Triak Kraal watched the sun touch the horizon on its long, slow death. Around him smoldered the ruins Ifof the infidel city; its cloying odor was unpleasant in his nostrils. He took deep breaths and tried to snort the ugly scent away.
The sun was setting on Domain Kraal, he knew. Twilight was falling around them. The treachery of the infidel ambush had wiped away chances of honorable victory, and now only death remained.
Not just death, he amended. Either we must die as warriors, the children of the gods, or be Shamed into oblivion. There is no other path.
Ret Kraal limped up beside him on the pile of rubble. “Supreme One,” he said with a slow, deep bow.
“We have lost, have we not, tactician?” Triak said low and slow. “Even should I defeat the Jeedai, there is no way for us to achieve victory.”
“The infidels have trapped us,” Ret acknowledged. “But how do we define victory, Supreme One?”
“If you’ll permit me, Commander.” Ret bowed his head deeper. “If you intend for us to conquer this world, as we did infidel strongholds like Ithor, Duro, and Coruscant, it is no longer possible. Our forces are too few. Yet with the help of the gods, we may yet bring about conquest here.”
Triak smiled. “You trifle with me, tactician.”
“No, Supreme One. Without a strong leader, these infidels will fall apart. If we shatter their coordination, we can use our fleet to raze their cities and wipe out their treacherous race.” Ret bowed so low he nearly tumbled over. “Yet all depends upon you.”
“Upon me, tactician?”
“Such victory can only be brought about by the will of the gods,” Ret explained. “Our only chance of victory is for your own triumph over the Jeedai. With such a victory, all of Domain Kraal will know we are children of the gods without Shame; but if you should fall in the battle, the domain itself will cry out from the abandonment of the gods and no victory can be found.”
Triak thought about Ret’s words for long moments. “Then the solution is clear—Domain Kraal shall fight one more battle, either for victory or honor, regardless of the outcome of this duel with the Jeedai. Am I correct, tactician?”
“Then spread the word to all our remaining warriors, and relay instructions to the fleet. Upon conclusion of the duel, either way, strike with all remaining strength. Wipe out these Iridonians. Leave none alive! Let no abomination escape our wrath!” Triak trembled. “Even should we be Shamed, we still remain true to the tenants of the True Faith! Should we be shamed, let us find redemption in the blood of our enemies!”
“As you command,” Ret groveled, then limped away to follow his orders.
Triak pondered the slowly dying sun, possibly the last such sight he would ever see. I will destroy this Jeedai, he told himself. I wish only for the opportunity to avenge myself upon my true enemy, the infidels’ warmaster. I would trade everything for a chance at his head.
As the sun nearly dipped completely below the horizon, Ret Kraal cleared his throat. “Your foe approaches, Supreme One.”
Triak turned away from the last remnant of sunlight in time to see his enemy advancing.
In the dying light, he was shocked to see the identity of his foe was not the Jeedai woman.
It was the infidel warmaster, Halyn Sanshir.
Halyn Lance wished he felt a fraction of the strength and energy he remembered from his previous fights with the Yuuzhan Vong. Instead, he felt exhausted, at the very edge of collapse. Kelta’s healing had taken him from the edge of death, but he knew her efforts hadn’t healed him entirely—his torn muscles, bruised ribs, cracked bones all cursed him for his foolishness. His own movements seemed impossibly slow, like he was walking through syrup.
The zhaboka on his back and the sword at his hip were heavier than he remembered; even his duster seemed to weigh thirty extra kilos. The fast march through the Rak’Edalin ruins had sapped him further of his strength, though his impossible exertions had left his body in surprisingly good physical condition outside of his multiple injuries. He knew, in spite of it all, he would be capable of fighting this duel. I hope.
Neither Halyn nor Anishor had seen Kativie and Ceikeh during their attempts to reach the site of the duel. Halyn had worried that the other pair would reach the location first, but his fears had proven unfounded. Now to convince this Vong to fight me instead of Kativie.
He didn’t have much experience reading the expressions of Vong warriors—they never showed fear, and he had an accurate grasp on surprise from cutting them down in combat, but nearly any other emotion was beyond him. Though I’m going to go with shock, he decided.
“You,” the Yuuzhan Vong warrior hissed. “It’s you. The infidel warmaster.”
“Then you must be Triak Kraal, the Vong commander,” Halyn said, deliberately insulting his opponent with the abbreviated Vong. “Or are you his second, because he was too cowardly to show up?”
The warrior growled at him. “Foolish little Zabrak. I shall snap your neck after I destroy the Jeedai.”
“Such a coward, even now,” Halyn commented. “You Vong and your ‘honor.’ All you want is a big death, and you know a Jedi will give you that. You’re hiding behind that, hoping she’ll kill you, because if you die to me, just a normal heretic, then you’re dishonored, right?” He laughed aloud at the warrior. “Keep hiding from me, Commander, just like you have this entire war. That’s why you’ve been throwing your troops at me, isn’t it? You wouldn’t dare fight me yourself.”
The Vong growled, deep in his throat. “I look forward to gutting you,” he snarled. “I shall feast upon your entrails when you die, insignificant little nothing.”
“This little insignificant nothing spits on your whole domain,” Halyn said succinctly. “Must be irritating not to crush a bug, isn’t it?”
Triak continued to stare him down, but Halyn didn’t budge a centimeter. Keep it up. “Yeah, it’s a pity you’ll never get a chance to kill the Zabrak who proved your whole domain is a bunch of godless cowards, isn’t it? The one who showed the galaxy that your gods are a bunch of fakes, and you don’t have the strength to stand up to a single race on a single world?”
“I shall crush every bone in your body,” the Vong commander snarled.
“Then fight me!” Halyn shouted. “Fight me, and prove you’re not the coward the whole galaxy knows you to be!”
“I accept,” the Vong spat.
Halyn smirked. Got him. This is all mine.
The Zabrak turned his back deliberately and walked back to Anishor while Triak Kraal returned to his second. “Okay,” Halyn said quietly to the big Wookiee. “This is all going according to plan.”
<According to plan?> Anishor asked. <You’ve gotten yourself into a one on one fight against the meanest Yuuzhan Vong on the planet. Honor brother, I don’t know if you can win this battle.>
“Of course I can,” Halyn said confidently. “I’ve beaten other Vong, haven’t I?”
<Yes, you have, when you could feel no pain or exhaustion. Now I see both in your eyes—this war has taken as much out of you as it has any of us, but you did not know it until now. If you were rested a week’s time, you could stand and face him as he is now. But I do not believe you have the strength to face him currently.>
“Well, I don’t think either he or Kativie are going to wait a week now, are they?” Halyn said with a small smile.
<This is not a joking matter, coatrack.>
“No time to joke like the present. Especially since I might be dead later.” Halyn smiled just a bit to his friend.
<Halyn, you can’t beat him.> Anishor was deadly serious. <He’s far more prepared for this fight, and he’s committed to killing you even at the cost of his own life. He’s a born killer—not because he fights to protect, as we do, but solely because he chooses to kill.>
“It’ll be okay. I have a plan.”
<Plan? What plan?>
“You’ll see.” Halyn freed his zhaboka from his back and spun it around in his hand. Its motions seemed slower than they should have been, but he didn’t let his discomfort show. Instead, he jammed the weapon blade-first into the dirt and turned back to face Triak Kraal.
The Yuuzhan Vong commander was now marching toward him, a hissing amphistaff in hand. Around his left bracer was a coiled baton of command, a much shorter but no less deadly living weapon.
This is going to get interesting, Halyn decided. He’s well-equipped and apparently came through the turbolaser raking a lot better than I’d hoped. Damn.
The Yuuzhan Vong commander stopped and glared at his opponent. “You insult the Yuuzhan Vong and Domain Kraal. You rely on treacherous ambushes and fight without the honor of a warrior. For your affronts against the chosen race of the gods, I shall strike you down.”
“You led an invasion of the home of my ancestors,” Halyn said acidly in return. “The very dust of this world is in the bones of all Zabraks everywhere. I fight for the world of my birth and the birthplace of my race. Your gods will never have sway here.”
“Let us waste no more time with words,” Triak growled. “We both have known this moment would come. We each wanted it from the very beginning.”
“This is the way it always had to be,” Halyn acknowledged. “Just you and me, Vong. Iridonia against your gods.”
Halyn dipped his head into a bow—the only sign of respect he had given Triak Kraal the entire time. Triak hesitated before mirroring his gesture, returning a small token of respect—perhaps mocking.
The Zabrak struck.
He lashed out with the zhaboka, putting all his strength and speed behind the blow. The blades flashed in the dim light, arrow-straight for Triak’s head.
It was the same trap Jram Lusp had tried to spring on him in the Council chamber during their duel for the title of Ul’akhoi. Halyn had survived the attack by luck and poor judgement on Jram’s part. While many had declared the attack treacherous and dishonorable, Halyn had always played fast and loose with the rules. To some degree, he considered such concern for “honor” to be archaic and foolish, and had carefully committed the details of the ambush to memory for later use.
A one-on-one duel with a Yuuzhan Vong warrior seemed like a great opportunity to try his hand at it.
Impossibly the Vong was already moving, and the blade did no more than slice through skin across the back of his head. Triak Kraal dove away, shoulder-rolling awkwardly before coming up with his amphistaff in hand.
Well, so much for that plan, Halyn thought glumly as he brought his zhaboka up into a defensive guard. Let’s see what happens now.
Triak seemed determined to give him no time or space to plan. The warrior charged at him, twirling the amphistaff over his head in a flourish before leaping toward the Zabrak, swinging the amphistaff down in an overhead two-handed power blow.
Halyn barely had time to bring his zhaboka up to block. The blow brought white-hot flares of pain to his wrists from the impact, and he nearly dropped his weapon. The Vong continued to press down hard, as though trying to force the zhaboka into Halyn’s skull.
The Zabrak finally twisted out from under the Yuuzhan Vong, pushing the strike away. Triak stumbled for a moment, giving Halyn just enough time to turn and plant his feet before the Vong threw a pair of lightning-fast strikes at him, left-right.
The first slapped harmlessly against his leather duster—he suspected neither Yuuzhan Vong nor amphistaff had expected the strike to land—and he caught the second on the zhaboka. He counterattacked with a spinning kick aimed at Triak’s head, but the Vong withdrew a half-step and let the foot flash past. Halyn was still recovering when the Vong’s foot swept through his ankle, sending him sprawling to the ashes and the zhaboka flying.
Halyn immediately rolled away; an instant later Triak’s amphistaff buried itself head-first into the ash less than two centimeters from his shoulder. The force of the blow buried the living weapon’s head beneath the rubble, and the Zabrak gave him no time to respond. The simple forged sword swept out from under the cloak and flashed with its own internal light, striking the blinded weapon and severing it into two pieces.
Triak snarled as his baton of command slithered into his hand and extended out into a blade, a mirror image of Halyn and his sword. Halyn pulled himself to his feet, doing his best to ignore the flares of pain from both knees as he leveled his sword at Triak.
The two stood facing each other. The sunlight was gone now, but the stars provided dim illumination. More light seemed to emit from Halyn’s blade, casting him in a blue-white glow.
For the hope of Iridonia, Anishor had engraved in the blade over twenty years ago. He couldn’t have known then, Halyn thought. He doesn’t have visions. But it’s still like he knew, somehow.
Vong and Zabrak continued to wait, mirror-posed, each waiting for the other to slip, to make a mistake, to be distracted.
Triak finally tired of the waiting game and charged, sweeping high-low with his blade. Halyn barely dodged the first strike, caught the second on his sword just enough to keep the Vong’s attack from disemboweling him, but not enough to prevent injury. The blade traced a line of bloody fire across his belly.
He hopped back and hissed. I’m not fast enough, he realized. Now that Kelta healed me, I can’t keep up with this pace. There’s only one sane thing left to do.
He swung the sword as hard as he could, over and over, aiming for the Vong’s head, his throat, his chest. Triak seemed to stumble backward at the ferocity of the assault, his living blade frantically swinging to block and parry the blows.
Halyn continued to press hard. He’s not used to fighting with a shorter-bladed weapon. He’s too used to the amphistaff. You can beat him. Push, push, push!
Triak hopped backward and Halyn rushed him one last time. Then his foot caught the hole Triak had leapt over, sending him to his knees.
His sword went tumbling from his grasp; intense pain flared from his twisted ankle, and his palms and wrists cried out in protest as he landed heavily on them. He immediately tried to straighten, but before he could so much as lean back to pull himself to his feet, he felt the Yuuzhan Vong’s weapon lay against his shoulder.
Slowly, he looked up. Triak Kraal stood over him, a smirk of triumph twisting his face into an ugly death mask. “Did you believe you could defeat me?” the Yuuzhan Vong warrior snarled. “A twist of my wrist, and your head will fall to the cursed dirt of this world. First you, then the Jeedai, and finally your world.”
“You’re a fool if you think you’ve won,” Halyn said bluntly. “Your forces are devastated. You don’t have the numbers you’d need to conquer my world.”
“I shall burn every living thing on this world,” Triak snarled. “A burnt offering of life to the gods.”
“Halyn!” a very female voice screamed.
Katie. It has to be Kativie.
It was—the Jedi Knight’s lightsaber was in hand and lit, an emerald beacon in the falling darkness. Ceikeh Alari was dimly visible in the light of her weapon. “Halyn!” she screamed again.
Triak looked at the Jedi and gave her the same death-head smile he had already given his fallen opponent.
It was the opportunity Halyn had looked for the entire fight.
Triak Kraal stared down with uncomprehending eyes as purple fire chewed through his belly. “You…you’re no Jeedai,” he said dumbly.
“Doesn’t take a Jedi to push a button, scarhead,” Halyn snarled, then yanked back violently on the hilt of the lightsaber, forcing the brilliant blade to burn through his chest. The Zabrak stood up as the Yuuzhan Vong fell backward to the ashes.
When the Vong had completely crumpled, Halyn shut down Kelta’s lightsaber and returned it to the hook inside the sleeve of his duster.
<That was Kelta’s token?> Anishor growled from the sudden darkness.
“Yeah. She can be pretty sneaky for a Jedi. Don’t know if she had some Force-hunch or what, but that worked out better than expected.” Halyn allowed himself a small, weary smile. The only thing I want right now is to fall into bed for a month, he thought.
Arms wrapped tightly around him, squeezing him so hard he struggled to breathe. “You’re alive!” Kativie shouted in his ear, half-deafening him and bringing fresh pain to his ribs as she continued to cling to him fiercely. “How? How?”
“Kelta,” Halyn croaked. “She found a way.”
The arms loosened, and he could breathe again. “Welcome back, boss,” Ceikeh Alari drawled slowly. “I never doubted you.”
Halyn snorted. “Yeah, right.”
Then a terrifying, soul-ripping cry filled the air. It went up singly, first, from Triak Kraal’s second; then it was echoed, again and again, in the darkness surrounding them. It was a simple cry that had been heard across every world the Yuuzhan Vong had conquered; untranslated it was unnerving, but knowledge of the meaning made it a nightmare for the defenders of the New Republic.
“Do-ro’ik vong pratte!” And woe to our enemies.
It was the cry of every warrior of the Yuuzhan Vong race, a blood-boiling call to glory, war, and victory.
Now, it was the cry of an entire domain of Shamed warriors—warriors who would rather fight to their deaths then admit defeat, warriors who could not live with disgrace or Shame.
From the darkness, every Yuuzhan Vong left alive on Rak’Edalin echoed the battle cry.
And then attacked.