Welcome! As the title indicates, here you will find Fiction Updates related to Clan Arcona. Enjoy!
(In which the Consul plans a party, which will surely be completely innocuous.)
Office of the Consul
Selen, Dajorra System
“Well, Junazee seems to be settling in,” Lucine said as she weighed the report in her hands. The newly minted Quaestor of Galeres had jumped in with both feet in undertaking the task of getting her new House under control, and thus far it seemed like things were going well.
She placed the report into the bin to be filed, before looking at the mountainous stacks of datapads and flimsiplasts that remained on her desk. She sighed and picked up another datapad. One task was done, but there were so many more to do.
Her sigh caught the attention of the Proconsul, who looked up from his own stack of reports. “You know, you could delegate some of that,” he said.
“Oh, you mean like when I delegated the task of hiring a Rollmaster?”
The Chiss suppressed a minuscule smile. “My dear, you are constantly going on about Strong’s many talents. I simply put them to good use for the clan.”
The Shadow Lady shifted in her seat so that she could see Rhylance around the stack of reports and shot him a glare. “There is the fact that being Rollmaster would force him to spend the bulk of his time away from the Citadel. I am certain that did not figure into the equation at all.”
“The thought never even crossed my mind,” Rhylace replied mildly, though they both knew that he was lying. In truth, it had been the primary reason why he had selected Strong.
Lucine bit back a retort. She could not deny that Strong was doing an excellent job so far, but she did not have to like it. But at least it was one less thing she had to worry about.
She rose from her seat and went to the window, which had been opened to allow in some fresh air and sunlight. Below, evidence of a variety of construction projects could be seen throughout Estle City. It seemed that something was being built on almost every street.
Kordath’s solution to the unrest had been to raid Collective ships in search of food and vital supplies. It had worked well in the short term, but would not be sustainable in the long run. And so Lucine had focused on creating jobs for the populace. After all, an employed civilian had less time to plan riots.
But all of the construction projects required money to pay for supplies and labor. Stimulating trade was a necessary next step, which was why it was so important for the trade deal with the Severian Principate to succeed. Delegates from the Severian Principate would arrive in a few days, and the trade talks would begin in earnest.
And what better way to start the talks than with a gala? It would be the perfect way to display the clan’s wealth and power. And what’s more, with all of the Arconans gathered together, she could accomplish some of her other long term goals, killing two birds with one stone.
The Sith allowed herself a small smile as she flipped through her mental to-do list. It seemed that things were well in hand. The invitations and proper apparel had been sent out. The CItadel had been scrubbed until it gleamed, and all of the rooms had been aired to get the Ryn-smell out. All of the necessary preparations had been made. So far, everything was going according to plan.
((In which the gala is an explosive success!)
Selen, Dajorra System
The magical night had begun. The guests gathered in the Citadel, dressed in their finest clothes. For the commoners, it was a rare opportunity to dine on the finest food and drink for free. For the Arconans and delegates present, it was an opportunity to make political inroads and gather potential ammunition in the trade talks that would start the next day.
Lucine Vasano was in her element. After a frantic few weeks of preparation, it was time to see if all of her carefully laid plans would bear fruit. She took a step back to survey her guests, savoring the swirl of laughter and conversation around her. Even if every single one of her plans failed, at least she could be credited with throwing a successful party.
Even the beasts seem to be having a good time, she noted as she observed two Cythrauls weaving amid the revelers. She had tasked a few of the beleaguered attendants with keeping Ivoshar and Fela away from the more allergic guests, but for the most part they were allowed free reign. Why not? Their presence seemed to put Attyiru at ease.
She scanned the crowd until she found her former Master, making her rounds with the delegates with a brooding Marick close-by. The Miraluka seemed her usual, chipper self, though she would occasionally lift her hand to touch her now short hair in the absent-minded manner. Lucine made a mental note of her former Master’s unconscious movements, before continuing her examination of the crowd.
Tali Sroka, the Qel-Droman Quaestor, appeared uncomfortable as she tried to converse with Miinu, a Severian Principate intelligence officer and mid-ranking delegate. Across the room, Yumni Ha appeared to be having similar difficulties with a Dug merchant. Near one of the snack tables that had been strategically placed around the room, Tyga made first contact with Kurfacril Fenn, a member of the Severian Principate’s security detail. Nearby, Aru Law chatted with his date, a lovely Twi’lek by the name of Amis Jumah. It seemed that the Arconans were hard at work, creating ties necessary to ensure that the upcoming trade talks would be successful.
Sensing a new presence at her elbow, Lucine turned to see her butler, Tabriss, standing beside her. “There have been reports that an uninvited guest has set up a nest on the roof of the Atyiru Caesura Memorial Hospital.”
“Excellent. I am gratified to hear that the DIA are being ever vigilant,” the Shadow Lady murmured as she scanned the crowded room. Her eyes fell upon a familiar Zabrak disappearing onto the balcony. “Be a dear and bring Sera Kaern to me. Also, remind me later to rename that hospital.”
The Chiss butler inclined his head slightly and disappeared into the crowd. As she waited for him, Lucine moved to a place in the room where she could easily see the hospital through the window while still being shielded by party-goers.
Sera appeared a few minutes later. She cut a striking figure in her pristine white dress that pulled double duty of making the Zabrak look virtuous and approachable at the same time. Sera was accompanied by a susurrus of whispers and admiring looks as those present noted her arrival. Clearly the Zabrak was making a name for herself with all of her recent heroics, a situation that pleased the Shadow Lady to no end. Sera, however, seemed less pleased. She looked decidedly uncomfortable with all of the attention being afforded to her.
“Having fun, darling?” Lucine asked.
“Uhm… yes,” Sera replied as she watched the sideways glances and adoring smiles. “It sure seems like I’m popular.”
“It certainly seems that way,” Lucine agreed pleasantly. “It appears that your recent heroics have earned you quite the reputation. But you do not seem to be enjoying the attention. Would you mind doing me a small favor? It will get you away from the party and out of the limelight for a bit.”
The Zabrak’s hesitation was just long enough to be telling, just long enough to cause Lucine to raise her eyebrows. “Sure. What do you need?” Sera asked at last, trying to hide her discomfiture by brushing away an invisible speck of dust from her dress.
“There are reports that there is a sniper on the roof of the Atyiru Caesura Memorial Hospital. Would you be a dear and remove them before they hurt someone?”
“Oh! Yes, I can do that,” Sera replied, her relief visible in how quickly and brightly she responded to the request. She lightly patted the knife that was strapped too her thigh. It occurred to Lucine that Sera never seemed to be without it, making her suspect that it was something more than a cutting edge fashion accessory.
“What? Did you think I was going to ask you to do something awful?” the Shadow Lady asked sweetly.
“No, of course not!”
“Of course not,” Lucine echoed. “Well, have fun, darling. I am certain that the adoring masses will have forgotten all about you by the time you return!”
The Zabrak smiled brightly at the prospect and hurried off to embark upon her mission. Lucine smiled at Sera’s earnestness. Yes, she will do nicely.
But the redhead’s internal gloating was abruptly cut short with the approach of a slender, bespectacled Chiss. “Rhylance! It appears the gala is going well so far, wouldn’t you agree?”
“It appears to be the case,” the Proconsul replied with the barest hint of a smile, before switching to Cheunh. “It appears we may have a problem.”
“Alaisy just informed me that she has discovered some sort of plot to poison certain members of our delegation,” Rhylance said.
“That is awful! I trust you allayed her concerns?”
“Quite the contrary. I encouraged her to investigate further,” the Proconsul said, pushing his glasses up in a manner that caused the light to glint off of the lenses.
Lucine raised her eyebrows at his response. “And what happens if she discovers our own plot to drug certain members of the Principate delegation?”
“She is looking in the wrong direction. I’ll make sure that she continues to do so,” Rhylance said. “In the meantime, our friend from the Severian Principate is enjoying the cocktails I sent him.”
“Fantastic, then I will make a point to talk to him in the very near future.” Lucine started to say more, but her eyes fell upon Tali. Apparently, the negotiations were complete for the moment, as she had found her way onto the dance floor and into a slow dance with Strong.
“They look cozy,” Rhylance pointed out, having figured out exactly what the redhead was looking at. “I am gratified to see that Strong is working hard to develop good working relationships with members of the House Summits.”
“Indeed,” Lucine replied through gritted teeth. She took a deep breath, and pasted a courtier’s smile on her face. “And speaking of which, it is time for me to develop some working relationships as well.”
Lucine glanced at her chrono. It was almost midnight. Soon the gala would end, and the various delegates would retire to prepare for the long days of negotiations ahead.
So far, the party could be considered a success. Diplomatic ties had been established, preliminary agreements had been made. Sera had returned from her task, and even Tali and Yumni appeared to have some success in their discussions. At least, that was the assumption, given how much time Tali and Strong spent together during the latter part of the evening.
Lucine herself had personally ensured that she had spoken with every member of the Severian Principate’s delegation, including one very special person.
In the days leading up to the gala, the most difficult task for the Shadow Lady and Shadow Scion was to find the person who would play the central role in their scheme. It had taken hours of scouring the roster of Severian Principate delegates and DIA intelligence before they found a suitable individual. But they finally did: Gavin Hamich, a low ranking official with a dead-end career and Collective sympathies.
It was this man whom Lucine sought out, making sure that she spoke with a number of other people before and after him to prevent suspicion. When she finally did speak with him, she used a combination of the Force and honeyed words to plant a series of suggestions in the man’s mind.
He left the party shortly after their little talk, wearing an odd, determined expression on his face. His departure was barely noticed, due to the appearance of a half-Iridonian clone. Though the clone sparked Rhylance’s interest, Atyiru quickly took charge of her, forcing the Shadow Scion to return to his duties as one of the party’s hosts.
The evening passed pleasantly, and as the final minute of the day wound down, the delegates of both groups gathered for the final toast of the party. The first indication that something was wrong came when Hamich rudely shoved his way through the crowd, breaking Principate etiquette to place himself closer to the Arconan delegation.
Before anyone could chastise him for his rudeness, he began to shout. “TRAITORS! YOU DINE WITH MURDERS! FOR LYRA! FOR FREEDOM! FOR THE COLLECTIVE! UNTIL ALL CHAINS ARE BROKEN!” He then tore open his suit coat to reveal the explosives that were strapped to his body.
The resulting explosion sent those nearest to him sprawling, some with worse injuries than others. Lucine herself found herself sprawled a few feet away from where she had previously stood, bruised and covered in a substance that she did not want to think too much about. She could vaguely hear moans and cries of pain over the ringing of her ears. A number of people were huddled on the ground, but most appeared to be still alive. Atyiru worked her way among the huddled forms, doing what she could to heal and comfort the wounded even despite her own injuries.
Nearby, the leader of the Severian Principate’s delegation surveyed the chaos with a stunned expression. Lucine fully intended to take her to task later, for bringing a terrorist to their peaceful negotiations. It would put Arcona at a significant advantage in the trade talks. All at the cost of a single Collective supporter’s life, and a few minor injuries.
Everything had gone according to plan.
In the earliest hours of the morning, Lucine Vasano reclined back in her office chair with what, by courtier standards, could nearly be called a sigh. From her, it was but a delicate exhale and a long blink of emerald eyes that, in the privacy of her own space, actually appeared tired. Her manicured fingers paused in their marathon of typing at her datapad as she sipped her drink, contemplating.
It had already been quite a long night, but there was still more to be done, and so she would see to it. The Consul of the First Clan could not simply dally.
She set aside her teacup, and Tabriss, because he was one hell of a Butler and ever dutiful, stepped forward to refill it immediately. The waft of steam filled her lungs with a brief sensation of bliss and slightly abated her headache with the promise of more caffeine. Lucine awarded him a soft word of thanks, and the Chiss bowed primly before stepping back without a sound. He would see to her every need in silence, and the aides would not disturb her unless it was emergent, at her order. She simply had too much to attend to.
This was the problem with managing fringe elements before they grew to be more than just that; finding a path forward that would benefit the whole and accomplish what needed be accomplished without extremists too badly persuading the outcomes.
The redhead’s hand fell subconsciously to the Sith dagger on her belt, stroking it briefly, gaze drifting marginally from her desk. Extremists indeed.
Really, there were very few who openly opposed her. In fact, in that regard, there was…Satsi, damn her, and what vitriol the woman tried to spread amongst her confidants. That was easy to understand. The two’s hatred of one another was a mutual thing born of their respective tendencies to eliminate threats to themselves thoroughly. Even Karran, on whom Tameike’s mutterings has no doubt left their impression, had only recently shown any hint of insubordination, and his feelings were actually somewhat admirable, if predictable. The Voidbreaker Captain simply cared more for the personal bonds between his crew than either the Clan or the chain of command that preserved it. It was a common enough trait among lower leadership, and worked perfectly well in smuggling crews and the like, but would not do for a structure as complicated and necessary as Arcona, where cohesiveness was how they would inevitably live or die through all the external trials they faced.
Lucine sighed again, tapping one manicured fingertip on the dagger hilt, sensing the hunger within.
It had been a simple move, if slightly cruel, to disrupt Karran’s little bubble — and not even particularly cruel at that, given he already expected it of her and would view her actions with enmity regardless of their intent or effectiveness. More importantly, moving Sera Kaern to Selen gave Spectre Cell a new fount of tireless energy to lead them, and would ensure the wayward Voidbreakers felt some ties back to their home planet and Clan when being isolated on their ship had otherwise eroded that kinship; such was the way of soldiers stationed abroad too long.
Indeed, the whole thing had inspired another similar move, because no matter how small that amount of dissent, Lucine knew it would only grow if left unchecked. Some in the Clan saw her as threatening despite all her efforts to keep Qel-Droma thriving every step of the way no matter what it took, from Battleteam Leader to Aedile to Quaestor. Now, the Consul sought to make sure her entire people saw its day in the sun — metaphorically, of course. They were the Shadow Clan, after all — and if in doing so she had to make some more personal and political sacrifices, then so be it.
Rhylance, for all his own efforts and interests in Arcona’s wellbeing, was little trusted. It was easy to blame the doctor for just about anything that went wrong with one wild theory about mad scientists or another. Moreover, there was some discomfort at their mutual rise to power; most Quaestor and Aedile pairs were not so effective nor so agreeable as to advance together, and rarely was there such a need in the power structure at once. Kordath’s ill-fated attempted assassination had shoved such circumstances upon them — though at least his paranoia was mollified by his new position as the Director of the Dajorra Intelligence Agency. Others, however, were not.
And so, while Lucine relied on the doctor as a right hand in many things and found his mind useful, the whispers remained. Whispers she needed to assuage. Merely reassigning the Chiss to his research wouldn’t be enough though. She still needed a second, preferably one whose ideologies and appearance was more directly opposed to her own, someone who could be seen as balancing her, so long as they shared her goal of Arconan success. That would go a long way in curbing any brewing dissent among the ranks, small though it was.
Hope that the people love you better, Deshra, she thought at the Human’s face as she closed her last report on supply designations for Eldar and manufacturing manifests from Ol’Val, instead pulling up his dossier. Aiden Lee was not well known amongst the Clan, despite his quiet presence for some time, but he did have a reputation as a moderate man and a devout of the Force. He proclaimed beliefs in justice, fairness, the like, and was a fresher face. A solid choice.
A painful choice, but a necessary one.
Lucine flicked her fingers irritably, flicking that thought away. She could not afford to dwell on her own feelings of isolation or her stress in her position. Too much to be done. So much, if the Clan were to succeed. And that, that she would do whatever she needed to do to ensure.
“Arcona Invicta,” the woman murmured in her High Coruscanti tones, without a hint of irony, waving at Tabriss so he would brew another pot. She was going to need it.
The Shadow Lady picked her datapad back up. Outside, birds finally began stirring with the dawn.
There was work to be done.
I have so much work to do.
Such was Sera’s thought as she strode to the sparring rings, the ocean breeze not doing much to halt the unrelenting sun. Though there was only one, it felt like there had to be three. Or like she was in a sauna. Her home was a desert world, and both the Voidbreaker and Port Ol’Val had been climate-controlled. Meanwhile, Selen’s tropical beauty had more water than she could really wrap her head or horns around, and she’d probably sweated out two of herself just this morning.
Oh, well. Just another challenge to beat! One more for the list!
A…long list. Oh, boy.
She’d only been in charge maybe a week now, but in that time she’d been welcomed to Selen by Satsi’s…uniquely threatening brand of offering help, attended small meet-and-greet party that devolved into a dramatic disaster, and organized a good old training session that had ended in a screaming match between two of the attendants. And they weren’t even technically part of her team. Or so Strong liked to keep reminding her. He thought she should focus more narrowly. Sera thought these zerkas needed a good kick in the head and a talking to about how to treat their friends; because that’s what teams — tribes, whatever you called them — were: friends.
Spectre Cell, and Galereians in general, she was finding, were not very good at that part. Really very scarily effective killers and fighters, obviously effective as the strike team needed to be, but not much for camaraderie. Not at all like her family on the Voidbreaker. Well, she would fix that! She was determined! They’d practice and try until they became more than just a miniature army all their own. They’d be a team.
Smiling her bright, toothy grin, Sera waved as she spotted her normally-grumpy Aedile, Skar, already at the training grounds with the odd little half-Zabrak he called his niece, Aay’han. Aay’han waved back furiously, her own smile present, little red horns spots of color on her, and called a greeting in Zabraki that Sera had started teaching the young girl. Beaming, Sera shouted one back.
“Hey, everyone!” the new commander greeted, offering waves to Qyreia where she was talking to Xenna, to Vai, who seemed to be discussing something about civil services with Tyga — and Sera had a proposal from him to read about a fire brigade, oops — and to the quiet Barabel who’d been brought to Arcona just recently from that terrible prison on Tenixir. Only some of them waved back, but others nodded, and Sera just smiled wider. That was a start! And a start was all she needed. Drug operation to bust up? Civilization to rebuild? Pirate butt to kick? Didn’t matter! Together, they could all do anything.
She’d make sure of it.
“Now, like this, see?”
A clattering noise, shuffled steps, a squeal of approval.
“Yes, just like that! Perfect form, Ziggydiggy.”
“Wynning,” the man emphasized, repeating the action of double finger-guns and winking. The Zygerrian followed suit. “Yas, girl! See, with moves like this and your awesome zabbing, Tall, Shiny, and Scary won’t be able to take her eyes off yo— owwww, ow ow, ow, no. Why?”
Zig had punched him in the arm. Hard.
Nearby, Karran hissed at them.
“Zig, Wyn, please. Tali will be here at any moment to make her announcement and we do not need to be rude.”
“Sorry, Cap,” Zig replied, though Tyris just tipped his hat — where had he even gotten this one, and what had he traded for it? Looked like it had come from the trash. Karran mentally noted to check none of his valuables were missing later. “We’ll be good, don’t worry.” Then, she lowered her voice not much at all and stage-whispered to Wyn, “He’s just mad 'cause he misses Serry.”
“Oh, is that all? Hang on, I’ll get a dagger and fill in, I make a great lady—”
“Vhat vas that?” asked a pretty accented voice as their Quaestor stepped into the small meeting room, dressed in her robes, lekku tumbling gracefully over her shoulders. Aru Law followed after her, head held high.
“My Lady,” Karran greeted, bowing his head. Walking over with a deadly click of knife-sharp heels and so tall her ponytail brushed the ceiling came Alaisy, to whom Aru bowed himself.
“Mistress! It is good to see you!”
“Hello, Apprentice,” replied the Sith from behind her helmet.
“Shall ve commence?” asked Tali, ever amicable in her calm command, gliding over to the head of the table. Aru straightened and followed her. “Everyone has gatheredt?”
“Yes, Quaestor,” Karran said, only to be interrupted by a loud crunching noise. Everyone glanced over to where Sulith sat, newly scarred and still adjusting to a prosthetic arm, but not at all so deterred as to keep him from his popcorn addiction. He munched a tub by handfuls, with which he gave a friendly if messy wave.
“Hello again Miss Sroka!”
Tali smiled. “Hello, Sully. I am pleasedt to see you vell. Now, to business.”
With a gesture, she pulled up a holographic map of the asteroid they stood on.
“To begin, please velcome Aru to his first meeting as your new Aedile. Give him all your respect.” Salutes and nods went up, and the Quaestor stepped back.
Aedile Law stepped forward. “Good afternoon, everyone. I shall endeavor to serve you to my utmost ability, that we may all do our best for Arcona. To that very end, we would like to compliment you on your efforts so far as a crew. They have been remarkable. All of you have done well aboard the Voidbreaker, and Qel-Droma is stronger for your works and for those of our Housemates on Tenixir. Magik, Archian, thank you for your successes there.” He nodded to each man in turn. “That said, we have decided it would be best to focus on our home front for a time. All the Voidbreaker’s time so far has been largely drawn off world, be it for slave rebellions or tearing down Sith temples,” he explained, pride in his tone. “But now the port needs us.”
“Ve vill take this time to establish more footholdts andt rebuild our assets as the Blindt Man,” Tali took up. “Marick and Atyriu have already agreedt to lendt their home, apothecary, andt clinic as a safehouse to any Qel-Droman in needt. Our other past contacts have grown veaker, however. Let us remindt them of our bondts andt form some new ones, that our position andt our home here may prosper. Yes?”
A chorus of agreement answered her.
Will of our Lady
Just outside the Dajorra System
Marick Tyris stood in silent vigil against the wall of Medbay 1-Aurek, studying his surroundings with the practiced eye of a master spy. The medical bay was packed full of wounded from the conflict with the Collective. All of the private rooms held triple or even quadruple their occupancy, and pallets had been set up in the hallways to allow even more of the wounded to be treated.
He kept his sharp too-blue eyes moving, taking in every detail. The cries and groans of the injured, the metallic tang of blood mixed with the odor of antiseptic and bacta, the harried expressions and hollow eyes of the medics as they moved from one patient to the next. He missed nothing, not even as the Duros ‘orderly’ who kept wheeling his cart past the room where Marick was keeping watch.
As if summoned, the Duros appeared once more, pushing a cart laden with clean bed linens, seemingly unmindful of the cart’s squeaky front-left wheel. The bug-eyed humanoid’s gaze was constantly moving, searching for threats. The lines of his blaster were invisible to all but the trained eyes of a professional. He stopped periodically, ostensibly to check on one of the patients in the hallway, though he would invariably glance toward the room where Marick stood guard.
Their eyes briefly met, and it was the Duros who looked away first. No words were exchanged as the ‘orderly’ continued down the hall on his rounds. Marick could appreciate that bit of professionalism, at least.
He turned his gaze back to the closed door. It was the only room in the medbay that had a single occupant. It was being attended by only a single doctor, one who had a reputation for being discreet. And he had counted at least three others like the Duros, men and women with hard eyes and hidden weapons who had obviously been assigned to quietly guard the room. Summit guard, perhaps, or DIA.
Before the Duros, or any of the other guards could come back around, the door slid open to reveal a blindfolded Miraluka. Atyiru’s face turned toward him, and she gave him a warm smile in greeting.
“He’s resting now,” she said in response to his unspoken question as she gave him a weary smile. “I think we’re through the worst of it, thank Ashla and Bogan.”
The fact that the mysterious patient was alive at all was thanks to Atyiru, first for saving him and then for spending the long hours healing him. His injuries had been severe, so much so that most would have given up on him. But with her usual tireless determination, she had brought him back from the brink of death. And, while Marick was proud of her and her accomplishment, he was also glad that she would finally be able to get some rest.
But instead of turning toward the medbay doors, she bent over one of the patients that lay sprawled in the hallway. “Atyiru,” he said reproachfully. “That is enough for one day.”
“They need me, Marry,” the Miraluka replied. “I can help them.”
“The medics here are doing a fine job. You are no good to them if you are exhausted,” Marick replied. “You need your rest. Both of you do.”
At his words, a smile shone past Atty’s weariness as her hand fluttered, just for an instant, to her flat stomach. But still, she protested. “Just one or two?” she asked, even as she stifled a yawn.
“Perhaps later," the Hapan replied as he gently took her arm. He could smell the scent of wildflowers in her hair, even here, light years away from any plant life. There had been a time recently that he had thought he had lost her forever. Now that she had returned, he would do anything to protect her.
As he led her away, he cast his gaze over his shoulder at the room Atyiru had just emerged from. The meaning of his look was clear: Do not fail in your duties. He could only hope that her decision to spare its occupant was not one that she, that they, would regret.
Qyreia Arronen leaned back in her chair and breathed a contented sigh. Now that she was alone in her temporary quarters, she felt like she could finally relax. With the war finally over, she was looking forward to some R&R. No higher-ups asking things of her, no Force-Users to babysit, and more importantly, no Collective frack-heads shooting at her. It sounded like a wonderful time.
Much better than what the higher-ups had planned for when they returned to Selen. Apparently, someone had decided that it would be a good idea to send the Arconans to some ritzy resort as a reward for kicking ass during the war. Hobnobbing with rich schuttas didn’t sound ideal, but at least the bar would probably be fully stocked, and the holos of the beach looked beautiful.
The Zeltron’s chain of thought was interrupted by a chime from her personal datapad, and Qyreia suppressed a grin. That was likely Keira, demanding an update on how her recovery was going. She rose and stretched, feeling the dull ache from sore muscles and healing wounds. She’d been lucky this time around, and had only suffered minor injuries from the conflict.
But as she opened up the interface, she saw that the call was not from her fiance, but from an old friend. “Hey Qyreia! How’s it going?” the Human’s deeply tanned face split into a broad grin after she accepted the call.
“No complaints here. What about you, kid?” Qyreia asked, returning his grin with an easy smile of her own. She had first met Jace during her days as Quaestor, when he had been little more than a fresh-faced recruit. He had looked up to her, and in turn she had tried to show him the ropes so that he wouldn’t get himself killed on his first foray.
Apparently, the lessons took. The kid had grown in both maturity and skill under Qyreia’s guidance. The boy had grown into a man, and though he was no longer under her direct command, they still made an effort to keep in touch, not unlike some of the other military personalities between the AEF and DDF…
The next few minutes passed in pleasant conversation, as they got caught up. Word had already reached Jace about some of Qyreia’s exploits during the most recent conflicts with the Collective, and he congratulated her on their most recent victory.
“What about you, kid?” the Zeltron asked.
“Nothing as exciting as you,” Jace replied. “I’ve been assigned to guard some of the brains at SIMASS. I’ve been sitting around on some island on Selen, watching them poke at some old ruins. The beach has been nice, but I’m bored to tears out here.”
“Hah. I wish I had your problems,” the merc replied dryly. “What’re they looking for, anyway?”
“Hell if I know,” Jace said with a shrug and an eyeroll. “They don’t really talk to me. I’m just the muscle. We’ve been touring a whole bunch of ruins, but they got really excited about this one for some reason. We’ve been dug in here in ever since.”
“Well, I wouldn’t get too relaxed. Those science frackers can get up to some pretty nasty stuff when they put their minds to it,” Qyreia said.
“I’ll keep that in mind. But really, these people just seem like a bunch of history nerds. It’s almost funny how excited they are getting about these old ruins,” Jace replied.
From there, the conversation meandered on, ending with the two of them making plans to get together next time Jace had some leave. “I’m pretty sure I still owe you a few drinks from all the times you saved my ass.”
“Damn right you do,” Qyreia replied with a grin. “All right, kid. I’ll see you around.” The call disconnected, and she leaned back in her chair, smiling faintly as she recalled the conversation. But her smile faded slightly as she wondered, what could those SIMASS scientists be up to this time? And why did they need military personnel around while they were doing it?
Alaisy Tir’eivra stood at the viewport, gazing thoughtfully at the starfield beyond the transparisteel. Stars and distant planets sparkled with cold light amid an icy and uncaring void. Here in the Dajorra system she knew the positions of the stars better than anything else, largely due to the countless hours she spent studying them. Gradually, they had given up their secrets to her, secrets that hinted at vast knowledge and unlimited power.
Her smoky grey eyes went directly to Ereboros, which was still only a pale yellow spark in the distance. In a few weeks time, three of its moons would be in direct alignment, during a time when Ereboros itself would be in conjunction with Selen. It was a rare astronomical event, and her divinations told her that it would lead to a period of upheaval and opportunity within the Dajorra system.
She gave the distant planet one last look before turning away from the viewport. She strode back to her quarters, moving with unnatural grace in her tall boots. The war had come at an inconvenient time. There was still so much research left to do if she wanted to be prepared for the upcoming celestial event. But at least it had one benefit: she had managed to obtain a few resources from the Shadow Academy that would help her research significantly.
As the door of her quarters slid shut behind her, she engaged the locking mechanism before breathing a quiet sigh. Alone at last, and away from distractions.
“P.H.I.L.,” she murmured to the combat droid, “Prepare some tea. I suspect this is going to be a long night.” As the droid moved to comply, she retrieved her notes and the stolen artifacts from hidden compartments in her luggage. As she did so, she could feel anticipation starting to build. A slow, cool smile spread across her lips. What would her research reveal? And how could she best capitalize on it?
“I cannot believe how much this is going to cost. And you say the resort owner is cutting you a deal?” Aiden Lee Deshra said as he stared reproachfully at the datapad interface. Unfortunately, his glare didn’t make the cost any less expensive.
“Yes, darling, the proprietor owed me a favor, and so he is giving us a more favorable rate,” Lucine Vasano replied with a shrug. “I do not know what you were expecting. This is the most exclusive resort on Selen. Of course it is going to be expensive.”
“I thought we were trying to get Estle City’s economy back on track, and needed every credit to do it,” Aiden grumbled. The Proconsul shook his head as he closed the expense file. “This just seems like an unnecessary expense.”
“Yes, that is a priority. But the funds we received from our exploits during the war means that we can afford some extravagance. The fact is that our people performed exceptionally well during the conflict, and therefore deserve to be rewarded,” Lucine said.
“I would think they’d prefer to have their monthly stipends increased, or perhaps have a larger allocation for resources,” the Proconsul said dryly.
The redhead offered him a sweet smile. “I am told by the very gifted and competent accountants that we employ that we can afford to do both.” She picked up her personal datapad and spun in her overstuffed chair so that she was facing away from him. “Now, is there anything else? If not, then there are other matters that require my attention.”
Aiden frowned slightly at her words. Her tone had already taken on a distracted quality, one that he had heard many times over the past few months. Though he did not know Lucine very well, he was beginning to become concerned. “Yes, actually. On my way in Bly handed me a datapad to give to you. He said it was for Project Buried Shadow?”
Aiden was not sure if the small sound she made was understanding, or a prompt to continue speaking. He pressed on. “I’m not familiar with that particular operation. What is it?”
A pale, slender hand appeared over the chair, giving a dismissive wave. “I have some sociologists out of SIMASS studying the local culture. Myths, legends, architecture, that sort of thing. The idea is to see if there are aspects of Selenian culture that we can use to further solidify our control over the planet.”
Aiden’s eyes narrowed. “That seems really unethical.”
Lucine spun in her chair to face him once more. “I suppose some might consider it to be so. But consider this. A little over a year ago, the Selenians were rioting. If we can find a common link that will allow us to live peaceably together, then where is the harm?”
The Grey Jedi studied the redhead closely. On its face, the explanation seemed reasonable. But he could not shake the feeling that she was not being entirely forthcoming. “And that’s all it is?”
The redhead raised her eyebrows at him, before sighing. “I do tire of everyone immediately thinking that I am plotting nefarious deeds.” After a moment, she tapped on her datapad. He glanced down at his own device to see that she was transmitting a file to him. “Here, darling. That is everything I have regarding Project Buried Shadow. Feel free to review it.”
Aiden opened the file to reveal holos of architectural ruins. He glanced up at Lucine to find him studying him with an unreadable expression. “All right, I will,” he said.
“Fabulous. I personally found it to be rather dry reading, but perhaps you will enjoy it,” the redhead said, leaning back in her chair. Aiden turned to leave. With his back to her, he failed to see the slow, calculating smile that spread across her face.
Lieutenant Jace Irunel slung his repeating blaster rifle and mopped the sweat from his brow. The oppressive heat was starting to abate as the sun slid toward the horizon, but he knew better than to hope for any semblance of comfort now that night was falling. The humidity would remain, and with the darkness would come large, hungry insects that were impervious to pesticides.
He couldn’t say this was his most miserable assignment, but it definitely made the top three.
He scanned the jungles that surrounded the temple ruins, searching for movement in the growing shadows between the trees. He could not detect any threats, and he knew that the communications techs would inform him if anything appeared on the scanners. Though there were a few large predators that lurked beneath the jungle canopy, they gave the ruins a wide berth. In a way, Jace could not blame them. There was something unsettling about the temple. He could not say what exactly was wrong. It was like there was something old and evil and hungry lurking inside. Jace could not suppress his feelings of dread, which had grown so much over the past few days that he occasionally found himself jumping at shadows.
Some of the others sensed it too. He could see in in the pale, drawn faces of some of his DDF squad members. Some had dark rings under their eyes from lack of sleep. Others constantly kept their heads on a swivel, as if they expected an attack to come at any minute.
If anyone from SIMASS sensed any danger, no one showed it. They continued their work, busily trying everything they could think of to gain access to the temple. Jace suppressed a sigh as he scanned the jungle once more before turning to watch the scientists.
A few of them were clustered around the heavy stone doors that served as the only visible entrance to the ziggurat. The doors appeared to be made of a thick, heavy sandstone which apparently was not indigenous to the planet. They were covered in ancient Seleniian hieroglyphs, though exposure to the elements had obliterated many of the carvings.
As Jace watched, one of the assistants held a datapad up to take images of the hieroglyphs. They had been there for over a month, and the scientists had not even managed to make it past the front doors. The stone had stood in defiance against their tools, and were apparently too heavy to pry apart. And of course, the ruins had been deemed to be a cultural heritage site, as it had once been a temple devoted to a Selenian goddess, Alla’su. He had no idea why it was so culturally important, but it meant they would not use explosives to simply blow the doors open, for fear that it might damage something important.
Some genius had suggested that maybe the carvings on the door might have a clue, so some of the assistants were holding datapads up, capturing images of the old carvings. Someone else pressed a piece of flimsiplast to a part of the wall, and was rubbing it with charcoal, trying to discern some of the shallower depressions.
Abruptly, the area was flooded with light. Jace jumped, instinctively swinging his blaster rifle into a low ready position as he scanned the area for the threat. But there was nothing. After a moment, he let out his breath in an explosive sigh, even as he cursed himself as an idiot. It was just the lamps. The scientists had covered the area in a lighting system that would allow them to continue their work late into the night.
Grumbling under his breath, Jace stalked a bit further away from the temple and turned his attention back to the jungle. There’s no reason to be this jumpy, he told himself. We’ve been here over a month and nothing’s happened. Nothing’s gonna happen, either.
The sun sank below the horizon, painting the sky in a gradient of brilliant oranges, purples and blues as day gave way to night. Tali Sroka reclined on her towel, watching as a number of people from the resort staff dragged dried branches and other pieces of wood onto the beach in preparation for a bonfire.
She gave a contented sigh. At this hour, the beach was much less crowded than it had been during the daylight hours. But it was not completely deserted. She could see two familiar Zabraks walking along the shallow surf. She was too far away to hear what they were saying, but she could see the look of camaraderie on their faces, even as they abruptly set themselves into some sort of sparring match.
Further past them, in the deeper waters, Strong was giving a swimming lesson to a pack of giggling Selenian girls. Ever the gentleman, he was so focused on giving good instruction that he apparently didn’t notice that they seemed to catch on remarkably quickly. It was almost as if they knew how to swim quite well, and were simply pretending to be utterly inept. But who would do something silly like that?
As the stars began to wink into existence overhead, the resort staff managed to get the bonfire lit, fanning the flames until it cast a comforting light over the darkened beach. A laughing Aru approached the fire. He was accompanied by a lovely blue Twi’lek with purple markings, and a tall, burly Zeltron. Tyga arrived shortly afterward, clad in a pair of boardshorts and a brightly-colored shirt.
Further down the beach, Qyreia and Keira walked hand in hand. As they drew nearer to the bonfire, a particularly tall and handsome golden-haired male Selenian raised his hand in friendly greeting, which was cheerfully returned by the Zeltron and the half Umbaran.
That must be Sehf Nedrin, Tali thought as she studied the Selenian. Qyreia had spoken quite highly of her earlier surfing lessons with him. As she studied his well-toned physique, she began to understand why.
Further up the beach, Tali could see a well-dressed Jax walking with Kobign. The Zygerrian seemed to be dressed with even more care than usual, and the pair were engaged in what appeared to be a deep conversation. A date, perhaps.
Looking around, Tali realized that there were more Arconans on the beach than she had initially thought. In fact, the vast majority of the people present seemed to belong to the Clan. Members from both Houses were there, all of them well-trained and disciplined warriors.
If there was any trouble, this is probably the safest place to be. The thought came unbidden to her mind, and was accompanied by a shiver.
Far above, the celestial bodies spun in their endless dance. Six moons circled around Ereboros, each following their own path. Gradually, the paths of Riquis, D’Eraii and Agenar carried them into direct alignment, even as Ereboros slipped into alignment with Selen itself.
At that moment, the ancient locks that had held for centuries opened in response to the shift of energies. And deep within the temple, the creatures that had been trapped began to hiss and slather with anticipation. Soon, their hunger would be sated.
Jace was patrolling the perimeter, where the light from the floodlamps began to give way to gloomy shadows and jungle, when he heard a loud grinding noise coming from the temple. He instinctively tightened his grip on his blaster rifle as he turned toward the temple to see what was happening.
The doors were opening.
Even at this distance, the earth beneath him trembled as the two heavy stones slid slowly apart. The assistant who was closest was the one who had been performing the charcoal rub, and she had a confused look on her face as she scuttled a few steps back from the massive doorway. The grinding sound continued until the doors were fully open; only then did the noise cease with a massive THOOM as the slabs stopped moving.
Silence fell over the research site. It was as if those present, scientist and soldier alike, held their breath in anticipation of what was to come. The very air was charged with apprehension and curiousity.
From where he stood, Jace couldn’t see inside the temple; it was as if the entrance was nothing more than a rectangle of inky blackness. Apparently, the researcher closest to the door fared little better. She took a few hesitant steps closer to get a better look inside.
Suddenly, a taloned claw shot out of the darkness. It was large enough to wrap entirely around the researcher’s head, before jerking her into the temple. The researcher’s scream was shrill and short, ending abruptly with a wet, crunching sound.
“Karking franger!” he swore. Years of training kicked in and he was moving, ducking into cover behind one of the jungle trees even as shapes exploded from the shadowy temple. Time seemed to slow down, giving him ample time to notice details. The creatures were humanoid-ish, somewhere between beast and biped. Two arms, two legs, fingers and toes tipped in wickedly sharp talons. But their heads were anything but human; inky black and varied in shape. Some looked like they had the heads of insects, others animals. They moved with preternatural speed on all fours to leap upon the surprised scientists and soldiers.
Jace pulled the trigger, sending blaster bolts into the nearest creature even as it landed on top of one of the scientists and began to rend him with its claws. The first few shots went wide, allowing the monster time to bury its fangs into the scientist’s exposed abdomen with a sickening tearing sound.
Damn it, get it together! Jace gritted his teeth and adjusted his aim, trying to tune out the screams and the sound of the feasting creature. He squeezed the trigger once more, and this time his aim was true. The red bolds tore through the beast’s pallid flesh, and it gave a rasping scream of pain. It raised its head to glare at Jace, but he kept firing until it fell into a heap on top of the scientist’s writhing form.
Though every aspect of his training screamed for him not to do it, he scuttled out of cover to push the beasts’s bulk off of the fallen man. The scientist’s blood was soaking into the ground around him, and his screams were already starting to quiet as shock started to set in. “Hang on, man, we’re going to get you help,” Jace said, more to himself than to the scientist.
But as he looked around, he realized that getting help would be more difficult than he had originally thought. The scene was nothing but chaos. Monsters were continuing to pour out of the temple to attack the people present. He could see a number of people on the ground, large parts of them having been devoured. Even more disturbing was the fact that many of the creatures had already disappeared into the jungle.
One thing was for certain, there were significantly more of them than there were DDF soldiers. What was more, the creatures had the advantage of speed, while they were at a disadvantage as they were clustered in an area with little in way of cover.
“Get to the comm station!” he snapped into his communicator as he opened fire on the creature nearest him. It was the nearest, most defensible structure. They were sitting ducks in the open, but maybe they could stand a chance in there.
It was as if someone had taken a blanket soaked in ice-cold water and thrown it over top of her. Tali looked away from the bonfire and into the dark jungle, frowning at the sensations that she felt through the Force. Fear, pain and anger, never a good combination.
She could tell from the troubled expressions of others that she was not the only one who sensed it. But before she could open her mouth too say something, a shape burst out of the jungle. It raced toward them, moving unnervingly quickly on four legs. And worse, the evil feeling that was emanating from the jungle grew as it drew closer.
Instinctively, she reached for the lightsaber on her hip, but it wasn’t there. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a number of other people reaching for weapons as well.
Twin slugthrowers roared thunderously. The creature twisted and fell, skidding to a halt just inside the circle of firelight. It was vaguely humanoid, with unnaturally long arms and ghostly pale skin on its torso and limbs. Icy blue eyes glowed within its horned, ebony skull as it gnashed its fangs at those nearest it. Though it clawed at the sand, nothing below its waist moved, and a black ichor oozed from its back, where the slugthrower bolts had emerged.
“Do forgive the interruption,” Tabriss said as he stepped into the firelight from the opposite direction from which the monster had come. As he spoke, he took careful aim on the creature as it scrabbled at the sand, trying to reach one of the recoiling tourists. “The Lady requests your presence back at the resort.” To punctuate his words, he pulled the trigger. The creature shrieked, jerked once, and then lay still. “Quickly, if you please. I am afraid these things are all over the island.”
Qyreia Arronen crouched low upon the landing that overlooked the lowest level of the temple and surveyed the scene below her. A large statue of a woman stood in the center of the room, her arms outstretched in a gesture of welcome. Huddled around the base of the statue were approximately twenty-five hostages. Many were moving, but some, disturbingly, were not. Monsters were moving among them, patrolling and dissuading any who might consider escape.
Positioned around the periphery of the room were large containers with clear, glass-like walls. Most of them were empty, with large holes in the sides, as if something large had broken through from the inside. However, a few remained intact, and Qyreia could just make out the shadowy forms of larval monsters floating in a pale blue liquid.
She carefully committed the layout of the room and the number of hostiles to memory. Beside her, Sergeant Kayli Ahken was doing the same. At last, they exchanged a quick nod, before creeping back through the large archway and up the sandstone stairs. None of the monsters raised an alarm as they slipped out; they were so intent on their tasks that the two people had not been noticed.
Neither Qyreia nor the sergeant bothered to speak as they arrived at the top of the stairs, which led out into a wide, brightly lit hallway. Their silence was primarily out of professional discipline. However, even if they did not have to be silent, Qyreia was far too exhausted to waste time on small talk anyway.
How karking long have we been at this? she wondered. The pleasant afternoon on the beach with Keira seemed like ages ago, even though it had only been a few hours. The next thing they knew, the island was being overrun by strange and horrifying creatures. The aberrations had struck without warning, killing and maiming indiscriminately. Many of the people who had been unlucky enough to survive the attacks had been dragged back here, to the temple.
What was worse, many of the victims that had been left behind had eggs laid inside them by the creatures. The spawn could grow and burst forth from the host in a matter of hours, killing and devouring the victim in the process.
With the threat of these fast-breeding creatures, there wasn’t a moment to lose. Qyreia, her fiancée Keira, and a number of other Arconans had moved to fight back, supporting the Dajorran Defense Forces that had responded to the scene. Together, they had hit back, hard. First through the jungles of the island of Atolli, then to the campsite of the ill-fated scientists and finally into the temple itself. Room by room, level by level, they had killed every monster they could find and saved as many people as they could. That was where her Force user was while the rest of them were down below the surface, coordinating the local defense and wounded recovery.
Qyreia and the sergeant meanwhile reached the room where the rest of their group was holed up. The smell of burning flesh hung heavy in the air, rising off the still-smoldering remains of freshly slain beasts. Qyreia had ordered the monsters’ corpses burned, just to be sure that they were dead, and that no one would be able to use them for any nefarious purposes. The people that had been found in the room had already been removed to the upper levels of the temple, where medical care could be administered in relative safety.
The sentries who had been posted at the door nodded as Qyreia and Sergeant Ahken passed, and the rest of the soldiers present looked up attentively. She knew one or two of them by sight from her tenure as Quaestor, but most she did not recognize. They were an assortment of men and women who had been pulled from platoons that had been too decimated by the monsters to be considered fighting strength. She had only met most of them a few hours ago.
The Zeltron took the opportunity to glance at each member of the team in turn, making a quick assessment of their status. As a group, they had managed to clear four of the larger nests, but she knew better than anyone the toll caused by fighting these monsters. Most of those present were pale, shaken from the horrors they had witnessed over the past few hours and the beasts’ siren songs. But Qyreia did not see any hesitation in their eyes, and she gave a small nod of satisfaction.
Sergeant Ahken glanced at her, before stepping forward. “All right, here’s the sitrep,” she said, pitching her voice to be heard by those present. As Ahken updated the soldiers present, Qyreia checked her borrowed E-11 blaster pistol, considering what she had seen. Six hostiles: two of the fast-cats, two armored quadrupeds and two of the tentacled breeders.
Fortunately, they had a few things going for them. None of the monsters present were flyers, so the stairway would provide a natural chokepoint. So far, the monsters’ favorite tactic was to charge and attack. If they could draw them away from the hostages, then they could really open up on them.
And in the end, that was precisely what they decided to do.
Qyreia led them down the staircase, her blaster held in a ready position. They crouched low as they emerged onto the upper landing and assumed their positions. The railing that surrounded the landing shielded them from view.
Once everyone was in position, Qyreia and Sergeant Ahken stood up straight. The Zeltron planted her feet and took careful aim at the monster nearest to the staircase, one of the cat creatures, while Ahken set her sights on a tentacled one.
As they popped into view, one of the cats screamed, alerting the others to their presence. At the same time, Qyreia and Ahken opened fire. The Zeltron squeezed the trigger three times, sending bolts of red energy hurtling at her target. The first seared into its left flank, and the second into its shoulder. The third shot was the killing blow, burning into the middle of the cat’s wide head. It crumbled into a twitching heap where it had once stood.
Ahken’s aim wasn’t as good, but she did manage to graze the tentacled creature enough times to slow it down. Fortunately, none of her shots had hit any of the hostages.
And then the monsters were moving, the hostages temporarily forgotten as they made a beeline for the stairwell and the new threat.
“Here they come! Get ready!” Qyreia said as she shifted her aim. The remaining cat was the fastest of the group, and she hoped to hobble it to slow its speed. The sergeant was trying to do the same thing. As the monsters moved away from the hostages, more and more of the DDF soldiers began firing on them. However, a few of them held their fire, instead focusing on arming the grenades they were carrying. One incendiary, and one frag grenade, enough to ruin the monsters’ day.
As the remaining cat and one of the quadrupeds reached the first landing, the grenades were tossed down to them. They detonated with a deafening boom that caused the stairwell to shake and drowned out the monsters’ shrieks of pain.
The tentacle monster that Ahken had wounded shuddered and fell beneath a hail of plasma bolts and, as it fell, she took the opportunity to glance down at the landing. The two monsters caught in the blasts lay unmoving, their remains studded with shrapnel and smoldering. Four down…
As the words passed through her mind, the second and largest quadruped roared and charged toward the stairwell. Blaster bolts seared into its scaly black flesh but did little to slow it as it cleared the first flight of stairs, passed the smoldering remains of its brothers and started up the second flight.
“Huttlovingfrackingschuttakark!” Qyreia cursed under her breath as she shifted her aim toward the hulking beast. It had gotten close enough that she could hear its clacking growls. Its blood-red eyes were focused entirely on the group, its rubbery lips pulled back to reveal its serrated teeth.
Her heart hammered in her chest and her instincts screamed for her to move. But she would not back down. Instead, she took careful aim and squeezed off a single shot at the rampaging monster. The bolt arced toward the monster and burned into its left eye, just below the armored ridge on its forehead.
The quadruped gave a short shriek as it landed with a skidding thud on the sandstone stairs. Its claws scrabbled underneath it as if it was trying to regain its feet but had suddenly lost all sense of coordination. Without hesitation, the Zeltron fired twice more in rapid succession, hitting the monster twice in the back of its skull. It jerked, and then stopped moving.
The soldiers made short work of the remaining tentacle monster. It fell, and as it did, the men and women under Qyreia’s command gave a short cheer. But the Zeltron did not bother to celebrate. There was too much to do. Victims to save, wounded to evacuate, eggs to destroy.
She looked down at the tanks that lined the walls of the room. And those things. She would personally blow up each and every one of those things. No matter what, she would make sure that the horrors of the night would not be repeated. There were too many in Arcona who would have an interest in using these monsters in some way, but she would not allow that to happen.
The survivors were evacuated from the temple, directly to Fort Blindshot. With them went many of the DDF soldiers. But some remained to secure the perimeter of the temple and to ensure that there were no monsters remaining. All of this was done with practiced efficiency and professionalism.
Silence returned to the temple and the surrounding jungle within a few hours. It was now the dead of night, with approximately two hours until sunrise. And in that silence, a solitary figure crept toward the temple.
Vixca Varis moved with silent grace as she crept toward her target. She had been trying for the past several days to get in, but the seal had confounded her just as much as it had the scientists from SIMASS.
But now the temple was open, and by all accounts, the monsters had been dealt with. Now was her chance to sneak in and check things out. After all, monsters were usually only found in ancient ruins to guard the best stuff.
She wove a circuitous path past the perimeter guards, up the ziggurat stairs and into the temple. The explorer had seen a lot of ancient ruins in her time, and it immediately became apparent that this one was unique. She could still detect the acrid smell of burning flesh, but there were none of the other usual smells, like dust and decay. What’s more, the temple was brightly lit and pristinely-preserved, though she could not make out any discernible light source.
“Amazing,” she breathed as she made her way deeper into the temple. She examined the colorful pictographs on the wall. Though many of the hieroglyphs had been damaged by claw marks or obscured with suspicious brownish-red stains, it quickly became apparent that the images depicted the mythology of the ancient Selenians. Several figures appeared prominently, but none more so than a striking woman. Her figure was decorated with an aura made from gold foil and crushed obsidian, an apparent indicator of high status or divinity.
As she made her way down the levels, Vixca occasionally pressed her fingers against a particularly remarkable glyph. But nothing shifted or moved when she did so. Could it be that she had actually found a ruin without any hidden passages?
At last, she made her way to the deepest level, where the smell of burnt blood and charred flesh was the strongest. She frowned at the blood and other unidentifiable fluids that pooled on the floor and gave it a wide berth as she continued her examination.
And this time it worked. She pressed on a small image of a crown superimposed on a crossed scepter and sickle, one of the symbols that had appeared frequently in the upper levels. The sigil pushed inward under her hand. A moment later, a quiet click met her ears, and a hidden door in the back of the room swung open.
“Knew it!” she hissed under her breath and hurried to look inside.
It was the main burial chamber. The room was approximately ten by ten meters. A large, gilded sarcophagus rested in the center of the room, flanked by two more of the large, fluid-filled tubes. Unlike the ones in the preceding chamber, these did not show signs of having received a judicious application of flamethrower and frag grenades.
Vix crept closer hesitantly and quickly saw that the shadowy forms in the tubes were not moving. She then turned her attention to the sarcophagus. It was intricately decorated in gold, hieroglyphs and precious stones. The image on the heavy sarcophagus lid was the same woman she had seen so many other times in the temple. It was truly a beautiful and unique piece, though the effect was ruined slightly by the heavy iron latches that had been attached to the side. She noted that the latches appeared to be of a cruder design as if they had been added after the sarcophagus had been completed. She also noted that the latches that were open.
Vix frowned and leaned closer to study the sarcophagus closer. But before she could examine it much more, she heard a scuffle of boots on the stone floor behind her. She whirled in time to see a familiar purple Twi’lek in the doorway, with two DDF soldiers behind her. The soldiers had blaster rifles leveled on her.
“Eh heh. Heyyyy, guys,” Vix said.
“Put your hands up,” one of the soldiers said, as Tali stared at the Mirialan, a perplexed expression on her face.
“Holdt on,” the Twi’lek told the soldiers. “I know her. Vix! I thought I toldt you to stay away from the temple!”
“And I told you I wasn’t going to do that,” Vix replied evenly. “Monsters always guard the best stuff, and I wanted to find out what it is they were guarding!”
Tali suppressed a sigh at the impetuous Mirialan. “Great. Just great.” Golden eyes surveyed the burial chamber. “Didt you findt vhat you vere looking for?”
“Not really. It looks like grave robbers were already here,” Vix said with a shake of her head.
“Vhat? Vhat do you mean?”
The Mirialan jerked her head toward the gilded tomb. “Take a look. The sarcophagus was already open when I got here. It was probably plundered ages ago.”
Tali stepped closer and studied it carefully. There was something about it that sent chills racing down her spine. “But this temple has supposedly been sealedt. How couldt they get in?”
Ruka sat upright in the narrow bed with his chin propped on his chest and his hands resting upon his heavily bandaged abdomen. He hurt everywhere. There was not a single part of his body that was not in agony, and it was no less than he deserved.
All around him, the medbay of Fort Blindshot bustled with activity. Most of the wounded had been evacuated here so that they could receive the medical attention that they needed. Ruka had been among the first group to be evacuated, despite his protests. He deserved to be left to die. But no one listened, and he had to endure the ministrations of the surgeons and medics as they worked diligently to put him back together.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the privacy screen twitch to the side. The Mirialan suppressed a sigh. He wasn’t an Arconan and wasn’t anybody important. No one would come to see him unless they knew him personally, which meant they were here to try to make him feel better about what had happened. As if that was even possible.
He looked up to instead see Lucine come from around the screen, a small plant in her hands. The Consul had changed out of the dress that had been stained with the monsters’ blood, but her movements were still stiff from her own injuries. Ruka scowled at her, before turning his head away, looking down.
“Yes, I heard that you were not feeling talkative,” Lucine said as she set the plant down on the small metal bedside table, the only furnishing afforded to Ruka in the triage area. “Is the pain really that bad?”
“Then you should allow the medics to give you something for it. There is no reason for you to lie here and suffer.”
“No. I don’t want anything.”
Silence fell between them. Ruka could feel the Consul’s eyes upon him but did not turn his head to look at her. “Well, for what it is worth, I wanted to thank you for all that you did. You got your injuries while fighting for the Clan, and I am grateful.”
The Mirialan gave a derisive snort. “All that I did? I did nothing. I…” his voice cracked as he felt a wave of deep sorrow wash over him, as the sound of Zujenia’s cries of pain echoed within his ears. “I was useless. I hurt people. I don’t deserve gratitude. I don’t deserve any of this,” he waved his hand vaguely over his bandaged form. “I deserve…” his voice failed him before he could say what he deserved, but the word hung heavy in the air between them.
Death. For all the pain and suffering he had caused, he deserved only death.
He tensed and waited for the inevitable protestations. He waited for Lucine to tell him that he was better than that. That he was a hero. All of the sweet platitudes that had already been told to him by Cora, Qyreia, Sera, and so many others.
Lucine pinched his chin between her icy thumb and forefinger and turned his head to face her. Instead of her earlier friendliness, he saw that her eyes were cold and hard as emeralds. “Very well, darling. Since you do not wish to hear false platitudes, then we shall deal in hard truths. You were useless. Worse than useless, you were a liability. People were injured because of you, and other people died because your madness delayed their rescue. My people. And that, I cannot forgive.”
Ruka recoiled as if she had physically slapped him. But deep within, a part of him was agreeing vigorously. Her words echoed what he already knew, what he thought others could not bring themselves to tell him.
“So, what will you do now, darling?”
Ruka licked his dry lips. “I… I don’t know.”
“You gave your ring back to Corazon. I think you know exactly what you want to do.” Lucine’s eyes bored into him, creating a chill deep in his heart. He almost asked how she knew that, but— of course, she could. “The coward’s way.”
Ruka turned his head away, unable to meet her eyes. A moment later, he heard a clatter as she moved the bedside table to the foot of the bed, out of his reach. She set the hilt of his lightsaber on the table with a firm click.
“You have a choice, darling. You can atone for your sins with your life. And why not? You have already inflicted so much suffering on others, what is a little more? At least you would never have to suffer anymore.”
His hand twitched as if to reach out and grab the weapon as first Corazon’s face flashed in his mind, then Leda’s, then Noga’s. Those faces were quickly replaced by Zuji’s blood- and tear-stained face. He closed his eyes tightly, banishing the images.
“Or, you can train and improve, so that this never happens again. You can try to atone for the pain that you caused. It will be a more difficult route and the one that will likely cause you to suffer more. I will help you if you choose that route.”
She did not bother to wait for a reply. Instead, she swept out, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Lucine sat in her office, typing away at her datapad. There was so much to do. Scholarships to set up in the name of the dead scientists, condolence letters to the wounded, measures to help the survivors heal from their physical and mental trauma.
Occasionally, she would pause to glance at the dagger that rested on the desk beside her. It was the relic that she had found on a prior expedition to a ruined Sith temple. She even traced her well-manicured digits across its grandiose hilt and flawless blade as she pondered what to do next. This business with the temple on Atolli was not what she had planned, and the fallout was devastating to morale. A knock on the door broke her from her thoughts.
“May I come in, M’lady? I have the reports from Rhylance and SIMASS.”
Aiden Lee Deshra, her well-adjusted Proconsul, spoke in a formal way. He was all business at the moment. Lucine wished, at times, he would lighten up in her presence, but at least he was efficient.
“You may enter, Aiden.”
Lucine quickly sheathed and put away the ancient dagger before the Gray Jedi entered the office. He stood at the foot of her desk and held a datapad in his hands.
“These are the findings from SIMASS,
Report regarding ancient Selenian temple, now known to be the burial site of one “Alla’su.”
Preliminary excavations discovered a vast amount of Selenian cultural objects and trinkets. The value of findings are still being assessed, but recommendations are for the donation of valuables to Selenian museums and cultural facilities in hopes of raising planetary morale and Selenian popularity for Clan and Consul.
Secondary findings relate to the “shadow creatures” that sprouted forth from the depths of the temple. Upon examination of the creatures’ remains and the procured specimens that will be sanitized upon your orders, these creatures seem to be mutated on a vast scale, with biometric scanning proving the existence of Selenian DNA in their systems. This means these creatures were most likely either Selenian at one time or are descended from Selenian biology. Force. Testing has indicated large volumes of external influence from a relatively powerful source deemed that of the Force.
Testing on surviving “hosts” still underway and more findings will be brought to you as they are discovered.
With signs pointing to a rare astrological event that occurred at the same time, we are safe to assume the two are indeed connected. This further supports the theory that the Ancient Selenians built the temple with this phenomenon in mind and had hoped the temple would secure the creatures.
The empty sarcophagus is being examined, but trace hair and DNA seems to point to a living being having escaped. Whether this was, or was not, “Alla’su," is not yet confirmable.
Full details of this information are provided in the attached files.
So ends the report from SIMASS.”
As Aiden concluded the reading, Lucine was left to wonder about this entire archeological find. Was it bad luck or fate that led them there, or just a coincidence? Regardless, this report only left more questions, and the Consul wanted answers. Arcona needed answers.
Today was not a good day for Tarro Hudal. He woke up late, received a comm from the woman he was involved with ending things, and then missed his scheduled public transport. And now it looked like he wouldn’t make it to work on time. No, things definitely weren’t going the Selenian’s way.
Celeste was a city of marvels and high-end nobility. Beauty and culture were in no short supply for the underwater metropolis. But to run such a memorable city you needed a smart, hardworking staff of employees who keep the place running. Tarro was one of those workers.
After waiting for a second hovertrain to come by, Tarro stepped aboard the transport. The man watched out the window as the city passed him by. Theaters, museums, and other cultural landmarks littered the city. There were a vast amount of shops and restaurants he would never be able to afford, save for the rare date night, just like the one he’d been on two nights before.
Tarro could remember the beauty he had managed to land a date with. Her long, flowing auburn hair. The bluest eyes he’d ever seen. Her flawless smile. The elegant amethyst gown she had worn to their dinner. He had saved his paycheck for a month to be able to take her to the finest restaurant he could afford. They’d even gone dancing. A maintenance worker he may have been, but Tarro was a great dancer. Everything had gone swimmingly, or so he’d thought. Apparently, the night wasn’t as special for her.
He couldn’t afford that kind of night all the time, and she knew it. Sure, she had fun, but she wanted a man who could show her that kind of fun on a regular basis. Tarro couldn’t do that for her, so she left him a scathing message to wake up to.
Snapped free of his thoughts, Tarro heard the signal that his stop was approaching. The office of maintenance and repairs was a large inconspicuous building near the heart of the city. It needed to be for the easiest access to all parts of the underwater marvel. Finally making it to work, he walked through the front door and rushed to his department’s section of the building.
“Late again, Tarro.” Ongu Puado, his corpulent Toydarian boss, peered at him from over his bulbous nose as Tarro rushed into the office.
“Sorry, boss, I missed the train.”
Puado gave a derisive snort. “I don’t wanna hear any more excuses from you, Hudal. We’re in a crisis today.”
Tarro was surprised to hear this. It wasn’t common for Celeste to have many problems. Despite its location, the engineering had been top-notch on the hydrostatic bubble, so they had little to worry about in the city.
“Everyone else is already on assignment, Hudal. Since you’re late, yours is in Six-Two.” Tarro suppressed a groan at this. Maintenance Tunnel 62.558 was part of the original power network of the city. It was the hardest to get to, at the end of a maze-like series of narrow service tunnels. Puado continued, either unaware or simply not caring about Tarro’s opinion on the topic. “You need to check the pressure gauges and pipes. There have been reports of more power outages in the area, so there’s bound to be some leaks down there. Figure out what’s happening or it’s your job on the line.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get right on it.”
“You’re a good worker, Tarro, but you need to get your head out of your ass. You have an important job down here. Keep these people safe. That’s what you signed up for.”
Tarro was silent as he prepared for his shift. He hated working the tunnels, but it was time to go to work. What was the worst that could happen?
Aiden Lee Deshra frowned as he regarded the screen in front of him. It was decorated with a collage of reports, each one more concerning than the last. Something was wreaking havoc upon Celeste’s power grid, resulting in intermittent power outages across the city. The fact that the dome that kept countless cubic meters of water from flooding in and destroying the city elevated it from being a mere annoyance to an emergency.
He tapped his lower lip as he considered the reports. Celeste was serviced by a veritable army of engineers and maintenance workers, and they were all tasked with the day to day running of the city. All of the ones he had spoken to indicated that everything was normal; there was no reason for this to be happening.
The doors of his office slid open, and Lucine Vasano swished into the room. “I take it you have not solved the problem of the power outages,” she said by way of greeting.
“I’m still working on it,” Aiden replied. After a moment, he turned to look at her, and raised an eyebrow at her expensive silk dress and the expensive jewelry that decorated her ears and throat. Her red curls were piled atop her head in a lavish style, and a few other gems sparkled on the pins that held her hair in place. “You seem a bit overdressed,” he said at last, making a mental note to double check the Clan finances for any unusual expenditures.
“That, darling, is because I was supposed to be going to the opera tonight,” the redhead informed him flatly. “But power went down in the entire quarter, just as the symphony was beginning to play the opening. It ruined a perfectly lovely evening, and after I went through all the trouble of acquiring seats in the first box!”
“Hmmm,” was the Proconsul’s only reply as he continued to sift through the reports.
Lucine sighed and moved to a better position so she could read the reports over his shoulder. “What have you found out?”
“Not much.” Silence hung between the two of them for a moment, before Aiden realized that she was waiting for a more detailed response. “Apparently this all started a few weeks ago. Just a few flickering lights in one of the residential areas. It’s spread out from there.”
“What are they saying caused it?”
“No one’s been able to give me a good answer,” Aiden said as he studied a map of the affected areas. Most of Celeste had experienced trouble in one form or another. “There are no issues with the system as far as any of our experts can tell. The only thing anyone is certain of is that the outages are getting bigger.”
“And what is being said about the monster attacks?”
The Proconsul paused and turned to look at Lucine again. “Monster attacks?”
“Everyone was talking about it at the opera house. Apparently, some monster has been prowling the streets and attacking people during the outages. A number of victims have been found, mostly eaten. And because it only seems to prowl when the power is down, none of the usual security measures have picked up on it.” Lucine smoothed her silks as she considered her next words carefully. “I confess that I find the timing of all this to be suspicious, especially when you consider how close Celeste is to Atolli Island.”
Aiden’s scowl deepened. “How certain are we that all of those things were contained?”
Lucine rolled her shoulders in a shrug. “Fairly certain, but it was pandemonium on that island. It is possible that something may have gotten through.” She sighed and shook her head. “Oh, dear. I rather like Celeste. I do hope we will not have to raze it.”
“Or, you know, have to deal with an outbreak of monsters laying eggs in innocent citizens,” Aiden replied sharply.
“Or that,” Lucine said after a barely noticeable pause. “I would assume that went without saying, of course.”
“Of course,” Aiden replied dryly.
Tarro walked down the damp hallway, looking for pressure leaks. The continuous dripping noises around him, and the water covering the duracrete floor, was proof that there was a leak of some kind. Not a good image for an underwater city.
Reading pressure gauges, the Selenian maintenance man made adjustments as he went along. He kept thorough notes on the pressure lines he fixed along the way and sent those notes to the central hub of his building.
Tarro was glad he had put on his knee-high wader boots, otherwise his feet would have been soaked by the water on the ground. A cleanup team would have to come around and clear out all of the water once his work was finished.
The strange noise drew Tarro’s attention as he looked down both ways of the tunnel. After a few moments of seeing nothing, he turned his attention back to the pipes in front of him. Something was different here. The durasteel pipes had weird marks on them, as if something had been scratching on them. What could possibly be strong enough to scratch durasteel in these tunnels?
Again Tarro looked around and saw nothing, but he couldn’t get the feeling of dread out of the back of his mind. This was just like a holo. He didn’t feel alone down here. He quickly fixed the final gauges, rerouted the pressure, and waited for the dripping to stop. Tarro was quite good at his job; he had been doing it for all his life. He knew how to fix a leak.
Tarro stepped back and looked to the right. Nothing. He looked to the left. Nothing. The clacking was getting closer and he didn’t know why.
A bead of water fell from above him. Tarro slowly looked up to see a maw full of razor sharp teeth a few inches from his face. He was so focused on those sharp teeth that he almost didn’t hear the beast’s low, rumbling growl.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw movement, the flash of a feminine figure clad in flowing robes and entirely too much gold. But he couldn’t take his eyes off those teeth. The female spoke in heavily accented Basic. “Kill him.”
Tarro fell to the ground with a pained howl as a creature latched itself onto the maintenance worker. The section of tunnel filled with new sounds besides the drip drip dripping: the rending of flesh, the cracking of bone, screams torn from a quieting throat.
Today was not a good day for Tarro Hudal. No, not at all.
Hak Jubal was a Selenian like any other. He worked hard to provide for his family and did his work well. He excelled as an astrophysicist who studied planetary alignments and the effects of strange galactic shifts in the stars.
What most wouldn’t know is that he held a long-hidden secret. He was descended from a divinely selected group of guardians. Guardians who watched over and protected their true rulers. They kept the secret until the prophesied moment. He knew of the Clan of Force Users that controlled their lives from the shadows. When their true rulers awoke, they would destroy the usurpers and take their rightful place.
The moment had come. A rare planetary alignment had awakened one of the rightful rulers of Selen from her deep slumber. The time was close for the remaining Old Gods to return as well. One of them had been found, but they needed to be recharged.
“Right this way, mi’lady.” Hak led a woman cloaked in an extravagant hooded gown. She walked with a delicate grace, her feet almost seeming to not touch the ground as she glided across the damp floor. The pair, followed by two other disciples, walked through a series of underground tunnels that fed power to the great underwater city of Celeste.
“You shall be rewarded for your servitude. I applaud loyalty,” she said in a voice that rang like a harmonic melody in the disciple’s heads.
“Mi’lady Alla’su, serving you is its own reward. I require nothing more than the honor I receive today. Thank you for returning to us.” Hak Jubal praised his Goddess. Life and Death held nothing on her. “The prophecy of your return has been fulfilled and your followers will grow and return as your beauty and power draw them to Selen’s rightful rulers.”
“Yes, but first, my brothers and sisters must wake as well.” The conviction of her words could not be swayed.
“Yes, mi’lady Alla’su. And our revered Eulauti awaits. We discovered his resting place beneath the sea and brought his preserved body here to be reawakened. ”
A door opened before the group, revealing a large room filled with more disciples. In the middle of the room, a sealed metal container stood with wires connecting to it. Through the plastisteel opening, a green face could be seen, their eyes closed. The body of this figure was engulfed in a watery liquid.
The woman drew nearer to the metal sarcophagus, studying it intently. Her eyes lit up in recognition. “Eulauti! My brother!” She turned to glare at Hak. “It pains me to see him trapped in this way. Why have you not awakened him already?”
Hak bowed his head, his expression full of contrition for their failure. “We don’t know what caused the failure in the unlocking mechanisms. We have already tried several times to awaken him, using more and more power each time. But this time, our engineers are certain that we will succeed. The power from this marvelous city will be used to resuscitate our Lord of the Wind and Sea.”
Alla’su walked up to the canister and placed her hand upon the surface. A tearful smile crossed her face, happy to be in the presence of one of her family. She felt renewed faith in their centuries-long plot. “Is the machine ready?”
“Soon mi’lady. We’ve been careful to not have been found out so far,” one of the disciples said to their paragon.
“My children have helped with that. They give their lives for the cause, as I know you would as well.” A tinge of anger flowed through the goddess as she thought of all her dead children in the temple.
“For our goddess, anything.”
“And what of the artifacts that have been stolen?” She asked, her curiosity not yet assuaged.
“We have sent some men to retrieve what is yours.”
“And once my brother is awake, we will reclaim our rightful gifts.” Alla’su’s eyes burned in righteous fury. “Through blood and death, we will take back what’s ours.”
The Museum of Selenian History was a monument to Selen’s rich and varied culture. It stood in the center of Celeste, a massive stone edifice that contained the largest collection of archaeological artifacts on the planet.
Lucine’s heels clicked on the polished marble floor as she wandered through the latest exhibit. It featured artifacts and pictures that illustrated the timeline of Selenian History, beginning with the worship of the ancient Selenian gods and progressing up through the present day. The set designers had outdone themselves, combining the artifacts of their collection with the artifacts donated by Arcona to tell a marvelous tale of Selenian history.
The crown jewel of the exhibit stood in the center of the room, the so-called artifacts of the gods. Protected behind a clear barrier, the Crown of Alla’su gleamed beneath the lights. The gold and precious jewels seemed to shimmer in the bright lights, and the delicate feathers of long-extinct birds seemed as pristine as the day they were first set in the crown.
Next to it was Eulauti’s Trident. It was a weapon that had been part of the museum’s collection, though the paperwork that proved its provenance had been lost. The three-pronged weapon was ornately wrought from a number of metals, some of which were not native to Selen.
Standing next to one another, the two artifacts seemed to hum with a strange and powerful energy. Absently, Lucine reached out her hand to press her fingers against the glass, half-expecting to feel it vibrating with that energy.
“— and I still think this is a bad time for this,” Aiden Lee Deshra said, interrupting her thoughts.
Lucine suppressed the urge to roll her eyes as she turned to look at her Proconsul. “I believe you have already mentioned your misgivings once or twice.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve ‘expressed my misgivings’ more than that,” the Balance Adherent replied. “But I’ll do it again. Is this the best use of our time and resources? Especially since this town is having a problem with power outages and monster attacks?”
“I had this arranged even before those problems began,” Lucine said as she waved her hand dismissively. “Donating the artifacts found at the temple will help us garner more goodwill from the Selenians. Besides, you yourself called upon the other members of our clan to hunt down the creatures and seek out the source of the power outages. I have absolute faith that those problems will be resolved in due time.”
Aiden narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to respond. “Do you—”
“Come on, Doctor, don’t do this!” The Proconsul was interrupted by a commotion from the entrance of the exhibit, causing them both to turn and look. The ruckus was being caused by an older, bespectacled Selenian, clad in a mismatched suit that had a rumpled appearance as if he had slept in it. He strode into the room, despite the protests of the two security guards who were trying to stop him.
“Let me through! I must see if it’s true!” the disheveled man shouted. He managed to twist free from the guard’s grip and hurried into the room, only to stop suddenly when his eye fell upon the exhibit behind Lucine. He stared at the crown and the trident, his eyes widening in horror. “Oh no! No no no no no! Those fools! They’re displaying them in the open!? Together?!”
“What is this? Who are you?” Lucine demanded. “I was told this was to be a private visit!”
“Sorry, ma’am,” one of the guards said as he took the intruder’s arm. “Professor Tav’ri was just leaving.”
Working together, the two guards hauled the Selenian to his feet. “Come on, Professor. You can’t be here anymore, you know that,” the younger of the guards said. There was a touch of kindness in his voice, as if he was talking to his favorite crazy uncle.
“No! You have to tell them! You have to tell them to take down the exhibit! Hide the crown and the trident before they come!” the Professor shrieked. “You have to tell them before it’s too late!” He kicked and struggled, forcing the two guards to strain as they tried to drag him from the room.
“Hey, hold on,” Aiden said as he approached the struggling trio. “What’s all this about?”
Before either of the guards could explain, the lights began to flicker ominously before dying entirely. The room was plunged into darkness. For a few seconds, the only sound that could be heard was their breathing. Then, the Professor gave a quiet whimper. “It’s too late. They are coming.”
“Mi’lady, it is ready!” a disciple ran up in excitement as the last of the preparations had been made.
Alla’su smiled widely, a crazed expression on her eternally beautiful face. Her pantheon’s plan was one step closer to fruition. Her disciples had done their jobs well.
“So let it be. Activate the machine. Bring my brother to life once more!”
The disciples worked on a console nearby, typing away and flipping switches. The sound of electricity humming filled the room. The lights overhead began flickering on and off. The console lit up as sparks flew from switches and buttons. The metal canister began to glow red as it superheated from the energy pouring into it. The lights above burst before the front of the canister flew off, sending the liquid inside the canister washing over the floor. A Nautolan figure stepped out and locked eyes with Alla’su.
“Now we have work to do.”
“Well, that was exciting,” Aiden drawled as he surveyed the scene.
The fighting had been harrowing at first. The cultists had attacked the museum under the cover of darkness. Only Aiden, Lucine and a few security guards had been present to defend against them. Professor Tav’ri had also been present, but he had been too busy cowering and whimpering about the threat of the Gods to be of much assistance in the fight.
The Arconans had been supported with the arrival of allies. Kaled and Zig had been close by, fighting their own battles. They had arrived shortly after the fighting started in order to lend support. A few members of the DDF had also lent their support, carrying a small Ewok and supporting Zuza, who had an injured ankle. Qyreia had been the last to get to the museum, looking wet and bedraggled but no less ready for a fight.
Reinforcements had also arrived for the cultists, in the form of six Caxquettes, not unlike what they had encountered on Atolli Island. They were led by a particularly large creature, with a skull-like head, six legs and a tail laden with spikes that glistened with ichor.
The creatures fought fiercely with tooth, claw and pack tactics, but the Arconans had managed to defend themselves. In the end, most of the Caxquettes had fled, but a few of the cultists had not been as lucky.
“And it appears we have many prisoners,” Lucine murmured with a sweet smile that did not quite touch her eyes. “I am looking forward to having a nice, long chat with them.”
“You may want to hold off on that,” Qyreia said as she checked her blaster pistol. “Those Huttfrackers will probably be back and this place isn’t exactly secure.”
“Bub! Bub!” the Ewok shouted in agreement. He squirmed within the grip of the Corporal who was carrying him.
“Uh… you want down, little guy?” Corporal Rens asked.
“Bub! Bub bub!” the Ewok said. The Corporal complied, and as soon as the Ewok was on the ground, he scurried off.
Corporal Rens shook his head in amazement as beside him, another Corporal chuckled. “Yep, just like my little niece.”
“Here goes nothing,” Vicxa Varis said as she ran the security key card through the scanner. The device gave a quiet beep and the light flashed green, followed shortly by the soft click of the door unlocking. “Oh, good! It still works?”
“Gonk?” the GNK-droid tilted its head in an interrogative manner. This made the crudely-drawn unicorn on the side of its head sparkle in the overhead light. Apparently, the unicorn had been drawn with glitter crayons, no less.
“We’re not going in the front door because there seem to be a lot of those cultist guys around tonight,” Vix explained as she pulled the door open and leaned in to make sure that the coast was clear. “I just want to get in, show Professor Tav’ri what I found, and get out without drawing a whole bunch of attention to ourselves.”
“What a coincidence,” a third voice chimed in. Vix whipped around to see a tall woman in impossibly high heels behind them. Her long black hair was gathered in a high pony-tail, and her voice sounded unamused even despite the voice modulator. “I also don’t want to draw any attention,” Alaisy Tir’eivra said as she tapped her inactivated lightsaber against her palm in a threatening manner.
“Yeah, you can say that again…”
“All right, the prisoners are secured, so I’d really love to move out,” Qyreia said as she gestured curtly toward the captured cultists. “Unless you’ve got a reason for us to keep on hanging out in this frackpit with our thumbs up our asses.”
“No, I do believe you are right. It is time to leave,” Lucine replied. “I am looking forward to hearing what these gentlemen have to say.”
“I’ve got nothing to say to you, pretender!” snapped one of the cultists, spitting on the ground for emphasis. “The True Gods have returned, and—"
His words were cut off as a Nautolan appeared in the doorway and made a grand gesture, sending tongues of blue energy arcing toward the cultists and the members of the DDF who had secured them. The Force Lightning struck the cultist in the chest, causing him to scream in agony as the raw energy tore through him. Corporal Hek shoved the prisoner away from himself and flinched as a second bolt of lightning arced toward him.
“Bub!” the Ewok shouted as he ignited his shoto saber with a snap-hiss and leapt into the path of the lightning. He tensed as the energy connected with the plasma of his blade and gritted his teeth as he braced himself, holding the weapon with both of his furry paws as it served as a ground for the deadly energy.
“Hah!” Corporal Rens said as he slapped Hek’s shoulder. “Can your niece do THAT?!”
“Cover, you karking idiots!” Qyreia snapped.
The DDF soldiers scrambled into cover, and just in time, as more cultists took up positions just inside the doorway. Bolts of plasma filled the air as most of the cultists fired indiscriminately into the room, though one or two grabbed their electrocuted brother by the arm to drag him to relative safety. In the center of the cultists, seemingly undisturbed by the chaos, the Nautolan extended his hand, curled his fingers into a fist and jerked his hand toward his chest.
The artifacts responded immediately. The crown and trident vibrated for a second, before shattering their display cases as they flew toward the Nautolan. But they were caught before they could get too far, with Aiden catching the trident and Lucine the crown.
The Nautolan gave a curt gesture, and a dark-haired woman stepped up behind him. The cultists stopped shooting, even as a corona of energy appeared in front of them, protecting them from blaster fire.
“Hold your fire,” Aiden said as he narrowed his eyes at the two who were apparently in command of the cultists.
As silence fell over the room, the Nautolan began to speak. Though his words were thick with a heavy accent, and his tone was imperious and demeaning. “Usurpers and pretenders!” “I am the immortal Eulauti. You will return that which belongs to us. You will kneel and beg forgiveness for your crimes against us!”
“Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Vix murmured. She, Alaisy and the GNK-droid had arrived just as the firefight had begun, and had observed from the relative cover of a side-hallway.
Alaisy did not respond. Her smoky eyes were locked upon the woman who was apparently Alla’su. Moving slowly, like a stalking predator cat, she emerged from her cover. Though her steps were measured, her fingers were wrapped tightly around her lightsaber.
“I think not,” Lucine called back. “We will not yield.” She glanced at Alaisy, and then wordlessly tossed the crown to her, as if it were nothing more than a piece of costume jewelry instead of an ancient and priceless artifact. The dark-haired Sith caught it smoothly and without a word.
Eulauti’s maroon eyes narrowed. He slowly raised his clenched hand as tongues of blue energy danced between his fingers. “Then you insolent worms will die screaming.”
“We will not yield.”
Eulauti’s marron eyes narrowed. He slowly raised his clenched hand as tongues of blue energy danced between his fingers. “Then you insolent worms will die screaming.”
It was as if Eulauti’s words had flipped a switch. At the same moment, both the cultists and the DDF soldiers raised their weapons and began to fire. Lightsabers flared to life as both Force Users and false gods moved to enter the fray.
Ruka was one of the few who did not move. Instead, he reached deep within himself to draw upon the darkness within. He drew upon his fear and the near-endless reserve of self-loathing, converting his emotions into bolts of cracking energy that he sent arcing toward the Nautolan. Before Eulauti could act, the tongues of electricity impacted against a shield of red energy, sending it harmlessly to the ground.
Alla’su smirked as she brought her barrier down with a wave of her hand, before gesturing toward the display cases where the bulk of the DDF soldiers had taken cover. “Go, my children. Feast upon their flesh!” she commanded in Ancient Sith. Four of the abominations slinked forward, teeth bared and claws ready, but one remained. It was the largest of them, a creature of shadow and exposed muscle that looked vaguely like a cat. It growled as it placed itself protectively between its mistress and the man-things that would do Her harm.
“You too, beloved,” Alla’su murmured with an indulgent smile as she knelt down to lovingly run her fingers over lean muscle and ichor-covered fur. “Go and eat your fill. I need you to be strong.” The creature regarded her with too-bright golden eyes, before turning and leaping into the fray.
Alla’su allowed herself another indulgent smile for her favorite child as she rose to her feet. But the moment was shattered when a Zygerrian figure closed with her. Zig lashed out with a series of brutal kicks, aiming for the Human’s head and neck. Her attack was as skilled as it was ferocious, and it quickly put Alla’su on the defensive, forcing her to rely on a few aptly timed barriers as well as her own skill in Teras Kasi.
Qyreia knelt behind a display case, allowing her breaths to steady even as she aligned the sights of her blaster rifle on the ‘goddess’. She placed only the smallest amount of pressure on the trigger as she waited for her shot.
Zig took advantage of proximity to slam her forehead into Alla’su’s delicate nose. The dark-haired woman reeled back, blood gushing between the fingers that she had cupped to her face, even as she shoved her other hand toward the Zygerrian, sending Zig flying to impact against one of the marble columns that supported the roof.
Seeing her chance, Qyreia pulled the trigger, sending a bolt of red plasma arcing toward Alla’su, only to see the goddess duck out of the way at the last possible moment. “Hutt-licking schutta!” Qyreia swore. She took a quick glance around to make sure that none of the bad guys had taken notice of her, before once again taking aim.
”Villain! Now you will face the might of a Scion of Garmis!”
The Zeltron blinked as something large and blue passed in front of her sights. Strong had already divested himself of his shirt and had charged the Nautolan head-on. Eulauti had been preoccupied with trying to electrocute the small Ewok that was attacking their healer and had not been expecting a direct assault. He managed to avoid Strong’s opening haymaker and turned to face the towering Chiss with a sneer.
A few feet away, Zuza had also opted for direct combat She waded among the cultists, defending herself with both her blaster and hand-to-hand combat. One cultist screamed a prayer to his false gods as he stabbed at her with a crude curved blade. She ducked out of the way and allowed his momentum to carry him past her. She then whirled and fired a blaster bolt into him from close range.
She allowed herself a grim smile. These cultists may be fighting for their fake gods, but she also had a reason to fight. She was fighting for her newfound family.
Several feet away, Qyreia surveyed the scene and quickly realized that there was no way she was going to be able to engage anyone without running the risk of hitting someone she didn’t want to. “This is a kark-show,” she muttered. It was time to try a different tactic.
Meanwhile, Vicxa had managed to make it to Professor Tav’ri’s side without getting shot or winding up as a snack for the shadow creatures that were picking off unwary soldiers. “You all right, Professor?” she asked as she knelt beside the Selenian, who was taking cover behind a display case of ancient coins.
“I-I think so,” Tav’ri quavered. “I told them the Old Gods were back!”
“Great job, but how about if we save the ‘I told you so’s for when we’re not in the middle of a firefight?” Vicxa replied as she risked a quick look around the corner of the case. “Are you ready to get out of here? We might be able to sneak out the back doors if we’re quick.”
“GONK!” agreed the GNK-droid that had become her companion.
Tav’ri’s gaze followed the direction that Vicxa was looking, but ducked back down again when a stray blaster bolt came perilously close to his head. “We’ll never make it!”
The Mirialan opened her mouth to reply, but before she could say anything, a blur of white bone and grey sinew leapt upon a young DDF soldier who was crouched beneath a nearby display case. His blaster rifle clattered away and was quickly forgotten by the soldier as the creature clamped its jaws on the young man’s neck and began to violently whip its head back and forth.
Vicxa felt her stomach turn. She shifted to point her Disruptor pistol at the creature, but the young soldier’s body was already limp, his eyes open and staring. “Do you want to stay here?” she asked over the sound of the caxquette loudly devouring the soldier’s corpse.
Tav’ri swallowed hard, his face pale as he forced himself to avert his eyes from the grisly sight. “Let’s go,” he said at last.
“Right. You go first,” Vicxa said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
The Professor did not need any more encouragement than that. He shifted into a low crouch before taking off for the door as quickly as he dared. Once he got within a few feet of the archway that led to the back of the museum, Vicxa took off after him, with the GNK-droid trailing closely behind her. The creature was apparently intent upon its meal and didn’t even look up at the retreating Mirialan. She breathed a sigh of relief as she and Tav’ri passed through the door.
A few moments after they disappeared from view, the caxquette raised its blood-coated maw and stared after them.
“What does it take to kill you?!” Eulauti demanded. He gestured toward three display cases, causing them to left into the air before arcing toward the towering, shirtless Chiss.
“More than you’ve got!” Strong bellowed with a laugh. He bobbed to the left and then weaved to the right with surprising grace for a man of his size, and the display cases shattered harmlessly on the ground without hitting him. ”Behold the hand to hand technique passed down the Garmis line for generations!” He then dropped into a brawler’s stance and lashed out with a right cross-punch aimed at the Nautolan’s head.
Eulauti ducked to the side as he brought one hand up to push Strong’s arm to the side, blocking the blow. He then struck back with a punch aimed at the Chiss’s jaw. The blow landed with a solid thud, causing the Chiss to take a few steps back.
It took the Nautolan a moment to realize that Strong was laughing. ”Oh, well struck!” the Chiss said in a jovial tone, before once more falling into his fighting stance.
Qyreia observed the brawl from her new vantage point. She had managed to fight her way to a side stairwell that led to the second floor of the exhibit. While the first floor was devoted to the various religious aspects of ancient Selenian culture, the second floor was devoted to now extinct flora and fauna. It included the skeleton of some sort of aquatic creature that hung suspended over the circular balcony that overlooked the floor below.
The Zeltron moved closer to the rail to study the scene below. The odds appeared to be roughly equal, with the cultists managing to hold their own with the assistance of Alla’su’s children. The bizarre creatures wove their way between the display cases, attacking Arconans and DDF soldiers with impunity.
But her target was the dark-haired ‘goddess’ who was responsible for the creatures in the first place. From her vantage point, she could better see the ebb and flow of combat. She leveled her blaster rifle on the Human, took aim,and fired.
The blaster bolt raced toward Alla’su, but was halted when a corona of red energy appeared around her. “Looks like the fracking schutta knows when she’s about to get plugged,” Qyreia muttered. She shot at the woman a second time, only for the barrier to appear again. “Sithspit!”
The Zeltron scanned the room as she considered alternate tactics. After a moment, her eyes drifted upward, to the skeleton suspended overhead.
The darkened hallways opened up into a large rotunda, which Vicxa recognized from her past few jobs. A quick right and through a few more doors, and they would be out of the building and out of harms way.
But instead of turning right, Professor Tav’ri turned left.
“Where are you going?” Vicxa demanded.
“GONK!” the GNK-unit added as it skidded to a halt behind her.
“To my office! Before they fired me, it was where I kept all my notes about them!” Tav’ri called over his shoulder. “I need to retrieve them! They might help us to come up with a way to defeat them!”
“Hurry up!” She called after him, even as a faint scraping noise could be heard coming from the hallways they had just emerged from. Vicxa raised her disruptor pistol in the direction of the noise. The GNK-droid gonked quietly, before clanking off in the opposite direction that Tav’ri had gone.
Vix let the droid go, and took cover behind one of the thick marble pillars that ringed the hall. She leveled her blaster on the doorway and waited.
A few moments later, the creature emerged from the darkness. It stalked on six, stubby legs, its broad head moving from side to side as it sniffed the air, searching for them. Jagged bone jutted through its flesh all over its body, creating the impression that it was covered in bleached white armor.
As soon as she saw it, Vix opened fire. The first shot tore into its shoulder, and the energy caused bone and sinew to liquify into ichor. The beast roared with pain and stumbled, and for a moment the Mirialan hoped that one shot would be enough to deter it. But the creature only shook itself and took another stumbling step toward her.
“Well, that’s a good start,” Vicxa muttered as she checked her weapon. She knew from experience that it would take several precious seconds for it to recharge. “Come on, come on!”
The cry of the GNK-droid drew her attention upward, to see the droid standing upon the railway on the second level of the atrium. It leapt into the air before plummeting to the ground. It landed on the beast’s head, shattering its skull with a loud crunch.
Alla’su whipped her head toward the archway that led to the back of the museum as a scream of rage and pain tore from her throat. She ignored the fighting around her and instead strode toward the door, her face a mask of fury.
Qyreia didn’t know what she was upset about, but she wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. She snapped off a shot at one of the steel cables that secured the skeleton. The blaster bolt seared through it, and the skeleton jerked downward with a loud clatter, spinning and swinging crazily.
She risked another glance at the floor below. Alla’su had now cleared where the main brawl was taking place, and was now stalking toward where the Arconan ranged fighters had taken cover. She hadn’t even looked upward to investigate the source of the noise.
The Zeltron focused back on the cables, took careful aim and fired again. She grinned as the bolt destroyed the second cable. Unable to hold its burden, the third cable snapped a moment later, sending the huge skeleton hurtling to the floor below.
A blur of red and black streaked toward the goddess, slamming into her and knocking her backward. Alla’su was sent sprawling, safely out of the way of danger. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of her beloved alpha caxquette, moments before the skeleton crashed to the ground, crushing her most beloved child beneath it. The deafening crash almost drowned out her scream of anguish, and raised a cloud of dust that obscured the battlefield.
Four other caxquettes rushed to Alla’su’s side. They snarled and snapped at anyone who came near, protecting her while she was too grief-stricken to protect herself. The attacks of the cultists that served her faltered as they saw the distress of their goddess.
Eulauti surveyed the scene and cursed. It was becoming increasingly apparent that they would not have their victory, not yet. The day would go to the usurpers.
”Begin the retreat,” He commanded his servants in Ancient Sith as he extended his arms to the pillars on either side of the room. The cultists were quick to obey, some laying down covering fire while others slipped out the door behind them. One particularly brave cultist offered a hand to help Alla’su to her feet, only to be struck by a blaster bolt a moment later and fall to the ground, dead.
One of the caxquettes nudged her, finally gaining her attention. She got slowly to her feet, the barrier once more flaring to life as Qyreia took another shot at her from her vantage point. The Human slowly looked up at the Zeltron, hatred burning in her tear-filled eyes.
But there was no time to get vengeance. ”Come, my children,” she said to her remaining caxquettes, before striding out of the room.
Once she was clear, Eulauti reached out with the Force and grasped the pillars with invisible tendrils of it. He pulled them toward him with every ounce of his will. The supports began to groan as cracks spread along the marble. Then, the pillars pulled free from the floor and ceiling. The Nautolan darted through the door as the pillars crumbled inward, blocking the exit and preventing pursuit.
The cracks that began in the pillars continued onto the ceiling, as chunks from the floor above rained down.
“It’s collapsing! Get back!” Aiden shouted, but most of the Arconans had already figured that much out for themselves, and were already rushing for the safety of the archway at the back of the room. Strong was one of the last ones to rush past him, carrying the limp forms of two unconscious cultists over his broad shoulders.
Seeing that everyone was out, Aiden also turned to leave. A chunk of the ceiling fell perilously close to him, and the impact of the crash nearly knocked him off of his feet. The trident flew from his hands and clattered to the debris-strewn floor, just out of reach.
Aiden reached his hand out, intending to pull it to him using the Force. But before he could, more pieces of the ceiling fell on top of it, obscuring his view with another cloud of dust.
“Come on, you fool!” Lucine snapped, grabbing him by the arm and dragging him through the archway. “I have no intention of training another Proconsul!”
Chucks of the second floor and roof continued to rain down, burying all evidence of the conflict. The Arconans escaped out of the back door and circled around the building, hoping to catch the two ‘gods’ and their servants. However, their enemies had already vanished by the time they got there.
Selen, Dajorra System
The invitation — the order? — summoned him to the Consul’s office.
He hadn’t known they had an office.
It made sense, he supposed. There had to be somewhere to do everything that wasn’t the huge, fancy, intentionally intimidating throne room, but he’d never had a reason to go there. He had only even been in or out of the throne room in passing, when Vasano and her court held their large parties in a bunch of different rooms in the Citadel and he and Cora were obliged — well, Cora was excited — to show up and thank the Arconans some more for their hospitality.
The throne room had extremely fancy doors, and extremely tall ceilings. It, the whole Citadel, was like other mansions and palaces he’d visited before to work; rich people loved to waste space in rooms instead of actually using it.
The office had a fancy door and a high ceiling too. The furniture was dark. He had no idea if it was nice or not. Cora would’ve known. Probably would’ve already been gushing to Lucine about it, smile blinding.
Ruka shifted awkwardly where he stood. There wasn’t anyone else in the office, but there was a tea set on a cart and datapads all in stacks. The Summit Guardsmen that had escorted him in had left him there.
He was just starting to wonder whether or not his being called in was a prank or not when some previously unseen door opened around the back of the room and out came striding a tall, slim Chiss in a lab coat, followed closely by a noble redheaded woman.
“—darling, you really must let me have the designers make you some new robes. It is gauche to wear your work around with you, and you are not a scientist anymore. You are a Shadow Lord, now.”
“My dear, you can have your pets make me whatever clothing you like, but I will never not be a scientist. Ah. Tenbriss. Good.”
“Ruka, darling,” Lucine purred, and smiled at Ruka across the desk. It was a very perfect smile.
“Lady Vasano,” he said, a little surprised, spine prickling warily. He bowed properly at the waist like Cora had taught him over the years. “I didn’t know you’d uh, be here. The note said the…Lord? Rhylance? Wanted to see me. Not that you— can’t be. Sorry. Just. What can I do for you? Ay, both of you? Or…?”
Lucine only laughed lightly. “Relax, darling. Yes, we wanted to see you. Sit. Rest. Would you like some tea? I have had Tabriss brew this especially for your visit. It is an herbal blend from Mirial. I am told it is quite spicy, as you prefer, no?”
The butler himself melted out of, Ruka was absolutely sure, an actual, literal armoire closet right there. Did Tabriss just hide in there, waiting to be called on? Geez.
“Um.” What would Cora do? “Sure, ay. Thank you.” He didn’t sit, though. It didn’t seem right, because no one else was sitting. Tabriss poured drinks. Rhylance was taking off his lab coat. There was a small stain on the sleeve, and the Mirialan was fairly certain it was either blood or ink. The Sith straightened fully with a bracing breath and nodded to the two heads of state. “So, ay, what can I do for you?”
“Have your tea, dear, please.” Lucine sipped hers.
Ruka barely choked back a grumble and took his own cup, then set it down. “Is this about the carpet in our apartment?” he pressed. Sven had gotten anxious the other night and clawed up the tapping while they sat breathing through it, right by one bedroom doorway. “Because I’m going to fix that. I done maintenance most of my life, promise.”
It couldn’t be about the carpet? Right? Even if it was a Citadel apartment. That wasn’t important enough. But then again…these people did have that artifact Sith magic chair that spied on everything. But no way was it important enough even if they did know.
The Chiss scientist-now-overlord looked at him like, well. Like he was an idiot. Ruka was familiar with that expression, at least. It was sort of grounding, when everything else about this was strange. “What? No. Nothing about that.”
The Mirialan winced, wondering if he had just inadvertently gotten them into trouble. He pushed the thought aside and pressed on. “Uh, ay, sorry. Is it about Karran? And everything on Mos Kenny?”
"No, stop guessing, you are terrible at it. Enough niceties, I will get right to it," the new Consul went on. His mannerisms were brusque, and Ruka noted that he wasn’t drinking any tea either. Lucine shot the Chiss an exasperated look, as though she thought he should make more small talk. Cora sometimes looked at Ruka the same way when he was really pained by him being anti-social.
However, the thought was driven from his mind by Rhylance’s next words. “I want you to be my Proconsul.”
A beat. Ruka stared at Rhylance with a furrow in his thick brows like he was hearing an unfunny joke, a bit of a sneer and a rising of his shoulders towards his ear, defensive like he was being mocked. That expression slowly dawned into something more and more like horror.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I want you to be my Proconsul. Listen better.” Glowing ruby eyes narrowed at him. “Do you possess a hearing deficiency in that mangled side? Your medical files indicated full auditory functioning was retained.”
“Oi, how did you get my medical kriff?”
"What!” Ruka shook his head as he realized that they were getting away from the more important subject. “Look— you can’t be serious. You’re asking me to be the Proconsul?"
"Are you out of your mind?!"
“I can’t— I don’t— what?! I don’t know how to lead!”
“I don’t need you to lead, Mister Tenbriss, I have that very well in hand. I need a…shall we say, people’s champion?”
The Mirialan gaped at him. Rhylance adjusted his glasses and flicked his fingers dismissively, as if explaining something simple.
“It would only be for a short time. Just long enough for me to secure my position and for us to better prepare to deal with some…other matters. These so-called gods, as you know.”
“I—” Violet eyes shot hopelessly to Lucine, but she was smiling at him like everything was fine. But it definitely wasn’t. “What? Look, if you need help, then you should be asking Qyreia this. She’s— she’s incredible. There isn’t anyone else I’d follow like that like— like an actual leader, ay? She’s good. And she’s already in command. Why aren’t you asking her?”
“Colonel Arronen is very effective, obviously. Do not think I think otherwise. She is also very effective as Galeres’ Quaestor at the moment. And furthermore, politics being what they are, it would not do for Arcona at this time to have its crowning figures both be unable to access the Force. It is a…shall we say, more democratic representation of the people?”
Ruka sneered at that. “You guys are literally dictators. You’re not that different from the Kiast Empress. None of you Clans is. The Brotherhood ain’t! That’s why we’re not part of it.”
“Are you not? Honestly?”
Lucine’s voice cut through the room and settled in his sternum like a knife. She was still smiling, but it was smaller now, one eyebrow raised. Her eyes raked over him as she rounded the desk, one finger tapping the surface.
“You already swore an oath to this Clan, did you not? After Atolli. To make reparations for the harm you so fragrantly committed against Arconans under the caxqettes’ influence. To protect it and serve the Clan. So, why not here? Are you really saying that serving the Clan in one of its highest offices is in some way beneath you?”
"No! I’m not— that’s not what I’m saying, ay, n-not, not at all. Of course I owe…I’ll…just, hang on."
She kept going, “You and Corazon are looking for property here on Selen, are you not, darling? He was just telling me during our last spa day about how the children are settling in so nicely now in Estle’s schools. That Noga actually gets to be on this huttball team, and that Leda is feeling so pretty and confident and how nice the other Selenian girls are about it…”
Ruka stilled. That was true. The kids were happier here on Selen than on Kiast. By a lot. Even despite some of the dangers, which had been extreme incidents. They weren’t any less here just for being born in a lower class. The air was clean. They were making actual friends.
He realized Lucine was still talking, and had come close enough to lay a hand on his arm. Rhylance had rounded over to this side of the desk too.
The Chiss commented, “How many Arconans have you apprenticed, knighted, taught? Jath, Val’teo, Kaern, Desadato, Atros…”
“I really only helped most of those—”
“You have been an invaluable asset on Eldar on nearly every occasion during Galeres’ operations. I hear that you in particular have made great efforts with the Kaedean tribes.” Lucine smiled, smiled, smiled.
“Anybody would. And I’m just helping Galeres, and the Kaedeans help themselves.”
She went on as if he hadn’t spoken, “And reportedly the Voidbreaker crew is taken enough with you. Much time spent with them off-duty and on missions. You even saved Quaestor Sroka on Dandoran.”
“I mean, yeah, and then she saved me and the rest of us in the square?”
“Ruka. Do cease being so dreadfully obstinate. You work with the Clan, you live with the Clan now, you have friendships and family amongst the Clan…ask yourself, are you not already Arconan in all but name? It seems a bit paltry a distinction by now, darling.”
Rhylance rolled his eyes. “And it is not as though you could not continue to pursue your, what was it, Lotus activities? Not even merely on your own time, but as Proconsul. Our ties with the other Clans would not be hurt by the addition of two paladins who have such a history of aiding peoples all across the Brotherhood.” He sounded like the concept was boring him to death, but Lucine was nodding along.
“And besides, when are you going to retire? Surely you don’t intend to be a frontline soldier forever, Ruka. The stress you put your family through. The waiting and wondering if you’ll come home. This position could be much safer, if you so chose, and would reward handsomely enough. Your family happy, you aiding a good cause, your debt made up…we are asking you for your help, darling.”
Ruka’s head kept turning, trying to track each of them as they spoke and paced, circling him closer and closer around the desk. He ended up sitting in the chair that had first been indicated by sheer virtue of trying not to touch anybody, almost falling into it. The Mirialan threw up his hands finally in exasperation.
"Ay, ay, enough!" he snapped. “Who’re you trying to sell here? This is crazy. Half the Clan don’t know who I am, and even if me and Cor do help as much as you say, and we live here, sure, yeah, I’m not a leader! Okay? I— I am not the person for this, t-this job! You want me to fight for you, for what I did, okay, long as it’s right and don’t hurt nobody innocent I’ll do it, but…c’mon, me? I…I can’t. I said no. I’m not your guy.”
There was a pause at that, finally, a second for him to breathe, and while Rhylance gave a sigh, the redhead reached out and squeezed his hand. “Darling, I know that you feel unprepared, but you absolutely are not. You are far too responsible a parent and individual. I truly do believe you’ll do well, Ruka. You just need a bit of help believing in yourself, no?”
That sounded like something one of his friends would say. It was nice. Maybe she was right? But…
Lucine moved to stop in front of him and regarded him with merciless eyes, glinting like emerald chips. Her smile was beautiful and sweet and unnerving straight down his spine. She squeezed his hand again.
“Ruka,” she began, "you think that accepting this position would be right, don’t you? It would be fulfilling the oath you gave. You would be giving Arcona and the ones you hurt justice instead of disrespecting them. Do you not want to accept? Even with your doubts. And as we have said…you would not be alone. You and Corazon would make an excellent pair for the job."
“I…but… I…” the Mirialan’s protesting stuttered. “It…it might be…maybe…maybe right but I don’t…want… I’m not fit…don’t deserve…I…” His lip wobbled. He looked lost, then found. “With Cora? Really?”
"Yes. Of course with Corazon. Cora will help. We all will. We believe in you. And you will help us. Won’t you help us? Say yes. It’s the right thing to do."
For a moment, Ruka’s face remained in its twisted expression, before slackening slightly. His eyes unfocused. He nodded, echoing, “Y…yes… I’ll help you. It’s the right thing to do.”
Lucine’s smile was brilliant as she shot Rhylance a quick look, the doctor tilting his head back as though conceding a match. She clapped her hands together.
“Lovely! Now then, tea? We can discuss getting you settled properly and organizing the announcement and all that quite soon, this is a time for celebration among new colleagues.”
They all sat. Ruka drank his tea. Some time passed, and then Rhylance told him that the Chiss had work to do and that he could go.
He didn’t run out of the office. Barely.
Ruka made it out of the yawning, dark, hungry throne room and into one stupidly tall fancy hallway or another and then through two more. Debated running out to the courtyard and throwing himself up into the massive, ancient tree where he could actually think, but he couldn’t focus on which was to go to get there.
He checked his chrono. Cora would still be at the Selenian Historical Society chapter in the Huscar Ring about now, doing…well, art things. They were still trying to catalogue what all had been lost when Celeste had been attacked, and recover and restore what they could from the museum there. Ruka wasn’t sure exactly what went into the work, just that it was important, just like all the other sixteen-some things Corazon volunteered for around Estle. He went to clinics and medcenters to help heal and to the community centers to teach dance and a bunch of other subjects and had started some sort of advocacy organization to petition for civil rights and reform with the Kaedean-Dajorran Confederacy and Estle’s own commonwealth or trustees or…whatever it was altogether. They were both due back on Eldar soon for negotiations with the Kaedeans and Sardinians.
Was he even still supposed to do all that if he was Proconsul? Was he supposed to oversee it? Did he need to learn about Ol’Val’s governing structures? Oh, Ashla and Bogan, did he have to know Dajorran tax codes? Did he have to write tax codes?
Ruka felt panic tightening his chest, like a too-hard flutter, a bubble of air crushing his ribs and lungs with no way to get out except to break him to do it.
When he looked up, it was to a familiar door, despite the fact that almost all the doors in the Citadel ‘residential’ wings looked the same. He raised a hand to knock, balled it tight so it’d stop shaking, rapped harder than he meant to.
Navy eyes appeared in a slightly miffed glare, half-ready to tell whoever was banging on her door to cool the frack off, probably, but Qyreia’s face softened when she saw him.
It got pretty stern again a second later, which probably meant he looked as freaked out as he was starting to feel.
“I need to talk to you.”
Estle City, Selen
Ruka Tenbriss Ya-ir sat on the lip of the edge of the world.
At least, it felt that way from here. This high up, it was like he wasn’t even on a tropical island. The air was cold, especially at this time of the Selenian year, and almost thin enough that the difference could be felt on each breath. If he jumped, it would be a quick comet descent back into heavy, humid air, still thick and warm from the daytime sun.
It wasn’t the highest up he’d ever been or leapt or fallen from. That particular honor went to a kriff-for-all desperate atmospheric jump over Dandoran. But it was high enough. From up here, the city lights burned like a hundred miles of fire, each consecutive ring of Estle’s architecture a flaming step rolling down from his perch on the peaks to the jungle and the beaches below, where everything disappeared into infinite, dark water.
His new guards had figured out pretty quick that he liked the tree in the courtyard. They still knew he was up here, but it was harder for them to feel nearby and set his nerves on edge with that horrible, festering, prickling feeling of undeserved importance when they were a good hundred and fifty meters below him at the top of the tower. There weren’t stairs going up any of the Citadel’s many spires, unlike the towers and battlements.
Socorra was down there. She was harder to slip, and he wasn’t trying to avoid her. She was a promise. If she needed something to hold on to, he’d be damned before he took his hand away. If he jumped, she would jump with him. She couldn’t cry, so he’d do it for her.
His eyes felt too tired for any of that kark now though. He was too tired, period. Not just from the summit meetings arguing about a cache of crystals the Dark Council had sent to the point of screaming matches and threats of mutiny and proposals for a space station for research. Not just from the training sessions he and Cora ran or the ones with Galeres troops or aboard the Voidbreaker. Not just from the mess that was firing Aru and Avery Watson’s hiring.
He’d been having dreams again.
This time it wasn’t drowning. Not like before Celeste. This time he dreamed of freezing. Of blackness again, but also of brightness. Blinding, and then— nothing. Dark. Bright like a knife cutting out his eyes.
He’d thought it was more premonitions about his sight, briefly. But after Celeste, he wasn’t taking any chances. He’d asked around about if Estle ever got to freezing in the winter and everyone he’d spoken to had replied in the negative. It seemed self-evident given the nice weather, but he couldn’t shake the feeling there was something there.
One of the staff had mentioned that one of the moons of Gesthemane, the gas giant at the edge of the system that Ruka had never been to himself, was basically like Hoth, an ice rock. He’d asked Bly if they could send anybody to check it out. Just in case.
Apparently, paranoia and weird kriffing requests was the norm for Arconan Consuls and Proconsuls. The man hadn’t even blinked. He barely blinked in general. It was creepy.
Qyreia had told him when he complained about that that he was the same way, and then snorted when he got offended.
He’d brought it up in another discussion, before the whole crystals one. Asked if anyone else felt anything. Tali Sroka had shivered like she was freezing and touched her arm as if it hurt. There were murmurs. Admissions. Eye rolls and impatience. Alright, so something to do with the cold, maybe. What did they do actionably about that?
His scars all ached in time with his heartbeat, drumming up inside his skull: thud thud thud thud.
It wasn’t the going back down that was the thing, really. It had been coming up in the first place for a break. Cora had gotten adamant about him taking breaks if they were going to be the Proconsuls, and it was hardly the first time someone had tried to convince him to take time for himself or to just stop; Qyreia, Eilen, Sera, more recently since the welcome ice cream party Mune and Caleb and even Avery. But the real nail in the coffin was their kids asking both of them to just…risk a little less.
They couldn’t say no to that.
So, Ruka took a minute. But now his ten minutes were up. He needed to get back and call everyone else back so they could all figure out throwing these crystals into the kriffing sun. Unless they agreed to let Rhylance research them. Because he definitely was going to anyway, so better it be in front of them all.
He was. So tired.
Do it for them, he thought anyway, and leapt.
“I cannot wait for until I can do this again,” the woman commented, watching him straighten from his crouch with an envy and hunger and excitement in her one arctic eye, looking up at the spire. Her cane tapped the ground. “I had balcony. Great place! But that better. Stupid muscles.”
“I can still take you up there if you want,” Ruka offered again, quietly, shrugging. She’d expressed the want before, and Ancestors, did he understand that longing, the need to run and jump and move and be free and how trapped it felt when he couldn’t. The scars on his legs throbbed in memory of shattering. Even the month of his recovery was nothing though compared to what she was going through, of course. “Won’t even touch you. Can just float you up.”
“Nah,” she replied, flipping that silver forelock back into the mess of her dark hair. It fell forward again immediately. "Is no fun to be done for you. I going to get body back, and then do myself. It will be kandosii."
She laughed at his butchered Mandalorian pronunciation. “Sah, see? Now sure no want smoke before go back? Good for relaxing.”
Ruka shot her a withering look. The woman rolled her eye.
“Sorry, your Honor, of course, silly of me.” She saluted, and this time he rolled his eyes.
“Ay, stop calling me tha—”
One moment, they were walking slowly back to the door, wind whipping, Estle stretching out below, winking fire.
And then, as they watched, the entire world went dark around them.
These are words in childhood taught me
Songs preserved from distant ages
Legends they that once were taken
Of the Gods that once ruled Selen
From the crown of Alla’su
From the trident of Eulauti
From the cloak of king Youtl
From the scepter of Tiexsema
These my dear old father taught me
Hunting for the bear and wampa
These my stalwart mother sang me
When I crawled the matted dwelling
Tiexsema ceased her magics
In the frost was buried Youtl
In the depths did perish Eulauti
In the stone was lost Alla’su
There are many other legends
Songs of yore that were taught me
Come and sing with me the stories
Come and chant with me the legends
Legends of a time forgotten
Since we now are here together
Handed down from by-gone ages
In my mouth the words are melting
From my lips the tones are gliding
From my tongue they wish to hasten
When my willing teeth are parted
When my ready mouth is opened
Songs of ancient wit and wisdom
Hasten from me not unwilling
These are words in childhood taught me
Songs preserved from distant ages
Legends they that once were taken
Of the Gods that once ruled Selen
-Selenian epic, unknown author, estimated c. 1200 BBY - 519 BBY
“A’right, run it by me again.”
Solid black eyes flicked towards her, only the shine of the lights above giving away the movement. That had been unnerving at first, but Jus had gotten used to it quickly. Besides, Inpa’s face was as expressive as a sedimentary strata; told everything there was to tell, if you looked. Right now her pale coral brows were furrowed in determination, lips pursed with nerves, but still she flicked her thickly-ribboned braids back and faced Jus like she was holding a spear for battle.
Only right now there was a datapad in her striped hands, and she was pointing to a holoprint of the tunnel designs, not at any game animal.
“Water pumped into rocks heated by nearby magma source creates steam. Source is magma intrusion into the upper crust,” the Selenian began reciting. “That steam is drawn up,” a sharp gesture, clapping elbow to hand and then swooping with the pad, “into us geothermal plant where it turns a turbine connected to generator.”
“Good, girlo. And then?”
“Power produced by generator then goes to a transformer which that transfer-coverts this power to travel main electrical grid. The steam used in this process is then moved and collected in cooling tower, where it…condensations?”
“Condenses. Then before being pumped back where it came.”
“You’ve go-o-oooot it.” Jus’s scraggly face actually pulled into a fierce grin. The Gotal hadn’t thought she’d manage a student. Had protested and huffed when the team lead assigned them. All about sharing knowledge. And while Jus was happy to go on forever about ocean salinity and bedrock composition, she was not a mentor. But oooh, no. Here. Have one of the Selenian kids from whatever tribe lived out by that glacial fissure northwest of the Aurek-Ten generator.
Inpa was…good though. She didn’t care if Jus was buried in blueprints or not and didn’t talk for ages, and listened when she did talk. And Inpa was smart and ambitious. Wanted to learn all about the work they did here so she could go build her people their own electrical sources. Revolution, she’d say. Jus had the sense that wasn’t a well-received idea, to her folks. But she believed Inpa would prove them wrong.
“So then…you know how it works. Now we go drill in the ice until we hit the hot stuff, right?”
Inpa smiled, wide, and it looked murderous. Great kid.
"No. Not wise to drill through glacier due to the heat melting ice. And glaciers move. So drilling is done through rock. Site needs some excavating as well to clear space for access roads and paths to facility," her tone turned teasing, “because none of you people know how to walk on ice.”
Jus snorted, and rubbed at her ground-down horns. The machinery was making them itch like always, but she didn’t mind the headache right now when Inpa was doing so well.
“That’s why you’re going to find the best locations, kidd-o. Takes us a whole survey team, stratigraphy graphs and pinpointing magma activity and speeders and what, but you’ll just stroll on up.”
“I will still do graphs. How dare you.”
They both really, really loved stratigraphy.
“And then this.” She raised the datapad again, indicating the slides for the tunnel structures, the drill bits, mapped locations, timetables. “Drilling in the rock then to set the pipes for steam extractions and water depositing. Probably twelve erkas deep.”
“Five kilometers deep. I know conversion. Which is the depth for a high-temperature hydrothermal system.”
Jus nodded again, and with the motion, her head pounded. She winced. Inpa’s smile pulled into a sharp, quick frown.
“You cones are hurting again. We should take break. Come. Outside. Get you some good air.”
The Gotal groaned and huffed. “It’s fifty below! The air is not good when it freezes your lung capillaries just by breathing.”
“Feels fresh. Also, you wear mask. Please now, Jus? At least take a break. Go get your brown water and medicine. I will finish here with notes for next shift.”
They were busily monitoring quite a lot of data for breaking ground on the new geothermal plant. Dorn-Six was going to be another landmark: their thirty-sixth plant, a whole two years ahead of best estimates scheduled. They were sure they’d just about found their perfect site.
“…alright-o-o, kiddd. Thanks,” Jus relented, because her head spiked again. Why was it so bad so suddenly?
The Gotal got up from her spinning chair and stretched, hearing all her joints pop. Inpa turned to the screens and holodisplays with an instant, intense focus, and Jus headed out of the lab. She passed several others on her way through the halls, meandering for the break room where a caf machine waited. She passed a few others and grunted at the lot of them.
It was almost hard to pour her caf, her skull was pounding so hard. She splattered some on her khakis, and her lab coat got a splash of brown to match. Briefly, she debated swinging over to the medical hub. It was probably bad that there were black spots in her normally poor vision. But then, she had migraines all the time. Maybe just a lay down would do.
Jus set her cup down and pulled off her spectacles, rubbing at her eyes. When she opened them again, it was black all over. For a second, the Gotal felt panic. Was it her eyes? Was she blind? She couldn’t see. Oh, no no no—
A beam of light cut through the door from the hallway. Voices were calling out, questioning. Jiereel poked his head in around the doorframe.
“Hey, Doctor Grizol,” the bioengineer greeted. His lab was just next to the break room. His lekku swayed behind him, googles stuck up on his forehead. “Looks like an outage. You alright?”
“Ye-e-e-e-ah,” the Gotal sighed, and wanted to ram her head into the wall. How stupid. A headache and she thought she’d gone blind in three seconds? Not that power outages were normal here, so long as they kept all the fuses insulated and everything maintained. Which were their jobs. “Did you lose any work?”
“I may or may not have a kiliski salamander on the bottom of my shoe. I’m really hoping he’s just running around in the lab somewhere.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. C’mon, we should stick together. Want your caf?”
“Yeah…” she grabbed another cup for Inpa too. The whole pot was going to get cold fast anyway, and Inpa on caf was like unleashing a monster. “Do you want to look real quick? Better find your specimen now.”
“I won’t say no.”
As the two stepped into the hall again, the Gotal realized, belatedly, that her head didn’t hurt at all. Not the slightest. Usually the electromagnetic of any running technology or power source made her sensory cones agitated. Even in the occasional outage, she could still feel the pulse from all the other hubs and the farms. But now…there was…nothing.
They went into the bio lab. The Twi’lek’s glowrod and another grabbed from an emergency kit on the wall outside provided their only light as the two bent and squinted under tables and cabinets and into corners. Tanks sat silent, marine life drifting in them quietly, unbothered by the lack of light. The databanks were dark.
Something made a wet sound. A little plop.
“You hear that?”
“Yeah. Think that’s my boy. Careful where you step…”
Jiereel approached the far wall where another plop sounded. Then another, and another. Something scrabbled in the dark, and all the fur on Jus’ body stood on end. Her fellow scientist looked confused and alarmed in the glow of his lamp.
“That…doesn’t sound…what is that?”
Shadow moved in shadow. A slick shape. It unfurled into something massive, wide, hulking. Teeth yawned, gaping, stretching down all the way around from above Jiereel. His glowrod flashed up, and his screech cut off in a muffled gurgle and a wet, crunching snap.
Down the hall, someone screamed. Another, and another.
Solid black eyes, multitudes of them, flickered towards her, only visible because of the glint of the light.
The Gotal screamed. Dropped her glowrod. Grabbed the steaming caf cups on one desk, threw them as hard as she could, and then turned and ran.
Whatever it was, it could scream too.
It sounded angry.
The lights went out again.
Civil engineering wasn’t exactly his area of expertise. He’d built buildings and engines and speeders, wired up electricity and installed plumbing, knew some architecture and carpentry and landscaping…
But managing a power grid? On an entire planet? Hah. They were so kriffed.
Thankfully, there were a lot of people around now to just ask, and a few questions later around the summit guard and scientists, and someone had gotten the head of Estle’s hydroelectric plant to explain it to him like this:
Technicians would be scrambling to contain the cascading power failure before it overloaded and knocked out every last generator on Selen. Across the planet, emergency relays were firing tolerances were exceeded, the entire system of systems protecting itself like a wounded animal gnawing off its own limb.
It was a disaster on a global scale, and although emergency services would soon switch over to their emergency generators and local back-up units would be brought online in an effort to shore up the grid, it wouldn’t be enough. The magnitude of the event had been too cataclysmic for mere triage. The patient was bleeding out, and unless they reconnected the artery in time, the lifeblood of civilization would come to a grinding halt as the last electron stopped moving in Selen’s super grid. After that, it would be an abrupt return to the stone age until a black start could be achieved—and that could take months on the planetary scale.
“Unless we figure out what went wrong in Zainab and fast, this’ll make the plague look like a picnic…” Hiara had finished. Doctor Hiara? Officer? Kriff, he didn’t know. The metaphors alone and all the words were almost too confusing, but he got what he needed to.
They didn’t have a lot of time, and they needed to fix it.
Estle was better off than others. The rolling blackouts that snuffed each ring in waves were inconvenient, as power was shared, brief sips to parched tongues, but it was power at all. Celeste, thankfully, had her own emergency power supply to maintain the hydrostatic bubble around the underwater city, but they were still repairing some of the damages that had been caused by the ancient gods’ attacks last year; definitely not up to full capacity, because civil engineering was a crawling mess even in the best of circumstances, and Selenians were pretty good about it. They could even sense the fear as that bubble flickered periodically. It would come down sooner than later.
Korda had gone completely dark. There were fires. Rioting. Really just crime sprees. All the industry there blew out their stations the second things failed, and no lights meant the underworld was free to roam as it pleased. Galeres was dispensing some troops out of Blindshot’s regiment for that one, while the ones stationed at Waystation 125 were beginning evacuations of Celeste. Naruba had gone into outright uproar as the market feeds went dark and the flow of capital came to an abrupt halt. Only in the archipelago of Tri’aigul Islands did life continue on unabated, the only sign of trouble the sudden dimming of a single glowglobe outside the village holonet booth. And Zainab…
They hadn’t heard one damn thing about Zainab. No contact. No eyes. The blizzards up there even interfered with orbital scans. They had to actually put boots on the ground to figure out what was happening there and why.
Rhylance hadn’t argued. In fact, he’d agreed.
“Bly can get me a list of everybody we got who’s ever been deployed in cold weather conditions like this or has survival training. We’ll go first, like the vanguard. Everyone else is on reserve to help locally unless they get called up. And get everyone who ain’t got the experience a crash course. Me included. We go, we scout, we call backup to deal with what we find. Gods or what.”
“Gods do not exist. The only omnipotent things in this universe are science and discovery, physics and mechanics under given conditions, actions and reactions. And science is not omniscient. Its very core is defined by changing conclusions upon a new sufficient amount of evidence, or dismissing them for a lack of it.”
“Would you just— shut up? Call them whatever you want, they’re dangerous, and it’s. It’s this, I know it.”
“Interesting that a crisis is all it takes for your nerves to steel as Proconsul, Tenbriss.”
“Listen, ay. This kriff is what I’m here for, right? Be the one with the people? Be disposable? Well I’m doing it. We’ll go, and you can stay here so it’s not all three of us dead if something goes wrong.”
“I agree.” The Chiss adjusted his glasses, and then gestured at the flimsiplast maps laid out on the war table, in the war room that Arcona had, glowrods providing light. They had long since stopped wasting the effort of waiting for the holoprojectors to start back up again after every shut down. “We need to maintain the chain of command, and I will coordinate here. But this sort of thing is what I hired you and your partner for, yes. However, I will be sending one of my M.O.R.S.E. units along. We would not want you to be alone, nor the Clan to feel unrepresented by me.”
“And you want your data.”
The Consul looked at him like he was stupid, which was how he always looked at him. “Of course I do. How else are we to best defeat our enemies and ensure Arcona’s continued longevity?”
Ruka pointed at him, sharp. “We are not done with the crystal thing, ay. We’re going back to that when this kriff is over.”
“But of course.”
And that was that.
Now he stood with a cluster of shuttles and fighters beside his husband and in front of a whole lot of faces, flanked on either side by the rest of the summit: Qyreia and Sera on the right, Sroka, Avery, and Zig on the left. Their teams lined up in something like order. The actual Arconan Armed Forces troops made rows so tight and neat they looked like stitchwork.
Corazon was just finishing the inspiring part of actually rallying people well. Qyreia had already explained tactical plans. He only had so much more to add.
The Mirialan cleared his throat as he stepped up. His violet gaze lingered on a few more than others.
“Listen. This whole damned Clan has been let loose for too long without any consequences. Not anymore. We’re not making any more orphans of sons and daughters unless we absolutely have to. We’re not running revenge schemes and mutilating bodies and leaving messes in our wake.”
He held up a hand, cautioning.
“If it’s these gods and they cults again, then we don’t know how many of the people on their side are just Selenians, are our citizens too. Especially if the caxeqettes are involved. Everyone could be a victim. We’re not here to hurt these people. We’re here to protect them while we contain a problem and help fix it. Lethal force is not authorized except in the immediate defense of your lives or another’s, and everyone is gonna be held accountable to what that means. If you shoot to kill, it’s going to be reviewed when this is all over. That clear?”
The tension was high in the air. Fear, from some, especially those that had dealt with Alla’su’s monsters before…or seen the illusions presented of them. Readiness, to fight and defend. Dead cold determination, unblinking eyes. A few nods.
Ruka swallowed bile. Spat back out words he’d never really expected to say, but meant nonetheless.
"Alright, then. We’ve got a job to do, so do it for them. Arcona Invicta."
Her shoulder slammed into the doorway. She stumbled on with her breath wheezing out of her, body aching, palms slapping into the opposite wall. She kept her fingertips to it and just moved, gasping, heart pounding.
She couldn’t see anything. There were other screams. Her horns didn’t hurt. She wished they would.
There was a deep, low thrum, and red light in low banks in the floor almost burned her eyes. The backup generator had kicked on. Emergency power.
It illuminated a body on the ground. And something small tearing at it.
She kept running. There was yelling. Distant and muffled and close. She saw some of her colleagues in their labs. Maylen was calling out to the rest of the engineering department.
“Trefor, grab the experimental railgun! Schmayl, take that jug of deuterite, combine it with the contents of that orange flask and toss it down the stairs, then brace! Nysten, I need you to get me a signal to the Golan, now!”
“We don’t have a signal, Professor!” Nysten wailed. “It’s storming—”
“Then we’ll blow kark up until someone gets here! Get it together, Nysten, I’m not dying in this frozen hellhole for you!”
Jus had always liked Doctor Maylen. She was brave. The Gotal might have liked to be brave too, but she was just.
“Jus! Jus, is that you? Come back!”
Through another hallway, around a corner, through a door and down a wide set of stairs. Their building was big, burrowed into the ground, closer to a bunker than a proper research institute, but that was what coming to Zainab had meant.
She’d been so excited about the salts in the permafrost…
An invisible wall came up in front of her. Jus nearly slammed into it, but caught herself on…a railing? Oh. Oh. Not a wall. A tank. Down below her. She was on the upper balcony that circled over the marine botanical specimen tank.
Some kind of lily floated at the top. Inpa had brought it as a gift when she asked to join the research team.
Inpa…was she dead? Jiereel was dead, wasn’t he? And who else?
A plop plop scutter sounded behind her.
The Gotal whirled around. Bathed in red light, something shiny with dark red scuttled towards her, heavy, dragging. Many black eyes. A massive gullet and long seam of a mouth, like a bird with a beak meant to carry water. Spindly little limbs. Rippling muscle, sluglike, center mass. It sort of hiccuped at her, swaying slightly back and forth. Tensing to spring.
A great, big metallic clatter rang out, impact, followed by rapidly clanging footsteps. Both Jus and the thing turned toward it, seeing a figure racing over the catwalk that spanned the round room from one end to the other, connecting at a cross section over the tank.
“JUS, DUCK!” the figure yelled, and she realized it was Inpa. Her lab coat was torn. She carried a broken broom handle like a spear.
Jus stayed frozen. The Selenian girl snarled, baring her teeth, and threw herself right over the Gotal and at the thing.
The sound was horrible. Bodies impacting. Inpa was so much smaller. But she kept stabbing at the creature, and it kept snapping at her with that enormous mouth. They were scrabbling towards Jus before she knew it.
The Gotal dove away. Inpa dove forward again, shoving and shouting. The railing squealed as it bent and snapped, and the thing yowled, screeching, as they both toppled back into the tank.
Bubbles erupted, obscuring most of the sight while their figures tangled and thrashed, churning water. The Gotal caught glimpses of Inpa’s face as it broke the surface, snarling, eyes wide open, black and gleaming, glimpses of the thing’s limbs flailing. Then they went under once more.
She ran again, but this time, down the side stairs, down to the lower level. Up to the actual tank. She pounded on the glass, shouting for her student, friend. Had the most absurd instinct to ram her head into it until it cracked and she could grab on to the other woman.
A terrifying, torrential minute went by before the water went still.
“…Inpa?” Jus whispered. Inside, something moved. A massive shadow. The Gotal hiccuped, stumbling back—
A striped hand broke the surface. The Selenian girl hauled herself up over the lip of the glass with a gasping breath and a slosh of water. She jumped down, stumbled, then straightened up, panting, drenched, trailing massive puddles where she walked as she grabbed up her hair and shook it out.
“Pah!” she spat, scowling. Spat again. “Disgusting, disgusting! Tastes like rot. I thought we cleaned tank—”
Jus hugged her so tightly her breath left her again in a squeak.
“You’re— y-y-you’re o-o-kaaaa-a-y,” the woman bleated. She pulled back, looking up and down, anxiety returning. “What! What? Wh-aaaa-at was that? You. You!”
“Me. I am okay, Jus. Are you?”
Black eyes flicked over her, followed by a quick patting down. At the blood, Inpa frowned.
“It’s. It’s not m-mine. Jieree-ee-el…”
The Selenian wailed. “No! Damn them! Damn! Itcha! These beasts.” She shook her head. “Damn the caxqettes!”
"W-wait. Ca-what? You… You know what these are?! What’s happening?"
“It is Micunaintikillan! The one who devours the sun and the moon. Aspect of Dead Night and Bearer of Famine. Their beasts run.” She pointed back at the dark, slowly reddening tank. “We have to go. Must tell my mother. You will come with me.”
“Wh-what? What are you— talking about, Inpa— we can’t leave! It’s freezing! This is shelter! From those things too—”
“No!” Inpa snapped, and gestured sharply between them, smacking Jus in the chest and then smacking her own. “You are learning from me now. Micunaintikillan dangerous. Endbringer. Their caxqettes are worst predators. Rulers of this land. Most dangerous of all. Supposed to be slain by old tribes, but sometimes, still found. In the ice. This is why your digging is so dangerous. Why we do not let you dig some glaciers.”
“B-but…you said…it was always territory disputes…your land.”
“Not our land. Our watch.” She gestured around them. “And this? This is metal box. All of your homes, the hubs, are. They will not protect you. We will. Ice will.”
“Inpa, no. We’ll freeze. And the others…they’re, hah, aaaaa, they’re fighting back?”
“And then they will die. If the beasts do not kill us then the cold will. Power is out. Should not be. Where are backups? Something is wrong. Not just one beast. Many. And this is the Long Night. We have stories of this. Please. Do not die in this box, Jus. Please. Come with me. I will show you where to walk.”
Inpa offered her hand. She was still soaking wet. The lights were dark and dim and red, her horns didn’t hurt, and the shouting had gotten quiet.
Her breath clouded on an exhale.
The wind howled, icy and sharp, sharp enough to cut, cold enough to kill.
A goddess smoothed one perfect hand through Her perfectly still midnight hair, glimmering like ink and starlight. She tilted Her head, blinking down at the pit below Them.
“It’s here,” She murmured. “I feel them.”
“At last,” sneered Her Nautolan brother. Even inside Her barrier, He shivered in the chill. His blood ran cooler. Weaker. She kept it flowing. “Tipca, alert the rest. Our desires are at hand. Proceed at once.”
“Yes, my Lord,” simpered the acolyte of His, muffled in thick clothes, and turned away, tottering through the snow and back towards where the rest of Their entourage waited.
“Patience,” She hissed, once the petty humanoid was gone, not for the first nor last time. "Lest your eagerness cost us once again. That hubris was enough under the waves. We lost lost my crown because of you and your inability to handle those insolent vermin. You challenged them en masse, and one was even nearly as powerful as either of us. The armored one and the blue oaf touched you. Forbid you ever know when to retreat."
"You dare blame me? When your dawdling over that disgusting little thing the red one crushed delayed us. You."
His mouth twisted up, and He loomed over Her, so much taller and broader. Around Them came a chorus of clicking and hisses, and He eased back.
“Silence,” He snapped at the pack. They were mottled, tentacled, lovely. Bluish and blushed and golden, deadly in the dark of seas, usually warmer. They continued their chorus, and He growled in frustration, twisting to yell, “I said silence!”
His hand lifted, fingers splayed. Lightning jumped between them.
She caught His wrist.
“They are not listening to me!”
“You may have sired them, Eulauti, but they are my children. Your brood. Youtl’s. Maustli’s, Tiexsema’s—”
“Hah! Do not speak her name! Are you mad?”
“—*TIEXSEMA’S, Kauit’s, Chicyiot’s, all of them. They are mine. Do not forget that. You are samples. I am their mother, and you will not touch them, do you understand? Remember what I can do to you.”
She gave a click of teeth, and one of the collective lunged.
Blood sprayed onto white snow and froze in seconds. Her fellow god yowled, skin splitting, savaged open. Pieces of meat softly fell into the drifts around them, muffled, and the puddle spread, hot and heavy, too fast.
She crouched, brushing aside Her furs to reach out and cup His rent cheek. Half His headtails were gone, others torn. Her child ripped free an entire tendon in the knee.
“I can make you whole again, or I can fuse your bones together so you never more walk on your own feet. Your tendrils are lovely, but they can be a lump and abscess from your skull. Would you like that?”
He hissed at Her. She gripped His chin tighter, then healed the wounds before He bled out and stood without another word.
Of course, an invisible hand wrapped around Her throat and squeezed as soon as She did. She gagged and choked, kicking. The chorus around Them became cacophony.
"And you remember how pathetic and weak you are without your little pets. How much you need my army. My strength. My greatness. Remember what happened to you and your ‘children’ when you tried to stand up without me. We were the last. There were reasons we did not rebel when she or they the others were dragged into their tombs. But remember what sealed your fate, Alla’su."
He dropped Her to the ice. She coughed and wheezed, massaging Her crushed throat, errant thought reshaping the splintered trachea. Glancing up at Him, She jerked Her chin back at the pit.
“Are you ready to perform, now, with all that fine anger?”
He blinked at Her, then laughed, roared, and threw His bare arms out as if calling down a storm.
“I AM A GOD!” He bellowed. “AND THE EARTH MOVES FOR ME!”
His hands thrust out. His brow furrowed. The ground quaked and groaned. The ice cracked.
The stone demarcated by small flags and a beacon declaring it SITE DORN-SIX began to split apart, and from the fissures, a burning glow boiled free.