Prologue - 7 days after the fall of Varnus
"And so it happened that the ancient ones came forward once more.
The veil was pulled away, and the Shadow was finally revealed.
The Second Great War was about to begin…"
Discovered on the ruins of Tralaria,
200 years after the collapse of the Galactic Alliance
This can't be happening, Xar thought desperately. Having long since given up his non-contraction usage during his imprisonment, he used them now more as expletives than anything else. He kept his gaze down on the metal floor as he was held tightly by two fully armored guards in the antechamber. His hands had been unbound beside him. For some reason they must have wanted him free. He knew they were just waiting for him to try something, so he was going to surprise them by remaining compliant… for now. Where the door in front of him led, he wasn't certain; no one had even spoken to him during this entire ordeal. But wherever it was, he knew he was about to meet with someone. Someone important.
He'd lost count of how long it had been since he'd been taken from Varnus, but he calculated that it must not have been much longer than a week, at least. Having been served only one small meal a day during that time, he found himself standing here now, dehydrated and almost too weak to stand on his own. He knew a full-fledged search by the New Imperium would already have been underway; he just hoped they were close. Of course, he didn't have any more idea to his location than he did about the identity of his captors. They could be anywhere by this point. He knew that at first he'd been taken onboard the lead Titan of the Varnus assault force, but had been transferred at least once since then. Whether he was now on a ship or planet, he couldn't be sure. Not even on the massive Titan had there been the normal sense of space travel. Whoever his captors were, their technology was vastly superior to anything in the NI, or the rest of the known galaxy, for that matter.
His thoughts were abruptly interrupted as the elaborately carved doors in front of him slid open. A shaft of light fell over him, and unidentified sounds from the other room came in to greet him, but he dared not look up. Then he felt the guards on either side tighten their grip on him and carry him forward.
Xar kept his eyes on the ground as they moved him forward. They crossed onto elaborately designed blue carpeting, its plush surface giving slightly under his dragging feet. There he felt his support vanish as the guards let him go, and he dropped to his hands and knees. Then, to his surprise, both guards knelt down on either side of him, their hands crossed over their chests and their faces lowered to the carpet surface. Whoever it was they were before, even the guards couldn't raise their faces to see him. Not even the Emperor made his guards do that, he realized with some bewilderment. Where am I?
Then his questions were answered as another voice from somewhere in the chamber called out in a loud voice in deeply accented Basic, "Kneel, outlander. Behold, the prince of the stars, the lord of time – Kronos."
Despite himself, Xar let out a short laugh. Was this some kind of joke? He made to rise, but before he moved an inch he felt a strong hand press against the back of his neck and slam his face to the floor. He heard a fierce whisper beside him, from the guard on his right. "Mind your tongue, outlander fool!" His barely whispered voice, though so heavily accented he could barely understand, held a tone that Xar could recognize. True terror.
He heard what sounded like a hushed whisper of voices in front of him. Then, a deep, crisp voice sounded, cutting through the others and sending the room into silence.
"Le vamola sho walama." Instantly, the pressure on his neck was gone. Xar brought his head up, blinked away the stars crossing his vision. Then he came up on his knees and rose, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. As he finally looked at what was ahead of him, all his thoughts and remarks were banished, replaced now by a growing shock.
He was in a throne room.
Ahead of him, a broad dais rose, upon which sat a throne like he'd never seen. Fastened in gold, it seemed to conform itself around the person within it, its intricately carved details growing smaller and smaller within each set until he couldn't make them out any longer. Dragons and exotic birds like phoenixes curved together in gold. Flowing draperies extended down from the side, and behind the back of the throne itself, plastered against the wall, was a massive set of white, leathery skeletal wings.
But it was the figure that sat sprawled upon the throne that held his full attention. He was a broad-shouldered man, dressed in a flowing purple and blue robe, a layer of black armor visible beneath. Straight, jet-black hair fell from his head and behind him, down past his shoulders and nearly to the seat. And his face… the face of a young man, about the same age as Xar, at first glance. No; perhaps he was younger, around thirty, maybe even less. But as he kept watching, he found it impossible to determine the man's age, exactly. His skin was perfectly smooth, speaking of youth, and his face was more than handsome by any standards. Even beautiful. Yet, from his eyes came a gaze so wise and intense it almost drove Xar back to the floor. He could feel the pressure of the man's gaze as though a real weight had descended upon him. The intelligence Xar saw within them… It was like a man staring down a small rat, a predator stalking a completely dumb prey.
Xar reached for the Force, if nothing more than to sense this man's Force potential. He knew that this Kronos was Force-sensitive. Only how much was a mystery. But when he reached for the Force… there was nothing there. He fought his shock, realizing that there must still be some device they'd implanted on or in him that inhibited his Force powers. That had to be it. He tried to stand there calmly. As he did so, he glanced around the rest of the room, for something to take his mind out of its shock. It was then that he noticed the women. They stood against walls to either side, waiting beside small tables or standing attentively on the carpeted floor. All dressed in loose, almost transparent material. Their robes were of different hues, almost covering what lay beneath the garments, but not quite. He glanced from one to another in disbelief, but his eyes were more on the faces than their revealing attire. The most beautiful women he'd ever seen stood here, all gathered together in this room. All tall, well proportioned, perfect in every physical sense of the word. And the shock was that some of them he recognized. Some he'd seen on popular tabloid covers throughout the galaxy, glamour holozines, and the like. And, impossibly, they were here.
Then he caught sight of one of the women near the throne, in the corner, holding an elaborately carved jar. Her long, curly red hair caught his eye first, then he saw her face and his mouth went dry. All the pain he'd welled up for ten years since the devastation of Varnus came rushing back on him in an instant. There in front of his eyes was the woman he'd been engaged to marry, the woman he'd been told had died in the bombardment. There was no mistaking the smooth contours of her face, the startlingly green eyes. Her name was Illiana.
Briefly, for an instant, the woman's eyes brushed past his, but continued on, no recognition in them. He couldn’t believe it. But in that instant, all the memories came back within him, of their times together, and he was sure beyond a shadow of doubt. His betrothed was here, alive, and in the court of a man named Kronos. They'd vowed themselves to one another, saving themselves until a wedding night that had never come. And now, all he felt inside was emptiness and outrage.
He turned away from her, looked back at the man on the throne, trying to hide his shock, to still his breathing. But there was no peace in the cold smile that Kronos held as his knowing eyes bored into Xar's. He couldn't stand it; he wanted to run, to attack, anything. But those eyes held him in place.
"You're the one who has caused me so much trouble," Kronos spoke suddenly in clear, unaccented Basic.
"I'm happy to oblige," Xar managed to retort despite his shock, taking any chance to strike at the man in front of him. Though he didn't even know him yet, he held nothing but contempt for the figure on the throne. "We have nothing to discuss."
Kronos leaned forward. "Oh, but we do," he countered softly, clearly. "You have been interfering with my plans for quite some time. This is unacceptable, even though I must commend you for eliminating that weakling traitor, Turles. You saved us some trouble, my friend."
Despite his anger, Xar flinched at the man's words, and felt a cold feeling creep into him. Turles was working for them? And he was… a weakling?
"Thus," Kronos continued, after taking a golden goblet offered to him by one of the women aides, "I decided not to have you killed outright. I wanted to see you personally, and judge you for myself." He drank then, a long swallow, then handed the cup back. The woman took it and faded back into the group with the others.
Xar seethed inside, but he kept it from showing on his face. He clenched his fist at his sides. "And have you made that judgment?"
"I have." The man smiled, his cold eyes seeming to bore straight through Xar, exposing every secret, seeing through to every fiber of his being. Those eyes, Xar noticed, were different. The right one was a deep purple hue, but the right was a bright blue.
Xar smiled, as well, feeling nothing but cold inside. "Good. Then you know where you can stick your opinion."
The next thing he noticed was a blur or motion to his right, then pain, as something slammed into the back of his neck, sending a jar of electricity through him. He jolted forward, breaking his fall with his hands; the blow had been enough to stagger him, but not completely incapacitate.
"Now, now." Kronos spoke as Xar slowly rose once more. "You are a gentleman, and you will act as such in my court. This is one of the lessons you will learn in my service. But this applies to all; forgive me, but sometimes even my forces exhibit a bit too much loyalty, and it effects their judgment." His eyes shifted to Xar's side, and Xar turned to see the guard standing there, pike in hand. What happened next was almost too fast to follow. Kronos extended his hand, two fingers pointed outward at the armored man. The guard's eyes widened, but he never cried out. Not even when a rushing of light and wind enveloped him, turning him into a living nova. The man became transparent, then only his outline was visible against the intense light covering him. Then the outline was shattered, blown away, leaving only streaming motes that vanished with the light. The pike thudded to the carpet beside Xar.
Xar looked back at the man on the throne in shock. That he had so casually killed one of his loyal subjects… That was hard enough to believe. But the concept that he could do it with barely the flick of his hand, without summoning up his Force power, without any detectable blast from him to his victim… That was beyond his ability to believe.
Kronos' laughter filled the air, a beautiful sound, yet horrible to Xar. "An example," he admitted with a nod. "Forgive my indulgence." His hand stroked the side of his gilded armrest. "As you can see, there is nothing that you or your New Imperium can do to face the might of my forces. We are poised to sweep across your space in one swift movement. You can offer no resistance; we will cut your ships to ribbons like pieces of grain. We will destroy all those in our path to domination. Then, system by system, sector by sector, this galaxy will fall to the might of the Altarin'Dakor. There is nothing you can do to stop us," he shook his head slightly, his voice deadly serious.
"We'll see about that," Xar said grimly. "And about my 'service', as you called it. I can assure you there won't be any."
Kronos brought his fingers together in front of his chest and stared through Xar. "You are here because, even though you have caused us some small annoyances, you have great potential and could prove very useful for me. Unlike most others, you have actually learned to dabble a bit in what you call the True Force, neither consumed by the darkness of some corrupted 'dark side', nor the pacifistic extreme these so-called Jedi exhibit. This is interesting, and I will know more about how you learned such secrets." He smiled again. "You will serve me, that much is inevitable. But, although I know you will refuse me, I will give you the opportunity to join me now, and spare yourself the anguish of torment that will simply delay your destiny with me."
"You're right," Xar agreed, shaking his head. "I refuse."
"Of course, I could Compel you to serve me…" Kronos seemed to consider the point. "It would save time and effort, but you would be of less use to me. A mere puppet, a shell with my will inside to guide you. No, you will better serve me willingly."
Xar was confused. What it sounded like a power taught to him by his old master, Runis. But that had been a Dark Side power. "Compulsion? Is that what you use on them?" he asked tersely, gesturing at the women gathered around the room. "Is that the only way they would serve you?"
"You obviously know more than you seem to let on," Kronos said, his voice dripping sarcasm. "But there is nothing you can hide from me. I will learn all, in time. I do not have to use it on them. They serve me with all of their hearts."
"Such a weakness for pleasure can be a fatal flaw," Xar pointed out darkly.
"Yes," Kronos cooed,
a smile of satisfaction on his face. "I have always had many
play-pretties. Some weren't so willing to serve me, you understand. For
instance, Queen Rashkia of Vyklon
was a queen in her own right, ruling her frozen wasteland from her crystal
palace." Kronos shook his head slowly. "An Ice
Queen for an
"She served me, in the end, of course," Kronos continued mirthfully. "And once she had experienced what it was like to be with me, she wanted nothing else. She became obsessed with me." His grin broadened. "Which meant, of course, that I had no further use for her."
"You are one very sick individual," Xar admitted, nodding. He glanced at his former betrothed again, standing in the line of women watching Kronos expectantly, ready to serve his every whim. He felt a growl emanating from his throat as anger and fury welled up inside him.
Kronos must have noticed, for he smiled and gave the barest flick of a finger towards her. She responded immediately, coming over to him, eyes cast to the floor. She knelt before him as he extended a booted foot slightly towards her. Obediently, she leaned down and kissed it lightly. Then he dropped his hand beside her head. Xar watched, his vision turning red, as his betrothed caressed his hand with her face, kissed the back of it. Finally he shoved her back with a shooing motion. She reeled back, her face a mask of ecstasy.
Throwing himself forward, he leapt at the Warlord, barely conscious of the wild scream coming from his throat.
He never made it. Before he had gone three paces he slammed into an invisible wall and was caught in midair by an unseen force. Then he felt as if a hand reaching inside his body, gripping his heart. Pain exploded inside of him. He gave a cry of instant agony; his knees buckled and he collapsed to the floor. He could feel something clutching his heart, as if an invisible hand were gripping it and… squeezing… harder and harder. He clawed at his chest, emitting a gasp of torment. Dimly he realized that all of his coronary arteries had to be closed; he was experiencing a massive heart attack. He'd never thought anything could be so painful. Bursts of agonizing pain shot through him, and he could feel his mortality, feel death so close. He gasped and sobbed, trying to form words, but no breath came.
“I own you now,” Kronos said firmly. “You are mine. After eons I have found a lot of time to learn things… I studied how to manipulate the body in ways you wouldn’t think possible; all with the use of the ‘True Force’.” Suddenly something arched Xar’s back, turning him the wrong way it was designed to bend. He stared at the ceiling, felt his vertebrae on the verge of cracking as he hovered in midair. The pain gripping his heart increased.
“You will be given a great honor,” Kronos continued. “In time you will become one of my great servants. You will have a new life, even if you’re not trueborn Altarin’Dakor. You will serve me for the rest of your days.” He paused, as if considering. “If… not…”
The invisible hand on his heart gripped tighter. Xar’s scream beat at the walls, resounding throughout the room, past the unmoving guards and the women all watching him blankly. He screamed and screamed and screamed until blood filled his throat and he began choking on it. His vision shrank, distorted, disorienting, until only a pinhole of light was visible ahead. Then it went out…
* * *
Varnusian Productions Presents:
Orbit, Planet Darklon
The brilliant yellow sun of the Mizar system shone brightly against the backdrop of the Galbagos Nebula, which filled over half of visible space inside the system. The colossal, magnificent purple-cloud emission nebula silhouetted the second planet in the system, a black world known as Darklon, a planet composed entirely of solid, obsidian stone. Above the world, in orbit, its tether cable linked down to the planet's surface, a massive space station hovered, its lights blazing out above the darkness of the world below. The station was over ten kilometers wide, a huge military stronghold and waypoint. Designed in a rough saucer-shape, it was covered with hundreds of long metal spines, each one actually a long tethering spire at the end of which sat starships, freighters and transports, waiting for the special mission the station was to perform. The massive tethering cable extending kilometers down to the surface was a sturdy, zero-gravity corridor by which even small to medium starships could pass through. It linked to a small station on the surface, then extended below the surface of the planet. All this, part of Kronos' plan for invasion, a storm that would sweep through the galaxy with a ferocity never before experienced. Kronos was the Spearhead of the Return.
Xar awoke abruptly and sat up in the bed. The lights came on in response to his consciousness, and he glanced around the luxurious room around him in momentary confusion and wonder. "Ju'as suem'mah?" He wondered aloud. Then he remembered; this was the quarters that had been allotted for him during his stay here as one of Kronos' lieges.
Wide awake now, he pulled the sheets aside and slid out of bed, his eyes darting around the different fixtures occupying his quarters. A small table with a wine bottle and glasses stood in the center, accompanied by two wooden chairs. Various images came online along the walls, offering holo-views of various places he recognized; a series of floating, domed cities amid the purple clouds of Zubin, the gigantic, modern pyramids of the capital of Solos.
Jan tumans, he thought. Something wasn't right, here. A strange sensation came over him, an intense feeling of déjà vu, as if there was something familiar, lying just beyond memory, something that he should know. But for some reason he just couldn't remember what it was…
Then, suddenly, thoughts surfaced in his memory, of their own accord. Images and faces sprang to mind, but he couldn't connect them to specific places or people. Then those thoughts were washed away with a fierceness that shocked and startled him. He struggled to grasp them again, but nothing came. Now he knew something was wrong. He glanced about the room, at the scenes on the walls, the datapad on the computer that held his daily orders… All things he knew, but nothing that he was familiar with… He never really remembered using any of them before, never remembered being to Zubin or Solos. He put a hand up to his head; it had begun to ache from all the strain. He moved forward to the table for a drink. He looked down at the bottle and glasses, and a shock hit him hard enough to send a shiver through his own body. "Ne'mah jeni habicha!" The bottle was half empty, but he didn’t remember drinking any. He frowned. His spoken words hadn't matched his thoughts. What language was he speaking, anyway?
Suddenly the flood of thoughts and memories came back to him, clearer this time. Varnus. His… capture? What was he doing here? What was Varnus?
Then it all came back on him in a rush… His capture and imprisonment, his transfer here… His meeting with… Kronos… The man he served… "Ne!" No! The man he hated! The man who held the woman he was supposed to marry. This was wrong, all wrong! He was still being held by Kronos. The man had done something to him, brainwashed him somehow during his sleep… Even now his thoughts wanted to turn back, back to his life as an Altarin'Dakor.
He opened his mouth, fought back the rush of foreign words that came to his lips. Instead he focused on slowly pronouncing Basic. "N…o… I… am… Xa...r. I am… Xar, Xar Keren…sky!" The amount of concentration he had to give it was incredible. He could barely speak his own name! He gripped his head with both hands, leaned over onto the table. His head was throbbing, now, as if his gobi… no, his brain were expanding… trying to burst out of his head. He fought the false memories and thoughts that came up as though in a physical battle, it threatened to overwhelm him every moment. He needed some kind of… distraction. He yelled in pain, his head hurt so badly. Aug! Yes, that was it! Zubi'n… No! Basic, curse you! I am Xar Kerensky, from Varnus! By the Core, I'm ME! He thrashed his arm across the table, scattering the wine bottle and glasses. He heard them shatter as they hit the floor, sending a spike of pain through his head. He pushed off from the table. Pain! He had to have pain to fight these thoughts!
Yelling, he took hold of the back of the chair, turned and slammed it against the Holoscreen with all of his might. The plastic chair shattered into dozens of fragments, and the image on the wall shimmered and flickered a bit. "NO!" he screamed. Then the images on the wall vanished, the carpet and other small decorations in the room vanished, as well. He'd expected such. Kommi… No! Illusions! His mind raced for something to distract him from these thoughts. He began screaming expletives, calling them up from every language he could remember, anything to keep his mind from falling back into the trap that had been woven within it. He remembered, yelled curses in Basic, a few in Sullustian, even his own native Varnusian. Then a new idea came to him. "Kvrrg!" he yelled, in Crinn. "Rothlgak! Ktalm!" He continued screaming in Crinn, not only curses, but everything he could remember, phrases, commands, bits of memorized records. His throat quickly became raw from reciting the coarse language, his voice turning hoarse from speaking a language not designed for the human tongue. He continued anyway, adding to it by turning and slamming his fist into the wall. Pain shot through his naguis… no, his hand, blast it! He hit the wall with the other fist, felt his knuckle break. He screamed pain, but it wasn't enough. Dropping back to the floor, he scooped up a sharp piece of plastic from the chair. Screaming in Crinn, his voice so raw his throat was killing him, he brought the sharp point down onto the inside of his forearm, relishing the pain that exploded as a result and eliciting another scream from his scratched throat. He pulled the piece out of the puncture wound, brought it back up and rammed it down into his left leg. The shard broke off after it had extended in more than a centimeter, leaving a piece of it sticking out of his leg. Howling in self-inflicted pain, letting out all his anger and rage, he fueled his emotions to wipe away any trace of the brainwashing. He stood up again, cast about for some other source of pain. Finally he turned to the table and crashed his face down upon it. Pain exploded through his head, and he fell to the floor, feeling blood tricking down his chin. Still, it wasn't enough, he had to have more… Had to have…
He watched her as she studied the holoscreen in front of her, her gaze focusing upon the man who thrashed about in the small cell, inflicting pain upon himself to fight the effects of the brainwashing. "What is he doing?” she wondered aloud. “Odd, that Kronos included Crinn language. I've never seen that done before. He must have had some purpose…"
As she watched, her expression started out as a frown, then became almost bemused. "He's very strong," she whispered. "I wonder if Kronos may not be able to break him…" Her eyes watched him with interest, with… perhaps… attraction. He kept his own face still, hiding his emotions as he glanced at the figure on the screen, did not let the recognition show on his features. "He could be useful," she said.
"I do not think so," he replied stiffly. He immediately kicked himself mentally for venting his thoughts. His mind was as open to her as a book; he could hide nothing from her. She glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. "Strange that you say that. But, we shall see…" She smiled then, and he caught a strange gleam in her eyes. He prepared himself to serve.
Kronos lounged in his chair, deep in thought over the events he'd watched transpire on the holoscreen. "This is interesting," he mused. "He's fought off the procedure already…" He continued to watch with amusement as the hapless fellow inflicted torture upon himself, all in an intense effort to evade the careful, supposedly irreversible procedure that would have made him a willing servant of the Warlord Kronos. Obviously, there was a way around the Familiarization. The scientist responsible for operating on this particular subject would not live to see the morrow.
As he continued watching, he became more fascinated and impressed with how far this Kerensky was willing to go to resist the procedure. Some of the stuff he was doing to himself was truly creative. He really could be useful, Kronos thought. But on the other hand, let to roam free he could be a dangerous enemy. Of course, Kronos was only willing to go so far to turn him before it became unprofitable. Hopefully he would turn before then.
Finally, before the figure thrashing about on the floor fell completely into unconsciousness, he decided to stop it. "Enough," he spoke aloud. "Take him out of there before he kills himself and prepare him for the next phase." He made a half-grin; it was rare than anyone actually succeeded in resisting the mind control and compulsion, to reach the actual torture part of the operation. Those that succumbed to the first stage were the fortunate ones. He would enjoy taking care of this one personally.
Suddenly a musical chime sounded in the room. He sat now in another throne room with control room functions, lounged in a much more practical and modern chair which held controls for the various functions he needed at his fingertips. Even for someone who never saw to specific operations himself, he still had access to everything. The room's observation windows had been opened on all sides, offering floor-to-ceiling views of the sprawling Galbagos Nebula outside, and the black planet the clouds silhouetted below. A large skylight in the ceiling gave the impression of even more space. Other consoles and controls, fashionably contoured into furniture and other decorations, flickered unattended, waiting for his input from any point in the room. There were no other occupants, no guards to protect them. He had no use for them; they only got in the way, anyway. Anyone foolish enough to enter his chambers with the intent to kill him deserved the agony and death they would receive.
In response to the chime, he tapped a button on his armrest, and the far door slid open, admitting a high-classman dressed in elaborate robes, eyes cast down to the floor. He didn’t dare look up without permission, of course. "Yes?" Kronos acknowledged.
"General Akira has returned from Dorchav Sector, Lord." The messenger, actually a wealthy statesman in his own land, spoke with the utmost respect and admiration in his voice.
"Admit him," Kronos commanded. "And bring Taragi, as well."
The man nodded silently and backed out of the room and through the doorway, eyes still downcast. He wouldn't look up or turn until after the doors had closed. They did, and Kronos waited. Today he wore more comfortable, loose-fitting clothes, having forgone the formal attire he used in state to greet those like his new slave. He'd also gotten rid of his wig of long, black hair, also used on formal occasions or whenever he felt like it. Instead his true head was bared, revealing his short-cut, blonde hair, a complete contrast to the wig. He liked dualities like that. He’d used them on many occasions.
His thoughts were interrupted as the chime sounded again. This time, it was General Akira who entered, his booted feet sounding on the metal floor. The man's eyes lowered respectively until Kronos spoke, giving him leave to look up. Then he stood at ease, dressed in more comfortable attire than the uniforms most admirals wore. Instead he wore a loose shirt that sat on his broad shoulders and a pair of split-robed bottoms. Akira's once dark hair, which came down in a sharp widow's peak, was now streaked with white and nearly bald, a sign of mortal age Kronos had never had a chance to experience. Not that he intended or desired to, either. Akira's hard eyes and face looked as if carved from stone. He wore a gray mustache that reminded Kronos of an old friend, now eons gone.
"Greetings, my Prince," Akira spoke, his voice low and somewhat raspy. Another sign of time and age. The man was already over seventy standard years old, a mere eye-blink to Kronos, but still in fair shape thanks to modern technology; yet the strain he'd experienced had taken its toll on him. Akira had proven an exceptional and brilliant strategist and tactician in his service to Kronos, probably the best he'd ever had. The man's abilities were proven with many of his popular plots and schemes, from manipulating Senator Palpatine as a close advisor thirty years ago, to the razing of Varnus ten years past. His loyalty was absolute, and their business partnership was at a level of familiarity at which Kronos held with few others.
"Akira," Kronos pushed himself lightly from his seat and strode up to meet the man. "Your return is on schedule, and I trust your brief mission was successful. You've heard the news. The Devastator was lost at Varnus."
Akira's expression turned dark, and his eyes narrowed as he nodded. "I heard, my lord. I can't believe those savages could destroy one of our prized Titan Battleships…" he broke off, seething in anger.
"Then perhaps you should ask Admiral Taragi what went wrong," Kronos replied smoothly, gesturing toward a side door in the wall.
"He survived?" Akira asked incredulously. Then he turned as the door slid open, and a lean, uniformed man stepped through, escorted by two armored guards. Taragi bowed low to both men, but much lower to Kronos, of course. "My Lord. General Akira," he acknowledged.
The guards backed off, allowing Taragi to join them in the center of the room. Akira stood in front of him, glowering down at the man in anger.
"That was my ship!" Akira spat, his voice grating. "The Devastator, gone, the ship I personally commanded during my own admiralty. A relic with thousands of years of history. You do realize what you've lost?"
"He knows," Kronos said. "Perhaps he would like to explain himself in full."
Taragi glanced first at Kronos, then Akira. Since he'd already told his story to the Warlord, he addressed the General instead. "Virtually the entire New Imperial fleet jumped in right on top of us. They caught us totally unawares, General. We didn’t have a chance."
"A Titan-class Battleship?" Akira replied incredulously.
"The fleet had obviously been waiting just outside the system to make their strike. They hit us at key power and structural points," Taragi countered. "They had to have plans of the ship to know that. There's no way they could have done it otherwise."
"I find that hard to believe," Akira said uncertainly. "They've never even seen our ships, except perhaps in passing on their scanners in one of the waypoint systems."
"The loss of the Devastator was unavoidable, in my opinion," Taragi said, his voice in a formal tone.
"As a last mark of vengeance, I sent the ship on a collision course with the planet before I escaped," the admiral informed them. "Varnus should be a wasteland, by now."
"You fool! That's probably what destroyed it!" Akira growled, his gaze staring balefully on the tall, thin man. If his eyes were fusion beams, Taragi would be a pile of ash on the floor by now.
"It doesn't matter, now, anyway." Kronos interjected, stopping the argument. "A sad loss, and I know how important it was to you, but in the end it was expendable." He glanced from one man to the other, his gaze finally resting on Taragi. "Throw him out the airlock," he nodded toward the man.
It took a second for his words to register. "What?!" Taragi finally gasped, his face full of shock. He made a startled half-grin, as if he thought the Warlord was joking. But his face quickly turned to horror as the guards obediently came up and pulled the man back. "Wait! L… Lord Kronos!" He glanced at the emotionless visors of the guards, struggled against their grip, but in their powered armor he could offer no more resistance than a child. "Wait, please! No! You don’t understand! Please, listen to me!"
Kronos listened to the man's pathetic, impassioned pleas for mercy, watched as he was dragged through the door into a side room, which held a small airlock reserved for the arrival of personal craft belonging to visitors like Akira.
"I called the Death Wing and the Blood Viper back, here." He told Akira. He didn't have to explain his reasons for calling the ships back, and Akira wouldn’t inquire. The former ship, the Death Wing, was his own flagship, and it wouldn't have done to lose it, as well. These savage barbarians had already shown, on numerous occasions, how crafty and resourceful they could be. He'd decided not to take any more chances with them from now on. Well, except for Kerensky, perhaps.
Kronos heard Taragi's screams, could see in his mind what happened as the man was shoved into the airlock and it was sealed around him. His voice was sealed away as well, and all he could do was stare through the viewport at the guards as they hit the cycle button.
Akira just nodded. "Now we are down to two Titans for this initial front," he pointed out with a sigh.
The airlock unsealed and the doors slid open, drawing out all of the atmosphere in the capsule and Taragi's screaming body out into vacuum. The Admiral flew out into space, passing in front of the viewports, alive for the three seconds or so it took for his blood to boil and the air and body fluids to be sucked right out of his mouth. Then his body inflated like a balloon, expanded until it finally exploded under the pressures of vacuum. Blood and spilt body fluids splashed all over the viewport windows, freeze-drying to a crusty paste almost immediately.
"I've already rectified that problem," Kronos spoke with a smile of pleasure. "The Cataclysm is on its way to assist us."
At that, Akira's eyes lit up, and he smiled. "The Cataclysm," he repeated, as if all thoughts of the Devastator's loss were now gone. In the past. Much larger than the Devastator, the new ship would more than compensate. And the past didn't matter. All that mattered was the future, and their destiny. "Was Varnus really devastated?"
"Again?" Kronos shook his head, a negative. Akira might have masterminded the original devastation of the planet, but Kronos' own sources on Varnus had informed him that this damage was minimal.
Behind Akira, a servant entered from the side room, eyes on the floor. "Shall I clean up the mess, my lord?"
Kronos glanced at the windows, now covered completely with crusted red in certain places, obscuring his view of the beautiful nebula outside. But that he cared little for; he'd seen so many like it that they all blurred together, now. And this was better, anyway. "No," he decided aloud, cocking his head to one side as he looked at his new scenery. "I think I like it, as a decoration."
* * *
Xar screamed. Screamed, as he had for countless hours, an eternity to his reasoning. He no longer felt his physical body's agony, having retreated to some subconscious corner of himself, watching dispassionately. He watched, while his body screamed. An endless cycle that repeated itself over and over again.
Finally, the pain stopped, and he slammed back into full consciousness with a suddenness that sent a feeling of nausea and agony coursing through his body. He was suddenly aware of every pain and ailment that had been inflicted upon him during his torture. The strength of adrenaline that had kept him upright left as well; his body went limp and he hung down on the shackles that had held him along the torture wall. This left him staring down at the metal floor, his head hanging limp, his eyes resting on the pool of sweat and urine he'd expelled instinctively. The simple loincloth that was his only clothing was soaked and stained, as well. He spit blood, adding to the puddle. His tongue ached, raw and bleeding from being clenched reflexively. Of all the times in his life, he'd never felt so completely filthy and drained. His nostrils stung from the strong stench of body odors.
"Will you submit?" came the question, as it had after every session, as it had for forever. The same routine. Xar didn't look up at the alien who'd been carrying out the torture. He didn't know if he had the strength even if he'd wanted to.
Staring blankly down at the floor, ignoring the pain, he barely managed to shake his head. "Kriff you," he whispered. He'd long ago made his decision. At first he'd seriously thought about it, though. He could serve Kronos, try and harbor some secret plan within himself, to where he could one day become strong enough to defeat the Warlord. But then, he knew Kronos could reach inside his mind at anytime, uncovering all the hidden secrets within. He'd done it before. And he could always just Compel him to reveal all. The inevitable alternative was, of course, death. Escape would be impossible once he gave in. And to do so would require his submission to this… this monster, the creature that held his betrothed as one of his "play-pretties". Servitude, or death. Xar had been faced with death before, many times. He'd always known that he had some destiny before him, and had never really feared actual death, except for a couple of times. When he'd fought Dasok Krun, and when he’d fought Turles. But he'd survived those, as well. This couldn't be the way he was to die… And even if it was, even if he had to choose death rather than service; he wouldn't submit. Never bend, never break, he reminded himself. There was only one choice.
He'd made his response, as he had countless times over. And every time the alien would repeat the same phrases. But this time the creature surprised him. Instead of making its usual quote, Xar felt its hand grab his throat and pull his head up to face it. He now found himself staring into the face of the creature, and fought a shiver of revulsion. The alien's face was wide and tan-colored, with large, compound eyes and leathery antennae protruding from its skull. Its four-fingered hand grasped Xar by the throat, its claws digging into his skin. The creature's mouth-parts came out in a mandible that clicked together as it talked. Its unaccented Basic must have come from a translator. Xar didn't recognize the alien's species.
The creature looked him in the face with an expression Xar couldn't hope to determine. "Why do you resist?" it asked simply, questioningly. "You know you must submit or die. Your life here would be pleasurable beyond your imagination. Why?"
Xar didn't even answer. Too tired to explain himself, especially not to the initiator of his torment, suddenly, curiously inquiring about why his subject refused to give in. He just hung, letting the creature's own strength hold him up.
Finally the alien let him go, and he dangled back down to his former position, eyes down once more. "Then you shall return here until you do submit," it spoke, returning once again to its prewritten dialogue. Xar ignored it; he'd already resigned himself to what was to come. "The next time, the pain will increase once more. Ponder your reasoning while you can. I urge you to make the right choice, before it is too late." Then, graciously, two guards approached from the side to take him down, though a night in his cell on his own wasn't going to be much more pleasurable, he knew. Maybe I won't have to, he thought with the barest flicker of a smile.
As the guards disengaged the binders and held him aloft, he summoned up the last of his strength. For however long he'd been tortured, despite the device or drug that had hampered his Force power, he'd gradually saved his strength, bit by bit. Prodding around the block in his mind that held him from the Force, he'd managed to gather up a small well of it. And now he used it.
Calling upon his remaining energy, he let the Force flow up within him. In one motion, he thrust the guards to either side and threw all his gathered energy at the alien tormentor. A blast of lightning shot from his hand, connecting with the alien insect in front of him.
His ploy worked. The energy hit the alien's chest and exploded outwards, destroying the creature's midsection and blowing it back across the room. Its body slammed into a shelf of flasks and vials and sent the entire apparatus crashing down atop the dead creature.
Panting in effort, Xar barely stood up, grinning in satisfaction. Dangerous as it was, he felt good about killing that passively cold-hearted creature. He always hated to take a life, yet this one brought a certain sense of fulfillment. And why not, he wondered? It had certainly deserved it. And its death would prevent it from doing the same to others.
Then his thoughts were washed away as something slammed into the back of his head, and darkness came again.
Kronos stared impatiently as the medical assistant stepped forward and timidly held out a data pad for him. "Here are the test r-reports for the s-subject, l-lord," the man stuttered.
Kronos took the pad from his hand impassively, then held it up to study it. On it were the reports of every test that had been done on Kerensky: his biology, heredity, and things even he hadn't taken the time to learn. But he knew how to read the chart. And what he saw made his eyes grow wide.
"What is this?" he asked aloud. "How is this possible?" How could Kerensky have genes inside him that he’d only ever seen before in an Altarin’Dakor?
"I-I don't know, l-lord," the assistant stammered. “It just came up during the tests…”
Kronos eyed the pathetic creature darkly. "I didn’t ask you, fool!" he yelled.
The servant screamed as he was flung backward across the room and slammed into the wall, then went silent. He slid to the floor and didn't move. Kronos, already forgetting the intrusion, started walking toward the medical levels, intent on finding some answers to this.
He was taken back to the small cell which had been accommodated for him, and dropped onto the thin, hard cot that was the room's only decoration. He lay there, gasping for breath, his strength completely wasted.
They fed him, a thick paste squirted by a nozzle they forced into his mouth. The stuff tasted awful; he guessed it was just to fill his stomach, something with nutritional value. Feeding him a high nutritional diet would give their prisoners false hope and energy. Then a strange, tattooed creature he thought was a woman came in and gave him Force Healing again. It felt like he was being doused in ice water, and he gasped as the wounds on and in his body closed themselves up. Then he collapsed, helpless. That was the cycle, torturing him, almost killing him, then Healing him again. As much a mental torture as the physical things they were doing to him. They wanted him to think this was going to last forever. The worst of it was, he supposed he understood the cold-hearted logic of it. But experiencing it was something else.
After he ate, he fell into an uncomfortable sleep, full of dreams he knew had been manufactured for him by his captors. But even in them, he refused to give in, time and again, no matter the circumstances. No matter what was offered to him, or threatened as a consequence of his refusal. He wouldn't give in.
He was woken some time later - he was unsure of the time, having no sense of night and day other than his body's own need for rest. And he was surprised to be taken out by a pair of well-dressed guards, bathed, and allowed to dress in a cloth, lightweight tunic and pants. Then he was fed again, a meal that, to his surprise, was amazingly good. It was a feast, including many kinds of fruit, various meats, and spiced wine to wash it down. It was too rich for his heavily abused body, and he ate only sparingly. While he ate under the watchful eyes of the guards, he wondered why the sudden change in treatment. Was it a new persuasion attempt, by treating him well and hoping he would become complacent? It wouldn't work; they had to know that as well as he.
After the meal, the guards escorted him further on through the station, and he finally got a sense of how huge the place was. Corridors stretched off on all sides, and deep sounds hinted at larger machinery hidden away deeper within. Since his Healing, bath, and meal, he felt great - clean and full, albeit still a little weak. His strength had recovered enough that he could move along without having to be carried, but he was still somewhat exhausted from all his mistreatment.
They led him through a pair of large doors that slid open to the side, and he blinked at the size of the room they entered. It was large and round, and in the center the floor sloped up to form a raised platform on which stood none other than Kronos.
“I doubt you’ve been enjoying your stay here,” Kronos stated. At first he almost didn't recognize the Warlord. The long, silky-black hair was gone, obviously a wig he'd used to change his appearance. Instead the Warlord's hair was closely cropped, and blonde. Instead of the armor, he was dressed in loose-fitting, silk robes of reds, blues, and purples. Several other beings stood around him, draped in white robes that covered their whole bodies, including hoods that left nothing but their eyes exposed.
serving me,” Kronos cooed. “As my right-hand man. You
would have everything you wanted. Power. Wealth. Women. Servants
and armies loyal to you, willing to die for you. Your name would be
revered by uncounted throngs of billions, trillions. You would have no
discomfort, no pain… You could live like a god.”
Kronos gestured around him then, and Xar saw a massive, elaborate hologram filling the room around him, showing him what he knew was the core of the Altarin’Dakor worlds. Riches beyond imagination, beyond description, filled his eyes, along with wonders he’d never even dreamed of. Technological achievements that were only ideas in the known galaxy. Shining ships flew by, sleeker than any he’d ever seen. Transports zoomed across golden bridges that spanned between worlds. Massive structures like temples stood on different worlds, offering shrines to the Warlords, Kronos among them. He shook his head in disbelief. Wherever this was, he knew it wasn’t in the galaxy he had known and grown up in. These Altarin’Dakor were from a different place altogether.
“What do you think, Kerensky?” Kronos looked at him askance. “Isn’t all this worth just a few simple words? Isn’t it worth the joy of serving me the rest of your days? Even your own power will be increased, far beyond the mere mortals of this galaxy. I will teach you secrets about the Force that you’ve never imagined. Powers lost since the Golden Age of the Jedi, before the First Schism. I was there, Kerensky. I know.” Kronos’ gaze bored into him, and for a moment, Xar almost gave in.
What if he did agree to serve Kronos? Then he would have the power to save those around him, like Illiana, and even his parents, who he had been unable to save during the attack. He could put a stop to the violence and anarchy raging in the galaxy.
“If you join me,” Kronos tempted, “I will let you choose what becomes of your fledgling New Imperium. You can choose who rules, who lives - and who dies. You can set the boundaries yourself. As my General, these will be the least of the honors available to you.”
Xar stared up at the Warlord, every fiber in his being wishing his words to be true. If he gave in, he could save the NI. He could save everyone on Varnus, and all the friends he’d made since joining House Ar’Kell. There wouldn’t have to be any more death. No long, drawn out war. He could sacrifice himself to a life of service, for them.
But he shook his head. He knew Kronos was lying. If his words about Queen Rashkia were anything to go by, Kronos would have no use for those who grew too enamored of him, too secure in their positions. He knew that if he joined, he would be forced into slavery for the rest of his life. And the more time he spent near the Warlord, affected and intoxicated by his presence, he knew the more he would grow to love his slavery. No, the coming was inevitable. There was no stopping it with a simple decision.
“Sorry to make you waste your breath,” he said, staring up at the man. “But I’d rather be a Hutt’s love slave than serve you, no matter what you offer me. I’ve had enough of your lies. And I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you, Kronos.”
Suddenly Kronos burst into laughter. “A fine joke,” he said, between laughs. “Perhaps I will give you the chance to try.”
Then the hologram vanished, and the guards appeared once again behind Xar, to take him back to his cell.
* * *
This time when the guards woke him, they dragged him up bodily, dressed him in plain clothes, and started him down the corridors again. Xar didn’t know if they took the same routes or not… They all looked the same, and a constant line of humanlike beings walked the corridors, dressed in unfamiliar uniforms, all with faces set about their duties. They didn’t look at Xar twice. He wondered what was in store for him today. After Kronos’ temptations, he had to know offering him something new wasn’t going to work.
When they finally emerged into the laboratory - a large room filled with tables and various, unknown metal devices, he nearly collapsed in shock. It was then that he finally understood the reasoning of his new treatment. Instead of the now-dead alien who'd conducted the previous tortures, a new being stood in the room, draped once more in elaborate silk clothes: Kronos. More of the white-clad figures stood around the room.
"For nearly a week you have resisted our attempts to turn you," Kronos spoke up, not offering a greeting. "My patience is running out. You've almost become more trouble than the benefits of turning you would be worth. You should have accepted my generous offer."
"I'm so sorry to disappoint you," Xar answered tersely, trying to stall for time. He glanced around the room for something he could use against his captors, some means of escape, but his effort was futile. There was nothing within easy reach, and the Warlord would certainly know beforehand whatever he planned to do.
Kronos nodded to the guards, who took hold of Xar's arms and began pulling him toward the Warlord. Kronos then turned and led them into a small cell, one of several the lined the walls around the laboratory room. Kronos entered first, then the guards pushed Xar inside, blocking the exit behind him. The cell was a small space, perhaps only three meters square, and devoid of features except for the device which dominated the center of the room. A large, metal chair, covered with an amalgam of hideous-looking devices and instruments.
"Now, my friend, we shall see how strong you really are…" Kronos smiled.
Suddenly, Xar found himself in the chair, bound firmly in place by metal shackles. How he'd gotten there, he couldn't remember. More Compulsion? It seemed a power he had no defense against whatsoever. He could never sense it when Kronos used the Force; his Force Mask was that good. And even though Xar could sense the Force at this point, he didn’t dare use it.
He struggled against the restraints that held him firmly in place inside the chair. In front of him, Kronos stood beside a large machine, which rose up in a mass of twisted pipes and wires, ending in several arm-like attachments with malicious-looking pinchers and needles at the ends. Behind Kronos, another human aide stood, wrapped in what he assumed was medical attire, operating the device from behind. But it was Kronos who held his full attention. The Warlord nodded to the aide, who adjusted something on the other side of the device. Then he took hold of one of the arm-like appendages, this one ending in a series of sharp needles. Sparks of electricity shot between them, causing bursts of blue light that flashed across the Warlord's face. Kronos looked at him then, his eyes dark pools that seemed to reflect his dark soul, then he brought the wicked-looking device down into his own arm.
A high-pitched, electric whine cut through the air, and Xar's nostrils caught the putrid smell of burning flesh. The Warlord's arm tensed instantly as the needles penetrated his skin and sent surges of energy coursing through his body. But his expression remained the same, no effect of the pain could be visible, save perhaps a slight darkening of his features. The sight of it made Xar want to cringe in disgust, but also in anticipation; he wasn't going to like those needles underneath his skin. Seconds later Kronos removed the device, his eyes still focused on Xar, and his smile widened.
"I'll set it a notch lower, for you," he said, his eyes gleaming black pools. He gestured to the man behind him, who made another adjustment. “Unlike me, you can die.
"Make no mistake. This is your last chance," the Warlord told him, "To change your mind… to come out of this in relatively one piece…"
"No thanks," Xar whispered, already bracing himself for what was to come. His mind raced for a way out, for something he could use to counter the Warlord and escape this situation. He didn't intend to give in… Yet he knew he wasn't going to die here. It wasn't his destiny. There had to be a way out… but what?
Then Kronos jammed the device into Xar's own arm, and pain like he'd never felt before washed all his thoughts away…
Xar flailed wildly about in the interrogation chamber, his wrists and feet raw from rubbing against their restraints. He'd clenched his teeth so tightly to keep from screaming that his jaw ached and he could taste blood from his chewed tongue. Still, he thought he'd succeeded; he hadn't cried out, hadn't given the Warlord what he'd wanted.
Kronos jerked the device out again, and Xar slumped in the chair as the pain lessened, his body trembling and sliding around the sweat-filled seat.
"Serve me," Kronos whispered seductively. The power and authority in his voice was almost palpable, and drove its way through the pain to fill the space inside Xar's brain. It made him want to bow down and obey instantly – but the feeling lasted only a moment. It echoed over and over, until it slowly faded, leaving a splitting ache in his brain.
Xar managed to open his mouth without a sound, his teeth aching from being clenched tight for so long. "No," he whispered back, shaking his head. Sweat flew from his soaked head, showering the cold, metal floor below. He raised his eyes to meet the Warlord's once again, his vision blurred but good enough to see the quiet expression on his enemy's face.
"Why not?" Kronos asked, the question simple and unobtrusive.
Xar didn't answer. Instead, he shut his mouth, letting it fill up with blood from his raw gums and tongue. Then he raised his head and spit it out in a shower over the Warlord's face.
Kronos' eyes became black pools, his expression going instantly dark. The blood and spittle on his face began to run and drip down, off the tip of his nose, over his lip. "You may scream," he said, his voice like ice. Reaching behind him, past the aide, he made a violent motion on the control behind the device. Then he took two of the arm appendages, one with the needles and another with a crackling electric node, and thrust them toward Xar's body.
A scream of agony poured out of Xar's mouth before he even knew there was pain. Then it came, ten times worse than before, unbearable. He yelled at the top of his lungs, arching up out of the chair as far as he could, his screams beating at the ceiling above him. He could feel his system shutting down, his energy escaping once and for all. He was dying. No!!! he screamed inside his mind. This can't be the way it ends!! I can't die here!!!
"Only serve me," Kronos' voice interrupted. "Serve, and it shall cease."
He shifted his view to the Warlord, his eyes bulging wide from the pain. Kronos was watching him impassively, wiping Xar's blood off of his face, licking it. He focused everything he had on the Warlord, turning his screams into words… Words that he'd spoken before, when he'd stared down the tunnel at an inevitable and imminent death.
And, despite everything, he wouldn't give in. He had a destiny. "Come on!!" he screamed. "Is that the best you can do!!"
Kronos' left lip curled up in a half-smile, and he gave another nod. In response, the aide made another adjustment.
The pain increased again.
Xar flailed about uncontrollably in the seat, his wrists swelling from tearing against the unforgiving restraints. His blood seemed to boil, his muscles tensed and relaxed reflexively. He could feel his veins bulging out all over his body. Again he fought to control the screams, to form words. As he did, he reached deep inside himself, for the Force that he knew was there, but was inexplicably cut off from him. Yet, as he had before, he could defeat it, draw it in gradually. His pain and rage would feed his power… Again he screamed.
"COME ON!!!! DO IT!!! KILL ME!!!! KIIIIILL MEEEE!!!"
"Maximum power!" Kronos shouted.
The pain went up to an inconceivable level. But he welcomed it, because he turned it into rage, pain, anger and rage to feed his Force power. Xar kept screaming, kept taunting, all the while welcoming the pain, the agony that would certainly kill him within seconds. He drew it in, relished it, reveled in it. More power than he'd ever been able to harness alone, unbelievable amounts of strength in the Force… Suddenly it was bursting within him, filling him with life and warmth. The pain was gone; only rage and power filled his body now, the utter strength of the Force. Enough to crush anything. There was nothing he couldn't do with it; and it was begging to be let out. His body was glowing with power. Kronos rose an eyebrow in surprise.
"KILL ME!!! KILL ME!!! AAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!" And as the end began to tip and he felt himself fall over the edge toward final oblivion, he reached out and ripped the devices away from his body, crushing the machine, then he unleashed all the stored up energy… all at Kronos. Everything he had, all the power he'd ever conceived of; he hurled pure Force at the Warlord. Invisible, undetectable to anyone else, an unstoppable blast of pure Force energy.
Time slowed. The Force stretched out between them, reaching out to touch Kronos and vaporize his body and spirit where he stood. Xar sensed it as it approached him, almost connecting the two in a bond that was the Force itself. He had no idea what he'd just done; it'd been an instinctive movement borne out of every scrap of energy he'd had left. But he knew what it could do. It was over.
The invisible, pure Force energy reached out, touched the Warlord… and disappeared. There was a brief instant, barely sensed, in which the beam seemed to split, to somehow warp itself and pass around Kronos like an island within a sea. Then it was gone, sent off somewhere else, some other place.
For a minute, time froze. Xar stared in complete shock at the being in front of him. The pain was gone now. He hung there, strapped in the seat, and he could sense everything. No more pain, no feeling at all in his body. The device sputtered. He could hear his and the Warlord's breathing, hear the steady beating of each of their hearts. He felts the stillness of the universe, moving incomprehensibly slowly along its journey. All in that moment had stopped in time. His eyes met those of Kronos, and he saw something that he'd never seen before. Something he couldn't quite grasp or comprehend. It was as if he was staring into the eyes of Immortality. Kronos was ancient, beyond his imagination, invincible. And he realized then, that he’d really had no hope at all. All his struggle, from the beginning, had been in vain. And now, finally, he understood. He was going to die.
"As you wish…" Kronos whispered, his eyes black and emotionless.
Xar's heart exploded.
The pain that welled up inside him as his heart burst within its framework made his previous torture seem insignificant. And this time there was no scream. His lungs failed him, both of them collapsing at the same time. Then others, as his various internal organs began rupturing one by one.
He arched upwards, staining against the restraints, trying to scream, but he had no breath. His vision exploded and coalesced into a kaleidoscope of images and flashes of light. Inconceivable pain burst through his chest; he felt it bulge as the ruptures sent fluids collecting and scattering inside his torso. He writhed in agony, expending the last of his energy, feeling the life simply drain away from him.
He wasn't aware that the restraints were gone until he hit the floor. He wasn't aware of the impact, only that he was suddenly staring up at the Warlord. He tried to get up, to reach out and lash out at the Warlord, but he couldn't move. His limbs had stopped. There was no more blood circulation. There was no Force there to meet him. He felt cold, chill spreading throughout him as his heart no longer was there to beat. He couldn’t breathe. Inside, he was falling, the last of his warmth draining away. He was dying. That knowledge left him in astonished wonder. Death beckoned him with promises of peace and rest, but he fought with every last ounce of strength, down to the very last second…
Images flashed before his eyes, of his past, of his life. His growing up on Varnus as heir apparent. His betrothal to Illiana. His capture by Runis. He returned to Varnus to find it devastated. He went off on his own, finally joining the Imperial Navy. He served with Thrawn then finally left, going off on his own into Minos Cluster to find artifacts… And then, it stopped… There was something there, during that time. Something he'd forgotten… It was important, but he couldn't remember what it was… It was blocked off from him, as cleanly as a wall of steel. Then he joined the Imperial Remnant, and the Dark Brotherhood…. He killed Janus, Dasok Krun, and others, precursors to the enemy they faced now. He left and helped found the New Imperium… He served as Diktat… He built the Jedi Division of the New Imperium, fought Turles, Malphunoc, and other foes. But something was missing… some piece to the puzzle… But it didn’t matter, now. All this passed before him as a curiosity, as if it had happened to someone else. Someone… else… He watched, ethereal, ephemeral.
Then all he saw was Kronos, staring down at him dispassionately. The edges of his vision turned dark, then slowly crept inwards, a tunnel vision that shrank down and down until nothing was left but a small speck of light, just as before. But this time it wasn't unconsciousness that lingered beyond the void…
The light went out.
Kronos shook his head at the body on the floor, stepping back from the expanding pool of blood that was spreading across the floor from the man’s wounds, from his ears, from his nose and eyes. "Such a waste," he mused. "I've never met one so stubborn. He would have been useful…" He paused, as if in thought. "But then, judging by that little trick of yours, who knows what you might have come up with later? These barbarians; clever, but crafty."
He spit down onto the corpse, then gave a final nod. "Ta nomas, my friend." Then he turned away, striding out of the room and toward the exit. "Clean up this mess," he ordered.
They waited until Kronos was gone. Then, as she stepped out into the open, he followed behind obediently. She moved into the cell, where the kamis was pulling out the necessary cleaning materials from a side closet. The kamis turned back, vacuum in hand, and its eyes widened as he saw the two of them standing there in front of him.
"Your job is finished," she spoke up. "Return to your duties."
Immediately they turned away from the prisoner's body, the forgotten vacuum clanging to the deck as it was dropped. They moved past them, not even seeing them as they left to obey her order.
Then, to his surprise, she moved over to the body and knelt down in the pool of still-warm blood beside it, staining her robes. She stared down at the prisoner's face, his eyes closed, his expression at peace. "He is the one, you know," she said softly. Her comment didn't need a response.
He watched, containing his emotions, looking down in sad recognition at the body on the floor. The woman knelt over the man's body, reaching down to take his bloodstained shirt in both hands. In one motion, she ripped the shirt open, exposing the man's bare torso. The sight that greeted them was shocking, even for him. The prisoner's body was covered with scars, tracing all across his right side and continuing on down his right arm. But this was obviously from an injury long past. The recent injuries were much more prominent. The man's midsection and chest were bloated from the collection of spilled internal fluids. Blood had poured out of his nose, mouth, ears and eyes, and even burst up through his skin, covering his body and contributing to the pool lying around the body. He hadn't known a body could hold so much blood…
"Stand back, and keep watch," she ordered, interrupting his thoughts. Obediently, he stepped back to the entrance and checked the outer room. It was empty, as planned. He continued watching, but kept an eye on the scene behind him in the room, mostly out of curiosity. Distant emotions tried to come up inside him as he looked at Xar, but he pushed them all away. That wasn’t his life anymore.
The woman laid her hands on the man's bare chest, her eyes closed and her breathing rhythmic. He could infer, somewhat, the things she was doing, though he didn't really understand them. He wasn't Force-Sensitive, and he didn't really comprehend such things, yet he thought he did grasp the concept. And he could almost feel within the air the power and life which she summoned up. Then her hands began to glow.
And what happened was something he could only describe as a miracle. Beneath her hands, his body contracted within, the bulges going down until his body was normal size again. He could hear audible crackling noises as bones healed and readjusted and flesh knit. Inside, his organs were being reconstructed, according to their original design; they'd be as good as new when she was finished. His skin twitched and rippled, and a small wave passed over his body. When it passed, the scars were smoothed out and made invisible, every one of them, even the age-old one on his side and shoulder and arm. The prominent scar on his face closed and vanished, as well. Then his body arched slightly as his spine and every bone structure fell into perfect alignment. The sores on his wrists and bare ankles were gone, as well.
"Now," she said, panting. "Heart… beat…" There was a pause, and she nodded in satisfaction. "Have to breathe…" she said next. The body's chest rose and fell. Watching from the doorway, he swallowed hard. What he was seeing was supposedly impossible. But the biggest amazement was yet to come.
"Good… And now the final touch…" she whispered. The glow from her hands spread out to cover the prisoner's body, as she imparted life energy from her body into his. She sighed and moaned slightly, her eyes shut, her body dipping slightly as she continued to fill him with life and energy.
Then something he couldn't explain happened. There was a feeling, a snap that he couldn't hear, but sensed. Abruptly, the man's body lurched upwards, drawing in deep breaths of air. Above him, she recoiled as if struck, falling back away from the body. Only it wasn't a body anymore. As the man on the floor slumped back to the deck, his chest rose and fell rhythmically. He was… impossibly… alive.
She pushed away from the unconscious form, panting, clearly exhausted. Forgetting about the man they'd come to save, he moved toward her, intensely concerned for her well being. He'd never seen her look so drained. But then, he'd never seen anything like this before. Her skin was pale, and her hands shook as she pushed him away and stood up. Her body may have looked weak, but her eyes as she stared at him were full of authority.
"Bring him to my quarters," she commanded. "We are finished here."
* * *
En Route to Mizar System
2300 Hours Ship Time
The swirling blue-white sky of hyperspace filled the Black Star’s forward viewpoint as the three Jedi sat waiting. Suddenly one of them stared ahead in shock.
“It can’t be…” Icis breathed.
“What is it?” Mathis asked beside him.
“It’s Xar… He’s… gone,” Icis whispered, disbelief in his voice.
“No. Impossible.” Mathis shook his head in outright denial. “You’re lying!”
“I told you I would know if he died,” Icis shot back, feeling the shock inside as much as Mathis was showing it on his face. “It’s over.”
“NO!” the man said, reaching out and grabbing Icis by the front of his coat. “It’s not over!”
“Mathis!” Misnera shouted beside him, grabbing the Deputy’s arms to restrain him. “Get a hold of yourself, man! We’re not giving up the search, yet!”
The team of Jedi, having discovered a clue to the enemy’s stronghold back on New Cov, had been en route to the Mizar System for the last fifty-seven hours, crossing back through New Imperium space, and was about to travel back into the Unknown Regions on the other side. The journey and anticipation of what they would find at Mizar had them all on edge, and spending so much time cooped up in Xar’s black, utilitarian starship had them all on edge.
Misnera spun Mathis around to stare at him, saw the look of despair in his eyes. “Don’t just give up!” he spat. “There’s still hope! I know there must be!”
Mathis just sat there, refusing to speak. A moment passed in silence.
“We need to discuss this,” Misnera spoke up beside him.
Slowly, Mathis nodded. Icis had already stood and was exiting out the rear hatch. With the ship on autopilot, the other two Jedi Masters soon followed. They weren’t due to reach Mizar for another day or so.
They went down a short corridor and a flight of stairs to the main sitting area. It was a sparsely decorated room, with a raised ledge above which were large windows looking out on hyperspace lining one wall. Other than that, the furniture was sparse, but there was a display case high on one wall with a tattered native Varnusian banner inside. As they entered, Icis saw that there, sitting cross-legged on the floor mat playing a game of sabacc, were Gaius Adonai, Omega Kira, and Vynd Archaron. All three looked up and their eyes went wide as they saw the expressions on the Jedi faces.
“What’s happened?” Gaius immediately asked.
“We don’t know yet,” Misnera said before anyone else could speak up. He moved over and leaned against the large heavy wooden desk dominating one corner of the room. “We need to discuss things.”
Mathis walked over and took a seat in one of the crash couches while Icis chose to stand near the wall. They all seemed to be waiting on him, so he chose to oblige them. “I felt Xar die,” he said simply.
“You mean you think you felt it,” Mathis countered immediately. His eyes were looking more crazed by the moment.
Icis just gave him a stare. There was no use explaining. He was sure.
“No way!” Omega countered fiercely. “That’s impossible!”
“Wait. Tell us how you can know that,” Gaius spoke up, finally adding some calm.
Icis sighed, then went about explaining once more how he could sense the
life force of people wrapped in important events. What he didn’t tell them,
though, was why. The secrets of the Travelers, the truth about how they had
been watching the universe’s most important events far before the beginning of
“Whether or not what Icis feels is true,” Misnera spoke at last, “we have to decide whether to go on or not.”
“Of course we go on,” Mathis said hotly. “No matter what. We’ll bring just his body back if we have to.”
“How do we find him if we can’t sense his presence anymore, even if we get close?” Gaius pointed out.
That bought out a series of discussion then, about how they were going to find Xar – or his body – and make it out of enemy space in time. Icis just sat, brooding, trying to feel through the Force for the man he had befriended. It didn’t seem possible that he could die, yet. He’d glimpsed visions of the future that definitely had Xar in them. How could he be dead?
The conversation continued on for several more minutes, unabated. Finally, Mathis simply clapped his hands together loudly. “Enough!” he belted. “We’re going to Mizar and getting Xar back, and that’s final!”
Everyone went quiet then, and the Jedi just seemed content to look from one person to the next. Icis ignored them, still focusing on that empty spot inside him that was supposed to be Xar. But it was so clear. He’d felt it many times before, when the life force that was that person he felt was extinguished. It was just as final this time as it had been countless times before. The whole room continued to sit in silence, the sky of hyperspace swirling by outside the windows.
Then, just as suddenly as it had vanished, Xar’s presence returned. “It can’t be,” he said again, breaking the silence more forcefully this time. “What is going on here?”
“What do you mean? Tell us, man!” Misnera said strongly beside him.
“I can sense him again,” Icis said, turning to look at them all. “I don’t know how, I don’t know why. But Xar is alive. He feels… different… but definitely alive.”
He looked at their expressions then. Gaius had an eyebrow arched quizzically, Misnera looked thoughtful, Omega and Archaron disbelieving, and Mathis just looked more determined than ever.
“That settles it,” Organa said, his tone broking no argument. “To Mizar it is. One way or another, we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
* * *
Xar stood there at the wall, watching the other kids below as they played roller-ball on the street. He wondered, sadly, what it was like to be down there, with friends, playing games like that. If only Dyran, his mentor, would let him outside the palace at least once in a while. He was ten, plenty old enough to do some exploring of his own. But then, his father had forbidden it, as well. His father knew best, he supposed. He had to grow up and learn a lot so he could be king, someday. It was true; he had a responsibility to his people, he was told. But he'd never asked for that responsibility. Sometimes he wished he wasn't the firstborn. Why couldn't Rydon have been born first, or his sister, Cassandra?
Then he shook his head; he was just being selfish. Still, it looked like those kids were having a lot of fun, laughing and screaming. But that wasn't for him…
Xar felt someone behind him, and he turned, astonished at first at who he saw standing there watching. A pretty little girl, about two or three years younger than he. Her bright red hair already descended below her shoulders. She was watching him carefully, her deeply green eyes coolly calculating. There was a slight smile on her face.
"Who're you?" he asked sharply, angry at the disturbance.
"My name is Illy," the girl replied.
She smiled widely now, and shook her head. "This is weird," she said.
She sighed then, and looked past him, gazing at nothing. "Our fathers just finished talking," she informed him. "We are going to get married, someday. They decided."
Xar recoiled as if she'd physically hit him. "What? You mean they just decided…"
He backed against the wall railing, shaking his head. "That's not fair… But… eww… you've got red hair!"
"Well, excuse me," Illiana said sarcastically. "I bet you will like it, someday. And mind your speech. You are of the Royal Family, you have to act like one!"
"Bah… This stupid language stuff… Why can't I use contractions?"
"Because they say so?"
He shrugged. "Yeah, I guess you're right…"
"You are, not you're…" she shook her head in exasperation. "It is going to take a lot to get you ready to be king!"
"I never said I wanted to be king…" Xar countered. He broke off into a whisper. "I don't want this…"
"But you cannot change that, can you?" She brushed her hair behind her with one hand. "So, you wanna go exploring or something?"
"Yeah, sure…" he said nonchalantly. "Whatever…"
Back within the warm comfort of the darkness, Xar shook his head. That wasn't him… it couldn't have been… It seemed like three lifetimes ago. But everything had changed, he knew. By the time they were in their mid to late teens, he hadn't only accepted her as his betrothed… he was madly in love with her. It had been difficult for them to hold back, not get too deeply involved in a relationship before their scheduled wedding date. The media tabloids would've been all over that kind of thing. But now, looking back, Xar didn't care what the tabloids or anybody else thought. Now they were all dead, and he was ruler of a new Varnus. Or used to be… That's right, he thought. I'm dead now, too. Oh well.
That thought struck him as funny. Of course, he shouldn’t know he was dead, should he? This was strange indeed… For a moment, he'd experienced and seen things he couldn't comprehend, much less explain. Then, abruptly, he'd ended up here. So, was he still dead? Well, one thing was for certain; he'd have a long time to think it over…
Lyccos II. Now why is that important? Of course. It was where he'd tracked down and killed the rogue Dark Jedi Master Janus. Janus was inherently weak in the Force, but he'd amplified his powers using a Force Splinter. The splinter itself was a mere piece of the Shard of Destiny, a device that would increase a Jedi's power to mythical levels. Xar killed him before he was able to take the Shard from the ruins where it had been found, to exact his own revenge throughout the galaxy. But the Shard had been lost, as well. Now why was that important?
Ah… But he'd been there once before then, to look for the Shard, himself. Those events were almost totally lost from memory, now. That in itself was strange; he should have been able to remember it easily. But the only memory he had of his visit there was in bits and pieces. Something important had happened there… Something he'd been told? Perhaps a clue to what was to come. It seemed clear Janus was working for this enemy in one way or another. For some reason, whatever had happened while he was there had been covered up by the local authorities. What was it? He'd often wondered if the Shard itself were exactly that, only a piece of something even larger. Perhaps he'd searched for that… Again, another dead wall. There was something he was forgetting, something he'd been made to forget! A piece of his history hidden even from him.
That would have been interesting to find out… He would have to go looking for the source of this Force Shard. If he weren't dead, of course… He found that thought incredibly amusing. Just for fun, he began to laugh. He practiced laughing from low, rumbling laughs, to snickers, to guffaws. Soon he found he couldn't stop. So he laughed and laughed, realizing he was probably insane, but not caring anymore… An eternity in this warm, black blanket would be enough to drive anyone insane.
It really was ironic, that this was how it was to end. Ironic that the destiny he'd always looked toward, always strove for, would never come. His whole life he'd done nothing but look to the future, and in doing so he'd missed the precious moments of the present. What a mess he'd made of his life. If he could just have done it all over, he would have been there to stop the attack on Varnus, to marry Illiana, and live happily ever after. No more struggles, no more heartbreaks and hardships, just a quiet life in some remote sector of the galaxy. That would have been perfect…
The first time he awoke, it was as if coming fully from the land of the dead into the land of the living. A rebirth, drawn out of the warm darkness in which he'd rested, jerked forcefully and violently back into his physical body. But his body still hadn't recovered; he was weak, so weak he couldn't even move.
He was dimly aware of lying on a bed, a bed so soft he practically sank inside, underneath covers as soft as silk. Using what strength he had to turn his head, he looked around the room from his horizontal position. He was in a luxurious bedroom, though luxurious would be an understatement. The finest cloths, furniture, and gilding he'd ever seen decorated the room. The bed was the prominent feature of the massive room. Along the walls were three huge, wooden dressers, a beautiful table with chairs, and glass shelves that held artifacts of many shapes and sizes. Elaborate purple, blue and gold carpeting covered the floor, matching the other colors around the room. The bed held those colors, as well. There were two exits, one large entrance at the end and another to the side of the bed - probably a refresher. Judging from the amount of detail, the colors, and the simple taste, he surmised the room belonged to a woman. The thought of that was a bit intriguing and exciting, and he found himself wondering whose it was. But he pushed away his instinctive musings to look at the situation logically. Obviously, he was in no position to fight at the moment. And whoever held him obviously wanted him to live, so he'd just have to rest up until he could move about on his own.
Then he noticed someone else enter at the far end of the room. A man dressed in servants clothing was moving about the room, dusting the furniture and straightening anything that might have been out of place. The man glanced at him once, then kept his dark head down and didn't look at him again. Xar watched him for a while, simply with nothing else to do, until he finally got bored and tired, and fell asleep again.
Xar cautiously walked down the hall lined
with long red glowlamps, until he entered a large
room with transparisteel viewports lining the far wall, starting near the floor
and rising to the ceiling two and a half meters overhead, then curving to
provide a skylight above, as well. Space filled the view outside, though few
stars were visible this far out in the Outer Rim. The room was dark, and mostly
empty, save for a few control panels, and a thin, plush mat covered most of the
"Welcome," said a dark voice full of mirth. "And so begins your nightmare."
"Who is it?" Xar asked, looking around for the source of the voice.
"I am Jedi Master Runis... And I am your destiny."
Then the vision changed. Runis was still there, but Xar watched as he relived his training under the dark master. He went through challenge after challenge, training in many harsh environments. When he did well, Runis rewarded him. When he did not, he learned from his mistakes. He studied many intellectual fields such a science, engineering, astrogation. He learned new languages, and many Force powers, those of a Jedi and those forbidden by them. He watched himself obey Runis’ every command, going where he said go, killing those he ordered to be killed.
Then the vision changed. He watched himself attack Runis, saw the Dark Jedi Master catch him up in a web of the Dark Side, slowly killing him. Then Xar used Runis’ own weapon and sent a poison dart into the man’s heart. He saw himself push a struggling Runis into the ship’s airlock, then hit the cycle button. He saw himself put all his hatred for the man into the Force, felt the connection between them even as Runis died out in space. Then he saw himself, sinking to the floor of the ship, tears streaming down his face.
Then the vision changed.
“Do not despair,” said Runis’ voice over his shoulder. “I am not dead. You have become me.”
In shock, Xar ran, not even daring to look over his shoulder.
Xar stared at Dasok Krun, his scarred, sneering face framed by long, unkempt hair. He was in Palace Ravenspyre on Frigg, in that chamber again, about to face his mortal enemy. All the hurt, all the pain of his family’s and his world’s death had come back. But this time it had a true focus: the man in front of him. Anger flared, but he fought it down. Instead a coldness entered his stomach.
“You killed them? You killed my family, for revenge? You betrayed your own people?”
“They were not my people. They disowned me, remember? Remember that promise I made to your father? I keep my promises, Xar.”
“Me, a murderer? You’re no different. How does it feel, Xar? To know all those you’ve killed before, for revenge, are calling out their innocence? To know that your life is a lie. How many innocent lives are on your hands?” He smiled cruelly. “There is one more thing. I had thought I had gotten all the Kerenskys. But I found out I had missed one.” His voiced echoed above the hum of Xar’s lightsaber. “Your uncle, Aron Kerensky, was alive.” His emphasis on “was” was obvious.
“You lie!” Xar yelled.
“Search my feelings, you know I have spoken the truth. But to convince you…” He held up a small holorecorder. The device hummed to life, and an image was projected a couple meters away. It was a small screen, and a little blurry, but Xar could make out his uncle’s form. All hope left him. He saw Aron yell, “Why? What have I done to you? NO!!” Then a red beam of light flashed in front of him, and the recording stopped. The image faded, but the scream didn’t, instead taken up by Xar and reverberating throughout the chamber.
Suddenly, the chamber was gone, Krun was gone, and all Xar could see around him was an empty blackness. The pain was still there, unabated despite having dispatched Krun over two years ago. It was still there.
“It will always be there, Kerensky,” Dasok Krun’s voice echoed in his head. “And I will always be with you.”
Xar screamed in his mind, and suddenly he was falling, down through the blackness that seemed it would never end. Then consciousness faded, and he fell into a dreamless sleep that seemed to last forever…
The second time, he awoke with a start, fully refreshed. He didn't know how much longer he'd been out; he dimly remembered being woken up to be fed, but all that time was now gone past in a blur. Now he woke abruptly, coming to a sitting position immediately. He was still in the huge, silky bed. From his feeling of the sheets, he was probably dressed only in his underclothes. He looked around at the immaculate room. His dreams had faded with his waking; he barely even remembered having dreamed, now.
He looked down at himself, first taking stock of his physical condition. It wasn't just that he felt refreshed; he felt absolutely great, maybe greater than he'd ever felt in his whole life. He looked down at his bare torso and arms, and gasped in shock. His scars, the scars he'd lived with for over ten years, were gone! Not just those caused by the explosion and Runis' Dark Side Healing, but all of them! Out of curiosity, he brought a hand up to his face, to trace the scar on his cheekbone he'd received fighting the Dark Jedi Melgus. His fingers rubbed across smooth, uninterrupted flesh. This is unbelievable, he thought to himself. It's got to be a dream…
Then he looked up, to take note of the room again, and his world was suddenly and irreversibly changed. There she was, standing right there beside the bed. For a moment, it was as if he saw the future, his destiny finally revealed. And finally, he wasn't afraid.
She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen; that much was certain from the start. Long, dark hair, tied in multiple braids and rivulets, hung past her shoulders, entwined with ribbons and jewels that seemed to glow of their own accord. Her robes were incredibly elaborate, blues and purples and gold, etched with beautiful designs he couldn't recognize. The clothes hung lightly on her, yet held a regal air of their own; the shoulders were wide, and the robes draped down more stately than any queen or monarch he'd ever seen. He couldn't tell much about her form, but it appeared shapely and perfectly proportioned. Her face was perfectly contoured, her skin light olive, and flawless. Her mouth and nose were symmetrically shaped, and her almond-shaped eyes were beautiful, almost purple, jewels outlined in black and gold. Her eyelids were done in purple and gold, as well. When those eyes met his, everything else ceased to exist.
He worked his mouth for enough saliva to talk, then finally managed a simple, "Who… Who are you?" This didn't seem possible. He'd never really sat down and decided what he thought the perfect woman would be like, but he was certain she was standing there in front of him, now. He couldn't guess her age; she seemed younger than him, perhaps in her mid twenties, but the more he looked the less certain he could be. And those eyes… Beautiful eyes that stared into his soul and filled him with warmth and wonder. In them burned a fire like he'd never seen, and it shook him to his core. He felt like a little child sitting there on her bed, looking up at some mythical goddess. His mouth had gone dry again. Suddenly his simple question seemed intrusive, out of place. How dare he even speak to her? He regretted asking. But she didn't appear to mind his insolence, at all. Then, she spoke.
"I am… Zalaria," her voice filled his ears, the most lovely sound he'd ever heard. Not too high, or low pitched, but perfect, almost musical in tone. She spoke to him in perfect Basic. Zalaria… What a beautiful name, he thought. It sounded surreal, almost mythical in itself. Again he thought this couldn’t be real.
Xar glanced around the luxurious bedroom in wonder. "Am… I... dead?" he breathed.
Zalaria's eyes met his, and he found himself trapped in those deep pools as surely as if he were in shackles. Nothing else existed in the room, in the whole galaxy, but her.
"You were dead... But I saved you, brought you back. You belong to me, now…" Somehow, he knew it was true. He belonged to her, and he didn’t mind at all. Suddenly he found himself wanting to kneel before her, to profess to her his undying loyalty and love for all eternity. The feeling was so strong he had to shake his head away to avoid it. This wasn't right… No woman had ever had this effect on him before… There was something different, something more between them.
"You know me, don't you…?" he whispered.
"I know everything about you," she acknowledged. "Our fates are tied together, now. To save you, I had to Bond you… But that, I will explain… later."
He stared at her, couldn't take his eyes off of her. He wanted to speak, to say something, but no words came. What they exchanged though their eyes said more than enough. He was completely, inexplicably in love with her, and she knew it. He wasn't used to this, not at all… And he was completely at her mercy. Whatever she wanted, at the moment, he would do anything to give.
"Come with me," she said. "We have much to discuss."
Obediently, he got out of bed, conscious and yet oblivious to his scant attire, and moved across the room. He was aware of her eyes on him as he passed, those violet crystals gauging and assessing him coolly. He felt himself flush involuntarily under her gaze. Yet he kept moving, over to the corner dresser, where that familiar-looking servant dressed him in a set of soft, cloth robes. Then he followed Zalaria out the main exit and into her study.
Zalaria's study was as elaborate as her bedroom had been. The same colors predominated, and the room was decorated with priceless crystal furniture and artistry on the walls. The servant he had seen before was there, as well. The three of them were gathered around a small table. Zalaria sat on a small couch, her servant sat opposite her in a self-conforming seat, and Xar sat between them in his own chair.
However, Xar only had eyes for Zalaria. He watched her as she sat gracefully, studied every motion and movement she made, every second falling more deeply entranced by her. On impulse, he reached out for her hand, touched it with his fingers. Her eyes bore into him, making him aware of his impetuousness, yet he pressed on. Her skin was smoother than silk… She tried to pull back, but he wouldn't let go. Her voice finally stilled him and brought him back to reality.
"Please control yourself, Xar," she spoke softly. "Now isn't the time for this."
Her words caused him to let go immediately, and he leaned back in the chair, studying her with awe. This was the first time she'd actually spoken his name. Hearing her voice utter something so personal, that which he was, shook him to his roots. He shook his head to clear it of the conflicting emotions and thoughts that welled up within him all at once. What am I doing? he thought to himself. What power did she have that could so completely consume him with desire and infatuation? He took several deep breaths to steel his nerves. He struggled to come up with logical thoughts, to ask the questions which boiled up within him, to put them to words.
"What does… What does this all mean?" he finally asked.
She settled back into her seat before answering. "I will explain why you are here, and what you must do," she told him. "Listen carefully. Your body was pushed beyond the limits of human endurance. Finally, you died… physically, at least. I was able to return you to the mortal world. However… You didn’t come back without a certain price…"
"Price?" Xar whispered.
Her servant, whom she'd referred to as Tulyn, had gotten up and returned with a set of drinks for them. He carefully poured the wine into crystal goblets, setting one for each of their places on the table. Zalaria didn't take hers right away; instead she simply stared into it thoughtfully.
"Xar. When you… died…" she hesitated, as if choosing her words carefully. "Your life energy was depleted. It was gone. Temporary energy, your normal day energy, you can replenish. But not your life energy. In order to replenish you, I had to give of myself... Perhaps some of your own will return one day, to an extent, but you needed enough to sustain you through what is to come." She stopped, looking at him askance. He nodded for her to continue.
"What I gave of myself would only have lasted you a brief time," she went on slowly. "In order to preserve you, I did something else, something I've never done before. I Bonded you."
Xar swallowed, digesting this information and trying to make some sense of it. "I've heard of a Force power called Bonding," he admitted. "Though it was considered lost. Since you obviously know it… What does it do?"
She gave a slight smile. "Bonding is… a joining of essences. A mental and spiritual link. It is a more intimate relationship between two people than any other. Through the bond, we will be aware of one another, may even experience the same feelings, see the same things, or have the same thoughts. However, I am limiting what you can sense now… Many things about me and the life I live are still yet beyond your comprehension."
That bit of information startled him. What did she mean by that? She had chosen the parameters of the bond, cut off some aspects so that her movements and thoughts would be closed to him… But were his closed to her, as well?
“I know much of what you think and feel,” she continued, answering his question for him. "You and I are linked, now. Our spirits are familiar with one another, and know one another. This is why you find an inexplicable attraction to me. And now, I admit, do to you, as well. Perhaps, one day, we will be as familiar in other ways as we are in spirit, now."
Xar felt himself blush; he would very much like that, he realized. Then he frowned. That meant that all this time, the Bond was making him more infatuated with her. It was something beyond his control. In a way, he was being controlled. But to what extent, he couldn't know. "I don't like being manipulated," he said.
"I am sorry," she replied simply. "But the Bond was the only way for you to live. You see, there is another factor in our bond. Because the life energy I gave you would have depleted itself quickly. You must be sustained, Xar. Through our bond, part of my energy is being siphoned to you, making you stronger. You must rely on my life energy if you wish to live. But… this we will discuss more, later." She paused, as if searching for something more to say.
Xar took the moment of silence to gather his thoughts. He nodded. "I think I understand. So, our bond gives me energy, and it also links us together. But what's in it for you? You give me energy, but I don't give you any back? What happens to yours?"
She shook her head slightly. "That, you don't have to worry about. I won't run out. And as far as I know, the bond can only be broken through death. Such an act would have enormous emotional impact upon whichever of us survives." She smiled, and again Xar noticed how exquisitely beautiful she was. Her smile only amplified her beauty, a hundred times over.
"Because of the Bond, you may experience certain advantages, increases in aspects such as strength, stamina, and vitality. This is because of me, because of our link."
"But what about you? Don't you get anything?"
She smiled again. "Some sacrifices are worth the effort," she said. "I'm hoping you'll be worth it for me. In any case, we shall see."
Xar nodded slowly. For several moments they sat in silence, sipping their drinks. Xar kept quiet, deep in thought. He went over her words in his mind, tried to fit them into some order, but he couldn't. There were things he couldn't remember, hinted things floating just beyond his grasp. Zalaria's face was an unreadable mask. And the servant sat almost as if he was not with them at all, unobtrusively out of the way.
"In that case," he said at last, "Let's get out of here. We can go someplace, where we won't have to worry about any of this again. Just us."
Zalaria half-smiled, and shook her head. "Tempting. But, you're forgetting one thing."
"What's that?" he asked.
Zalaria answered him with a word. "Kronos."
The single word invoked an instant reaction inside Xar. Suddenly everything came back to him and fell into place, and an unstoppable rush of anger and hatred boiled up inside him. All he could see was that face, burning its image into his eyes as he died, the last thing he'd seen. Those cold eyes smugly watching him, knowing that he was the victor, invincible, immortal. Every fiber of Xar's being rebelled against that word, hated it, wanted nothing less than its total annihilation. "Kronos…" the growl emanated from his throat. It didn’t even sound like his voice.
"You want to kill him?" Her question was simply stated.
Xar looked up at her, gazing into her beautiful eyes. "More than anything," he whispered fiercely.
"That is what you must do, if both of us are to survive."
He recoiled at the news. "But… how…?" he began. He knew that, for all of his power, he was nothing compared to Kronos. And what did she mean, if both of them were to survive?
"I will explain things, in time." She paused, as if considering something, then spoke again. "Xar, when I healed you, there was… a darkness within you. I can't explain it well. The scars you held contained a dark touch… I was able to remove it, of course, and you will probably feel effects of that. But there was something else I couldn't quite grasp that still remains. That, perhaps, we shall discover later. But meanwhile, tell me: what were they?"
Xar hesitated. "The scars, you mean?"
"They were the results of Dark Side Healing, done almost ten years ago, to save my life."
"Dark Side?" She seemed momentarily puzzled. "I haven't… Ah yes," she nodded finally.
"You don't know what the Dark Side is?" Xar asked.
"We've never been exposed to it," she answered simply. "We learned of it when we made contact with your areas of space, although we still don't quite understand how it came to be. The concept of the Force being split between sides is… foreign to us."
"You use the True Force," Xar pointed out. "I am trying to bring my Jedi into using it fully, and eliminate all traces of the Dark Side within our society… But it's difficult…" he broke off, at a loss for words. A growing sense of awe and dread was coming on him.
"We simply call it the Power," she said with a bemused smile.
Xar nodded blankly. He didn't really know what more to say. The concept of a whole society that had never been exposed to the Dark Side, or concept of sides at all… They used the True Force naturally and exclusively; that was what he strove to make the Jedi Order into. This meant these Altarin'Dakor possibly knew everything that the Jedi had believed lost, powers beyond their imagination. All those secrets they'd hoped to glean from the mind of Lasitus, the ancient Jedi they'd found in stasis, the Altarin'Dakor already knew. And, he realized, the scariest part of all was… these people were the enemy.
Zalaria spoke again, breaking through his thoughts.
"There is something else you must know," she said quietly. She gestured to the servant sitting opposite her and beside Xar. "Perhaps you should take a closer look at my servant..."
Slightly bewildered at her request, Xar nevertheless did as she suggested. He looked at the dark-haired man across from her, really consciously for the first time. That familiar face... Perhaps five years younger than Xar, his hair was dark like Xar's, his face a bit smaller and leaner. His eyes, a dark hazel, stared at him in calm recognition. As realization suddenly hit Xar like lightning, he leaned back in his seat, eyes widening as he took a long, in-drawn breath. His former thoughts were forgotten; this man now held his full attention.
The younger man smiled a bit sheepishly, looking uncomfortable under the scrutiny. "It's been over ten years, Xar, but I haven't changed that much, have I?"
Xar felt a lump forming in his throat, and he swallowed hard as he looked at his brother. He worked his tongue to speak, his mouth suddenly gone dry. Finally he was able to ask, "Rydon...? Is it really you, Rydon?"
The man nodded once. "Alive, and at your service, big brother."
Xar brought a hand up to his forehead, finding his breath coming short. "This can't be..." He looked back up at the man, to make sure he was real. His younger brother, Rydon Kerensky, was alive... After years of believing that his entire family died in the bombing of Varnus, one of them was alive. He reached out a hand toward him, feeling the need to touch, to gain physical evidence. Rydon slowly reached up and took his hand. Xar shook his head in complete astonishment and wonder. "I have a brother," he breathed in awe. "I have a brother." He let him go, sitting back in his seat, feeling suddenly warm and exhausted. "How did you survive?" he asked. "I thought you were at the academy... The whole city was… obliterated..."
Rydon nodded somberly. "I'll never forget it," he said. His voice held what Xar had now come to understand as an Altarin'Dakor accent. Gone was any last trace of Varnusian from his tone. "I was on a trip with some friends during that weekend. When the attack came, several ships came right down to our spot. I don't know exactly how it happened, but... They rescued me, brought me off-planet. I guess you know they did the same with your fiancée, Illiana. Zalaria took me in; I owe her more than I can ever hope to repay. So I'm indebted to serve her. It's the greatest honor I've ever received."
Xar glanced from Zalaria to his newfound brother, trying to push back the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him and think this through rationally. The events of the bombing were coming back more clearly now. And that Rydon was so willingly and enthusiastically working for Zalaria… As a house-servant… "But I don't understand," he pointed out, "about the bombing. Who came and got you? How did they know?"
Rydon shrugged. "I don't know everything, but I'll tell you what I do know. There was another group there, Xar. Purely Altarin'Dakor forces. They didn't much trust Dasok Krun to fill out his job... Turn's out he didn't. His little blood quest against our family led him to try and kill all of us instead of fulfilling his real objective."
Xar frowned. This was confusing; it was totally different from what Dasok Krun had told him personally. Strangely, at the mention of that name, he felt a stirring inside, a suddenly flash of anger, gone as quickly as it came. "What was that?" he asked.
"Quite frankly, Xar... They were looking for you."
"What?" Xar shook his head in immediate disbelief and refusal. "That can't be, they didn't even know I existed. How do you know all this, Rydon?"
Rydon didn't answer; instead, his eyes shifted to look past Xar at Zalaria.
Xar opened his mouth to ask for an explanation when a chime sounded throughout the room. Rydon started to get up, but Zalaria held out a hand to stop him. Instead she rose and walked across the room toward the access entrance. Xar watched her as she opened the door. On the other side he could make out a figure in white robes like he'd seen the servants wear before. He could overhear what they were saying, so he didn't feel it an intrusion to listen in.
Their conversation was amazingly brief.
"Lord Kronos asks to speak with you," the servant said in a respectful, neutral tone of Altarin.
"Very well," Zalaria answered without hesitation. The man nodded, and turned away. As the servant left, Zalaria turned back to them.
Suddenly cold, Xar stood abruptly, his seat sliding back away from him. "Don't go..." he shook his head, his voice almost cracking with a sudden rush of emotions within him. Fear for her, hatred for Kronos, and underlying that, inexplicable anger.
"I'm in no danger," Zalaria assured him calmly. "I will be back soon. In the meantime, I am sure there is much you two would like to discuss."
Then, as Xar looked on in trepidation, she turned back and left through the same entrance. As the door slid closed once more, he turned back to look at Rydon. To his surprise, the man's face showed as much concern as Xar felt.
"Is this okay?" Xar asked, voicing his concern. "Has this happened before?"
Rydon shrugged. "I assume so. I'm not usually privy to her discussions."
"He'd better not do anything to harm her..." Xar broke off roughly. Just the thought of Kronos having his way with her, as one of his "play-pretties"...
Then a sudden thought hit him. "What did that servant mean, 'Kronos asks'?"
Rydon hesitated, then shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Just word choice. We've got a lot to catch up on, brother," he said, changing the subject. "What do you want to talk about first?"
Kronos sat alone in his throne room, impatiently thinking while he waited for Zalaria to arrive. He was alone in the room, except for the two servant girls who lounged on the dais on either side of him. They were clad in most transparent of silks, ready to rise and serve his slightest whim. These two were particularly lovely, he supposed. Even so, they paled in comparison to Zalaria, herself. A pity, that Zalaria had become so arrogant. He cursed the woman for being so high and haughty when she knew full well who the master was.
Of course, he looked down on Zalaria with more than a bit of contempt, now. She was the one who had first taken him, as a young man, to become a Shok'Thola. She had taught him what he'd needed to survive and rise up, skills that he'd found very useful when finally consolidating his power. He'd built upon those skills, using them to fashion his empire, increasing his power until he could finally throw off the last of her yoke and become the master, himself. And he had. Friends and enemies alike had fallen before him, now left forgotten and unlamented in his wake. Their bones supported the tower on which he stood. In his rise to the top there was no room for anyone else to share the glory and power. Some of his closest supporters, part of his original gang of upstarts before the Schism, he'd had to kill; some because of ambition, some out of convenience, and some for fun. And now, it was all more than worth it.
Except for Zalaria. Involuntarily he found his thoughts returning to her. She shouldn't have even been on his station. Now he had to decide what to do with her. Would it be wise to let her go? Probably not, but he couldn't kill her outright; he needed some way to make it seem accidental…
Zalaria was from a race of humans with perpetual memories; they remembered everything they saw, heard, or experienced. Kronos had to admit that this could be advantageous in certain ways. After eons past, he could barely remember anything about his life before he became a Shok'Thola, almost nothing before the Schism. Of course, Zalaria was never lax in telling him about his faults and shortcomings back before then. Somehow she must still have felt like something of a surrogate mother to him. And, of course, this annoyed and enraged him to no end.
Also, many of the minor details about his life he'd let pass from memory entirely. At their position, you had to be somewhat choosy about what to remember and what not to. And the longer he lived, every time he learned something new, something old slipped through the cracks. This was the way of things, and he didn't regret it. After all, his skills were there, and he wouldn't forget the important things, the lessons he'd learned. So what did a few memories matter? Most were of his military campaigns and victories, anyway.
Abruptly the doors slid open, and Zalaria entered, alone. She was dressed in elaborate silk and royal robes, and her hair swung freely in the multi-braided fashion she favored, entwined with thin gold wire, ribbons and precious stones. She walked towards him slowly, regally, her feet padding silently on the rug. She finally stopped on the carpeted floor ten meters in front of him and smiled. "Kronos," she acknowledged with a slight nod.
But Kronos wasn't in the mood to waste time. Before she could speak further, he called out angrily. "What have you done, woman? What right do you have to take my prisoner from me?"
She showed no visible response to his statement. None in regards to the knowledge that he knew she had Kerensky with her. She simply raised one eyebrow skeptically. "I wouldn't call him your prisoner now. After all, you killed him. That usually means you are though with someone, yes?"
Kronos waved her statement away with a hand. "Bah. You always did love having men, didn't you? Well, perhaps not as much as Asellus, but then you weren't quite as excessive, either, nor as… brutal. Close, but not quite." He sneered, and chuckled softly behind his raised fist. “But she was taken with you too, wasn’t she? You loved her almost as much.”
"Not as much as you love women yourself, Kronos."
He smiled, glancing down at his two servant girls, who lounged, ready to serve yet seemingly ignoring their entire conversation. "Ah, yes. I suppose I learned it from you." He chuckled at that, then abruptly leaned forward, his mind returning to the situation at hand. He studied her in scrutiny, trying to judge her emotions.
"But is it true? You actually Bonded him? You must truly be a fool. Why did you? Did you think it would stop me from killing him?" They both knew there was a good possibility that when one member of a Bond died, the other simply would not survive the shock. And there was that current rule that none of the Shok'Thola were to kill one another. But, he thought, smiling to himself, I have a feeling that will change very soon…
"That had nothing to do with it," she insisted.
"I've killed other Shok'Thola before, you know," he said warningly. Then he put on a warm smile. "We're the survivors, you know. We have to look out for one another."
She shook her head. "You're just as vain and delusional as ever, Kronos."
"Maybe, but I don't need you to look after me anymore, Sovann," he said, his voice dripping sarcasm as he used the ceremonial word for mother. She had been like a parent to him once, when he was young, and still had much to learn about the universe. He bore his gaze down upon her. "The difference between our age and experience is negligible now, Zalaria. I won the right to Spearhead the Return, not you. That means I am the first among the Shok’Thola. I am the master, now,"
"The simple fact that you must state this attributes to your incertitude," she said smoothly. “I see you’re still the uncertain little child, Kronos.”
He felt a sharp flash of anger at her words. The audacity of her, to challenge him like this! Still, he decided to keep control, to show as much composure as she always did. "Just return my prisoner and I will be satisfied," he said.
But Zalaria shook her head adamantly. "He's mine now, Kronos. Completely. You may not have him."
Kronos snorted. "Have you taken him into your bed already?" He grinned. "If I'd known that his weakness was women, then perhaps I could have sent one of the servants... He seems very touchy about one of them…"
"Hold your tongue, Kronos!" she said fiercely, her eyes burning cold fire through him. "You aren't the only one who might chance breaking the rules, here."
He arched an eyebrow curiously. Was that indignation he sensed? From her? But... this didn't seem possible, but..."Wait... I wonder... Could it be? Are you actually... Are you in love with him?" he spoke incredulously. He shook his head. "Your Bond has affected you. That’s a mistake. You always did care too much about these mortals…"
"I made no mistake, Kronos. As I said, he belongs to me. He is simply my tool."
"One day he will be your undoing, Zalaria,” he snapped back. “You know it. One day he will gladly die to serve me, and I will give him his wish. When I lead all Altarin'Dakor. When I become... the new Altima!"
"Dangerous talk," she warned, "to fuel your childish delusions. What makes you think you'll be alive to see such a day, or achieve such a goal? You'd better hope your words don't reach the wrong ears…" She made an evil smile. "Deep down, you're still that frightened, confused little boy. Still as easy as ever to control and guide."
He slammed his fist down on his armrest, the anger suddenly boiling up within him. He heard a crack as the golden arm split down the middle. For a moment he considered killing her outright. They both knew whose strength in the Power was highest. If it came to a fight, he might lose the station, but she would be dead in the end. It would probably be worth it...
Instead he shook his head in dismissal. "Zalaria, your... evaluation period here is over. You will go back... I am ordering you, as D'humas, to go back. Give the others your report, and tell them that soon I will not need their assistance at all, because I will be the undisputed ruler of this galaxy."
"We shall see. I assure you, your troubles have only begun," she countered coolly. "Goodbye, Kronos." She grinned again, and he was struck, almost to his core, that she truly was beautiful. She was beyond any of his other women; they didn't even begin to compare. Frustration built within him. He knew what it was, how she could affect men down to an instinctive level. He enjoyed it.
As she turned to leave, he leaned forward in his seat, reaching a out hand. "Wait," he offered.
"Make love to me before you go." As she once had, when he was young. He would never forget those memories.
She turned back, one eyebrow raised skeptically. "You truly are delusional."
"It's been ages since I've had a real woman," he said with a sigh. "These mortal women are physically beautiful, but they just don't have the passion, the life within them." He reached down to stroke the head of the woman to his left, a lovely dark-haired model from somewhere in the Core regions. In response, she sighed, contented. "They may be good for temporary pleasures, but they drain so quickly... I need someone who is my equal, who shares the same… passions I do."
She shook her head, her face showing disbelief. "Goodbye, Kronos. I think I shall never see you again."
As Zalaria walked off toward the exit, he leaned back in his chair and watched her go. "I'm going to kill you someday, Zalaria," he called out. She didn't turn back. "And do you know why?" he asked, raising his voice as she got further away. "It won't be for vengeance... Not for greed… Not even for pleasure... But because you think you're better than the rest of us!"
She kept walking. Mentally, he cursed her in a hundred ways and a dozen different languages. He watched her leave, and as she departed, he sat alone, in silent contemplation, wondering how he could get rid of this one minor nuisance. But there were so many others… How difficult, to keep his precarious position here… Failure was not an option anymore. This time, he would deal an iron fist to these mortal outlanders. A weapon that they couldn't begin to withstand. And there would be no recovering from it…
* * *
Outskirts, Mizar System
0800 Hours Ship Time
The team of Jedi had entered the Mizar system just hours before, and had been waiting for some hint of Xar’s presence in the Force, to tell them which of the three planets he might be on. Icis watched from his seat behind the pilot’s and copilot’s chairs. They had originally gone for the third planet, the only one habitable, but there was an enemy fleet there larger than any they’d ever seen. Now they were waiting, running silent, in the shadows.
“Sense anything yet?” Mathis asked him again for the tenth time this hour.
“No,” Icis answered simply.
“They’ve got to be on the third world,” he man replied. “It’s the only one people could live on.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Icis countered. “We have to wait for the time to act.”
Mathis cursed, but Misnera simply shook his head. “Let’s be patient. At least we know he’s alive. Something will happen soon.”
“I don’t like sitting here doing nothing,” Organa muttered softly. “We don’t know how much longer it’ll be till the enemy spots us.”
“Just a little longer,” Icis said. “I feel something is going to happen soon.”
* * *
"How do you feel?" Zalaria asked as she reentered her quarters. Xar looked up from where he sat with Rydon, and stood up to meet her. Taking stock of his physical condition, he spoke candidly. "I feel great. Better than great... Better than I've ever felt in my life!"
He grinned, and she smiled back, showing rows of perfect white teeth. The sight of her smiling at him immediately made him feel warm and comfortable inside. "I'm glad you're all right," he said.
She came up to both of them, and Rydon quickly offered her and Xar a drink. He watched as she took hers and sat down in a seat across from him. He opted to stand and hold his, himself. "By the way," he asked, "How long was I really out?"
"Nine days," Rydon answered, giving a nod and moving to another chair. He poured a drink of himself and sat back, nursing it.
"Nine days? Wow..." It really was incredible. "Can you tell me anything that's happened since then?"
"Many things are happening," Zalaria spoke, sipping her glass. "For one thing, the New Imperium has retaken Varnus. That happened even before you met Kronos."
The news sent a wash of relief through Xar. He sighed. "That's great news."
"They also managed to destroy one of our Titan-class battleships, the Devastator." Her voice was neutral, and Xar couldn't detect any hint of her own feelings from it. He figured she was probably wise not to take a side in the conflict, with him here.
"That's incredible," he said aloud. "Does this mean they actually have a chance?"
"They were just lucky, this time," she corrected him. "Their brief respite will cost them dearly. In the end, Kronos will be sure to make the consequences much worse for them. He called the other two ships back, but in the time that you were asleep, another Titan has arrived here. The Cataclysm."
"What's so special about it?" he asked, taking another drink.
"You see, we have different classes of ships, even among Titans. The Devastator was fairly average, a standard class, if you will. All are different, you see. Others, like Kronos' flagship, the Death Wing, are much larger and better armed. The Cataclysm is like this." She paused to take another sip of her drink.
Rydon took over where she left off. "The Cataclysm is over fifty kilometers long, with many times the weaponry of the Devastator," he said.
Xar spewed drink involuntarily out of his mouth as he heard the news. He wiped his mouth off with a sleeve, and stared at her in disbelief. "Are you serious?"
She set her drink down on the table beside her, and nodded solemnly. "Yes, Xar. Unless we can kill Kronos before he acts, the consequences will be very, very bad for the New Imperium."
He swallowed hard, ingesting the news and wondering if he had the guts to actually go up against Kronos again. But that feeling of hatred and rage that went along with the name, now, overcame his trepidation. He set his own drink down, and stared into her eyes. "Then let's kill him," he said.
Zalaria gave a slight smile, and he thought he caught a particular gleam in her eyes. "Very well then. From this point, there is no turning back. Are you willing to fully commit to this?"
He set his glass on the table and looked her straight in the eyes. "Zalaria…" the word sounded strange on his lips, yet soothing and comfortable. "I've gone up against powerful foes before, and I've taken on missions where there's been a lot at stake. But I realize that this will be the greatest of all those. I'm going to give everything I've got into this, because I know that if I don't, not only will I die, but the New Imperium will suffer as well. This is my only chance; right now, it may be the only thing I have to live for. I'm going to do it."
"Good," she spoke softly. "Because Kronos has ordered me to leave. I've been conducting an ambassadorial mission here, but now I'll be expected to leave within two days. He also wants me gone before he begins the project down on the planet below."
"What project?" he asked, bewildered.
Zalaria glanced past him at Rydon, then looked back at him. "We have two days to explain this and get you ready. Come with me."
"This space station is ten kilometers across," Rydon explained, holding a pointer to the blueprint readout on the flat-table holo lying on front of him and Xar. The station was something between a sphere and a disk, but its dimensions were hard to see on the schematic, since the most prominent feature of the craft was the countless needlelike projections sticking out all around the station. Each one, Rydon said, was a tunnel leading to a docking station, where large transports were currently docked to each one of them. Also, at the bottom of the station, relative to the dark planet it orbited, a thick, massive tether connected all the way down to the surface. That, Rydon said, was also a tunnel. It led to a separate, atmospherically enclosed station down on the surface, where the tube led underneath the surface into a massive tunnel.
"What's at the end of the tunnel?" Xar asked, confused as to the purpose of all this.
"It's the whole reason this station is here," Rydon said. "At the end of the tunnel is a massive door. And I mean massive. It's there to seal something inside, more than to keep someone out."
"What's in there?" The question was necessary, but somehow he knew he was going to regret asking it.
Rydon cleared his throat, visibly uncomfortable. "You sure you're ready for this?" he asked.
"Just tell me."
"All right," Rydon shrugged. He tapped his pointer on the planet itself, and the image of the station was replaced. And the image that sprang forth sent Xar's stomach cold.
"I've seen one of these before," he said, pointing to the creature on the screen. "On the Titan I was captured on."
"Yep," Rydon nodded, his voice shaky. Clearly he was as perturbed as Xar.
And well that he was. For hovering over the board was an image of a dark spider, black as space and larger than a man. It stood on a dozen legs, and at least two sets of front appendages curved forward, ending in horrendously black, sharp claws. Its body was longer than it was wide, and its ugly head rose forward and up, from which glowed several sets of terrifying, gleaming red eyes. It looked of a species with the Mortigena, a being they had encountered on the Ar’Kell home of Frigg, what seemed like a lifetime ago.
"What are they…?" Xar realized he'd been holding his breath, and forced himself to take several deep breaths.
"Their race is called Zelduk," Rydon said, his voice almost a whisper. "They're a horrible perversion of some long-dead race, made this way by the Altarin'Dakor. One of the Shok’Thola, I hear. In case you're wondering why I'm reacting like this, I guess it's because I'm an outsider. I hate these things, and I can't understand how any Altarin'Dakor, trueborn or otherwise, could be around them. They're voraciously ruthless, and they'd carve you up and eat you in an instant."
"So what do they have to do with the planet?" Xar asked.
"Because the planet, Darklon, is full of them."
Xar looked away from the image and at his brother. "What? How?"
Rydon tapped the
projector again, and a view of the planet Darklon
replaced the horrendous creature. "Few Zelduk
are in the Altarin'Dakor forces today," he explained. "Most of them
are here, imprisoned here in ancient times. Imprisoned
because they're too dangerous, and because they're just plain evil. And
Kronos wants to free them all. They're the ultimate ground assault forces,
Xar." He traced a line up from the planet's surface where the tube met all
the way up to the space station and out to the loading spines. "They'll
travel up the tether, into a huge holding area that occupies most of the
inside, and along special pathways out along these spine-like projections,
where they're ushered onto the waiting transports." He let out a short
laugh. "Even Kronos doesn't trust them enough to let them roam free for a
moment; their path is clearly laid out. Then…" he hesitated before continuing.
"Then, we think they'll be transported to worlds all across the New Imperium
Xar shook his head in disbelief. "That's… awful. They'll destroy countless innocent lives."
"Kronos doesn't care about those kinds of things, Xar."
"But why? Why weren't they destroyed entirely, instead of being imprisoned?"
"I don't know," Rydon shrugged. "But you can believe, after all the time they've been there, they'll be more than ready to do anything once they get out."
"How do they survive in there?" Xar wondered aloud.
"Well, that's another thing. First of all, they don't have to breathe. As for food… Well, let's just say they reproduce quickly and that they're highly cannibalistic."
Xar felt bile starting to rise up toward his throat, and he swallowed, hard. "Kronos is even worse than I ever imagined," he breathed. "Needless to say, we can't let them get out. How are we going to do this, exactly?"
"That is where I come in," Zalaria's voice came from behind. Xar turned around as Rydon shut the holoprojector down, and they walked up to meet her. They followed her back into her study, and he thought he caught a sigh of frustration from her as they entered. Finally she turned around to face them. "There's a slight complication," she said. "I've gotten word that Kronos is making the move tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Xar repeated. "I need more time to prepare."
"I'm afraid time is the one element we don't have, Xar," she replied. "I'm going to tell you what you have to do, then you must rest until the time comes."
"Wh…what?" he blurted out. "Wait a minute here, I feel like I'm being cornered…"
"Don't worry," she assured him. Her eyes bore into his, and he felt a warmth embrace him and wash all his doubts away. "Everything will be all right as long as you do as I say."
"So, what do I do?"
She smiled. As Rydon moved past them to another part of the room, she began to explain.
"Kronos will want to be in the control room while the operation takes place," she said. "Most likely he'll be consulting with his general, Akira, and over see the transfer of…"
"What?!" he interrupted with a half-yell. "Did you say Akira? General Akira?"
"I believe that's what I said," she replied, arching an eyebrow. "Something the matter?"
"You know kriffing well what's the matter," he countered. "Akira's responsible for what happened to Varnus, for the death of my… our family!" He glanced at Rydon, who didn’t show any particular reaction to Xar’s outburst.
have known," Xar continued, "that he works for Kronos." He
closed his eyes, seeing the memory of his planet, massive blackened craters
covering the entire city of
"You mustn't let Akira's presence distract you from Kronos," Zalaria's voice broke through his thoughts. "If he's there, you may kill him, but not before Kronos. Do you understand? Xar, are you listening to me?"
"Oh yes…" Xar grinned. "I understand well… In one shot I'll take out the two worst criminals the galaxy's ever seen."
"Listen to me, Xar," Zalaria broke in. "This is no game, and you must not let revenge blind you as you have before. There are only a few more things to take care of. I will be leaving while you go to fight Kronos. Once you've beaten him, you have to destroy this station and the planet below, one way or another."
He nodded slowly. "That part's no problem."
She leaned forward, almost as if she was peering through him to detect his thoughts. "Please understand," she said. "You have the element of surprise. Don't squander it. Shoot him first. Then you have to dispose of the remains. Cut him into pieces and then burn them with your Force energy."
"What?!" he asked incredulously. Was she mad? “Isn’t shooting him enough?”
"Trust me, you have to dispose of the remains immediately, Xar. He's not so easy to kill. If it turns into an all-out fight, you'll be at a disadvantage. But I will be there to help you. I cannot interfere directly, but my Bond will give you extra strength and vitality. I can even impart some of my Force abilities to you, enough that Kronos won't notice."
"Well, every bit helps," he admitted.
"Yes, and there's more. You see, there is another seal on the tether which will keep the Zelduk from entering the station until Kronos is ready. He'll be using the vast majority of his powers simply to keep this massive machine operating. You see, this is not an ordinary device. Kronos has to use his powers to generate the power and lift the final seal. Once he does that, though, he'll be back to full strength. You must kill him before then."
Xar nodded, trying to take it all in. Just then, Rydon returned, and walked up to them. Turning to Xar, he held up a black and gold, cylindrical object. "I believe this is yours," he said.
Realization dawned on him as he looked down at weapon in the man's hands. "My lightsaber! How did you get it?"
"Thank Zalaria,” his brother replied. “Also, here's one of our pulse blasters," he said, reaching down and taking off the weapons belt around his waist. He gave the strip to Xar. "The gun operates almost identical to a blaster, but it has a higher rate of fire, and packs a lot more punch."
"Thanks, brother," he said. "I won't forget this, or your help."
"You don't have to," Zalaria spoke up. "Rydon is going back with you."
"What?" Xar glanced at the man in front of him to see his reaction, but his face just held an almost sad smile. "That's great…"
"It'll be good to see Varnus again," Rydon said. He didn't look at Zalaria, though, and Xar wondered how attached he'd gotten to her over his time of service.
"What about you?" he asked, looking at Zalaria.
"I must go back to my own territory for a while," she said placidly. "There are things I must do." Her face betrayed no emotion whatsoever. "Now, go and get some rest until it's time. You will need all of your strength. This may be the greatest battle of your life."
He nodded. "I guess I should say, 'may the Force be with me'." He grinned. "Because tomorrow, it sure isn't going to be with Kronos."
* * *
Outskirts, Mizar System
2015 Hours Ship’s Time
“I can sense Xar now,” Icis said, suddenly cutting the silence.
“Well, it’s about frigging time,” Mathis shot back as Misnera sat up straighter. He looked to where Novitaar was pointing on the navigation screen.
“That’s the second planet,” Misnera said. It’s uninhabitable, but we picked up a huge power source in orbit. Maybe some kind of space station.”
“That’s where Xar is,” Icis said, no doubt at all in his voice.
Misnera exchanged glances with Mathis, then the other man shrugged.
“Then that’s where we’re going,” he said simply. “Set us a course, and tell the others to get strapped in.” He glanced ahead at the stars, veiled by the flowing bulk of the nebula beyond, as Misnera powered up the drives. “We’re going in.”
* * *
Trying hard to act passive and subservient, Rydon slid into the control room and made a visible check of the area. The room was essentially a massive hexagon. There were two exits, one behind him that led deeper into the station, and one in the wall opposite him on the other side of the fifty-meter long room. That one was where Xar would be coming from, in the direction of Zalaria's quarters. The walls of the room were mostly bare, except for a control panel here and there. Most of the controls were mounted on desks and tables on the floor, as was common among Altarin'Dakor. On his side was something of a waiting area, holding a few tables and seats. In the center of the room and forward, to his left and toward the center of the station, were the control banks proper, their flashing lights casting colored hues throughout the room. At the moment, they were empty. In fact, the whole room was, except for himself and the two individuals standing in front of the control panel and window that looked into the inside of the station. To his right, the entire wall and part of the ceiling was taken up by a huge viewport thirty meters wide. The window was a series of plates shaped in an octagonal fashion and actually slanted somewhat diagonally into the room at the top. Outside, he could see stars, some bright and some faint, as well as part of the wispy purple cloud that was the Galbagos Nebula.
Thus, this was the only part of the station that actually looked outside on one side, and into the vast chamber that took up the center of the station on the other. He looked back left, now, to where the two figures stood. If they'd noticed him, they didn't show it, didn't care about a mere janitor. That was how he was dressed, now, decked in coveralls with a small kit of cleaning tools. He moved over to the tables near him, keeping his head low, trying to act like a good servant should. From time to time he risked glances up at the figures, to identify and keep track of them.
On one side stood the Warlord. Kronos was dressed today in dark pants and a tight, short-sleeved shirt that showed off his perfect physical condition. By contrast, the one named General Akira stood by his side, dressed in uniform, his once broad form now sagging a bit with age. Both men stood in front of a wide viewport that looked into the center of the station. There, Rydon knew, was a massive circular room at least five kilometers in diameter and over three kilometers deep. Since the room was near the top of the station, he could see the ceiling, and the beginning of the huge spike-like column that projected downwards, narrowing, until it finally met the floor of the chamber below. There its massive weight sealed off the lower entrance, which led to the tether that ran all the way down to the planet. Situated all around the chamber were entrances that led to the various loading tunnels that the Zelduk would file into. They were located all around the chamber, even higher up on the walls; after all, the spiders could climb them easily. Rydon felt a shiver just thinking about them coming out.
"You should be proud that you've lived to see this day, Akira," Kronos spoke, his voice clear and commanding. "This is the moment I've waited so long to see. Fitting, that I should be D’humas, the one to draw the Zelduk from their imprisonment. The spearhead of the Return." He laughed then, a long, stunning, yet evil sound. "The storm has begun!"
Xar woke up refreshed and with a calmness in his mind that he couldn't fully understand. He got up and dressed, making sure to don the weapons belt and clip on his lightsaber. This is it, he thought. Funny, I don't feel the least bit scared. It must be the calm before the storm. Indeed, instead of fear, all he felt was a resolution to the task ahead, and underneath, a cold fury he knew was just waiting to be released.
Zalaria was in her quarters waiting for him, though her rooms were mostly empty now. Servants were already packing her things away so she could leave, and there wasn't much more to be done after he left. She was there only to see him off. As he entered her study, she turned around and looked at him with that warm, stilling gaze.
"I can feel that you're ready," she said to him. "Remember what I said. Concentrate on Kronos, and do not be distracted by anything else."
"Don't worry," he told her.
She nodded, and produced a small single-handed datapad that she handed to him. "The operation is about to begin. Kronos is waiting in the control room. Follow the map if you get lost."
"Will I see you again?" he asked, not bothering to hide his worry.
"Definitely," she smiled. Then she reached up and stroked the side of his face with her hand. Her touch was electric, sending chills across his body. He looked into her eyes, tried to burn her image into his sight. If this was the last day of his life, he wanted this moment to lie in his thoughts until the very end.
She released him and stood back, her lip curling up slightly in a playful smile. "Farewell, Xar." Then she turned, walking further into the room, leaving him behind, to his mission. Stilling his nerves and pushing away stray thoughts, he put his focus completely on the mission ahead, and turned and went through the room's exit.
He stepped through the entranceway, and the door slid closed behind him, immersing him in silence. The corridor wrapped around to either side of him. There was no one else in sight. Pulling out the pulse blaster Rydon had given him, he checked the power reading to make sure it was full. The weapon wasn't all that different in form than a blaster, after all. He shut off the safety and adjusted the grip to fit his hand. Then, glancing at the datapad map in his other hand to confirm his direction, he started off down the corridor.
Rydon finished polishing the metal tables for the second time, and he eyed Kronos and Akira yet again. The two were still conversing, but now Kronos seemed to be focusing on something else. His voice was more distant, and he kept staring through the viewport into the chamber below, and the massive prism jutting into the bottom of it. Again, he wondered what was keeping Xar. Why were Kronos and Akira ignoring him? Every second he grew more nervous, hoping that the two wouldn't notice him. But certainly they had by now. How much more could he push his luck? Everything felt strange, like time had slowed down for this particular moment. Almost as if it held a significance he couldn't know or understand.
Around him, all the consoles had flashed to life, and he could tell something was happening. He didn't fully understand the concept of machines powered by the Force, but this had to be what was happening. The chamber below was lit up in a red-orange light. Somehow Kronos was using his powers to activate the entire assembly, and soon he would pull the massive shard out of the seal. There could only be minutes left. Where was Xar?
Trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, he turned back to the tables to wipe them down a third time.
Xar padded lightly down the corridor, his soft boots not making a sound as they hit the deck. He held as much of the Force as he dared without risking detection by Kronos or another of his servants. His senses were at their maximum, straining for any sign of movement, detection. So far he had only encountered a few beings going busily on their way, easily avoided by masking himself with the Force. Periodically he glanced at the map, to ensure his path or to turn at an intersection.
He soon ran into the appropriate lift that would take him to the proper level. Inputting an access code he'd been given onto the board that matched the Altarin'Dakor symbols, he rode it upwards until it stopped on the upper level. He exited cautiously, masking his presence with the Force.
This level was empty. Dropping the data pad in a waste receptacle by the lifts - he was close enough that he knew the rest of the way - he moved down the corridor toward the main control room.
Finally he rounded the final bend in the corridor, where at the open entrance to the control room two armored guards stood watch. As with the other guards he'd seen, they were human, with close-fitting blast armor fashioned over a tight body suit. They weren't too unlike Imperial Stormtroopers in that respect. Their helmets had a clear faceplate that slanted down to a point in front of their mouths and revealed their features. In addition to their rifles, each had a long, straight, double-edged sword sheathed at his back. Whether those were intended for ceremonial use only or were real weapons, he didn't know. The pommels, which he could see protruding up from their backs, were simple and functional looking, so he couldn't be sure.
They held their assault pulse rifles at the ready, but the guns were useless as far as Xar was concerned. He'd clouded their minds with the Force, which enabled him to walk right up on them unawares. He held no compunction to give them mercy; he knew these butchers that called themselves the Altarin'Dakor, the Servants of Power, would never give any, themselves. With the Force, he closed their throats, squeezed until he heard the crack of cartilage, then finally letting their bodies slump quietly to the floor. Then he moved along the wall until he came to the edge of the entrance, and he waited silently, listening inside and sensing out his opponents' positions. Though he was here, on the verge of attacking, he hesitated. I still can't believe it's this easy, he thought to himself. Zalaria had told him that Kronos didn't believe he could be attacked personally; therefore he didn't have strict security for protection. She'd implied that he didn't need any. And, from Xar's experience, he believed her. He hadn't even gotten close when he'd tried to attack him before. And he remembered well his desperate assault in the torture chair, the attack he'd been sure would kill Kronos, and had proven totally ineffective. But this time would be different; this time, Kronos would fall.
"It is done," Kronos announced with a distant smile. "The first seal is broken. My children are coming up the tether now."
"I can't believe it's finally time," Akira said. "At long last we shall have revenge against the galaxy for driving us out so long ago."
Kronos nodded absently. "Akira, you may proceed to the Cataclysm. We will begin our strike immediately after the Zelduk arrive in the transports."
"As you command, my Prince," Akira bowed in respect. He turned, starting back toward the entrance. And just then Xar slipped from around the corner in full view, gun already pointed at his chest.
The moment had come.
Akira's reaction was instant. He threw his hands up, shouting "No! NO!" But his voice was overcome by Xar's wordless roar. Yelling, Xar fired, sending out two rapid shots, one into either side of Akira's chest. The front of his uniform exploded in fire, and he flew backwards out of the way. Kronos turned around in astonishment and started toward them, but he was too late. "You!!" he shouted.
Xar shifted his aim and squeezed the trigger again, sending a triple green pulse of energy directly over the spot where the man's heart was. The blasts impacted, and Kronos let out a scream as the left side of his chest was engulfed in flames, and the third shot blew out of his back and hit the wall. The impact spun him around, and he fell to the side, hitting the floor with an audible thump.
And suddenly, it was all over. Xar moved over in front of Akira, who lay sprawled out on his back, dying. His breath came in gasps, yet as he looked up at Xar towering above him, he managed to speak out. "W… why?" he asked in a bare whisper.
Xar's eyes narrowed. He spoke only two words. "Xar Kerensky," he said.
Realization dawned on the man's face, and his eyes went wide with surprise and shock. Then Xar pointed the blaster at his face and fired.
"Now my world is avenged," he whispered as the sound of the blaster shot faded down the corridor. The dead man's features were gone, a fitting end to so cruel a butcher. An obscure death, not even recognizable, Xar thought. It's what he deserved.
Then he turned to where Kronos' body lay, to make sure the job was completely done, and to finish it if necessary. He looked at the spot where the Warlord had fallen… and found nothing.
"L…Look out!!" a voice yelled out from somewhere. Rydon's voice, he realized. In response, he spun around, twisting to look behind him…
And came face to face with Kronos, standing there on his own two feet.
Xar's eyes fell involuntarily to the place where he'd fired, to see the wound the blaster shot had caused but seconds before. There, over his heart, a hole had been burned through the man's clothing. And inside was a patch of pure, untouched skin without a single blemish. Xar glanced back up at the man in disbelief. Kronos' face was frozen, rock-like, but his eyes emitted an unbridled rage that sent a shiver of terror through Xar's spine.
That brief moment of peace, where time seemed to stand still, ended in an instant. Xar flipped the weapon back up to fire again, but before his finger tightened on the trigger the blaster was jerked out of his hand by an invisible force so strong it would have ripped his fingers off if he hadn't let go at the last instant. The gun flew up and hovered in midair between them. Kronos' gaze was still locked into Xar's, searing beams of cold fire that seemed to melt right through him. One of his eyes was a bright blue, with a spark inside that spoke of madness and rage. The other was deep violet, exuding a feeling of authority and wisdom.
The blaster exploded into every one of its component parts, all in an instant. Pieces flew past them almost too fast to see with the eye. Xar felt a sting as on of the metal parts cut his cheek as it passed.
Realizing with a feeling of desperation his mistake and not finishing Kronos off first, he moved again, reaching down to his belt and unclipping his lightsaber in one motion. He brought the handle up, hitting the activation stud…
And Kronos' hand lashed out, slapping the weapon out of his grip and into the air, off to the side and out of sight.
Crying in desperation, Xar threw himself at the Warlord, using the Force to enhance his speed and strength, pulling back a fist aimed right at the man's head. But before he was halfway there a blast of force hit him, launching him backwards through the air with incredible power. He flew across the room, picking up momentum, until he slammed into the bulkhead with a crack at the end of his path. An invisible field held him in place, spread-eagled up against the wall. The force was so strong he could feel it stretching his skin back, crushing him against the unyielding metal. With all his power, he reached out with the Force, with every bit he could muster, and tried to pull off the invisible web. But he couldn't even budge it. Then, remembering a similar incident from his fight with Dasok Krun, he envisioned a razor blade of Force, moved it as if cutting through the invisible web. Yet, to his dismay, nothing happened. He was still held in place as firmly as if gravity had increased tenfold.
Astonished, he suddenly remembered what Zalaria had said, that Kronos would be using the vast majority of his power to control the machine inside the station. What was happening? Had she been wrong? Then a terrible thought hit him. He's only using a fraction of his power, yet I can't even budge his hold on me!! Furthermore, Kronos wasn't even showing any physical strain whatsoever. He still stood in exactly the spot he'd been in when Xar had whirled to face him. Only his eyes had moved to follow his position, and now they narrowed.
Then Kronos smiled. "You poor fool. Did you really think you could challenge me?" He shook his head, almost sadly. "You could have had everything, my friend. Power and wealth beyond imagining. All you had to do was serve. Now, it's too late."
Xar struggled to open his mouth, to speak. Even his tongue was being pressed back, almost choking his windpipe. "How… are you… alive?" he asked desperately.
"You can't kill me, you stupid mortal," Kronos answered arrogantly. "Weren't you satisfied with dying once? Why do you think I don't have guards? I don't need them!"
Xar could feel his blood stop flowing under the pressure, felt tingling sensations all over his body. Now I know what a hotcake feels like. "Why don't you let me go… and we can fight like men," he offered.
"What would that prove?" Kronos asked. "You are nothing to me. An annoying insect. Surely you weren't stupid enough to come against me on your own. Zalaria sent you.”
Kronos let out a sigh. "Such a childishly conceived plot. It insults me that she didn't come up with a better plan, if she was bold enough to try and kill me. No matter. When I find her…" he broke off, the smirk on his face gone as if it had never been. His expression went still again, and Xar felt the pressure on him decrease as Kronos slowly turned around. Then he saw the knife hilt protruding from the man's back. And in front of the Warlord, pulling back a shaky hand, was Rydon Kerensky, staring into the Warlord's face with terror-filled eyes.
"You. Wait for your turn," Kronos said softly. He reached up, put a hand on Rydon's face, and thrust him away with one arm. Rydon flew across the room in a second and slammed into the array of tables and seats on the other side, sending them crashing all through him. He didn't get up.
Rydon's failed attack had been just enough to help Xar. Kronos had been distracted enough so that Xar, in a rush of rage-induced Force power, hurled the invisible web away from him and dropped to the floor. He cast about for his lightsaber, couldn't find it, then remembered the next best thing: the ceremonial swords that the guards had carried on their backs. Running back to where he could see their lifeless bodies in the corridor, he spotted them. He summoned one from its holster to his hand quickly, and as his palm hit the pommel he spun around to face Kronos again.
The Warlord turned toward him, still in the process of pulling the dagger out of his upper back. He finally grabbed the handle and yanked it free with one motion, then dropped the weapon to the floor. "Now what do you think you're doing?" he asked incredulously.
"Come on, Kronos," Xar taunted. "I'll say it again. Your power may be vastly superior to mine, but you haven't proven that you're my better in a real fight. In fact, that's what you've been wondering this whole time, isn't it? You don't know if, without your powers, you could defeat me. Well here I am, Kronos!"
"Those swords aren't just for show, boy," Kronos answered sharply, starting towards him. Xar couldn't tell if his taunts had made their desired effect or not; the man was totally impossible to read. "They're vibro-swords. The blades are wrought with the True Force; they can cut through almost anything, and they weight almost nothing. Do you really think you can handle one?"
"Quit your speeches, and let's get started," Xar shot back. "All you ever do is talk. How about a little action this time?" The words flowed from him as if of their own accord. He realized he felt absolutely great; there was no after effect from Kronos' attack whatsoever. It must be because of Zalaria, he thought. That gave him a renewed sense of hope and purpose. She really was there with him, helping him along. And all he had to do was convince Kronos to fight him on his level, and he knew he could win.
"You want to try your skills against mine? Very well, I'll amuse you." The other sword suddenly flashed past Xar's head and landed in Kronos' open palm. "But let me forewarn you: I've been practicing this art a thousand times longer than you have!"
For a second Xar hoped he hadn't made a mistake. After all, if Kronos was as old as he claimed, then he would be infinitely more experienced with swordplay than Xar.
His worries were dashed away as the sound of booted feet clanging on the deck made him look toward the entrance. There, from around the corner, marched at least a dozen more guards, rifles in hand. He glanced back at the other entrance, only to see another set of guards emerge a few seconds later. Their presence wasn't surprising; he actually wondered what had taken them so long. But this threw the odds even worse against him. Could he possibly win in such a seemingly hopeless situation? The guards stopped, seeming content to watch their master.
But it was too late to worry, now. He had only one choice, and that was to fight for his life. "Then let's end this," he whispered. Reaching out with the Force, he called upon all his power, drawing in every bit he could, all of his Force-potential. Then, using it to boost his speed, agility, and strength to inhuman levels, he launched himself at the Warlord.
Their first clash sent a thunderous peal through the air as their swords collided. Xar drove into the Warlord, pressing his blade against the other's with all of his might. Kronos strained against him on the other side. Their blades scraped and vibrated, sliding back and forth, emitting sparks that fell to the floor between them. Incredibly, the blades didn't shatter under the tremendous pressure. Though Xar gave everything he had, he could feel Kronos slowly pressing in on him, gaining ground.
Then, at the same moment both combatants disengaged, facing each other in a brief respite.
"You’ll be cut into pieces," Kronos shouted, perhaps the most visibly angry Xar had ever seen him. He wondered if the act of a physical battle had brought out all the emotions within him. That could be used to his advantage. Xar gave a slight grin.
"Why are you smiling, fool?" Kronos mocked him. "Enough of this. You don’t realize the honor you’re received, to actually be able to fight me. But now I will show you the price of challenging a Shok'Thola!"
Xar ignored his words. Amazingly, all the energy he'd expended while struggling in their previous clash had completely restored. The gains he had achieved through the Bond were truly incredible. Drawing up all his power within him once more, he opted to attack first, instead of letting Kronos make the first move. Barreling forward, he thrust himself at the Warlord again, launching into a series of complex combinations of strikes with his blade.
Kronos reacted instantly, bringing his weapon up and parrying every attack. Xar drove in, twisting and striking with his most complicated maneuvers, but every attack he made met with the unyielding steel of Kronos' blade.
Quickly, Xar's attack began to give way against a fiercer assault by the Warlord. Kronos' advantage wasn't so much fighting technique and style as it was pure speed. Since Kronos, even with most of his focus elsewhere, could still muster more raw Force energy for the fight than Xar could, the Warlord was naturally faster. And he used his speed in a merciless assault that took everything Xar had to counter. Kronos came in with blindingly fast strikes, and each block Xar made was just one instant from being too late. Even one miss, he knew, meant the end of the battle. He struggled to keep up with the man's movements, his blade slicing back and forth almost too fast to follow. Though both of them probably moved too fast for a normal human to follow the moves, Kronos was still just enough faster to drive Xar further and further back.
And the other factor in Kronos' advantage was his strength. Though not even as physically fit, visually at least, as Xar, the Warlord's attacks were so powerful that they drove Xar's blade back almost to the point where he would cut himself. Only a desperate burst of energy kept him from being overpowered each time.
They struck so fast their blades were almost invisible, yet the friction on the swords as their edges grates across one another sent sparks flying through the air.
Finally, realizing in desperation that he wasn’t going to win like this, Xar knew he had to change the rules. Parrying a few more of Kronos' lightning strikes, he threw himself backwards several paces to give himself at least some room to maneuver. As Kronos shot towards him to close the distance, Xar gathered the Force beneath him and leapt over the Warlord's head. He flipped over the man's head, catching his forward momentum with the Force, and landed right behind the Warlord as he broke his forward rush. As he landed, Xar crouched and spun, swinging his blade horizontally in a cut that should have taken the Warlord's legs off.
Yet his blade cut through empty air. Instead of taking a split second to jump above the blade, Kronos had simply raised his legs and hovered in midair. Now he landed, his sword coming down in a stroke aimed directly for Xar's head. Xar turned his head aside and thrust his blade up to block, and Kronos' blade crashed into his, driving it down. He finally stopped the downward momentum before the edge of his blade reached his shoulder, and held off the Warlord's attack with all his strength.
But Kronos was merely toying with him. Letting up suddenly on his grip, he let Xar's blade slide upwards, suddenly without a force to counter against. Then Kronos' foot snapped out and caught him in his unguarded stomach. Xar reeled over, his breath exploding out of his lungs. The force of his kick wasn't just incredible, it was inhuman. Then Kronos' sword came down hard against Xar's, and his grip broke. Xar's sword flew out of his hands and slid away across the floor. Finally, the Warlord let go with his left hand and back-fisted Xar across the face, sending him reeling onto his back.
Xar stared upward as Kronos towered above him, his sword held high overhead for a finishing blow. The Warlord couldn't resist a final laugh. "You really should have joined me, Kerensky!" he yelled.
It's over, Xar thought. There was no way he could avoid the attack. And there was no one to save him. At least two dozen guards had entered the chamber and were gathered, watching the fight. Rydon couldn't help, and Zalaria was gone from the station by now. This makes twice he's beaten me. And he knew that this time, there wouldn't be another chance. Shining lights seemed to frame Kronos’ form, coming from the gigantic windows behind him.
And just as Kronos' blade began to fall, the Black Star burst through the main viewport window and into the chamber.
The huge latticework viewport shattered into hundreds of pieces, some as large as entire panes, as the thirty-meter long raven-like ship rammed through it, the tips of its outstretched wings barely clearing the inside of the frame. Pieces of the decimated viewport were propelled inside the room, bit of glass cutting through several of the unwary guards standing by to watch the fight. Something hit Kronos and knocked him to the side.
Then, merely an instant after the viewport shattered inwards, the cold void of space outside reversed the effect. Suddenly there was a massive hole in the room opening into total vacuum. Air blasted out the hole with gale-force wind; the panes that had been blown inwards were now sucked back the other way and out into space, many shattering again as they hit the ship that sat halfway inside the room on their way out. More debris from the room flew past Xar on their way out, and he heard the scraping of his sword being pulled along as well.
Xar saw Kronos turn away from the suction and fall out of his sight, then he felt himself being pulled along the floor. He twisted to look at the massive hole, gasping as he saw a dozen guards being sucked out into vacuum, screaming as they were pulled through the air along with all the debris. One hit the hull of the protruding ship as he flew by, the impact emitting a sharp crack through the intense wind. His body flew on past the ship and into the blackness, twisted impossibly out of shape.
Then, as suddenly as it began, the wind and pull on his body ended as an energy field shimmered into place around the Black Star, then went invisible. Its shields had activated, inflating outwards like a balloon, sealing up the open hole more tightly than any patch. The rushing of air ceased, and Xar stopped sliding across the floor. Immediately he rolled over and pushed himself to his feet, looking for his sword. Debris that had been flying through the air lay all around the room, and one guard who'd been flying toward the hold impacted against the shields and was launched back the other way from the impact.
Elsewhere in the room, the remaining guards stumbled to their feet. One of them was desperately yelling into his communicator for reinforcements. Kronos, who was up and stumbling backwards as things returned to normal, sword in hand, pointed at the black ship protruding into the room, it's tail end still sticking out into space. "Destroy them!" he yelled.
The Black Star's landing struts descended and it settled down onto the deck with a deafening crash. The weight of the ship, pressed down onto a floor that had never been intended to support craft, bent and warped under the pressure. Rents and tears shot out from the struts and extended out across the floor in thin cracks. Then the landing ramp fell down from the bottom, slamming down onto the deck, and almost immediately five black clad figures ran down the gangway, unloading their blasters at the astonished guards. Several were hit before they could react, and were thrown backwards. But their armor was too strong for a single shot to take out. An instant later they reacted, bringing their rifles to bear and firing pulsing bursts of concentrated energy at the invading Jedi.
As the air erupted into a crossfire of red blaster bolts and green pulse blasts, Xar spotted the double-edged sword lying not far from the Black Star's shield edge. He quickly drew it back to his hand and whirled to face the Warlord, who still had his attention elsewhere. He glanced over at the Jedi emerging from the Black Star, unloading round after round into the chests and faces of the guards. Several shots would down one of them finally, their armor glowing red hot.
Finally they moved far enough out from underneath the ship's hull that he could make them out individually. Fighting more fiercely than he'd ever seen them, there they were… Mathis, Alyx, Gaius, Omega, even Icis. They came, he thought with a sense of pride and happiness. They came for me. He'd almost given up hope that they would find him, wondered if they'd even come to look for him. He'd wondered if they'd even cared. But now they were here, and he felt a sudden peacefulness settle over him. And he knew he was going to make it out of here alive.
"Kronos!" he yelled. "Come on!"
The Warlord turned as Xar spoke, ignoring the blaster fire raging around him. He shook his head and sighed with a frustrated expression. "What do I have to do to kill you?" he growled.
"I'm wondering the same thing about you," Xar responded, holding his blade low in front of him. He slid back into a more defensive stance, ready to back away. The peace in his mind and body encompassed him like a warm blanket, and he smiled. He wasn't afraid, anymore; he knew he could win. "Let's see who lasts longest, Kronos… Because I can't wait!"
"Very well… Die, fool!" Kronos shouted, suddenly launching himself toward Xar with incredible speed. But Xar was ready; that was exactly what he wanted him to do. Kronos came in with a flurry of techniques, and Xar quickly fell back before the onslaught, blocking his techniques and not striking back.
The confrontation was short. As Kronos' attacks drove Xar back, the Warlord pressed his advantage, driving in hard. Xar quickly parried the strikes and let his sword move in, pushing Kronos' to the side. He lunged a quick jab feint, with the Warlord quickly swept out of the way and took the advantage to strike at Xar's unguarded head. Which, of course, was what Xar had expected. He ducked in advance, crouched and rolled underneath the attack and past the Warlord's side. As Kronos continued his forward momentum from the swing, Xar rose up, sliding past the man's left side, as he brought his blade out across horizontally, slitting the man across the midsection as he passed behind him. He felt the slight resistance his blade cut deeply into flesh, splitting the man's stomach. He completed his movement, sliding behind and past the Warlord, then turned to face him. His sword had a line of red along one side, dripping blood onto the cold deck below.
Kronos let out a gasp and paused, then slowly turned back toward Xar. His gaze wasn't just of anger and hatred; it was pure malevolence. His eyes seemed unfathomable black pools as his pupils dilated. Then, to Xar's surprise, Kronos' eyes closed, and as they reopened the pupils were gone, only the whites of his eyes showing beneath his eyelids. Utter revulsion shot through Xar.
"Enough!" he yelled, barreling toward the Warlord with all his might. Filled with every fiber of the Force he could manage, he attacked in a frenzy, launching into the most complex combinations he'd ever used. Kronos' face became a mask of surprise, quickly replaced by concentration as he tried to fend off Xar's intense onslaught. But his injury had slowed him down. Xar's blade moved like lightning, pressing the Warlord further and further back. The movements came on their own, guiding him, pressing him on. He pushed with everything he had, driving forward with a fierceness he'd never known. Finally he forced the Warlord's blade down, then brought his inside and up in a stroke that hit the man's handle and sent the blade flying out of his hands and into the air. The sword flew away, spinning wildly, Kronos' astonished gaze following it. He turned to Xar, his face full of disbelief. He'd lost. In his gaze, Xar could see it. For that split second, the Warlord stood in frozen astonishment, unable to move.
Yelling, Xar grabbed the Warlord by the shoulder with one hand, reached back with his other, and drove his sword clean through the man's middle. Kronos lunged forward in pain, his mouth open in astonishment. He leaned forward, his weight falling on Xar. He spit blood out on Xar's dark tunic.
But that wasn't enough. Both of them screamed as Xar grabbed the handle with both hands and ran forward, driving the Warlord back before him. They ran across the room, Kronos' eyes glaring into his with disbelief and terror, until they reached the far wall. The blade protruding from the Kronos' back cut straight into the wall, and Xar drove it forward until it went though up to the hilt, pinning the Warlord against the bulkhead.
Then, turning back, he summoned the other sword to his hand. As it hit his palm he turned, angling it up, tip pointed straight at the Warlord's heart. Kronos' eyes went wide and he screamed again as the point drove toward him, then pierced through his body and into the wall. The man's scream went silent as he ran out of air to breathe, coughing up more blood to splatter down over his shirt.
Releasing the handle, Xar stepped back and watched, out of breath. The Warlord's arms were outstretched, his fingers clawing at air, his mouth wide open in a soundless scream. Blood dripped down his shirt and onto the floor, forming a small pool. Slowly, the man's spasmodic movements decreased and slowed, and his arms fell. Finally, his head dropped and his body went still.
Xar released a heavy sigh as he felt the tension leave him. Giving one final glance at the Warlord, he turned back towards the Black Star, leaving the body pinned against the wall by the twin swords.
When he got back to the place where the ship had landed, the battle was over. All the guards lay sprawled out on the floor, felled by the deadly accurate shots of the Jedi who'd come to rescue him. As he approached, the robe-clad figures came up to him, their faces clearly filled with relief. Before him stood four of his closest friends and partners from before they'd started the Division. Deputy Mathis Organa, looking a bit wild and spaced out with his wily long hair; Chancellor Alyx Misnera, with a calm, alert air about him; Commodore Gaius, his steady gaze showing his strong devotion to the mission; and Dean Icis Novitaar, his face for once showing visible relief, yet worry at the same time. He took each of their hands, sharing a moment of silence that expressed everything they were feeling at this moment.
"Hey guys," came a voice from beside him. He looked to see Omega Kira standing there, holding up a black and gold cylinder in his hand. "Here's your lightsaber, Grand Master. One of the guards had picked it up as a souvenir, I think."
"Omega," he laughed, taking the saber and clipping it to his belt. "You always have a way of lightening the mood, don't you?"
"Hey sir, whether it's cramps or swirlies, I'm your man," Omega responded cheerfully.
"I have to interrupt, but we need to be getting out of here," Misnera pointed out candidly.
At that, everyone seemed to burst into conversation.
"I'll go prep the ship," Gaius started…
"There's a whole fleet out there…" Alyx was saying…
"You don't know how tough it's been with you gone," Mathis complained…
"Did you really finish him off?" Icis was asking…
Finally Xar held up his hands and yelled "Whoa!" Everyone went silent, and he looked between them in amusement. "When I'm gone all discipline breaks down, is that it? But seriously," he said, holding up a finger. "Just hold on a moment."
He turned, striding away from them and across the room to there the consoles and lounging area had been. Many of the debris and tables had been swept away from the decompression. He just hoped someone else hadn't met the same fate…
But thankfully that wasn't the case. On the floor beside one of the consoles lay Rydon Kerensky, who was just coming to and moving to a sitting position.
"Need a hand, brother?" Xar asked, coming up to him and holding his out.
"Thanks," Rydon said, taking the hand and pulling himself up to his feet.
Xar smiled and shrugged. "You saved my life," he said seriously. "Without your help I wouldn't have been able to defeat Kronos."
Rydon shook his head. "It wasn't that much help. Sorry I couldn’t do any more."
"You're my brother," Xar told him, taking him by the shoulders. "That means a lot to me."
Rydon nodded, and for a moment the two met in an embrace. He hadn’t embraced his brother in over ten years. It felt like an eternity.
No one saw the hand reach up and begin pulling at one of the swords.
A moment later, the two returned to the group of waiting Jedi. "Who's this?" Omega asked bluntly.
Xar glanced at the man, and back his friends. "He's my brother," he told them.
"Brother?" every one of them replied in unison. For a moment all eyes were on Rydon, most in astonished shock.
"Wow, cool," Omega said. "Xar has a brother."
"I can see the resemblance, now," Misnera said, his eyes narrowing.
"This was unexpected…" Novitaar began.
Then, suddenly, Icis broke off, staring at something over Xar's shoulder, his eyes wide. Then Xar heard the scraping of metal on metal.
He turned around… and nearly collapsed in shock. He knew everyone else was having the same reaction.
Kronos had one sword out already, and the wound it had made was completely gone, replaced by pure unblemished skin. The other sword, still protruding through his stomach, was in the process of being removed. The Warlord had the pommel in his hand, and was slowly pulling it through and out of the wall. With a final grunt, he ripped it free of the wall and pulled it out of his body. Where the wound was, Xar could see the hole. Then, impossibly, the hole began to close before his very eyes. And a second later it was gone, with no sign that it had ever existed.
Both swords in hand, caked blood covering his body, his blonde hair gleaming with sweat, Kronos stumbled across the floor toward the control center. As he reached the set of console banks, the harsh reality of the moment kicked in as emergency lights began flashing throughout the room, and a blaring, rhythmic alarm began to sound.
Xar stumbled forward in wide-eyed shock. The others didn't, but he knew what was going on. And in confirmation of his fears, he let the Force guide his vision, down beyond the viewport that lead inside the station and into the massive chamber. He could see the massive shard/column beginning to move.
And ever so slowly, the massive spike began retracting from the seal. Electricity shot across the column as the machine worked, pulling itself free from the hole in the center of the chamber. The spike thinned, narrowing to a point, until finally he could see the end as it lifted free of the chamber floor. For a moment, nothing happened.
Then out of the hole came a sea of black, a river of moving bodies so numerous he couldn't make individual forms out. The sea of black spiders multiplied, tenfold, a hundred fold, as they spread outwards from the center in all directions, expanding, heading for the tunnels which would take them to their waiting transports. And then, conquest, butchery, and death.
As the Zelduk emerged, a psychic scream seemed to reverberate throughout his head. The others brought their hands up to their ears, hearing it as well. The sound was one of alien rage and death, an almost metallic sound that sent jolts of terror threatening to overwhelm him. With all the Zelduk coming out, it was almost unbearable. So this is how they defeat their enemies, he realized. But, he wasn't going to let that stop him.
Kronos moved between the consoles and the viewport, retaking his concentration. Holding the swords high above his head, the Warlord laughed, a deep rich, terrifying sound. "You are too late, Kerensky!!" he shouted. "Too late to stop the storm! Nothing can stop me now! I am Kronos, Lord of Time, Immortal and Invincible!"
"I've had enough of this," Xar said, pulling out his lightsaber. It ignited with a snap-hiss, extending its yellow-white blade to play its light across his face. "Let me handle this, guys."
Raising his saber high at the ready, he lunged forward. Kronos was ready for him. The two met halfway, Kronos crossing his swords to block Xar's initial, powerful down-strike. Then they began to move, each pitting everything he had against the other. Kronos' blades were heavier and harder to wield with a single hand, yet together they proved a fatal match if only one was successful. Xar had his lightsaber, lighter and stronger, yet Kronos' speed evened the match. Though obviously not an expert in the technique, Kronos used both of the blades, cutting and swinging simultaneously so that it took Xar's full skill to hold his own. He stayed on the defensive, the Warlord driving him back under the onslaught of two blades. No sooner would have stop one than the other would come in from another angle, and as he moved to intercept it, the first would jab or cut at him again. He fell back under the pressure, spinning and flipping his blade to counter the Warlord's techniques, waiting for the right moment.
He quickly found it. Dodging several more techniques, he blocked a double strike by Kronos and threw himself to the side, to try and isolate one blade. As he'd hoped, Kronos immediately responded by swinging on of the swords toward him. He brought his saber up, blocked, then thrust the sword away and struck down on it as hard as he could. As strong as the vibro-swords were, they still couldn't match a lightsaber made from the highest quality crystals found in the galaxy…
The beam of yellow light crushed the middle of the sword, bending it in the center and splitting it in two. The sharp end of the blade flew spinning off into the distance. Kronos, now holding a shattered sword in one hand, swung at Xar with the other. Xar blocked the strike and came down on that blade, as well. This time cutting it cleanly through.
Once more Kronos stared incredulously at Xar. Once more, and for the last time. He dropped the useless weapons and the clattered to the floor. Xar stared into the man's eyes, those ancient wisdom-laden marbles, and he remembered all that his man had done. All the people he'd killed in the galaxy already, and merely a fraction of that in his past. He thought of the Zelduk, even now poised to attack and slaughter millions within the New Imperium in their wild bloodlust. It ends now.
"It ends now!" he screamed, swinging his saber back and forth in an eyeblink, cutting through the Warlord twice in a row. Then, de-igniting the blade and dropping the handle, he grabbed the man by the shirt and ran forward with him. Incredibly, his body fell with him in once piece, already healing from the fatal saber cuts. But this time Xar wasn't going to take any chances. With Force-enhanced speed and strength he ran straight for the viewport and rammed the Warlord through it. The window shattered as Kronos crashed through it, and both men fell outside the window and onto a small ledge on the other side. They tottered there for a second, Kronos trying to hold on, to take Xar with him. But as Xar thrust him away, Kronos reached out and grabbed his shirt, ripping it in two. His grip lost, he began to fall, but at the last instant Xar reached out and took hold of the man's foot, letting him dangled precariously over the ledge. Below him was at least a three kilometer drop to the bottom of the chamber.
Kronos leaned up, looking desperately at Xar. "This isn't over," he said. "I will never die!"
"Want to bet?" Xar asked, letting the man go. For an instant, Kronos' face became a mask of shock, then he fell away, letting out a scream as he began to drop rapidly.
But only seconds had passed when Kronos' fall began to slow. Xar could tell he was trying to levitate and come back up.
Jumping clear of the ledge, Xar threw his hands down and unleashed the Force in a blast of white energy that erupted from his hands. The blast hit Kronos dead on, engulfing him with fire and energy and blasting him downward toward the bottom.
The Warlord's flaming form screamed as it fell through the air for three kilometers. His body finally hit the floor with a tremendous impact, like a comet crashing against a planet's surface. Most of his body was destroyed on impact, and what was left, mainly his upper body, fell into the crater his fall had created.
Kronos' head rose from off the ground just in time to see a wave of black, voraciously hungry Zelduk bearing down upon him. He screamed then, as best he could, as the sea of obsidian spiders covered him, slashing him into pieces with their razor sharps claws and chewing up whole parts at a time. By the time they left him, there was nothing but a dark stain remaining on the metal.
Watching down from the scaffolding ledge, Xar felt Mathis beside him, staring down at the grisly scene below. "What a horrible way to die," he said breathlessly.
"He deserved worse," Xar said flatly, turning away from the scene. Climbing back into the room, he saw everyone else gathered there, looking at him expectantly. "It's over," he said. "Now let's get out of here."
"Agreed," Alyx affirmed.
They waited as Mathis crawled back inside from the ledge. "They're all over the floor of the chamber now," he said, coming up to them. "And they're heading inside a bunch of other passageways."
"Those are tunnels leading to troop transports," Xar told them. "We've got to find a way to blow this place. Any ideas?"
"Well," Alyx said, gesturing back out the viewport. "That device looks like the main point for the whole assembly. If we could blast it at the top there, it might fall back onto them."
"And with that much energy in the device, it could start a chain reaction," Gaius observed. "But we can't blast it ourselves, we wouldn't get out in time from the explosion. We'll have to use the ship's missiles."
"All right," Xar agreed. "Then let's go."
With that all seven of them started off toward the waiting ship. Around them, alarms continued blaring, emergency lights playing back and forth across the room. The motley crew of men - the Jedi dressed in their robes, Rydon in Altarin’Dakor dress, and Xar in a torn shirt and pants - strode past the blinking consoles, debris, and bodies of the fallen guards, ready to leave this place behind for good. But as they approached the ship, a sudden, dreadful thought hit Xar that sent a chill down into his stomach. "Oh no!" he shouted. " I forgot about her!" Astonished, he realized he hadn't even thought about her since his recovery. But she was there, on the station somewhere, and there was no way he could destroy the station knowing that she was still onboard. "Illiana's still here. We've got to find her!"
At his outburst, everyone stopped to look at him. "Illiana, your former fiancé?" Mathis asked incredulously. "She's here?"
"Yes, I've got to go back for her. We can't just leave her here," Xar told them.
"But Xar, there's no time," Rydon broke in. "The Zelduk are on their way!"
"It doesn't matter," Xar waved him off. "Where would she be?"
Rydon opened his mouth in protest, then shrugged. "Probably in Kronos' harem, somewhere near his chambers."
“Can you show me where?”
"All right then," Xar said. "You guys go on into the ship and get her ready. Guard this room. I'll be right back."
"You've got less than five minutes, Xar," Misnera announced.
"You're not going alone," Gaius spoke up firmly. Brandishing his blaster in one hand, he unclipped his lightsaber and held it in his other. "We didn't come all this way to lose you again."
Xar nodded. "Thanks."
"She won't want to come, Xar," Rydon warned him. "She'll fight you if you try to take her from Kronos."
"That's not her choice to make," Xar told him. "Come on, Gaius. Let's go."
As the two started off towards the nearest exit, the remaining Jedi began making their way back to the ship's landing ramp. Rydon stared after his brother, shaking his head. "Always about a woman, isn't it, Xar? Always…"
As they ran through the station, they met hardly anyone on their way along the twisting corridors. Those they did come across were easy enough to render unconscious with a precise manipulation of telekinesis. As they moved along, Xar tried to contemplate his reasoning for trying to get Illiana out. He knew he couldn't let her die here. There would be no way he could leave knowing that she had been on this space station. He loved her, it was true, but not in the way he once had. He wasn't sure exactly when his feelings had changed. Perhaps after he'd met Zalaria. Perhaps the years had changed him. But now he had an obligation to her, a responsibility as part of the royal family, to get her out. And to leave her here would be to kill her himself, and he wouldn't be able to live with that.
They finally turned into a series of private areas several levels below the control room. The few guards were easily dispatched, and the two Jedi made their way into a hallway lined with different entrances. Following his sense of Illiana’s life force, he let the Force decide which door to try. Suddenly he found himself in front of one, its doors carved with an elaborate series of circles and geometric figures.
Xar and Gaius cautiously edged the double doors open, ready for anything on the other side. At least they thought they were; but what they saw sent them both into momentary shock.
"What… is this?" Gaius breathed, staring into the chamber. "Who are they?"
Xar well understood his sentiments. In a series of rooms twice as elaborate as Zalaria's, sat women dressed in silks of various designs and colors, calmly sitting or focusing on small activities. "Don't ask," he said. "Just watch the door."
With that he moved into the chamber unimpeded, around women staring blankly into space where they sat or looking into small readers or datapads. A few watched him with disinterest. Why they were all here, he had no idea; perhaps it could have been some daily activity. At any rate, it wasn't difficult finding the one he was looking for. He knew exactly what shade of red her hair was.
He found her sitting on the carpet across from another, dark-haired woman, playing some kind of holo-game using geometric figures. He dismissed it from his thoughts and strode up to her. As he approached, she turned to look up at him with her deep green eyes.
"Who are you?" she asked curiously.
He gave a frown, studying her face intently for any sign of the person he'd once known. "I'm Xar Kerensky. Don't you remember me? We've known each other since childhood."
She made a confused look, shaking her head up at him. "I've never ever seen you before. Where is Lord Kronos?"
"In Hell," Xar answered flatly. "Come on, Illy. I'm taking you out of here."
"What? No!" she shouted. "I'm not going anywhere!"
"Sorry about this," he said, reaching down and pulling her up by the arm. She surprised him by yelling, kicking his shins and trying to pull away with a fierceness he couldn't believe.
"Let me go!!" she shouted. "Lord Kronos! Help me! Help me!!" she screamed.
He tried to keep hold of her, pulling her back toward the entrance, but she fought with everything she had, scratching and kicking at him. Around them, the room suddenly exploded into an uproar, with women pushing themselves up and running deeper into the chamber, screaming.
Finally her resistance became too much. "Forgive me," he said, putting a hand on her neck and putting her out with the Force. She went limp immediately, and he put his arms around her and pulled her back toward the entrance.
"Hurry, Xar!" Gaius’ voice came. "We have some company!"
He turned to see the other Jedi leaning halfway outside the entrance, firing at something out of sight. Rydon was hiding just inside the doorway. He glanced back at all the others in the room, feeling a sense of desperation building within him. "But the others!" he shouted over the uproar. "Listen to me!" he yelled at the group of running servants. "Kronos is dead; you're all free now! Come with me!"
If anything, his words about the death of Kronos sent them even further into an uproar. They began running back toward the end of the chamber, where a door was just starting to open. A second later a guard stepped out, followed quickly by another one.
"That's it," Gaius shouted. "We're outta here!"
"Blast it!" Xar yelled as he pulled Illiana along with him. The guards opened fire, their rifles spitting pulses of green fire in their direction. They didn't care if a few servant women were still in the way, either. "Enough!" Xar said, bringing a hand up and loosing a blast of Force energy at the first guard. The blast hit him dead on, destroying his armor and sending him crashing into the wall, where he crumpled to the floor.
Then, with one last terrible gaze at the confused servants, he followed Gaius and Rydon back through the entrance. Throwing Illiana over his shoulder, he used the Force to boost his speed to the maximum. Gaius picked up Rydon up forcibly and did the same. Then he and Gaius shot off down the corridor, back to the waiting ship, and to freedom.
They reemerged into the control chamber and ran for the ship. Omega stood by the boarding ramp, waving them on. "Come on! Come on! We’ve gotta move!" he shouted.
Around them, alarms still blared, lights still flashed. Just as they reached the entrance ramp, a squad of pursuing guards appeared from around the corridor they'd emerged from and began opening fire. But by this time, everyone was inside the protective shields of the Black Star. The pulse blasts unleashed by the guards did little more than fizzle against the edge of the shields.
The three of them started up the ramp and into the ship. Immediately the hatch began to close beneath them. As they reached the inner corridor, Xar turned and gently held out Illiana to Omega. "Be careful with her," he said. "Make sure she's secure before coming forward."
Omega nodded, carefully taking the woman's limp form and carrying her toward the back of the ship. Xar and Gaius turned and went forward, passing the observation lounge, and continuing on to the cockpit area. The Black Star's cockpit area was made to seat four: a pilot and copilot in the front, followed by two auxiliary stations just behind. Transparisteel viewports gave a wide angle of vision all around the cockpit, which protruded in front of the rest of the ship. With its swept-back wings and stabilizer fins, the Black Star looked like a gigantic starfighter, a black raven-like ship smoothly cutting through air or space.
On their way up the stairs past the main room, he saw Vynd Archaron. “Vynd, you came too,” he said, genuinely glad to see the man.
“I was holding things down while everyone was outside. I saw what happened, but I couldn’t warn you in time. I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay,” Xar assured him, putting a hand on his shoulder as he walked past toward the cockpit.
Misnera got out of the pilot's seat as they approached. "You'd better take the helm," he said, sliding back into one of the secondary stations across from Mathis. "It's your ship."
Xar nodded and moved past him into the pilot's seat, Gaius settling into the copilot's chair beside him. The pre-launch sequence was already completed; all they had to do was lift off.
Down on the deck in front of them, he could see the guards pouring useless fire into their forward shields, their rifles no more effective than if they were throwing stones. Looking past them out the far viewport, the one he'd thrown Kronos through earlier, he could barely make out the column in the main room. "That's a small opening," he observed. "You think you can hit it?" he asked Gaius.
"No problem. Just get us going and I'll worry about it."
"Right," Xar said, manipulating the controls and pulling back on the lever that would let the ship take off.
"Look out," Gaius said. "One of them has a bomb."
Xar looked out the viewport, down to the guards below. One was running up with a large disk-like device in his hands. Whatever it was, they couldn't let him attach it to the ship. Alyx leaned forward and extended his arm, and a push of the Force sent the man flying backwards and out of range.
Then, in response to the controls, the Black Star began lifting up on its repulsorlifts. The downward pressure sent debris flying all around the ship. As the craft pulled off the deck, the landing gear retracted up into the ship's belly.
Finally, as if realizing that when the ship left all the atmosphere was going to go, the guards ceased their useless assault and began rushing madly for the exits. Not like it'll to them any good, Xar thought as he began pulling the ship back out the entrance it had made.
"Keep her steady," Gaius told him, lining up the holographic targeting reticule on the far viewport window. Then he fired.
Two missiles shot out of the Black Star's banks, flashing across the room in an instant on trails of smoke. The force of their launch sent several straggling guards flying through the air. Xar was surprised as the missiles went straight through the center of the viewport, one of them blasting away the remaining glass on one side of it. Gaius’ aim was better than he'd thought.
Then two more sets of missiles flashed out of the launchers, just as Xar edged the ship out of the gaping hole.
The first two warheads soared across the inner chamber and impacted directly against the column, almost at the point where it met the roof. There was a flash, then the missiles exploded, showering pieces of metal down on a three-kilometer drop to the chamber's floor.
The Black Star had made its way out of the whole and was turning around. The seal now opened in the absence of the ships' shields, atmosphere and debris flew out of the shattered viewport in a torrent. Then the ship completed its spin, turning its burning yellow engine drives toward the room. Xar pushed the engines to full power, and a blast of flame poured into the room, consuming everything inside.
The second set of missiles hit the column, these actually penetrating through the damaged area done before and deeper inside. They detonated, blowing a massive gouge out of the column's side where it touched the top of the chamber. Then the final warheads flew though the fireball and finished the job. The top of the column was wreathed in fire, and support structures cracked and broke all around the point where it connected to the ceiling. Huge bolts of electricity and energy crackled around the column and down to its pointed end, and across the top of the chamber, destroying support beams and control mechanisms.
The Black Star shot forward, tearing away from the station at full burn. In an instant they were at the end of the massive protruding spines, passing the loading transports tethered at the end. Then the ship shot away from the station, straining itself to reach a safe distance in time.
Inside the station's main chamber, the supporting structures finally couldn't keel the column suspended. With an incredible roar the thing began to fall, the whole of it coming down out of the ceiling. The pointed end of it raced downward, like a massive spear, toward the open hole from which poured millions of dark creatures.
Then the structure hit, sealing the hole and crushing countless crawling bodies with unfathomable force. And then the entire column exploded. The gigantic eruption blasted throughout the entire chamber, incinerating untold numbers of Zelduk, burning away the dark stained spot where Kronos had died. Flame burst up into the control chamber and out the hole the Black Star had made.
The incredible explosion within the center of station caused a chain reaction. As the base was consumed from the inside out, huge fireballs began to blossom out all around the hull. Then, as the Black Star left it behind at maximum speed, the station exploded brilliantly in a wave ball of fire and incandescent gas. The conflagration engulfed all the spine-like tethers and transports, expanding into a massive flower-shaped eruption of fire.
But this was only the beginning. Flame continued to rush down the massive tether that had linked the station with the planet Darklon. Countless Zelduk were vaporized as the river of molten fire ran down the tether, causing the whole thing to explode downwards in a continuous reaction. Finally the flames reached the surface, consuming and destroying the above-ground base sitting there and continuing inside the planet, into the seal in which the spiders had been imprisoned in ancient times.
At first, nothing seemed to happen. The station's destruction had faded into a cloud of expanding, incandescent gas. The dark, rocky planet sat alone for a moment, in silence.
Then bright flashes began erupting from around the seal. Moments later, long-dead volcanoes on the surface of the small world erupted more violently than they ever had. A strange light seemed to engulf the world, forming a bright aura around its horizon, almost as if it came from within.
Half the planet exploded. Flame consumed the entire half of the planet that held the seal, with enough force to rip the other half to shreds. A huge shockwave expanded away from the blast, spreading out into space.
Xar watched the conflagration on his viewscreen, the image dimming so it wouldn't blind him. Then the other shockwave, the one not seen but felt, through the Force, as untold millions and perhaps billions of Zelduk perished in a single moment. An unearthly scream blasted into his head reverberating with the sound of a million screaming deaths; alien screams, metallic screams. The chaos and intensity of it almost drove him mad. He knew all the other Jedi with him on the ship were feeling the same thing, as well.
Slowly, over the course of an eternity, the sound diminished and went quiet. What replaced it was a silence so profound it left everyone in awe. And it wasn't just shock, he knew. In that scream they had felt and experienced everything that represented the Altarin'Dakor, their enemies. And it left him with only one thought, one desire: to kill them all.
Finally it was Gaius who broke the silence. "We're clear of the blast radius," he announced.
"Mind telling me what in Palpatine's mother’s name just happened?" Mathis's voice came from behind him. "That looked almost like a self destruct mechanism."
"Maybe it was," Xar spoke, almost a whisper. "Whoever sealed them there wanted to stop them from ever getting out. Maybe Kronos had found a way to get around the device, but when the station was destroyed, and their whole setup, the device triggered." He shuddered involuntarily, thinking about the magnitude of explosive that must have been involved rigging up an entire planet to detonate. "Whoever did it was very powerful. Extremely so."
"Yeah, but can we discuss this later?" Mathis answered. "How about setting us a course for Varnus?"
"Oh..." Suddenly he realized that he was supposed to be piloting the ship. Taking hold of the controls once more, he leveled them off and reduced their speed, then instructed the navicomputer to calculate the necessary jump that would take them home.
"We'd better make it fast, Xar," Alyx spoke up. "When we came in we spotted a lot of ships gathered near the third planet. And I mean a lot – hundreds, maybe more. And one of them is the biggest son of a gun I've ever seen..."
"Don't worry, we won't be going that way," Xar said.
"Let's just go before they find out that they just lost a whole planet," Mathis interjected. "You haven't gotten a good look at their ships yet, Xar. They could be here any moment... Wha... Oh bloody...!"
"Look out!" Gaius yelled. Directly in front of the viewport, an elongated ship loomed, about a hundred meters in length, exposing its side straight at them. Xar felt his danger sense flare, and he pulled the ship away, hard, as three blue-white beams of energy shot outward and cut through the space they'd just been in.
"Gaius!" he yelled, pulling the ship back up and inverting. The body of the other vessel rushed back up toward them.
Right on cue, Gaius hit the firing stud, sending out a triple burst of missile fire within the other ship's shield radius. The warheads plowed into the vessel amidships and exploded, destroying the centerline of the ship and splitting it in two in a huge fireball. Xar pulled the ship back, passing through the cloud of smoke and fire, then came up around on the other side of the vessel. Behind them, the enemy ship split apart and exploded, contributing one final fireball to the Mizar System that day. The Black Star pulled away from the spinning hulk of the ship, trailing smoke as it flew.
"We've got more incoming hostiles," Misnera announced from the tactical display. "A lot."
"Can we go home now?" Mathis asked timidly from behind.
Just then, the navicomputer sounded off that it had acquired the proper vector coordinates for Varnus. Immediately Xar activated the controls, and the autopilot took over, swinging them around in the proper direction. The starfield spun between a sparse starfield and a gorgeous view of the Galbagos Nebula, and for an instant Xar saw another planet pass by, a shining blue, ringed jewel standing out against the blackness. The third planet, he thought. Things weren't over in the Mizar system.
The computer aligned them on their course to Varnus and locked it in. Leaning back in his seat, he asked, "What's the hurry, Mathis?” Gaius asked jokingly. “Do you have to go to the bathroom again?"
And his words were suddenly cut off as the stars stretched into starlines, and they were all pulled back into their seats as the Black Star jumped into hyperspace.
As the ship shot away at lightspeed, it left behind a system strangely quiet. Ships everywhere floated and gathered over the dark half-world of Darklon, its gravity mass holding together the remaining pieces of the planet. And over the world, an intense silence prevailed, and the sense of something important that had transpired. Dreams had died that day, and new ones been born. But to the fleets gathered, and the outraged thousands watching, only one thought would come from this day: Revenge.
En Route to Varnus
Icis looked up as Xar entered the Black Star's observation lounge and took a seat across from him on the couch. The man looked tired; he even slumped as he sat, letting his head hang down. "The Bond is getting weaker," Icis heard him whisper. "Decreasing with distance. It's like coming off of an adrenaline rush."
Intrigued, Icis opened his mouth to ask what bond he was talking about, but Xar looked up at him and spoke first.
"I should have listened, Icis. There were signs that this was coming. How could I have been so stupid?"
"Xar, there's something I must tell you," Icis spoke up. Xar looked up at him and met his eye. Icis hesitated, understanding the enormity of what he was about to reveal, then finally went forward. "I've known about this all along," he said.
Xar fixed him with a confused stare. "Known about what?"
At those words, Xar leaned back, closed his eyes, and shook his head. "Somehow, Icis… I figured you did."
"Xar, when you were captured, I almost gave up hope. I knew that you'd either be killed or turned… I was right." He let those words sink in, then continued. "I've been to their galaxy, Xar. What I know will prove essential in the coming war."
Xar met his gaze again, his eyes intense. "Their galaxy? How? Who are you, Icis?"
Novitaar let out a long sigh. He realized the time had finally come to reveal himself fully, to contribute his knowledge to the New Imperium's cause. All this time he'd held back, uncertain, afraid to interfere too far. But he'd only been fooling himself, he knew. He had interfered, helping Xar, keeping him alive. But he could have prepared him for the Return… He'd tried, indirectly. But now it was time to let it out. "I am a Kajeet," he said.
"A Traveler, Xar. Both a wanderer and watcher. Those of my kind find the most important, key events throughout the universe. And we record these things, so they won't be lost forever in the blackness of space. For a very, very long time, I've been searching for a way of defeating the Altarin'Dakor. Now I understand that the New Imperium is my only hope."
Across from him, Xar put a hand on his head. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"
"I’m afraid so, Xar."
"I remember," he said, "things about them that they put in my mind, when I was brainwashed. Facts, places, disconnected things that don't make sense in my head. The Altarin'Dakor are from another galaxy? How is that possible?"
"You've seen their technology," Icis said. "They have built Galactic Gate that enables them to traverse space to our galaxy. We’re their main target, the one they want to conquer above all others," he explained.
"Why us?" Xar asked simply.
"Because they are originally from this galaxy, Xar." Icis sighed. "This is difficult to explain. And I only have experience in a tiny portion of the Altarin'Dakor structure. My primary objective there was mere survival."
"It's all right," Xar told him. "Just tell me what you do know, anything will help."
Millennia ago, before the
"So that's who they are? This goes all the way back to the Schism?"
"Yes, Xar, and maybe further."
"And that's why they're doing all this?" Xar asked, shaking his head.
"Their whole existence is devoted to this, Xar. They are the most fierce, fanatical warriors you will ever see. They have the resources of a galaxy at their disposal, and everything they have is trained on us, poised to take this galaxy at will."
"And how does Kronos fit into this?" Xar asked. "What role did he play?"
Icis shrugged. "I know of Kronos, but I never saw him until today. You see, Xar, the Force-users among the Altarin'Dakor are the Jedicon. It means "True Jedi", and they trace themselves back to the Golden Age before the Schism. Before the concepts of light and dark became attached to the Force."
"So they all use the True Force…" Xar said, sighing. "This is looking getting better and better."
"There's much more," Icis said in a low tone. "What I'm telling you is only a tiny portion of one limited viewpoint. I don't fully understand them, Xar. But I'll tell you what I know about the Warlords. The original leaders of the Schism, some of the most powerful Jedi in history, came to lead the Altarin'Dakor. They're still alive, even now…" he paused. "Kronos was one of them. They live so much higher above the regular populaces that only the highest generals know they exist. The people worship them as deities. But they're real, and they are leading the Altarin'Dakor in their conquest."
"So Kronos wasn't bluffing," Xar said. "Why was it so hard to kill him?"
"Somehow, they've achieved Immortality. I don't understand it yet, Xar. It was something I could never find out. Whatever it is, it must be the whole secret behind their control."
"But now Kronos is dead. Aren't they beaten?" Xar asked.
"Oh no, Xar," Icis said, shaking his head sadly. "This has only begun. There are others."
"Then we'll fight them," Xar said adamantly. "We've dealt them some major blows already. With your help, Icis, we'll be ready again."
For a moment, they sat in silence. Neither of them had words to speak. He knew Xar was trying to ingest all this information, make sense of it. But Icis knew that a lot of it wouldn't make sense. He was trying to explain this in one brief run, and even if they spoke all day he could only give one percent of what he knew.
Finally, he decided to break the silence with a question that had been plaguing his mind. "What was it like?" he asked.
"What was what like?"
"I felt you die, Xar," Icis explained. "Then I felt you come back. What was it like?"
Suddenly the atmosphere in the room seemed to change. Xar sat back, and Icis could see him close up. "I'd rather not talk about it. Not right now."
"It's fine," Icis agreed. "But tell me, how did it happen?"
"Blast it, Icis," Xar said suddenly, standing up. "All right. You wouldn't believe it... I met this woman… She brought me back, bonded me. She helped me kill Kronos. Without her, I wouldn't have had a chance. She's incredible, Icis. She’s wonderful."
"Who is she?" Icis inquired, curious. This definitely wasn't what he'd expected to happen in an Altarin'Dakor stronghold."
"A friend on the inside," Xar smiled. "Someone to help us beat them. Rydon was with her; if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have my brother. Her name is Zalaria."
"What?!” Icis shot out, suddenly standing. "You met Zalaria? How?"
"She was on the station," Xar answered with a grin. "I owe my life to her. I've got to find her again."
Icis stared at the man in disbelief. "Z…Zalaria? But she's one of them!"
But obviously either Xar either didn't understand or wasn't listening. "I know," he said. "But she's different. She's on our side, and she'll help us, I'm sure of it."
"Are you crazy?" Icis started forward, shaking his head adamantly. "You can't go near her. Do you want to get killed?"
Xar held out a hand to stop him. "I know what I'm doing, Icis. I can handle myself around Zalaria."
"No, Xar. Listen to me. She's one of them, one of the Warlords. She's totally evil!"
"NO!" Xar cut him off with a hand. "Don't let me hear you say that again, Icis."
"Xar, listen to me, she's dangerous…"
"That's enough, Icis," Xar warned him angrily. "I won't have you speaking that way about her. You don’t know her, and you're obviously confused. We'll continue this later, after you've calmed down." With that, he turned around and started off deeper into the ship.
Icis reached out as the man started off into the far corridor. "Wait, Xar! What did you say about her Bonding you? Did she Bond you?"
But Xar wouldn't answer. Instead, he kept moving, disappearing from view as he headed toward the aft of the ship.
Icis stepped back, realizing he was shaking all over. Finding his seat, he collapsed into it, all his strength suddenly gone. In his mind he went over what Xar had just told him, hardly believing what he'd heard. He’d had hope before that they could actually win this thing. But if what he feared was true, then it was all over. If Zalaria was involved, it could already be too late. How can I tell him? he wondered.
How can I tell him that she's worse than Kronos ever was?
The Black Star coasted through hyperspace, on toward Varnus, and towards a future uncertain.
The End of
By Joshua Ausley
Don't miss the exciting sequel and continuation of the story, as the NI-AD conflict escalates into all-out war… Spurred on by their victories to date, the New Imperial Senate decides to go on the offensive, assaulting the stronghold of Mizar itself! But little do they know that the Altarin'Dakor haven't even begun to show their true power!
Meanwhile, Xar begins to worry about what happened to Zalaria, and he'll be willing to do anything to find her… Even if that means abandoning the SoH and the NI altogether!
And as the remaining Altarin'Dakor Warlords meet to discuss who should lead the invasion next, the New Imperial Starfleet arrives at Mizar… And the greatest space battle in Star Wars history is about to unfold in…
Tides of War