[AFoC] Prologue Fiction

Chapter One

The Bounty

Ebon Ridge
Zsoldos
37 ABY

The spaceport of Jasper was not for the faint of heart to roam about in, and Juur Gogh was well accustomed to both the noise and the obscene odor. Spaceship fuel, rusted metal, and warm booze all contributed to the atmosphere; Ebon Ridge wasn’t going to smell much better, either. Still, Gogh was in the mood to gamble away his sparse savings, as well as drown his sorrows and tribulations in cheap lum in the least contaminated corner of the cantina.

The Mandalorian sniper hadn’t picked up a good bounty in well over a month, and Vizsla wasn’t exactly giving him the most lucrative of assignments. Gogh knew that both Roark and Cole had standards; he had been sloppy in his latest assassination attempts, and they were more likely to commission someone else over him to do the dirty work. So much for finding opportunities in this forsaken clan - now he was going to have to fight off an infection and a hangover, as he strode to a beat up table in the cantina, brushing away desert residue and ignoring the coughing of a sickly man sitting nearby him.

The tired looking barkeep quickly brought out a pint of foamy lum, and Gogh eagerly guzzled half of it down in just a few gulps. He sighed, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and worked the kinks out of his neck. He was wearing civilian clothes and feeling a bit exposed without his armor, but at least no one would recognize him. Mandos had a way with becoming anonymous when they weren’t wearing their helmets.

As Juur Gogh drank, he ignored the various beeps that suddenly went off on the commlink attached to his hip. To his left, two scruffy men had challenged each other to a duel, which was perfectly okay in this part of Jasper. He was more interested in that exchange than picking up whatever scolding call he was supposed to pick up.

When the beeping didn’t subside, he groaned and activated the transmission. “What.”

“‘Bout time you answered, Gogh,” emerged the gruff and cocky voice of Montresor, one of his superiors. “Buck up. I’ve got an assignment for ya.”

Gogh blinked; he hadn’t expected that. “Right. What do you want?”

“Well, that’s the tricky part: It’s an esteemed member of another clan in the Brotherhood. Lot of our guys feel too squeamish to take it on, but money’s money. Some Zabrak chick’s offering us a lot of coin to take this individual out. You game?”

Gogh polished off his lum and burped loudly, scratching at the growing stubble on his square jaw. The gambling would have to wait, though he’d probably order a second drink. “Sounds stellar. Where to?”

Ord Mantell
One Month Later
38 ABY

Arden Karn di Plagia was on a mission.

He had traveled to a small town in one of the mountain chains of Ord Mantell, the pink sky stark and almost painful on the eyes. The man had been busy trying to track down his brother, and that brother was currently on a Luchrehulk, selling weapons. Arden had gone the way of trying to forge a meeting, if only to make sure that his sibling wasn’t actually partial to the Collective, but rather selling to any paying client. It was the best he could do at this point.

He kept his own equipment hidden in his robes, which were blue and fur-trimmed, similar to the clothes Bail Organa had worn during the era of the pre-Palpatine Galactic Senate. His lightsaber was tucked away in the folds of fabric, as well as his SE-44C blaster pistol, which had been customized with a more comfortable grip and a scope. Arden’s sniper habits would never die, and now, he paced the worn down pavement of a spaceport, trying to seek out anyone who would have connections to his targeted arms dealer.

The thought of Plagueis was far in the back of his mind by this point. Arden couldn’t have cared less about Aliso, about the Dread Throne, about Ronovi or TuQ’uan or anyone else. All that mattered to him now was family. And as he headed toward a nondescript building toward the eastern flank of the spaceport, he was ready to make his case to the representative from whom he had wrangled an hour to speak with at a nearby café.

Arden was not particularly fond of the smell of burnt caf, but he was willing to endure it for the sake of his objective. He found the representative pinching chak-root snuff at a table close to the window, the rims of his enormous Boltrunian nostrils a powdered red as he snorted the goods.

“Kraw Gorto, right?”

Gorto lifted his head up, his face uncannily similar to a rugged hillside. “Yeah, what’s it to ya?”

“Giotar Midghar,” the Human introduced himself, utilizing one of his many aliases. “I understand you represent Coren Karn.”

“Again. What’s it to ya?”

Arden grimaced; he had forgotten all about Boltrunians’ “fine” manners. “I’d like to make a connection with him. I’m interested in what he’s got in his arsenal.”

“His arsenal, eh?” Gorto let out a gruff, gruesome laugh, bits of remaining snuff bursting from his nose. “Well, lemme tell ya somethin’, bucko; what he offers ain’t cheap. And who he sells to ain’t yer run o’ the mill clientele, neither.”

“What makes you think I’m run of the mill?”

“Ya just get one o’ them feelin’s, ya know? Just not sure what ya have to offer here.”

“Money,” chided Arden. “Lots of it.”

As he spoke, he began to feel the hairs on the nape of his neck prickle, as if a breeze had picked up around him. This was normally what happened when he sensed something off in his environment, though he wasn’t detecting anything malicious from the Boltrunian. Gorto seemed utterly intrigued by both the presentation and demeanor of the Human, his bulbous fingers drumming the surface of the table, as he reached for his tin of chak-root snuff again.

“Tell ya what,” he grunted, sticking his thumb and index finger into the tin. “Lemme give Karn a call. He may work wi’ the elite, but he ain’t tied down to nobody. Ya just sit tight, and I’ll be right back with ya.”

With that, Gorto inhaled more snuff, stuck the tin into his pocket, and stood up from his chair - just in time to receive a blaster bolt full in the face.

The Boltrunian crumpled to the floor like wet paper, silent, a neat and precise hole having scorched its way through his right cheekbone and behind his eye before escaping out the back of his skull. Arden hissed in both shock and hidden rage, reaching into his robes for his pistol. He watched as a man clad in familiar armor ducked behind an array of tables, terrified patrons screeching and attempting to flee. The Dark Jedi deftly dodged two more blaster bolts, both now clearly aimed at him. Gorto hadn’t been the target; he had.

A Force shove did the trick, sending the assassin flying into his back and causing him to skid across the wooden floor. Within the next second, Arden had fired two shots, deliberately, into the man’s legs. His armor may have been resilient, but it had discernible gaps around the knees, and being incapacitated, rather than dead, was his priority right now.

Ignoring the looks of the employees and remaining customers, Arden dragged his howling would-be murderer out into the open air, where the sky was almost neon, given how harsh it pink hue was. As the man struggled to stand, the former Dread Lord of Plagueis cuffed him on the shoulder, pushed him into the dirty road, and stared coolly and malevolently down at him.

“You meant to kill me, and you ruined a very important meeting of mine,” he intoned. “Get to talking now, before I make you.”

“Guess you’ll have to make me,” wheezed the hunter, actually managing to laugh despite the circumstances.

Arden wrinkled his nose. “Fine. But I’ll warn you…it’s going to hurt.”

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Chapter Two

The Confession

Dread Lord’s Office - Level 195
The Pinnacle
Aliso City
38 ABY

Ronovi was restless. It had been a mere month since House Tyranus, which had replaced Karness Muur and Ajunta Pall, had begun modifying and securing the fortifications around the new Fort Dooku. Construction of the Tyranus Citadel had been notably fast, with slaves, Geonosians, and members of the Willing hunkering down to erect the castle and the residencies around it. Now, despite the completion of the barracks, the flourishing of the Market District, and the inevitable arrival of the Entertainment District, the Dread Lord remained wary. With the initial excitement of her edict’s enactment having passed, she did not want anyone within the Ascendant Clan to lose energy and become complacent within their new structure.

Opress Squadron had also been busy, settling into its new home on the Instigator, which Ronovi had gladly bequeathed to them so long as it still remained subservient to the Ascendant Fleet. She had sent the Dreadbringer, Wrathus, and his men (and woman) out on various contracted attacks, seeking out dissidents of Plagueis and Collective remnants. Kel Zar, however, had not been found yet. Hopefully, she would be properly dismembered in due time.

Sitting down at her desk in her office, the Consul busied herself with filling a glass with whiskey when the doors slid open. A blank-faced officer of the Willing, one that Ronovi did not recognize, bowed to her before stepping toward her desk. The Dread Lord was not amused.

“Bow again to me,” she snapped, “and I’ll end the romantic relationship between your head and your neck.”

“Apologies, my lord,” mumbled the officer. “But Lord Karn specifically instructed me to give you this.”

He handed Ronovi a holopad before quickly excusing himself from the room. Her brow now furrowed in curiosity, she let the disc-shaped device sit in her palm before setting it down on the polished wood of her desk. With a simple press of a button, the holorecording began, and the Dread Lord stared down the bruised and bloodied face of a man in what looked like Mandalorian armor. And he was weeping.

“Go on, now,” emerged Arden’s calm and collected voice from offscreen. “Tell the nice lady everything you told me.”

The stranger lit up in blue jerked his head to the side, wincing, as if the effects of what must have been Arden’s torture were still reverberating. He was fairly scruffy looking, unshaven, his whiskers now spattered with dark blood. He stuttered, coughed, and then spoke: “Lord Tavisaen…my name is Gogh.”

“Full name.”

The man flinched again. “Juur Gogh.”

“And your occupation, Juur Gogh?”

“Sniper, sir. Trained for fifteen years. I once was an established mercenary within th - ugh!”

What looked like the butt of a blaster pistol materialized, and the hologram of Gogh’s face careened backwards, new plasma spurting from both nostrils. As he howled, the tone, pitch, and volume of the di Plagia’s voice did not change in the slightest.

“She does not want your backstory, Juur Gogh. Tell her what you did.”

Blubbering, the armored sniper tried to collect himself, and Ronovi could only silently watch and wait. She could feel each muscle in her shoulders tense like coiled springs. If Arden had decided that this prisoner was important enough to film, then clearly, he had greatly insulted the clan of Plagueis. Both how and why were to be revealed.

“I…I…” Gogh finally managed to spit it out, his mouth clogged with blood. “I was hired to eliminate Arden Karn di Plagia of Clan Plagueis for a sizable bounty.”

Ronovi’s eyebrows shot up like rockets.

“And who hired you, Juur Gogh?” hummed Arden.

This was obviously the one datum of information that Karn’s would-be assassin did not want to share, but at this point, he had no other choice. When the silence had lingered too long, Arden’s voice finally hardened.

“Who sanctioned the hit on me, Juur Gogh?”

“Clan…Clan Vizsla.”

It was as if the Dread Lord had been struck by Force lightning - something she had endured before. She reeled back in her chair, clutching her whiskey glass, and nearly spilled the precious booze.

“Good job, Juur Gogh,” murmured Arden. “Now, tell the nice lady what’ll happen next.”

Gogh was now getting emotional; he had truly been emasculated. “I shall be sent back to Vizsla.”

“Yes.”

“Alive.”

“Go on.”

Gogh’s lips trembled. “In a cargo box.”

“Enjoy the ride, my man. Tavisaen, I’ll see you back on Aliso.”

And then the holorecording ended.

The veins in Ronovi’s head were now bulging. This was an act of aggression, full stop. She knew that Vizsla was indiscriminate when it came to bounties and contracts. But sending out someone to kill a recognized di Plagia? If anything, that potentially signaled war.

She downed two mouthfuls of whiskey, slammed the glass down, and turned on the commlink built into her desk.

“Put me through to Declan Roark. Now.

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Chapter Three

The Call

Written by Declan Roark.

Remote Forest Clearing
Forests of Ullr
Zsoldos
38 ABY

Sunlight reflected off the axe’s steel blade as it expertly descended towards its target. The thick block of wood split into two pieces and fell into the growing pile of firewood. Declan Roark picked up another piece of wood and placed it on the stump as the sleek form of a Kom’rk-class fighter landed in the clearing behind him. A robed figure, two heavily armed Mandalorians, and a prisoner descended the shuttle’s ramp as another set of blocks were added to the firewood.

“The cabin is coming along nicely,” came a voice from behind Roark as the visitors walked across the clearing. Roark half turned to glance at Dark Adept Montresor. The man was attired in his customary tailored robes and his infamous sarcastic grin.

“As long as it is done by winter. You know I don’t stress over timelines.”

Montresor extended his hand towards Roark and the two old comrades embraced warmly. They had been through many trials and tribulations together and had both a bond of respect and trust. Roark nodded towards an empty stump and the Sith sat down with casual grace.

“What’s with the prisoner?” Roark asked as he looked back to the man attired in a simple loin cloth.

“Juur Gogh, one of our casuals. Sent back to us in a cargo box from Ord Mantell. It seems he failed a Guild Contract.”

“Unfortunate for him,” Roark responded.

“The target was a member of my former Clan. It was sanctioned and business, but they are not excited about the attempt. They’d like a word.”

“You Sith and your emotions. You’ve been killing each other for 2,000 years for the hell of it or because your feelings get hurt. Now they want a word over business?”

“Yeah, you have 247 missed holo attempts over the past 48 hours.”

“The psycho ex-girlfriend response,” Roark inquired.

“Yes,” Montresor replied. “They may believe a few of our former Plagueis members were looking to settle a score.”

“Ah. Well, we better straighten this out with them.”

Montresor rose from his stump and pointed towards the prisoner. “You need to do the Mando thing here.”

“Right.” Roark’s face hardened as he looked to prisoner.

“Juur Gogh, you have brought shame upon your Clan, the Mandalorian way, and yourself. Your armor has been stripped from you, and you wear the rags of a savage. You will be granted a wooden spear and will be exiled into the forests of Ullr for a period of no longer than one year. If you survive, you will be welcomed back as a brother. If you fail, you will be forgotten.”

Juur Gogh’s chin lifted slightly, his eyes connecting with his Clan leader.

“This is the way.”

“This is the way.”

The two Mandalorians guards nudged Gogh in the direction of his exile, and the former Clan member began the slow trot towards his destiny.

“You better get me up in the Kom’rk so I can make comms with Plagueis.”

Communications Suite

Kom’rk-class Fighter

Orbiting Zsoldos

38 ABY

The slightly mangled right ear of Ronovi Tavisaen filled the holographic image in front of Declan Roark. The Vizsla Proconsul, Val Cole reached to adjust the angle of the image, but his hand was swatted back by a grinning Declan Roark. The notoriously clever Plagueis Warlord appeared to be animated, but Roark left her call on mute.

“Who is taking this call?” Roark smiled over at Val Cole.

“One of our techs.”

“Poor guy,” Roark smiled as he keyed his communication switch and dropped the tech from the transmission.

“This is Roark,” the Vizsla Consul said as the image of his pure beskar armor and helmet filled the screen.

“Three days, hundreds of transmissions. You owe us an explanation and reparations for the attempt on Warlord Arden Karn di Plagia’s life. Start talking.”

“The bounty on Aiden…”

“Arden,” Ronovi corrected with annoyance.

“The bounty on the target was sanctioned by the guild. When Vizsla negotiated our arrangement with your Grand Master, we retained our independence to accept Guild contracts at our discretion. This was a legally binding bounty.”

“I couldn’t give less of a damn about your deals with the Grand Master,” spat Ronovi. "Or the legalities of your actions.”

“You are taking this personally. It’s just business.”

“It is personal to Clan Plagueis. Arden Karn di Plagia is a named member of this Clan. He, like everyone else, is under my protection.” Ronovi’s mangled ear remained on the screen, but Roark somehow sensed the ear’s agitation.

Roark’s neck tilted slightly to the left; three audible pops broadcasted over the transmission as his neck cracked.

“It would have been personal if I sent Adept Montresor to gut your boy and leave a message in his entrails. It would have been personal if we holo-recorded his assassination and sent it to you to remind you just how little we care about who is under your protection.”

“Roark, it’d be wise of you to choose your next words carefully,” Tavisaen’s voice dripped with venom.

“Consul, I believe you mistake me for someone who cares what you think.”

“We’ll make you care,” Ronovi hissed through clenched teeth.

“That will be all for now,” Roark said as he made an exaggerated move to shut off the communication before pausing halfway through his motion.

“And Consul, next time feel free to address me appropriately. It is Grand Master Roark.”

Roark closed the communication before turning to the leadership of Vizsla sitting behind him.

Val Cole shook his head in a bemused manner. “She isn’t going to like that.”

“No, she won’t,” Roark responded.

Chapter 4

The Response

Dread Lord’s Office - Level 195
The Pinnacle
Aliso City
38 ABY

Ronovi responded to the closing of the transmission between Declan and her with an unceremonious slam of her fist on her desk. Her half-empty glass of whiskey rattled dangerously, teetering toward the edge of the table, and a knotted string of profanities spilled from her spittle-flecked lips. The words of the “Grand Master” - pfft. No worthier of her respect than the damned Lion of Tarthos was - seared into her mind, and if she could, she would utilize the Force to reach across the Unknown Regions into Zsoldos so she could throttle the Mandalorian to death.

You are taking this personally. It’s just business.

The woman sneered. In fact, she almost had to fight back a laugh. She paced back and forth a bit behind her desk, letting the sentence soak into her like scalding water. It was like getting slapped, but the sting that lingered was more invigorating than demeaning. The burst of adrenaline that now overpowered her senses was akin to drinking a highly carbonated beverage, and all the bubbles were coming to the surface and threatening to lift her up in the air.

Just business, was it, Roark? All right, then, Ronovi thought. She would make it business. In fact, she would make it her business. Not just Plagueis’s, but hers. And she would take this as seriously as possible.

Even if it meant an all-out assault.

Contemplating her options, the first thing Ronovi decided was not to alert TuQ’uan. In fact, he could simply receive the news later; he was a good helper, an excellent second body, but not much more than that. As Wrath, he could carry out Ronovi’s demands brilliantly, questioning and challenging be damned.

She punched in a few buttons on her transmission dock and sent a signal to the Instigator. In a mere minute or so, the staggering hulk that was the Dreadbringer appeared in pale blue on the nearest holopad. He was wearing his helmet - because of course he was - and Ronovi could spot the plumes of vapor emitting from the visor.

Before Wrathus could speak, the report of the ship’s turbolasers filled the comm, and a brief cheer rang out as the gunners, having just vaporized some poor schmuck, celebrated.

“Whatever or whoever you’re working on,” intoned Ronovi over the raucous din, “cut it off. I need you back on Aliso to speak with me.”

Wrathus silenced his crew with a hand. “And what could be happening to recall us, of all units?”

It was a rhetorical question, given Opress Squadron’s purpose in the clan, but Ronovi humored him, anyway. Besides, whenever he spoke with his modulator, the effect of it (multiplied voices) produced a slight twitch in her organic eye, no matter how much she had fought to ward it off - almost like how nails on a chalkboard never sounded less grating.

“Wrathus,” she asked, “would you do the honors of helping me start a wonderful war?”

If Wrathus still held joy in his heart, he might’ve sung, but he simply jettisoned another burst of vapor. “Who’s the lucky cadaver?”

Ronovi could almost hear him salivating. Her sneer turned into an outright smirk.

“You ever heard of a battle team called Deathwatch?”


Yinta Lake Spaceport
Vulta
38 ABY

Kel Zar had been sitting at the same corner table in the Retreat for over an hour now. She was not the biggest fan of alcohol, but she was still nursing a glass of ale as she waited for her confidant. Nearby, a hideous chainsmoking Vultan was on his seventeenth cigarra of the evening. Perched next to him was a female with long olive skin strands that looked more like raw noodles than hair. Her lack of pupils was strange to the Zabrak at best, a horrid sight at worst.

The bounty had failed against the di Plagia.

Not that she was surprised; after all, Dark Jedi had their ways of avoiding certain death, save for the most famous ones. And she was not deterred, either. Her correspondent had agreed to meet with her at the Retreat within the hour, in order to discuss other plans and tactics to attack the Ascendant Clan. Kel Zar may have been abandoned by the Collective as a whole, but not everyone within its ranks had turned their back on her. Some had defected. Some were on her side.

The man who had assisted her in levying the bounty on Arden Karn di Plagia had his resources, as well as plenty of credits. He had been an established mercenary for years, so he knew his way around Vizsla, even though he had sworn off any further allegiance with the Brotherhood. In fact, he had been a member of the Brotherhood himself: of Plagueis. He had risen in the ranks even as a non-Force sensitive, achieving Dread Lord’s Wrath status, even. And he had been allied with the Dread Lord herself! Now that was a delightful treat - to have such a partner: An assassin, a well-funded individual, with incredible insight on the clan Kel Zar targeted.

He entered the bar right on time, all crisp tunic and padded jacket, a DC-17 blaster pistol looped onto his belt. He walked with his hands in the pockets of his trousers, his light blue skin illuminated in the dim neon of the space, his bright eyes aimed forward. He was young, but worn down. Agile, but stuck with a cybernetic leg. Adept, but jaded. But not enough to retract his claws.

The Zabrak had been persuasive when they met. She had found the Pantoran on Nar Shaddaa, as he drank shot after shot of Shesharilian vodka and vocally, loudly, reminisced about times in which he brawled for stims and booze on that very planet. The two had shared a bottle, had shared laughs, had shared bitter grudges. And now, they could act on them. Together, they were a dynamic duo. And together, they had the means to create their own organization to fight back against Plagueis.

The Pantoran sat down across from Kel Zar, who smiled and gestured toward a tall bottle of vodka, accompanied by two tiny glasses. He wouldn’t be the only person drinking.

“Good to see you, Uscot,” she murmured. “I’ve got updates.”