Dawn revealed a Rak’Edalin shattered by war.
Over half the city lay in ruin. The Yuuzhan Vong had destroyed as much as they could, using living creatures to burn buildings to the ground and immolate every machine they could lay hands upon. They savaged every scrap of Iridonian custom and heritage they touched. They left no sign of the infidel “civilization” in their wake, nothing intact to speak of the great Zabrak history.
But the Zabrak defenders had done far more. Under orders, they had fought every step of their faltering retreat, forcing the Vong to attack over piles of the dead—the fatalities of both sides of the war. When they were forced to fall back, they did so behind a curtain of fire. Under orders, they burned everything in their wake—homes, weapons, medical supplies, food. While the Yuuzhan Vong invaders showed no interest in employing their enemy’s resources, the Zabraks had no intention of making the battle easier for them by leaving anything usable in their wake.
On this particular morning, the dawn revealed a change in the strategy of the defenders. Under the cover of darkness, the Zabraks had fallen back by about a city block, creating much more open space between the warring armies. The Yuuzhan Vong awoke to find, for the first time, that the Iridonians had freely given ground in the long-fought siege. Without the cost of a life, the Yuuzhan Vong could take extra space.
The Yuuzhan Vong found themselves baffled. Not even the most optimistic of their field commanders, nor the most faithful and devout of the priests, believed that the Zabrak will to fight had been broken. Nor did they expect the Iridonians to capitulate.
Instead, they expected a trap.
It wasn’t an unfair expectation, after all; the Zabraks had sprung many traps on them during the drawn-out war. The Zabrak warmaster had proven himself adept at outmaneuvering and tricking his opponents, having slain the first Yuuzhan Vong commander and ravaging the navy and army of the Yuuzhan Vong invaders.
Instead of immediately moving into the newly-given, newly-burned ground, the Vong waited, confused, for instructions from their great Commander.
“What is he doing?” Triak asked Ret as the Commander and his chief tactician toured through the burned husk of a city. “Why do his forces retreat, but only a small distance and then dig in again?”
“He delays us,” Ret said. He had spent the two hours immediately after the dawn in intense devotions and contemplations, pleading with the god of war, Yun-Yammka, the slayer, for insight into the maneuvering of his enemy. At the end of the two hours, he felt as though he had some idea of what their enemy had in mind. “He delays us by making us question freely-given ground. We spend more time studying it, looking for traps, then what it would have taken us to conquer it by force against the infidel defenders. He attempts to buy time and lives alike.”
“To what end?” Triak asked curiously.
“Time for his forces to recover,” Ret answered promptly. “The long grind of this siege has worn his troops down. He seeks to give them precious time to regroup against our attacks. Hours and days are what he needs to reinforce his lines, to make them impenetrable against our attacks.”
“And the assassination attempt?” Triak asked. “You believe it failed?”
“I know it,” Ret said confidently. “The assassins struck just after the sunset. The infidel retreat occurred in the few hours before dawn. Only their General Sanshir would have issued such instructions while leaving troops in place to fight; any new commander would have taken time to familiarize himself with the forces under his control before attempting such actions.”
“And what of the assassins?”
“I know not, Supreme One,” Ret answered truthfully. “I suspect they died in their attempt.”
“Commander,” a villip tender interrupted from behind, bowing his head deeply. “The infidels have broadcast a statement intercepted by our villips, and I believe you should see it.”
Triak waved his hand irritably. “If it is so important then please, show me.”
The tender provided an already-inverted villip with an image floating over it, created from light. Better than their ‘holoprojector’ and their other wrong machines, Triak thought smugly as he watched the image begin. Nothing can match the beauty of the living.
The grainy image of his counterpart, the infidel warmaster Halyn Sanshir, hovered over the villip. “This message,” the Zabrak spat, “is for the cowardly leader of the Yuuzhan Vong who lay siege to my world. Your attempt to assassinate me has failed.”
Triak cursed to himself. The infidel still lives. How did our infiltrators fail? He shook his head. It does not matter. We will divide these people in two and conquer them even while this Sanshir still draws breath.
The image widened, showing a Yuuzhan Vong warrior on his knees next to the Zabrak. The Yuuzhan Vong was clearly drugged, barely conscious and too weak to rise to his feet or act against the infidel. The Ul’akhoi spoke calmly. “While I fight on the field of honor alongside my warriors, the so-called commander of the Vong,” he continued, the emphasis on the word indicating he clearly knew it was insulting to refer to the children of the gods as such, “hides behind his troops and does not take the field. Perhaps it is for the best.”
The Zabrak unholstered his blaster, leveled the emitter against the Yuuzhan Vong, and pulled the trigger. Triak’s eyes widened in shock as the infidel executed the defeated warrior. Over and over, the warmaster himself has said the infidels are incapable of such acts! This Zabrak has no trace of the softness that has allowed us to conquer this heathen galaxy.
“Come and join the field of battle, Vong scum,” Sanshir spat. “Your fate will be the same. No matter what tactic you use, what dishonorable assassination you attempt, I will kill you like I killed this one—this Vong not worthy of the title ‘warrior’. You chose to fight us here on our world; we will utterly destroy you for it.”
The image faded away, and Triak suppressed the urge to swallow. The Zabrak warmaster threatens and intimidates, but we are not beaten yet, Triak told himself. We are the chosen children of the gods, and they will not allow an honorless heathen to turn us back here.
But a tiny fear continued to eat away at his confidence: Are we truly the children of the gods, or did they abandon us at Borleias?
Ret Kraal stirred, then spoke. “The infidel general seeks to intimidate and demoralize us,” the tactician observed with slow, careful utterances. “His attempts will fail. When our warriors see this image, their hearts will stir for battle and they will finally overcome these Zabrak infidels.”
Will they truly? Triak wondered. Or will they lose heart and be crushed? He did not dishonor the warriors under his command by giving voice to his doubts. Instead, he changed the subject. “What do you recommend as our next plan, Tactician?”
“Take up the ground the Zabraks have given up,” Ret urged. “Do not allow them time to regroup. Keep the pressure on, continue to force them back. Every step of ground they yield boosts the heart of our warriors.”
“You counsel me to continue to sacrifice our warriors and take only ground covered in blood,” Triak murmured. “Our strength will continue to diminish if we pursue such a course of action.”
Ret shook his head. “The battle lines will continue to contract, particularly if these Zabraks continue to yield ground to us as they have this night. But that is only one avenue of attack; there is another to pursue as well.”
“Fighting on several fronts may cost us everything,” Triak warned.
“You misunderstand. We attack as warriors, army against army, which is one avenue of attack. But we must attack along other avenues as well if we hope to conquer.”
Triak leaned forward in interest. “Tell me.”
“The Zabrak warmaster, Halyn Sanshir, has a personal enemy in the form of Achick, of clan Lusp. He has already sought to overthrow Sanshir once since we began our campaign against this world. Should he take the mantle of power, I believe he would be more amicable to surrender.”
Triak gazed at Ret in open wonderment. “One of the Peace Brigade’s infiltrators?” he asked.
“No.” Ret chuckled. “He merely desires power so much, and despises the clan Sanshir, that he would sacrifice his world to see the Zabrak warmaster’s downfall.”
Triak allowed himself a small smile. “How can we see to his elevation, then?”
“Achick Lusp and the other politicians of this world are cloistered in a small building near the battle front,” Ret said. “With your permission, Great One, we will attack it and capture those present. With Lusp on our side, and possibly other of their politicians, their forces will be divided. Without a unified front, they will be overwhelmed and crushed by our warriors.”
Why should I doubt? Truly the gods are with us. The poison we need to strike down our enemy at last is at hand. “Strike hard and swiftly, tactician,” Triak declared.
The sun was burning hotly in the sky as Anishor peeked out from cover. The coatrack will pay for this, Anishor swore to himself. How could he possibly think this was a good idea? Reluctantly, the berserker admitted to himself that it was a brilliant plan. But it was a plan designed for Zabraks, not Wookiee warriors. Of course, without we berserkers to execute it, it would be far less effective.
He carefully lowered himself just far enough to let the lid seal itself again. It took long seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, and even then there was nothing to see as his massive body filled the passage entirely. He shuddered in distaste at the mud and muck stuck to his fur.
It was another one of Halyn’s insane plans. With the Vong firmly entrenched and watching forward, waiting for an ambush of some sort to spring from the ground the Zabraks had ceded them, the time was ripe for exactly that sort of attack—as long as it came from behind.
On Halyn’s instructions, the Wookiee berserkers—the most combat-capable unit on the planet not already dedicated to holding the line—had crawled through kilometers of storm drains to reach assault positions. The drains would have forced a Zabrak soldier to crawl in many places, but Anishor had genuinely struggled to pull himself through the narrowest of places in the tunnels.
Wookiees were born to live in the trees and in the sky, Anishor told himself. Not crawl through the dirt and the darkness. The big Wookiee did not consider himself claustrophobic; he had spent many hours in the cockpit of a fighter with no ill effect. No Wookiee could tolerate this for long, though, he grumbled. None should have to tolerate this!
“What does it look like?” Kelta Rose’s voice floated up to his ears around his matted fur.
<The enemy is unprepared,> Anishor reassured her. <As they should be. No Wookiee should ever attack like this.>
Kelta chuckled a little. “No Jedi, either,” she added.
Anishor imagined her for a moment, seeing her robes stained dark with the mud of the sewers, her red hair streaked dark with grime. He allowed himself a small smile. At least I’m not alone in this misery, he told himself, though I don’t see how a furless could suffer in this. After all, a brief bath and she will be clean, but it may take weeks to groom this mud from my coat.
“How long until the attack?” Kelta asked.
Anishor clicked his comlink to life and growled the question. A variety of barks answered him. <The rest near their positions,> he reported. <Only a few more minutes.>
“Good,” the Jedi said with a touch of impatience. “I can’t wait to see daylight again.”
Anishor was grateful for Kelta. Not only had she helped him through some of the tightest tunnels, but her presence had helped sooth his own misgivings about the plan. Anishor was a Force-user and a powerful one in his own right, but his range of abilities was limited. The Jedi Knight’s abilities were far broader in scope than his own, and could prove critical in the battle ahead.
The Wookiee berserker settled himself into a calming meditation. Guide me, Great Tree, he prayed. Make my blades swift and sure. Carry me through this battle, that my friends and allies may survive. Should I fall, I become one with you.
The berserker did not fear the coming battle. His long experience in war, dating all the way back to the Clone Wars, had burned out any trace of weakness. His century of life had left behind the foolishness of the young. His communion with the Force secured his destiny—even should he fall, he had no doubt he would become one with the Life-Power. There was nothing the Yuuzhan Vong could do that would move him from that bedrock knowledge.
The Wookiee was not fearless, though. He feared for the young berserkers under his command. He feared for the Jedi Knight below him in the storm sewer, herself preparing for the coming fight. He feared for his friend and brother-in-arms, Halyn. He feared for the Iridonians hiding behind the thin line of warriors dying to protect them. He feared that his efforts would be in vain, that even the best efforts of the Wookiees would make no difference to the outcome of the hard-fought war.
But as he prepared for battle, he let his fear go. He let go of his hate, too—he despised the abominations called the Yuuzhan Vong, those hairless creatures that somehow existed outside the all-encompassing Force. He let go of his desire to win the war and save Iridonia, for that too was a distraction that would distract him.
He communed with the Living Force, dedicated himself again, as he had on a thousand battlefields, to following its flows and guidance. The Jedi rely on the Unifying Force, and its visions, Anishor thought to himself, but I follow the Living Force. I do not need to know what it will bring me to follow its flows.
So the Wookiee waited as the rest of the Wookiee berserkers found their position, their hole to strike from and retreat to when the battle was over. Strike fast, sow confusion, and retreat, Halyn had ordered them.
Anishor intended to do just that.
This could be going worse, Nisia decided.
“Another wave coming in!” one of her gunners shouted.
“Save your fire until they start climbing over the funeral pyres!” she shouted back. “Then knock ‘em down!”
Shouts of exultation and exuberance answered her orders. The pirate smiled. Could be much worse indeed.
The big E-web repeating blasters started to roar again, sending fiery death into the attacking Yuuzhan Vong again as they climbed over the “funeral pyres” to start their own attack.
One of the gunners had given the nickname to the mounds of Yuuzhan Vong corpses now surrounding the Council chambers in a broad, smoking circle.
The Vong assaults had begun with reptoid shock troopers. Perhaps expecting to crash right through the defenders, as they had elsewhere, the reptoids had started with a mindless charge towards the defended position. The Zabraks, well-entrenched with the big E-web repeating blasters, had mowed the attackers down before they could get within thirty meters of the Council’s walls.
More waves of proxy troops had followed, both the reptoids and enslaved species native to the galaxy. No Iridonian hesitated to fire, even when the Vong attempted to use coral-embedded Zabraks to attack. With the broad open zone surrounding the Council chamber, and the heavy armament Nisia and Halyn had put into place, the Council had been turned into a nearly-impregnable fortress. The biggest problem, one of her troops had joked, was that they didn’t have a way of disposing of the corpses outside their defenses. After several hours of wave attacks, it had become a genuine problem—the piles of bodies were high enough to obstruct their lines of fire.
Nisia had countered by sending out a handful of troops to knock over the piles of bodies the Vong were using as cover, but it was a gruesome task. After the third time the defenders had left cover to clear their killing field, the Vong had tried to spring an ambush. Precision fire from the E-webs had saved all but two of the Zabraks outside the walls, but Nisia gave up on trying to keep the field clear and instead ordered the E-webs to ensure the bodies were kept ablaze.
War really is hell, Nisia pondered while listening to the razor screeches of heavy weapons. It’s easy to lose myself in this. I mean, I’ve ordered my people to ensure the bodies of our enemies are kept burning. How sick is that? She shuddered. This is why I’m a pirate, not a soldier. The things I do at least make sense.
“Captain Eisweep, a moment of your time,” a smooth voice spoke from beside her.
She sighed. “What is it, Councilor Lusp?”
“Don’t you think it’s time to evacuate the Council?” he asked bluntly. “The enemy is all but literally knocking on our walls. If we don’t leave soon, we may all perish at the hands of the Yuuzhan Vong.”
“Trying to save your own skin, are you Councilor?”
“All of ours,” he answered honestly. “Consider, Captain. Should we die here, Zabrak space will be left without its government and could fall into chaos. Should that happen, the Yuuzhan Vong will tear through our space and conquer our worlds unhindered.”
“The Vong aren’t going to get past Iridonia,” Nisia said irritably.
“Should the Council die, our armed forces will question the Ul’akhoi,” Lusp said smoothly. “Should they not follow him willingly and hesitate, Rak’Edalin and then Iridonia itself will be lost. You must evacuate us immediately.”
Nisia bit back her first thought and forced herself to consider his words. There’s no doubt he wants to get his ass out of the fire, she reasoned, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. If the Vong manage to kill the Council, that could cause a lot of hard feelings with the anti-Sanshir crowd—and they have to be a reasonable size, or Lusp would never have gotten as far as he did with his attempted coup. On the other hand, keeping them here will allow Halyn to continue to prosecute the war, and we can hold this place for a good long time—pretty much as long as our power holds out.
“We’ll continue to hold,” Nisia said. “As long as I’m in charge of the defense, that’s the last word.”
“At least have an evacuation ship standing by,” Lusp pleaded. “Why not be prepared with a simple transport in the event that the Yuuzhan Vong find a way through our defenses?”
“Fine,” Nisia said through gritted teeth. “If that’ll make you happy, I’ll have a transport on standby.” Small price to pay if it keeps him out of my horns.
“It won’t make me happy, Captain, but it is prudent,” the Councilor replied. “I seek only what we all seek—the preservation of Iridonia and of Zabraks everywere.”
And your own elevation, Nisia added silently. “Fine. Go cower in a corner somewhere now, Councilor, while we do the real fighting. If, and I mean if, the time comes to evacuate, I’ll make sure we have a transport standing by. Until the Vong are knocking down our door, though, don’t expect to go anywhere.”
“If the Ul’akhoi believes you to be our best defender, then I trust myself in your hands,” he promised.
Sure, you old snake. Just wish Halyn would’ve given me orders to leave you here. She considered that possibility for a moment. Would definitely make life easier on the Sanshirs, and it wouldn’t be hard—just make sure he misses the boat if we have to evacuate.
“What is it?” Lusp asked.
Nisia snapped out of her revere. “Nothing. Go find a corner and stay out of the way,” she ordered.
The Councilor bowed and walked away.
What I wouldn’t give, Nisia said to herself. You’d be such an easy mark—bet I could rob you blind, too, before I left you for dead. But no, Halyn didn’t want me to do that, so I won’t.
It occurred to her then that the E-webs had fallen silent. “Status?” she called out to her troops.
“Fresh fire on the pyres,” one of the gunners joked. “Vong are backing off again.”
“Good,” Nisia said. “Keep it burning!”
A new sound entered her ears. “Incoming coralskippers!” she shouted. “E-webs, keep your noses down and let the fighters cover us from the air! If you try to play with a skip, the Vong will be knocking on our doors!”
Shouts of acknowledgement, more blasterfire. Thank you, Halyn, she thought as the familiar howl of X-wing fighters roared past overhead, rattling the walls of the Council. Wait, why am I thanking you? You got me into this mess in the first place!