sunrise came upon the city of Vectur, stirring the city awake as if breathing fresh life into a dead husk of duracrete and stone. Sunbeams bathed the skyscrapers in diffuse light, making the city glow orange. Slowly, the light banished the shadows, first at the tops of the structures, then working its way toward the city streets below, where beings were already starting to venture forth from their sheltered abodes.
The Grand Master
of the New Imperium’s Jedi Division stood on the balcony of his private
chambers in the
Once he had been a mere bodyguard, assigned to protect the prince, the heir to the Varnusian throne. He had been a soldier, with the companionship of his comrades and the simple duties of protecting his liege. Now, he had his own guards, and was more powerful than any hereditary ruler. He longed for that old life, though. It was the freedom he missed. Now I know why Xar left me this job, he thought dourly. It’s been years since I’ve flown a fighter on the front lines or been just a member of the team. Too long. Never thought I’d be saying this.
It wasn’t that the pressures of his duties were becoming too much. He simply didn’t see what more use he could be, watching things from behind the safety of a desk. The NI’s most powerful Jedi should be the ones providing the example, teaching the recruits, fighting the enemy on the front lines. Things would have to change.
Grand Master Alyx Misnera turned from the view as he heard the steps of his Chancellor, Mathis Organa, approaching him from behind. Mathis had only recently emerged from half a year of hermitic seclusion in the deeper areas of the palace. Fighting his own personal war. But lately things were bringing even the former Deputy Grand Master out of hiding.
“Mathis,” he said, greeting the man with a nod. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Instead of explaining himself, Mathis fixed him with a poignant stare. “There were two more murders on the streets last night.”
Alyx arched an eyebrow. “Mathis, this is the most metropolitan city in the New Imperium. People are killed every day.”
“Not like this,” the man shook his head, letting his long bound hair swing behind him. “Not so brutally and… casually at the same time. This is our serial man; the pattern’s continuing. We haven’t figured out exactly how the pattern goes or why, but they’re becoming more visible, as if someone wants to send us a message.”
“But why prey only on the night creatures? The homeless, drunks, people who accidentally stumble into the wrong alley. Doesn’t make sense.”
“They’re getting closer to the Palace.”
“You think someone’s threatening us? Telling us he’s coming our way? He couldn’t be that stupid,” Alyx shook his head.
“Right… Unless he thinks we that can’t stop him.” Mathis’s ubiquitous half-smile took a malicious edge.
“If he thinks that, he’s wrong.”
“Maybe. We won’t know that until we find out exactly who we’re dealing with. And that’s why I’m going after him.”
Alyx thought that over. The man’s face was earnest, determined. Was he still dipping into Ryll to stop his depression? Or had he finally come out of the destructive cycle that spice caused? “Why take this case so personally?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I just feel…” Mathis broke off, hesitating. “something familiar,” he finished. “I need this.”
To redeem himself, Alyx thought. At least it was better than staying cooped up in his quarters; he would be doing something useful without having others depend on his performance. “All right. Find this killer, and prove to me that you’re in control and can be a member of the team again.”
“I won’t let you down,” Mathis promised.
“But I want you to take someone with you as backup,” Alyx added. “Like you said, you don’t know what you’re facing yet.”
“I’ll take Seth Karnasy; he could use the experience.”
“Very well. I hope you find something soon, before more people are killed.”
“Trust me,” Mathis said, his formerly ubiquitous smile there once more. “He won’t be around here much longer.”
* * *
“Here you are,” the aide said, opening the door to allow Zalaria inside first. Xar followed in her wake. “This is the remotest location that still maintains our Aurek-class accommodations. Twenty kilometers from the nearest city, but still fully stocked with the modern features, including full HoloNet access.”
Xar emerged into the main antechamber of their new private honeymoon villa. “This is perfect,” he said aloud, looking up at the vaunted ceiling, covered with ornate, native Varnusian paintings with a domed skylight set in the center. He grinned in excitement. It was the perfect place for a private honeymoon with his new wife.
That concept was
so new it was still foreign to him. Zalaria was his wife, now. Just two days before they had
celebrated their wedding in a modest ceremony in the
“We provide only the best for our most honored guests,” the aide said, bowing.
“I’m sure,” Zalaria said absently, looking around with obviously less enthusiasm than Xar. “This will be sufficient. Please show us the main facilities; then you may go.”
“Of course,” the servant said, groveling before her. Xar clicked his teeth together in exasperation. Just hurry up and get it over with so you can leave, he thought to himself. He wanted to be alone with his wife.
The aide then showed then through the rest of the small mansion. It had a classic Varnusian décor rather than a modern, technological one. The flooring was a gray marble that was textured to prevent slipping, and the room was lined with spiraling white marble columns. The main antechamber led off into several other rooms divided by sliding glass and wooden doorways. All together the interior was well-lit, and felt very spacious with all the windows. Then the aide took his attention again, gesturing around the room.
“To the right is the lounge area, which links to the master bedroom and baths. A secondary living quarters is at the other end of the hall. The kitchen is to the left; though you won’t need to prepare anything yourselves unless you prefer to. One call and our master chefs will accommodate you.”
“Actually, we’d prefer to take care of our own meals,” Xar spoke up. “The staff services won’t be needed. We’re hoping to have the weekend to ourselves, actually.” He glanced at Zalaria, whose lips had curled into a slight smile. Considering the current times, a romantic escape to the most famous and beautiful sites in the galaxy just wasn’t practical – and besides, probably wouldn’t impress her, anyway. On the other hand, a private honeymoon on his homeworld, just far enough away but still close enough in case something happened – that was perfect.
“Very well,” the aide said, bowing again. “Then, if you don’t need anything further, I will take my leave.”
Xar nodded. “That will be all.”
“Thank you for choosing Royal Palatial Escapes.” With a final bow, the man turned and made his way out the large wooden doors by which they’d entered.
As the door closed shut, Xar let out a sigh. “Finally, some time to ourselves.”
Zalaria reached out and took his hand in hers. “Let’s go out to the shore.”
* * *
Jedi Knight Seth Karnasy and Jedi Master Mathis Organa strolled through the Vectur marketplace, dressed in hooded cloaks to make themselves less conspicuous. Moving briskly and purposefully through the throng of people, they nevertheless kept fully aware of everything going on around them.
Located half a
kilometer from the
As Seth followed his master through the hubbub, he saw beings of myriad different races and ethnicities. A native Varnusian refrain hovered in the air around them, played out by flutes and stringed instruments. The whirring sounds of electronic and holographic games coming from a nearby storefront beckoned to him, but he kept his focus on his instructor ahead. Master Organa had selected him personally for this mission, and Seth had no intentions of letting him down. Only recently raised to full Knighthood, Seth still hadn’t seen his first combat against an Altarin’Dakor. He’d heard stories about their Jedicon, though: how fearless and relentless they were in combat. If he ever hoped to face one in combat, he would have to prove himself in lesser tasks first.
Suddenly Mathis stopped in front of him, allowing the crowd to continue on around them. He turned back to Seth, showing a puzzled expression underneath his hood.
“There’s a Force-Sensitive nearby,” Mathis said, the noise in the air keeping his words between them alone.
“A friendly?” Seth asked.
“Probably. I think I recognize it, but with so many people around it’s hard to tell, and I think she’s using a Mask.”
Seth nodded. One of the first things Jedi apprentices were taught was how to conceal their latent Force potential – such an ability had countless practical uses, not least of which was the ability to stay undetected around other Jedi.
“She’s this way,” Mathis said, heading right towards one of the tents. He approached a stall covered by a mauve canvas, with golden tapestries hanging from the sides. The hawker appeared to be selling pieces of clothing and jewelry – light scarves, earrings, and the like.
That’s when he saw her, a plain brown Jedi cloak around her shoulders, though her hood was pulled back to reveal long, auburn hair falling down inside her robe.
Pulling his own hood back, Master Mathis moved up to the stall beside her and gently cleared his throat. “Rynn Mariel.”
With a startled look – Mathis had been using a Mask as well – Rynn turned toward the sound of the voice, and she quickly smiled in recognition. “Master Organa! What a pleasant surprise. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Miss Mariel. And no need to be so formal; just ‘Mathis’ will do.” He smiled a little sheepishly. “Enjoying the marketplace, I presume?”
“Definitely,” Rynn nodded, grinning. “I like coming out here during the day and shopping for things you can’t really get in the Palace. They’re some good buys here on clothing and accessories, and the fresh fruit is exquisite. Are you here for the same reason?”
“Alas, no. I’m on something of a scouting mission with Knight Karnasy.” He gestured to his comrade, and Seth gave her an embarrassed smile from within his hood.
Then Mathis leaned forward, his voice lowering. “Just curious, but have you sensed any other Force-Sensitives in the area today?”
Rynn tilted her head in thought. “Hmm. Not that I can recall. Are you looking for someone specific?”
“No, no one in particular. Just taking a survey of sorts.”
“Well, I’ll be sure to let you know if I find anyone else.”
With a slight bow, Mathis took his leave, and Seth followed suit. Then, as they moved off into the crowd once more, he remarked, “Crusader Mariel really is beautiful, isn’t she?”
Mathis smiled. “Keep your mind on the task at hand, Knight.”
Seth felt heat rush to his face. “Yes sir.” He paused, thinking back to their mission at hand. “Do you think the killer is Force-Sensitive, Master?”
Mathis glanced back at him. “My boy, I’m positive. You haven’t seen any of the crime scenes, have you?”
“No, I admit I haven’t.”
“Better you didn’t. Seth, whoever or whatever’s doing this is superhuman. The authorities are covering up the crime scenes and clearing them out as soon as they find out. If the local citizens saw them or knew the whole truth, we’d probably have a small-scale panic in the city. Already there are too many rumors about. This is the last thing we need in our current situation.”
“I understand, Master,” Seth said. Indeed, morale was already at ebbing, with the constant threat of Altarin’Dakor invasion. The New Imperium doing nothing to actively combat them was only making things worse. If word came out that there was a Force-Sensitive serial killer around, panic likely would result. Seth felt a chill settle into his stomach at the prospect of a Force-strong quarry. What if it was a Jedicon sent here to cause havoc? With a sudden chill he realized that his first bout with a Jedicon might come sooner than he’d expected…
* * *
Slowly, night descended upon Varnus, another day passing with the endless planetary rotation, the sun setting upon the hills, casting orange-red light across the sky. To some, the day had been more meaningful and eventful than others. For Xar and Zalaria, the day had been filled with special, private moments and intimate conversations. Their stroll along the shore, their private dinner on the terrace, a quiet soak in the spa, and other small, timeless moments they’d been able to share.
Xar lay back against his soft silk pillow with a sigh. He looked at his new wife, stretched out beside him on their bed. As he lay there, he felt a sense of satisfaction and wonderment come over him, as if a long journey were finally over, and now he could relax. It was truly an apt analogy, he thought. He had finally found his soul mate, the one with whom he was destined to live with the rest of his life. Finding her had been a long and difficult journey, and the mere fact of their coming together was remarkable – the chances of such a pairing were probably astronomically huge. He couldn’t help but laugh inwardly at the thought.
Beside him, Zalaria turned over to face him, searching his face with her eyes. “You’re smiling. What are you thinking?”
He gave a low chuckle and looked up at the ornately painted ceiling above them, knowing that she could probably read his thoughts but was playing along just for fun. “I was just thinking; here I am in bed with a woman almost a thousand times older than I am. That’s… frankly, it’s impossible for me to imagine that. To think that we could end up together like this, when you were born so long ago… even before the legendary Republic was founded.”
She raised up on one elbow, moving over to stare down at him. He knew he could lose himself in those dark, gorgeous eyes for ages. “You know as well as I that our meeting was not a coincidence.” She arched an eyebrow quizzically. “Hmm, are you wondering if I still have my humanity? Xar, I see the same things you see, feel the same feelings.” Her lips curled up into a beautiful smile. “Age makes no difference… when you love someone.”
Her words sent a chill though him like an ice-cold spring, filling him with admiration and excitement. The thought that she actually loved him was almost too overwhelming to imagine. But, of course, she had married him! Anyway, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen – with ever fiber of his being he felt attached and devoted to her. The fact that his feelings were reciprocated felt almost too good to be true. But it’s real, he thought.
“Xar, my position, my power… it all means nothing here. You don’t have to worry. I know you can sense my feelings through our Bond. We are inseparable, and right now I’m a woman - no different from any other.”
He couldn’t help but stare in awe at her. “No, you are different. You’re more beautiful, more powerful, more intelligent… You’re more than any other woman could ever be,” he said. He felt lightheaded, losing himself in the beauty of her features.
“Enough flattery,” she said, grinning slyly. “Why don’t you stop wasting your lips on words and put them to good use, Jedi?”
Blushing in spite of his best efforts not to, he reached up to put his arms around her. But instead, she leaned over him and took hold of his wrists, pinning them to either side. His eyes widened in surprise, but she merely kept grinning.
“I can’t let you lay hands on a Shok’Thola so easily,” she said conspiratorially.
“I thought position and power had nothing to do with this,” he questioned.
“Indulge me,” she said.
Giving a grin of his own, pushed back against her arms, their eyes locking with one another’s. He’d only moved his arms up a couple of centimeters when her strength redoubled, pressing his hands back against the mattress. Her grip tightened, cutting off the circulation to his hands and causing not a little discomfort. She’s using the Force, he realized. This isn’t a very fair game. Well, two can play it, though.
Drawing on the Force to increase the strength in his arms, he pushed back against her much harder. But still, her grip was unmoving, her arms stronger than durasteel. Fine, he thought. She wants me to give it all I’ve got. Drawing all of his Force power, as deeply as he could go and still consciously direct it toward strength, he struggled to raise his arms. He grunted under the effort, throwing everything he had into it, though nothing was happening. His hands were beginning to take on a bluish pallor. Xar was putting all of his Force power into his effort, but Zalaria showed no signs of struggle at all. She remained over him, he eyes unmoving, the same sly expression on her face.
Then the bed suddenly dropped backward as the bedposts near the head broke under the strain, pitching him back at an angle. Realizing that nothing he could do would free him from her grasp, he finally relaxed, letting the Force flow back out of him.
“Okay, you got me,” he said, breathing heavily. He felt tired, but seeing her over him was enough to invigorate him right away. “You’ve proven that you’re stronger than I’ll ever hope to be. Is the test over now?”
She began laughing softly, and he felt the pressure on his wrists drop dramatically. She leaned in closer, her dark, multi-braided hair falling around his face. Her eyes bored into his, and she came so close that their noses touched. “I’m a bit disappointed. Looks like you’re not worthy to touch a Shok’Thola. If, however, the Shok’Thola decides to initiate…”
Involuntarily, he returned her wry smile. “So now that you’ve got me,” Xar whispered, “what do intend to do with me?”
Her smile faded, and she leaned closer. Then their lips met, and she kissed him, softly at first, them more passionately as he responded in turn. Her hands left his wrists, moving over to caress his neck, and he moved his arms around her. Then all rational thought left him as they became immersed in the oneness of their Bond through the Force…
* * *
In a quiet, dark alley in the city slums of Vectur, a young woman struggled against an unseen attacker. The girl, short and blonde-haired, had probably just taken a wrong turn after leaving a nearby pub. But at 3 a.m. even Varnus had to deal with the dregs of its society.
“Let me go!” the young woman shrieked, grappling with a figure dressed in dark, ragged clothing. “Please! Leave me alone!”
“Come on baby,” the man said in a slow, drugged-out voice. “Just be still. It won’t be that bad.”
Watching the pair from behind a large garbage bin, Seth Karnasy clenched his fists in anger. They had just come around the corner when he and Mathis noticed the two scuffling in the shadows. The Jedi Master had thought he’d sensed the presence of a Force-Sensitive in the area, but it had come in scant traces and half-glimpses. They’d followed the trail into the less-populated, run-down section of the city. Only a single streetlamp shone a bluish-white spotlight into the alley, but the woman and her assailant were just outside its illumination. He couldn’t make out any more detail except her general size and hair color.
“Come on, let’s take him down now,” Seth whispered, brimming with anger. “I can’t watch this any longer.” He started to get up, but felt the firm grip of his master’s hand on his shoulder stopping him.
“Hold on. That’s not the man we’re looking for, but he’s nearby,” Mathis said. “This is just some local drunk. We can take him out quietly; we don’t want to announce ourselves.”
Seth waited, and listened as the girl’s protests continued. The assailant seemed to be holding her down with one hand and fumbling with her clothes with the other. He hadn’t done anything yet, but if they waited much longer…
“I can’t take this,” he whispered fiercely. “Stop him, now!”
Mathis hesitated for another second, then his hand left Seth’s shoulder. “Okay, let’s do it.”
Seth was starting to rise when a loud thump rang though the air, echoing between the buildings on either side. Seth paused, watching as the woman’s attacker stood up straight, looking around the alley dumbfounded.
“Wha… Who’s there?” the man mumbled. He turned around, peering into shadows Seth couldn’t penetrate with his vision.
Then the man’s silhouette abruptly moved out of sight into the darkness. There were more sounds of scuffling, a muffled grunt of pain, then a sickly crunching sound and silence. The woman slumped back against the wall, gasping in shock. Then a new figure approached, standing just outside the spotlight. Seth couldn’t make out any detail except that the figure was tall and somewhat gangly. The assailant was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, thank you!” the young woman cried out breathlessly. She stood up and turned to face the newcomer, pulling her light jacket around her tightly. “You saved me. Thank you so much, I don’t know what I would’ve done without…”
She broke off as the figure stepped closer, still outside the light, but within less than a meter from her. The woman’s breath had caught as he approached, as if frozen upon seeing the man’s visage.
“Who said anything about saving?” a dark voice growled with a sound like stones cracking.
The woman began screaming uncontrollably as the figure began to reach for her.
“That’s him! The one we’re after!” Mathis cried.
He shot to his feet, Seth eagerly following suit. The two of them ran out into the alley, stopping just short of the spotlight’s circle. Mathis threw his hood back, revealing his face. “Stop right there!” he yelled. “We know who you are. We know you’re the murderer who’s been stalking the streets at night. Reveal yourself!”
For a moment, the figure didn’t move. Then, almost casually, he released the woman’s jacket, and she bolted in the other direction, still screaming at the top of her lungs. The dark figure turned to them with a guttural, questioning growl. Darkness enshrouded him as the woman’s screams faded into the night.
“I can sense his strength in the Force,” Seth breathed, trying to make out more detail in the mysterious newcomer. “There’s something strange about it…”
The figure straightened, but didn’t move into the light. For a moment, everything was silent.
That’s enough. This lowlife doesn’t deserve any mercy. I’m taking him out. Throwing his cloak over his shoulder, Seth brought his lightsaber up and ignited it, sending a greenish hue across the walls to either side.
“Seth, wait,” Mathis called out, hesitation in his voice. The figure still hadn’t moved. “Something’s not right.”
“What’s not right is how this psychotic piece of garbage has gotten away with this so far. But now that’s all gonna change!”
With a roar, Seth started forward, lightsaber held high overhead for a finishing strike.
Halfway there Seth felt the target’s energy start to rise. The silhouette still remained stationary, but something about his Force aura changed, fluctuating, as is a curtain were opening, pulling aside a facade that had been hiding something else: his true power.
Too late, Seth realized his error. The enemy had also been using a Force Mask, and a powerful one at that. But he was already committed to his attack, and couldn’t pull back now. A second later the silhouette became a person, and Seth was able to glimpse the figure’s true face, the one that had sent the woman into absolute panic.
Now he knew why, and he screamed like he’d never screamed before in his life.
“Seth, no!” Mathis cried out futilely as the young Jedi Knight dashed forward. It was no use; Seth was focused fully on his target, and wasn’t able to sense the growing Force power within the enemy.
Seth’s scream rang out an instant before his body was blown backwards through the air like a bullet. He passed Mathis in a blur, a cluster of disconnected limbs, slamming into the side of the building beside him. The ferrocrete caved in under the impact, forming a large crater as Seth Karnasy’s body was mashed further inside, followed by chunks of ferrocrete that sealed him in tight. Sickening pops and grinding sounds could be heard in the center of the impact area, and Mathis’ stomach lurched at the prospect of what that might be. Then he saw streams of blood pouring out from between the rocks, trickling down to the pavement below.
“S…Seth?” Mathis whispered. The man’s lightsaber skidded across the ground past Mathis, its blade sending up sparks where it hit the pavement, then came to a stop some distance away, casting the alley in green light. Mathis stepped closer to the crumbled wall, and fought the bile rising up in his throat. A wave of shock hit him as he realized what had happened to the young Jedi. More blood was pouring out of the hole, forming a small pool at the base of the building, where a couple of disconnected fingers lay. How could a body contain so much blood?
He’s dead, Mathis realized. Just like that, his life had been extinguished in one of the most gruesome and careless acts he’s ever witnessed. The promising young lad’s death had been pointless, without glory or honor, enacted as casually as one would swat a fly.
He turned back toward the shadowy figure, still full of shock, but also feeling a cold anger form in his gut. This was a true monster, he realized. Somehow, he had to be stopped. If he could kill Jedi Knights this easily…
Suddenly his anger was replaced by something worse – fear. He’ll do the same to me, Mathis realized. I sensed his power – I can’t even begin to touch that. If I attack, I’ll be killed too, mutilated like… Seth.
“What’s wrong?” the figure growled. “Don’t you want to try your luck?”
It was an open challenge, but Mathis remained where he was, speechless. The figure knew the position he was in, the things that were going through his mind. He knew Mathis didn’t have a chance. Shaking, the Jedi Master tried to step back away from him, his knees feeling like they could collapse at any moment. I can’t do it, he thought, and hated himself for it.
“Well, I suppose someone needs to survive,” the figure spoke up, almost playfully. “To carry my message.” Then he stepped into the light.
If Mathis had been afraid before, he was filled with stark terror as the being revealed himself. Now he understood why he didn’t have a chance. The figure before him was the culmination of all his nightmares and innermost fears. He was the epitome of darkness, and all hope fled before him. Mathis felt himself starting to feint.
“Tell Zalaria and her lover that I am coming for them,” Death whispered, just before Mathis blacked out. “Tell them I am coming soon.”
* * *
Xar awoke slowly from a deep, restful sleep, and opened his eyes to see the elegant Varnusian painting sprawled across the ceiling overhead. He reached out an arm beside him, searching for the warm body of his new wife beside him. But his hand hit empty sheets, already cool in the morning air.
Rising abruptly, he looked down to where she’d lain, and sighed with relief when he saw the impression of where she’d been lying. For a moment he’d been worried that last night had only been a dream, a wonderful dream. Thankfully it wasn’t.
He looked around the room, already bright with the sun’s illumination. A cool breeze flowed in from the open window, stirring the white draperies to either side. It would warm up later, with summer fully underway. He figured it must be mid-morning - Zalaria probably had risen earlier out of habit. Stang, but he didn’t even know if the woman needed to sleep!
Sliding his legs over the side, he stood up and began dressing, pulling a pair of loosely comfortable black half-pants over his small-clothes, followed by a white undershirt. Tying the stringed waistband, he then headed for the door, where the sound of uneven footsteps could already be overheard. He passed his bag and few meager things he’d brought on this trip, including his commlink, which he’d switched off for the weekend.
Zalaria was out there, in the main atrium, practicing her sword form in the wide, spacious chamber. She was in similar attire, with dark pants and a sleeveless black shirt. Her blade was made of traditional metal, sharp on one end with a slight curve to it. She flew through the movements, moving gracefully from stance to stance, her feet padding quickly across the floor. Her blade moved in a blur, her taut, shapely muscles finely controlling its every movement, flashing through offensive and defensive motions – cuts, parries, jabs, and ripostes. She must have been at it for a while; he could see her sweating from the constant exertion. Xar knew she didn’t need to practice sword-forms – she just seemed to enjoy it, to give her better presence of mind.
Finishing one routine in a flurry of sword movements almost too fast to follow, she finally came to a stop and whirled to face him. Smiling slightly, she relaxed her grip on the sword, letting it lean up against her shoulder. “Good morning,” she said.
“I’m surprised you still have the energy for this,” he said jocularly, grinning widely.
Stars, but she was beautiful. Her outfit accentuated her natural beauty completely, captivating him with her gracefulness. Her hair was tied back out of her face, and her amazing eyes seemed to sparkle in the light.
“Unfortunately, restlessness comes with the mantle of being a Shok’Thola,” she said, turning serious. “Having a virtually limitless supply of life energy means I’ve little need of rest or sleep, and can recover quickly from even the most strenuous… ordeals.” She finished with a mischievous grin, and he felt himself blushing at her words.
“Well, if you wanted to train, all you had to do was ask for a partner,” he said, matching her grin. He reached out with the Force, drawing out the second sword she had lying with the rest of her equipment by the wall. It touched his palm, and he held it up to study it, drawing it out of the ornately-scrolled scabbard. The pommel was a sturdy wrapped wood that would prevent slipping, and the blade was a dark, shiny metal with a clear heat tempered line. The edge looked very, very sharp.
“Well then, show me what you’ve got,” she said.
Setting the scabbard aside, he turned to face her, holding the blade vertically in front of him in a basic guard. “Are you sure about this? These blades are live. We don’t want to take a hospital visit for a severed limb while we’re on our honeymoon.”
“Don’t worry, my love. There’s no need holding back. There’s really no way you can harm me, and I won’t do anything to you I couldn’t Heal afterwards.” She finished with a mischievous grin.
Raising his eyebrows, he swallowed hard, feeling a touch of fear in his stomach. He was pretty sure she was joking, but she was such a great actress he couldn’t tell for sure. Still, the prospect of sparring with her sent a wave of excitement and exhilaration through him. After all, she was an Altarin’Dakor Warlord, one of the most powerful Force users in history. He had no doubt that his best skills were no more than child’s play to her. Realistically he had no chance of beating her, but still the battle-eager aspect of him that existed inside his blood was ecstatic at this unique possibility. He could go all out against her without the fear of being killed in return. It quickly overcame his fear, and he broke into an instinctive grin.
“Get ready,” he said, stepping forward into an attack stance and holding his blade up in front of him. She held her sword up in a more relaxed guard in return.
Then, without warning her as to what he would do, he charged straight in. Raising his blade high overhead, he ran forward until he was nearly upon her, then abruptly changed directions, sliding along her left side and bringing his blade around in a horizontal strike at waist-level.
Zalaria had held her relaxed stance until an instant before he struck, then her sword became a blur of motion, sweeping down to parry his first strike, then spinning in the direction of the strike, turning to lash out in front of him, her blade coming directly for his face. Reacting instantly, he ducked the blow and turned his motion into a roll, coming back up to face her in the direction he’d come.
He was just in time to block her next attack, her blade lashing out in a sweeping, flowing pattern at lightning speed. He moved into the rhythm, falling back before her powerful blows, letting his own Force Sense dictate his movements. Even so, she was so fast that could barely block in time, avoiding getting cut by mere centimeters. The sound of their blows rang throughout the empty chamber, sparks flying off the blades as they collided in rapid succession.
Realizing he was being pressed toward the wall, Xar risked a feint return strike and then rolled again to his left when she moved to block. He came back up near the center of the hallway, with more room to maneuver on either side. As she started to come in again, he decided that defending constantly was not going to get him anywhere. His only chance would be to surprise her with one of his best techniques at full-speed and hope she would be impressed enough to yield. She already had him fighting at the limits of his abilities with the sword, and he knew that if she wanted he’d already have been defeated a dozen times.
So, as she renewed the attack once more with a powerful vertical cut, he intentionally let it come in, bringing his own blade up to block the strike high. But just before she made contact, she changed the attack, arresting its downward movement and sweeping it around for a cut at his left side. Throwing his blade that way, he loosened his grip on the hilt, taking the blow near the guard. Immediately she waved her blade in a V motion that caught his guard on the other side and pulled it up and out of his hands.
Of course, he’d anticipated something like that would happen. As she pulled the sword away, sending it spinning across the room, he let it go and instead dove toward her full-force. Locking his left hand on her wrist and grabbing her shoulder with his right, he simultaneously threw his weight past her and stepped behind her legs with his left foot. Then, rotating his body, he threw her over his leg and down to the tiled marble flooring below.
Zalaria, however, had reflexes even better than he’d accounted for. Just before she hit the floor she let go over her sword and grabbed his arms, using her own momentum to reverse his move and throw her over her head. His back hit the floor hard, and she immediately rolled to get on top of him, holding his left arm behind her right armpit and locking his neck with her left arm. Then she spread out, widening her center of balance and pressing down on him with her weight, pinning him against the floor.
Xar gasped for air, the pressure cutting off his wind, and watched as she stared predatorily down at him. He tried his best to push her off, sliding to the side and attempting to arch her over him and reverse the move, but she was too skilled and too strong, and if he hadn’t been able to out-power her last night, he had no chance now. She had him, again.
Of course, that wasn’t a bad thing in the slightest.
Her expression changed as she took on a mischievous smile, then leaned down to kiss him. Her soft lips met his, and he felt his discomfort melt away. He kissed her back as best he could from his trapped position. After a moment, she drew back, and stared into his eyes.
“You’re cute when you fight,” she whispered, her nose touching his. “Always trying something bold and risky, something you know could get you killed if you made the slightest mistake.”
“I guess it’s in my genes,” he said softly, thinking at her words. “It’s not really in my capacity to give up. If I see a chance, however slim, I take it.” He grinned. “Of course, you’re the only person that I’ll surrender to.”
“You’re as stubborn as an Altarin’Dakor,” she said, grinning. She leaned in to kiss him again.
Then the skylight in the center of the atrium’s ceiling shattered inwards.
Zalaria leaned back just in time for him to get a glimpse of the dark figure landing nimbly in the center of the room. It dropped into a low crouch, head down so Xar couldn’t see its face. Pieces of glass fell all around him from above, shattering into hundreds of shards on the marble flooring.
The figure was dressed in a torn and tattered cloak, so filthy it looked as if it had been lived in for weeks. His hair, falling down over his face, was long and segmented into dreadlocks, and colored an amalgam of black and green that made it look like he had snakes growing out of his head. Even though he’s never seen the figure before, a cold chill of terror came into his stomach at the mere sight of him. But if Xar didn’t know who the newcomer was, his wife most certainly did.
“Oh no……” Zalaria whispered in disbelief, her voice quickly growing into a scream, a sound of pure dismay and terror. “No…. It’s…. IT’S VEEELIUUUS!!!!”
Suddenly, the figure tossed its head back, letting his hair fly wildly back over his head, revealing his face. Xar gasped in shock. At first, it looked like the man had no face. Instead was the visage and snout of a vicious animal, striped wildly in black, yellow and red. It bared its teeth, revealing a row of razor-sharp fangs where human incisors should have been.
Then, slowly, the creature began to rise. It stood, raising to its full height, and Xar saw that it was in fact a man. The snarling, ferocious visage was some kind of tattoo, so elaborate that even his eyes were colored to match the creatures face, so that it seemed he didn’t have human eyes, but widely-set, vicious predator eyes painted at the sides of his face. Then the figure opened his mouth and extended his tongue, and Xar felt bile rising toward his throat as he saw a forked, black perversion of what had once been a human tongue.
And most frightening of all was the incredible amount of Force power Xar could sense within him. Even standing at ease, he held more power than Xar had ever sensed in a being before. His own power level, a match for the strongest Jedi ever recorded during the Republic’s days, felt like comparing a lighted match to the flame of a burning sun. There was only one thing this creature could truly be… a Shok’Thola – a Warlord.
Then, incredibly, the figure spoke, and its voice sounded like metal grinding, deep and yet with a snakelike hiss emitting with every word.
“You don’t seem pleased to see me… baby,” he said in Altarin’Dakor that sounded half seductive and half an animal growl. “Was I… interrupting anything?”
Xar looked over at Zalaria, who had pulled some distance away and stared wide-eyed at the intruder. She still hadn’t gotten over the original shock, and her face held a look of utter disbelief.
“Who… Who is he?” Xar asked, keeping his voice low. If the creature noticed him, he made no sign of it.
His words seemed to bring Zalaria out of her trance. She blinked, then looked at Xar, the fear clearly present in her eyes. “You mean you can’t tell just by looking at him?” she said, her voice low and barely more than a whisper. “It’s Velius.”
“You’ve been a very bad girl, Zalaria,” Velius said with what Xar thought was amusement in his tone.
Turning back to the intruder, Zalaria stood up. Xar followed suit, still sizing him up mentally. Zalaria took a step forward, some firmness returning to her voice. “What do you want from us?” she asked.
“You tell me,” Velius said. “You weren’t at the last gathering. I missed you, so I went to find you, but then I found out you had given yourself to these… primitives. We can’t have you running around unleashed, now can we?”
Zalaria raised her chin, taking a regal – yet all too fragile-looking – pose. Her eyes were totally focused on the invader, and Xar could hear something like resignation in her voice as she spoke. “So… You’re here to kill me, then?” she questioned.
“Of course,” Velius said, reaching up and sliding the tattered cloak off of his shoulders. Xar saw that underneath he wore close-fitting and equally filthy sleeveless shirt and pants, and had a well-built, muscled physique. The rest of his body was painted the same as his face, making him look like a wild thing, and his hands ended in not fingernails, but sharp claws. His eyes, colored to match the rest of him, looked dead, and he could see nothing behind them. But the mere plainness with which he’d stated his purpose chilled Xar to the bone.
Zalaria took a deep breath, not giving much sign as to her reaction to the news. “But Kigiras said there was an order… No, Altama didn’t send you, did he?”
“No, and leave him out of this,” Velius said, and finally he smiled, a sickening, twisted grin that twisted Xar’s stomach. “This is for me. This is for… fun.” Then he crouched low, brandishing his claws, and Xar new he was about to attack.
“Get behind me!” Xar cried, moving forward to block the enemy’s path to his wife. Drawing on the Force, he summoned all of the power he could in such a short span, bracing himself for attack. But instead, he felt Zalaria’s hand touch his shoulder, pulling him harshly to the side. He turned, and was surprised at the intensity of her expression as she glared at him.
“What do you think you’re doing, Xar!?” she shouted. “Get out of here and as far away as you can, right now!”
Xar blinked in astonishment, and opened his mouth to protest. “But together we can…”
“Shut up! You don’t have any idea what you’re dealing with!” she berated. “Don’t you understand? Velius is the most powerful of all the Shok’Thola!”
“What?!” What was she saying?
“Get out while you still have the chance! I’ll hold him off as long as possible!”
“I’m not leaving you!” he shouted, just as the full import of her words hit him. She didn’t expect to win against Velius… She was going to die, and she wanted him to survive. But he would rather die than let that happen! “I’ll never abandon you!”
Then suddenly blast of Force-blown wind hit them, staggering Zalaria but sending Xar down to the floor. He rolled with it, coming back up in a crouch, and looked over toward their attacker.
“Um… Excuse me,” Velius said, head cocked to one side. “Will you two stop arguing and let’s get on with it!?”
Then in a flash of movement, Velius was gone, flying across the room at superhuman velocity. Halfway there Zalaria had already picked up both discarded swords with the Force and sent them hurtling toward him, but they didn’t even offer passing resistance. Both blades disintegrated from tip to hilt in front of the crazed Warlord as he barreled straight toward his opponent.
The two Warlords collided in an explosion of sound and motion, already moving too fast for Xar even to follow at full-power. Zalaria skidded back across the floor before the onslaught, taking stone-crushing blows that Velius rained down at lightning speed. Velius ducked her return punches and planted a fist across her jaw followed by a blinding kick to the ribs, rocketing her back. Xar heard bone shatter from the force of the flows, and cried out in terror at what was happening to his wife. He grunted in pain as feedback of the damage hit him through the Bond.
The blows hardly phased Zalaria, however. Flipping back in midair, she caught herself with her hands and took Velius’ legs out beneath him as he passed. He rolled over her and spun back down so fast she didn’t have time to recover and spin, and she gasped as the tip of a dagger suddenly jutted out the center of her chest. Zalaria’s eyes went wide, and Velius grabbed handful of her hair, reached down, and planted a kiss over her open mouth. Then he threw her down to the floor.
Xar couldn’t take anymore. Mere seconds had passed since they’d started, and he’d been unable to move at the mere shock of their incredible speeds. Now he felt himself rushing forward instinctively, screaming at the top of his lungs in rage.
He shouldn’t have bothered. Planting another blow across Zalaria’s head and ripping the dagger out of her chest, Velius then turned and flew forward into Xar’s face, grabbing the front of his shirt with one hand. Xar gasped as his claws cut through the skin of his chest.
“Wait for your turn,” Velius whispered, then gave him an almost casual shove. Xar flew through the wall behind him, the prefabricated material collapsing from the force of his momentum. Xar emerged back in the bedroom and fell back hard against the side of the bed. He looked around, wide-eyed and disoriented in pain for a moment, then he spotted his lightsaber on the stand beside the bed. It had seemed an eternity since they had been in here. How can this be happening? he wondered frantically. This can’t be real! The sounds of battle were coming again from the next room. Snatching up his lightsaber, Xar barreled back through the hole his impact had made a second before.
Zalaria was trying to evade Velius’ blindingly-fast strikes, and failing. Her other wounds looked half-healed already, and the dagger the Warlord had used on her was back in his own hand. As Xar watched, Velius snatched out with the blade, cutting an ugly gash across her cheekbone. Xar felt his insides wrench together; he felt every blow she took in more ways than one. Seeing the one he loved hurt was difficult enough, but through the Bond her pain was coming straight back at him.
Then, surprisingly, Zalaria snapped out a kick that knocked the blade from Velius’ hand. Or maybe the Warlord had let her, because in return he barreled forward and swept her off her feet with a powerful sidearm blow that sent her crashing to the floor once again. Her blood left a trail across the floor as she slid.
“Did you think I would make this easy on you?!” Velius screamed down at her. His foot crashed into her midsection, and Xar heard ribs shatter again, feeling a stab of pain blossom in his own chest as well. Lurching up in pain, Zalaria tried to rise, but was sent back down by an almost casual slap from Velius.
This can’t be! Xar thought over and over. Isn’t she a Shok'Thola, too? Their power levels can’t be that different! But the answer was obvious before him. Velius was merely toying with her, and for him to be doing that meant he was far, far above her in power.
“I can’t take this!!!” Xar screamed, throwing his useless blade to the side and summoning up all the Force power he could muster. He thrust his hands out in front of him, aimed directly toward the dark Warlord. “Eat this, you kriffin’ freak!”
Zalaria rolled out from under the Warlord as Xar unleashed the most powerful Force blast he could generate. The beam of energy blasted across the short space between him and Velius, reaching hungrily for him. But Velius didn’t even look in his direction, instead throwing a hand his way and sending out a short burst of his own.
Impossibly, the Warlord’s tiny blast ate Xar’s beam completely away and then hit the wall beside him, decimating it and blowing Xar completely off his feet. Pieces of hot building rained over him, the heat from the flames so strong it felt like his clothes were on fire, which they probably were.
Taking the chance, Zalaria launched toward the other Warlord, raining heavy blows across his body and face that twisted the dark man back and forth. But even that wasn’t enough to slow Velius down; his face barely moved, and he actually laughed, a sound like screeching metal. Then he caught one of her arms in mid-strike, pulled her off balance, and planted his knee straight into her stomach. She coughed out violently, spitting out rivulets of blood, and then he grabbed her hair and slammed the same knee straight into her face. Zalaria collapsed to her hands and knees, nose crushed, teeth and blood splattering down to the floor below her. A quick jerk from Velius tore her arm out of its socket. Then he planted another kick into her face that threw her on her back again.
“NOOO!!!!” Xar screamed, getting up and diving toward the Warlord again. This time a blast of invisible Force stopped him in mid air, then threw him back into the wall again, creating a small crater around his body.
“Didn’t I tell you to wait your turn?!” Velius yelled at him. “Shut up and watch!”
Then an invisible hand gripped Xar like he was a child, squeezing him like some child’s toy. Xar gasped for air, feeling his bones grinding together and his insides screaming for freedom.
Laughing evilly, Velius turned back to Zalaria – and froze.
Zalaria was up on one knee, her good hand held out directly in front of the Warlord’s face, fingers spread wide. A cruel grin of her own twisted her bloody features. Velius’ eyes went wide for a moment…
Then the blast of energy erupted from Zalaria’s hand, enveloping Velius’ head in a blinding beam of energy. The Warlord’s scream shook the air as the beam poured over him, driving him up into the air and through the far wall above the villa’s entrance. The screams faded with him, followed by the fading roar of the fiery blast Zalaria had unleashed.
Then time seemed to return to the world. Xar pushed away from the wall and stumbled toward Zalaria, who was breathing rapidly, her eyes still wide. Quickly remembering, he summoned his lightsaber back to his hand, just in case. Zalaria started grunting in pain as popping sounds came from her midsection, and her nose pulled itself back into place right before his eyes. Her arm popped back into joint loudly enough to make him wince. She turned toward him, and he noticed with dread that several of her teeth were missing. “Are you all right?!” she gasped.
“I should be asking you that!” he shouted, his ears still ringing from the rapid exchanges of energy that had been going around. He gestured toward the hole in the upper wall that Velius’ flying body had caused. “At least you got rid of him! Taking him by surprise was a good move…”
“Are you crazy?” she said, giving him a wild-eyed look. “We’ll be lucky if that just made him angry. We’ve got to get out of here right now!”
Not waiting for him to argue, she grabbed his arm and pulled him violently away, rushing for the front door. It broke outward as she pushed at it, and together they ran outside, across the pathway, and over the grass as fast as they could.
Xar looked back just in time to see the entire villa explode brilliantly behind them. It simply detonated, sending huge pieces of debris flying through the air above them.
“Find a place to hide and take cover!” Zalaria shouted at him, pushing him away as they crested a hill. Then her speed increased tenfold as she levitated, and she flew down the hill and across the field on the other side, her hair flying wildly behind her head.
Xar rolled across the ground and fought to regain his footing. He stood, searching wildly for any sign of the enemy. This part of Varnus was mostly grasslands, with few trees in sight at all – this area was very rocky and had been deemed unsuitable for agriculture. The landscape was a series of hills and valleys, and was also known for the large stones and boulders that were scattered across the countryside.
Above him the sun had risen almost to its apex, but was obscured by large clusters of cumulous clouds, pristine white on their tops and darker gray at their flat bottoms.
Abruptly the deafening sound of an explosion to his right caught his attention, and he turned to see a plume of smoke and dirt climbing toward the sky. Out of the center of it flew a human form, screaming and cursing down at the ground below. His head was a black char, and Xar had no doubt that was their insane antagonist. Anyone else would have been killed instantly by Zalaria’s attack, but Velius’ being much stronger than she had allowed him to survive, coupled with the regenerative powers that all Shok’Thola had.
As he watched, Velius sent another spear of energy down toward the ground, eliciting another conflagration of stone and fire into the air as large as a turbolaser blast would’ve made. A return blast missed him by about a meter, and he seemed to redouble his efforts, cursing violently down at his target as he rained more blasts of light below.
Xar ran toward the columns of fire and smoke as fast as he could, knowing how useless he was but unable to do anything else. This was his wife under attack, and regardless of whether or not he could help her, he couldn’t sit idly by and watch her be killed by a monster.
That’s when he realized that Velius’ efforts seemed more intense and frantic now, almost as if he were really trying to kill her. Before, he’d clearly been toying with the both of them. Maybe now he’d been blinded by anger at what Zalaria had done to him, and that had lessened his ability to fight. Indeed, having his features reduced to a charred and blistered lump of flesh would probably drive anyone over the edge, he realized. But if Velius’ weakness was anger, maybe he could exploit that by making him even angrier – angry enough to lose his head completely. It was risky, but it might be their only chance.
Zalaria seemed to be staying on the ground, limiting her direction of moment but keeping her from fighting Velius on his own ground. If they both started flying around, Xar knew he wouldn’t have a chance of helping at all. He could levitate, even move at some speed in the air, but not with a fraction of the velocity they could.
Xar kept running as fast as he could, chasing the explosions, cresting one hill and sprinting down the other side. The other two were moving away from him, so fast he could barely catch up. Zalaria’s luring him away from me, he realized. And I’m following. But she knew I would. What else can I do? He wanted to scream in frustration.
A moment later he was in range. Velius’ quarry seemed to have stopped, and all his attention was directly downward.
“Down here, you jerk!” Xar shouted up at the enraged figure. Velius made no sign of noticing him, so Xar reached back and sent a powerful blast of Force Destruction up at him. Again, Velius simply floated to the side, the blast passing harmlessly past him. He was focused on what was on the ground, and Xar knew who that focus was.
Then abruptly a thousand tiny spears of energy erupted from the ground and flew toward the Warlord. This time, Velius couldn’t dodge them, but instead he extended a hand downwards, and the spears of energy dissipated harmlessly a meter in front of his palm.
Xar finally came in sight of Zalaria. She was standing in a small basin in between two hills, waves of energy exploding up out of her palms. Then, apparently seeing the ineffectiveness her attack, she leapt upwards, barreling at the Warlord just behind the last of her shots. As Velius dissipated the last of her energy, she slammed into his midsection with both fists ahead of her, driving them both back through the air.
Apparently stunned from her last attack, Velius fell prey to a vicious assault by the other Warlord, Zalaria raining down blows across his blackened face, thrusting kicks into his torso. Xar had seen her similar blows take heads off, yet Velius merely flinched away from them. A moment later, he’d recovered enough to avoid them entirely, dodging her at incredible speed too fast for Xar even to follow.
Then, as they hovered, Velius caught her arm and slammed a return backhand across her face. She reeled away, but recovered almost instantly and threw a powerful roundhouse at his head. But Velius ducked, slammed a fist into her stomach, doubling her over, and then brought both hands down onto her back with a terrific crash, sending her flying down toward the ground.
“DIE!” he shouted, extending a hand downward. A beam of energy two meters wide erupted from his palm, reaching out to envelop her in a flash of light. Zalaria screamed, then the sound was overcome by the roar of energy as she was blown down to the surface.
Xar dimly heard the scream of pure terror erupting from his own throat as Zalaria’s body passed behind a hillock, sending an explosion of dirt and smoke into the air. Fire seemed to pour out of his body, almost overwhelming, even though it wasn’t he who had been hit.
“NOOOO!!!! KRIIIIFF YOU!!!” Xar bellowed, setting his stance and drawing all the Force power he possibly could. The pure ecstasy of the power became a stabbing pain as he drew in everything he could, almost more than he could control, his energy fueled by rage and pain. Then he thrust his hands at the Warlord and assembled the power necessary for an energy blast. The beam that erupted from his hands sent him falling backwards under its force, wider and stronger than any he’d cast before. The blinding bolt of energy, brighter than the sun, streaked instantaneously up toward the Warlord hovering in the air a hundred meters away.
As the blast came upon him, Velius turned toward it, a sneer twisting his burned features. Then, contemptuously, he reached out and struck the beam with his palm just as it came in. Instantly the blast changed course, veering away from him at a sharp angle and continuing skyward. Xar’s beam flashed up into the air, passing out of sight within a few seconds.
Speechless with disbelief, Xar collapsed to the ground, the last of his energy rushing out of him. He lifted his head to see his opponent, and gasped as he saw Velius coming straight at him.
“Thanks for waiting, insect!” Velius yelled. “Now it’s your turn!”
Desperately Xar leapt to the side as the blast came at him, and it missed him by less than a meter. His clothes erupted in flames from the incredible heat, and then he was flying, the explosion behind him launching his body like a rag doll.
Then the ground came rushing to meet him...
Xar came awake with a gasp, instinctively crying out at the pain all over his body. He tore at his shirt, still smoldering from the fire. The shirt pulled skin away as it came off, and he yelled out at the excruciating sensation. Underneath, he saw he was burned badly across his stomach and torso.
“Now you know what it’s like!” the voice of death screamed down at him from above.
Xar glanced up in shock, and saw the Warlord poised there twenty meters above, a hand stretched out straight toward him. It’s over, he thought. We’re dead, and Varnus with us.
The Warlord glanced toward the sound of the voice, but it was too late. With blinding speed Zalaria appeared beside Xar, glowing like the sun with Force energy. Her hands were cupped together, and she grunted with the effort of concentrating all of her energy. Xar watched her from his prone position, the only spectator of what was about to happen.
Velius’s head had followed her movements, and now he stared directly down at her, an astonished look on his face. Then, as Zalaria threw her hands up toward him, his lips opened to speak, even as the ten-meter beam of energy rushed out to envelop him. “N…”
Then he was gone, only the echo of a scream in the air as Zalaria’s blast flew skyward, pouring upward at blinding speed. The air burned away around it, rippling out at superheated temperatures. Within seconds it reached the cloud cover, and passed out of sight.
Zalaria let the blast die and collapsed to the ground beside Xar, the energy rushing out of her. She gasped for breath as she stared up at the sky, her body drenched in sweat.
Xar pushed himself up and crawled over to her, finally getting a chance to assess the damage to her. He felt like crying and shouting for joy at the same time. She was badly injured, but still alive. And her wounds were healing before his eyes. Her clothes had been turned to char, though there was barely enough left to preserve modesty. Her skin was red, and in some spots, blackened and leaking puss, but the color was already starting to return at the edges. Xar was simply astonished at the regenerative powers the Warlords had. She defiantly still retained the Immortality that all Shok’Thola had been given.
Zalaria smiled at him then, though the pain was still there in her eyes. “I’m… all right,” she said breathlessly.
“You did it,” Xar said in disbelief. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Giving a sad half-grin, Zalaria slowly rose to her feet. She stared up at the clouds high above. “I’d hoped that was enough to finish him, but… I’m sorry, Xar. It’s over.”
At first Xar thought he hadn’t heard correctly. But the tired, hopeless look in her eyes was all the confirmation he needed. “You… You can’t mean…” he stammered.
She smiled sadly at him. “I can’t kill him, Xar. That much I knew from the beginning. As long as he is holding all his power inside, he’ll at least be able to survive my attacks. He may have been blinded by anger, but he’s not foolish enough to let his energy level drop when facing me.”
“So you mean… We can’t defeat him?” Xar asked, fighting a sudden rush of frustration and despair.
“The only way to kill him would be to somehow hit him with more power than he can sustain on his own. And I cannot do that, even if all your Jedi lent me their powers.” She shook her head slowly. “Velius has extraordinary strength, and always has. He once defeated an assassination attempt by a dozen Golden Age Jedi Masters and countless Jedi Knights. And he fills himself with drugs that increase his sensory abilities and make him half-crazed. I am the strongest female Shok’Thola, but just in the middle of the group in raw power. You once asked me my power level as you measure it.”
Xar nodded. “I couldn’t believe you were that far apart.”
“We are. Mine is three hundred eighty-six thousand by that scale… Velius’ power level is over six hundred thousand.”
Xar closed his eyes, feeling all hope leave him. Now he understood why she kept saying that all of them together couldn’t match Velius. He was a monster. The power scale wasn’t linear – it was exponential. How can anyone be that powerful? he thought desperately. His own fifty thousand – what he had thought was the absolute limit – seemed worse than pitiful by comparison.
Then suddenly he felt a power spike stronger than anything he’d felt before. Its direction was unmistakable. Zalaria looked skyward, her expression grim. “Oh no…” she whispered.
High above the clouds, nearing the upper regions of Varnus’ atmosphere, a charred black figure ascended like a dark angel, its cry reaching out for kilometers around.
“I’ll turn you, and your planet, into SPACE DUST!!!” Velius screamed.
The Warlord flew high into the atmosphere, finally stopping as the landscape lost its individualistic features and became a green carpet spread below him. The curve of the planet could be clearly seen around him. This high, the cold and the lack of oxygen would’ve been enough to kill a normal person. But this one wasn’t normal. There he paused, drawing his energies together, preparing for his next attack, one that nothing would be able to stop.
“What… What’s he doing?” Xar asked, feeling the incredible surge of energies building high above them.
Zalaria shook her head, her tone grave. “Velius could destroy this entire planet if he wanted. Actually, most Shok’Thola could, as there are several ways of rendering a planet inhabitable. Stripping it of atmosphere, for instance. For Velius, it would be a simple matter for him to destroy the planet’s core, and let nature take its course from there.” She paused, seeming to consider. “Or, he could generate a single blast strong enough to wipe out everything and render the whole planet uninhabitable. And it would certainly be enough to destroy us.”
Xar stared at the sky, wishing he could see beyond the clouds. What could they do? If Velius used all his power to generate one singular blast, it would be so strong that nothing could stop it. It would be stronger than any turbolaser or ship beam; it would be the next best thing to a Death Star’s superlaser.
Then, as he was thinking frantically, a possibility came to him. “Wait,” he said, turning to his wife. “You said the only way to kill him would be to hit him with something stronger than his own energy level, right? Something he wouldn’t be able to block or redirect?”
“That’s right. What are you thinking?” Zalaria asked. Then her eyes widened. “Ah. I understand.”
He nodded. “Right! There’s only one way that we know of to draw in and generate an attack with more energy than your maximum Force power… the Focus Bomb.” Inside, Xar felt a glimmer of hope. The Focus Bomb was a power designed by the Travelers – themselves beings of energy living symbiotically inside human hosts. The Altarin’Dakor were not familiar with such a power, as it combined several other abilities with the Draw Force ability and several others. Icis Novitaar had taught the power to Xar, and he had in turn passed it on to Zalaria. The Focus Bomb took a long time to draw together, but once it was made it could easily overcome even stronger opponents than the power’s caster.
Of course, he didn’t know if the Focus Bomb was designed to be used at this level. He had no idea how large or powerful one created by Zalaria could be, or whether it could stop a direct blast from someone like Velius. But it was the only chance available, and the only way to find out was to try it.
“Zalaria,” he said, turning to her. “You have to create the Focus Bomb. You’re the only one strong enough to do it, or capable of drawing in that much power.”
For a moment, she appeared uncertain. “I’ve only used it a few times, and then only with sparing amounts of power to test with,” she said. She hesitated for a moment, then finally sighed. “But you’re right. It’s the only chance. I’ll begin.”
“Hurry up,” he offered. As she concentrated,
Xar looked back up at the sky, trying to gauge how much energy Velius had
gathered. But it was impossible, already far beyond his ability to measure. It
felt like an
So he turned his attention back to Zalaria, watching but careful not to disturb her concentration. The energy he was feeling from her right now was enormous, more overwhelming than Velius’, since he was so close to her. For a moment he was afraid that residual energy might destroy him where he stood, but she had excellent control over her power, with millennia of practice in refining it. I believe in you, he said, mentally encouraging her onward. He knew she’d be able to do this, to overwhelm even Velius – if they only had the time…
Far above them, high in the atmosphere, Velius hovered, hands raised above his head, screaming in rage. He could feel Zalaria summoning her power for something below, and that made him even angrier. In response, he drew in all of his own power granted him through the Entity, enough power to collapse stars, decimate whole fleets, and turn planets into rubble. Rhythmically, methodically, he drew the power into his hands, into the air around him, his screams sounding out hollowly in the sparse air. Alone, he drew in more power than most Force-users believed existed, more energy than anyone save Altama himself. In just a few moments, he would unleash a fury unlike any that had been seen in a thousand generations, an attack stronger than any he’d used since the Great War. And Varnus would cease to exist as it was, bowing before his immense power, a tribute to his unchallenged authority and godhood.
The ball of energy coalesced in the air, forming in the air just above Zalaria’s outstretched palm. She lofted the compressed collection of energy, watched it as it grew, doubling and redoubling in size as all her power, and that she had gathered, pulsed into it. It rose into the air, growing larger than the mansion they’d been in, burning brighter than a star. Xar turned away, unable to look at it.
“That’s it,” Zalaria said, gasping with effort and concentration. “That’s all I can do. It’s all I have left just to focus it here in front of us.”
Quickly, Xar mentally gauged its power versus what he felt coming from Velius in the sky. Both were immense, beyond his ability to measure, but he got a very rough estimate. “It’s not enough,” he said. “I wouldn’t risk it yet. You’re going to have to draw more, draw energy from the planet itself, and all the living beings in it. Perhaps, even draw energy from outside the planet, from the sun itself.”
He was breathing heavily, too. The Bomb already had his energy in it as well, donated through Zalaria. In essence, they were both holding it up, now.
“I’ll… try,” Zalaria said.
“Just concentrate,” he said. “Think about all the living creatures on this planet. All the plants, animals, both on land and in the oceans. Even all of the people living here on Varnus. All you need is a portion of their strength, just enough to defeat the threat to all our survival.”
She closed her eyes, concentrating, and moments later the Focus Bomb started to swell again, growing ever larger. “That’s it,” he coaxed. “All you need is a little energy from everyone on the planet, to save it and everyone on it. There’s no holding back – if we fail, everything on this planet will die. This is our only chance; everything depends on this!”
The Focus Bomb was massive, now, soaring high above, burning hotter and brighter than anything Xar had seen before. The landscape was all a shade of bluish-white, and he squinted as he watched his wife draw more and more energy into it.
Then he felt Velius’ energy spike, and he knew that he was about to fire. There was no more time!
“That’s it!” he shouted. “Now! Throw it now!”
And with a tremendous grunt of effort, Zalaria sent it skyward.
Velius’s screams reached their apex as he neared the end, his body a living conduit for the energy he was drawing. Only a Shok’Thola could do this; someone with limitless life energy, enough to keep himself in one piece as he wielded insane amounts of Force energies. Then, with a final burst of effort, he had it. He threw his arms downward towards the planet below.
“TAAAAKE THIIIIIIS!” he screamed.
Then he fired.
The blast that appeared before him dwarfed the small human body, then doubled in size, then doubled again and again, until the Warlord was only a tiny speck next to a sea of energy, all poised straight downwards. The blast filled the sky with light, burning away all molecules it touched, temporarily bathing the entire hemisphere in blinding light. Anyone watching the planet from one of the orbiting ships or stardocks would have thought the planet itself had caught fire.
Then the beam, kilometers wide, shot straight down.
At first the beam burned through clear atmosphere. Then it hit the upper layers of wispy clouds and burst through. It continued further on, until it reached the thick layer of cumulous clouds enshrouding the surface. Water vapor flashed into nonexistence as the beam poured through the clouds, reaching hungrily for the surface of the planet itself.
Then the Focus Bomb shot skyward, starting slowly at first, then rapidly building in speed, until it was traveling at the same speed as the beam itself.
The two met in midair, inside the cloud layer. The Focus Bomb, a bright star with all the hopes of the people of Varnus within, struck the beam and parted it like a sheet, cutting through it as if it wasn’t even there. Then the ends of the beam curved in, being drawn by the ball of contained energy, absorbed and eaten by it.
The Focus Bomb continued upwards, the entire width of the beam stopping and pulling inward, being consumed by the intense light of the smaller blast. The Focus Bomb was slowed, barely, as the battle raged inside the clouds, until finally the beam reached the end point, when the Focus Bomb arrested its motion entirely and turned the energy back on itself.
Then the beam’s energy erupted in midair, and a massive spherical explosion filled the sky, obliterating the clouds around it, sending out shockwaves in every direction.
As Velius’ beam died, he hung there, watching as the explosion spread outwards, perfect and beautiful in its destructive power. Had he done it?
But something was wrong. The explosion didn’t look like it had come from the ground, but from the air. Furthermore, the shockwaves and fire from the explosion were working their way back toward him.
As the wall of fire came in, he erected a shield around himself, allowing the explosion to rush past, flying out into space where it dissipated and died. The atmosphere of the planet had been ruptured. He stared intently toward the planet below, wondering if he’d eliminated Zalaria once and for all.
Then the Focus Bomb burst out of the center of the explosion, blinding in its brightness, veering in straight for him.
He had no time to react, and even if he had, he was too frozen in shock to dodge it. The Focus Bomb struck him dead on. In an instant, Velius became a living torch of light.
The bomb enveloped him, searing him, containing more energy than he could physically overcome. His body became a black silhouette against the brightness, stretched out of proportion, totally overcome by its power as the bomb carried him higher, outside the atmosphere and into space.
Then his attempt to block the energy failed, and it completely overwhelmed him, overcoming even his massive Force energy levels. With a final scream, Velius’ body was reduced to mere motes of dust, and the power within him exploded.
The second explosion ripped out across space, sending out a shockwave not only out above the planet, but through the Force as well. All within the Palace, Jedi fell to the ground unconscious as Velius’ final cry tore through them, overloading all their senses.
In Vectur, the capital of Varnus, people fell to their knees or flat on their faces, in the marketplaces, tall office buildings – everywhere, as something they’d never felt before, like a cry echoing in their skull, broke their equilibrium for a split second.
As Velius died, the Focus Bomb continued onward, diminished to a tiny speck of its former self, flying out into space before it erupted in a series of chain explosions.
Then it was over.
Zalaria collapsed on the grass, exhausted from directing the explosion away from them with the last of her energy. All around them as far as they could see, the land was scorched black, not a tree or grass blade still standing. But that was the limit of the destruction. The atmosphere above them came back together, mending itself, and the massive clouds of smoke outside the planet began to dissolve, spreading outwards and dissipating in the void of space.
For a moment, Xar lay there beside her, giving them both a chance to regain enough strength to stand. Zalaria made it first, and she helped him to his feet as well.
“And now, finally, we did it,” he said.
Zalaria nodded slowly, a weary look of disbelief on her face. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but… Yes. At least for now, it’s over.”
Xar sighed with relief, and turned slowly, studying the vista of devastation all around them. It reminded him too much of the whole planet’s devastation eleven years before. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, wanting to be away from this place. “Some honeymoon stay this turned out to be, huh?”
“I hope… this isn’t going to happen often,” she said, laughing slightly despite her discomfort. Her body was still healing itself.
He arched an eyebrow at her. Had she actually made a joke? That was rare, indeed. “My love,” he said, smiling at her. “If this is the kind of trouble that follows you around, it’s going to be a very interesting life, indeed.”
Then, together, they started walking east, in the general direction of Vectur. Eventually, someone would recover from their shock and sent ships out to investigate, and then they would be picked up. He knew they both had a lot of explaining to do. He figured the hardy Varnusians would probably take this as a matter of course, considering the times.
But for now, he just wanted to enjoy a peaceful walk with his wife, without worrying about what was to come. The sounds of battle had faded, giving way to the sounds of peace. Varnus was silent once again.
* * *
Grand Master’s Chambers
Alyx shook his head as he finished the call with Xar. Unbelievable. Jedi falling down all around the palace, people screaming uncontrollably as some unseen force tore through their brains unhindered. Had they really faced a Warlord out there?
To make matters worse, he hadn’t heard from Mathis since he’d come back in a frenzy of terror, screaming for him to call Xar and warn him before it was too late. But they hadn’t been able to reach Xar’s commlink, and after that Mathis had just lost it. He’d yelled that he’d lost Xar yet again, that he could never do anything to help him - that he was useless. Then he’d run out of Alyx’s office. Alyx was afraid the man was worse off now than he’d been before. What else could go wrong today?
He looked up as Amleth Uiara, Quaestor of House Vortigern, came running into the office without even knocking, headed straight for the Grand Master. He skidded to a stop in front of Misnera, breathing heavily.
“What is it?” Alyx asked, immediately concerned. “What’s happened?”
“It’s starting,” Amleth said, a dire tone in his voice. “We just lost contact with the Danube System.”
Alyx frowned. “Transmitters are known to go down occasionally. It could be a malfunction, or sabotage, or raiders…”
“Not this time. They got out part of a distress signal before communications went down. The word ‘Altarin’Dakor’ it was unmistakable.” Amleth sighed, shaking his head slowly. “The war's on again.”
The End of
By Joshua Ausley
Copyright New Imperium 2001
Next: Begin Part Two of the saga of the Return, in The Second Great War 1: Darkening Skies.