“What, can your puny arms not keep up with the rest of them?” The masked human cracked a whip onto Laren’s back, and his once smooth blue skin and soiled black shirt were marred with a long, thin gash. It was purple on his exposed skin where the whip had made contact, and the youthful Pantoran writhed in pain.
“Get up! GET! UP!” The whip cracked, faster and harder than before and—
Rising sharply from his bed, Laren was sweating profusely, his breathing hoarse. He was in temporary quarters aboard the NSD Preeminence, which was little more than an eight by eight pace room with a rock-hard bed, a desk built into the wall, and a simple computer terminal. Other than a small brown duffle bag with his equipment, and spare clothes cleanly kept under his bed, he had no other valuables or trinkets. He was not a man used to being in one place for an extended period of time, always on the run or moving to his next job. But since he was approached by his most recent client, it seemed his migratory tendencies had been curtailed in favour of steady, challenging, and handsomely paid work.
Laren got up from his bed, his limber cerulean feet resting on the lukewarm, durasteel floor as he reached down to his duffle bag and pulled out a dark towel, wiping the dampness from his face and neck. He took care to wipe the sweat over the scars on his cheeks and forehead, part of the reason for his troubled mind. Get a grip. He scolded himself with a shake of his head. It wasn’t that Laren felt guilty for working with people—though he questioned whether they were people at times—that took others as slaves. His own work had, at times, made slavery seem humane and dull in comparison, and he had no qualms about repeating said work for the right reasons and the right price. His own time as a slave had dulled his capability for compassion, and instead had ignited the flame of ambition in a specific field of gruesome work.
Satisfied he had scraped the last of the sweat from his brow, Laren threw the towel onto the ground and laid back in his bed, staring at the lights on the low ceiling. He was sure his nightmare was due to being around so many Sith at once. He knew enough of the Force and its Dark Side to realize that being in the presence of so many who could channel its ancient magics might cause him problems besides the obvious looks of arrogance against a Non-Force user like himself. Even on the battlefield during the Florrum operation, he had felt his usually cool demeanour slip into anger unbecoming of him. Luckily those looks had subsided some, since it had been revealed he was under the employ of the Dread Lord. He had proven himself a more than capable warrior with nothing but fist, blade and blaster, and the problem of doubt had mostly dissipated among his subordinates. Subordinates, Laren mused, knowing full well he had to face the day ahead of him sometime. Well he didn’t have to, but he was paid to.
Rising from his bed once more, Laren went through his routine. He left his face unshaven and put on his dark brown and black robes with care. Every piece of clothing was made for function, though simple enough that he could blend in with any crowd. Lacing his shoes, he placed his dagger in its regular sheathe hidden in his left boot, and finished changing by holstering his DC-17 blaster snug on his hip. Satisfied he was prepared to face the troops placed under his command, he stepped through the automatic doors of his quarters and marched with purpose toward the ship’s internal lift. He had a job to do and another point to prove. His former Quaestor’s words echoed in his head over and over again.
“Are you considering yourself replaceable, Aedile?”
“I am not replaceable,” Laren muttered, not realizing it was out loud.
Failure was never an option for Laren, unless failure meant his death. If he could nip his death in the bud, he would never let it happen with these fools. He hoped the member of the Willing he had ordered the evening before had assembled the troops as ordered.
Half an Hour Later
Laren arrived to a spectacle, one he had never seen. Scores of soldiers were aligned in perfect formation, holding their weapons in ceremonial fashion against their chests. Ahead of them, Force Users from House Karness Muur were standing not as rigidly still, but just as well placed, their dark robes and elaborate armour in sharp contrast to the uniformity of the Ascendant Legion. As he continued his slow advance to the front and centre of the formation, he even saw members of the Saraask’ar loosely assembled, standing quietly, except for the constant buzzing of their reptilian tongues, instinctively testing the air for their next prey. It wasn’t the entirety of the House’s forces, but it was enough to serve his purpose.
The tension in the Main Hangar was palpable. As Laren rooted himself, stance wide and hands clasped behind his back, he examined the troops before him. All eyes were on him. The Sith and Dark Jedi, the ones who didn’t hide their faces with complex masks or armour, held cool expressions, emotionless except for brief slips of arrogance that seemed to always seep from these types. Laren tried to ignore those looks, though he was sure his own expression was slowly slipping from indifference to anger. Damn Sith.
Standing in front of all the rest was a Togruta, about the same height as the Pantoran—if not for his montrals. His robe was black, though abruptly ending at the shoulders, and his hands were bandaged from palm to forearm. Abadeer Taasii, the new Battleteam Leader of the Apostles of Syn. Unlike the rest of the Force Users, the scowl on his face marked his displeasure about being a subordinate to one such as Laren. Even the troops assembled behind him looked harder than the rest, from Sith to simple soldier. Their performance on Florrum had been integral to Plagueis’ victory, and according to reports, Abadeer had well-earned his station.
“If you aren’t a bloody Dark Jedi or Sith—whatever the bloody difference is—I want you out. Now!”, roared Laren. The sudden booming sound of shuffling feet and weapons being holstered met his ears. Soldiers shuffled past their still commanders efficiently, and within minutes the entire hangar was empty, save his official escort of two Ravagers and the Force-wielding members of the House. In hindsight, Laren wondered whether being alone in a room full of lightsaber wielding, highly deadly people was a good choice. But he knew the only way to gain the respect of those who fought to gain power was to prove his strength without their treasured Force.
“You may be wondering, Sith,” Laren began, almost spitting the final word and taking steps toward them, his escorts flanking him, “Why I chose to keep only you here.” He let his hands fall to his side, his left arm noticeably more limp than the right, ready to grasp his blaster at a moment’s notice. “The truth is, I know you don’t like me. In fact, I know you all hate me. Our Dread Lord saw fit to make me, a bounty hunter and mercenary, an Aedile. An Aedile! With only a blaster on my hip.” And a dagger in my boot, Laren added mentally, knowing the value of keeping a card up your sleeve.
Laren had stopped only three paces away from Abadeer, who himself stood a few paces farther forward than the rest of those still assembled in the Hangar. Behind him, the Pantoran caught the glances of hardened Equites, glinting with jealousy and rage, as they stared into the back of the newly-minted Knight. But these were quickly covered when the Togruta glanced back at them.
“Some of you still have trouble controlling that precious hate of yours, and I have no doubt one of you will attempt to strike me down.” If there was any shock among the throng, Laren did not notice it. He scanned the room, his eyes piercing through the hardened expressions of all those before him, as he tried to determine who would attempt the deed. One of the younger members, maybe, or at least one of the less experienced among them, but there was no way to be sure.
“Am I wrong, Abadeer?” Laren almost whispered to the Togruta in front of him.
Abadeer seemed stunned for a moment, confused as to why he was suddenly talking to him. He quickly shook it off, responding, “If you could feel the Force, perhaps you could—”
From the far right end of the assembled group, an ebony-skinned Zabrak lit his crimson saber and leapt at the bounty hunter. Laren’s prediction had come true, and for a moment it seemed as if the Pantoran had been made, his expression becoming muted, and his eyes squinting with immense concentration. But in that same instant, Laren rolled to the side, and as the Zabrak’s lightsaber came crashing down with a loud hiss on the plated floor, Laren took the dagger from his boot and, in a smooth upward motion, found himself behind the taller Zabrak with the dagger at his throat, and another hand on his mouth. From the stunned looks he was receiving, they had no idea how close he had just come to death. Bloody fool.
“Yield, Sith,” Laren hissed in the Zabrak’s ear. He knew the man as Lo-Kain Vamielaga, a powerful man with a long streak of arrogance. Laren had studied the files of all those under his command, most of all the Sith. The Zabrak worked the lightsaber and deactivated the red blade. Laren let the dagger slowly slide from the man’s throat and took a few steps back to where he had been standing previous.
“I do not need your respect, nor do I need your constant obedience. What I demand is what the Dread Lord commands: unity.” He let the word sink in for a moment, looking among them, slowly letting his eyes rest on each and every one of them. He had to know that now, more than ever, he spoke the truth, as rare as it was. They had to know.
“I am not your direct commander, that task falls to Mistress Rhode,” he paused, catching a glimpse of Eiko’s mask, a knowing glance passed his way, “Lord Sunstrider, Mistress Roh and the Dread Lord himself.” The words Dread Lord were still foreign in his mouth, still used to referring to Ramar by his last name, as he would any client paying for his services. “But mark my words, if I bloody well need something done, it will be done.” One final look, and Laren turned away, his escorts flanking him step-for-step.
Main Hangar Entrance
Piercing emerald green eyes cradled by fiery red hair watched the Pantoran as he made his way toward the entrance. The new Quaestor of House Karness Muur, Taranae Rhode, stood a head or so shorter than the bounty hunter, walking with the gruff stance of a soldier, her own stance much more relaxed, feet spread close together. As Laren stopped in the door, he couldn’t decide whether she seemed as if she was ready to dance, or if she was a lone wolf ready to pounce upon her prey. Her short figure screamed of bottled aggression and danger, and it made Laren resist the urge to take a step back. Unlike those he had just addressed, he knew she was a woman brimming with power. She was the fight he would run from. One of the few.
“Good speech, Laren,” she spoke softly, her eyes baring into his own. Sweat beaded on his brow, her own gaze unnerving him slightly. “I’m surprised you weren’t teaching them drill!”
Her smile was genuine, though it still could not hide the subdued ambition in her eyes. Laren knew the comment had been meant as a joke, but he was still on guard. This was no Eiko, who had made their relationship of superior and subordinate perfectly clear from the start. Taranae was a different beast, albeit slightly more approachable, but that made her twice as dangerous.
“Before I make you quiver in your boots some more, we have much to discuss. Come.”
Laren quickly dismissed the Ravagers as his escort and followed the Quaestor, stepping no more or less than two paces behind her. It didn’t take them long until they were seated in a small office usually reserved for senior pilots. It was a long room, and they sat at the front desk. Behind Taranae was a large screen, black and blank from lack of use, and reflecting the back of Taranae’s head almost as clearly as a mirror would. Laren took a chair from a nearby table and brought it to the other side of the desk, and he sat facing the Quaestor. She was rather pretty, and Laren might have considered staring for a longer period of time if not for the fact she could kill him without her hands. That, or toy with him. Some Sith preferred that slow method of inevitable death. He openly shivered at the thought, though the temperature of the room was rather warm.
“Unless you pull that blaster on me, I have no intention of beheading you,” Taranae began with a slight grin. Laren shifted in his seat uncomfortably, but said nothing, focusing instead on keeping eye contact with her. “You may not have the Force as your ally, but if the Dread Lord trusts you, so do I. Let’s discuss the intelligence you have on Aliso.”
Just like that, they were at it. Perhaps not all the Sith were as insane as the others. Distantly, Laren thought he felt the slight twinge of a headache, a residual effect of his lack of good sleep from the nightmares. They weren’t all one hundred percent evil, but they still ate away at his sleep. Damn Sith.