It was a time of war, reflected Imperial Captain Cas Niblim, as he stared out of the main viewport of his command, a Victory-II-class Star Destroyer dubbed the Suppressor. And in war, he surmised, men must hold to their allegiances and seek out nothing less than the utter defeat of their opponents. In doing so, there could be fabulous glory to be gained, and rewards from hands as high as that of the Emperor himself. True, in a galaxy spanning millions of light years and hundreds of inhabited planets, there was probably a skirmish or brushfire conflict going on somewhere on some dirtball, and it had been that way for thousands of years, Niblim supposed. This was different though-the Galactic Empire was now embroiled in a multi-front war on a scale not seen since twenty years earlier in the fires of the Clone Wars. He had been a child then, but he remembered the euphoria he felt upon seeing the Galactic Empire rise out of the ashes of the outmoded Republic and hearing the Emperor preach the importance of service and dedication to the New Order. Niblim’s heart still swelled with pride whenever he had an opportunity to show his devotion to the Empire, and it had rewarded him well in turn. In only six short years of service, he was the master of one of the most powerful ships in the galaxy, a kilometer-long triangular beast of a warship. He stood rigidly on the bridge, the perfect image of the Imperial officer. Gray eyes set in a hard face were matched by the evenly creased khaki uniform he wore, and his light brown hair was but stubble, as Niblim kept it even closer cropped than Imperial Navy regulations demanded. He had a full career ahead of him, if he kept up his meritorious conduct, and knew it.
- “Navigation, drop us out of hyperspace,” Niblim ordered crisply.
- “Aye, Captain,” replied the junior officer.
The mission was simple enough-investigate rumors of pirate activity in this far-flung sector of the Outer Rim. While Niblim would have preferred an assignment closer to the much more sophisticated and cultured Core Worlds, the fact of the matter was that the Outer Rim was a hotbed of Rebel activity, and so Niblim was satisfied with doing his part to stamp out the rabble of pirates and Rebels that had been plaguing the Empire. By all military logic, they didn’t have a ghost of a chance. No force in the galaxy was as powerful as the Galactic Empire. The Empire had hundreds of garrisons, thousands of warships, millions of troops, and the unstoppable will of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Palpatine. What did the Rebels have? Ragtag bands of insurrectionists with aged equipment? They were doomed to a quick extinction, or so everyone had thought. The Empire had badly underestimated their resolve and resilience, which was as close as Niblim ever got to respect for his nominal adversaries. Even after the destruction of their primary slashrat’s nest, Alderaan, the Rebels hadn’t been cowed. Instead, they had gone and blown up the Death Star, igniting the sparks of rebellion into a galaxy-wide conflagration. Since then, the Empire had been stern in crushing sedition with a fist of durasteel, and they had been drubbed badly at Derra IV and Hoth, but like stomping on a fire, glowing ashes and embers continued to burn. However, the Rebels continued to harrow wherever they could, to the point where Imperial resources had been diverted away from other key tasks to deal with them. Smuggling and piracy were both on the rise, and today, Niblim’s mission was to take the Suppressor and deal with any riffraff he found.
The Suppressor slipped neatly out of hyperspace back into three-dimensional realspace, its sublight ion engines taking over as entered the Drexel system. The wedge of metal and composites plunged through space as its engines propelled it deeper and deeper into the system.
- “Sensors, do you detect any activity in the system?” inquired Niblim.
- “Yes, sir,” reported the sensor officer. “We’re picking up numerous ships, corvette class or better, near the planet.”
- “Navigation, set a course to intercept them. I want a closer look,” ordered Niblim. “Sensors, are they broadcasting a particular transponder signal?”
- “No, sir. They’re certainly not Imperial ships.”
- “In that case, we’d better have a warm welcome ready,” Niblim said. “Weapons?”
- “Aye, sir,” replied the weapons officer. “Turbolasers and ion cannons on standby.”
- “Excellent,” Niblim said. “Launch all fighters and have them form up to screen us.”
Two squadrons of the ubiquitous Imperial TIE fighters, sporting spherical cockpits from which extended twin hexagonal solar panels on slender strust, zipped out of the Suppressor’s hangar bay like a cloud of flitnats, settling into neat formation around the larger ship. Niblim watched on his tactical screen as the Imperial flotilla edged closer to the unknown ships.
- “Sensors, have you identified any of the ships?” he asked.
- “No, sir,” the officer replied, somewhat bewildered.
- “What do you mean, no?” Niblim shot back. “Aren’t you trained in recognizing the sensor profiles of any number of ships in service?”
- “Sir, I am, but these don’t match anything I’ve seen before. I ran it through our database and came up empty as well, sir.”
- “Hmm,” Niblim mused, recalling what he had read about this system. “That’s curious. Drexel doesn’t have any unknown indigenous species capable of producing sizable spacecraft.”
- “Orders, sir?” inquired the navigation officer.
- “Proceed as planned, flank speed,” Niblim answered. “All hands at the ready! Battle stations.”
The Suppressor closed rapidly on the mystery ships, which were holding position in geosynchronous orbit around Drexel. As the Imperial warship crossed Drexel’s terminator, they saw the faint cluster of ships hanging faintly over the planet’s horizon.
- “Tell me what I’m seeing,” Niblim said to the sensor officer.
- “I’m detecting one heavy cruiser approximately Dreadnaught-class, two corvettes or light frigates, and a pair of ships somewhere in between in displacement. I suspect those last two are transports, though. They’re holding position around some sort of space station. There’s a lot of interference from the atmosphere, though, sir.”
Niblim weighed the numbers in his mind and liked what he found, particularly if they were under-crewed and poorly maintained pirate ships, or ancient Rebel ships. The Suppressor, if aided by the element of surprise, would have no problems dealing with the cluster of ships it was bearing down upon.
- “That’s fine, Lieutenant. That same interference will mask our approach. Whoever they are, they’re in for a hell of a surprise.”
Despite his tough talk, Niblim wasn’t quite ready to fly in blasting. It might simply be an innocent meeting, and while in the Outer Rim, it wasn’t nine times out of ten, the possibility existed that there were no Imperial laws being broken here, no foes of the Empire skulking over the horizon. Albeit, a very small one.
- “Sir!” voiced the sensor officer. “I’ve determined the nature of the space station!”
- “And?” Niblim asked.
- “It’s an Imperial warship, sir. Large battlecruiser, at least twice our size.”
- “Is it operational?”
- “No, sir. It appears to be a derelict. No power at all to its systems.”
Niblim’s mind was made up. As he had suspected, the distant ships were either looters, or even worse, Rebels, engaging in the theft of Imperial property. And that was utterly unacceptable. In fact, there was only one sentence in the Empire that he saw fit to level on the thieves: death.
- “Ah, then we appear to have found some looters of Imperial property. Weapons, prepare to fire as soon as we’re in effective range.”
- “Aye, sir.”
- “Captain, three of them are forming up to engage us,” advised the sensor officer. “The cruiser and two frigates are inbound.”
Niblim could just about see them now from his viewport, distant specks of artificial construct against the black void of space, faintly backlit by Drexel II’s atmosphere. He inhaled sharply, preparing for the thrill of space combat, an adrenalin rush he enjoyed every time he entered battle.
The three hostile warships approached slowly, content to let the Imperials make the first move. However, they did deploy starfighters, and Niblim was surprised by their sheer numbers. He was facing nearly fifty smaller craft, which outnumbered his TIEs two to one. Suddenly, he was filled with a pang of nervousness-after all, he was about to fight ships of which he had likely never seen before. Worms of anxiety began to form in his gut, knotting his midsection up with tension.
- “I’ve identified the Imperial derelict, sir.”
The sensor officer’s calm voice broke into his introspection.
- “It’s the Extinguisher, sir.”
- “I’m not familiar with that ship. When was it lost?”
- “Over three years ago, sir, according to the database,” advised his first officer, Commander Harkspur, from his post at a screen. “It was apparently seized by outlaws.”
On the Suppressor, Niblim typically maintained a nearly autocratic reign over the ship during battle, and his first officer was largely relegated to providing any information that Niblim needed, or warning him of new developments. That was fine with Niblim, since Harkspur had been in the Navy for only four years.
- “Sensors, are you sure it’s offline? I don’t want to enter a fight with a ship that size.”
If it is operational, and is hostile, Niblim considered, I will be hot-jumping the Suppressor back to the sector base for immediate reinforcements.
- “There’s some activity in the ship, sir, but it doesn’t appear to have its reactor online.”
- “In that case, prepare for battle,” Niblim ordered, and it was so.
The two clusters of spacecraft met. The oncoming starfighters, having previously maintained a leisurely pace with the larger ships, surged forward to meet each other. The Imperial pilots were all trained, skilled fighters, graduates of various naval academies. They were piloting high-speed top-of-the-line craft matched only by the newer TIE interceptors, but even then, they had serious flaws. First of all, the Empire considered TIE fighters expendable, and the craft lacked all but the most basic shielding to protect the fragile craft from spatial debris. As a result, the attrition rate among TIE fighter pilots was rather high-Niblim had noted with some dismay that none of his pilots were aces. Second, TIE fighters were rarely outnumbered. The fact that Niblim’s own fighters were entering combat outmatched two to one didn’t help an already sketchy situation.
- “Sensors, what are those fighters? Are they Rebel X-wings?
- “No, sir. Too small for that, sir. They seem to handle rather like the old Eta-2 interceptors, though.”
Niblim watched as the starfighter formations devolved into twisted dogfights, as pilots engaged each other in furious duels. Both sets of pilots were flying agile craft and the nimble starfighters juked and dodged as they sought to blast their opposite numbers into constituent atoms. Distant flashes of laser light and small explosions intermingled, and the tiny dots on Niblim’s sensor board spun and wove in a frantic dance of life and death in a spectacle reminiscent of electrons whirling around a larger atomic nucleus in their oddly unpredictable patterns.
- “Captain, one squadron of the hostile fighters has broken off; they’re heading straight for us.”
- “Shields to maximum. Guns, fire at will,” Niblim responded.
The ponderous turbolasers and ion cannons of the Suppressor traversed and fired, the batteries pulsing out streams of blue and green laser fire. A smattering of point-defense weaponry opened fire as well, though since the Suppressor was not designed for countering starfighters, its number of fast-tracking close-range weaponry suitable for fighting large numbers of starfighters was lacking in comparison, with, say, a Lancer-class frigate.
The hostile starfighters began spraying laser fire at the Suppressor as they roared in the face of the Imperial fire. One of them was hit by laser cannon fire and exploded, another took a glancing hit and plummeted down to impact harmlessly on the Star Destroyer’s shields, but still they came on. Streams of fire pulsed from their cannons as the interceptors strafed the Star Destroyer, but the beams had little effect on its shields, which had been designed to take a sustained turbolaser barrage much greater in destructive power. However, as one synchronized unit, the fighters fired off a concussion missile each, which impacted at the base of the Suppressor’s command tower. The resulting detonation sent a roiling ball of plasma burning along the hazy blue outline of the shields at the generators fed more energy to counteract the explosions. Still, the missile barrage failed to even temporarily overload the shields. Niblim nodded contentedly as the hostile fighters fired a last futile salvo of laser cannon fire at the bridge and whipped past the stern of the destroyer. Odd, though, he mused. The fighters’ laser cannon fire was not the standard red or green coloring, but rather a brilliant purple. No matter.
- “The hostile warships are in range, sir,” informed his weapons officer.
- “Concentrate fire,” Niblim said. “I want them dead.”
The batteries shifted their fire to the larger ships, pelting them with long range turbolaser and ion cannon fire. The bolts slammed into their shields, but were unable to break the defensive fields surrounding both vessels. Part of that was because Niblim was channeling a lot of energy into his own shields, playing the battle out cautiously.
The warships, two smaller and one larger, returned fire. The larger vessel was six hundred meters long and roughly cylindrical, but had two wings extending from it two thirds the way towards its stern, like a miniaturized version of the Rebels’ hated Mon Calamari cruisers, though it was missing the blistered and bumpy aesthetic that characterized Mon Cal designs. The smaller vessels were also roughly cylindrical, but their forward profile ended in a cross-shape, as they resembled two-hundred meter long shafts with equal-sized four prongs extending out at perpendicular angles away from the main body. As far as Niblim could tell, they were all dedicated warships, bristling with weapons of their own. The three ships returned fire, pouring a return fusillade of energy, both cyan ion and violet turbolaser, into the Suppressor’s shields. The three ships all side-slipped to the Star Destroyer’s port, concentrating their fire on weak points. Their organization and accuracy told Niblim that he was dealing with experienced foes-in particular, foes who had fought against Victory-class Star Destroyers before. The odds were slipping against him now, and taking a glance at his sensor board, his TIEs were in a hell of a fight. No help from that quarter.
- “Intensify the forward firepower,” he ordered.
The turbolaser batteries on the Imperial destroyer spat out more intense streams of coherent light as they tracked the hostile ships. Niblim was rewarded to see that one of the frigates lost its shields and temporarily eased off its assault as it attempted to roll the ship to present its undamaged side to the Suppressor. The Star Destroyer’s shields were holding, and his foes, for all their canny and maneuverability, had yet to inflict significant harm on his ship.
Suddenly, a small gunship whipped up and around the backside of the hostile cruiser. Niblim gaped at the small black arrowhead-shaped ship, wondering how it had evaded detection for so long, even though he knew it had probably hidden in the larger ship’s sensor shadow. Even as he prepared to order his weapons stations to open fire on it, the gunship opened fire, and not just with turbolasers.
In addition to a single forward turbolaser firing defiantly at the Suppressor, Niblim watched with horror as a dozen proton torpedoes arced out from the gunship to impact on his shields at close range. The Star Destroyer was rocked by the impact, and alarms wailed as the shields were overloaded. Bulkheads exploded as the hull was ruptured and torn by the impacts of the torpedoes roughly amidships. Niblim staggered as the artificial gravity generators temporarily went offline due to the power consumption drained into the shield generators.
- “Shields back, now!” he shouted wildly, his eyes tracking the gunship as it roared over top of the Suppressor.
The hostile ships re-intensified their fire and the Suppressor’s hull spouted explosions and skittering branches of debilitating ion energy as the ship took punishment. “Counterfire!” Niblim snapped. The order was implemented and this time, the Suppressor’s guns focused on the cruiser, pummeling its own defenses and, once the shields were overloaded, burning score marks on its hull armor. Surprisingly, Niblim found that the ship was taking the beating well, which disappointed him, if only because he had hoped it would explode spectacularly after shield breach. There was nothing for it, though-he was in a slugging match.
Then, Niblim glanced at his ship diagnostics, and then at his master tactical board, and what he saw turned the lingering worms of anxiety in his stomach into full-fledged fire-breathing dragons of doubt. His TIE formations had abruptly fallen apart and lost their cohesion-fully three dozen hostile interceptors remained, while only a few TIEs continued to doggedly engage them. The gunship was coming around, possibly for another torpedo run, and the elusive vessel was wreaking havoc with his ship’s targeting computers. He had yet to do any lasting damage to any of the opposing ships due to his desire to target all of them instead of concentrating fire on just one vessel. While his shields were back up, they were being slowly gnawed away by persistent streams of azure and violet fire. This was it-the crux of the battle, that instant upon which the engagement was one or lost-but what Niblim didn’t know was that it was already too late.
- “Sir, another gunship closing fast off our stern!” shouted the replacement sensor officer-the original one had had a console explode in his face and been carried off for medical treatment.
- “Another one? How? Why didn’t we see-,” Niblim spluttered, but he was abruptly cut off.
The Suppressor lurched violently as another dozen torpedoes impacted into its stern shields, ripping through them and carving wide swathes of destruction on the Star Destroyer. The first gunship had yet to return, but the cruiser unloaded eight torpedoes of its own into the Imperial warship. Furthermore, four bombers had apparently been launched from the cruiser, and they added their ordnance to the firestorm that engulfed the Suppressor. Explosions racked the ship, detonating weapons emplacements and exposing entire compartments to the void of space. The hangar bay, targeted by the missiles of the bombers, was turned into a gaping hole in the Suppressor’s underside, and the few remaining TIEs were powerless to stop them.
Niblim was thrown to the hard metal deck; when he clambered to his feet, there was blood dripping from a cut on his face. Surveying the bridge, which had managed to escape ruin, he saw the tactical board and the status of his own ship. There was nothing he could do-the battle was beyond saving, and he was utterly hopeless. He knew he needed to give orders, saw the anxious officers staring at him anxiously, but his mind couldn’t claw its way past the worry and fear gripping him.
- “Status?” he asked weakly.
- “We’ve sustained heavy damage, sir,” reported his first officer. “That barrage cost us half our firepower and hyperdrive is offline. Most of our sensors are gone.”
- “Then there’s only one choice left,” Niblim said, steeling up the last vestiges of his resolve. “Have the captain of the guard send a stormtrooper contingent to the bridge immediately. Keep fighting!”
- “Aye, sir,” replied Harkspur.
The Star Destroyer, even damaged, was still capable of hitting back, but Niblim’s gunners failed to score serious damage on the opposing vessels, and that was partially due to the interceptors that strafed any active battery, but it was also due to the shock of battle, of having their ship so severely mauled.
Niblim took some comfort in seeing the eight white armored stormtroopers take up stations around the bridge, knowing that they were necessary for the next part of his plan. It was a standard Imperial rule that, in event that a warship was unable to escape a hopeless battle, the ship must be destroyed to prevent its seizure, such as what had happened with the Extinguisher. Niblim had no desire to die, but he knew it was his duty to do so. How this battle had been lost, he had no idea-he had had his opponents outgunned, but they had sliced through his ships like a hot vibroblade through a stack of flimsiplast. Clearing his throat, he began reaching for the self-destruct handle while absently looking at the ruined wreck of his ship, which was still being battered by constant fire. By now, only a few of the Star Destroyer’s guns were still firing, and all attempts of raising shields had been abandoned-the generators had long since been destroyed. This was the only thing he could do.
Then, the door to the bridge exploded open, throwing two stormtroopers back. An armored figure burst through, clad in a dark gray battle suit. In each hand, the figure held a stun grenade, which he hurled forward into the two crew pits in the bridge. The grenades went off with a burst of light, knocking most of the crewers in the pits unconscious. The intruder then leaped forward, both hands raised, and each wielded a pistol. The scene played out in slow motion before Niblim and he watched in astonished horror as the two guns opened up on the surprised stormtroopers and crewers. One was a rapid-firing blaster pistol which sent purple blasts of energy into the heads and torsos of the stormtroopers. The other shot some sort of solid slug, which slammed into any crewers unfortunate to reach for their sidearms. The man easily shot five stormtroopers and three crewers in mid-leap, and then somehow managed to arrest his forward motion mid-air and pull his body up enough to land feet-first on a stormtrooper firing ineffectually at him. In the time it took for his feet to drive the trooper to the ground, the armored figure had holstered the slugthrower and filled his hand with another weapon.
Niblim had stood there petrified, his hand still clutching the self-destruct handle, when there had been a loud humming sound and a flash of gold light. Looking down, he saw that his right hand was still clutching the self-destruct lever, but it was no longer attached to his body. Instead, his arm ended in a steaming stub where the hand had been neatly sliced off. He looked back up to see the armored man staring at him, and though his face was obscured by the full helmet he wore, the nightmarish red viewsensors on the armor’s face filled Niblim with unspeakable horror and the glowing blade of gold energy held near his threat spoke volumes. The attacker held his blaster on the remaining crewers, covering them, and addressed Niblim with a voice dripping with menace, even through the helmet’s vocal filters.
- “Stand them down!” growled the man in a basso rumble.
- “L-lower your weapons!” Niblim ordered faintly, gazing down at his severed hand again.
Then, another figure entered the bridge, also clad in armor, but not the same kind. His was more ancient in appearance, and a smoothed-out T-shaped visor in place of the glowing red “eyes” of the other. He bore no weapon that Niblim could see, but when the last stormtrooper popped up from behind cover to stitch him full of blaster bolts from neck to hip, a whirling green energy blade had appeared in his hands and batted away the blaster bolts away contemptuously. Niblim then watched in horror as the hapless stormtrooper was hit by bolts of energy that the second intruder conjured up somehow. The trooper flew backward, wracked by the lightning, and fell to the deck, twitching and smoking.
- “Surrender this ship, now!” growled the first figure and the tone of his voice implied that Niblim would not receive a second chance if he offered any resistance.
- “I-I surrender,” he said, activating the ship-wide comlink. “All hands, cease fire. This is Captain Niblim. We surrender!”
- “Good choice, Captain,” replied the figure.
Then there was a whirring sound, a small pain in his neck, then nothing. The two figures surveyed the bridge, taking in the fallen crewers, some of them dead from their rapid and violent entry, and others with small darts protruding from their decks.
- “Is that all of them?” asked the first one.
- “Of course it is,” replied the second, much more casually. “We’re secure. Can’t you sense them yourself?”
- “Actually, no,” answered the first.
- “It’s the same thing as before, isn’t it, Spectre,” the second answered grimly.
- “It is,” Spectre answered. “My sensitivity to the Force is dropping, Selu. It took a lot out of me just to jump in here and take down all those troopers. Two years ago, I could have dropped all of the troopers in one leap.”
- “I don’t understand it,” said Selu, peeling off his helmet to reveal a tan-skinned face set with brown eyes.
He was in his forties, but his face was one of a man who had seen much sorrow and horror, roughened and scarred. His short black hair matched the neatly trimmed goatee he wore, and while he wasn’t overly stern, the concern he felt right now was reflected in his eyes.
Selusda Kraen, or Selu, was a Jedi Master, one of the final few members of that Order left in the galaxy. He had narrowly escaped the Jedi Purge instigated years earlier by the Emperor and had been a smuggler on a freighter called the Hawk-bat for awhile before being called by the spirits of several ancient Jedi to unify and defend other groups of Force-users. He, and his companions, had been successful in doing so, establishing a refuge on the remote world of Yanibar for the Force exiles. Now, he served as the head of the Yanibar Guard, the defense force for the refuge.
For his part, Spectre had originally been a clone trooper in the Grand Army of the Republic. He had served honorably in the Clone Wars, at one point alongside a young Selu Kraen, but after the war, had chosen to retire from the military. Not long after doing so, he had run into Selu again and had decided to aid the fugitive Jedi against the threat of Mistryl kidnappers who were after Selu’s brother, Sarth Kraen. One crazy turn of events after another had led to him joining the crew of Selu’s ship and eventually becoming imbued with the Force power, along with the other crewmembers, and dispatched to help bring together the disparate groups of Force exiles. Now, he was the head of the ground component of the Yanibar Guard and possibly Selu’s best friend.
- “I don’t understand why the Force would abandon you and not me, or Sarth, or Milya,” Selu said.
- “It has, to some extent, for Sarth and Cassi,” Spectre corrected gently, taking off his own helmet. “We were endowed with a great gift eighteen years ago, but Revan never said it would last forever. The Force still lets me do some things, like read an opponents’ tactics and shoot exceptionally well, but I’m not as strong with it as I used to be.”
- “Maybe it’s a lack of training,” Selu suggested as he moved over to the communications station. “Sarth and Cassi could certainly benefit from more of that.”
- “Possibly, but I don’t think that’s all.”
- “We’ll see,” Selu said.
Activating the communications signal, he began broadcasting on an open frequency.
- “All Guard ships, cease fire. We have taken control of the vessel. Any remaining Imperial fighters are immediately advised to surrender. We are gracious foes and won’t kill you solely for your audacity in trying to kill us, but only if you stop fighting in say, the next half a second. That is all.”
Selu snapped off the comm and turned back to his compatriot.
- “That’s just not right,” he said. “Why should the Force suddenly abandon you?”
- “I can’t explain it,” Spectre said, “But that’s not all.”
- “What’s that?” Selu asked.
- “I’m getting old, Selu,” Spectre said. “The Kaminoans accelerated our growth, and as a result, I might be in my twenties chronologically, but physically, I’m twice that.”
- “So, you could be getting old, that’s all,” Selu argued. “Perhaps the Force isn’t the one letting you down. Perhaps it’s your age.”
- “Fine then,” Spectre replied. “Test me. See for yourself.”
Selu reached out with a mental probe, testing his friend’s mind for a reaction and evaluating his Force strength. Spectre was open to him, his usual mental barriers lowered to allow Selu to probe his mind. To his dismay, where Spectre’s presence in the Force had once been a brightly-burning flame of power, he was now diminished. While his vitality still remained strong, he no longer emitted the characteristic aura of Force power that had characterized all five of the Hawk-bat’s crew when they had first founded the Yanibar refuge.
- “You’re right,” Selu said. “Your Force powers have diminished.”
- “I told you. Did you sense anything else?”
- “No, not really. Other than the fact that I’m not looking forward to being old. How do you handle it?”
- “As much the same you handle everything,” Spectre shrugged. “One day at a time.”
- “Well, now that I know exactly what your situation is, I’ll think twice before having us charge onto an Imperial warship in the middle of a raging space battle.”
- “Hold on just a minute,” Spectre interjected. “I’m not useless yet.”
- “Don’t worry about a thing,” Selu said. “We’ll get you a nice hoverchair and a protocol droid to wait on you at the Old Spacers’ Home.”
- “Why, you wouldn’t-,” Spectre growled, then he saw the smirk on Selu’s face and knew his friend was teasing him. “All right, very funny.”
Selu chuckled, then he returned his attention to the business at hand.
- “How long will those Imperials be unconscious?” Spectre asked.
- “About four hours,” Selu said. “The sedative works for about that long, and the ylannock potion in the darts will scramble their memories of the past four hours as well.”
Ylannock was a naturally growing fungus from Yanibar which, when properly refined, had the power to erase or confuse Human memories, depending on the formula, dosage, and biochemistry of the user. The use of ylannock on prisoners of war had been essential to the existence of the Yanibar Guard, as memory-wiping them with ylannock was the only way of keeping the Yanibar refuge a secret. It was either that or simply kill all encountered and defeated opponents, an idea which Selu and Spectre found abhorrent. Still, if the Empire found out that a Jedi refuge was skulking around on Yanibar, they’d show up with a dozen Star Destroyers or so and level the whole planet. Even the swelling Yanibar Guard wasn’t up to a fight of that magnitude.
However, the fungus had also proven to be an effective source of income-in a lower grade form, it was a soporific, and could be packaged and sold as a mild, non-habit forming drug. The wealth the colony had garnered from selling ylannock powder through an intermediary shipping company out of Bespin, along with weapons exports, had allowed it to flourish, as those two commodities made up most of Yanibar’s exports.
- “Time to get a move on, then,” Spectre said.
Activating the ship-wide intercom, he addressed the Imperial crew.
- “All Imperial forces remaining on this ship are advised to abandon ship immediately,” he ordered. “Because we’re about to slag it and anyone stupid enough to remain. Make for the planet immediately, or face the wrath of the Rebel Alliance.”
He snapped off the intercom.
- “That should do it,” Selu said, watching as small escape pods began blossoming from the Suppressor and descended towards Drexel. “Have you instructed Captain Sirshak appropriately?”
- “Yes,” replied Spectre. “He’ll have his Valkyries drop airburst ylannock canisters over the Imperial landing sites.”
- “Good enough,” Selu said. “Not as good as having them all individually administered, but it’ll fog up enough memories that the Empire will have a hard time sorting out what actually happened here.”
- “As soon as we get rid of the evidence,” remarked Spectre. “What about the bridge crew?”
- “We’ll take them with us for interrogation and hopefully convince them that we're part of the big, bad Rebellion coming for them in the night in the process,” Selu said. “Should be interesting. Enough talking, though. We need to get off this slagpile.”
- “True enough,” Spectre said. “Let’s get our prisoners back to the Hawk-bat.”
An hour later, Spectre and Selu, freshly changed out of combat dress into more standard dark gray uniforms of the Yanibar Guard, filed into a briefing room on the Yanibar Guard cruiser, the Quinlan Vos, holding position over Drexel. A six-hundred meter long beauty of a ship, the Quinlan Vos was a Niman-class cruiser-carrier, a multi-role warship that was currently the largest vessel in Yanibar Guard service. There were six in the fleet now, mostly concentrated around Yanibar, and they were the workhorses of the Guard navy, with a balanced mix of firepower, shielding, speed, and capacity to fulfill a number of roles. While they couldn’t take on a Star Destroyer on their own, they could hold off or defeat virtually any one ship of their own displacement. Flanking the Quinlan Vos were two Makashi-class frigates, the Djinn Altis and the Jurokk, smaller, but newer escort warships that had first started being introduced to the Guard only six years back. Equipped with high-powered targeting computer arrays and sensors, their role was typically to defend the Nimans while providing firing solutions and telemetry to the other ships. Lastly, and barely visible against the backdrop of space, were the two Ataru-class gunships, the Aubrie Wyn and the Bairdon Jace. The smallest and some of the oldest capital ships in the Yanibar Guard fleet, both vessels were over ten years old, but still served well. Although lacking a true cloaking device, they were carefully constructed so as to have a small sensor profile, allowing the vessels to get in a critical shot with their multiple torpedo launchers. Unfortunately, this meant that they were rather slow and lacking in point-defense weaponry for their size, with only four turbolasers and eight double laser cannon turrets, which had led to the development of the Makashi-class frigates as the gunships proved largely unsuitable for screening purposes.
As Selu seated himself at the polished obsidian-black table in the briefing room, he reflected on how far the Yanibar Guard had come since its inception. It had been a small band of militia at first, but as Kraechar Arms, the Yanibar-based defense company run by Selu’s brother, Sarth Kraen, had grown and developed more advanced weapons designs, it had become quite well-equipped. The merging of the Yanibar Guard and the Freedom’s Sons paramilitary organization had done wonders for their numerical strength, and as select refugee communities from the galactic war were carefully culled for transport to the Yanibar refuge, the numbers had grown even more. In fact, the refuge’s population had swelled to over a million residents now. That did have its drawbacks, though, in that where the Guard had once been largely composed of Force-sensitives, they were now a minority in a force nearly one hundred thousand strong, relegated to specialty roles. However, Selu was content with that. The Ruling Council on Yanibar had decided to open its doors to certain populations of non-Force-sensitives affected by war, despite the original purpose of the Yanibar settlement being to shelter exiled Force users, and the Guard had benefited from the sheer numbers of willing volunteers.
After a few minutes of waiting, a male Zabrak officer, wearing the light gray uniform and insignia of a naval captain, entered the room and came to attention with a crisp salute in front of Selu and Spectre.
- “At ease,” said Selu. “Have a seat, Captain Sirshak.”
- “Thank you, sir,” replied the captain.
- “Excellent fight out there,” Selu said. “You conducted your fleet well.”
The Zabrak beamed. “Again, thank you, sir. And for your assistance as well.”
- “Certainly,” Selu said. “We don't want to take a lot of your time, but would you mind walking us through the battle from your point of view?”
- “As you wish, sir,” Sirshak replied, activating a table-mounted holoprojector showing the positions of the Yanibar Guard ships around Drexel. “Before I begin, shall I order my gunners to begin demolishing the Suppressor?”
- “Proceed when ready, Captain,” Selu said.
Sirshak nodded and spoke into a small comlink. A few minutes later, the starfield outside the window of the briefing room spun as the Quinlan Vos moved into position and opened fire on the distant hulk of the Star Destroyer. Purple bursts of light exploded from the ship’s batteries, hurtling across space to detonate in geysers of superheated metal as they hit the Suppressor. Holding position a kilometer relative up and down from the Vos, the two Makashi-class frigates joined in the fray as well, adding their own fire to the rapidly disintegrating hulk.
Spectre and Selu watched the firestorm of violet light for a few instances, feeling the deck throb beneath them as the ship’s power conduits ferried energy to its guns. Then, they returned to business.
- “As you were saying,” Spectre indicated to Sirshak.
- “Yes. As you know, we were holding positions here while the two Shii-cho transports conducted further salvage operations on the Extinguisher. It’s a good thing we were, too, because the Suppressor appeared from hyperspace here.”
The boxy Shii-cho transports were another mainstay of the Yanibar Guard. Three hundred meters of mostly empty space, they were lightly armed and fairly sluggish, but their modular internal design meant that they could be adapted to a number of support roles, including troop transport, medical ship, or cargo hauler. The two hovering over the Extinguisher now had been configured as salvage vessels as they worked on the derelict battlecruiser. Sirshak touched a control, and a large red hologram of the Star Destroyer was added to the holographic representation.
- “They deployed fighters and advanced upon us, and we responded likewise. I deployed the fleet in a standard line abreast formation to prevent any possible flanking maneuvers from the Imperial ship, and kept the Jace close in to us.”
- “Good tactic,” Selu mused. “You kept the gunship out of harm’s way until it could get in a solid torpedo volley.”
- “Yes, sir,” Sirshak agreed, activating the control. “We engaged the Imperial ships, and had them about at a standstill. Unfortunately, the attack run that our Shoto interceptors made on the Suppressor failed to penetrate its shields. Either the timing wasn’t quite right, or the missiles’ yield was too low.”
- “Probably more of the latter,” Spectre said. “Shotos weren’t designed to fight something that large.”
The small Shoto interceptors were also an older Kraechar Arms product, and while speedy and incredibly maneuverable, had only limited shielding. They were also lightly armed, sporting only a pair of laser cannons and a modular weapons bay capable accommodating either a concussion missile launcher with four missiles or a light ion cannon. They compared favorably with Imperial TIE fighters in dogfights, being only slightly less agile, and more heavily armed and shielded, but were almost useless against anything that their laser cannons couldn’t do significant damage to. Attacking a Star Destroyer was way out of their league.
- “Anyway, we continued to press the attack, and that’s when you arrived. I presume you know the rest, sir.”
- “I do,” Selu said, watching the holographic battle play out as the Aubrie Wyn, with the Hawk-bat tucked in close under it, shot in from hyperspace to attack the Suppressor from the stern. “Tell me anyway.”
“As you wish, sir. Once our ships were close enough, I ordered the Jace’s captain to fire as soon as she felt her torpedoes would be effective. The salvo was quite crippling, especially since your attack came right after the Jace’s torpedoes disabled their shields. I then launched the Valkyries and volleyed off our own torpedoes to add to that damage. Our fighters mopped up the TIEs and we continued firing on the Suppressor until it signaled its surrender.”
- “What took you so long to launch your Valkyries?” Selu asked, referring to the flying-wing shaped bombers that each Niman-class ship carried. “They’ve got a nice punch to them.”
- “Yes, sir. They’ve also got the nasty habit of being target practice and maintenance prone. I didn’t want them out until I was sure they wouldn’t take battle damage. The things are just unreliable, and I hate depending on them.”
- “An unfortunately prevalent view among the fleet,” Spectre remarked to Selu. “We’ll have to work on that one.”
- “Indeed,” Selu replied thoughtfully. “Anyway, back to the battle. Congratulations on not losing any of your ships.”
- “Thank you, sir,” replied the Zabrak officer.
- “And total casualties?” asked Spectre.
- “I have a few dozen injured on my ship and the Jurokk,” said Sirshak. “The Djinn Altis never lost shields, same with the Bairdon Jace. We also lost eleven Shotos, but only seven pilots. The four who ejected have been recovered by our Javelin shuttles.”
- “The losses are regrettable, but far better than might what have happened. All in all, excellent work, Captain,” Selu said. “Congratulations on your largest kill to date.”
- “Sir, if I may-,” Sirshak said. “I have some questions of my own.”
- “Go ahead and ask them, then,” Selu replied jovially.
For his own part, Selu was pleased about the outcome of the battle and impressed with Sirshak’s skill, even if he had played a part in it. Taking down a Victory-class Star Destroyer was not something the Yanibar Guard did often-in fact, though having run simulations against capital ships, they had never destroyed a vessel of this size before for fear of incurring Imperial attention. The fact that the Star Destroyer had surprised them by arriving and still was defeated was a testimony to the resilience and courage of the Yanibar Guard, as well as the quality of their equipment. Although, Selu admitted, a bit of Jedi battle meditation arriving in the midst of the battle probably threw the odds more in the Guard’s favor. It had looked close just before he and Spectre had taken the Aubrie Wyn on a microjump through hyperspace from the outer edges of the Drexel system to reach the battle.
- “How did you time your arrival that well, sir? Was it just blind luck . . . or something more?”
Selu smiled thinly back at the officer.
- “As it turns out, the Force did give me insight into the battle. I did my best to show up at a key junction where the one gunship would make a difference.”
- “Is that why the Imperial fighter formations fell apart so quickly, sir?”
- “It is,” Selu said. “Not to take any credit from you and your pilots, but I was using a Jedi technique called battle meditation.”
- “How does that work, sir? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
- “It’s not easy to explain, but it basically saps the morale and will to fight of enemies while bolstering the resolve of our troops,” Selu replied.
Sirshak sat a moment, contemplating and processing the information he had just received. It was not an uncommon expression-even though all fleet officers were briefed on the nature of the Force and its abilities, the ideas still took some getting used to. In particular, Sirshak was a former member of Freedom’s Sons, a paramilitary organization that had merged with the Yanibar Guard about fifteen years back, and held a certain amount of skepticism born from being unfamiliar with the Force for much of his life. He still wore the Freedom’s Star decoration on his uniform, denoting his service in that organization, just as Selu still maintained a Jedi Order pin on his own, despite no longer claiming allegiance to the defunct Order per se.
- “Thank you for your time, sir,” Sirshak said finally, after mulling over the new information.
- “You’re welcome, and again, congratulations on your victory,” Selu said. “Be alert though-the Empire won’t be so cavalier about sending their Star Destroyers around to get ambushed after this.”
- “Aye, sir,” Sirshak replied. “I’ll have reconnaissance patrols deployed immediately. Will you be staying long?”
- “I’m afraid not,” Selu said. “Myself and General Kraen have obligations back on Yanibar that we need to tend to. We’ll be taking the Hawk-bat shortly.”
- “Very well then,” Sirshak answered.
- “How much longer until the Extinguisher is capable of hyperspace?” Spectre asked.
- “Just a day or so more, sir,” Sirshak replied. “We’re working double shifts to get it online.”
- “Good,” Selu said. “We need to get it out of here as soon as possible, before the Empire returns and finds it and us sitting here.”
- “It’ll be done, sir,” Sirshak promised.
- “I’m sure it will,” Selu said, shaking the officer’s hand as he stood to leave. “May the Force be with you.”
Spectre shook Sirshak’s hand as well, and then he followed Selu out of the briefing room as the two headed to the hangar bay where the Hawk-bat, the customized light freighter that Selu used as his personal transport, was waiting for them.
- “I didn’t think we really had all that many obligations on Yanibar,” Spectre remarked to Selu as they strode down the wide, brightly lit and gleaming white corridors of the Quinlan Vos. “What were you referring to?”
- “You mean besides the fact that our wives will be very upset if we return late?” Selu replied, bemused.
- “Well, true, there is that,” Spectre admitted. “And I hate to disappoint.”
The faint, but clear sound of gentle singing greeted Milya Tayrce Kraen as she walked out of the back door of the house into the garden. She lingered in the doorstep for a moment, letting her slim fingers rest on the cool masonry as she leaned against the stone. The house had been built several years back and was larger than anything she had ever lived in previously. She and her husband, Selusda Kraen, had built it shortly after they were married, and while it was not a mansion by any stretch of the imagination, she loved it. A two-level affair built largely out of stone and permacrete, it was larger below than above, with a receiving room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, and a living room composing the lower level while the upper level, accessible by a pair of stairs inside as well as outside, held two additional rooms, one of which was used a training room and the other served as a cozy little study in which to spend quiet afternoons and evenings. A wraparound second floor balcony accounted for the reduced size of the second level and it was lined with potted plants and trees of various kinds to break up the monotony of the dull tan of the stone. Creeping flowering vines grew over large portions of the house’s walls, adding even more greenery to the house, but also imparting an old, well-worn feeling to the building. At the back of her house, there was a sweeping curved double staircase leading up to the second level from the exterior, the one concession to luxury she and Selu had added three years ago. Behind her house, a sizable arbor of sorts extended back behind it, maintained by a pair of gardener droids her brother-in-law, Sarth Kraen, had bought for her as Life Day present.
It had started out as a small plot in the ground with just a few scraggly desert bushes when she and Selu had first built the house, but it had been expanded greatly as the Yanibar colony flourished. Now, it was verdant and green, thanks to weather control technology that protected the entire Tusloni Basin, the vast region encircled by steep mountains that housed the refuge, from the harsh environment of most of Yanibar. The arbor or garden was not laid out in any particular order at first glance, largely comprised of winding paths that wove through an intricate and seemingly random pattern of a startling variety trees, bushes, and other plants, marked here and there by bubbling springs, small waterfalls, or fountains. A closely cut grassy lawn was present directly behind the house, bordered by flower beds, but as one wandered further, it quickly turned into a cornucopia of growing things of all types and colors, albeit a well-maintained one demarcated by smooth slate gray pathstones. Delicate blueblossoms swayed gently in the breeze, intermingled with cyan dew flowers. Everlilies were scattered throughout the arbor, and a tall trailing jade rose stood majestically in one of the flower beds near to the house. Giant blue nannariums from Drall wafted their cloying scent through the arbor, combined with bambwood and dbergo trees from Ossus, borscii vine from Bothawui, D’larah palms from Derephon, and a hundred other species composed the arbor. Milya slowly took in the sight of the garden, enjoying the moment of peace in her often occupied life. Her gaze swept over the commelina and chrysanthus shrubs, washing over the vweliu and gorsa trees, soaking in the deep green broadleafs and light cream color of the sficca leaves.
Growing plants like this had been unheard of beforehand due to the winds, sandstorms, deluges of rain, and temperature extremes, but now, from orbit, the Tusloni Basin would appear as a green spot on a largely tan and red planet. That is, if the entire basin wasn’t concealed by a massive Force illusion that Selusda had generated based on a technique taught to him by the spirit of an ancient Jedi Master. Selu had explained it as freezing the image seen from orbit in time, locking the view of the colony from when the illusion was first generated into place, and totally concealing the refuge from sensors or visual scans. Milya had witnessed it herself-from orbit, one couldn’t even tell that people lived in the Tusloni Basin, as it appeared as a barren wasteland. Even the Force-signature of the basin had been frozen in the illusion, hiding the presence of thousands of Force-sensitive beings.
The Yanibar refuge had not been conceived as a matter of political expediency or spiritual retreat, but as a case of necessity mandated by the fact that the dominant galactic government, the Empire, was headed by a brutal dictator known as Emperor Palpatine who sought to dominate the wills and minds of every sentient in the galaxy. Milya and Selu firmly believed that Palpatine had been behind efforts to quash the Jedi Order, once the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy. He had been largely successful in doing so, as well as establishing an iron-fisted grip on thousands of systems. However, even with his rule absolutely secure, Palpatine had continued to hunt down the last Jedi, extending his purge to anyone else who harnessed the mystical energy field wielded by the Jedi, known as the Force. Selu had been one of the last surviving Jedi Knights, but he had given up that calling and become a ship’s pilot on a freighter called the Hawk-bat, sojourning across the galaxy aimlessly. She had met him during that stage during his life, while trying to stow away on what eventually became his ship. A connection had formed between them, and it had developed even further when they, along with the other three crew members at that time, had been called by the spirits of ancient Jedi to unite several scattered groups of Force-users and establish the Yanibar refuge. The spirits had gifted the crew with Force powers of their own, and against all odds, the five companions had been successful. Now, they lived here, largely in peace, but always vigilant against any outside threats. Milya was the head of Yanibar Guard Intelligence, a demanding job to be sure, but one that fit her own past. Before meeting Selu, she had been taken in and raised as a Thyrsus Sun Guard mercenary after her parents ran afoul of the Sun Guard when she was just a toddler, leaving her an orphan. Trained in the ways of the Echani culture, spycraft was almost second nature to her, and she had combined her own perceptive talents with the Force to do a fairly good job as Intelligence Director. However, as much as she excelled in and enjoyed her job, times like these, where she could take her mind off threat boards and signal intercepts, were moments to be treasured and savored. The garden was a place of solace for her, a place to relax and experience nature.
It stretched not just back behind the Kraen house, but also to the left and right, as a common ground between the two flanking houses. The one to her left was inhabited by Sarth, Selu’s older brother, and his wife, Cassi Trealus Kraen. Sarth was the head of Kraechar Arms, a defense company that he had established at the same time as the refuge was founded, with the intent of supplying its defense forces with equipment, as well as producing export models as a revenue source. Cassi, however, was content to largely remain at home, though she held a job as a teacher at a local school, teaching linguistics. Sometimes Milya envied Cassi’s comparatively simpler life, and the carefree attitude that she always seemed to have, but her own calling and talents had led her elsewhere. Until recently, their son, Akleyn Kraen, a very bright blond-haired boy now seventeen, had lived with them, but he was currently offworld at a private school receiving an advanced education not currently possible on Yanibar. He took after his mother in looks and both his parents in smarts, and they missed him.
The house to the right was the dwelling of Spectre Kraen and his wife, Sheeka Tull Kraen. Spectre was not actually related to Selu or Sarth by birth; he had been born on Kamino as a clone of Jango Fett and had served in the Grand Army of the Republic during the Clone Wars. However, after meeting Sheeka Tull on the world of Ord Cestus while on a mission to rescue a group of Jedi after the establishment of the Yanibar refuge, Spectre had been drawn to her, and Selu and Sarth had invited him to share their family name. For her part, Sheeka had been eking out a meager existence on Ord Cestus, and after being implicated in a plan to slip some Jedi out from under the Empire’s collective nose, she too had come to Yanibar with her family. She had married Spectre shortly thereafter he took the Kraen surname, moving her and her children into his household. It had been difficult for them at first, given his unusual background and her own past, as well as the challenge of adjusting her children to the idea of having a new step-father, but Spectre’s and Sheeka’s family had weathered all the storms that life had thrown at them and come through on top.
The thought of family brought Milya’s mind back to the reason she had come out to the garden. Selu and Spectre were due to return from their mission to Drexel any time now, and that meant that certain preparations had to be made, as Sarth, Cassi, Spectre, Sheeka, and their families, along with the elder Kraens, Samtel and Lena, who lived just up the street, would be coming to dinner at her house tonight in one large family gathering to celebrate Selu’s and Spectre’s return. Milya made her way through the garden paths, seeking the object of her attention, even though her Force senses could have told her the exact location of what she was looking for. Rounding a corner around a sizable grove of trileaf trees, she spotted what she was looking for.
A girl of eleven years, dressed simply in a long white dress, was sitting by a bubbling fountain, listening to the sound of water and happily singing an old Zeison Sha refrain passed down through generations of that particular Force-using organization, which was native to Yanibar. The girl didn’t even know what the lyrics meant, but Milya did, and hearing the words sung in such a clear ringing voice, so rich and full, nearly perfect in its inflection, gave her pause. She saw herself reflected in the girl, herself twenty years ago. The same dark auburn hair draped down to her shoulder blades, with just a hint of a curl, the same smooth brown skin, tanned from the sun, the same gentle curves on the outline of her face. Milya saw Selu’s facial structure around the girl’s dark eyes and nose, the same high cheekbones and small nose, but the willowy figure and delicate grace were all hers.
Her name was Rhiannon, and she was Milya and Selu’s pride and joy. Rhiannon didn’t see Milya coming around the bend-there was no way she could have, though she probably did hear Milya approach even over the sound of her own singing and the bubbling water. She had been born as a healthy, giggling girl, but something had gone wrong during what seemed like a normal childhood illness when Rhiannon was two. She had recovered, but her eyesight had been damaged irreparably. In another time, in another galaxy, Selu and Milya might have been able to take her to a hospital equipped with specialists and surgeons and have the funds to pay for expensive treatments, but the illness had come during a rough time for the colony, and they had been unable to get offworld or afford treatment. Now, Rhiannon was completely and irrevocably blind, but Selu and Milya didn’t love her any less for her condition, though the guilt at being helpless to prevent the loss of her eyesight still told on them. Nor did they hold it against Rhiannon that she was unable to touch the Force in the same way that Selu or Milya, or even Spectre did. Force-sensitivity was a mysterious and random gift, and although Sarth and Cassi’s son, Akleyn, had some modicum of receptiveness to the energy field, Rhiannon was not, much like the majority of the galaxy’s population. Some might have been tempted to consider her loss of eyesight and lack of Force-sensitivity as a weakness or defect, but Selu and Milya were fiercely opposed to that viewpoint. Milya felt a wave of angry maternal instinct wash over her any time that idea was even barely hinted at-Rhiannon was a gift to them, and nothing would change that. Yes, she wasn’t perfect, but no child was, and yes, she wasn’t incredibly talented in the same ways as her parents, but that was not important to her parents. As far as they were concerned, even in her worst fits of bad behavior, Rhiannon was a blessing.
- “Rhiannon,” Milya called softly after her daughter finished the last resounding note of the song.
- “Yes, Mom?” the girl replied, turning to face her, and Milya saw that she had been placing pink and white mycosia flowers in her dark brown tresses.
- “It’s time to clean up and get ready for dinner,” Milya said.
- “Okay. I figured that’s why you were here. I heard you coming, you know,” she added coyly.
- “I thought you might have,” Milya said, smiling and projecting the image of a smile into Rhiannon’s mind via the Force so she understood the gesture.
As if making up for her blindness, Rhiannon possessed acute senses of hearing, smell, and touch, and though she couldn’t see with her eyes, Milya and Selu had developed a technique by which they could project images into her mind. The drawback to that was that Rhiannon had lost her eyesight at such a young age that she didn’t always fully comprehend what she saw. However, she wasn’t handicapped either, learning to read and write a special linguistic system that Cassi had introduced to her, specially designed for the visually impaired, and Milya often marveled at her singing voice. Nevertheless, having a child who could not see imposed its own challenges on her parents, though around the street where the extended Kraen family, Rhiannon could get around just fine with the aid of a small wooden staff Spectre had carved for her.
- “Are Daddy and Uncle Spectre coming back tonight?” Rhiannon asked.
- “Yes, dear. They’ll be back for dinner, as well Grandfather Samtel and Grandmother Lena. Come on, let’s get you back and cleaned up so you’ll be ready to see them and your cousins, too,” Milya said, eyeing the dirt on the hem of the white dress and Rhiannon’s bare feet with a touch of motherly disapproval.
An hour later, Milya was less than satisfied with most of the preparations for that evening. She was running low on time, it seemed, and though several deep, calming breaths helped allay her frustration, she felt it necessary to take out the remainder on the sole housekeeping/personal attendant droid in the house, J7-A0.
- “Is the table properly set?” she called across the house from the kitchen, where she was stirring a bubbling pot of soup, a spicy Yanibar delicacy called lygniap that was traditionally ladled over roasted tuber wedges.
- “Yes, mistress,” replied the droid with characteristic long-suffering.
Selu and Sarth had built the droid out of recycled Industrial Automaton LOM protocol droid chassis, but as a result, its programming and some added features were a bit unorthodox thanks to their tinkering. Still, as a butler and housekeeper, the droid did a fairly good job at freeing Milya from any number of menial and time-consuming tasks.
- “Both of them?” she inquired sharply.
- “Yes, mistress,” J7-A0 answered in the exact same tone. “The larger table has been set for a semi-formal dinner with eight adults. The smaller table has been prepared for an informal occasion with durable place settings meant for two children.”
- “Good,” she said.
At least something is going right in this house, she thought. Her dinner was taking longer than expected to prepare, and she had yet to chop the vegetables for the salad she was making to go with the lygniap, and her broiled cebola slices smelled like they were ready to burn. Just then, the door chime rang.
- “I’ll get it!” Rhiannon hollered excitedly.
- “Be careful, and don’t run!” Milya called, but it was too late.
Rhiannon raced to the imposing front door, carved out of wood by Selu, and listened carefully to see if she could discern the identity of the person at the door, just as Selu and Milya had taught her.
- “Who is it?” she asked tentatively, pressing the intercom key that led to an external speaker.
- “A large, hungry gundark who likes to eat little girls for dinner!” came the growled reply, but the girl recognized the voice.
She flung the door open to reveal Spectre and a grinning Selu standing there expectantly.
- “Daddy!” she squealed joyfully, and ran to throw her arms around him, just as she always did.
Selu caught his daughter and swept her up easily.
- “It seems we were expected,” Selu said to Spectre, then he turned his attention to his daughter. “But I’ve caught her now, and since I’m a large, hungry gundark, I’m going to gobble you up.”
- “Daddy,” Rhiannon said, as serious as an eleven-year-old could be. “Don’t be so silly.”
- “If I have to be,” Selu said, sighing with mock resignation. “What’s your mother up to, sweetheart?”
- “She’s in the kitchen, cooking and yelling at J7.”
- “Oh, is she?” Selu said, arching his eyebrow and exchanging a wry look at Spectre. “I’d better put you down and go quell the fires.”
- “Okay,” Rhiannon answered simply. “I’m glad you’re home.”
- “Me too,” Selu replied warmly. “Can you stand here and wait for the other relatives to arrive?”
The girl nodded.
- “Thank you,” Selu said, then he went off to the kitchen to find his wife.
- “I’m home, dear,” he said unnecessarily as he entered the doorway to the kitchen, then he noticed the exasperated look on her face. “What can I help with?”
A second went by as Selu watched Milya focus her attention on stirring a bowl of chopped vegetables into the lygniap. He watched bemusedly, expectantly, until she finally noticed him.
- “Hi,” she answered. “Salad, please?”
- “I can do that,” Selu said, letting her terse reply go for now.
A few years ago, the lack of a decent welcome might have bothered him and he would have reacted, but as more years of their marriage had elapsed, they had become more sensitive to each other’s moods, and more accommodating of them, since they recognized what the other was thinking and tried to respond accordingly.
Selu took the knife and chopped the vegetables Milya had washed and laid aside for the salad evenly. Cooking duty had been part of his childhood experiences as a Padawan and he had done some onboard the Hawk-bat, but it wasn’t until after he had married Milya that he had really picked it up. Given her background, she had even less cooking experience than he did, and they hadn’t had a food prep station. Eventually, they came to the conclusion that it was either learn to cook or subsist on packaged rations, and so they had learned together. At first, it hadn’t turned out well, and Selu, with his nearly eidetic memory, remembered more than one dismally ruined or scorched meal, but with time—and tips and recipes from the more domestically savvy Cassi—they had both gotten to the point where they were proficient in the kitchen.
Having sliced all the vegetables, Selu retrieved a sizable bowl. Turning to Milya, he smirked.
- “Watch this,” he said.
Tossing the cutting surface on which the vegetable segments were lying into the air, he opened himself to the Force, allowing its power to flow through him. For a moment, all the vegetables were suspended in mid-air in the shape of a heart. Selu mouthed “I love you” to Milya, and then relaxed his control, letting all the vegetables fall. She shook her head and rolled her eyes, but a trace of a smile creased her face and he knew he had lightened her mood. As she turned back to her cooking, he caught the vegetables neatly with the salad bowl and presented the finished product to Milya.
- “Is this acceptable?” he asked.
Milya started to answer, but Selu cut her off with a kiss. Keeping one hand on the salad bowl, he pulled her slim body close with his free hand, until she had no other choice but to accept the kiss. The sweet taste of her lips filled his mouth as she relaxed into the kiss, though for sake of practicality, he did not overly prolong it.
- “Quite,” she said, once they separated. “Thanks, Selu. I’m glad you’re home.”
- “It’s good to be back,” he answered, moving into the dining room to place the salad on the table. “Anything else I can help with?”
- “No, not really,” Milya replied. “The lygniap’s just about done, and the charbroiled cebolas are cooling. I already made bread to go with dinner. I think that’s it.”
- “Well, that was easy,” Selu replied jokingly. “I wish all crises were that easy to solve.”
Just as Milya was finishing with her culinary duties, the door chime rang again, and Selu got it this time; he already knew who it was by peeking through the window. Opening the door, he admitted Spectre and Sheeka, a pair of contrasts if there ever was one. Spectre, dressed in a dark off-duty tunic and pants cut on vaguely military lines, was tall and broad, his face chiseled and sculpted by years of war and hard living and his close-cropped salt and pepper hair practically screamed military. His tanned and weathered skin bore marks of a hundred battles and premature aging, but his dark eyes were as intense as ever. Sheeka, his wife, was petite, her curly tresses descending to the rich brown skin of her neck. She wore a long cream-colored dress and the smile on her face and the pleasant light in her own dark eyes stood in contrast to Spectre’s habitually solemn countenance. Trailing behind them was Sheeka’s and Spectre’s daughter, Jasika, who favored her mother in looks, except that her hair, bound in pigtails, was much longer and she was currently going through the awkward growing stages of early adolescence. Sheeka’s other children, Tarl, Tonoté, and Mithail, had all grown and lived elsewhere in the colony with spouses of their own. Though they loved their mother, they had never fully gotten used to the idea of having Spectre as a steady father. Tarl had even pursued an offworld career with a shipping business that ran regular routes to Yanibar. Sheeka’s son by an ARC trooper named Jangotat, named Nate, was a sergeant in the Yanibar Guard, currently serving in a commando unit.
- “Welcome to both of you,” Selu said, ushering in them and noticing the covered dish in Sheeka’s hands. “I see you brought dessert.”
- “We did,” Spectre said affably.
- “Don’t you mean, ‘My lovely wife did?’” Sheeka corrected playfully.
- “That’s exactly what I meant,” Spectre replied, cracking a smile at the exchange.
- “Hi Jasika,” Rhiannon said brightly, and out of the corner of his eye, Selu saw the two girls, only two years apart, quickly engross themselves in some topic of complete fascination to eleven and thirteen year old girls. He also spied Sarth and Cassi walking up the path to the door and simply held it for them.
- “I remembered the drinks!” Sarth called out with a grin, hoisting a bottle of wine.
Sarth Kraen, three years older than Selu, bore a clear family resemblance to his younger brother. They had the same black hair, brown eyes, and Sarth was only slightly taller, though Selu was clearly more athletic. Sarth was something of a prodigy, possessing the same near-eidetic memory combined with an affinity for a number of engineering and academic disciplines which had led him to become an effective head for Kraechar Arms, the primary supplier of weapons for the Yanibar refuge and a major source of export revenue. His wife, Cassi, had planned on becoming a schoolteacher before joining the Hawk-bat’s crew in the turmoil surrounding the end of the Clone Wars. Shorter than Sarth and with curly blonde hair, she was eternally light-hearted and genuine in manner. Wearing a black dress that shimmered as she walked, she smiled as Selu greeted both her and Sarth. Cassi, Sarth, Selu, Milya, and Spectre had all been together when they were called by the spirits of ancient Jedi to unify the Force exiles, and all of them had received a connection to each other and a unique sensitivity to the Force as a result.
- “Welcome back,” she said, embracing him warmly.
- “Thank you,” Selu replied. “You look lovely, as always.”
- “Aren’t you charming tonight?” she replied teasingly.
Selu smiled and ushered them in, and then his parents, Samtel and Lena, who had walked with Sarth and Cassi, as well. They bore clear resemblances to both Selu and Sarth, but were getting higher in years, both of them in their sixties, and the years they had seen were evident in their silver-streaked hair and the wrinkles evident on their faces. They had had long and full lives, though, and were still spry and sharp-minded.
After all the guests had arrived, he joined them in the dining room, where Milya and J7-A0 had set all the food on the table, including the steaming pot of lygniap. Once they were all seated, the dishes gently chinked and rattled as they were passed and food was ladled out in generous portions. The warm bread in the basket was quickly depleted and filled by J7-A0, and Selu served ladlefuls of spicy steaming lygniap, a rich brown soup made with hot vegetables, spices, roasted grain, meat, and chunks of fish onto the roasted tubers on each person’s plate. Small piles of salad were consumed as a first course and the wine, along with chilled water, flowed freely. The conversation was light at first, covering the latest local news, social activities, friends, weather and of course, the latest happenings of each other's children. However, about midway through the meal, Sheeka posed the question that most of the others had been waiting to ask.
- “How was your trip?” Sheeka asked Selu. “The official newsnet hasn’t said anything about it.”
- “That’s because we didn’t tell them anything,” Selu replied as he lifted a steaming spoonful of lygniap to his mouth.
- “Oh?” she replied, confused.
- “What Selu is trying to dodge is that we were in a battle,” Spectre put in over a forkful of cebola.
- “Against the Empire?” Sarth asked.
- “Victory-II-class Star Destroyer. They came to investigate the salvage operation, which is proof that we’ve been there far too long.”
- “How did it go?” Samtel inquired.
- “We won,” Selu said. “Decisively, in fact, but the Empire will be back, and in greater numbers. It’s a good thing that we’ve only got a couple more days before the Extinguisher can make hyperspace. They should be departing the Drexel system any time now and we’ll announce the victory when Captain Sirshak and his fleet returns.”
- “Well, be grateful for even the small victories,” Lena put in. “It’s a dangerous galaxy out there.”
- “That it is,” Selu agreed. “We were fortunate that the Empire is pre-occupied with the Rebel Alliance instead of imposing order on the Outer Rim.”
- “Ever since Yavin, the Empire’s begun cracking down on them, and any world they suspect of harboring them,” Milya said. “There’s a lot of the Imperial war machine directed towards them.”
- “Which is good for us,” Spectre said. “As long as the Rebels are distracting the Empire, they won’t think about looking anywhere near us.”
- “And that’s exactly why we’ve supplied some weapons and supplies to them discreetly,” Milya said. “Ever since Hoth and Derra IV, they’ve been hurting for more gear.”
- “Sometimes I wonder why we don’t help them directly,” Cassi remarked. “I mean, they want the Empire defeated as much as we do, right?”
- “You know we can’t do that,” Selu said firmly. “For one, as impressive as Yavin was, it was a fluke. They don’t stand a chance, and furthermore, we can’t go to war with the Empire if it will bring us into contact with either of their Sith.”
- “I know,” Cassi replied. “I just hate to see them stand alone.”
- “Actually,” Milya said. “There’s a pretty good explanation for Yavin that I just learned through my spynet while you were gone, Selu.”
- “Oh? And just how did the Rebels destroy the largest battlestation ever constructed?” Selu asked.
- “The pilot who fired the shot that blew up the Death Star was apparently named Luke Skywalker.”
Selu’s utensils clattered on his plate as he dropped them in surprise.
- “Skywalker?” he said, uttering the name slowly and with great distaste, clearly stunned.
- “Yes,” she said.
- “Well, that changes things,” he said. “I think we should start reconsidering our supply deliveries to the Rebels.”
- “Why is that?” Lena inquired.
- “Because, Mother,” Selu said with forced casualness. “That means he’s somehow related to the scourge of the galaxy and the Jedi Order, Darth Vader himself. And if the Rebels aren’t careful, this Luke Skywalker could end up being just as bad or worse than Vader if the Empire gets their hands on him, since he’s obviously Force-sensitive. That’s the only way to explain the victory at Yavin.”
- “Why not bring him here then?” Samtel asked. “Teach him what he needs to know.”
- “His destiny lies elsewhere,” said Milya. “He would not accept us, nor would the Rebels lightly give up their hero on their own.”
- “The best thing for him would be to get some real Jedi training,” Selu stated. “That, or, as sad as it might be, die in battle achieving some great victory. And the best thing for us is to bide our time, stay out of the war, and build up our strength while helping those that we can. Just as we’ve done in the past.”
That virtually ended the argument. After all, Selu was the head of the entire Yanibar Guard, and it was his job to determine and manage the security of the refuge. Though Spectre was in charge of the ground forces, Milya supervised the intelligence service, and Admiral Zozridor Slayke, the grizzled former leader of Freedom’s Sons, was in direct command of the fleet, Selu had ultimate say over matters of overall defense policy, unless all three of them overruled him, which wasn’t likely. They ate in silence for several minutes, Selu’s comment having instilled an awkward pause in conversation. Finally, Sarth broke the silence.
- “Tell us about the battle,” he said. “How did it go?”
Selu and Spectre gave the account in bits and pieces, sometimes interrupting the other to fill in a particular gap and being interrupted by one of the others with a question. Eventually, however, they managed to get the account finished by the time they were finishing up with their meal.
- “Well, congratulations on your success,” Sarth said.
- “Thanks. It was a good victory for us, and costly for the Empire, but there are still things we can do better,” Selu commented. “For example, Sarth, most every fleet commander I’ve talked to has complaints about the Valkyrie.”
- “Let me guess,” Sarth replied. “They’re slow, maintenance-intensive, and vulnerable.”
- “That pretty much sums it up,” Spectre put in.
- “I know,” Sarth said. “But to fix those problems would require an almost complete re-design. We’ve had different concepts come up before, but it’s going to take a few years to get something new into service. Most of our design assets are tied up in other projects. Especially the Soresu-class.”
The Soresu-class was a capital ship design currently under construction, and the first ship, the Yoda, was at nearly 1200 meters the largest ship ever constructed by Kraechar Arms and slated to be the new flagship of the Yanibar Guard upon completion. It had been three years in the yard so far and was scheduled for launch in a few more months of fast-paced work to get it finished.
- “Well, we need something. And now,” Selu said. “Our Shotos can’t do a thing to any ship larger than fifty meters length.”
- “The new Sabres will fix some of that,” Sarth said hopefully.
The Sabre was a new starfighter design just starting to enter service in the Yanibar Guard. More heavily armed and shielded than the Shotos, it sacrificed some performance for these improvements, but also boasted an integrated hyperdrive, allowing it to provide long-range strikes. It was still faster than say, a Rebel Alliance X-wing, but couldn’t compare to the new Imperial TIE Interceptor in terms of sheer agility. Still, the pilots Selu had talked to had spoken glowingly of the sleek Sabre, which also had better aesthetic and aerodynamic properties due to its basis on old atmospheric designs with a streamlined surface inspired by older Naboo designs.
- “Yes, but those are in high demand everywhere,” Selu said. “It’s going to be hard to limit them to only bombing runs. We need an assault fighter.”
- “I’m sorry, Selu,” Sarth said. “I just don’t have anything for you right now. The best we can do is continue our efforts to tweak the Valkyrie.”
- “Luckily for us, all of our hopes aren’t based on Kraechar Arms,” Milya said smugly as she breezed in with Sheeka’s dessert, a sweet chocolate-based confection, and beginning to slice and serve it..
- “What do you mean?” Sarth asked curiously.
- “Oh, I might have a solution to your problem,” Milya said. “Intel’s been working on that for a year now, ever since I heard about the unreliability of the Valks.”
- “Do you mean to tell me you’ve got an Idiot’s Array up your sleeve?” Selu asked, referring to the ultimate game-winning set of cards in the game of sabacc.
- “I think I do,” she said. “If it’s not possible to build our own bomber, why not borrow someone else’s design?”
- “Not TIE bombers. They’re vape-bait.”
- “No, not TIE bombers,” she said.
- “It’s the Koensayr Y-wing,” Sarth said exasperatedly. “Milya, there are pilots in service younger than the Y-wing. And we’ve had a few of those for years. They’re not much better than the Valkyrie, really.”
- “Actually, it’s not the Y-wing,” Milya said. “I’ve got something better.”
- “Do tell,” Selu said, thoroughly intrigued by now.
- “The Rebels are apparently growing displeased with their Y-wings. Something about the drubbing they got from the 181st fighter wing at Ord Biniir. That, and the Empire’s heavier escort vessels. Instead, the Rebels have come up with a new assault fighter, which they call the B-wing. They’re in limited production right now, and by all accounts, are far more effective than Y-wings.”
- “Limited production?” Sarth asked. “If they’re that good, why aren’t they churning them out?”
- “I’m not sure,” Milya said. “Maybe the Rebellion’s strapped on cash. Or there are rumors floating around that they’re hard to fly.”
- “So, we’re going to ask them for the design?” Cassi asked.
- “No,” Milya answered. “We’re going to borrow the design without asking, and not get caught in the act.”
- “Why not just ask?” Cassi said. “I mean, we are on the same side, right?”
- “Hardly,” Spectre said, chuckling. “For one, they don’t know we exist. For two, we’re not exactly signing up for a galactic revolution. It rather hampers our partnership.”
- “That’s right,” Selu said. “If any citizen wishes to join the Rebels, they’re free to do so, but that choice is irrevocable. They’ll have to submit to a ylannock injection, just like everyone else who wants to leave.”
It was a colony policy that all who wished to leave the Yanibar refuge permanently had to be injected with a ylannock solution, carefully administered at a local clinic, to fog their memories of the location and were also only allowed to leave on certain Shii-cho transports, not private ships, to prevent them from recording the coordinates of the planet. If they had their own craft, it would have its navicomputer and recording logs wiped and the ship would be stored in the hold of the Shii-cho until it reached a different system, as Selu, Milya, and the rest of the Yanigar Guard establishment were rather paranoid about maintaining the refuge’s secrecy.
- “Well, it’s unfortunate, because I’ve been on some of the Rebel weapons drops, and the ones I’ve met seem like fairly nice people, but it’s a very pragmatic policy,” Sheeka remarked.
- “Speaking of unfortunate things,” Spectre said. “Selu already knows, but it’s time the rest of the family does as well. I seem to be losing the power to touch the Force.”
- “What?” Cassi said. “That’s impossible.”
- “Apparently not,” Spectre said. “I’ve tried any number of things, but I can barely levitate a cup of water. I’m not as fast as I used to be. Even sensing emotions is difficult.”
- “Have you been back to Revan’s tower?” Milya asked. “The spirits there might have advice.”
- “No. That’s a long trip, and I don’t have enough time for that right now,” Spectre said.
- “Well, make time for it,” Selu instructed. “Or I’ll order you to do so.”
- “Please do,” Cassi said. “I'm worried.”
- “Tell me about it,” Spectre replied. “I’m losing touch with something that’s been my constant companion for eighteen years. But what if the spirits don’t answer? What if they’ve dissipated, or become occupied with other things? Or, what if they just tell me to live with it? It seems like a long shot.”
- “It’s still worth trying,” Sheeka said. “For something this important, I think you should.”
- “I know,” Spectre said. “I just don’t want to set myself up for disappointment.”
- “Maybe I know someone who could help,” Sarth said, licking chocolate crumbs from his face.
- “Who?” asked Selu, surprised.
- “His name is Nasdra Magrody. He was my old instructor for my advanced degrees. As I was finishing up my last degree, he started working on research pertaining to electromagnetic metaphysical waves in relation to the brain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was working on the Force. It’s not a guarantee, but Doctor Magrody is brilliant. He might have some answers from a more scientific approach.”
- “Well, we should pursue both avenues,” Cassi said. “That way if one doesn’t pay off, we still have a shot with the other.”
- “Thanks,” Spectre said. “I appreciate all of your help with this.”
- “Hey,” Selu said. “We’re a family, and that means we stick together. If one of us needs help, we’re there no matter what.”
- “Here, here,” Samtel said, raising his glass in a toast, and the others followed together, their glasses clinking together lightly as the rest of the Kraens expressed the same sentiment.
However daunting the challenge of Spectre’s waning Force-sensitivity might be, they were resolute in their determination to do whatever was necessary to help him. The strong bonds of their family bound them together, and made them stronger. Their combined strength had allowed them to overcome any number of difficult challenges before, and when one member was weaker, the others were there to support them.
The sharp wind blew through the brown grass as he walked through the endless steppe, his back turned to all that lay behind him. He paid no heed to the temporary swathe his progress made in the fields, nor did the shoulder-high grass bother him. He was used to it, having explored these fields for years in his youth. His mind knew every inch of the land, knew its feel as he walked bare-footed through the grass, knew its smell, that dank aura of decay and dreariness, knew the sounds of the rustling blades of grass.
He had seen much hardship already, despite his own talents. Young and diminutive, he was already stern-faced, even for his kind. This latest hand he had been dealt by cruel fate was merely the culmination of a series of unfortunate events, albeit the most painful for him personally. Now, he was cast out from all he had known. True, the latest incident had been his fault-though he hadn’t meant to cripple that trainee like that in that sparring match-but the root cause lay much deeper, on something entirely beyond his control. It was something he had been born with and could not explain, but it made him different. And now, he regarded it as the largest blessing and curse that anyone could ever have. It had made him the envy of others his age when he could outperform them all, but it had also isolated him. His peers saw him as a freak, and now it had come to the point where he was completely cut off from his people. Now, his only belongings were the clothes on his back and a simple metal knife- a poor way to start the life of a complete exile, but he would survive or die.
He looked at the sun, squinting his eyes against its glare. He would have to travel far tonight before he reached anywhere with decent shelter against the cold nights than the tall kholm grass around him. Reaching out to lightly run his hand along one of the grass stalks, Morgedh clan Kel'nerh sighed as he trudged on, a tiny figure amidst the sheer vastness of the endless grasslands of ruined Honoghr.
Images of his village, of his family washed back through his mind. It was getting towards midday, and back at his former home, the smell of baking bread would be filling the village as the females of the village went to the communal bakehouse to bring the hot loaves back to their families, to supplement the meager diet of foraged roots and meat that his people’s hunters and gatherers managed to eke out from the land. His stomach growled, but he ignored it. He had no food, nor did he have the time to seek out food right now. If he was within hunting distance of his village by sundown, he could and would be killed on sight-escape was the first priority. Calling on his warrior’s discipline, he quelled his hunger-living alone on Honoghr’s plains, an empty stomach was sure to be something of a constant companion. His people, once proud warriors, now only survived because of the generosity of offworlders.
Morgedh cursed silently under his breath at that bitter irony. According to the stories that his clan’s maitrakh had told him and the other young warriors during their youth, it had been ships falling from the sky that had ruined Honoghr. Their legends told of a lush world before that, but that had been changed before his birth, to the point where Honoghr’s ecology barely supported life. Only now, with the discovery of his people by the Galactic Empire, did they manage to regain some of their former prowess-and all at a rather small cost.
All the Empire-fronted by one of the Emperor’s chief warriors, the Lord Darth Vader and later his servant Thrawn-had asked in return was the service of some of Honoghr’s own warriors in exchange for food and material to cleanse Honoghr. It was a service gladly rendered and Morgedh would have willingly chosen to serve on the commando teams if so chosen-he had already completed two training missions on Honoghr with Imperial forces and had demonstrated his prowess as a warrior. However, his bad string of luck had caught up with him and ruined that opportunity as well.
Morgedh sighed in frustration. There was something about him that set him apart from the others in his village and clan. It had manifested itself during his youth, and while it started out as a blessing, it now marked him as an outcast. He was cursed with being so much more talented than any of the other warriors in his clan that nobody wished to hunt with him or associate with him, because he had something that could not be complained. The maitrakh, the leader of his clan, had smelled his hand and said his scent was off, that he didn’t belong. He’d responded indignantly, and that insult had probably not helped his chances much, but it was not his fault. He hadn’t asked for this gift.
He continued trudging on throughout the rest of the day, finding shelter in a series of foothills after a grueling march. His short, somewhat stocky figure was barely taller than some of the grass, and his deep brown wrinkled and weathered skin allowed him to virtually blend in to his surroundings. He was now farther than he had ever been, completely surrounded by endless grasslands marked only with the gentle slope of the terrain. There was not another sentient creature for many kilometers, according to his instincts and senses, which was rather how he preferred it at the moment. The grass rippled and waved in the wind, the uniform brown of the kholm grass meeting the blue and gray cloudy sky in a gently uneven line along the horizon. Word of his exile would soon spread to surrounding villages, meaning that he was not guaranteed a warm welcome by journeying to one of them. For now, at least, he would make his home here in the wastes. The sun was sinking rapidly, and although he had marched and hunted in the night, he knew that acquiring shelter for the night would be a priority, as darkness would only complicate that task.
Finding a shallow cave surrounded by a low outcropping of flat gray rocks, the young warrior explored it, making sure it was empty. There was a small trickling snake of a creek nearby, and he drank thirstily from its flowing water. For his meal that night, he went out stalking for prey in the evening and his keen instincts led him to the nest of a pair of avians that made their homes on the ground, surrounded by tufts of brown kholm grass. They were one of the few forms of fauna that survived on Honoghr. Jumping out from his position, a pair of quick stabs with his razor-sharp knife blade brought both down. Taking the carcasses back to his cave, he plucked both of them, but had no desire to consume the meat raw. Instead, Morgedh built a pile of dried kholm grass and carefully scratched his knife blade against a rock until orange sparks fell on the dead vegetation. On the second try, he was able to get a small fire going, and while it required lots of dead kholm grass to keep going, he was able to roast the two avians with some difficulty. Their meat was tough and stringy, but it strengthened him as he ate it with relish. What he did not eat, he wrapped up in a bundle of kholm grass to save for later. Finding the two avians had been a stroke of fortune-he was not always guaranteed such a plentiful meal, and as long as any scavenger rodents didn’t get to it, rationing the meat would afford him more time to find more nourishment.
There was no way to keep his fire going, and Morgedh made no attempt to do so, letting the smoldering grass die down as evening wore on. Instead, he wrapped himself in the loose poncho he wore over his tunic as protection against the night’s chill and tried to drop off to a vigilant sleep, trusting in his talents to wake him in case of danger. It had served him thus in the past. The wind continued to whistle and blow across the plains and somewhere in the night, a hunting bird called out with a high-pitched Kyah! Kyah! Kyah! as Morgedh slowly drifted off to sleep, a lone figure in the midst of desolate grasslands for hundreds of kilometers in every direction.