“IDIOT!” the Kaleesh roared, lashing out with his arm and catching Lhara across the face, sending her tumbling to the floor. The Twi’lek’s eyes widened in horror as her master, Lord Kerrhat, activated his crimson lightsaber with a snap-hiss and held it against her face.
“No, no master! Forgive me! Plea-” Lhara Vash whimpered, her pleas for clemency cut off abruptly by screams of pain as Kerrhat’s blade made contact with the pale green flesh of her lekku. The blade pulled back, then touched down against her head-tail in another spot, the gentleness of the motion belying the intense agony of bursting nerve cells.
“Only two,” the Kaleesh said, licking his lips. His tone was soft, better suited to accompany a father’s caress than the torture he had just inflicted on his apprentice.
Vash nodded, silently forcing back the tears of pain. If he saw them… she pulled herself up on her hands and knees and crawled back to the holocron shelf. The cerulean one, she repeated silently to herself, not the azure. Dozens of holocrons shined down on her, painting the entire corner in a rainbow of blues and purples. I have to pick the cerulean one.
It wouldn’t be the first night Lhara had cried herself to sleep. Not even the first this week, for that matter, but any respite from Kerrhat’s training was welcome. Vash’s chambers were tiny and spartan, but they were hers. A bunk with some meager padding, a small metal table with a wobbly chair, and a computer terminal on the stained wooden desk in the corner were the only things she owned beside the robes on her back. She’d been with the Sadowan for two years now, more or less. Everything before him seemed like the fading remnants of a dream.
Tonight, however, something different was responsible for the surreal feeling. As Lhara entered her dark quarters and threw herself into her bunk, she noticed the silent white blinking of a cursor on her console. I could have sworn that I’d turned that off, she thought, but couldn’t be bothered to walk the three feet across the room to deal with it. After a moment, she was asleep.
Vash wasn’t sure how long she was out for before she work up to the bright white glow of the terminal. It took a minute for her eyes to focus, but she gasped when she saw the text on her display.
Kerrhat is the chain around your neck. He will pull you into the depths and you will drown.
Vash stared in silent horror. If Kerrhat saw that - but the text changed before she could finish the thought.
The Force shall free you. -827, 282, 830
Before Vash could even make sense of the message, it was gone.
Over the next several weeks, the terminal kept speaking to her at night. No one should ever be caged, one time. The spirit bends, yet does not break, another. Sometimes it just read You are not alone, but regardless of the first message, the text always changed to the same set of coordinates, and then the machine rebooted. Vash thought she was going mad. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw the numbers. Every night she dreamed of freedom, of not being alone.
When Bentre Stahoes finally gave her a mission offworld, away from her master, there was only one set of coordinates Lhara Vash keyed into the navcomputer.
The Brigand’s Den Cantina
The place was full of Weequay pirates. Most ignored her after trying to get a peek at what was under the dark, hooded robes. Lhara went straight to the bar and ordered a drink, partly to blend in, but mostly just to steady her nerves while she looked around.
The cantina, like everything else she had seen of this barren rock, was covered in a thick film of dirt and dust. Most of the pirates had gone back to their drinks and gambling, but as the bartender handed Vash a cup of rancid-smelling liquor, she felt eyes fixated on her back. Turning to look, the Twi’lek saw a man in the very back corner of the cantina, seated at a table engulfed in shadow, his back to the wall. Unsure of what else to do, she approached him slowly.
“Hello, Ms. Vash,” the man said dispassionately. “It’s about time you showed up.” Green eyes and alabaster skin peered out at her from beneath a black hood, and the man raised a small, steaming cup to his lips.
“Who are you?” Lhara asked,
“The less you know about that, the better,” he answered, gently setting his cup back on the table. “For both of us. Would you like a drink?” He waved to the small, chipped porcelain pot next to his cup.
“What is it?”
“Some local root steeped in hot water. It’s bitter, but that’s…” He trailed off, lost in thought for a moment. “Appropriate, I guess. The last time I was here, I lost some very dear friends.”
“What do you want from me?” Fear and frustration gave Vash’s words an unintended edge, but if the man noticed, he certainly didn’t care.
“The same thing you want. Kerrhat. Dead.”
The pair sat in silence for a few minutes as Vash weighed her options. The man in black sipped at his tea. At last the Twi’lek spoke. “What do I do?”
The man reached down and pulled a small black satchel from a place hidden beneath the table. “The next time he travels out of the system, carry this beacon with you and activate it in hyperspace. Our understanding is that your master isn’t very technical, but stay on the safe side and make sure no one sees you or the device.”
“That’s it?” the Sadowan asked, studying the device in the satchel. It was a small, fairly inconspicuous bit of machinery.
“That’s it. Now run along back home before you’re missed,” the man said flatly, gesturing towards her head with his teacup. “Unless you want a few more scars.”
Vash shuddered, but did as she was told.
Vontar Memorial Spaceport
After two years apprenticed to Kerrhat, Lhara Vash had become very good at doing as she was told. As soon as they were free of Sepros’ gravity well, the Sith went back to the fresher and jammed the device she’d been given in a small space behind the toilet. Nevertheless, the journey to Beldarone was uneventful. Once the pair were planetside, the Kaleesh and his Twi’lek apprentice were treated to a similarly uneventful week as they tracked down an antiquities dealer rumoured to possess an ancient holocron. Kerrhat dealt with poor Sullustan in his usual, brutal, style.
By the time the pair made it back to their ship - the Clan’s ship, really - Vash had despaired of anything happening. At her master’s order, she pulled out her comlink and instructed the crew to prep for takeoff.
“Roger that,” came a man’s voice over the comlink. Something seemed off about it, somehow, but Vash had always been discouraged from getting to know the Sith’s minions.
As the pair walked up the boarding ramp and into the escort shuttle, Vash knew that something was wrong. Her master didn’t seem to notice anything, and while the Kaleesh stomped back towards his quarters, Lhara headed for the cockpit. A tall, tanned man smiled at her from beneath blonde hair. “Good afternoon, Lady Vash. Please take a seat.”
“You’re not the pilot,” Lhara hissed, her hand darting to the lightsaber at her him. The snap-hiss of another saber cut her off, and suddenly a blue blade was mere centimeters from her wrist. The Pau’an at the other end of it, a spindly, tall, ashen creature with eyes like the Dark Side itself, smiled at her in a way that seemed equal parts warm and condescending.
“There’s no need for that, miss. We’re here to help.”
The Jedi’s words would probably have been a bit more calming if they hadn’t immediately been followed by a primal bellow and the sounds of lightsabers crashing against each other from the rear.
“Excuse me for a moment,” the Pau’an said with a serene nod, then darted away with such speed that Lhara’s eyes could barely process it. She followed after him, the blonde human on her heels with a small blaster in his hand.
Kerrhat roared again as he hammered away at a small blindfolded woman with both ends of his saberstaff. The Miraluka seemed completely unconcerned, her long brown hair flowing behind her as she effortlessly batted away the Sith’s assault with a pair of sparking blue lightsabers of her own. She might, Lhara thought, have been a match for Kerrhat all by herself, but in an instant the Pau’an was attacking Kerrhat from the rear, his ferocious strikes more like the Sith’s brutality than his comrade’s fluid style.
The blonde man had barely caught up to Vash and gently, but noticeably, pushed the muzzle of his blaster against the small of her back, before the battle was over. With a slight grunt of effort, the Pau’an smashed his blade down against Kerrhat’s, driving his right arm down as that end of his saberstaff met the floor panels with a burst of sparks. As if it had all be choreographed, the Miraluka deftly slipped the tip of one blade under Kerrhat’s hands and, with a dainty up-and-down stroke, cut the power cells out of the Sith’s hilt. The attack had barely registered before the Kaleesh was faced with three blue plasma blades pointed directly at his mask.
The sound of enthusiastic clapping from the entrance ramp had Vash nearly jump out of her skin. She hadn’t realized until then that her hands had been trembling and her lekku twitching as she watched the two Jedi take on her master. The source of the clapping was a tall, strapping blue humanoid - a Pantoran, Vash thought - strolling up the ramp at the side of a silver-haired human woman. The woman glared at her blue companion and the clapping ceased immediately; although the man did a slight double-take when he saw Vash, followed with a beaming smile, he said nothing else.
“Lord Kerrhat of Naga Sadow, I presume.” The woman’s mellifluous voice was crisply accented like the villains in one of the old Civil War holovids Vash had watched as a child. At a wave of her hand, the Jedi deactivated their lightsabers and stood at attention.
“Who sent you?” the Kaleesh snarled. Vash started a bit at the familiar tone, but the woman was unperturbed.
“We’ve been watching you for some time,” she continued, smiling as though she’d just caught a child with his hand in the cookie jar. “You’ve been a very bad boy.”
“What is the meaning of this?” The Sith was trembling with rage at this point, on the brink of ripping his tormentors apart with his bare hands. If anyone besides Vash was intimidated by the towering monster, they were better at hiding it.
Suddenly a silver-white blade hissed to life in the woman’s hand. “You know, I’ve never used one of these before. No time like the present,” she sighed, and cleanly took the Kaleesh’ head off of his shoulders as the Miraluka gasped. “So much cleaner than a vibroblade, Lady Vash,” the woman continued, “I can see why you people are so fond of them.” Bending down, the woman picked up Kerrhat’s severed head and placed it on the small mess table. Her master’s dead, empty eyes stared at Vash from across the room. “Find the holocron.”
Fear and elation overwhelmed the Twi’lek, and Lhara fell to her knees, tears in her eyes.
“It’s strange how we sometimes miss the ones who do us wrong,” the woman said, her piercing blue eyes seemingly pinning Vash to the floor. “You’re no enemy of Odan-Urr, child. If you want to take the shuttle and fly off to freedom, we won’t trouble you further. And if you want to go back to Sepros, well,” her eyes darted up to the ceiling, where a small security camera was recording everything. “Let’s just say that we have a way of getting what we want.”
“Found it!” the blue man shouted cheerfully as he returned with the holocron.
“Excellent. Have a pleasant voyage, Lady Vash. Congratulations on completing your apprenticeship.”
As the strike team slipped one by one out of the shuttle, Lhara shuddered as she met her master’s still gaze.
“That was uncalled for,” Korroth said quietly as the team settled into their seats. Lithar was at the Wayward Maiden’s helm, preparing the shuttle for the several hyperjumps back to Daleem.
“Should I have offered him a cup of tea instead, Master Jedi?” Alethia asked, smiling as she quirked an eyebrow.
“Of course not!” Korroth didn’t snap the words, but his characteristically slow, serene speech was a bit quicker than usual. “But murdering an unarmed prisoner, in front of that girl, and then posing his corpse like some child’s doll?”
“At least we freed Lhara,” Junazee chipped in, nervously twirling a lock of her long auburn hair around her fingers. “So mission accomplished, right?”
“I doubt that was the mission the Commander had in mind, Juna,” Korroth continued, any frustration gone from his voice even as he coolly stared into his commander’s eye. “The Sadowans will hunt her down if she doesn’t return. And when she gets back to Sepros, Commander Archenksova will put her to work until she outlives her usefulness. If she refuses, the Inquisitorius will mysteriously discover how we tracked Kerrhat down on Beldarone. Am I right, Commander?”
“Something like that.” Alethia’s smile was undiminished. “In case it escaped the notice of anyone here, we are at war. Our adversary has an advantage in men and resources that is almost insurmountable. I intend to do something about it. An insurrection is not a dinner party, my friends. If, after everything on Florrum and New Tython, you would prefer to go meditate instead, I understand that the Arca Praxeum has-”
“Do not lecture me about New Tython, Commander. I was there.”
Well, I-" the Pantoran began.
“Shut up, Turr,” Archenksova cut him off. “As much as I admire the unparalleled virtue of the Jedi Order,” she continued, her words every bit as pointed as the vibroblade strapped to her thigh, “virtue won’t destroy our enemies.”
“Destroy them at what cost? Do you think we’ll sacrifice everything that makes us different from the Sith? The Council will hear of this.”
“The Council,” Alethia explained, any trace of warmth gone from her expression, “placed me in command of this task force because I know what it means to overthrow an empire.”
After a tense moment, the Jedi nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said, his face an impassive mask, and silently walked away.
“Juna, go talk some sense into your colleague. Lithar,” Alethia called out towards the cockpit, “get me a communications link with Daleem as soon as we’re in hyperspace.”
“Ahem,” Turr Darvesh beamed at her, the only one left without something to do. “How may I be of assistance, fair lady?”
“Of course, Turr. I have a special task for you,” she answered, patting him gently on the shoulder. “You get to watch the holocron and make sure it doesn’t run away.” The Pantoran’s smiled melted away. “What do we say, Turr?”
“Yes, Commander,” the agent replied glumly.