Kelta crouched in the storm sewer, her thoughts centered and calm, the Force flowing through her like a quiet stream. The Jedi knew, with bedrock certainty, when the fighting started that stream would become a raging river, carrying her into the battle with strength and certainty.
She held her single lightsaber in front of her, not with her hands but with the invisible hand of the Force. Kelta would have felt far more comfortable with her second lightsaber on-hand, but she knew she could still fight well without it.
Above her, pressed tightly against the thin circular cover that concealed him from the outside, Anishor also meditated on the Force, albeit uncomfortably. Kelta knew, even without the Force, that her old friend was unhappy with the mud and slime that permeated his coat. With the Force’s aid, she knew just how much it bothered the Wookiee. It did not surprise her—every Wookiee she’d ever known was far more comfortable in the open sky than they would ever be underground.
Kelta stretched out further with her senses, feeling the readiness of the Wookiee berserkers around her. The last few were moving into position even now, and in a few moments they would explode out of their cover and attack the Yuuzhan Vong from behind. Such tactics wouldn’t win the war, she knew, but it would help reduce the odds against the Zabrak defenders if for no other reason than the Vong would have to deploy rearguard troops to keep themselves covered, reducing the pressure they could put on the front line.
How many other ideas like this does Halyn have? Kelta wondered.
It was a mistake to even think the Zabrak’s name. In spite of her bonds of control, thoughts starting churning up from the bottom of her mind, disrupting the flow of the Force. Emotions she thought she’d left behind sprung forth anew—anger at how he’d left her, protectiveness for her dear friend, possessiveness of her old lover. And there was even love.
The Jedi struggled to contain her emotions, tie them down again. She breathed deeply, slowly, calming her racing heart and bringing her racing thoughts back under control. It took precious minutes, but finally the Force flowed evenly through her again. In the corner of her mind, though, she questioned. Is that a memory of the love we shared years ago, or do I love him anew? a tiny voice asked her. Yes, Kelta, you do love him now. Even with how he’s changed, even with what he’s done, even with who he’s become. You still love him.
She told the voice to shut up, or it would get them both killed. The voice retreated into silence, though Kelta sensed it was only a temporary reprieve. Patience, she told herself. Patience.
Naturally, while she was fighting to keep her own mind under control, the fight against the Yuuzhan Vong happened.
Roars rattled the Rak’Edalin storm sewer as Anishor and dozens of other Wookiee berserkers erupted from their concealment, wordless battle cries that could freeze the blood of a Sith Lord, let alone a Yuuzhan Vong warrior.
Light finally shone down and illuminated Kelta at the bottom of the storm sewer. She grimaced at the bright light, chided herself for distraction, and gathered the Force around her. With a whisper of power she sprung upward, her body flying up through the tunnel and into the open air like a projectile from a slugthrower.
Even as she twisted through the air, she took advantage of the height of her jump to survey the battlefield. With the clarity the Force provided her, she saw in an instant the platoon of Wookiee berserkers charging forward, rykk blades already cleaving Yuuzhan Vong flesh. Surprised warriors were trampled by a wall of snarling fangs and fur, an unstoppable wave of Wookiee rage and strength that crashed down on the unprepared invaders.
Kelta landed on her booted feet easily, igniting her lightsaber and charging forward towards a group of unprepared Yuuzhan Vong warriors.
“Jeedai!” the familiar cry went up. Kelta had heard it on every world where she’d fought the invaders. Early in the invasion, it was a death sentence for the target; the Jedi, dependent on the Force to anticipate their enemy’s reactions, were unable to escape the swarm of warriors that inevitably resulted from that cry. Two years of fighting the extragalactic foes had taught Kelta how to fight an enemy she couldn’t sense. Before the cluster of warriors could even bring their amphistaffs to bear, she was among them, her shining violet lightsaber dealing death in swift, fiery slashes.
A part of her rebelled at the slaughter. A Jedi Knight did not strike down helpless foes, nor did she attack first—she waited for an opponent to attack first. Another part of her, though, knew what she was doing was necessary. I’m fighting a war. Not all Jedi ideals are compatible with warfare. Another part of her justified the brutal attack. They’re neither helpless nor innocent. They chose to risk the battlefield, same as any of us, and they invaded Iridonia.
She silenced the mutinous thoughts again by sweeping the legs out from under another Vong warrior, her lightsaber slashing across his knees. As she spun back to strike down the last two charging warriors, her lightsaber skittered off an amphistaff. She recovered by leaping back a meter, gaining space.
The warriors cautiously moved to flank her, amphistaffs hissing viciously at her. Kelta smiled faintly as she flourished her lightsaber, ending in a simple guard. They’ve learned to respect the Jedi light blade, she thought wryly. Too bad. It was easier when they just charged in mindlessly.
She stepped back slowly, refusing to give the Vong the opportunity to take up positions on opposite sides. Kelta shook her head at the stalemate, then raised her blade to prepare to attack. No sense staying in a stalemate—take a risk and break it.
The Force whispered to her. Instead of attacking, Kelta threw herself into a high arcing leap, landing a dozen meters beyond the further warrior. Her eyes were already sweeping the battle, looking for the incongruence that had triggered her senses.
Then she saw it: blue lekku among the furry muscled towers that were Wookiee berserkers. Who? she asked the Force, stretching out.
Then the time she’d bought herself was over as the Yuuzhan Vong attacked her again with whistling amphistaffs, and she abandoned herself to the Force to carry her though the duel.
Triak of Domain Kraal was still glum as he studied the blaze bugs showing the battle. “Your attacks upon their Council yield no success,” he pointed out to Ret Kraal. “Hundreds of warriors and slaves have died attempting to take the chamber, but they have yet to gain a meter of ground. Our dead line the ground like stones and blades of grass.”
“Severe sacrifice is sometimes necessary to bring about victory,” Ret Kraal, the tactician, offered in return. “Even our great victory over the infidels at Coruscant was purchased with many deaths, and that was at the hand of the warmaster Tsavong Lah himself!”
“Still,” Triak murmured, “our losses mount, and replenishment of warriors will not happen unless we are victorious. Domain Kraal is on the brink of loss.”
“As are the infidel Zabraks,” Ret said confidently. “They are at their breaking point; we can endure a few weeks more of these losses, but the infidels will shatter before then.”
“Are you certain, tactician?” Triak asked bluntly. “Perhaps their numbers are greater than you believe, and they can endure everything we can throw at them.”
Ret shook his head. “If they had that strength remaining, they would not retreat before our attacks elsewhere. Even now, their lines weaken and fall back.”
“Perhaps,” Triak said grudgingly. “Or perhaps the Zabrak warmaster seeks to draw us out, to force us to commit everything where he can finish Domain Kraal.”
The two warriors were silent for long minutes. Ret finally broke the silence with a question that no one else would dare ask the Commander—one that would have earned his execution had any other heard it, for it was heresy of the highest degree. “Tell me, Commander—have we been abandoned by the gods?”
Triak’s reply should have been immediate and voracious. Instead, it was quiet and troubled. “I do not know, Tactician.” Words fell from his lips, shared words of treason that would end both their lives if any other heard it. “We were sent here to Iridonia to prove ourselves true Yuuzhan Vong, the children of the gods, with no trace of Shame upon us. We expected these infidels to fall before us like the other races of the galaxy, but instead they strike and strike again. Even though they are weaker, their forces less numerous than our own, they strike with lethality and precision to weaken us and prevent our victory.”
“Have the gods abandoned us in favor of the infidel Zabraks?” Ret asked.
Triak snorted in derision. “The gods would never favor tool-makers like these infidels,” he said dismissively, but his voice was apprehensive when he added, “Yet they could still have abandoned us altogether.”
Neither warrior spoke as they considered the consequences of such an abandonment. Both were still silent when their room was breached by an attendant in seer’s garb.
“Supreme One,” the seer said as he fell to his knees in subservience, “we are ambushed.”
“What?” Triak asked, rising to his feet. “Who? And where?”
“Infidel warriors, attacking from below ground,” the seer said, his head bowed deeply. “They rose through the city’s waste-tunnels like ngdin, striking from darkness in attack.”
Ambush! Triak railed silently. Again! Have the gods truly turned against us? Triak did not give voice to the thought now, not with the seer here. Such a statement now would lead to his death, even should he finally conquer these Zabraks. “They attack without honor,” Triak said flatly, distantly. This was why they retreated during the night, he decided. They wanted to focus our attention forward, on the ground they ceded us willingly, to ensure we would not look backward for the ambush they prepared.
“How many warriors have the infidels sent against us?” Ret asked.
The seer bowed his head deeply. “Perhaps forty, Tactician,” he said with his arms snapped across his chest in salute. “Not Zabraks, either.”
“Droids?” Triak asked in disdain. “Some mechanical abominations they buried to lie in wait for us?”
“No, Supreme One. Large, furry warriors taller than even a great warrior. We have seen them sporadically in the defense of this world and in others, but never in the number which attacks us now.”
“Wookiees,” Ret Kraal said in disbelief. “We have never spotted more than a handful in any place. The Zabrak warmaster must have kept them in reserve.”
“And now tips his hand?” Triak asked. “The infidels now reveal a weapon they have held in secrecy, waiting for the right moment to use against us. And for what? An ambush carried out by a handful of warriors, an attack inconsequential to the fate of this world?”
“No,” a female voice snarled. “To allow me to repay you for your own tactics.”
Triak and Ret both turned toward the voice. The seer rose as he turned, rising between the Commander and the speaker. He almost immediately went down in a burned mess of flesh and blood, sending gore splattering across the room.
Commander and tactician responded with the instincts of long-time warriors, springing for cover. Another blast from the intruder caught Ret, sending the tactician sprawling limply. Triak snarled at the sight of his tactician unconscious. “Infidel assassin!” he snarled from behind a yorik coral bench. “You will not leave here alive!”
“Big words from the Vong on the floor,” the assassin spat.
Triak risked a glance around the yorik coral, was rewarded with a glimpse of a blue-skinned figure in purple and white armor. He barely got his head back into cover when another blast from the assassin’s weapon chewed into the bench, with excess energy melting holes in the deck and wall beyond it.
Triak snorted, clearing his mind of the problems of the battle for the accursed infidel city and freed a pair of thud bugs from his bandoleer. You infidels will never learn, he thought. Your machines have such limitations, but living weapons learn to surpass their limitations.
The tactician released the two thud bugs. They crawled across the floor, under the bench. Triak pulled a razor bug from his bandoleer, watching the thud bugs slowly crawl to where they could take flight. Foolish, foolish infidel. As the thud bugs spread their wings to lift from the yorik coral deck, he threw the razor bug as hard as he could straight up from the bench.
It took the infidel assassin no more than a second to track and fire on the razor bug, splattering it against the coral walls. It was long enough, however, for the two thud bugs to take flight and throw themselves at the assassin.
Unwilling to forego witnessing his victory, Triak peeked out from cover in time to see the two thud bugs wing in at the infidel. She was good enough to shoot one of the unexpected bugs out of the air, but the second one smashed into her weapon before she could fire again. The crippled, fast-moving thud bug and the remains of her own weapon smashed into the assassin’s chest, sending her down in a heap on the floor.
Triak rose and collected the dead seer’s amphistaff, then stalked to the fallen assassin.
She was not a Zabrak, as he suspected. Her skin was a pleasing shade of blue, but she was otherwise as ugly as any infidel. Instead of hair, two large hairless, fleshy tentacles descended from her skull instead. “Twi’lek,” Triak said aloud as he brought the amphistaff up for the coup de grace. “A slave species of this galaxy.”
The assassin’s eyes snapped open. “Slave this!” she snarled, lashing her foot up between Triak’s legs.
The Yuuzhan Vong was thrown off balance by the blow and the pain that accompanied it, but he still brought the amphistaff down in a heavy overhand strike. The hissing serpent cut deeply into one of the Twi’lek’s head-tails, drawing a spray of blood and a scream of pain from the assassin.
Triak hissed at the assassin, tugging the amphistaff back up and out, severing perhaps a third of the lekku. Before he could strike again, though, the Twi’lek lashed her foot sideways into his ankle, throwing him off-balance and sending him sprawling into the wall.
Impossibly, the Twi’lek was trying to rise to her feet in spite of the wound. Triak’s head spun from the impact, though, and he was dizzy as he tried to straighten as well.
Through the ringing of his ears, Triak was slow to recognize a new sound accompanying running feet in the hallway: the hum of a lightsaber.
Kelta slid to a stop, her lightsaber burning brightly in her hand. The horrible reality of the scene took long seconds to sink in, as her brain wrestled with what she saw and tried to label it a nightmare.
Abi Ocopaqui was unsteadily trying to rise to her feet. At her feet lay a large piece of her lekku, apparently severed by the Yuuzhan Vong warrior leaving heavily against the wall with an amphistaff in his hand. Blood ran in rivulets from the severed lekku, painting the floor red.
The Jedi snapped out of revere and stepped into the chamber, moving to protect Abi’s wounded side. “Abi, what happened?” she asked. “Did they capture you, try to enslave you?” She kept her blade raised. Get Abi out first, she told herself. Kill the Vong later.
It was a Jedi choice, and for an eternal instant she felt like perhaps the galaxy hadn’t turned inside-out in the last few years. Maybe there really was a way for the Jedi to survive the war as Jedi.
Abi tried to answer her, but the words were incoherent. Kelta eyed the severed lekku for a moment. Part of a Twi’lek’s brain is in the lekku, isn’t it? She might not be capable of responding anymore. The thought sickened her. If that were Abi’s fate, would she have rather died here than live brain-damaged?
There was no further time to waste on speculation. Kelta kept her blade up between herself and the Vong warrior as she pulled Abi’s arm across her own shoulders, supporting her.
The Vong surprised her, rasping in Basic. “Jeedai. Are you not here to finish what this one started?”
Kelta ignored the words—they made no sense.
“No? I thought you were another assassin of the infidel warmaster here.”
“Assassin?” Kelta asked.
The Yuuzhan Vong warrior chuckled at her, a sound that raised her hackles. She would’ve dropped Abi to the ground to defend herself with her lightsaber, had the Vong looked capable of doing anything besides leaning against the coral walls of the horrid living building.
“Ah, so you live in ignorance of what war truly is,” the Vong taunted her. “Take your little assassin and run along.”
Kelta retreated, her lightsaber held tightly in her off hand. Dammit, Halyn, she railed silently. Our strike mission was an assassination attempt, wasn’t it? You were trying to get revenge for the kids. Why didn’t you tell me?
Because you wouldn’t have approved, the little voice said to her as she finally lost sight of the Vong around the corridor.
Yep, and neither would Anishor. She felt no shame for the thought, though she understood well why he had done it. If it had been Adreia who died in on the Cathleen, would I have done it? In a heartbeat, she knew. Yes, I would have, dark side be damned.
She stopped, helped the semi-delirious Abi slide down to sit on the floor of the Yuuzhan Vong building. Then, with lightsaber in hand, she charged back to finish the Vong warrior.
The chamber was empty.
The Jedi sighed, shut down the lightsaber and clipped it to her belt, then brought her comlink to her lips. “Cathleen, this is Jedi Rose. Can you hear me?”
As she hoped, Halyn’s voice answered her a moment later. “Go ahead.”
“Abi failed,” Kelta said, working hard to keep any emotion out of her voice. “She’s badly wounded and needs a transport.”
“I’ve already got air cover and a pair of Muurians inbound,” Halyn answered crisply. “Don’t miss the pickup. Wookiees are punctual, so don’t keep them waiting.”
“Roger.” Kelta returned to Abi, found the Twi’lek unconscious but still breathing. The Jedi lifted the operative into a rescue-carry, and headed out of the building at a Force-enhanced run. Hal, this was not your best idea.