronovi slowly set down her tankard of lum after another swallow of the stuff and cracked the knuckles on her right hand. Each pop and creak sent involuntary shivers down Laren’s back. “Normally, I like to take my time and savor my alcohol.”

“Not what your last round said.”

She ignored him. “But if you’re so raring to prove yourself to me, then sure. Let’s have some fun.”

“This is really happening,” Zir murmured in disbelief, as he turned to busy himself in making the six Sandy Siths.

As expected, word quickly spread throughout the Pit that some fools had ordered six rounds of the infamous cocktail and intended to chug them all in a contest. However, fact quickly became fiction, with some proclaiming that Ronovi and Laren were going to fight in the ring while they drank their Sandy Siths at the same time. Regardless of the rumors circulating, the excitement around the spectacle was plain. The denizens of the Pit were shuffling to get a good view of Laren and Ronovi as they stood by a high table near the concession stand.

The Duros expertly passed through the growing crowd. He set the tray down on the table gently, dispersing three full-sized glasses and three shot glasses to each participant. The taller glasses were filled halfway with rum and rose juice, while the shot glasses gleamed with nectar.

“All right,” Zir grunted as he removed the tray. “Here’s the deal for the new guy. The moment you drop that Corellian nectar -” He pointed at the shot glasses. “The moment that drops is when you start chugging. Otherwise, it starts sourin’ right quick. Once the shot glass touches your lips, you’re good. We clear?”

“Crystal,” was Ronovi’s one word reply.

“Have fun.”

Zir turned and left the odd duo to their devices, while an eager crowd waited with barely contained anticipation. Laren didn’t waste any time. Taking the closest shot glass, he dropped it into the larger beverage and brought the drink to his lips. As he emptied the glass’s contents, he quickly regretted his initial eagerness. At first, the drink was sweet in his mouth, but it soon burned as it passed from his gullet to his stomach. The feeling increased in intensity as he set the now empty glass back on the table, and he began seeing stars in his vision. He could feel the heat rising in his face, and he knew that the Sandy Sith was already affecting his senses. Ignoring the pain in his esophagus, he looked at Ronovi with a hesitant smile.

“Now before you ask, I don’t care where you stand or where your loyalties lie.”

“That makes two of us,” said Ronovi.

Laren nodded. “War is on the horizon. Enemies are everywhere, yet here you sit. How have you survived all this time?”

Ronovi smiled, casually dropped her shot glass into her drink, and chugged it all down with ease. The spectators appeared to be wowed by her constitution, some even clapping as she finished her beverage. She then stretched her back again and smiled.

“A solid stasis chamber and a misguided ally,” she said, finally answering Laren’s question, though of course, not in the way he wanted. “Otherwise, I’d probably be four-year-old ash floating around in space.”

Laren suppressed his frustration at her response. He had thought himself sly in asking the first question in such a convoluted way, but she was as agile as he was at conversing and avoiding spilling the juicy details. Even so, Laren gleaned a few minor tidbits of information that could be useful. Most importantly, he quickly came to the conclusion that she was telling the truth, albeit in a few short words. But what the Hell did a stasis chamber have to do with anything? He shook his head slightly at that thought. What made Laren consider her words was that she had not shifted in the slightest tone-wise when speaking, normally a sign that someone could have been lying. And just who was that ‘misguided ally?’

His thoughts were quickly becoming muddled, due in no small part to the first Sandy Sith. Damn, these are deadly. It was all he could do to hold onto whatever sober thought he had remaining as he reached for the second set of glasses. I can do this. I think. In a quick motion, Laren dropped the second dose of nectar and drank the swill as fast as he could. This time, the burning was worse, and he openly groaned as he slammed the glass down on the table, the shot glass rattling violently within its body.

“What’s the best way to kill a Sith with a blaster and a knife?” He demanded, slurring his words slightly. He was very clearly inebriated now.

Ronovi smirked. “That’s seriously your second best question?”

“I didn’t say anything about it being the second best,” he quipped, using air quotes to accentuate his words. “But it’s important, so drink. Now.” He paused, then hiccuped. “Please.”

His slurring words and sloppy sentences were clearly humoring Ronovi, and again, she easily downed her Sandy Sith as soon as the Corellian nectar plopped into the mix. The crowd actually vocally oohed and aahed.

“Head shot and slit throat,” she answered, burping loudly. “Though I could do it quicker and cleaner with my hands. Blaster and knife seem so…excessive.”

“Come back and tell me that’s excessive when you’re being chased by a man with a laser sword, glowing eyes and dark clothing.”

“Sure,” scoffed Ronovi. “I’ll tell you all about how I snapped his neck by flicking my wrist. Drink up, old sport.”

Laren looked down at the final pair of glasses in front of him, his vision beginning to swirl. Two became four for a moment, and then four became two, though they were glowing now. Glowing? What the Hell have I bloody done? But he had committed to drinking three Sandy Siths. He had to do it.

With a sigh of immense regret, he fumbled with the shot glass before dropping it into the spirits, throwing the contents back in clear discomfort. Even though his vision swam in and out of focus and his ears buzzed as if bloated with static, he could still hear the roar of the small crowd as they stamped their feet and cheered him on. As Laren attempted to keep his balance, he managed to lock his eyes on Ronovi. She was smiling, of course, and raised her third and final Sandy Sith to him in what he initially conceived as a mild gesture of admiration.

“How in the icy hells?” he mumbled, amazed that he was still conscious considering his current state.

“Take a bow, Uscot,” she said, now giving him the impression that she was merely teasing him.

Laren watched as Ronovi’s shot glass disappeared into the rum and rose juice. He swayed as she took the entire cocktail down in almost one swallow. His eyes nearly lost focus as she casually set down her now empty vessel with a slight, but punctuating, clink.

The crowd bellowed in loud satisfaction, the beat of their boots’ percussion becoming louder and louder. With Ronovi’s help, Laren stood, lost in the energy and exhilaration of realizing what he had done. With half-lidded eyes and a quirky smile, he waved to the crowd and attempted to bow, just as he had been told to do. He almost fell forward before two strong hands - Ronovi’s - managed to pull him back upright, saving him the embarrassment of passing out sprawled on the floor in front of the onlookers. He barely noticed that he was being pushed through the mass of warm, sweaty spectator bodies, instead relishing in the muddled comments and proud pats on the back that he received from people he didn’t know.

Suddenly, Laren noticed the air change, becoming cooler and breezier. He had a moment of clarity, looking around at the darkened streets of Aliso City. When had they left the Pit? But any thought of how he had ended up outside quickly fled as he pitched forward, projectile vomiting the contents of the night out into the nearest street gutter. He heard a bright laugh from above his hunched over body. Ronovi.

“Awww, had a bit too much? Do you need me to hold back your hair?”

Laren looked up for a moment. “Shut your damn -”

He was about to say the word ‘mouth’, but he returned to spewing out whatever remained in his stomach from his mouth and nose instead. In the end, it was all alcohol: Rum, nectar, rose juice, bad ale. Nothing substantial, and nothing nutritive. He was being forced dry, like someone pulling water from a drought-stricken well.

After a few minutes, Laren finally managed to lean against the outer wall of the Sand Pit, using the back of his sleeve to wipe his stained lips. The noise continued inside, an occasional roar bursting from the vicinity, most likely due to someone getting their face kicked in. He then looked up, leveling an incredulous stare at the Epicanthix who stood in front of him.

“How the hell are you still standing?”

Ronovi grinned and raised three fingers. “That counts as your third question.”

“Third, fifth, just answer the bloody ques -”. Laren paused to gag for a moment, then belched violently. “Just answer the question.”

The laughter he heard from the Epicanthix was not sweet, though it wasn’t scornful, either. Still, it had a ring of patronizing sympathy to it. “My dear, sweet summer child,” she said. “You think three Sandy Siths are going to knock this titan down?”

“You’re a monster,” Laren responded after a moment, eyeing Ronovi in disbelief.

“Uscot,” Ronovi sighed, “I’ve downed six of those things before feeling a buzz. I’m not a monster. I’m a juggernaut.”

“It really was a trap…”

He trailed off, lost in intoxicated thought as he struggled to remain upright against the wall. Why was it moving so much? And why had he been so damn foolish to think that he could match a woman who could drink lum as easily as water? No, scratch that - drink whiskey as easily as water? How would a drinking contest have gotten her to reveal anything, let alone something of importance? Laren barely realized that he had slid down the wall and was now sitting with his propped back against it. Or was the wall leaning on him now?

“You’ll just have to work on your tolerance,” he then heard Ronovi interject. He turned to look at her again, all while trying to keep whatever was left in him inside his body. She was hovering over him with her arms folded, gazing at him almost inquisitively. “Maybe next time we meet? Hak’s Hideout, perhaps?”

Laren’s golden eyes widened as he craned his head to look up at her, clearly surprised by her offer. This was a very good thing. His sloppy and dangerous attempt to get information from her this time had failed. Now he had an unexpected second chance. And he certainly wouldn’t drink this much during their next rendezvous.

Raising his hand to shake Ronovi’s, he managed, “That would be - ” before his comment was cut short. Instead of standing, he fell forward, the last of his motor functions succumbing to a feeling of numbness that had overtaken his body.

“…a great idea,” he finally finished, his face squished against the rough paving stones of the walkway.

As Laren was fading from consciousness, he met Ronovi’s gaze one last time as she bent over to check on him. Then blackness overtook his vision, and the last thing he could remember was the woman howling with laughter over his limp, soiled body lying helplessly outside of the Sand Pit.

Kriffin’ Sith.


Stay tuned for: STORY #2.

(Ronovi Tavisaen) #3

STORY #2: Eyes to the Stars

PART 1


One month after the Twelfth Great Jedi War

Laren Uscot, mercenary-for-hire and bounty hunter in the employ of the Dark Brotherhood, strode through the dingy Alisian streets feeling disgruntled. Losing a leg wasn’t an easy process, and he still felt confused about the whole ordeal. The surgery to install the cybernetic limb had happened only days before, and it still caused him some discomfort. But the real pain was within. He felt as if he had failed, having been injured like this. He was not prone to failure, and the loss of his organic body paired with an inability to find the answers he sought made his mood sour.

Therefore, in the tradition of generations into infinitum, Laren was looking for a drink. A strong drink.

He entered Hak’s Hideout slowly, trying his best to hide his limp. The small, dimly lit cantina wasn’t exactly bustling, though the patrons he did see drank copiously, hiccuping and belching as the booze continually flowed from the hollowed heads of B1 battle droids. Laren still hadn’t gotten used to the spigots, but he wasn’t looking for ale this evening. He needed something stronger - far stronger.

He spotted Ronovi in the corner and hobbled over to her. Despite her impressive height, she appeared almost diminutive as she slouched in her chair, nursing her standard serving of Whyren’s Reserve, her excessively long legs crossed under the table. When she saw Laren, her eyepatch glinted in the sparse light above her head, though her organic eye also appeared to twinkle as she smiled.

“You made it.” She raised her glass, its amber innards precariously sloshing toward the brim. “I was getting worried for a second there.”

Laren exhaled through his nostrils, remaining aloof due to his admittedly sour mood. “It’s been a long day. Long few weeks, if you ought to know.”

“Hang in there.” Ronovi gestured toward the bar. “I already ordered you something. Naesc should have it out soon enough.”

Laren opened his mouth to retort, both confused and a bit skeptical about her statement, but true to Ronovi’s word, the grizzly, heavyset Bothan was already walking towards their table, carrying a tray. Atop it was a small bottle of what appeared to be Shesharilian vodka, with an even tinier glass nestled against it. Naesc swept the tray away when he was done setting down the alcohol, grinning through his fur.

“Here y’ are,” he said to Laren, and then back to the bar he went, likely to appease some drunken sap demanding more lum.

Laren looked down at the bottle of vodka, then at the glass. It didn’t take long for him to pour the swill into the vessel. He held it up to Ronovi, grunted a, “Cheers,” and tossed the entire cupful of vodka back. It was as if he had pumped fire down his throat and into his stomach - potent, but also invigorating. His eyes watered as his tongue ached from the sting. Then, when his head and belly had settled, he refilled his glass and tossed back that in one mouthful as well.

As he set the glass down, Laren noticed how high Ronovi’s eyebrows had risen on her face. “You weren’t kidding,” she remarked. “Curt and needing strong liquor.”

She sipped her whiskey, and Laren was impressed that she had enough constitution not to just down the entire thing like he had done. He watched the way her fingers danced across the highball. She was dressed very casually today - brown breeches, worn out boots, dark tunic, a jacket that looked like it bore years of experience with its wearer. Her belt, of course, displayed her DH-17 pistol and what appeared to be a vibroshiv close to her hip. No saberstaff hilt to be found; that puzzled Laren. Didn’t she normally carry it?

“How’s the leg?” asked the Epicanthix abruptly. Blunt and abrasive, as always.

Laren did not respond. He simply poured more vodka into his glass and sighed ruefully.

“Sorry. Too forward?”

“No,” he grumbled. “It’s a bloody new leg. I best learn to live with it.”

“Believe it not, I can somewhat relate,” said Ronovi. She leaned back in her chair and tapped the glassy blue eyepatch that was engraved in her skin. “It’s certainly no new leg or arm, but…well, it is what it is.”

The Pantoran gave her a keen look. “Does your eye ever feel like a bloody Wampa just ripped it out clean, Ronovi?”

“No,” Ronovi admitted. “But when it breaks - and it does that often - it’s like someone stabbed me in the eye socket with a sharpened pike. But I guess Wampa’s a higher level of pain.”

“A sharpened pike, you say?” he teased.

“Oh, yes,” quipped Ronovi, going along with his humored tone. “It’s like any pike - but even sharper.”

Laren chuckled bitterly. “Indeed.” He took a ginger sip from his glass, resisting the urge to drain the glass again. “Say, why not a real eye, Ronovi? Cybernetics are good and all, but…why?”

Ronovi laughed. It was not the chilly, condescending laugh that the Pantoran had adjusted to. It felt… warm. Practically natural. “I often wonder that myself,” she mused. “And I have the option still, I’m sure. This thing can be so…inconvenient. But sometimes, the presentation is just as important as the function, if you get my meaning.”

“I can assure you,” Laren remarked, his tone dry and dramatic, “my enemies will fear the limping bounty hunter.”

“Give it time. It takes some adjustment.” His compatriot swallowed another mouthful of whiskey, and Laren could tell that she was about to tell another life story. “I remember the first month or so of getting my eyepatch. The constant cleaning, the occasional itch resulting in my scratching the screen. But I got used to it. And I especially got used to the confused or frightened stares from everyone around me. Intimidation - that’s one of my strong suits. Did I ever tell you how my surgery went?”

“Enlighten me. Did you punch the doctor in the face?”

Ronovi grinned. “Almost,” she replied. “Because I refused anaesthesia. They didn’t put me under, Uscot - I wouldn’t have it. I was taught that pain could make me stronger. I let myself feel everything. The burning of my nerves being stitched back together. The sensation of hot metal being ingrained into my face. The only reason why the surgeon didn’t get a black eye is that I let the medical droids do one thing to me and one thing alone.”

She paused dramatically, folding her arms across her chest. Laren blinked; then he understood. He smirked.

“Well, don’t let me stop you, all this build up,” he said. “What one thing?”

Her smile never wavering, Ronovi wagged her finger. “See, you’re learning. They restrained me. You ever tried restraining an almost seven foot tall, two hundred fifty pound goliath on a cot in the hospital bay of a giant castle sitting on the water?”

Laren needed a moment to actually take in that specific image. “Not quite seven foot, and not on the water,” he replied. “The slimo was big, though. Suffice it to say, I never want to do it again.”

“Will that be a story you tell now, or tell later?”

“Not much of a story, really.” Laren shrugged. The vodka was beginning to soften his mood. It wouldn’t hurt to tell Ronovi a story. Memory for memory was only fair.

“Once I escaped Kessel, I ended up on Nar Shaddaa. I brawled for stims, liquor, for anything, really. Some mercs noticed and took me in. Locked me up underground for days, let me beat away my addiction. Then they taught me how to fight all proper like. Molded me, truthfully. They saw an opportunity to make some fiery kid into a soldier. Training was finished once I killed him.” He took another sip of vodka. “‘’Bout it, really. Nothing exciting.”

“You have a funny definition of the word ‘exciting,’” sneered Ronovi. “Sounds more intriguing than my stints in the Eden underground rings.”

The booze was having an effect, all right. Everything felt less burdensome now. Less restrictive. “See, this is why I come around,” Laren said. “So we can share stories about how we got our karkin’ backsides handed to us.”

“Who ever said I got my backside handed to me?” asked Ronovi, almost sounding offended. To her credit, however, her grin still hadn’t melted away. “Still, this is fun. Better than your needless interrogations about the Brotherhood’s giant floating school of dark knowledge and darkness.”

Laren chuckled again. He watched as Ronovi raised her glass once more. It was now nearly empty, drained of sustenance.

“To good conversation,” she declared.

“To good memories,” added the Pantoran, raising his own glass.

With that, the two downed their drinks, gritting their teeth as the burn fought its way down their esophagi and settled like a maelstrom in their stomachs. Clearly pleased but not yet sated, Ronovi slammed her palm down, hard, against the table. Laren was surprised that she didn’t leave a dent.

“Naesc!” she called out. “More Whyren’s and vodka, if you please.”

There was no grunt of affirmation or vocal response of any kind to her words. Ronovi exhaled. She turned around in her chair and eyed the now unguarded bar. Laren suddenly felt uneasy. Naesc was known to go into the back for supplies, but how long had he been gone? And why?

“Naesc?” Ronovi repeated. “Where’d you go?”

No sooner had the question slipped out of her mouth did the doors to the kitchen violently burst open. Naesc practically fell through the opening, his fur on end and his eyes bulging, left hand gripping a blaster pistol trained at an unseen assailant. He was able to lob two shots - quick, precise, making the air sizzle as they moved, but they seemed to miss the mark. A moment later, Laren stared as a petite, yet muscular Togrutan practically flew toward Naesc, snarling and baring her teeth. Despite her size, she was able to deftly tackle the massive Bothan to the floor. There was a brief struggle, but Naesc found himself bested in seconds, with the Togrutan was dragging a compromised Naesc toward the wall, his own blaster pressed against his temples.

The Pantoran tried to process all of this at once - the sudden gunfight, the sheer strength of the Togrutan, the fact that she now held the bartender at blaster point - before three more alleged thugs stomped into the cantina. Two of them - a male Twi’lek and a female Human - immediately began to stalk the perimeter of the inside space, the Twi’lek’s lekkus twitching as he kept his right hand pressed on the butt of his DC-17 hand blaster. The Human, long-haired and ruddy-faced, appeared to carry knives and a cudgel, as if she were a failed law enforcement officer with a blade fetish.

The last of them - Laren identified him as the likely ringleader - strode from the kitchen, beaming as if he had just won a gold medal in something. A dark-skinned Zabrak with an impressive array of horns, he wore a long coat that looked like it was meant to keep him dry from a rainstorm. Laren couldn’t get a good look under the jacket, so he had no idea what weapons the intruder had to offer. Still, the Pantoran sat rigidly in his seat - not moving, not speaking, barely even breathing - just as he had learned in his training whenever hostage situations arose.

“All right, screw-ups,” rasped the Zabrak with a thin sneer. “Party’s over.”

He sauntered over to the ales on tap, snatching a smudged pint glass from the back counter and clapping a large hand down on a B1 droid spigot. Dark ale gurgled its way down into the vessel, and as soon as it was filled to the top, the Zabrak chugged the brew, his neck violently contorting with each swallow. He then slammed the pint glass down, almost with enough force to crack it, and unleashed a loud, rattling belch that scraped against Laren’s ears.

“Ahhhh,” he breathed. “That’s a good ale. You and your brother always knew how to pour ‘em, Naesc. I admire that.”

Naesc said nothing, his eyes focused only on the tall montrals growing from his potential assassin’s head. Laren heard snickering, and he turned his head slightly to see Ronovi trying to stifle giggles behind her hand. She glanced at her drinking companion, and Laren couldn’t help grinning despite the situation, understanding her gist.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” whispered the Epicanthix, keeping her voice low so that the small yet feisty Togrutan wouldn’t hear her.

Laren fought back a laugh. He figured he may as well get away with commenting, too; after all, he was with the Dread Lord’s seasoned bodyguard. “Is this actually happening?”

“If it is, I want my money back,” murmured Ronovi. “This is laughable.”

“Ladies and gentlemen!” the Zabrak suddenly bellowed, attempting to draw the attention of the meager offerings of bewildered patrons. “Don’t mind us. We’re just good citizens taking care of some business. Specifically, family business.” He then turned his attention to Naesc, who remained stiff under the cold metal of his own blaster’s barrel. “Let’s make it easy, okay, big fuzzer? And you and everyone else here will leave without a scratch.”

“Oh, this is so bad,” wheezed Ronovi, her laughter coming out in bursts as she attempted to restrain it.

“It’s like they pulled some villains from the holovids,” chortled Laren.

“Don’t do this, Magen,” Naesc finally muttered. The words, however, were not forced, aggressive, or even pleading. They simply puffed out of his mouth like thin wisps of air, as if all of the energy had been pushed out of his body, and he was left empty and exhausted.

Magen, the Zabrak, threw back his head and cackled, further establishing the over-the-top antagonist vibe. He stepped over to Naesc and poked him playfully in the chest. “Oh, you’re adorable!” he crowed. “ ‘Don’t do this, Magen. This is not okay, Magen. Think of the children, Magen!’ You’re hopeless, my friend. But perhaps you can at least help me with this.”

He waved a hand at the Togrutan, who proceeded to press Naesc’s blaster even harder against the Bothan’s head. Naesc’s facial expression did not change as Magen stared him down.

“Where is your brother?”

Naesc blinked slowly. “Not here.”

Magen’s mouth changed from a sneer into a straight, disgruntled line. The fingers twitched on both of his hands. “Where is Ralesc?” he demanded.

“I said he’s not here,” replied Naesc.

“I asked you where he is, Naesc,” growled Magen, his tone finally betraying calm and poise. “Not where he’s not!”

“I don’t know.”

Practically snarling, Magen whirled toward the Togrutan. “Slap ‘im a bit, Navraa.”

Navraa, the Togrutan, did more than slap Naesc. She withdrew the blaster and struck Naesc in the face with its butt. The Bothan reeled back slightly, though he didn’t lose his footing, as the impact of the blow rattled his features. Blood immediately began to trickle from his nose - first slowly, then continuously, like a broken tap.

Laren heard Ronovi whisper to him again.

“Can I at least get another drink before we start the obligatory fight scene?” she asked under her breath. “I can’t watch this sober.”

“Let’s handle this lot first, and then it’s drinks on the house afterwards,” Laren hissed back. “What do y’ say?”

Magen, his eyes narrowed into gray slits, drew a DL-18 blaster pistol from his hip holster. Now there were two barrels cocked at Naesc’s head, as if doubling the impact would change the narrative. The Bothan, blood-stained and stoic-faced, locked eyes with the Zabrak as the latter leveled his firearm.

“I ain’t gonna waste my time with these games, Naesc,” snarled Magen. “Your brother owes us. We’ve been waiting years for repayment. Years. And now we’ve finally found you, and we want what we’ve been waiting for.” He took a step forever - too dramatically, of course. “So I’m gonna ask one more time…where is Ralesc?”

Naesc did not blink. His voice was low and harsh, despite the asininity of the entire situation. “Eat bantha poodoo, Magen.”

His words were met with a laugh - and not from his assailants, either. No, instead, Laren stared as Ronovi guffawed, slapping her knee cartoonishly. As one, the once paralyzed patrons and the thugs turned to look at her. The Pantoran suddenly felt like he had no choice but to play along with his compatriot’s behavior.

“Good one, Naesc!” cried Ronovi. She wiped at her eyes as if her laughter had nearly moved her to tears. “Hoo, boy, this is fun.”

“Absolutely superb performance, lads,” added Laren, who decided to mockingly applaud.

“Oh, agreed.” Ronovi then stood from her chair, revealing her full height and looming over Magen even from a distance. “But, uh, last I checked, I didn’t pay for a show, and I haven’t got my next round yet. So why don’t we save the drama for another time, eh, chums?”

“Best not test her patience, folks,” quipped Laren from where he sat. “Nor mine.”

Magen looked far from bemused by the two’s display. His nostrils flaring, he redirected his attention from Naesc and set his simmering gaze right at Ronovi and Laren. His voice, however, cracked as it slipped from his mouth. “And who the hell are you?”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Ronovi practically bounced up and down. “This is where I do some killer catchphrase or clichéd line, right? Wait, hang on. Let me think.” She paused, and the room remained still with anticipation. “Okay, got it.” She cleared her throat before growling her answer. “Your worst nightmare.”

The Zabrak nearly sputtered, his eyes widening. “Oh, yeah?” he finally managed to retort. “We’ll see about that.”

Ronovi didn’t flinch when he leveled his DL-18 at her. She simply stared at him, her smile never fading from her face.

“Blasters don’t exactly incapacitate me, buddy,” she remarked with a chuckle. “Naesc can vouch for me.”

“Yeah, it’s really not gonna work, Magen,” Naesc piped up from his hostage corner.

“Shut it!” snarled Magen.

At this, Laren also stood up and cracked his knuckles. “Come now, lads,” he declared, “why don’t we do this the old-fashioned way? Just a nice, easy, relaxing brawl so I can knock those pretty teeth of yours right out. I haven’t been having a very good day, and you lot look mildly entertaining.”

A scream erupted from the Zabrak’s mouth, and he fired multiple shots from his blaster, the screeches of bolts singing the air as they flew every which way. But none of them made their target. Ronovi and Laren remained standing, unscathed by the assault, their expressions nearly blank as they stared back at the now horrified Magen. Navraa, stunned into silence, wound up dropping Naesc entirely, ignoring the Bothan as he sank to the floor. She held her stolen pistol up, aiming it squarely at the Pantoran, though her hands visibly shook.

“Let’s see here,” sneered Ronovi, working out some kinks in her neck. “Last time I got in a fight here, I smashed a Duros’s head in with a table, sliced off a Quarren’s tentacles with a piece of broken glass, and electrocuted a Human. How much more original can I get?”

“Kill them!” Magen shrieked, pointing wildly at both the Twi’lek and the Human thug.

“Oops!” exclaimed Ronovi. “Better think fast!”

The room exploded. Ronovi easily toppled the Twi’lek as he haplessly charged at her, grabbing him by his lekkus and slamming him down into the back of a chair. Laren watched in awe as blood, saliva, and broken pieces of ivory flew into the air. The grunt attempted to recover, holding his mouth as if to preserve whatever remained of his teeth. Then the Pantoran caught a glint of metal as Ronovi’s right hand seemed to grow blades, her vibroknucklers clean and sharp as they settled against her knuckles. Her uppercut caught the Twi’lek in the jaw, splitting the flesh on his neck, chin, and lower lip, an eruption of dark plasma bursting from the new deep gashes in his face. Then, pivoting, she plowed her open left hand into the side of his head, cuffing him just below the ear and allowing the blue brute to drop like a stone onto the floor, coughing and spitting up his own life fluids.

Remaining motionless, Laren watched as Ronovi left the Twi’lek to bleed out and turned her attention toward the Human thug. He observed the woman lumbering toward her, a brutal cudgel gripped in her right hand and ready to strike, only to hear her scream in agony as the Epicanthix’s vibroknucklers descended on her face. He winced as blood and aqueous humor leaked from the Human’s now punctured eyes, Ronovi’s combatant staggered back, desperately reaching for the nearest wall in her blinded state. The fight flowed around him, but still he did not move. He wanted to help, certainly, but it seemed like Ronovi was managing just fine. As far as Laren was concerned, she was the foe dreaded and feared by Magen and his cronies, not him. He did not cut an imposing figure, and he knew that; it was a combat advantage to have people underestimate him based on size and stature. A trained eye would notice he stood like a coiled serpent, ready to strike.

But the main reason for Laren staying back during the fight was simply that he didn’t want to get in the way. After all, Ronovi and he were in quite an enclosed space, with several patrons still lingering to watch the entire display. They must have been used to this by now, especially when it came to seeing the Epicanthix make a cameo during conflicts at the Hideout.


END PART 1

(Ronovi Tavisaen) #4

PART 2


It was at this point that Navraa actually appeared to snap back to reality. Sure enough, she began to fire Naesc’s pistol wildly, sending shot after shot aimed at the colossal berserker in front of her. Of course, she missed, and the blaster was yanked out of her grip as if swiped by an unseen spirit. Laren then held his breath as the Togrutan was lifted into the air and slammed into the nearest wall - hard. He could even hear the thug’s ribs crack and snap, as if they were as brittle as glass, and the woman sank to the floor gasping for air. He felt his hand wander for his blaster, seizing the butt of it and pressing his leg hard against his holster. He remembered where he was, and what he was capable of.

And that was when the Twi’lek got a second wind. Bloody and toothless, he grabbed the chair that his head had been unceremoniously slammed into, snapped off one of its legs, and swung it hard at the back of Ronovi’s head. Laren knew immediately that such an effort was futile at best, careless at worst. Ronovi sidestepped the Twi’lek easily, allowing him to lurch past her so that the back of his neck was exposed. Down came the vibroknucklers, each blade piercing teal skin and leaving a swath of holes close to the jugular. Then the vibroshiv made an appearance in her other hand. Laren had forgotten about that little blade. It buried itself into the Twi’lek’s belly as the thug attempted to right himself, the metal making its way into his solar plexus and severing the intricate networks of nerves there. The Twi’lek was as good as dead. Not that Ronovi had intended to kill him, as far as the Pantoran was concerned. The goons were akin to flies, and the more they buzzed, the more the Epicanthix was forced to swat them down.

So where were they now? Laren saw a dead Twi’lek, a blinded Human, and a winded Togrutan, the latter slumped to the floor as she attempted to breathe without having shattered bone pierce her lungs. Naesc had maneuvered to the corner closest to the bar, nursing his bloody nose and making himself as small as possible despite his large, hairy girth. All that was left now was Magen. The Zabrak had done a beautiful job of staying away from the eye of the conflict, his cowardice evident as he now gaped at the massacre in front of him. Anyone with less of an ego, normally, would have fled by now - Magen, however, had stuck around. Laren spied the criminal’s hand as it swiped a vibroshiv of his own from his belt, and Magen brandished it at Ronovi, who had taken her sweet time drawing her own knife from the Twi’lek corpse’s belly.

“You monster!” he spat. “You think it’s so easy to take me down?”

“Honestly?” Ronovi replied. “Yes.”

“She is nothing but honest, I can assure you,” Laren interjected, once again proving that he was at least a dedicated commentator.

He allowed himself to smile as Magen and Ronovi closed the distance between them, their vibroshivs glinting in the sparse light of the bar as they sized each other up. Laren, however, was distracted from the knife fight, as he spotted Navraa attempting to stand up. She seemed to have regained some of her luster, pushing her arms against the floor in an effort to get herself upright. She was met, however, with Laren’s DC-17 blaster pistol, its snout aimed squarely between her eyes. The Pantoran sighed, allowing his tone to sound flat and almost bored.

“Just - don’t,” he warned the Togrutan. Then he sneered as she slumped back against the wall, her eyes blazing in contempt toward her would-be assassin.

Although he kept his blaster trained on the girl, Laren could not help letting his eyes wander back to the strange dance that Ronovi and Magen were now creating. They circled each other like predators seeking prey, almost coordinated in their choreography, their vibroshivs only flashing sparingly, only slicing through the air harmlessly. Laren eyed Magen’s movements, concentrating on the way the Zabrak’s feet moved and how his gaze appeared honed and deadly. Was Ronovi truly capable of taking this man down? Perhaps Magen was more than just bluster and hot air; perhaps he truly was a skilled swordsman, ready to strike the Epicanthix right where her hubris was hottest. He was toying with her, testing her. Laren could tell.

Or maybe, he realized, Ronovi was toying with Magen.

He knew this because of the way she smiled. Despite her tensed body, the perspiration on her forehead, and the rigidity of her movements, her dexterity was clear. Whenever Magen would lunge forward, trying to stab Ronovi or at least cut into any exposed flesh, the Epicanthix hardly seemed to move - and yet the blade would never make contact with her. Sure, at times, she seemed to be thrown off-guard by a swing of the vibroshiv or a click of Magen’s heel, but she wasn’t a predictor of the future. She simply understood the stakes of close combat. These weren’t two predators fighting; no, there was a clear predator.

And Magen was the prey.

“Think fast,” Ronovi suddenly uttered.

Before Laren could blink or Magen could retort, the woman shoved her vibroshiv upward in one large swipe. The blade disappeared into the Zabrak’s neck, bursting the jugular, causing blood to spray from both his mouth and his nose. He dropped his weapon, stumbled a few steps back, and promptly crumpled in a sad heap onto the floor, choking on plasma as he succumbed to the death that he was always destined to meet.

Ronovi hovered over Magen’s body, examining his gray carcass spotted with crimson as if he were already rusting. Then she laughed. She wiped her vibroshiv on her jacket, as if dyeing it with the color of her enemy, and placed it back on her belt.

“Sorry, Naesc,” she called out to the Bothan, who had managed to make his way back around the bar, pinching his nose with a reddened handkerchief.

“Not the first, won’t be the last, eh, Tavisaen?” Naesc replied, his voice tinged with humor despite his injury.

It was after Ronovi started walking back toward the bar that Laren finally turned his attention back to Navraa. And not a moment too soon, as she had managed to lunge at him. His finger squeezed the trigger, the sapphire glint of the muzzle flashed in his periphery, and he heard Navraa’s corpse collapse with a blaster bolt through its forehead. The Pantoran holstered his DC-17 casually, feeling the remaining warmth of its muzzle against his leg. His body shook from the adrenaline of his kill. It had been quick, concise, and galvanizing. Laren felt the last shard of his previous foul mood break away from his mind. He was now feeling good. Very good.

Good enough to kill again.

He heard moaning from the corner, close to where Ronovi and he had once been sitting, where they had been toasting one another and guzzling down alcohol. The Human thug from earlier had curled herself into a fetal position, her left shoulder pressed flat against the wall, fingers white as they caressed her own face. She was weeping, her body shaking, the blood having coagulated around her now useless eyes.

A knot began to form in Laren’s stomach, as if his intestines were being tied together, and he felt the heat grow in his face. The blood was boiling. It set his teeth on edge. He felt his fingers twitch as he reached for his blaster again. He was eager to deal pain. Eager to continue impressing his companion so that he’d receive the answers he sought.

That was what he wanted in the end, wasn’t it? Answers. Secrets exposed. Respect. Perhaps a demonstration of mercilessness would put him on Ronovi’s good side. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. And too easy of one, too. Laren had seen firsthand how much damage the bodyguard was willing to cause both physically and emotionally to her enemies. Was imitation not the highest form of flattery?

He drew his DC-17 out of its holster again, its nose still emanating warmth from its last kill. Laren examined his blaster at first, almost admiring its sleek, yet stout, body. He took two limping steps toward the whimpering, blind woman, and he trained his weapon at the side of her head, right where her ear lobe connected to her skull. He let his index finger settle on the trigger, and he allowed his firearm to make a sharp, clicking sound. After all, he wanted her to know exactly what he planned to do.

The noise alerted the Human of his presence, and she jerked her head wildly upward, trying to seek light and shape in her new world of darkness. Her crying became more violent, and she began to hyperventilate through her tears. Laren was unmoved. He did not flinch as she called out to him.

“No,” she begged. “No, please. Please!”

Laren said nothing. His blaster was leveled; he was ready to do his job. He felt the knot in his stomach tighten further, his innards bubbling as if set on a stove. He felt beads of sweat form like crystal along his brow. But he allowed himself to smile. He could enjoy this. He would permit himself to enjoy this.

He heard the firing of a blaster bolt.

Not from his DC-17, though.

He recoiled at the sound, his eyes widening as he noticed a smoking, black hole in the wall in front of him. It had been barely an inch from hitting him, potentially leaving a burned divot in his head. Laren whipped around to address his new assailant, only to discover that said assailant wasn’t a stranger to him. Instead, he saw Ronovi standing behind the bar, Naesc silent beside her, a thin thread of smoke ascending from the barrel of her DH-17 pistol.

She had shot at him.

Laren didn’t need to be a Force-sensitive to realize her aims. He whipped his blaster toward her purely out of instinct, his mouth slightly open as he remembered to breathe. This time, Ronovi’s weapon was trained right at him. Her mouth was drawn into a thin, cold line.

“Don’t you dare pull that trigger,” she hissed. “Or this time, I won’t miss.”

The air suddenly felt very, very hot, and when the Pantoran exhaled, his nostrils could almost create steam. However, he did as Ronovi asked, lowering his blaster and letting it dangle limply in his hand. Seemingly pleased with the Pantoran’s compliance, Ronovi turned to Naesc, reached into the pocket of her jacket, and filled his giant hand with credit chips.

“For the clean-up,” she told him. “And a bottle of Whyren’s after I’ve washed up a bit.”

“It’s on the house, mate,” replied Naesc with a grin.

“Still reminding me why I like you, Naesc. Keep it behind the counter, will ya?”

Then, with her pistol still drawn, the Epicanthix approached the quivering, sobbing Human. Laren silently stared as Ronovi knelt down beside the blinded thug. The girl’s face was wet with both blood and tears, her exploded eyes not even showing any color besides red in their wake.

“Hey,” Ronovi whispered. After that, her voice became more forceful. “Hey.”

She smacked the thug in the face to shut her up. After the sniffling subsided, Ronovi poked a large finger into the woman’s rib cage.

“So listen up,” she began. “I’ve got a pistol right here, and so does the other guy. So you’re gonna want to do as I tell you, all right?”

The woman nodded feverishly. Her breath came out in sharp, ragged bursts.

“Good,” growled Ronovi. “Right. My friend Naesc, the guy your boss was ready to kill? He’s got connections to a good doctor who can bandage you up. Can’t save your sight, but what can I say? That’s what you get for messing with me and my drinking buddy.”

The woman simply stammered and spluttered in response. She managed to get her eyelids to cover her mangled corneas, her destroyed irises. Her teeth danced across her bottom lip before they clamped down hard enough to leave a dent.

“Well, go on, then.” Ronovi holstered her pistol and gestured to Naesc, who had managed to get his nose to stop bleeding. “Get her to a dock medic. I think she’s learned her lesson.”

“You got it, ma’am,” grunted Naesc, his voice chilly and gruff.

With that, Naesc proceeded to trudge over to the blinded woman, lifted her up, and led her, still gasping in both pain and fear, out of the bar. Not even a second later, Ronovi also made her exit. Laren’s breath caught in his throat as he watched her leave, her haggard, blood-stained frame disappearing into the cold afternoon air of Aliso City. But he was not going to let her just walk away. He could feel the temperature rise in his face. His grip tightened on his blaster. His blood was pounding in his ears, and a voice in the back of his mind whispered for death.

Roughly shoving his DC-17 back into its holster, a livid Laren stormed out of Hak’s Hideout, ignoring the looks of those patrons who had stayed in the vicinity and continued to sip their drinks. The sting of the autumn-like atmosphere did nothing to cool the cauldron that was bubbling in Laren’s body. He quickened his pace as he caught up with Ronovi, who was tucking her vibroknucklers back into her jacket.

“What in all the frozen bloody hells was that, Tavisaen?” he growled.

Ronovi said nothing. She gave him a look that he at first could not decipher - a strange cross between pity and amusement. She turned around and resumed walking.

Laren’s anger shot up like a torrent of water. He did not reach for his blaster again - he wouldn’t. Not here. Not against her. But he was not going to stay silent. “Tavisaen,” he snarled, “you sliming giant carcass of a bloody Sith brute, turn around and look at me!”

She did. Calmly. Brutally. Bloodied and solemn, Ronovi looked directly into Laren’s eyes, as if attempting to see into his soul. The knuckles on her right hand were still a faint, dusty red. The indents from her knucklers still lingered on her skin.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m looking at you, Uscot.”

Laren felt as if he could shrink into nothingness from that glare. He knew he had to hold his ground, but it wasn’t just Ronovi’s height that intimidated him. It was her damn eye - not the eyepatch, that one organic eye that was tinged with amber, yet it also seemed to hold an entire history of the world in it. It was weary with stories and past traumas, and he felt cautious about confronting her under that gaze.

Still, he remained firm, crushing any thought of hesitation. His voice came out harsh, guttural. “That was my kill,” he rasped.

“Was it?” Ronovi’s eye contact did not waver. “Tell me - is that one of your kinks? To claim kills like you’re hunting animals?”

“The kill is everything!” Laren spat. “The mission - the chase, Tavisaen. The finishing blow. It’s all I have.”

He faltered on that last sentence, and he knew it. And it was then that Ronovi’s facial expression changed. She looked at Laren as if he were a sick child, or a traumatized soldier. There was a softness that threw him off, disoriented him. This wasn’t pity, was it? If so, it was humiliating.

“It’s all you have?” the Epicanthix repeated. She exhaled loudly. “Wow. That’s… that’s sad.”

She sat down on a nearby bench, watching the ships settle along the Landsdown Docks. Despite the calmness and chill of the evening, it was still business as usual in Aliso City. Ships came and went. Travelers settled in or took off. Shops and restaurants continued to flourish. Meanwhile, Ronovi used her sleeve to wipe some of the blood spatter off her face, smearing the fabric with red and black.

“You know I don’t always go in to kill, don’t you?” she said abruptly, not looking at Laren as he stood a few paces away from her. “Not unless they ask for death.”

Laren tried to breathe. He was still seething, yet he could not hide the despair in his voice. “And you call yourself Sith?” he hissed.

“Yes,” Ronovi retorted. “I do. And I am very much a Sith. I thrive on becoming strong. On becoming powerful. And I admit, causing pain’s a part of it. I love delivering pain to those who challenge me. Making them hurt. Making them suffer. It feels good. Especially when they deserve it. But once that’s done…once the target is subjected to that agony…what does it accomplish you to finish the job? To do them in? Is it to show off? Is it to make yourself look stronger, bigger, the greater force to be reckoned with?” She looked at Laren then, appearing tried and wrung out. “What are you trying to accomplish in front of me, Laren?”

For a long moment, Laren did nothing but stare, his eyes blank, the words reverberating in his mind. They were blunt, honest words that struck him in a place he didn’t know still existed. A place he had thought he had brutally ripped apart on the barrel of a blaster, years ago. When he finally spoke again, his voice was dull and distant.

“What am I trying to accomplish?” he repeated, before he locked eyes with Ronovi, his tone level but his words bitter. “I’m trying to stay alive. I am a small fish with a venomous bite in a small pool surrounded by sharks.”

“Mmmhmm,” muttered Ronovi, once again unimpressed. “So were those thugs back there really such a threat to you in your little pond? Was the girl you wanted to shoot scaring you that much? She was blind, Laren. I gouged her eyes out.”

“Death is better than suffering,” Laren insisted. Ronovi wasn’t convinced, so he pressed on. “I have to be cutthroat. The moment I show weakness, the single second of my existence I decide to show even a hint of compassion, it’s over.”

“Compassion?” spat the Epicanthix. Now her organic eye blazed, a brilliant amber against her blood-spotted skin. “Was that really the issue here? Or were you just trying to get a reaction out of me? ‘Look, Ronnie - I can kill things! Here’s a dead body as a token!’”

Laren spluttered. He felt his whole body shake with rage. His new leg nearly buckled beneath him as he attempted to settle down, but the anger was obvious. His voice erupted into a snarl.

“How dare you - ”

Ronovi cut him off. “Hey. Hey, buddy.”

Laren continued to seeth. Hot air rattled against his teeth. The muscles were tense all the way from his shoulders to the tips of his fingers.

“Take a breath, okay?” the Epicanthix continued. “Just for a second.”

The Pantoran quieted down. It took considerable effort, but he managed to loosen up and take deep breaths.

“Look,” he heard Ronovi say. “I get it. I really do. When all you’ve been taught is to kill, you do it. Automatically. You constantly fear for your life, and the only way you feel safe is by eliminating everyone who so much as smiles at you the wrong way. I used to live like that, too, but after the whole…” She shook off the inconspicuous thought that must have been plaguing her, like warding off a fly. “Anyway. That’s why I like having hobbies. Drinking. Playing pazaak. Getting my fists dirty. Hell, I even read sometimes. You ever check out those trashy holo-comics? They’re hilarious.”

Laren felt his teeth clench, like hot iron pressed against hot iron. “Haven’t the time, Tavisaen.”

“Shame.” The Epicanthix shrugged almost seemingly half-heartedly, though now the Pantoran was beginning to wonder what emotional sentiment she was attempting to exude. “My point is, it is so easy to fall into that fear. To be consumed by it. And the irony is, it doesn’t make you stronger - it makes you weaker. And when people feed on that fear, you become subservient. Your back is bent, and you’re nothing more than a soldier for a power hungry man’s army. It’s what happened to you, isn’t it? At the Academy?”

“I -”

He stopped himself. Breathed. Remembered where he was. He remembered to pause, to take a moment to let everything sink in, like the vodka soaking into his brain. Laren didn’t know what else to do. His muscles were almost paralyzed by the lactic acid that had built up within him. His emotions also did him no favors. All he could do now was sit beside Ronovi on the bench, his eyes averted from her bloodied frame, his next words dragged out as if pulled from him.

“I’’m a hound,” he declared. He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the words that bit like jagged knives. “I’ve been a hound since the start. From the moment those mercs dragged me off the street. All the blood, sweat, and tears led to one moment.” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before opening them again. Looking up, he stared out into the distance as if he could see the memory playing out in front of him. The stars only served as lights to remind him of what he had left behind. “Ord Mantell. High rise, seventeenth floor. Staring down the sights, Tavisaen. Breathe in. Breathe out. Wait. I was waiting for the target across the street, two floors down. Or so the dossier said. I had her dossier beside me, you know?”

He laughed bitterly. Then he finally looked at Ronovi as if expecting a response. To both his surprise and his relief, she said nothing. So Laren pressed onward.

“She was a high value target,” he continued. “A corporate spy with a knack for the job.” He felt his entire body trembling. Like a wire shaking from its foundation, he was beginning to lose control. A single tear descended from one of his eyes, and he struggled mightily to withhold the rest. “She was - she was the one, Tavisaen. My first Brotherhood contract, little did I know. She had been sniffing around where she shouldn’t have been. And there I was, watching her and her new wife, her kids. Waiting. Breathing. And then she got up, she walked to her bedroom. I swear on the frozen hells, Ronovi, she looked right at me. And in that brief moment, my life hung on the squeeze of a trigger.”

His gaze felt hard and cold against Ronovi’s visage. Her blank, nonchalant visage. She gave away nothing - seemed to feel nothing. Why couldn’t she feel? How far gone was she?

“I squeezed,” Laren emphasized, his voice strained and cracking. “Oh, did I squeeze. And I watched as everything that had ever been good in my life crumpled to the ground with a blaster bolt through her skull. But the mission is all, Tavisaen. It’s everything.”

He let his words hang somberly in the air, as if he had revealed some great truth to her. In reality, of course, Laren understood that he had not exposed a single element of the world that Ronovi most likely didn’t already know. And she reacted accordingly. She inhaled softly, the cold Alisoan air whistling through her nostrils, and examined her bloodied knuckles before delivering her next comment.

“That’s a hell of a story, Laren.”

The Pantoran stiffened, but he forced himself to relax in the next moment. In fact, he even forced himself to laugh. “Nothing exciting, really,” he replied, as if to devalue the impact of his own story. Much to his personal chagrin.

Ronovi did not laugh, or even crack a smile. Instead, she simply stared off into the distance for some time, off where the lights grew dim and ships spread their wings and departed from the luxurious safety of the Landsdown Docks. The carnage left behind on her skin was beginning to dry and brown, almost appearing to be freckles and scabs rather than someone else’s blood. The woman sighed, let her shoulders sag and release tension, and blinked a few times before speaking again.

“You’ve wanted to know my history, too,” she finally said. Her right eye settled on Laren’s hunched physique, as he slouched forward from where he had perched himself. “About what it was like to be the steward of the Academy, specifically. You’ve attempted to pull it out of me, tried the stupidest things to impress me so I could spill the beans. Well, I guess I ought to let you know the truth, shouldn’t I? About all of it?”

“I only have so much time to read,” replied the Pantoran, referring to the plethora of archived data about Ronovi that he had painstakingly tried to peruse. “Might as well remind me.”

“I’m a good storyteller,” Ronovi sneered. “I’m sure you’re well aware of…well…my hubris. In the past.”

Laren slowly nodded. “The Horizons Crisis.”

She chuckled and exhaled loudly again. “What a doozy,” she groaned. “Dozens of initiates gone mad by plague. A botched quarantine. Death in every corridor. And my own connection to the Force… I know you don’t understand that part, but just imagine if you weren’t able to get that new leg. It’s an enormous piece of your power, an enormous piece of you. Imagine it just gone.”

“Those were extreme circumstances. It was chaos, so the records say,” said Laren. “Anything could have happened. No one had their heads in the right place.”

“It’s true that I wasn’t thinking straight when I tried to blow up that blasted school,” Ronovi added, shaking her head. “And it’s true that the artifacts kept within the Vault played into my own erratic behavior. But honestly…sometimes I wish I hadn’t been stopped. Sometimes I wish I had destroyed the place, after all. Even if it meant throwing away my own life.”

“Why?”

The look Ronovi gave her compatriot was a suitable response to his puzzlement, almost as if her former role as Headmaster was influencing her. It was a mixture of concern - as if wondering if a student had slept through his lessons - and intrigue. As if it was time for her to drop some serious knowledge, or “truth,” on top of the man’s head.

“The Academy is the epitome of indoctrination,” she stated defiantly. “The epitome of it. You don’t learn self-sovereignty. You don’t learn how to become your own individual. You’re molded into the shape they want, tossed into some robes, stuffed into a ship and carted off to whichever clan desires the cannon fodder more. And when you do learn how to be your own person - your own warrior, your own scholar, your own leader - well, then that’s simply unacceptable, now, isn’t it?” She laughed again, though the sound seemed caught in her throat, strangled, as if all the humor was being choked out in real time. “The Academy teaches you not to think for yourself. We’re like cattle in there, Laren. Blindly raised cattle, headed toward inevitable slaughter.”

It took a moment for Ronovi’s words to sink into Laren’s psyche. He was beginning to understand, though. “The rule of the Iron Throne is absolute,” he said with a pained grin. “No doubt they didn’t take kindly to your point of view.”

“Of course they didn’t,” Ronovi scoffed. “The Grand Master forced me out of the Academy the moment I drew my saber and tried to forge my own destiny. When I tried it again, I was poisoned and stuffed into a temporary coffin until I mellowed out. And maybe it’s worked.” She leaned against the back of the bench, her breath crystallizing in front of her, as the autumnal atmosphere chilled the night air around the two. “I don’t try to take the helm of anything anymore. I fold my arms and frown when Selika’s at her meetings. I go to Hak’s and other bars and drink myself stupid. When the booze doesn’t numb me enough, I punch something. Or usually, someone. The pain I deal out…it invigorates me. It gives me something to do. But sometimes…”

She stopped to examine her bloody hands. Laren keenly observed her as she did so. The way her fingers twitched as the red and black clots stayed collected around her cuticles. The way she breathed, her inhalations becoming raspier as she gulped down air through her mouth instead of letting it sift through her nostrils. It was as if she were an addict coming down from a high. Sure, the buzz had been extraordinary, but every junkie had to crash. And Ronovi could very well have been trying to succumb to such a crash.

“I wish my passions were a little less bloody,” she suddenly opined, her voice thin and with only a tinge of amusement. “A little more productive, you know? A bit more rewarding. You don’t gain power by hurting people, Laren. You gain power by building yourself up, above all else. You follow your own desires without looking for approval. And if you can do that without laying a finger on anyone else…well…that makes your chains all the more broken, now, doesn’t it?” The Epicanthix then smiled, her teeth remarkably white against her mottled skin. “The Sith Code. I’m sure you’ve read it.”

Laren snorted. “Required reading for us non-magical plebs, didn’t you know?” he quipped. “A bit dry.”

“Short, though. And to the point.”

Ronovi then stood up, the bench squeaking as if releasing an enormous burden of weight and girth. She towered over Laren, who didn’t move at first, his bright eyes focused on her blue eyepatch. He kept forgetting just how tall the woman really was. It always impressed him, even after fraternizing with her so many times.

“You’re welcome to disagree with me on all of this, of course,” she told him. “I don’t know Xies personally. I don’t know what experiences you’ve personally dealt with as his second - you know, not without invading your own thoughts with my magical powers. Not that I can actually do that - being such a beautiful species does have its drawbacks. But you’ve been dying to get information out of me for quite a while. Now you’ve got it. Use it however you see fit.”

She was right. The answer he had longed for, the information that he had been willing to kill or rampage or retch for, was out in the open. All this time spent searching, yet he sat on the bench feeling empty and unfulfilled. Her words weren’t the wisdom or insight to power he had expected. Instead, they were the honest reflections of a soldier desperately trying to cling to any semblance of agency in their long and brutal life. Spurned by the desire to change, Ronovi was - hopeful, perhaps? No. Ronovi was resolved.

It hadn’t been the answer he expected, but her words rumbled in his mind. Laren looked down at his hands, thinking deeply. He was the dark force’s hound, assigned to sniff out rivals, seek artifacts, and serve his betters without question or complaint. He had done so willingly. Teylas, the cold but close master. Selika, the mistress hoping to toss him aside like a dog. Farrin, recognizing his skill to reap death, subtly manipulating his past to spurn him to greater evils. What was the purpose of it all?

To kill.

But if what Ronovi had said was true, which, knowing that look she had given, it was, then perhaps there was another way.

“One last question, Tavisaen,” he finally said after a while. “If you’ll indulge me.”

Ronovi had been waiting patiently for Laren to speak, looming over the spry Pantoran with a blank expression.

“Let’s hear it first. Then I’ll see if I feel like answering it.”

Still looking at his hands intently, voice distant, Laren managed a weak grin before speaking.

“Is there room for two at the bar? I’m feeling a bit tied down in the Brotherhood lately. The Academy, this clan - it’s holding me down. I’m certain these folks don’t have further need of, dare I say, my unique skills?”

He looked up, meeting her gaze. She had raised an eyebrow, considering his words.

“Already bailing? I didn’t think I could so easily sway you. Good to know for next time.”

“When someone talks sense, I don’t ignore it,” he replied. “Usually that sense has saved my life. You just might have.”

“Fair enough. I’ll take a compliment when I can get it,” she said, turning and beginning to walk away. She took a few steps, then stopped, turning to look at him with him with her remaining organic eye.

“Just one request.”

“Shoot,” Laren said, rising from the bench.

“Let’s wash up first. This blood’s starting to dry, and I don’t like being covered in other people’s life fluids, frankly.”

Laren’s grin widened, and he rushed to Ronovi’s side. She chuckled hoarsely, and without another word, they began to walk into the night. Laren had made up his mind. It was about time he left Aliso. A man’s blood could boil staying put for so long. Best he walk off into the night and never return, some time soon.

Tomorrow, perhaps. He could set out tomorrow. Tonight, they drank.