Victory-II Star Destroyer Paladin, Main Hangar
The tractor beam of the massive Star Destroyer completely engulfed Laren's quaint interceptor in its powerful maw, slowly dragging the small starfighter into the underbelly of the triangular starship. The endless void abruptly gave way to a large hangar, brightly lit and packed neatly with tight columns of docked starfighters lining the ceiling and walls. Crisscrossing walkways laced in between the small vessels, wide enough across for three to walk abreast, which would allow the pilots easy access to their craft in times of emergency. Observing further, he noticed the hangar also extended inward on all sides, with other starfighters lined neatly on the floor, slick gray or black cargo containers stacked primly beside some. Laren could also see large blast doors at two sides on the ground level, while the walkways lining the walls and ceiling all had smaller doors meant for personnel.
When Laren's interceptor touched the deck of the hangar, having been placed off to the left hand side of the hangar entrance below, he felt the distinct pressure of the tractor beam fall away from his vessel. He sat motionless in the cockpit, eyes scanning his surroundings. The few pilots or support staff he could see nearby paid his ship no mind, and some droids passed a few meters from the interceptor, ignoring it entirely. Laren could only surmise that it wasn't the first time a seemingly random ship had been brought aboard, or perhaps they were ordered to ignore anything that wasn't theirs - whatever theirs could be. No discernible markings could be seen on any of the starfighters or the bare patches of wall, covered with the drab gray coloring most Imperial type vessels had been known for. No one wore anything remotely unique, all the uniforms colored darkly, fitted for function rather than a statement of power.
Suddenly his cockpit briefly depressurized, and the hatch swung upward. For a moment Laren's eyes widened and he took a deep breath, not knowing whether or not the hangar outside was fully pressurized. If it hadn't been pressurized, he would have been sucked out into space faster than he could of thought of his favorite pazaak den. And yet he sat there, immobile and not breathing. After a moment he sighed, releasing his breath. You fool, he thought, scolding himself. Get yourself together. Someone brought you in here, and they'll be here soon.
Almost as if him thinking had been a beckon call, the blast doors nearest Laren slid open. A column of troopers appeared running through the doorway in twos. The column split as it neared the interceptor, two snaking lines of heavily armed soldiers quickly surrounding the black starfighter, blasters pointed and ready to fire. Laren had considered moving from the cockpit before, but now he remained seated, golden eyes considering the troopers before him. These were no mere guards - the way they held their blasters, their firing stance, even their silent discipline had proven that. Laren had never known a trooper to be undisciplined, though perhaps the quality of their training - and their accuracy - differed between different training philosophies. He knew that if he attempted escape, perhaps if he even moved a single muscle without permission, he and his small ship would be blasted to tiny pieces of scorched metal and flesh.
Laren looked back toward the door. Someone else was striding through the open doorway. There, a figure gargantuan figure clad in dark, deep set cloak strode forward, walking with the grace of a krayt dragon ready to pounce on its prey. The hood of their cloak was large, shrouding their entire face in darkness and fabric so none could see their features. As the mysterious figure inched ever closer to the helpless mercenary and his platoon of new guards, Laren could see well-kept boots beneath the fringes of the full-body cloak. For some reason, the dark brown color of the garment tugged at his brain, at a memory taken from a book he had read not so long ago. What was so significant about a dark brown cloak, he wondered. Shaking his head, he unconsciously reached for the holster on his left hip, unbuckling the straps that safely held his DC-17 hand blaster. The imposing figure made Laren's mouth go dry and his blood run cold, and he almost wished for thirty more troopers to come bounding through the doorway, rather than this lone arrival.
"Now, this is no way to treat a guest," said the deep, raspy voice of the cloaked figure.
Weapons were lowered to a rest position without any protest. The troopers surrounding Laren were stoic and highly disciplined, indeed. What had he been dragged into?
"You may exit your ship now, mercenary," the figure continued, his voice grating in Laren's ears. The accent in Basic reminded Laren of the Core worlds, and yet it came from a mouth - if this figure had such a thing - that almost seemed to find speaking Basic slightly foreign to the tongue. It continued, "Best do so quickly. I would hate to see these troopers turn on you."
Laren frowned, but he complied quickly, bounding from his seat and stepping on the port-side wing of the interceptor. Attempting to maintain his dignity, he walked with the dangerous grace of a soldier, back straight and muscles tense, ready to draw his blaster and attempt an escape at any moment. He could feel the cloaked figure's gaze studying him, eyes still unseen judging coldly, distantly. He would much rather have preferred the blasters pointing than this person's hidden stare. Stepping off the ship and onto the hangar floor, he leaned on the nose of his fighter, curling the fingers of his hands around the buckle of his utility belt, idly regarding his party with the most arrogant air he could muster.
"So," he began slowly, breaking the silence. "You went through the effort of providing me an encrypted message, and now you take me prisoner-"
"Not a prisoner," that vexatious voice cut in, sounding almost bored. "A guest."
"A guest, then," Laren replied curtly with a nod toward the cloaked figure. "You take me as your guest, and for what? I'm flattered that I'm considered important enough by one with the power of a Star Destroyer in their possession, but frankly -"
His voice cut off again. There was a tightness around his throat that made it difficult to breathe. He reached up, attempting to loosen the collar of his dark shirt, but he found it was already loose. It was as if the air itself was suffocating him, tying invisible threads tighter and tighter around his slender neck. He sank to his knees, spots beginning to appear in his eyes. He could faintly see polished boots striding forward toward him, the dark brown cloaked figure stopping inches from where Laren suffered helplessly. Frantic golden eyes looked up, and they bulged. A gnarled, tree-like hand was out-stretched, fixed on Laren, and he could see the faint shape of an eyeless face contorted into what could be a grin of pleasure. It seemed he had walked straight into the clutches of a Sith.
"Release - me," Laren struggled hoarsely. His vision was beginning to fade, and he knew his face must have been flushed dark blue with effort to continue breathing.
What felt like an eon later, the pressure around his throat disappeared. Desperately he drew a powerful breath, though he quickly regretted the act. His chest heaved and swayed as he coughed, his body filled with the sweet bliss of air once more. He turned his eyes toward the gnarled tree-like man - it was a man, considering its deeper tone, he decided - and his gaze burned with fury. He did not like being taken by surprise, let alone by one who could wield the Force. Feeling helpless to anyone made memories of his enslavement, so carefully shoved into the distant corners of his mind, bubble to the surface with his rage.
"Have I come to be tortured," Laren said after a time, rising to his feet. "Have you brought me here to satisfy some debt?"
"Nothing so petty," his tree-like captor replied. "No, you're here to be tested."
Laren's brow shot up. Tested? For what? Had they wasted all this time to test him in some manner, a regular communication could have done perfectly.
"And what am I to be tested for, my Sith friend?" Laren queried.
The tree-man clapped bark-filled hands together, and ten troopers broke away from the two lines, five from either side. Looking more closely, some were also armed with batons and knives, in case their blaster carbines were rendered useless. They stood in a line facing Laren, waiting on the balls of their feet for their next orders.
Laren didn't wait for the tree-man's mouth to open again - did he even have a mouth? Reaching to his belt, he pulled a silver, sphere-shaped object with a button at its core. His thumb hovered over the button, ready to activate the thermal detonator without hesitation. There was no honor among wretched scum or the feared Sith, and Laren had no qualms giving his life in order to blast these troopers away.
Lowering his hood, the man turned, regarding him with an eyeless expression. It was humanoid enough that he could see the markings of mouth and eyes, and yet the face was all twisted bark and hanging branches. If Laren had to guess, that flat expression was attempting to act cool and composed, perhaps even hiding a touch of surprise. He resisted the urge to take a step back, the sight of such an odd species unnerving him. Laren had seen many things in his life, but never had he seen a life form such as this.
"You are the first to have offered your life like this," the cloaked figure began slowly, an inflection of interest in his grating voice that had not been there before. "Passing a test on the whim of a thermal detonator. And I thought I had seen it all."
With a wave of his arms, the troopers relaxed, walking slowly back to their places. "Some attempt to battle the troopers, but they never suspect the other twenty until it's too late. Some simply try running, and you might figure what happens to those." Was Laren supposed to be hearing all of this? The man sounded distant, almost as if boredom had consumed his waking thoughts. "You mercenary and bounty hunter types, most of you rely on that blaster a bit too much. You forget your wits, relying instead on brawn."
"Listen, I appreciate the flattery, but considering my you just tried to kill me, why don't I just be on my way." Laren's voice was firm, and yet he did not hope for his request to be granted. He was curious as to what he was being tested for. Was this another member of the Brotherhood, looking to gain another ally with a good shot and a deft hand?
"It's not so simple. The test isn't over, you see."
Four individuals strode the hangar doors. Two were female and two male, clad in dark robes and bare feet fit for a martial training facility. The females, a stocky Twi'lek and a bone slender human, were flanked by two males, a short and lithe looking Devaronian, and an average sized human male with bristling green eyes. They stood to either side of the tree-man, standing where the troopers had been before. Each looked upon Laren with disdain, and Laren had no doubt that each were accomplished practitioners of their craft.
Suddenly, Laren's belt and weapons floated from his waist and into the cockpit of his starfighter. He hadn't noticed the man across from him manipulating his precious Force with an outstretched hand, freeing the belt previously buckled around the Pantoran with practiced precision.
"You won't be needing those. If you can survive against these four, perhaps our Lord may yet see you. Fail, and I shall return to end your life myself." The last was said in bland tones. It wouldn't be the first time he had ended a life so mercilessly.
"May I inquire to the name of yourself or our Lord before we begin?" Laren said smoothly, hoping he hid the fear he felt from his voice.
"You may refer to me as Ood. Now, begin."
Laren finished rolling up the sleeves of his jacket, taking a defensive stance with feet spread wide as four enemies descended upon him. It had been too long since he had surrendered to the dance of forms with anyone. He had become so used to fighting half-mad, lightsaber wielding fools or their kin that Laren didn't realize he felt a thirst for such vigorous and near impossible hand-to-hand combat. He relinquished the last of his emotions, gaining control of his conscious self. He was ready to do battle, to feel the battle, as he was taught so long ago.
As the human female leveled the first strike against Laren, he felt alive has he embraced the battle.
From the relative obscurity of one of the ceiling platforms, Farrin watched closely as their new arrival engaged the four who had been sent against them. All were Sith or Dark Jedi, attached to the Shadow Academy and teaching various forms of unarmed combat. They were skilled and dedicated to their craft, scholars in their own right. Some had balked at Farrin for allowing what some called primitive fighting to bed taught within the venerated halls of the Shadow Academy. They were fools, ignorant of the more subtle teachings and philosophies of various martial arts, focused instead on their incessant search for tangible power. Farrin, however, knew that power came from embracing all knowledge, taking that which can be used, and discarding the rest for another time. In order to be powerful, one must never be ignorant, and one must always adapt.
His gaze wandered a little away from the fighting, where Laren was fending off a harrying assault by two of the four - he cared little about which were pressing the offensive. His eyes found his Magistrate on a nearby X-Wing, dressed in that brown robe reminiscent of the Jedi, covering his uniquely Neti features.
Touching a hand to his ear, Farrin spoke. "Lord Bnar, how fares the candidate?"
"In some ways, some of the prior candidates outmatched him. And yet, he holds on, all tamed ferocity and arrogance. It's his method of thinking, the tactics he employs that are keeping him alive. Where did you find such an intelligent beast?" Ood's tone was that of a lecturer, but Farrin listened intently all the same.
"Our friend Teylas recommended his services, though he stressed secrecy lest anyone in Clan Plagueis got wind of our intentions." Farrin paused, considering his own words. Teylas Ramar was a devious member of the Brotherhood, though his abilities on both the real and political battlefields were considered by some to be second to none. He had recommended Laren and another for Farrin to consider. At first he had been cowed by the idea of allowing individuals who shared the same Clan to serve under his command. However, he quickly realized Laren was a maverick, useful in certain situations, but lacking in a key component among the Sith hierarchy -
the Force. "Do I tell Teylas that he met my expectations?"
"Perhaps," Ood responded absently. "There is still time, yet."
Farrin looked down, observing the ongoing battle. Inside the ring of troopers, where there had once been five combatants dancing among each other, only three remained standing. Laren's cerulean frame was easy to pick out, though his stance looked ragged compared to the start of the engagement. Two opponents circled him, the human female and the Devaronian male. Farrin was the least bit surprised. Of the four he had sent against Laren, the two still standing were definitely the most skilled.
"If the fool man survives, escort him to my study," Farrin said, spinning on his heel and marching toward the door. "If he dies, throw his bruised corpse out the nearest airlock, and bring me the available dossiers once more."
Victory-II Star Destroyer Paladin, Headmaster's Study
Water crashed into his face, soaking his hair and dripping off his grizzled chin. He awoke with a start, desperately gasping for breath, eyes like gold medallions wide with confusion. Being brought back from unconsciousness with a grand splash of cold water was never a pleasurable experience, though Laren could not deny its effectiveness. His expression softened and his breaths came normally, he rotated his head to take stock of his surroundings. Or at least, he attempted to. An immovable barrier slowly maneuvered Laren's head until his eyes rested on human man with graying red hair and a poorly groomed beard filled his vision behind a simple durasteel desk. He could hear movement to his right, likely a trooper or that plant fellow he had seen before.
"So, you're awake," the human began, his voice a deep baritone. It was a commanding voice, and though he seemed slightly below average galactic height, his imposing presence felt as if he could fill the room. "And alive. Do you remember what happened?"
What had happened, Laren wondered. As memories began to take shape, it was then he realized that his body ached all over. His head was pounding with a sharp pain emanating from the left side of his face, and all over he could feel places where he had taken hard blows or had blocked powerful strikes. Kark, but that pain was everywhere, seemingly flooding his senses. But he waded through the pain, remembering his latest bout.
"It was me and that - that human woman, I think. Last thing I remember, we were leveling a good front kick against each others heads." Reaching up to gently rub his temples, Laren continued, "If I was a gambling man, I would wager we knocked each other out."
"Very good," the auburn haired man replied with a sharp clap, causing Laren's ears to ring. "But now, to business."
As Laren listened to the human man explain the intention of the tests, as well as his intentions for himself, the pain was slightly subdued by intense waves of caution, eagerness, and opportunity. Though most viewed him as a skilled agent with blaster and blade, there were a select few who had seen beyond and knew he silently craved real power. It was challenge he truly desired, and what better challenge could their be than to gain power over those that could wield the Force itself? The man - Farrin, he had called himself, though he was to be referred to as Headmaster or Lord - was offering him the chance to be his sworn servant, an agent beyond the reach of Plagueis, and outside the influence of the notorious Inquisitors. It seemed that the Brotherhood consumed his life, now, being noticed by such a man.
Yet for all Laren's curiosity at the proposal, he was troubled. There were likely numerous qualified candidates on board this very ship, let alone within the large and confusing organization that was the Dark Brotherhood. It left Laren with one question to be asked.
"Why me, my Lord?" he asked, the given title foreign on his lips. He was not used to addressing most by their titles, with the exception of Selika. He shivered at the thought of that dangerously beautiful woman. Beautiful, surely, but perhaps one of the most dangerous people he had ever met.
Farrin considered him a moment, gleaming jade eyes boring into him. Laren shifted his feet uneasily, waiting.
"For a lesser being, you have the skill to match some dangerous enemies," Farrin began, seeming to be choosing his words carefully. "And I will not sacrifice the blood of those who wield the Force in place of you. You are expendable, compared to them. Qualified, dangerous, but expendable. War looms on the horizon, and the Shadow Academy can't spare many of our brethern for assignments that may intend certain doom."
"Well isn't that just a peachy contract," Laren spat.
"This is no contract, scum. This is a covenant. Where Ood is my right hand, you would be my left. You can go where I cannot, seek that which I desire, and spread fear and discord into the hearts and minds of our enemy. You are both simultaneously expendable and invaluable to our cause." Farrin's fists slammed down on his desk, though some of his items remained floating in the air, floating with the Force. "You will be the Praetor to the Headmaster, with all the powers and privileges thereof. Though in truth, you will be my hound, dispatched upon my command to wreak havoc in my name, and seek the knowledge and artifacts that I desire."
"So when do I begin?"