2.3 – Mikol [sic] The two envoys of the Jedi Grand Council on Coruscant encountered several more security teams as they worked their way up toward the bridge, all of which were dispatched with the same ruthless ease as was the first detachment. The trail of bodies and body parts that littered the Independence’s corridors did not seem enough to deter the Neimoidians from sending wave after wave of hapless soldiers to their early demise, but as unsavory as the slaughter was, the soldiers were using lethal force in an attempt to keep the Jedi from completing their mission; Jedi law could not be more clear about the consequences for any individual attempting to kill a Jedi on assignment. The bridge is near. I would be very surprised if either the captain or the vice-president are still present. Still, we must be prepared to capture either or both alive. Master Qui-Gon’s voice emanated from inside Obi-Wan’s head, neither loud nor quiet, like a splinter of his own mind giving him instructions. Understood, Master. It was an odd trick, forming the words in his mind as though he was speaking them when he wasn’t even moving his mouth, but Obi-Wan had used the exoskin often enough now that he was used to the sensation. Do we have a primary and secondary priority for our objectives, or should both be given equal priority? We do not have enough information to make an educated decision. Both targets have equal priority. We must do all we can to ensure that we do not lose either. Acknowledged. Obi-Wan projected the word into the ad-hoc commlink just as he rounded a corner that brought him into full view of the bridge. At least, he would have had an unrestricted view into the bridge if the heavy blast doors for the room had been open, and had there not been about a dozen soldiers in a combat phalanx behind three massive bipedal figures, each standing just over three meters tall. Obi-Wan used the Force to push against the wall to his left, throwing him back behind the corner just as the vanguard let loose a hellish river of plasma that melted through the end of the armored corridor, framing the ship’s innards in a reddish ring of molten metals. Our guests have deployed Juggernaut-class exoskins, he observed. Qui-Gon, who was calmly pressed against the same wall Obi-Wan had flattened himself against, shook his head. Yes, my young padawan, I know. And though your reflexes and combat skills are immensely impressive, you must still learn caution. If you had simply used the Force to feel out areas ahead, you would not have had to throw yourself out of the way of their shoulder cannons, because they would not have even had the chance to use them. Slightly abashed at his recklessness, Obi-Wan nodded but said nothing. What does your training tell you about combating Juggernauts? Master Qui-Gon’s question was a gentle rumbling in Obi-Wan’s inner ear, the older man obviously trying to soften his rebuke. Our armor cannot withstand a direct hit from a mounted shoulder cannon, and our lightsabers’ crystals would shatter if we attempted to deflect the continuous energy emitted from their onboard suite of weapons. Juggernauts are also typically fitted with mobile force field generators capable of withstanding brief contact with a lightsaber. A warning in obnoxious red text flashed before Obi-Wan’s virtual HUD, informing him that his exoskin’s command software was fending off a sophisticated hack. His targeting array suggested the virtual attack originated from the soldiers around the corner. Obi-Wan tilted his head, acknowledging the warning and silently instructing the suit’s VI to warn him if the attack managed to get through the E5 firewall. Some Juggernauts are also retrofitted as cyber warfare units, the padawan continued. And? How would you suggest we deal with these three? A spiked antipersonnel drone roughly the size of Obi-Wan’s fists flew into view, but Qui-Gon immediately Force-pushed the weapon back down the hall. It exploded almost as soon as it vanished from sight, hurtling slender steel spikes through the air to ping harmlessly against the floor, walls, and ceiling of the corridor. The weapon detonated too far away from the Neimoidian soldiers to be any threat to their armor. Our best chance of success is to Force the Juggernauts to turn against their comrades. And should that tactic prove unsuccessful? I suppose that another option would be to Force one of the regulars to detonate all of his explosives at once, Obi-Wan mused as two more weaponized drones shot into view. Qui-Gon Forced them back just as they exploded. Obi-Wan pushed outward with his mind, creating a bubble around himself and his mentor, forcing the few spikes that flew in their direction to be deflected toward the floor and ceiling. Their timing is improving, Obi-Wan observed. Indeed. We have spent too much time getting to the bridge already, Obi-Wan. We will employ both of your tactics. Take one of the Juggernauts and do as much as you can before I detonate a regular. Obi-Wan nodded, already clearing his mind, probing outward until he found the personalities of the three biologically and cybernetically altered Juggernauts. He pried at each mind delicately, like an artisan unraveling gossamer strands of the most fragile silk, until he found an opening into the mind of the weakest-willed soldier. Once he found his mark, Obi-Wan ruthlessly burrowed deep into the Neimoidian’s psyche, casually cast aside the soldier’s personality like so much rubbish, and took full control of the heavily muscled and armored body. His victim was the unit that had been fitted for cyberwarfare, so it lacked the heavy shoulder cannons perching on the shoulders of its companions like the stunted snouts of plasma-breathing dragons. It was not in the nature of a Juggernaut-class unit to be anything other than dangerous, though; with a thought, Obi-Wan called up the exoskin’s armament inventory: a DS-89I assault rifle with a heavy shotgun undercarriage; a ZT713 minigun capable of firing nearly 10,000 rounds per minute; three pistols of various make and power; a dozen assorted antipersonnel drones; and two wickedly sharp bladed weapons forged from a diamond-graphene mixture and grafted to each forearm with electrotissue, allowing the Juggernaut to control the movement of each blade independently of the other and of his arms. Another silent command activated every one of the Juggernaut’s drones in their individual slings; though the soldiers nearest Obi-Wan’s possession would certainly hear the explosive devices coming online, he did not wish to alert the entire squad to the danger by releasing the drones from their compartments. As the soldier standing nearest to Obi-Wan’s Juggernaut began to turn in alarm, the padawan brought up the Juggernaut’s left arm, extending the blade as he did, cleaving the soldier in two from waist to shoulder. Obi-Wan was surprised to find that the soldier’s combat armor provided only slightly more resistance to the edged-weapon than it would have to the plasma of a light saber. He had little time to reflect on his finding, however, as the attack caused the entire corridor to erupt in chaos as the remaining Juggernauts and soldiers turned on one another. Obi-Wan managed to drive the left blade into the chest of another soldier before one of the Juggernauts hacked off his possession’s arm. Using the remaining limb, Obi-Wan brought up the DS-89I and fired the shotgun into the offending Juggernaut’s face at point-blank range. The unit’s armor was strong enough to prevent the blast from delivering a killing blow, but the Juggernaut collapsed to its knees incapacitated, the charred remains of its facial armor exposing ruined flesh below. The padawan didn’t bother to finish the job, instead turning to wreak havoc amongst the other Neimoidians. Kinetic impacts and ion discharges slammed into Obi-Wan’s Juggernaut, causing the unit’s force field to flare brilliant reds and oranges as it approached its energy load capacity. The close range of the weapons’ fire actually forced the Juggernaut to stumble back a step before Obi-Wan sent another iron-willed command to leap into the fray. The Juggernaut did exactly that, its aggressive jump forward lifting the entire metric ton of armor and weaponry off the floor to crash into the two Neimoidians nearest the behemoth. Their exoskins maintained their shapes for a brief moment before the unforgiving weight of the Juggernaut crushed both soldiers with a sickening squelch. All explosives primed. Synchronized detonation in five seconds. With Qui-Gon’s warning in mind, Obi-Wan didn’t bother to order the Juggernaut up. Instead, he quickly primed all of his unit’s explosives while blasting away at the squadron’s legs with the DS-89I. Screams of terror and pain echoed down the corridor, mingling with the thunderclaps of the shotgun and the staccato beats of automatic weapons fire to create a hellish symphony worthy of any nightmare. A bright flash of light whitewashed the corridor, followed less than a second later by a tremendous sonic boom and an oppressive wave of heat that blasted around the corner to wash over the exoskins of the two Jedi. Obi-Wan’s connection with the Juggernaut’s mind had been terminated with the initial flash, allowing him to return his full attention to his armor’s HUD. Temperature readings spiked into the red for an instant, and then slowly dropped back down as the violent energy from the explosion dissipated. The corridor was suddenly cast into complete silence, an eerie contrast to the hellish cacophony from moments before. That worked rather— Obi-Wan’s blithe comment was cut short by a cataclysmic explosion that rocked the entire structure of the Independence, knocking both Jedi flat. A third explosion ripped through the ship, this time accompanied by a terrible rending sound. Obi-Wan brought his arms up to shield his head as the corridor around him twisted and crumpled in a horrendous mimicry of a Hibrean fuseworm. A fourth explosion sheared the Independence’s bridge off the rest of the ship, and Obi-Wan’s world was suddenly filled with pain and confusion as the ship’s pressurized air was violently ripped away into the cold vacuum of space, dragging the padawan with it. He slammed into the remaining walls of the corridor as he was buffeted by the storm of escaping air, and a large slab of loose jagged metal grazed him as it shot past into open space. The mighty concussions, the roaring sound of the vented air, and the HUD’s frantic attempts to alert Obi-Wan to his dire situation all combined to overwhelm the padawan’s senses, leaving him panicked and disoriented as he tumbled away from the Independence in the zero gravity of space. He thought he was going to be sick inside his exoskin. Obi-wan! Use the Force to pull yourself back to the ship! Obi-Wan! Qui-Gon’s normally calming voice only served to stir Obi-Wan’s panic to new heights. Blood pounded loudly in his ears, his stomach lurched with the perpetual falling sensation associated with sudden weightlessness; icy fear gripped the padawan’s mind. He clawed frantically at passing objects in the debris storm, trying desperately to anchor himself to anything larger than himself. He tried to reach out to the Force, but his focus was splintered, terror making his connection to the universe around him as tenuous and frail as a breath of air in a tropical squall. Something very large and solid struck a glancing blow to Obi-Wan’s tumbling body, and everything he felt was replaced with cold and darkness. The padawan’s limp body somersaulted slowly through the black nothingness of space, speeding away from the death throes of the Neimoidian fleet’s newest dreadnought.

2.3 – Mikol [sic]

The two envoys of the Jedi Grand Council on Coruscant encountered several more security teams as they worked their way up toward the bridge, all of which were dispatched with the same ruthless ease as was the first detachment. The trail of bodies and body parts that littered the Independence’s corridors did not seem enough to deter the Neimoidians from sending wave after wave of hapless soldiers to their early demise, but as unsavory as the slaughter was, the soldiers were using lethal force in an attempt to keep the Jedi from completing their mission; Jedi law could not be more clear about the consequences for any individual attempting to kill a Jedi on assignment.

The bridge is near. I would be very surprised if either the captain or the vice-president are still present. Still, we must be prepared to capture either or both alive. Master Qui-Gon’s voice emanated from inside Obi-Wan’s head, neither loud nor quiet, like a splinter of his own mind giving him instructions.

Understood, Master. It was an odd trick, forming the words in his mind as though he was speaking them when he wasn’t even moving his mouth, but Obi-Wan had used the exoskin often enough now that he was used to the sensation. Do we have a primary and secondary priority for our objectives, or should both be given equal priority?

We do not have enough information to make an educated decision. Both targets have equal priority. We must do all we can to ensure that we do not lose either.

Acknowledged. Obi-Wan projected the word into the ad-hoc commlink just as he rounded a corner that brought him into full view of the bridge. At least, he would have had an unrestricted view into the bridge if the heavy blast doors for the room had been open, and had there not been about a dozen soldiers in a combat phalanx behind three massive bipedal figures, each standing just over three meters tall.

Obi-Wan used the Force to push against the wall to his left, throwing him back behind the corner just as the vanguard let loose a hellish river of plasma that melted through the end of the armored corridor, framing the ship’s innards in a reddish ring of molten metals.

Our guests have deployed Juggernaut-class exoskins, he observed.

Qui-Gon, who was calmly pressed against the same wall Obi-Wan had flattened himself against, shook his head. Yes, my young padawan, I know. And though your reflexes and combat skills are immensely impressive, you must still learn caution. If you had simply used the Force to feel out areas ahead, you would not have had to throw yourself out of the way of their shoulder cannons, because they would not have even had the chance to use them.

Slightly abashed at his recklessness, Obi-Wan nodded but said nothing.

What does your training tell you about combating Juggernauts? Master Qui-Gon’s question was a gentle rumbling in Obi-Wan’s inner ear, the older man obviously trying to soften his rebuke.

Our armor cannot withstand a direct hit from a mounted shoulder cannon, and our lightsabers’ crystals would shatter if we attempted to deflect the continuous energy emitted from their onboard suite of weapons. Juggernauts are also typically fitted with mobile force field generators capable of withstanding brief contact with a lightsaber. A warning in obnoxious red text flashed before Obi-Wan’s virtual HUD, informing him that his exoskin’s command software was fending off a sophisticated hack. His targeting array suggested the virtual attack originated from the soldiers around the corner. Obi-Wan tilted his head, acknowledging the warning and silently instructing the suit’s VI to warn him if the attack managed to get through the E5 firewall. Some Juggernauts are also retrofitted as cyber warfare units, the padawan continued.

And? How would you suggest we deal with these three?

A spiked antipersonnel drone roughly the size of Obi-Wan’s fists flew into view, but Qui-Gon immediately Force-pushed the weapon back down the hall. It exploded almost as soon as it vanished from sight, hurtling slender steel spikes through the air to ping harmlessly against the floor, walls, and ceiling of the corridor. The weapon detonated too far away from the Neimoidian soldiers to be any threat to their armor.

Our best chance of success is to Force the Juggernauts to turn against their comrades.

And should that tactic prove unsuccessful?

I suppose that another option would be to Force one of the regulars to detonate all of his explosives at once, Obi-Wan mused as two more weaponized drones shot into view. Qui-Gon Forced them back just as they exploded. Obi-Wan pushed outward with his mind, creating a bubble around himself and his mentor, forcing the few spikes that flew in their direction to be deflected toward the floor and ceiling.

Their timing is improving, Obi-Wan observed.

Indeed. We have spent too much time getting to the bridge already, Obi-Wan. We will employ both of your tactics. Take one of the Juggernauts and do as much as you can before I detonate a regular.

Obi-Wan nodded, already clearing his mind, probing outward until he found the personalities of the three biologically and cybernetically altered Juggernauts. He pried at each mind delicately, like an artisan unraveling gossamer strands of the most fragile silk, until he found an opening into the mind of the weakest-willed soldier. Once he found his mark, Obi-Wan ruthlessly burrowed deep into the Neimoidian’s psyche, casually cast aside the soldier’s personality like so much rubbish, and took full control of the heavily muscled and armored body.

His victim was the unit that had been fitted for cyberwarfare, so it lacked the heavy shoulder cannons perching on the shoulders of its companions like the stunted snouts of plasma-breathing dragons. It was not in the nature of a Juggernaut-class unit to be anything other than dangerous, though; with a thought, Obi-Wan called up the exoskin’s armament inventory: a DS-89I assault rifle with a heavy shotgun undercarriage; a ZT713 minigun capable of firing nearly 10,000 rounds per minute; three pistols of various make and power; a dozen assorted antipersonnel drones; and two wickedly sharp bladed weapons forged from a diamond-graphene mixture and grafted to each forearm with electrotissue, allowing the Juggernaut to control the movement of each blade independently of the other and of his arms.

Another silent command activated every one of the Juggernaut’s drones in their individual slings; though the soldiers nearest Obi-Wan’s possession would certainly hear the explosive devices coming online, he did not wish to alert the entire squad to the danger by releasing the drones from their compartments. As the soldier standing nearest to Obi-Wan’s Juggernaut began to turn in alarm, the padawan brought up the Juggernaut’s left arm, extending the blade as he did, cleaving the soldier in two from waist to shoulder. Obi-Wan was surprised to find that the soldier’s combat armor provided only slightly more resistance to the edged-weapon than it would have to the plasma of a light saber. He had little time to reflect on his finding, however, as the attack caused the entire corridor to erupt in chaos as the remaining Juggernauts and soldiers turned on one another.

Obi-Wan managed to drive the left blade into the chest of another soldier before one of the Juggernauts hacked off his possession’s arm. Using the remaining limb, Obi-Wan brought up the DS-89I and fired the shotgun into the offending Juggernaut’s face at point-blank range. The unit’s armor was strong enough to prevent the blast from delivering a killing blow, but the Juggernaut collapsed to its knees incapacitated, the charred remains of its facial armor exposing ruined flesh below. The padawan didn’t bother to finish the job, instead turning to wreak havoc amongst the other Neimoidians.

Kinetic impacts and ion discharges slammed into Obi-Wan’s Juggernaut, causing the unit’s force field to flare brilliant reds and oranges as it approached its energy load capacity. The close range of the weapons’ fire actually forced the Juggernaut to stumble back a step before Obi-Wan sent another iron-willed command to leap into the fray. The Juggernaut did exactly that, its aggressive jump forward lifting the entire metric ton of armor and weaponry off the floor to crash into the two Neimoidians nearest the behemoth. Their exoskins maintained their shapes for a brief moment before the unforgiving weight of the Juggernaut crushed both soldiers with a sickening squelch.

All explosives primed. Synchronized detonation in five seconds.

With Qui-Gon’s warning in mind, Obi-Wan didn’t bother to order the Juggernaut up. Instead, he quickly primed all of his unit’s explosives while blasting away at the squadron’s legs with the DS-89I. Screams of terror and pain echoed down the corridor, mingling with the thunderclaps of the shotgun and the staccato beats of automatic weapons fire to create a hellish symphony worthy of any nightmare.

A bright flash of light whitewashed the corridor, followed less than a second later by a tremendous sonic boom and an oppressive wave of heat that blasted around the corner to wash over the exoskins of the two Jedi. Obi-Wan’s connection with the Juggernaut’s mind had been terminated with the initial flash, allowing him to return his full attention to his armor’s HUD. Temperature readings spiked into the red for an instant, and then slowly dropped back down as the violent energy from the explosion dissipated. The corridor was suddenly cast into complete silence, an eerie contrast to the hellish cacophony from moments before.

That worked rather—

Obi-Wan’s blithe comment was cut short by a cataclysmic explosion that rocked the entire structure of the Independence, knocking both Jedi flat. A third explosion ripped through the ship, this time accompanied by a terrible rending sound. Obi-Wan brought his arms up to shield his head as the corridor around him twisted and crumpled in a horrendous mimicry of a Hibrean fuseworm. A fourth explosion sheared the Independence’s bridge off the rest of the ship, and Obi-Wan’s world was suddenly filled with pain and confusion as the ship’s pressurized air was violently ripped away into the cold vacuum of space, dragging the padawan with it. He slammed into the remaining walls of the corridor as he was buffeted by the storm of escaping air, and a large slab of loose jagged metal grazed him as it shot past into open space. The mighty concussions, the roaring sound of the vented air, and the HUD’s frantic attempts to alert Obi-Wan to his dire situation all combined to overwhelm the padawan’s senses, leaving him panicked and disoriented as he tumbled away from the Independence in the zero gravity of space. He thought he was going to be sick inside his exoskin.

Obi-wan! Use the Force to pull yourself back to the ship! Obi-Wan!

Qui-Gon’s normally calming voice only served to stir Obi-Wan’s panic to new heights. Blood pounded loudly in his ears, his stomach lurched with the perpetual falling sensation associated with sudden weightlessness; icy fear gripped the padawan’s mind. He clawed frantically at passing objects in the debris storm, trying desperately to anchor himself to anything larger than himself. He tried to reach out to the Force, but his focus was splintered, terror making his connection to the universe around him as tenuous and frail as a breath of air in a tropical squall.

Something very large and solid struck a glancing blow to Obi-Wan’s tumbling body, and everything he felt was replaced with cold and darkness.

The padawan’s limp body somersaulted slowly through the black nothingness of space, speeding away from the death throes of the Neimoidian fleet’s newest dreadnought.

1.9 – Joseph With a sigh, reality returned once again. Garth Denzi always had the unfortunate ability to push away Laos’s daydreams and bring his mind back to this miserable reality. The advisor surmised that Garth didn’t even know he did, it was just a personality trait. It was who he was. He also surmised, quite forlornly, that it was this very trait that made his own existence so dull. Bureaucracy wasn’t of any help, of course. Boring paperwork and mind-numbing checks and rechecks really made reality a drag. And deadlines just made Laos absolutely miserable. It got to the point where he constantly fantasized he was elsewhere, doing anything else. Reading a good book, gardening, slaying dragons, meeting God. Anything else. “I simply had to have been Hayle…” Laos muttered. But Garth saw to it that Laos suffered this evening. Or was it morning? Time had no place in Laos’s nights. A whole night of bending over a desk reading, re-reading, editing, and approving bills that ensured A-Kha-Tsobi’i ran smoothly on a day to day schedule. Boring really, but it required focus, so no daydreaming for him. In fact, just no dreaming at all. He couldn’t help it, so another sigh escaped his lips. Being Garth Denzi’s personal assistant had a steep cost, one that Laos wasn’t eager to pay. Constant work for the most part, and the Reagent didn’t make it easy work. The assistant just finished proofreading some documents for Garth to sign off on that would allow the Judicial Palace to have jurisdiction over all tax and land disputes. Just another system that would allow the Scale Monks to line their coffers with more gold. But it wasn’t all bad; Laos accompanied Garth almost everywhere, and he even has a room within the Crown Palace of his own. Power and wealth weren’t what Laos wanted, however. So the payoff was nowhere near the price. Why was he torturing himself, he wondered. But torture himself he did, and what a setting to do it. Even with the machines from old times past, the Judicial palace was dark and cold at this hour. Few were still up and about, the only real indication to Laos that he too should be in bed. The once hot cup of coffee sat untouched next to the papers on his desk as the two flames from the lit candles danced next to Laos. His attention drifted from paper to paper, to coffee, to fire, and once again back to Hayle. His luck was just too sour for him not to have been Hayle, or he must have been someone of equally evil proportions at least. With a third sigh, Laos stood up from his uncomfortable wooden chair and left the dim, lonely room. His silent feet carried him down the empty halls, with what little light found their way into the halls reflecting off the polished floors. They were spacious and magnificently designed: far too grand for his taste. Where others saw marble, ivory, art and beauty, he simply saw wasteful extravagance. He saw murals of stars, moons, even other planets and was reminded of the original people who build the city. And he laughed, thinking how ironic it was for a people so obsessed with the sky to portray their art at their feet. Could they look both up and down at the same time, he mused. Without realizing it, Laos found himself within the garden outside the palace, off to the side away from the main entrance. The garden was originally designed to be for everyone, but the Scale monks and other powerful officials declared the garden their own, thus forbidding public access. But he was allowed everywhere within the city, so here he was. He stared at the giant tree at the heart of the garden. The vibrant green of the leaves and neighboring plants were still visible even in the dim-lit night. “Beautiful, huh?” Laos jumped when he heard the voice. “You startled me, Max!” He turned around to face the Scale Monk that arrived. Max’s wisened, beard face smiled upon him, clearly unconcerned with the frustration Laos had exhibited. The night breeze lofted Max’s lavish perfumes to Laos’s nose, causing him to wrinkle his nose and pull away. Even if Max was his favorite Scale Monk, he was still a Scale Monk: a paranoid, greedy old man. “I was hoping I’d find you tonight. I have some important business I’d like to discuss,” Max said as he made his way to a stone bench to sit and stare at the tree Laos was previously staring at. Laos sighed, and muttered to himself, “I had to have been Hayle…” The old man chuckled and asked, “Why do you always say that? What does it even mean?” “Not much of a history buff, are you?” Laos made his way to the bench and sat next to the Monk. “In years past, before the Rending, there was a kingdom ruled by a man called Evin Hayle. A mad dictator, Hayle ensure that even the quietest opposition to his bloody and cruel regime ended with frightening speed and deadly efficiency. But that wasn’t the extent of his hunger for death. He believed himself a god, and he punished those who didn’t believe as he believed. On his whim, billions were slaughtered. This carried on for years, until the neighboring kingdoms were overflooded with refugees so they decided to do something about it. A great war was waged and even more billions were killed. In the end Hayle killed himself, and his kingdom was torn down, brick by brick. Perhaps a superstitious precaution to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again.” “I didn’t take you for a servant of myth and superstition. To believe in reincarnation?!” Laos sighed. He was too tired for such prose.  “I simply believe in a fair world.” “You and I both know there is no such thing,” the Monk said disapprovingly. “Perhaps. If we are all old souls — reincarnated, I mean — then what happens in our lives may just be fair.” “Payment?” “For past transgressions.” “But what Hayle did was far more deserving of crueler punishment. Surely nothing in your life could be bad enough to warrant that claim.” “It’s not the quality of the event, but the frequency. A lifetime of bad things can only end badly.” “So it must have started badly? Stop feeling so sorry for yourself,” he pleaded. Max actually sounded concerned. “I’ve heard that before. Maybe you’re right. Maybe not.” This time it was Max who sighed. “Alright, Hayle, whatever you say,” he stood up and turned his back on the other man and the garden. “I almost forgot,” he added over his shoulder, “What does Garth plan to do about Ptolemy? Sol can’t return to the city; she’d ruin everything we’ve built.” “You mean your wealth,” Laos said with disgust as he stood up. Max turned around and faced the assistant. “I have no personal dislike for you, Max, but you Scale Monks sold your souls to get fat and prosperous. And now you quiver in fear like children, so afraid of the consequences you brought on yourselfs.” “Don’t lecture me, Laos! You gained just as much as us and you have just as much to lose!” the Monk snapped. The cold look in Laos eyes caused Max to look away from him. “I’m nothing like you greedy old men. Honestly, I can’t wait for Sol or the Burning Man’s return. God knows Garth has this entire city inside out, it won’t be long till it eats itself up. No matter how much you may dislike her policies, Sol can save everyone.” “I don’t know whose side you’re on, Laos. You were nothing until Garth, perhaps you should learn some loyalty!” “You’re one to lecture!” Max opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Nothing came out but what sounded like a mixture of a huff and a sigh. He took one last look at Laos, then stormed away from the Gardens. “I hate the small minded,” Laos whispered to himself. With a quick scream of pain, Laos placed his hand on the side of his head and muttered, “Ah, my head! I must have been Hayle. It’s the only way this pain is fair.” But what was Garth going to do about this problem? Ptolemy wasn’t suppose to fail; Sol must have been the one to do it, but why hadn’t there been any news? That must have been Donovan’s doing. Shit, what am I going to do? Garth is definitely going to put this on my head. I hate that man…why do I work for him? Oh yeah… He had too much work to linger in the garden any longer, so he left the garden and began his way back to the office. Stepping back inside was like a blow to his lungs; the air tasted like wood saw, and it was lighter than outside since there wasn’t much water vapour in the atmosphere in here. He took another breath and this time it didn’t hurt as much, but a strange thing did happen: Laos found himself hungry when he had no appetite five minutes ago. Just another thing to do, he thought. “What did I do to deserve this? I must have been Hayle.” With a sigh, Laos made his way to the kitchens. As the advisor made his way across the entrance halls and towards the kitchens, he stopped. Something was…wrong. He could feel it in the air; in his lungs. He tasted copper. Blood. Then he heard something heavy hit the ground. It sounded like armor, but it didn’t sound like a body…but segments. There was death in the air, of that he was sure. Forgetting his stomach and all the work ahead of him, he turned to investigate the front gates where the sound had come from: where death was waiting. He didn’t even make it to the gates of the Palace when he saw them: two men, hiding in the shadows of his periphery. Too late! The shadow dancers recognized that he saw them and they made their move. As the taller one disassembled and disemboweled Laos with his blade, he recognized his killer as Tekal, which meant the smaller one was his brother, Mir. I should have known. The advisor fell to pieces for the last time as the two shadow dancers disappeared into darkness once more. They simply vanished, as if they weren’t there in the first place. Laos’s dead body remained in a blood heap, just waiting to be discovered. With his head separated from the rest of his body, Laos’s vacant eyes stared up at the glass ceiling; up at the stars that the people of old admired so much. “Damn. I must have been Hayle.”

1.9 – Joseph

With a sigh, reality returned once again. Garth Denzi always had the unfortunate ability to push away Laos’s daydreams and bring his mind back to this miserable reality. The advisor surmised that Garth didn’t even know he did, it was just a personality trait. It was who he was. He also surmised, quite forlornly, that it was this very trait that made his own existence so dull. Bureaucracy wasn’t of any help, of course. Boring paperwork and mind-numbing checks and rechecks really made reality a drag. And deadlines just made Laos absolutely miserable. It got to the point where he constantly fantasized he was elsewhere, doing anything else. Reading a good book, gardening, slaying dragons, meeting God. Anything else.

“I simply had to have been Hayle…” Laos muttered.

But Garth saw to it that Laos suffered this evening. Or was it morning? Time had no place in Laos’s nights. A whole night of bending over a desk reading, re-reading, editing, and approving bills that ensured A-Kha-Tsobi’i ran smoothly on a day to day schedule. Boring really, but it required focus, so no daydreaming for him. In fact, just no dreaming at all. He couldn’t help it, so another sigh escaped his lips.

Being Garth Denzi’s personal assistant had a steep cost, one that Laos wasn’t eager to pay. Constant work for the most part, and the Reagent didn’t make it easy work. The assistant just finished proofreading some documents for Garth to sign off on that would allow the Judicial Palace to have jurisdiction over all tax and land disputes. Just another system that would allow the Scale Monks to line their coffers with more gold. But it wasn’t all bad; Laos accompanied Garth almost everywhere, and he even has a room within the Crown Palace of his own. Power and wealth weren’t what Laos wanted, however. So the payoff was nowhere near the price. Why was he torturing himself, he wondered.

But torture himself he did, and what a setting to do it. Even with the machines from old times past, the Judicial palace was dark and cold at this hour. Few were still up and about, the only real indication to Laos that he too should be in bed. The once hot cup of coffee sat untouched next to the papers on his desk as the two flames from the lit candles danced next to Laos. His attention drifted from paper to paper, to coffee, to fire, and once again back to Hayle. His luck was just too sour for him not to have been Hayle, or he must have been someone of equally evil proportions at least.

With a third sigh, Laos stood up from his uncomfortable wooden chair and left the dim, lonely room. His silent feet carried him down the empty halls, with what little light found their way into the halls reflecting off the polished floors. They were spacious and magnificently designed: far too grand for his taste. Where others saw marble, ivory, art and beauty, he simply saw wasteful extravagance. He saw murals of stars, moons, even other planets and was reminded of the original people who build the city. And he laughed, thinking how ironic it was for a people so obsessed with the sky to portray their art at their feet. Could they look both up and down at the same time, he mused.

Without realizing it, Laos found himself within the garden outside the palace, off to the side away from the main entrance. The garden was originally designed to be for everyone, but the Scale monks and other powerful officials declared the garden their own, thus forbidding public access. But he was allowed everywhere within the city, so here he was. He stared at the giant tree at the heart of the garden. The vibrant green of the leaves and neighboring plants were still visible even in the dim-lit night.

“Beautiful, huh?”

Laos jumped when he heard the voice. “You startled me, Max!” He turned around to face the Scale Monk that arrived. Max’s wisened, beard face smiled upon him, clearly unconcerned with the frustration Laos had exhibited. The night breeze lofted Max’s lavish perfumes to Laos’s nose, causing him to wrinkle his nose and pull away. Even if Max was his favorite Scale Monk, he was still a Scale Monk: a paranoid, greedy old man.

“I was hoping I’d find you tonight. I have some important business I’d like to discuss,” Max said as he made his way to a stone bench to sit and stare at the tree Laos was previously staring at.

Laos sighed, and muttered to himself, “I had to have been Hayle…”

The old man chuckled and asked, “Why do you always say that? What does it even mean?”

“Not much of a history buff, are you?” Laos made his way to the bench and sat next to the Monk. “In years past, before the Rending, there was a kingdom ruled by a man called Evin Hayle. A mad dictator, Hayle ensure that even the quietest opposition to his bloody and cruel regime ended with frightening speed and deadly efficiency. But that wasn’t the extent of his hunger for death. He believed himself a god, and he punished those who didn’t believe as he believed. On his whim, billions were slaughtered. This carried on for years, until the neighboring kingdoms were overflooded with refugees so they decided to do something about it. A great war was waged and even more billions were killed. In the end Hayle killed himself, and his kingdom was torn down, brick by brick. Perhaps a superstitious precaution to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again.”

“I didn’t take you for a servant of myth and superstition. To believe in reincarnation?!”

Laos sighed. He was too tired for such prose.  “I simply believe in a fair world.”

“You and I both know there is no such thing,” the Monk said disapprovingly.

“Perhaps. If we are all old souls — reincarnated, I mean — then what happens in our lives may just be fair.”

“Payment?”

“For past transgressions.”

“But what Hayle did was far more deserving of crueler punishment. Surely nothing in your life could be bad enough to warrant that claim.”

“It’s not the quality of the event, but the frequency. A lifetime of bad things can only end badly.”

“So it must have started badly? Stop feeling so sorry for yourself,” he pleaded. Max actually sounded concerned.

“I’ve heard that before. Maybe you’re right. Maybe not.”

This time it was Max who sighed. “Alright, Hayle, whatever you say,” he stood up and turned his back on the other man and the garden. “I almost forgot,” he added over his shoulder, “What does Garth plan to do about Ptolemy? Sol can’t return to the city; she’d ruin everything we’ve built.”

“You mean your wealth,” Laos said with disgust as he stood up. Max turned around and faced the assistant. “I have no personal dislike for you, Max, but you Scale Monks sold your souls to get fat and prosperous. And now you quiver in fear like children, so afraid of the consequences you brought on yourselfs.”

“Don’t lecture me, Laos! You gained just as much as us and you have just as much to lose!” the Monk snapped.

The cold look in Laos eyes caused Max to look away from him. “I’m nothing like you greedy old men. Honestly, I can’t wait for Sol or the Burning Man’s return. God knows Garth has this entire city inside out, it won’t be long till it eats itself up. No matter how much you may dislike her policies, Sol can save everyone.”

“I don’t know whose side you’re on, Laos. You were nothing until Garth, perhaps you should learn some loyalty!”

“You’re one to lecture!”

Max opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Nothing came out but what sounded like a mixture of a huff and a sigh. He took one last look at Laos, then stormed away from the Gardens.

“I hate the small minded,” Laos whispered to himself. With a quick scream of pain, Laos placed his hand on the side of his head and muttered, “Ah, my head! I must have been Hayle. It’s the only way this pain is fair.”

But what was Garth going to do about this problem? Ptolemy wasn’t suppose to fail; Sol must have been the one to do it, but why hadn’t there been any news? That must have been Donovan’s doing. Shit, what am I going to do? Garth is definitely going to put this on my head. I hate that man…why do I work for him? Oh yeah…

He had too much work to linger in the garden any longer, so he left the garden and began his way back to the office. Stepping back inside was like a blow to his lungs; the air tasted like wood saw, and it was lighter than outside since there wasn’t much water vapour in the atmosphere in here. He took another breath and this time it didn’t hurt as much, but a strange thing did happen: Laos found himself hungry when he had no appetite five minutes ago.

Just another thing to do, he thought. “What did I do to deserve this? I must have been Hayle.” With a sigh, Laos made his way to the kitchens.

As the advisor made his way across the entrance halls and towards the kitchens, he stopped. Something was…wrong. He could feel it in the air; in his lungs. He tasted copper. Blood. Then he heard something heavy hit the ground. It sounded like armor, but it didn’t sound like a body…but segments. There was death in the air, of that he was sure. Forgetting his stomach and all the work ahead of him, he turned to investigate the front gates where the sound had come from: where death was waiting.

He didn’t even make it to the gates of the Palace when he saw them: two men, hiding in the shadows of his periphery. Too late! The shadow dancers recognized that he saw them and they made their move. As the taller one disassembled and disemboweled Laos with his blade, he recognized his killer as Tekal, which meant the smaller one was his brother, Mir. I should have known.

The advisor fell to pieces for the last time as the two shadow dancers disappeared into darkness once more. They simply vanished, as if they weren’t there in the first place. Laos’s dead body remained in a blood heap, just waiting to be discovered. With his head separated from the rest of his body, Laos’s vacant eyes stared up at the glass ceiling; up at the stars that the people of old admired so much.

“Damn. I must have been Hayle.”

A rough map of A-Tsobi’i.
1
1.8 – Mikol [sic] “For the love of a woman who will not return your affection.” “We do this for our queen, Mir.” “Oh, that’s rich! I can’t decide which is more ridiculous: for the love of a woman who will not return your affection, or for the love of a queen who is no longer our queen.” “I did not ask you to join me, brother!” Quiet returned to the sewage tunnels beneath A-Tsobi’i. Only the soft sounds of gurgling fluids flowing through sluice gates and bedrock to seek out the main river deep below stirred the air through the tunnels. The two men who had been whispering to each other huddled together at the farthest end of the deepest tunnel facing westward. They watched the cold, black water of the river Essai disappear beneath the rock in a swift current. “I follow my betters,” said the smaller man with his usual flippant tone. “And what is that supposed to mean?” The larger man shifted his weight from one foot to the other, turning slightly to face his companion. “You know what I mean, Tekal. We’re shadow dancers, you and I. Our kind are reviled and feared, and for good reason. We aren’t supposed to have consciences, morals, or compassion. We’re not even supposed to have loyalty—to anyone. You alone, of all our brood, held on to what you were before the Tombs of Ysen. I just…managed to stay close enough to you that some of your humanity rubs off on me.” Silence again. The large man shifted to his original position, thinking to himself while the black water rushed past them. “That’s not true, Mir,” Tekal said in a subdued voice. “You’re a good man, with a beautiful wife who loves you very much.” He paused, and then nodded his head. “You should return to her, Mir. We are friends as well as brothers, and I cannot put your life in danger just when you finally found a woman to love.” “Ferah loves me for who and what I am, Tek. She knows that without you, without Sol and the Burning Man, I am a monster. She accepts that, without my betters, I would kill for money. I would kill for the asking. Anyone or anything. That is what we were made to do, Tek. And do you know why, even knowing what I am, what I would be driven to do, Ferah still loves me?” When it became apparent that Mirak was not going to continue until he got a response, Tek shook his head in resignation. “Tell me, brother,” he said quietly. “She loves me because I know what I am. She loves me because I would rather follow you to the gates of Hell rather than submit to the madness the Red Priests created within me. I cannot cut a righteous path on my own, brother, so instead I must trust you to set the path for me. If I turned back now, I would not be the man my wife loves. Tell me then what my life would be worth, when I had abandoned my brother and forsaken the love of my wife.” Without turning, Tekal clapped a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. “I am grateful to have you with me, Mir.” The small man grunted. “Shall we get this over with? I hadn’t planned on drowning in an underground river filled with the refuse of our grand city, but if we must, I’d rather it be sooner than later. The smell is beginning to irritate me, and it’s not something I can cut down. Remind me: why are we doing this, rather than using the Sun Gate?” “If we were to breach the Sun Gate, we would be forced to fight our way through to A-Kha-Tsobi’i. The boys who guard the gates and the bridge are not our enemies, and they do not deserve to die simply for doing their duty.” Mir chuckled. “You see why I must follow you, Tek?” It was Tekal’s turn to grunt. “Well, shall we?” “Life is our mother,” Tekal recited. “Death is our father,” Mirak returned, and with an effortless dive he cut through the icy black water and was swallowed by the earth. The frigid temperature of the Essai threatened to steal his breath away; in truth, had it not been for the tight one-piece body suit that he was wearing, Mir’s lungs and muscles would have failed him. However, the suit was designed specifically for excursions in cold climes, wet or dry, and it dramatically slowed the decay of Mir’s body warmth. The icy water had uninhibited access to his head and face, though, and the shadow dancer could only imagine that he must feel the way a condemned man feels in his few remaining moments of consciousness after a beheading. Even submerged in total darkness, buffeted by the river’s current and the narrow passages of the underground waterways, Mir had the presence of mind to curse the Red Priests yet again for neglecting to develop a mask made of the same material as the rest of his thermal suit. Many thoughts crossed the dancer’s mind as he fought river, stone, dark, and cold. In that space that felt like eternity, as he swam ever downward and westward, most of his thoughts were disjointed, his mind wandering from topic to topic, memory to memory. The one theme that united his musings in the darkness was Ferah, his wife. Mir and Tekal had met the proud slave woman in one of the free markets that often sprang up outside the great city of A-Tsobi’i, on the desert floor along the shores of the Essai. Slave trading had been forbidden in A-Tsobi’i since before the Rending, but slave owning had been permitted and was common amongst the five Commonwealth families. This absurd tradition had necessitated the creation of the “free” markets that had been sprouting and vanishing in the shadows of the great plateaus for untold generations. Mir and his brother had followed Sol and the Burning Man to the turquoise waters of the Essai, and to the five massive mountain tables that held the seat of Koena. It was in the days before the Battle of Essai that Tekal had saved Ferah from an angry slaver. She had fought alongside Sol and the last standing army of Men against the Drakonni scourge. During the savage months of siege and conflict, Ferah had fallen in love with Tekal. If his brother had not been devoutly loyal and hopelessly in love with Sol, he and Ferah would likely have wed; as it was, Mir’s friendship with Ferah during and after the conflict had slowly blossomed into love, and he had married her a year after the end of the conflict. It had been a glorious wedding, made a part of Sol’s coronation ceremony. Too glorious, Mir reflected darkly. All of the city’s most influential–and dangerous–citizens had been present, as had been half the populace of A-Tsobi’i. The other half had learned of the wedding before the night had ended. Even then, Mirak had known that his enemies would eventually try to use Ferah against him. A deep groove in the wall of a particularly narrow passageway brought Mir back to the present. As the rushing water ushered him along, he trailed his hand along the wall to his left, following a series of the unnatural gashes in the stone toward his destination. There were no records left in the Tombs of Ysen that explained who had created the grooves, or how the job was done in such a hostile environment; however, records of their existence and purpose yet remained, and Tek—ever the diligent student—had recalled reading about them so many years ago. Knowing about the grooves and actually using them to get to A-Kha-Tsobi’i were two entirely different matters, though. Mir’s lungs were on fire, his body numbing from the exertion of swimming in the cold water, and he was finally starting to lose his sense of direction. Up, down, left, right, north, south, west, and east were all slipping from his mental grasp. His only hope was that all of the grooves were still present, and that he could reach the end of the path before his abused body finally quit on him. Groove after groove passed beneath his fingers, until Mir lost count, and just when he thought he could go no further a wicked current slammed his body against the wall of the stone tube. Mirak was so stunned that he almost gasped, before he remembered that he was still under water. Tek’s source had written about this part of the journey, and Mir relaxed his body, allowing the current to do with him as it pleased. A few more painful body slams, and then the shadow dancer shot through a very narrow passage that suddenly angled upwards at an almost ninety degree angle. His feet actually broke the surface of the water first, and Mir had to twist and turn to bring his head into the cool air of a pitch dark cavern. Mir fumbled at a secure pocket on the inside of his thigh, and produced a small flexible tube about four inches long. He held the tube outside of the water, shook it vigorously, and then bent the object using both hands as he treaded water. A faint blue glow erupted from the tube, and with a few more shakes Mir had enough light to make out three walls of what appeared to be a small cavern. Where the fourth wall would have been, there was instead a dark passageway that started in the water and gently sloped upward. The tunnel was small enough that a man would have to crawl on hands and knees to travel its length. “Fantastic,” Mir grumbled to himself, silently swimming over to the tunnel’s entrance. He had just finished pulling himself entirely out of the water when Tek’s feet broke the surface of the still, dark pool. Not a moment later, his brother’s head surfaced, and Tekal took a deep, relieved breath. “I see that you’re still only as graceful as a drakon during mating season, brother,” Mir called out. In the secluded cavern, his soft jab seemed to boom in his ears. “And you mean to tell me that those angry marks on your face are simply an effect of the lighting?” Surprised, Mir reached up and tentatively touched his right cheek, below his eye. Tekal laughed when Mirak hissed and pulled his hand away in pain. That part of his face was certainly going to be swollen and dark in a few hours. “Fuck, Tek, I don’t even recall hitting my head. You always pick the shittiest infiltration routes, I swear.” Tek grunted as he pulled himself onto the dry ledge with Mir. “What about that bullshit speech you just gave me about ‘following your betters’?” “I know,” Mir said, shaking his head woefully, “but I need to learn that following my betters doesn’t necessarily mean that I literally have to follow your crazy ass. Next time we need to break into the Judicial Palace, I’ll let you take your freezing sewage ride and I’ll just meet you there.” “Oh-ho,” Tekal chortled, “so now you’ve developed some mystical power to just will yourself to any destination you want, have you? Come now, brother, you could have shared that information with me before you so valiantly jumped into the Essai before me.” Mir shook his head in dismay and turned to start the long crawl up the tunnel. “Fuck you, Tekal. Keep mocking my power and I’ll use it to pop into your privy when you’re taking a shit. See how well you can fight me with your trousers around your ankles.” Tekal guffawed behind Mirak, and the sound echoed up the dark passageway. “That’s why I shit in the nude, brother.” Without warning, Mir kicked out a leg, lightly striking his older brother’s head. “Ow! What the—” “Tell me more about your shitting habits, brother,” Mir warned, “and I promise that you and I are going to have an issue.” Mirak scuttled ahead without waiting for a response, but he could hear his brother grumbling behind him. Even as he smiled to himself, Mir knew that he was going to suffer some form of vengeance at Tekal’s hands. Some fraternal qualities, he reflected, could not be changed by time or circumstance. The two men shuffled along in silence for the rest of the long journey upward. Mir’s artificial torch cast eerie, restless shadows along the hewn stone walls of the tunnel. Its unnatural blue light lent a somber tone to their progress, and the shadow dancer couldn’t help but wish that the color was a bit more festive, like red, or orange, or even the same magenta worn by the city’s Spirit Monks. Of course, had the torch been any of those colors, Mir realized that he would have found some other reason to be unhappy with the light. It was too easy to see the negative in everything when his life was falling apart. They reached an intersection in the narrow passageway, and Mir turned right and up. The left part of the tunnel eventually led up as well, but not before barreling through the length of A-Kha-Tsobi’i, toward the Crown Palace and a garrison of self-righteous guards known more for their brutality than their ability to guard. The right side marked the beginning of a much steeper grade; so steep, in fact, that the architects of the tunnel had cut toeholds into the rock to aid movement up and down its length. Mir welcomed the extra strain on his body as he climbed, because he knew that it meant they were approaching the end of the trek. “Your light, Mir,” Tekal called out in a loud whisper. Mirak paused briefly and sheathed the torch in a material designed to remain completely opaque even with the light pressing against it. Total darkness enveloped the two shadow dancers. Another deft movement and the muted rod of light once again rested securely in the pocket against Mir’s leg. The shadow dancer took a moment to find his finger and toeholds once again, and then he carried on. It took another half hour or so of relentless climbing, but Mir eventually bumped the top of his head against an iron plate that marked the opening into A-Kha-Tsobi’i. He had hoped that Tekal had not heard the collision, but a derisive snort from below dashed that hope. “As graceful as a drakon during mating season, was it?” His brother’s mocking whisper was quiet enough that Mir assumed the words had not been meant for his ears; still, they brought heat to his ears and a flush of blood to his cheeks. Ignoring Tek’s comment, Mir spread his legs as far as the narrow tunnel would allow, raised his arms over his head, and pushed up on the metal disc. It didn’t budge. Mir swallowed his frustration, climbed another two rungs, and put his back into the lift. Still, the disc would not budge, but the shadow dancer did not relent. His jaw clenched and his neck stiffened with exertion, a thin sheen of sweat building on his brow. With the terrible grating sound of rusted iron on iron, the cover finally came free from its frame, and Mir slid it aside to reveal a dimly-lit cellar. The two assassins wasted no time pulling themselves out of their dark hole, and Tekal effortlessly lifted the iron plate and put it back over the entrance to the tunnel. The disc made only the quietest of sounds when Tek was forced to drop it into place rather than crush his fingers. As soon as the hole was covered, the brothers ducked behind a large stack of wooden crates and barrels. They waited in silence for someone to investigate the commotion in the otherwise empty cellar, but after a solid ten minutes it became clear that their unauthorized access to A-Kha-Tsobi’i had gone unnoticed. “Perhaps next time you should just find the nearest Steel Monk and announce our illicit visit to the City of the Sun,” Tek joked with Mirak. “Or maybe next time you should lift the damned plate, you huge piece of shit,” Mir snapped. The smaller shadow dancer was feeling particularly self-conscious, and he was uncharacteristically embarrassed by his performance with the plate. He clenched his jaw and closed his eyes, leaning his back against a large crate while he composed himself. “Are you okay, Mir?” Tekal asked in a somber whisper. Mir only nodded, his eyes still closed. He should apologize to his brother for his sharp-tongued outburst, he knew, but he wasn’t feeling up to playing nicely quite yet. Instead, he opened his eyes and stepped out from around the crate, fully exposing himself in the low light of the cellar. He heard Tekal step out behind him, and he paused. “Point me at the dead, brother,” Mir said over his shoulder. There was a moment of silence as, presumably, Tekal wondered at the emotional stability of his younger brother, and then: “We make for the Palace of Justice. There we will find several prominent Scale Monks who do not yet know that they are already dead. The high court has seen the last of its judges.” That forced Mirak to turn and confront his brother. “If all five judges of the high court are dead…you mean to overthrow this government, don’t you Tekal?” Tek did not avoid Mirak’s hard stare, but he said nothing. “Sol specifically ordered you not to cause civil unrest. What you aim to do, brother, is treason in the eyes of our queen.” Tekal’s jawline grew taught, a sign of stubborn determination that he had displayed since they were young boys. “She cannot have known what atrocities would be perpetrated by Garth Denzi’s government. He has killed or imprisoned every member of the government who has ever opposed any of his ideas, and then he sends Steel Monks to slaughter peaceful citizens when they protest his methods. He has repealed Sol’s ban on the slave trade, and he has brought the old free markets to the very streets of A-Tsobi’i!” Mir raised an opened hand to remind his brother where they were. “Be calm, Tekal, I was not chastising you. I only meant to be sure of your intentions here.” Tek swallowed and lowered his voice, saying, “I have even seen slavers attempting to kidnap entire families from the shanty towns on A-Dural, Mir.” Attempting. Mirak knew what that meant. The unfortunate slavers in question would never have even known what had killed them. A shadow dancer’s fury was only a sight to behold by those who would arrive at the scene after the bloodshed—the victims were always dead before they knew what was happening. In this case, though, innocent families were likely forever scarred by the sight of men exploding in massive sprays of blood and bone, cut down by an unseen wind of violence and death. Mir shook his head in wonder. “The things a married man misses,” he muttered more to himself than to his brother. “Alright, then,” he said in a louder voice, “so we do what we must to finally uproot the usurper who stole Sol’s crown. But what comes next, brother? Have you given that any consideration? The high court is dead, and Denzi knows that the rest of his puppets will follow suit. He assumes, and rightly so I would imagine, that he is on the list of the dead. What do you imagine his next move will be?” “He will declare martial law and set the iron hand of the Steel Monks around the throat of A-Tsobi’i,” Tek responded without hesitation. That was good, at least, because it indicated that he had indeed thought through the consequences of their planned actions. “That will do one of two things, Tekal: it will break our home, or it will finally give A-Tsobi’i enough cause to rise and take back the liberty it lost when this slippery fiend sat his greedy ass on Sol’s throne. Neither result will be pretty. We’re talking about civil war in the confines of a city, brother.” “I know this,” Tekal responded, “but I see no alternative. We would be forsaking our vows to Sol and the people of A-Tsobi’i if we continued to allow Denzi to return our city to the den of evil it was after the Rending and before the formation of our great republic.” “Then I ask you,” Mir said, stepping toward his brother, “why not just kill the worm himself?” “You know the answer to that as well as I do, Mirak,” Tekal admonished. “He has surrounded himself with the unholy Red Priests of Ysen. None of our sources has yet to discover how he won the loyalty of those foul creatures, nor have we any information on how he got them to leave their pit, but they are here. There are only two people in this world who could storm the Crown Palace and successfully put an end to the snakes that now reside within, Mir. Without Sol and the Burning Man, we must make do as best we can.” Mir sighed. “Then it’s war. Again.” “We are weapons, Mir. I was raised to be a sword, and my conscience forces me to put myself in the hands of those otherwise too weak to defend themselves.” “And since you’re my conscience as well…” Mir trailed off. “War it is. But if we are truly to do this for our queen and our people, brother, we must be ruthless and unforgiving of our enemies. Fewer lives will be lost the sooner our dead are collected.” Tekal cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “What are you suggesting, Mir?” “We do not rest until Denzi has been introduced to his death,” Mir said, raising his right hand in front of him. Tek looked at the offered hand for a moment, then clasped it with his own right. “Agreed,” he said. “We do not lie low, we do not relent. A-Kha-Tsobi’i will know death as it never has before.” Tekal put his other hand on Mir’s shoulder. “Now, little brother, shall we proceed?” Mir grinned in response. “By all means, big brother. It’s been too long since I’ve danced.” Tekal squeezed Mir’s shoulder, and then brushed past his younger brother, heading toward the flight of stairs on the far side of the cellar. Mir turned and followed, the smile instantly gone from his face. He promised himself that he would not smile again until his blade severed Denzi’s spine. The two brothers quickly climbed the stairs and reached a solid oak door, the likes of which were quite rare in the Obsidian City. There were no oak trees within a thousand miles of A-Tsobi’i. The secret passageway they had found had led them to a rather high-end establishment, probably an inn for visiting dignitaries. Mir frowned at the opulence. Tekal opened the door, revealing a large, well-furnished bar and lounge room. They were standing on the service side of a beautiful, dark granite bar that ran almost the entire length of the room. A huge fireplace with an intricately carved mantel lay directly ahead of them, a flight of stairs leading upward and an elevator were visible to their left, and to their right, almost twenty yards away, Mir could see the door that most likely led to the streets outside. Half a dozen couches with plump red cushions were strategically placed around the room, and more than twice as many cushioned lounge chairs filled the rest of the space. Most importantly, though, the room was filled with armed and armored Steel Monks with the flaming morning star insignias of Garth Denzi’s personal guard emblazoned on their chests and shoulders. Most of the Monks had drinks in hand, and some were still carrying on quiet conversations amongst themselves, having not noticed the newcomers. Those sitting at the bar, however, had put their drinks down and dropped their hands to their waists, prepared to draw their weapons but apparently unsure of who the brothers were or why they had just come from the cellar. Mir’s instincts and training took hold, and he reached out with his mind, bending the perceptions of every Monk in the room. He felt Tek do the same beside him, and the Monks at the bar cried out in alarm as the two strange men from the cellar disappeared before their eyes. A few of the more seasoned warriors even managed to get weapons in hand before the slaughter commenced. Using this to their advantage, the two brothers engaged their plasma cutters and launched themselves over the bar, tearing into the nearest Steel Monks. Screams were cut short as the shadow dancers dismembered seasoned warriors with the practiced efficiency of killing machines. Mir worked with the same fervor that had earned him the fear and respect of the Drakonni during the war. Heads, hands, arms, feet, and legs fell to the floor in rapid succession. He moved with rhythm and purpose, every flick of his wrist resulting in another dismembered appendage. Mir moved through the room, felling his enemies with merciless speed and precision. Not a single body thrown before him fell to the floor without first having its head removed from its shoulders, even if feet were removed first. Tek, on the other hand, was not quite as skilled as his younger brother. Though he also ravaged the unfortunate Monks in his path, his slower dance and less precise attacks meant that he couldn’t always be as humane with his killing as Mir was. Several Monks were parceled into halves, cut straight through their torsos to collapse into large, messy parts on the ground. The super-heated plasma was able to cauterize smaller parts, so that removing limbs generally resulted in minimum blood loss; however, with Tekal’s larger cuts, the weight of internal organs generally broke through newly cauterized flesh, resulting in tangles of intestines and blood on the floor. The slaughter only lasted a minute or so, and then the lounge room fell silent. Mir deactivated his weapon and returned the inert rod to the holster at his hip. Tek was on the other side of the room, also holstering his weapon. The brothers’ eyes met, and Tekal shook his head. “It had to be done, Tek,” Mirak assured his brother. “Any one of them would have raised the alarm.” “That does not mean that we can’t feel remorse for our actions, little brother.” “These were wicked men, Tek. They were drinking and smoking as normal soldiers do. They bore Denzi’s insignia. These men abandoned their sacred duty to the people of A-Tsobi’i when they entered the employ of that man, and their regiment has been terrorizing innocent people since Sol’s throne was stolen from her.” Tekal only shook his head again, so Mir bent to the task of performing a quick sweep of the now foul-smelling room, searching for survivors. Tekal sighed, but lent his hand to the task. When they were sure that no one was left to suffer or to wake the fury of the Temple of Might, Mirak sabotaged the elevator and Tek started dragging the heaviest couch he could find toward the flight of stairs. When Mir was finished with his work, the two brothers carried the heavy wooden furniture up the flight of stairs and used it to block the door that led up to the guest halls. Satisfied that guests of the inn, if there were any, would not stumble into the nightmarish lounge, the shadow dancers left the building through the far door that Mir had spotted during his brief initial examination of the room. Once outside in the cool desert night, Mir and Tek found themselves on the quiet intersection of roads that led straight to the principle palaces of Koena’s governing body, suggesting once again that they had just left an inn usually reserved for visiting dignitaries. To the west, Mir could see the massive Crown Palace, it’s many towers and ramparts towering above all other structures in the small city that was A-Kha-Tsobi’i. To the north, Mir could make out the smaller, yet no less impressive People’s Palace, where most of Koena’s affairs of state were actually managed; to the south, he could make out the low-lying campus that was their goal, the Judicial Palace; and to the east, the Sun Gate was just visible in the starry night. Beyond the gate, and on the other side of a chasm that spanned more than two hundred meters, the city of A-Tsobi’i sprawled across the largest of the seven plateaus. In stark contrast to the brilliant white composite material that had been used to construct the buildings on A-Kha-Tsobi’i, the spires and skyscrapers of A-Tsobi’i had been built with a composite material as black and glossy as polished obsidian. No one had been able to replicate the original building materials of the ancient structures on A-Tsobi’i since the Rending, and so the spaces in between the ancient buildings were now crowded with much smaller structures built out of brick and concrete. At night, the peaks of the immense black buildings were illuminated by the bright white light of the moon, and their feet were illuminated by the duller, hazy red glow of lanterns and oil lamps in the new sections of the city. Inside the obsidian structures, Mir knew, the city never really slept. Bright artificial lights inside the massive buildings allowed trading and entertainment to be had at all hours of the night on the commercial tiers. On the residential tiers, the same mysterious energy that powered the lights in the commercial district gave the majority of the city’s population the luxury of sleek household machines that would keep food cold and fresh, clean clothes, and heat water. Only the city’s most impoverished, those that lived outside the original buildings, lived as did most of the world: with stone, steel, and fire. Not many of the ancient cities still stood, and of those that did, fewer still were hospitable to human life. Mir was reminded of his visit to the dead city of Catulan, and a chill ran down his spine. “Come, Mirak,” Tekal called softly over his shoulder as he turned toward the Judicial Palace. “Our dance must be over before someone stumbles into this establishment and runs screaming to the Temple of Might.” Mirak extended his mind’s field of vision as far as he could, prepared to bend the perception of anyone who might otherwise see him. Tekal set off down the broad roadway at a determined but unhurried pace, and Mir followed a few paces behind his older brother. I hope that you and Ferah can forgive me for this betrayal, brother, Mirak thought to himself with his eyes on Tekal’s back. I am weaker than you know. But Denzi will pay with his life for what he has done. And, if he has harmed Ferah in any way, his payment shall last for days.

1.8 – Mikol [sic]

“For the love of a woman who will not return your affection.”

“We do this for our queen, Mir.”

“Oh, that’s rich! I can’t decide which is more ridiculous: for the love of a woman who will not return your affection, or for the love of a queen who is no longer our queen.”

“I did not ask you to join me, brother!”

Quiet returned to the sewage tunnels beneath A-Tsobi’i. Only the soft sounds of gurgling fluids flowing through sluice gates and bedrock to seek out the main river deep below stirred the air through the tunnels. The two men who had been whispering to each other huddled together at the farthest end of the deepest tunnel facing westward. They watched the cold, black water of the river Essai disappear beneath the rock in a swift current.

“I follow my betters,” said the smaller man with his usual flippant tone.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” The larger man shifted his weight from one foot to the other, turning slightly to face his companion.

“You know what I mean, Tekal. We’re shadow dancers, you and I. Our kind are reviled and feared, and for good reason. We aren’t supposed to have consciences, morals, or compassion. We’re not even supposed to have loyalty—to anyone. You alone, of all our brood, held on to what you were before the Tombs of Ysen. I just…managed to stay close enough to you that some of your humanity rubs off on me.”

Silence again. The large man shifted to his original position, thinking to himself while the black water rushed past them. “That’s not true, Mir,” Tekal said in a subdued voice. “You’re a good man, with a beautiful wife who loves you very much.” He paused, and then nodded his head. “You should return to her, Mir. We are friends as well as brothers, and I cannot put your life in danger just when you finally found a woman to love.”

“Ferah loves me for who and what I am, Tek. She knows that without you, without Sol and the Burning Man, I am a monster. She accepts that, without my betters, I would kill for money. I would kill for the asking. Anyone or anything. That is what we were made to do, Tek. And do you know why, even knowing what I am, what I would be driven to do, Ferah still loves me?”

When it became apparent that Mirak was not going to continue until he got a response, Tek shook his head in resignation. “Tell me, brother,” he said quietly.

“She loves me because I know what I am. She loves me because I would rather follow you to the gates of Hell rather than submit to the madness the Red Priests created within me. I cannot cut a righteous path on my own, brother, so instead I must trust you to set the path for me. If I turned back now, I would not be the man my wife loves. Tell me then what my life would be worth, when I had abandoned my brother and forsaken the love of my wife.”

Without turning, Tekal clapped a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. “I am grateful to have you with me, Mir.”

The small man grunted. “Shall we get this over with? I hadn’t planned on drowning in an underground river filled with the refuse of our grand city, but if we must, I’d rather it be sooner than later. The smell is beginning to irritate me, and it’s not something I can cut down. Remind me: why are we doing this, rather than using the Sun Gate?”

“If we were to breach the Sun Gate, we would be forced to fight our way through to A-Kha-Tsobi’i. The boys who guard the gates and the bridge are not our enemies, and they do not deserve to die simply for doing their duty.”

Mir chuckled. “You see why I must follow you, Tek?”

It was Tekal’s turn to grunt.

“Well, shall we?”

“Life is our mother,” Tekal recited.

“Death is our father,” Mirak returned, and with an effortless dive he cut through the icy black water and was swallowed by the earth.

The frigid temperature of the Essai threatened to steal his breath away; in truth, had it not been for the tight one-piece body suit that he was wearing, Mir’s lungs and muscles would have failed him. However, the suit was designed specifically for excursions in cold climes, wet or dry, and it dramatically slowed the decay of Mir’s body warmth. The icy water had uninhibited access to his head and face, though, and the shadow dancer could only imagine that he must feel the way a condemned man feels in his few remaining moments of consciousness after a beheading. Even submerged in total darkness, buffeted by the river’s current and the narrow passages of the underground waterways, Mir had the presence of mind to curse the Red Priests yet again for neglecting to develop a mask made of the same material as the rest of his thermal suit.

Many thoughts crossed the dancer’s mind as he fought river, stone, dark, and cold. In that space that felt like eternity, as he swam ever downward and westward, most of his thoughts were disjointed, his mind wandering from topic to topic, memory to memory. The one theme that united his musings in the darkness was Ferah, his wife.

Mir and Tekal had met the proud slave woman in one of the free markets that often sprang up outside the great city of A-Tsobi’i, on the desert floor along the shores of the Essai. Slave trading had been forbidden in A-Tsobi’i since before the Rending, but slave owning had been permitted and was common amongst the five Commonwealth families. This absurd tradition had necessitated the creation of the “free” markets that had been sprouting and vanishing in the shadows of the great plateaus for untold generations.

Mir and his brother had followed Sol and the Burning Man to the turquoise waters of the Essai, and to the five massive mountain tables that held the seat of Koena. It was in the days before the Battle of Essai that Tekal had saved Ferah from an angry slaver. She had fought alongside Sol and the last standing army of Men against the Drakonni scourge. During the savage months of siege and conflict, Ferah had fallen in love with Tekal. If his brother had not been devoutly loyal and hopelessly in love with Sol, he and Ferah would likely have wed; as it was, Mir’s friendship with Ferah during and after the conflict had slowly blossomed into love, and he had married her a year after the end of the conflict. It had been a glorious wedding, made a part of Sol’s coronation ceremony.

Too glorious, Mir reflected darkly. All of the city’s most influential–and dangerous–citizens had been present, as had been half the populace of A-Tsobi’i. The other half had learned of the wedding before the night had ended. Even then, Mirak had known that his enemies would eventually try to use Ferah against him.

A deep groove in the wall of a particularly narrow passageway brought Mir back to the present. As the rushing water ushered him along, he trailed his hand along the wall to his left, following a series of the unnatural gashes in the stone toward his destination. There were no records left in the Tombs of Ysen that explained who had created the grooves, or how the job was done in such a hostile environment; however, records of their existence and purpose yet remained, and Tek—ever the diligent student—had recalled reading about them so many years ago.

Knowing about the grooves and actually using them to get to A-Kha-Tsobi’i were two entirely different matters, though. Mir’s lungs were on fire, his body numbing from the exertion of swimming in the cold water, and he was finally starting to lose his sense of direction. Up, down, left, right, north, south, west, and east were all slipping from his mental grasp. His only hope was that all of the grooves were still present, and that he could reach the end of the path before his abused body finally quit on him.

Groove after groove passed beneath his fingers, until Mir lost count, and just when he thought he could go no further a wicked current slammed his body against the wall of the stone tube. Mirak was so stunned that he almost gasped, before he remembered that he was still under water. Tek’s source had written about this part of the journey, and Mir relaxed his body, allowing the current to do with him as it pleased. A few more painful body slams, and then the shadow dancer shot through a very narrow passage that suddenly angled upwards at an almost ninety degree angle. His feet actually broke the surface of the water first, and Mir had to twist and turn to bring his head into the cool air of a pitch dark cavern.

Mir fumbled at a secure pocket on the inside of his thigh, and produced a small flexible tube about four inches long. He held the tube outside of the water, shook it vigorously, and then bent the object using both hands as he treaded water. A faint blue glow erupted from the tube, and with a few more shakes Mir had enough light to make out three walls of what appeared to be a small cavern. Where the fourth wall would have been, there was instead a dark passageway that started in the water and gently sloped upward. The tunnel was small enough that a man would have to crawl on hands and knees to travel its length.

“Fantastic,” Mir grumbled to himself, silently swimming over to the tunnel’s entrance. He had just finished pulling himself entirely out of the water when Tek’s feet broke the surface of the still, dark pool. Not a moment later, his brother’s head surfaced, and Tekal took a deep, relieved breath.

“I see that you’re still only as graceful as a drakon during mating season, brother,” Mir called out. In the secluded cavern, his soft jab seemed to boom in his ears.

“And you mean to tell me that those angry marks on your face are simply an effect of the lighting?”

Surprised, Mir reached up and tentatively touched his right cheek, below his eye. Tekal laughed when Mirak hissed and pulled his hand away in pain. That part of his face was certainly going to be swollen and dark in a few hours.

“Fuck, Tek, I don’t even recall hitting my head. You always pick the shittiest infiltration routes, I swear.”

Tek grunted as he pulled himself onto the dry ledge with Mir. “What about that bullshit speech you just gave me about ‘following your betters’?”

“I know,” Mir said, shaking his head woefully, “but I need to learn that following my betters doesn’t necessarily mean that I literally have to follow your crazy ass. Next time we need to break into the Judicial Palace, I’ll let you take your freezing sewage ride and I’ll just meet you there.”

“Oh-ho,” Tekal chortled, “so now you’ve developed some mystical power to just will yourself to any destination you want, have you? Come now, brother, you could have shared that information with me before you so valiantly jumped into the Essai before me.”

Mir shook his head in dismay and turned to start the long crawl up the tunnel. “Fuck you, Tekal. Keep mocking my power and I’ll use it to pop into your privy when you’re taking a shit. See how well you can fight me with your trousers around your ankles.”

Tekal guffawed behind Mirak, and the sound echoed up the dark passageway. “That’s why I shit in the nude, brother.”

Without warning, Mir kicked out a leg, lightly striking his older brother’s head.

“Ow! What the—”

“Tell me more about your shitting habits, brother,” Mir warned, “and I promise that you and I are going to have an issue.” Mirak scuttled ahead without waiting for a response, but he could hear his brother grumbling behind him. Even as he smiled to himself, Mir knew that he was going to suffer some form of vengeance at Tekal’s hands. Some fraternal qualities, he reflected, could not be changed by time or circumstance.

The two men shuffled along in silence for the rest of the long journey upward. Mir’s artificial torch cast eerie, restless shadows along the hewn stone walls of the tunnel. Its unnatural blue light lent a somber tone to their progress, and the shadow dancer couldn’t help but wish that the color was a bit more festive, like red, or orange, or even the same magenta worn by the city’s Spirit Monks. Of course, had the torch been any of those colors, Mir realized that he would have found some other reason to be unhappy with the light. It was too easy to see the negative in everything when his life was falling apart.

They reached an intersection in the narrow passageway, and Mir turned right and up. The left part of the tunnel eventually led up as well, but not before barreling through the length of A-Kha-Tsobi’i, toward the Crown Palace and a garrison of self-righteous guards known more for their brutality than their ability to guard. The right side marked the beginning of a much steeper grade; so steep, in fact, that the architects of the tunnel had cut toeholds into the rock to aid movement up and down its length. Mir welcomed the extra strain on his body as he climbed, because he knew that it meant they were approaching the end of the trek.

“Your light, Mir,” Tekal called out in a loud whisper. Mirak paused briefly and sheathed the torch in a material designed to remain completely opaque even with the light pressing against it. Total darkness enveloped the two shadow dancers. Another deft movement and the muted rod of light once again rested securely in the pocket against Mir’s leg. The shadow dancer took a moment to find his finger and toeholds once again, and then he carried on.

It took another half hour or so of relentless climbing, but Mir eventually bumped the top of his head against an iron plate that marked the opening into A-Kha-Tsobi’i. He had hoped that Tekal had not heard the collision, but a derisive snort from below dashed that hope.

“As graceful as a drakon during mating season, was it?” His brother’s mocking whisper was quiet enough that Mir assumed the words had not been meant for his ears; still, they brought heat to his ears and a flush of blood to his cheeks.

Ignoring Tek’s comment, Mir spread his legs as far as the narrow tunnel would allow, raised his arms over his head, and pushed up on the metal disc. It didn’t budge. Mir swallowed his frustration, climbed another two rungs, and put his back into the lift. Still, the disc would not budge, but the shadow dancer did not relent. His jaw clenched and his neck stiffened with exertion, a thin sheen of sweat building on his brow. With the terrible grating sound of rusted iron on iron, the cover finally came free from its frame, and Mir slid it aside to reveal a dimly-lit cellar.

The two assassins wasted no time pulling themselves out of their dark hole, and Tekal effortlessly lifted the iron plate and put it back over the entrance to the tunnel. The disc made only the quietest of sounds when Tek was forced to drop it into place rather than crush his fingers. As soon as the hole was covered, the brothers ducked behind a large stack of wooden crates and barrels. They waited in silence for someone to investigate the commotion in the otherwise empty cellar, but after a solid ten minutes it became clear that their unauthorized access to A-Kha-Tsobi’i had gone unnoticed.

“Perhaps next time you should just find the nearest Steel Monk and announce our illicit visit to the City of the Sun,” Tek joked with Mirak.

“Or maybe next time you should lift the damned plate, you huge piece of shit,” Mir snapped. The smaller shadow dancer was feeling particularly self-conscious, and he was uncharacteristically embarrassed by his performance with the plate. He clenched his jaw and closed his eyes, leaning his back against a large crate while he composed himself.

“Are you okay, Mir?” Tekal asked in a somber whisper.

Mir only nodded, his eyes still closed. He should apologize to his brother for his sharp-tongued outburst, he knew, but he wasn’t feeling up to playing nicely quite yet. Instead, he opened his eyes and stepped out from around the crate, fully exposing himself in the low light of the cellar. He heard Tekal step out behind him, and he paused.

“Point me at the dead, brother,” Mir said over his shoulder.

There was a moment of silence as, presumably, Tekal wondered at the emotional stability of his younger brother, and then: “We make for the Palace of Justice. There we will find several prominent Scale Monks who do not yet know that they are already dead. The high court has seen the last of its judges.”

That forced Mirak to turn and confront his brother. “If all five judges of the high court are dead…you mean to overthrow this government, don’t you Tekal?” Tek did not avoid Mirak’s hard stare, but he said nothing. “Sol specifically ordered you not to cause civil unrest. What you aim to do, brother, is treason in the eyes of our queen.”

Tekal’s jawline grew taught, a sign of stubborn determination that he had displayed since they were young boys. “She cannot have known what atrocities would be perpetrated by Garth Denzi’s government. He has killed or imprisoned every member of the government who has ever opposed any of his ideas, and then he sends Steel Monks to slaughter peaceful citizens when they protest his methods. He has repealed Sol’s ban on the slave trade, and he has brought the old free markets to the very streets of A-Tsobi’i!”

Mir raised an opened hand to remind his brother where they were. “Be calm, Tekal, I was not chastising you. I only meant to be sure of your intentions here.”

Tek swallowed and lowered his voice, saying, “I have even seen slavers attempting to kidnap entire families from the shanty towns on A-Dural, Mir.”

Attempting. Mirak knew what that meant. The unfortunate slavers in question would never have even known what had killed them. A shadow dancer’s fury was only a sight to behold by those who would arrive at the scene after the bloodshed—the victims were always dead before they knew what was happening. In this case, though, innocent families were likely forever scarred by the sight of men exploding in massive sprays of blood and bone, cut down by an unseen wind of violence and death.

Mir shook his head in wonder. “The things a married man misses,” he muttered more to himself than to his brother. “Alright, then,” he said in a louder voice, “so we do what we must to finally uproot the usurper who stole Sol’s crown. But what comes next, brother? Have you given that any consideration? The high court is dead, and Denzi knows that the rest of his puppets will follow suit. He assumes, and rightly so I would imagine, that he is on the list of the dead. What do you imagine his next move will be?”

“He will declare martial law and set the iron hand of the Steel Monks around the throat of A-Tsobi’i,” Tek responded without hesitation. That was good, at least, because it indicated that he had indeed thought through the consequences of their planned actions.

“That will do one of two things, Tekal: it will break our home, or it will finally give A-Tsobi’i enough cause to rise and take back the liberty it lost when this slippery fiend sat his greedy ass on Sol’s throne. Neither result will be pretty. We’re talking about civil war in the confines of a city, brother.”

“I know this,” Tekal responded, “but I see no alternative. We would be forsaking our vows to Sol and the people of A-Tsobi’i if we continued to allow Denzi to return our city to the den of evil it was after the Rending and before the formation of our great republic.”

“Then I ask you,” Mir said, stepping toward his brother, “why not just kill the worm himself?”

“You know the answer to that as well as I do, Mirak,” Tekal admonished. “He has surrounded himself with the unholy Red Priests of Ysen. None of our sources has yet to discover how he won the loyalty of those foul creatures, nor have we any information on how he got them to leave their pit, but they are here. There are only two people in this world who could storm the Crown Palace and successfully put an end to the snakes that now reside within, Mir. Without Sol and the Burning Man, we must make do as best we can.”

Mir sighed. “Then it’s war. Again.”

“We are weapons, Mir. I was raised to be a sword, and my conscience forces me to put myself in the hands of those otherwise too weak to defend themselves.”

“And since you’re my conscience as well…” Mir trailed off. “War it is. But if we are truly to do this for our queen and our people, brother, we must be ruthless and unforgiving of our enemies. Fewer lives will be lost the sooner our dead are collected.”

Tekal cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “What are you suggesting, Mir?”

“We do not rest until Denzi has been introduced to his death,” Mir said, raising his right hand in front of him. Tek looked at the offered hand for a moment, then clasped it with his own right.

“Agreed,” he said. “We do not lie low, we do not relent. A-Kha-Tsobi’i will know death as it never has before.” Tekal put his other hand on Mir’s shoulder. “Now, little brother, shall we proceed?”

Mir grinned in response. “By all means, big brother. It’s been too long since I’ve danced.”

Tekal squeezed Mir’s shoulder, and then brushed past his younger brother, heading toward the flight of stairs on the far side of the cellar. Mir turned and followed, the smile instantly gone from his face. He promised himself that he would not smile again until his blade severed Denzi’s spine.

The two brothers quickly climbed the stairs and reached a solid oak door, the likes of which were quite rare in the Obsidian City. There were no oak trees within a thousand miles of A-Tsobi’i. The secret passageway they had found had led them to a rather high-end establishment, probably an inn for visiting dignitaries. Mir frowned at the opulence.

Tekal opened the door, revealing a large, well-furnished bar and lounge room. They were standing on the service side of a beautiful, dark granite bar that ran almost the entire length of the room. A huge fireplace with an intricately carved mantel lay directly ahead of them, a flight of stairs leading upward and an elevator were visible to their left, and to their right, almost twenty yards away, Mir could see the door that most likely led to the streets outside. Half a dozen couches with plump red cushions were strategically placed around the room, and more than twice as many cushioned lounge chairs filled the rest of the space. Most importantly, though, the room was filled with armed and armored Steel Monks with the flaming morning star insignias of Garth Denzi’s personal guard emblazoned on their chests and shoulders.

Most of the Monks had drinks in hand, and some were still carrying on quiet conversations amongst themselves, having not noticed the newcomers. Those sitting at the bar, however, had put their drinks down and dropped their hands to their waists, prepared to draw their weapons but apparently unsure of who the brothers were or why they had just come from the cellar.

Mir’s instincts and training took hold, and he reached out with his mind, bending the perceptions of every Monk in the room. He felt Tek do the same beside him, and the Monks at the bar cried out in alarm as the two strange men from the cellar disappeared before their eyes. A few of the more seasoned warriors even managed to get weapons in hand before the slaughter commenced.

Using this to their advantage, the two brothers engaged their plasma cutters and launched themselves over the bar, tearing into the nearest Steel Monks. Screams were cut short as the shadow dancers dismembered seasoned warriors with the practiced efficiency of killing machines.

Mir worked with the same fervor that had earned him the fear and respect of the Drakonni during the war. Heads, hands, arms, feet, and legs fell to the floor in rapid succession. He moved with rhythm and purpose, every flick of his wrist resulting in another dismembered appendage. Mir moved through the room, felling his enemies with merciless speed and precision. Not a single body thrown before him fell to the floor without first having its head removed from its shoulders, even if feet were removed first.

Tek, on the other hand, was not quite as skilled as his younger brother. Though he also ravaged the unfortunate Monks in his path, his slower dance and less precise attacks meant that he couldn’t always be as humane with his killing as Mir was. Several Monks were parceled into halves, cut straight through their torsos to collapse into large, messy parts on the ground. The super-heated plasma was able to cauterize smaller parts, so that removing limbs generally resulted in minimum blood loss; however, with Tekal’s larger cuts, the weight of internal organs generally broke through newly cauterized flesh, resulting in tangles of intestines and blood on the floor.

The slaughter only lasted a minute or so, and then the lounge room fell silent. Mir deactivated his weapon and returned the inert rod to the holster at his hip. Tek was on the other side of the room, also holstering his weapon. The brothers’ eyes met, and Tekal shook his head.

“It had to be done, Tek,” Mirak assured his brother. “Any one of them would have raised the alarm.”

“That does not mean that we can’t feel remorse for our actions, little brother.”

“These were wicked men, Tek. They were drinking and smoking as normal soldiers do. They bore Denzi’s insignia. These men abandoned their sacred duty to the people of A-Tsobi’i when they entered the employ of that man, and their regiment has been terrorizing innocent people since Sol’s throne was stolen from her.”

Tekal only shook his head again, so Mir bent to the task of performing a quick sweep of the now foul-smelling room, searching for survivors. Tekal sighed, but lent his hand to the task. When they were sure that no one was left to suffer or to wake the fury of the Temple of Might, Mirak sabotaged the elevator and Tek started dragging the heaviest couch he could find toward the flight of stairs. When Mir was finished with his work, the two brothers carried the heavy wooden furniture up the flight of stairs and used it to block the door that led up to the guest halls. Satisfied that guests of the inn, if there were any, would not stumble into the nightmarish lounge, the shadow dancers left the building through the far door that Mir had spotted during his brief initial examination of the room.

Once outside in the cool desert night, Mir and Tek found themselves on the quiet intersection of roads that led straight to the principle palaces of Koena’s governing body, suggesting once again that they had just left an inn usually reserved for visiting dignitaries. To the west, Mir could see the massive Crown Palace, it’s many towers and ramparts towering above all other structures in the small city that was A-Kha-Tsobi’i. To the north, Mir could make out the smaller, yet no less impressive People’s Palace, where most of Koena’s affairs of state were actually managed; to the south, he could make out the low-lying campus that was their goal, the Judicial Palace; and to the east, the Sun Gate was just visible in the starry night.

Beyond the gate, and on the other side of a chasm that spanned more than two hundred meters, the city of A-Tsobi’i sprawled across the largest of the seven plateaus. In stark contrast to the brilliant white composite material that had been used to construct the buildings on A-Kha-Tsobi’i, the spires and skyscrapers of A-Tsobi’i had been built with a composite material as black and glossy as polished obsidian. No one had been able to replicate the original building materials of the ancient structures on A-Tsobi’i since the Rending, and so the spaces in between the ancient buildings were now crowded with much smaller structures built out of brick and concrete. At night, the peaks of the immense black buildings were illuminated by the bright white light of the moon, and their feet were illuminated by the duller, hazy red glow of lanterns and oil lamps in the new sections of the city.

Inside the obsidian structures, Mir knew, the city never really slept. Bright artificial lights inside the massive buildings allowed trading and entertainment to be had at all hours of the night on the commercial tiers. On the residential tiers, the same mysterious energy that powered the lights in the commercial district gave the majority of the city’s population the luxury of sleek household machines that would keep food cold and fresh, clean clothes, and heat water. Only the city’s most impoverished, those that lived outside the original buildings, lived as did most of the world: with stone, steel, and fire. Not many of the ancient cities still stood, and of those that did, fewer still were hospitable to human life. Mir was reminded of his visit to the dead city of Catulan, and a chill ran down his spine.

“Come, Mirak,” Tekal called softly over his shoulder as he turned toward the Judicial Palace. “Our dance must be over before someone stumbles into this establishment and runs screaming to the Temple of Might.”

Mirak extended his mind’s field of vision as far as he could, prepared to bend the perception of anyone who might otherwise see him. Tekal set off down the broad roadway at a determined but unhurried pace, and Mir followed a few paces behind his older brother.

I hope that you and Ferah can forgive me for this betrayal, brother, Mirak thought to himself with his eyes on Tekal’s back. I am weaker than you know. But Denzi will pay with his life for what he has done. And, if he has harmed Ferah in any way, his payment shall last for days.

1
2.2 – Mauk [sic] The day started early. Well, it always started early in the life of a slave, but Ani couldn’t help feeling that today it started just a little earlier than normal. He’d had the dream again. The night was always shortest when he had the dream. He couldn’t recall exact details—it was more like feelings. Words didn’t quite describe them but they kept the boy going. The future would be better. It had to be. He didn’t have it too bad, he knew. He’d been fortunate in his owner and caretaker: Watto. Because of Watto he lived with his mother in a small den-like flat. His eyes shot open the second her hand didn’t touch him. She wasn’t there. This was the second day. He got up and got ready. That’s what a slave did. He knew she was alright—he knew. He hoped. He’d watched his mother prepare his food so often it didn’t take long to figure what to do. He ate then left. He lived in the slums. A town made up from apartments for slaves. The families that lived in the slums were the more fortunate of the slaves. There were some who lived in cages; while others  had to sleep outside. But those in the slums were the privileged. They had semi-decent jobs and never had to go out into the desert. Mos Espa was a dangerous place but not nearly so much as the Dune Sea. The slums were on the east side of the of the city which was also populated with the well of inhabitants of the city; the slave owners. “Morning Ani.” It was Miss Preetha, a smile on her face. “Hi!” He smiled cheerfully. He had to. He had to be strong, for everyone.  He shouldered his pack and marched along to the shop, nodding to his friends and neighbors as he hiked along. How many others were missing? He knew that the boy from across the street, Grohan, had been taken in a raid last week. But he didn’t suspect a raid for the disappearance of his mother. His hike to the space port was a solemn one even though he wore a smile on his face.  His smile vanished the second he reached the edge of the slums. The gates were just ahead and no one liked a happy slave-boy. His pace quickened as he entered Mos Espa. Trying not to get in anybody’s way, he tried to hurry down the street. Watto hated it when he was late. A crowd of Jawa blocked his path; they were all shouting excitedly in Jawaese. One was even jumping up and down which was a rare sight, even here. Ani flattened himself against a wall carrying his pack in by his side and pushed his way through the throng of Jawa. Everywhere he looked in fact, everyone was excited. This was either good or bad. Ani couldn’t decide. He had to run to make it there on time. “You’re late!” Watto shouted. He wasn’t. Not that it mattered to Watto. If something had gone wrong he was always late. No matter what time he came in. Something had obviously gone wrong. Watto wasn’t happy. “I got here as fast as I could. I’m earlier than I was yesterday and I wasn’t late then.” Watto flapped his wings angrily and glared at the boy.  “We received a shipment from Mos Isla.” Watto hovered over to him, “get started, Ani!” Ani unslung his pack and ran out the back to begin sorting through the junk from Isla. Most of it was just that and he didn’t know what Watto expected him to do with it. He threw a few spare parts into a pile every now and then. They were either things that were salvageable or items he’d strip to make something else salvageable. Meanwhile Watto was busy talking to their first customer of the day. Ani couldn’t make it all out but he heard Boonta Eve mentioned at least twice. He’d almost forgotten about the holiday coming up. Watto flapped into the scorching desert heat to yell “We need a power converter for a Z-29 pod-racer Ani! Don’t make us wait!” Luckily Ani was very organized and found what they were looking for rather quickly. “I need to make some modifications to it if he wants it to work.” Ani explained to Watto in Huttese. Watto then did the necessary bargaining. He ended up charging twice what it was worth but that was Watto. When Anakin finished up the job he handed it over to Watto who handed it over to their customer. Work made the day pass faster.  Traders and space pirates came to barter with Watto. He had the best, everyone knew. Ani couldn’t help but feel fortunate, again for Watto owning him. He was good at what he did and he enjoyed it. Fixing stuff made sense. But mostly he liked the stories and the creatures from all the edges of the Galaxy. Today was nothing new to gawk at. Not that he’d gawk anyways. Watto’d have it in for him for sure if he dared. But he was constantly amazed by the people he saw. Still he heard lots. Boonta Eve was coming up. Which meant another Celebration. Not that the Hutts needed a reason to celebrate. It seemed to Ani that the Hutts were always celebrating now. There had been a month-long celebration that hadn’t ended a week before.  And there was a lot of talk going on about some Federation or other. There was some sort of blockade on a nearby planetary system. Not one that Anakin had ever heard of before but still it was nice to hear things. Then suddenly Watto surprised Anakin with some more fortune. It was about halfway through the day when Watto flapped over to him. “Get out of here Ani. You’re done for the day.”  Maybe he’d be able to find his mother with what was left of the day. Ani didn’t take the time to even ponder his strange luck. He just jumped up excitedly and grabbed his pack.  “Don’t be late tomorrow!” Watto shouted as Ani hurried out the door. Back to the slave pens he ran, his pack bouncing up and down on his back. It was hard in a street this crowded but he wanted to be sure to get home and begin his searching. He didn’t even know where to begin. He didn’t know what she did during the day. She’d never told him. They only saw each other for a few minutes in the morning and a few at night before he slept. Every now and again when Watto would send him home early she’d be there as well. But not often. And she was never for too long. His thoughts were interrupted when he reached the slum gates. Two of Jaba’s Gamorrea were trudging into the makeshift town. Not particularly bright creatures. Instead they had been gifted with cruelty and strength. They were savage and, worse, allowed to do whatever they wanted. Anakin stood there dumbly watching the two giant green creatures sludge through the same road he walked down every morning. They were grunting towards each other and one let out a low gurgling that could only be a laugh. Another raid. They turned to one of the flats at random and rushed towards it brandishing their axes. The first one to reach the door slammed his shoulder into it and with it crashed into the ground on the other side. The second jumped in and frantically looked both ways before running off to the left out of Anakin’s vision. That’s when he made his move, both Gamorrea were busy. So he made a mad dash for his home not looking back, but hoping they’d found the apartment empty. Gamorrea were easily bored and they might only do this once if there was no reward. Jabba had been in the city for the last month and a half. He’d celebrated by having a festival followed by some local pod racing. Nothing as fancy as the Boonta Eve Classic coming up, but pod racing none the less. With Jabba came Gamorrea. Gamorrea loved hunting easy prey. Nothing was easier than a slave. Ani new that his mother hadn’t succumbed to them. He could feel it. Like he could feel things would get better. In his gut. He just hoped his gut was right. His mother wasn’t home. He knew she wouldn’t be. But he’d hoped that he’d be wrong about this. He threw his pack onto the blanket that was his sleeping place. Where to begin? Ani wished he wasn’t just a child. Being nine was hard. There really was nothing he could do. He wiped the tears forming in his eyes. He had to be strong. For his mother. He had to find her. Forcing himself to begin he marched back to the door. Back in to the world. The first person he came upon who he dared ask for news was Mri from three houses down. She wasn’t much older than him and had used to play with him before turning twelve and being forced to work the hours of an adult. “Have you seen my mother?” “Not recently Ani. But I can’t talk. Good luck.” And she was gone. His trek continued. He visited parts of the town that he’d never been before, to no avail. Hours passed and it was beginning to get dark. Ani knew better than to get caught outside after curfew and began racing back through the streets for his home. Again she wasn’t there. He was beginning to get worried. He was beginning to doubt his feelings. He no longer knew. He just hoped now. Everything was getting cloudy. Anakin sat down at the table and began to sob. He couldn’t help it. For the first time in his life he really felt afraid. He no longer believed that he was extraordinarily luckily. He was just a slave. And slaves weren’t fortunate. He lost track of time sitting at the table. Waiting, hoping his mother would come through the door. But hours passed and he was still alone. He lay his head down on his criss-crossed arms and drifted off into a troubled sleep. He felt darkness all around him. Not just a physical darkness. But one that seemed to seep into his soul. It clouded everything. Fear poured into him like a sandstorm blurring all his other senses.  He awoke with a scream, shooting out of his seat. He was still alone. It was still night. Better get to bed, he thought, in case Mom comes home. He emptied his pack apart from the cloak he kept inside it and then crawled under his blanket using the pack to comfort his head from the cool dirt floor. It wasn’t long before he had drifted off again. This time it was a much different dream.  As different as night from day or heat from cold. He was bathing in warmth. He felt again as hope poured through his every fiber. It was indescribably amazing. He stood in the center of a field of white. A plain of nothingness. He could hear his mother laughing. Now she was saying something. He couldn’t quite make it out but it made him happy. Something was happening though. She was fading away. He heard a voice he’d never heard before. “Anakin.” It just said his name. Just the once. He was filled with excitement. He couldn’t contain himself. This was it. The moment he’d been waiting for, for his whole life. If it was possible he began to feel warmer. And the white started to change. Things were becoming clearer. Two shadow figures stood in front of him. Both were humanoid and tall enough to be grown men.  And again he was filled with a sense of knowing. He dreamed and he knew his mother was ok. He felt at peace. Something good was coming and soon too.  The shadows were the herald. He knew. He felt good. As good as he’d ever felt. He awoke the second her hand touched him. “I’m home, Ani.”

2.2 – Mauk [sic]

The day started early. Well, it always started early in the life of a slave, but Ani couldn’t help feeling that today it started just a little earlier than normal. He’d had the dream again. The night was always shortest when he had the dream. He couldn’t recall exact details—it was more like feelings. Words didn’t quite describe them but they kept the boy going. The future would be better. It had to be.

He didn’t have it too bad, he knew. He’d been fortunate in his owner and caretaker: Watto. Because of Watto he lived with his mother in a small den-like flat. His eyes shot open the second her hand didn’t touch him. She wasn’t there. This was the second day. He got up and got ready. That’s what a slave did. He knew she was alright—he knew. He hoped. He’d watched his mother prepare his food so often it didn’t take long to figure what to do. He ate then left.

He lived in the slums. A town made up from apartments for slaves. The families that lived in the slums were the more fortunate of the slaves. There were some who lived in cages; while others  had to sleep outside. But those in the slums were the privileged. They had semi-decent jobs and never had to go out into the desert. Mos Espa was a dangerous place but not nearly so much as the Dune Sea. The slums were on the east side of the of the city which was also populated with the well of inhabitants of the city; the slave owners.

“Morning Ani.” It was Miss Preetha, a smile on her face.

“Hi!” He smiled cheerfully. He had to. He had to be strong, for everyone.  He shouldered his pack and marched along to the shop, nodding to his friends and neighbors as he hiked along. How many others were missing? He knew that the boy from across the street, Grohan, had been taken in a raid last week. But he didn’t suspect a raid for the disappearance of his mother. His hike to the space port was a solemn one even though he wore a smile on his face.  His smile vanished the second he reached the edge of the slums. The gates were just ahead and no one liked a happy slave-boy. His pace quickened as he entered Mos Espa.

Trying not to get in anybody’s way, he tried to hurry down the street. Watto hated it when he was late. A crowd of Jawa blocked his path; they were all shouting excitedly in Jawaese. One was even jumping up and down which was a rare sight, even here. Ani flattened himself against a wall carrying his pack in by his side and pushed his way through the throng of Jawa. Everywhere he looked in fact, everyone was excited. This was either good or bad. Ani couldn’t decide.
He had to run to make it there on time.

“You’re late!” Watto shouted.

He wasn’t. Not that it mattered to Watto. If something had gone wrong he was always late. No matter what time he came in. Something had obviously gone wrong. Watto wasn’t happy.

“I got here as fast as I could. I’m earlier than I was yesterday and I wasn’t late then.”

Watto flapped his wings angrily and glared at the boy.  “We received a shipment from Mos Isla.” Watto hovered over to him, “get started, Ani!”

Ani unslung his pack and ran out the back to begin sorting through the junk from Isla. Most of it was just that and he didn’t know what Watto expected him to do with it. He threw a few spare parts into a pile every now and then. They were either things that were salvageable or items he’d strip to make something else salvageable.

Meanwhile Watto was busy talking to their first customer of the day. Ani couldn’t make it all out but he heard Boonta Eve mentioned at least twice. He’d almost forgotten about the holiday coming up. Watto flapped into the scorching desert heat to yell “We need a power converter for a Z-29 pod-racer Ani! Don’t make us wait!”

Luckily Ani was very organized and found what they were looking for rather quickly. “I need to make some modifications to it if he wants it to work.” Ani explained to Watto in Huttese.
Watto then did the necessary bargaining. He ended up charging twice what it was worth but that was Watto. When Anakin finished up the job he handed it over to Watto who handed it over to their customer.

Work made the day pass faster.  Traders and space pirates came to barter with Watto. He had the best, everyone knew. Ani couldn’t help but feel fortunate, again for Watto owning him. He was good at what he did and he enjoyed it. Fixing stuff made sense. But mostly he liked the stories and the creatures from all the edges of the Galaxy. Today was nothing new to gawk at. Not that he’d gawk anyways. Watto’d have it in for him for sure if he dared. But he was constantly amazed by the people he saw. Still he heard lots.

Boonta Eve was coming up. Which meant another Celebration. Not that the Hutts needed a reason to celebrate. It seemed to Ani that the Hutts were always celebrating now. There had been a month-long celebration that hadn’t ended a week before.  And there was a lot of talk going on about some Federation or other. There was some sort of blockade on a nearby planetary system. Not one that Anakin had ever heard of before but still it was nice to hear things.

Then suddenly Watto surprised Anakin with some more fortune. It was about halfway through the day when Watto flapped over to him. “Get out of here Ani. You’re done for the day.”  Maybe he’d be able to find his mother with what was left of the day. Ani didn’t take the time to even ponder his strange luck. He just jumped up excitedly and grabbed his pack.  “Don’t be late tomorrow!” Watto shouted as Ani hurried out the door.

Back to the slave pens he ran, his pack bouncing up and down on his back. It was hard in a street this crowded but he wanted to be sure to get home and begin his searching. He didn’t even know where to begin. He didn’t know what she did during the day. She’d never told him. They only saw each other for a few minutes in the morning and a few at night before he slept. Every now and again when Watto would send him home early she’d be there as well. But not often. And she was never for too long.

His thoughts were interrupted when he reached the slum gates. Two of Jaba’s Gamorrea were trudging into the makeshift town. Not particularly bright creatures. Instead they had been gifted with cruelty and strength. They were savage and, worse, allowed to do whatever they wanted. Anakin stood there dumbly watching the two giant green creatures sludge through the same road he walked down every morning. They were grunting towards each other and one let out a low gurgling that could only be a laugh. Another raid.

They turned to one of the flats at random and rushed towards it brandishing their axes. The first one to reach the door slammed his shoulder into it and with it crashed into the ground on the other side. The second jumped in and frantically looked both ways before running off to the left out of Anakin’s vision. That’s when he made his move, both Gamorrea were busy. So he made a mad dash for his home not looking back, but hoping they’d found the apartment empty.

Gamorrea were easily bored and they might only do this once if there was no reward.
Jabba had been in the city for the last month and a half. He’d celebrated by having a festival followed by some local pod racing. Nothing as fancy as the Boonta Eve Classic coming up, but pod racing none the less. With Jabba came Gamorrea. Gamorrea loved hunting easy prey. Nothing was easier than a slave. Ani new that his mother hadn’t succumbed to them. He could feel it. Like he could feel things would get better. In his gut. He just hoped his gut was right.

His mother wasn’t home. He knew she wouldn’t be. But he’d hoped that he’d be wrong about this. He threw his pack onto the blanket that was his sleeping place. Where to begin? Ani wished he wasn’t just a child. Being nine was hard. There really was nothing he could do. He wiped the tears forming in his eyes. He had to be strong. For his mother. He had to find her. Forcing himself to begin he marched back to the door. Back in to the world.

The first person he came upon who he dared ask for news was Mri from three houses down. She wasn’t much older than him and had used to play with him before turning twelve and being forced to work the hours of an adult.

“Have you seen my mother?”

“Not recently Ani. But I can’t talk. Good luck.” And she was gone.

His trek continued. He visited parts of the town that he’d never been before, to no avail. Hours passed and it was beginning to get dark. Ani knew better than to get caught outside after curfew and began racing back through the streets for his home. Again she wasn’t there. He was beginning to get worried. He was beginning to doubt his feelings. He no longer knew. He just hoped now. Everything was getting cloudy.

Anakin sat down at the table and began to sob. He couldn’t help it. For the first time in his life he really felt afraid. He no longer believed that he was extraordinarily luckily. He was just a slave. And slaves weren’t fortunate. He lost track of time sitting at the table. Waiting, hoping his mother would come through the door.

But hours passed and he was still alone. He lay his head down on his criss-crossed arms and drifted off into a troubled sleep.

He felt darkness all around him. Not just a physical darkness. But one that seemed to seep into his soul. It clouded everything. Fear poured into him like a sandstorm blurring all his other senses.  He awoke with a scream, shooting out of his seat. He was still alone. It was still night.
Better get to bed, he thought, in case Mom comes home. He emptied his pack apart from the cloak he kept inside it and then crawled under his blanket using the pack to comfort his head from the cool dirt floor. It wasn’t long before he had drifted off again.

This time it was a much different dream.  As different as night from day or heat from cold. He was bathing in warmth. He felt again as hope poured through his every fiber. It was indescribably amazing. He stood in the center of a field of white. A plain of nothingness. He could hear his mother laughing. Now she was saying something. He couldn’t quite make it out but it made him happy.

Something was happening though. She was fading away. He heard a voice he’d never heard before. “Anakin.” It just said his name. Just the once. He was filled with excitement. He couldn’t contain himself. This was it. The moment he’d been waiting for, for his whole life.

If it was possible he began to feel warmer. And the white started to change. Things were becoming clearer. Two shadow figures stood in front of him. Both were humanoid and tall enough to be grown men.  And again he was filled with a sense of knowing. He dreamed and he knew his mother was ok. He felt at peace. Something good was coming and soon too.  The shadows were the herald. He knew. He felt good. As good as he’d ever felt.

He awoke the second her hand touched him.

“I’m home, Ani.”

2.1 – Mikol [sic] An ominous feeling of dread filled Obi-Wan’s mind as he watched the Neimoidian dreadnought Independence grow ever larger on the virtual viewport. To be fair, he thought, it is in the nature of a dreadnought to inspire dread. The corner of his mouth lifted in a half-hearted smirk, but the expanding darkness in his mind threatened to crush even his indomitable good humor. “I have a very bad feeling about this, Master,” he said, turning to the older Jedi by his side. “Yes,” replied his friend and mentor, not even bothering to raise his eyes from the holopad projected in his lap. “This is a trap. They intend to kill us.” “It is not that, Master. That feels…small, compared to what I am feeling.” Qui-Gon sighed and looked up from the words and images displayed by the tiny projector hovering in the air before him. “Very well.” He closed his eyes and drew a deep, steady breath. “Clear your mind, and we will see if I can help find the source of your discomfort.” Obi-Wan obediently closed his eyes and banished all thought from his mind. He was immediately enveloped in the warm, nebulous presence of the Force. He felt Qui-Gon’s mind–old, knowledgeable, and kind–gently attach to his own. With a small impulse, Obi-Wan expanded his presence in the ether of the Force, probing for the dark blot that represented the near and present danger of the Neimoidian trap. As their minds brushed against the small, black anomaly, images and feelings flooded through their minds. Murderous intent, nervous anxiety, contempt, fear, aggression, and fleeting glimpses of battle, of flying bodies, explosions, and the hum of dancing lightsabers. A regrettable event in spacetime, no doubt, but not a threat to the success of their mission. With a much stronger impulse, Obi-Wan set his mind to expand through the Force until his presence felt stretched to its breaking point and the ether had become thick and obscuring. At the edge of his reach, Obi-Wan brushed against a dark object so massive that it seemed the Force just outside his sphere of influence had been replaced with nothingness. His mind sought to recoil from the abyss, but Obi-Wan was nothing if not stubborn. With the unbending iron will that forever hid just beneath the surface of his jovial and mischievous nature, the experienced padawan sent another powerful surge of mental energy to shore up the limits of his presence in the Force. Simultaneously, Qui-Gon expanded his own presence in the ether, joining Obi-Wan in an effort to push farther into the void. The more attention the two men focused on the abyss, the more it seemed to push back, exerting an unpleasant pressure on their shared energy. Probing the darkness along multiple points of their maximum limit only served to weaken their shared sphere of influence. Finally, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon focused their shared energy into a spear of light thrusting into the unknown. Rather than illuminate their quarry, the darkness reacted in an almost sentient fashion, defending itself from their combined efforts by sending a searing jolt of pain into Obi-Wan’s and Qui-Gon’s minds. Though the experience lasted mere seconds, the agony was so great that it felt as though it lasted an eternity. The shock broke the connection between the two men, and they were unceremoniously dumped back into physical reality. Obi-Wan came back to himself to find his hands clutching the armrests of his acceleration chair, and his mouth sore from clenching his jaw. He turned to Qui-Gon, and the two shared a worried glance. Qui-Gon tapped the biometric harness that bound him to his seat, and without a word he stood and walked over to the large virtual viewport, his arms tucked into the folds of his robe. Obi-Wan took a moment to flex his fingers and toes, and to work out the tightness in his jaw, and then he followed the Master’s example. They stood in silence as they made their final approach to the Independence. Deep green photovoltaic plating filled the screen, all of space blocked from view by the massive starship. Measuring a full kilometer in length, the Independence was still one of the smallest dreadnoughts manufactured by the Trade Federation for the Neimoidian fleet, but it also boasted the latest in shield and stealth technology, making it one of the most persistently dangerous ships in Confederation space. “It seems they will be putting us in one of the aft cargo bays,” Obi-Wan noted as giant blast doors parted to reveal a bustling landing deck. Qui-Gon said nothing, staring blankly at the vid screen as though it might reveal some secret to him if only he paid close enough attention. “An effort to keep us as far away from the bridge as possible, I would guess,” the padawan continued quietly to himself. He had grown accustomed to Qui-Gon’s occasional introspections, but had yet to master the art of remaining silent. “I do take pleasure in the mechanics of speech,” Obi-Wan confessed, shrugging and speaking mostly to himself. Their little automated shuttle, operating on commands from the Independence’s flight controller, slowly crossed the kinetic force field that protected the cargo bay from outgassing. The hair on Obi-Wan’s arms and neck stood upright as the field passed through him. The idea that atmosphere and pressure were contained by an invisible energy barrier dependent on electricity, an energy source so easily interrupted, always chilled the padawan. “Give me a planet under my feet and I shall be happy once more,” Obi-Wan muttered to himself. “You have an uncomfortable life ahead of you if you fail to overcome your fears of space and flight, my young friend.” Obi-Wan smiled at Qui-Gon’s comment. “I would not describe them as ‘fears,’ Master Qui-Gon,” he responded, “but as preferences. I simply prefer to be on the ground, where I am not dependent on machinery for safety.” He glanced over to find Qui-Gon glaring at him sternly. “Sometimes, my young friend, I worry for your future as a Jedi. Your optimism and good nature are powerful allies against the darkness you will encounter in your duties, but your flippancy and casual disregard for danger may very well be the end of you.” Obi-Wan, slightly taken aback by his mentor’s rebuke, stayed silent until the shuttle gently touched down in the space that had been cleared for it amidst the machinery and supplies in the cargo bay. As the two men bent their knees fluidly to compensate for the small bump involved with any shuttle landing, Obi-Wan decided to attribute Qui-Gon’s stern remark to the nasty shock they had both endured upon encountering the vast and almost sentient void in the Force. “I apologize, Master, but I am not entirely sure what danger it might be that I am disregarding. I seek your guidance in this matter.” Ever the earnest student, the sincerity in Obi-Wan’s voice must have broken through Qui-Gon’s irritation, because the older man let out a sigh, shaking his head and putting a hand on Obi-Wan’s shoulder. “Fear, Obi-Wan. Fear is the danger that you dismiss so casually,” he said, briefly squeezing Obi-Wan’s arm before lifting his hand and waggling an admonishing finger at the padawan. Obi-Wan tilted his head quizzically and raised an eyebrow in confusion. The effect must have been comical, because Qui-Gon chuckled and shook his head once more. “You have a question,” Qui-Gon observed, stepping away from the virtual viewport as it irised off, revealing a blank metal bulkhead as opaque as the rest of the shuttle’s interior. “Yes, Master,” Obi-Wan replied, following the older man into the shuttle’s main corridor. “We are taught that fear is poisonous, a clear path to darkness. Is this not true?” “It is true, yes,” conceded the Jedi Master. “However, you make the mistake of assuming that you can defeat fear by ignoring it. That path leads to suffering and death, if not to darkness.” The two men paused at the shuttle’s passenger hatch, waiting patiently for Independence’s traffic computer to clear the shuttle for safe disembarkment. Obi-Wan contemplated Qui-Gon’s words, introspectively analyzing his past behaviors and reasoning how he may have been foolishly putting himself, and others, in danger. “How, then, shall I defeat fear, Master?” “Again, you assume too much, my padawan,” admonished the Jedi Master. “You assume that fear is a force to be defeated. That is similar to thinking that a planetary weather system is a force to be defeated.” “But we have defeated weather systems, Master,” Obi-Wan declared. “Many planets within the Republic have adopted weather management systems to dampen the most destructive forces of nature.” “Ah, now we come to it,” Qui-Gon quickly replied, rising a finger thoughtfully. “Those worlds you speak of have not defeated nature any more than Jedi have defeated fear. On those worlds, the weather is managed.” A female voice rang through the shuttle, declaring in clear, enunciated Galactic Basic Standard that the Jedi could safely exit the small craft. “‘Safe’ is a relative term in this case, considering their plans,” Qui-Gon joked quietly in an aside highly uncharacteristic of the older man. I must be rubbing off on him. Qui-Gon set off down the ramp, and Obi-Wan followed closely. They were greeted at the bottom of the ramp by the translucent blue hologram of a handsome older woman, projected by a small spherical drone floating just off to the side. “If the respected delegates from the Galactic Republic will please follow me,” said the hologram, gesturing with her hand in the direction of a large bay door directly across from the shuttle, “I will deliver you to the conference room where Captain Tukhano and Vice-President Nguwen of the Trade Federation will meet you for negotiations.” “Is it normal for the Neimoidian fleet to employ human figures in its holographic VIs?” Obi-Wan, always curious, directed the question at the spherical drone rather than the hologram. He always preferred to deal with the source of the virtual interface, rather than the illusion the interface created. “No, respected delegate. However, just as the Neimoidian fleet uses Galactic Basic for ship designations, for the sake of trade partners, so does the fleet carry an expansive library of VIs, to accommodate any delegates we might entertain aboard our vessels. Does this interface not please you? Another can be assumed.” “There is no need for that,” Qui-Gon assured the drone. “Please, lead us to the conference room.” “Of course, respected delegate,” the VI responded. The drone floated away, toward the bay door the VI had indicated earlier, and the VI moved its legs to provide the illusion of walking. Qui-Gon immediately followed the hologram, and Obi-Wan could only shake his head and follow suit. He personally would have had the drone turn off the VI, but the matter certainly was not worth another lecture from his friend about the virtue of software designed to emulate sentience. The large bay door slid open quickly and quietly, indicative of the dreadnought’s young age and relatively peaceful tour of service. Though the ship had been involved in several trade dispute blockades, to Obi-Wan’s knowledge Independence’s main gun—the massive rail gun that ran nearly from stern to bow, necessitating the dreadnought’s length—had only ever been fired in carefully controlled training exercises. The ship’s peaceful history was reflected in the pristine conditions of its exterior and interior functions. With the drone leading at a comfortable pace, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon walked through a brightly lit corridor wide enough for a small speeder to navigate. The walls were smooth and gleaming, painted a glossy blue-white hue. Dark, thin sensor strips near the ceiling ran the entire length of the corridor, and likely the entire vessel, presumably allowing the ship’s security detachment to see and hear everything happening aboard Independence. “If I may, Master— “You are wondering how you should manage your fear, if not to dismiss it,” Qui-Gon interrupted. “Yes, Master,” Obi-Wan nodded in affirmation as they walked. “You must first acknowledge that you are afraid, Obi-Wan.” Qui-Gon adopted the same posture and tone he used when delivering lectures at the Jedi Academy, forcing Obi-Wan to hide a smile as the older man fell into his most comfortable role, that of a teacher. “What are we taught about our feelings, our instincts?” “A Jedi is one with the Force. As a Jedi, I must trust my feelings, because they flow outward from the Force.” Qui-Gon nodded in approval. “Precisely. Fear is a feeling just like any other you will experience. Fear, anger, and sorrow are important feelings, Obi-Wan, because they speak to the cores of our beings. We are not machines, and we must not strive to be like machines. The Force only acts through life.” Obi-Wan increased his pace so that he could walk beside his mentor. “I am beginning to understand, Master,” Obi-Wan started, “but what about the risks posed by these darker emotions?” “A Jedi is not defined by his or her thoughts and emotions, Obi-Wan. A Jedi is defined by action. Admitting that you are afraid takes a tremendous amount of courage. Acting righteously and without hesitation, even in the clutches of such dark emotions, takes an even greater amount of courage. This is what separates the Jedi from the sith, and a Jedi from a Jedi Master.” The holographic woman had stopped just outside a door set into the right wall of the long corridor, the little floating drone suspended in the air just a few feet away. The door slid open without a sound, revealing a roomy elevator car. The holographic display winked off, and the drone buzzed into the car. The two brown-robed men followed, and the door silently closed behind them. There was a short tone and a very brief, almost imperceptible jolt, and then the car accelerated upward, toward the main crew decks. “I see,” Obi-Wan said slowly, digesting his mentor’s lesson. “Am I to assume, then, that this sort of temperance is involved in the Temple Trials?” “That is a safe assumption,” Qui-Gon said quietly, a faraway look stealing onto his face as he stared straight ahead at the elevator door. “However, remember that the trials are unique to each Jedi attempting them. You can never be fully prepared.” Obi-Wan opened his mouth to ask more of Qui-Gon, but the Master interrupted him. “And that is all I have to say on the matter, my padawan.” Obi-Wan swallowed his question and shut his mouth, knowing better than to press the older man any further. Absently flicking the single braid of hair that marked his station as padawan over his shoulder, the young man turned to the spherical drone. “Independence, what information are you authorized to provide us concerning the nature of this blockade?” There was a brief moment of silence as the little drone presumably queried the ship’s mainframe and diplomatic parameters, and then it responded in the same female human voice projected by the VI. “Unfortunately, respected delegate, I cannot provide you with any information other than what you have already received via the short-beam briefing that was transmitted to your vessel: we believe that the ruling body of Naboo commissioned the research and development of weapons designed specifically to target Neimoidian physiology, and as such we are legally obliged to blockade the planet until such a time as a thorough investigation has been completed.” Obi-Wan cocked his head quizzically. “That is rather odd, considering that the ruling government of Naboo does not even have a standing military.” “Again,” replied the drone, “I apologize that I cannot provide additional information. Your line of query is one that should be directed to Captain Tukhano and Vice-President—” The drone fell silent before it could finish. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon shared a glance. “I do believe our welcome has already been worn out, Master,” Obi-Wan said calmly. “Indeed,” Qui-Gon responded curtly. “Cover yourself!” Obi-Wan acted immediately, holding his robe up from the inside to completely cover the exposed parts of his body just as the little drone self-detonated. The small explosion rocked the elevator car, and flames hungrily clawed at the flame-resistant robes of the two men to no avail. Obi-Wan, more attuned to the Force than his Master, had also instinctively pushed at the drone with his mind as it had exploded, deflecting shrapnel that would have otherwise shredded the two men. Coughing as acrid smoke replaced the flames in the car, Obi-Wan bent forward to check on Qui-Gon, who had been closer to the floating sphere when it had exploded. “I’m fine,” Qui-Gon choked out amid wretched coughing. “Though I am certainly getting too old for this sort of thing,” he added. Obi-Wan chuckled as he straightened out and used the Force to press the black smoke up against the car’s ceiling. “Well, that was not very nice of our hosts,” he observed, taking note of the extensive damage dealt to the elevator car. The once immaculately smooth, white walls were now warped and peppered with dozens of holes, some as big as a human fist. The largest hole had even managed to puncture all the way through the car, revealing the rapid vertical ascension of the elevator in its shaft. Obi-Wan redirected the smoke, forcing it out of the hole he had found. Another explosion, this one from outside and above, rocked the elevator car, forcing Qui-Gon to his knees and almost doing the same for Obi-Wan. “Plan B is to drop us down the elevator shaft?” The padawan was incredulous. “It would appear so, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon responded, placidly composing himself on the floor as though he was about to meditate. “You may want to sit down for this,” he added. Obi-Wan dropped to his knees beside the Jedi Master just as another explosion from above shook the elevator car violently. There came the screeching of metal on metal, like the dying groan of some massive metal creature, and then Obi-Wan’s stomach seemed to jump into his throat as the car tore free of its cables and plummeted down the shaft. The elevator fell uninhibited for only a few seconds, and then Obi-Wan felt their wild descent slow, then stop. Qui-Gon’s eyes were shut as he focused on holding the elevator in place with the Force. Obi-Wan stood again and took two steps toward the car’s door. He placed both hands, palm-first, on the cool surface. With a thought, the padawan pushed on the door, channeling the Force through his hands. The door bulged outward with a metallic squeal, but Obi-Wan could feel the object resisting his efforts, the natural tendency of solid matter to retain its shape. The padawan concentrated harder, and the door burst away from the elevator car with a loud clang, smashing into the nearby shaft wall before dropping away out of sight. “We need an exit, Master,” Obi-Wan called over his shoulder as he peered out of the gaping wound he had created in the elevator car. He looked down, but could not spot an access hatch; when he turned his head to look up, he could just make out an opening in the shaft where two Neimoidian security officers were frantically reloading their large shoulder cannon. Stretching his right hand out of the the car, Obi-Wan reached out with his mind and grasped the two unfortunate officers, imagining them in the grip of his fist. With a sudden jerk of his hand, Obi-Wan wrenched the hapless Neimoidians from their perch and down into the shaft. Their screams were cut short when their bodies crunched sickeningly against the top of the elevator car. Obi-Wan grimaced at the sound and cast a glance back at Qui-Gon. The Master was looking at the younger man disapprovingly, with a raised eyebrow. “I am sorry, Master,” Obi-Wan apologized. “I just didn’t think that our little vehicle would do well against another blast from their cannon.” Qui-Gon just shook his head, closed his eyes, and continued to Force-lift the elevator car. Shrugging, Obi-Wan turned back to the open doorway to watch the elevator shaft seemingly fall away as they ascended. They reached the open hatch above, and Qui-Gon held the car in place while the two men disembarked. They found themselves in another white corridor, similar to the one the drone had led them through, except that approximately one hundred meters from the elevator shaft the corridor branched into another at a ninety degree angle. As Qui-Gon took the lead and walked toward the branch, the elevator car left to scream down the shaft, a squad of fully-armored Neimoidian shock troops poured out of the adjoining corridor. With their glossy black military-grade exoskin covering them from head to toe, including the varied skull ridges that protruded from their heads like ceremonious antlers, the squad resembled a swarm of very large, bipedal beetles. Their musculature was accentuated and enhanced by the biotechnological armor they wore, adding a distinctly threatening characteristic to their appearance. All of the soldiers carried the latest model of the Trade Federation’s most popular heavy assault blaster, and several were already raised and poised to fire upon the Jedi. Obi-Wan threw out his left hand and Force-pushed the vanguard violently into the nearest wall. Even with the protective exoskin, the skeletons of the three unfortunate point soldiers shattered loudly as they slammed into the wall, their shouts of surprise cut short. With his right hand, Obi-Wan drew his lightsaber, the blue plasma of the blade erupting out of the hilt upon his touch. The padawan heard the distinctive buzz of his Master’s lightsaber powering on next to him, but he did not spare a glance. Instead, before the rest of the security squad could recover, Obi-Wan Force-pulled on the next two soldiers while launching himself into the air; simple physics did the rest for him, sending him flying through the corridor towards the soldiers hurtling straight toward him. Before they could collide, Obi-Wan used the Force to push himself down to the floor, fatally smashing the two soldiers against the corridor’s ceiling. Their bodies hadn’t even collapsed to the floor by the time Obi-Wan bounded into the midst of the remaining squad. The surviving members of the squad had finally managed to start discharging their weapons, but with Obi-Wan among them in extremely close quarters, and with Qui-Gon using his lightsaber to easily deflect any stray plasma rounds that shot down the corridor toward him, their resistance was far too weak and too late to save them. Obi-Wan’s blue saber buzzed and whirred lethally, hewing through the squad with ease. The intense heat from the plasma blade cauterized as it cut, so that by the time Obi-Wan was finished and the seven bodies of his victims lay about him in various pieces, only very little of their deep purple blood tarnished the brilliant white walls and floor of the corridor. Obi-Wan straightened out of his fighting stance and powered off his lightsaber. He drew open his robe and placed his lightsaber against the outside of his right thigh. The electrotissue of his exoskin eagerly stretched out and grasped the hilt of the weapon, securing the lightsaber to the padawan’s side. Qui-Gon calmly approached the outside edge of the carnage, his lightsaber already securely tucked away beneath his robe as well. Glancing around at the bodies, Qui-Gon shook his head sadly. “Ours is a tragic task,” he commented. “Such a waste of life.” Obi-Wan nodded in agreement. “The fleet commanders should know better than to use aggression in an attempt to stop Jedi,” he continued. “I believe the problem is that their superiors did not care for their lives,” Obi-Wan suggested sagely. “These soldiers were expendable, meant to slow us down.” “I hope they see how little time that afforded them,” Qui-Gon said a bit louder than needed, for the benefit of whomever might be monitoring the security feeds of the corridor. “No doubt, though,” he directed to Obi-Wan more quietly, “they will continue to try. It is time to discard our outerwear, Obi-Wan. We will get to the bottom of this dispute, even if the our hosts choose the barbaric route over civilized negotiations.” Obi-Wan obediently disrobed, revealing the off-white exoskin he wore beneath. The armor molded to the padawan’s bare skin, mimicking his musculature, the physique of young man trained for combat since childhood. The armor was about two centimeters thick, adding considerable bulk to Obi-Wan’s body. He was a small man, at a height of 170 centimeters compared to Qui-Gon’s 185, but his frame was wider and his body younger; particularly with the exoskin, Obi-Wan looked like he was built for war. The padawan imagined the armor extending itself to cover his head and face, and the thought sent the appropriate signals to the cluster of nerve receptors plugged into the small implant at the base of Obi-Wan’s neck. The exoskin responded immediately, the bulge of extra electrotissue that ringed Obi-Wan’s shoulders surging upward, growing over his head to form a featureless mask and helmet. Millions of nanoscopic bioreceptors on the ends of each fiber of electrotissue covering his face constantly fed visual and auditory data directly into Obi-Wan’s nervous system, giving him enhanced sight and hearing capabilities. When he turned to look at Master Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan saw that the Jedi Master was also now completely covered in armor, with the same featureless mask presented to the world. Obi-Wan briefly noted that a fully armored Jedi was likely terrifying to his or her enemies. Let us find this Captain Tukhano and Vice-President Nguwen, shall we? Qui-Gon’s voice was projected directly into Obi-Wan’s auditory receptors via the exoskins’ ad hoc network. The Jedi turned down the corridor where the security team had come from, walking at a brisk pace. Obi-Wan cast a glance around at the bodies and parts strewn around him. Using the Force to quickly gather his victims’ remains into a neat pile, the padawan draped both his and Qui-Gon’s large brown robes over the pile. Finished, Obi-Wan bowed respectfully toward the bodies, and then turned in a smart about-face and jogged down the corridor to catch up with his master.

2.1 – Mikol [sic]

An ominous feeling of dread filled Obi-Wan’s mind as he watched the Neimoidian dreadnought Independence grow ever larger on the virtual viewport.

To be fair, he thought, it is in the nature of a dreadnought to inspire dread. The corner of his mouth lifted in a half-hearted smirk, but the expanding darkness in his mind threatened to crush even his indomitable good humor.

“I have a very bad feeling about this, Master,” he said, turning to the older Jedi by his side.

“Yes,” replied his friend and mentor, not even bothering to raise his eyes from the holopad projected in his lap. “This is a trap. They intend to kill us.”

“It is not that, Master. That feels…small, compared to what I am feeling.”

Qui-Gon sighed and looked up from the words and images displayed by the tiny projector hovering in the air before him. “Very well.” He closed his eyes and drew a deep, steady breath. “Clear your mind, and we will see if I can help find the source of your discomfort.”

Obi-Wan obediently closed his eyes and banished all thought from his mind. He was immediately enveloped in the warm, nebulous presence of the Force. He felt Qui-Gon’s mind–old, knowledgeable, and kind–gently attach to his own. With a small impulse, Obi-Wan expanded his presence in the ether of the Force, probing for the dark blot that represented the near and present danger of the Neimoidian trap.

As their minds brushed against the small, black anomaly, images and feelings flooded through their minds. Murderous intent, nervous anxiety, contempt, fear, aggression, and fleeting glimpses of battle, of flying bodies, explosions, and the hum of dancing lightsabers. A regrettable event in spacetime, no doubt, but not a threat to the success of their mission.

With a much stronger impulse, Obi-Wan set his mind to expand through the Force until his presence felt stretched to its breaking point and the ether had become thick and obscuring. At the edge of his reach, Obi-Wan brushed against a dark object so massive that it seemed the Force just outside his sphere of influence had been replaced with nothingness. His mind sought to recoil from the abyss, but Obi-Wan was nothing if not stubborn. With the unbending iron will that forever hid just beneath the surface of his jovial and mischievous nature, the experienced padawan sent another powerful surge of mental energy to shore up the limits of his presence in the Force.

Simultaneously, Qui-Gon expanded his own presence in the ether, joining Obi-Wan in an effort to push farther into the void. The more attention the two men focused on the abyss, the more it seemed to push back, exerting an unpleasant pressure on their shared energy. Probing the darkness along multiple points of their maximum limit only served to weaken their shared sphere of influence. Finally, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon focused their shared energy into a spear of light thrusting into the unknown. Rather than illuminate their quarry, the darkness reacted in an almost sentient fashion, defending itself from their combined efforts by sending a searing jolt of pain into Obi-Wan’s and Qui-Gon’s minds. Though the experience lasted mere seconds, the agony was so great that it felt as though it lasted an eternity. The shock broke the connection between the two men, and they were unceremoniously dumped back into physical reality.

Obi-Wan came back to himself to find his hands clutching the armrests of his acceleration chair, and his mouth sore from clenching his jaw. He turned to Qui-Gon, and the two shared a worried glance. Qui-Gon tapped the biometric harness that bound him to his seat, and without a word he stood and walked over to the large virtual viewport, his arms tucked into the folds of his robe. Obi-Wan took a moment to flex his fingers and toes, and to work out the tightness in his jaw, and then he followed the Master’s example.

They stood in silence as they made their final approach to the Independence. Deep green photovoltaic plating filled the screen, all of space blocked from view by the massive starship. Measuring a full kilometer in length, the Independence was still one of the smallest dreadnoughts manufactured by the Trade Federation for the Neimoidian fleet, but it also boasted the latest in shield and stealth technology, making it one of the most persistently dangerous ships in Confederation space.

“It seems they will be putting us in one of the aft cargo bays,” Obi-Wan noted as giant blast doors parted to reveal a bustling landing deck. Qui-Gon said nothing, staring blankly at the vid screen as though it might reveal some secret to him if only he paid close enough attention. “An effort to keep us as far away from the bridge as possible, I would guess,” the padawan continued quietly to himself. He had grown accustomed to Qui-Gon’s occasional introspections, but had yet to master the art of remaining silent. “I do take pleasure in the mechanics of speech,” Obi-Wan confessed, shrugging and speaking mostly to himself.

Their little automated shuttle, operating on commands from the Independence’s flight controller, slowly crossed the kinetic force field that protected the cargo bay from outgassing. The hair on Obi-Wan’s arms and neck stood upright as the field passed through him. The idea that atmosphere and pressure were contained by an invisible energy barrier dependent on electricity, an energy source so easily interrupted, always chilled the padawan.

“Give me a planet under my feet and I shall be happy once more,” Obi-Wan muttered to himself.

“You have an uncomfortable life ahead of you if you fail to overcome your fears of space and flight, my young friend.”

Obi-Wan smiled at Qui-Gon’s comment. “I would not describe them as ‘fears,’ Master Qui-Gon,” he responded, “but as preferences. I simply prefer to be on the ground, where I am not dependent on machinery for safety.”

He glanced over to find Qui-Gon glaring at him sternly.

“Sometimes, my young friend, I worry for your future as a Jedi. Your optimism and good nature are powerful allies against the darkness you will encounter in your duties, but your flippancy and casual disregard for danger may very well be the end of you.”

Obi-Wan, slightly taken aback by his mentor’s rebuke, stayed silent until the shuttle gently touched down in the space that had been cleared for it amidst the machinery and supplies in the cargo bay. As the two men bent their knees fluidly to compensate for the small bump involved with any shuttle landing, Obi-Wan decided to attribute Qui-Gon’s stern remark to the nasty shock they had both endured upon encountering the vast and almost sentient void in the Force.

“I apologize, Master, but I am not entirely sure what danger it might be that I am disregarding. I seek your guidance in this matter.” Ever the earnest student, the sincerity in Obi-Wan’s voice must have broken through Qui-Gon’s irritation, because the older man let out a sigh, shaking his head and putting a hand on Obi-Wan’s shoulder.

“Fear, Obi-Wan. Fear is the danger that you dismiss so casually,” he said, briefly squeezing Obi-Wan’s arm before lifting his hand and waggling an admonishing finger at the padawan.

Obi-Wan tilted his head quizzically and raised an eyebrow in confusion. The effect must have been comical, because Qui-Gon chuckled and shook his head once more.

“You have a question,” Qui-Gon observed, stepping away from the virtual viewport as it irised off, revealing a blank metal bulkhead as opaque as the rest of the shuttle’s interior.

“Yes, Master,” Obi-Wan replied, following the older man into the shuttle’s main corridor. “We are taught that fear is poisonous, a clear path to darkness. Is this not true?”

“It is true, yes,” conceded the Jedi Master. “However, you make the mistake of assuming that you can defeat fear by ignoring it. That path leads to suffering and death, if not to darkness.”

The two men paused at the shuttle’s passenger hatch, waiting patiently for Independence’s traffic computer to clear the shuttle for safe disembarkment. Obi-Wan contemplated Qui-Gon’s words, introspectively analyzing his past behaviors and reasoning how he may have been foolishly putting himself, and others, in danger.

“How, then, shall I defeat fear, Master?”

“Again, you assume too much, my padawan,” admonished the Jedi Master. “You assume that fear is a force to be defeated. That is similar to thinking that a planetary weather system is a force to be defeated.”

“But we have defeated weather systems, Master,” Obi-Wan declared. “Many planets within the Republic have adopted weather management systems to dampen the most destructive forces of nature.”

“Ah, now we come to it,” Qui-Gon quickly replied, rising a finger thoughtfully. “Those worlds you speak of have not defeated nature any more than Jedi have defeated fear. On those worlds, the weather is managed.”

A female voice rang through the shuttle, declaring in clear, enunciated Galactic Basic Standard that the Jedi could safely exit the small craft.

“‘Safe’ is a relative term in this case, considering their plans,” Qui-Gon joked quietly in an aside highly uncharacteristic of the older man.

I must be rubbing off on him.

Qui-Gon set off down the ramp, and Obi-Wan followed closely. They were greeted at the bottom of the ramp by the translucent blue hologram of a handsome older woman, projected by a small spherical drone floating just off to the side.

“If the respected delegates from the Galactic Republic will please follow me,” said the hologram, gesturing with her hand in the direction of a large bay door directly across from the shuttle, “I will deliver you to the conference room where Captain Tukhano and Vice-President Nguwen of the Trade Federation will meet you for negotiations.”

“Is it normal for the Neimoidian fleet to employ human figures in its holographic VIs?” Obi-Wan, always curious, directed the question at the spherical drone rather than the hologram. He always preferred to deal with the source of the virtual interface, rather than the illusion the interface created.

“No, respected delegate. However, just as the Neimoidian fleet uses Galactic Basic for ship designations, for the sake of trade partners, so does the fleet carry an expansive library of VIs, to accommodate any delegates we might entertain aboard our vessels. Does this interface not please you? Another can be assumed.”

“There is no need for that,” Qui-Gon assured the drone. “Please, lead us to the conference room.”

“Of course, respected delegate,” the VI responded. The drone floated away, toward the bay door the VI had indicated earlier, and the VI moved its legs to provide the illusion of walking. Qui-Gon immediately followed the hologram, and Obi-Wan could only shake his head and follow suit. He personally would have had the drone turn off the VI, but the matter certainly was not worth another lecture from his friend about the virtue of software designed to emulate sentience.

The large bay door slid open quickly and quietly, indicative of the dreadnought’s young age and relatively peaceful tour of service. Though the ship had been involved in several trade dispute blockades, to Obi-Wan’s knowledge Independence’s main gun—the massive rail gun that ran nearly from stern to bow, necessitating the dreadnought’s length—had only ever been fired in carefully controlled training exercises. The ship’s peaceful history was reflected in the pristine conditions of its exterior and interior functions.

With the drone leading at a comfortable pace, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon walked through a brightly lit corridor wide enough for a small speeder to navigate. The walls were smooth and gleaming, painted a glossy blue-white hue. Dark, thin sensor strips near the ceiling ran the entire length of the corridor, and likely the entire vessel, presumably allowing the ship’s security detachment to see and hear everything happening aboard Independence.

“If I may, Master—

“You are wondering how you should manage your fear, if not to dismiss it,” Qui-Gon interrupted.

“Yes, Master,” Obi-Wan nodded in affirmation as they walked.

“You must first acknowledge that you are afraid, Obi-Wan.” Qui-Gon adopted the same posture and tone he used when delivering lectures at the Jedi Academy, forcing Obi-Wan to hide a smile as the older man fell into his most comfortable role, that of a teacher. “What are we taught about our feelings, our instincts?”

“A Jedi is one with the Force. As a Jedi, I must trust my feelings, because they flow outward from the Force.”

Qui-Gon nodded in approval. “Precisely. Fear is a feeling just like any other you will experience. Fear, anger, and sorrow are important feelings, Obi-Wan, because they speak to the cores of our beings. We are not machines, and we must not strive to be like machines. The Force only acts through life.”

Obi-Wan increased his pace so that he could walk beside his mentor. “I am beginning to understand, Master,” Obi-Wan started, “but what about the risks posed by these darker emotions?”

“A Jedi is not defined by his or her thoughts and emotions, Obi-Wan. A Jedi is defined by action. Admitting that you are afraid takes a tremendous amount of courage. Acting righteously and without hesitation, even in the clutches of such dark emotions, takes an even greater amount of courage. This is what separates the Jedi from the sith, and a Jedi from a Jedi Master.”

The holographic woman had stopped just outside a door set into the right wall of the long corridor, the little floating drone suspended in the air just a few feet away. The door slid open without a sound, revealing a roomy elevator car. The holographic display winked off, and the drone buzzed into the car. The two brown-robed men followed, and the door silently closed behind them. There was a short tone and a very brief, almost imperceptible jolt, and then the car accelerated upward, toward the main crew decks.

“I see,” Obi-Wan said slowly, digesting his mentor’s lesson. “Am I to assume, then, that this sort of temperance is involved in the Temple Trials?”

“That is a safe assumption,” Qui-Gon said quietly, a faraway look stealing onto his face as he stared straight ahead at the elevator door. “However, remember that the trials are unique to each Jedi attempting them. You can never be fully prepared.”

Obi-Wan opened his mouth to ask more of Qui-Gon, but the Master interrupted him. “And that is all I have to say on the matter, my padawan.” Obi-Wan swallowed his question and shut his mouth, knowing better than to press the older man any further. Absently flicking the single braid of hair that marked his station as padawan over his shoulder, the young man turned to the spherical drone.

Independence, what information are you authorized to provide us concerning the nature of this blockade?”

There was a brief moment of silence as the little drone presumably queried the ship’s mainframe and diplomatic parameters, and then it responded in the same female human voice projected by the VI. “Unfortunately, respected delegate, I cannot provide you with any information other than what you have already received via the short-beam briefing that was transmitted to your vessel: we believe that the ruling body of Naboo commissioned the research and development of weapons designed specifically to target Neimoidian physiology, and as such we are legally obliged to blockade the planet until such a time as a thorough investigation has been completed.”

Obi-Wan cocked his head quizzically. “That is rather odd, considering that the ruling government of Naboo does not even have a standing military.”

“Again,” replied the drone, “I apologize that I cannot provide additional information. Your line of query is one that should be directed to Captain Tukhano and Vice-President—” The drone fell silent before it could finish. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon shared a glance.

“I do believe our welcome has already been worn out, Master,” Obi-Wan said calmly.

“Indeed,” Qui-Gon responded curtly. “Cover yourself!”

Obi-Wan acted immediately, holding his robe up from the inside to completely cover the exposed parts of his body just as the little drone self-detonated. The small explosion rocked the elevator car, and flames hungrily clawed at the flame-resistant robes of the two men to no avail. Obi-Wan, more attuned to the Force than his Master, had also instinctively pushed at the drone with his mind as it had exploded, deflecting shrapnel that would have otherwise shredded the two men.

Coughing as acrid smoke replaced the flames in the car, Obi-Wan bent forward to check on Qui-Gon, who had been closer to the floating sphere when it had exploded.

“I’m fine,” Qui-Gon choked out amid wretched coughing. “Though I am certainly getting too old for this sort of thing,” he added.

Obi-Wan chuckled as he straightened out and used the Force to press the black smoke up against the car’s ceiling. “Well, that was not very nice of our hosts,” he observed, taking note of the extensive damage dealt to the elevator car. The once immaculately smooth, white walls were now warped and peppered with dozens of holes, some as big as a human fist. The largest hole had even managed to puncture all the way through the car, revealing the rapid vertical ascension of the elevator in its shaft. Obi-Wan redirected the smoke, forcing it out of the hole he had found.

Another explosion, this one from outside and above, rocked the elevator car, forcing Qui-Gon to his knees and almost doing the same for Obi-Wan.

“Plan B is to drop us down the elevator shaft?” The padawan was incredulous.

“It would appear so, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon responded, placidly composing himself on the floor as though he was about to meditate. “You may want to sit down for this,” he added.

Obi-Wan dropped to his knees beside the Jedi Master just as another explosion from above shook the elevator car violently. There came the screeching of metal on metal, like the dying groan of some massive metal creature, and then Obi-Wan’s stomach seemed to jump into his throat as the car tore free of its cables and plummeted down the shaft.

The elevator fell uninhibited for only a few seconds, and then Obi-Wan felt their wild descent slow, then stop. Qui-Gon’s eyes were shut as he focused on holding the elevator in place with the Force.

Obi-Wan stood again and took two steps toward the car’s door. He placed both hands, palm-first, on the cool surface. With a thought, the padawan pushed on the door, channeling the Force through his hands. The door bulged outward with a metallic squeal, but Obi-Wan could feel the object resisting his efforts, the natural tendency of solid matter to retain its shape. The padawan concentrated harder, and the door burst away from the elevator car with a loud clang, smashing into the nearby shaft wall before dropping away out of sight.

“We need an exit, Master,” Obi-Wan called over his shoulder as he peered out of the gaping wound he had created in the elevator car. He looked down, but could not spot an access hatch; when he turned his head to look up, he could just make out an opening in the shaft where two Neimoidian security officers were frantically reloading their large shoulder cannon. Stretching his right hand out of the the car, Obi-Wan reached out with his mind and grasped the two unfortunate officers, imagining them in the grip of his fist. With a sudden jerk of his hand, Obi-Wan wrenched the hapless Neimoidians from their perch and down into the shaft. Their screams were cut short when their bodies crunched sickeningly against the top of the elevator car.

Obi-Wan grimaced at the sound and cast a glance back at Qui-Gon. The Master was looking at the younger man disapprovingly, with a raised eyebrow. “I am sorry, Master,” Obi-Wan apologized. “I just didn’t think that our little vehicle would do well against another blast from their cannon.” Qui-Gon just shook his head, closed his eyes, and continued to Force-lift the elevator car. Shrugging, Obi-Wan turned back to the open doorway to watch the elevator shaft seemingly fall away as they ascended.

They reached the open hatch above, and Qui-Gon held the car in place while the two men disembarked. They found themselves in another white corridor, similar to the one the drone had led them through, except that approximately one hundred meters from the elevator shaft the corridor branched into another at a ninety degree angle. As Qui-Gon took the lead and walked toward the branch, the elevator car left to scream down the shaft, a squad of fully-armored Neimoidian shock troops poured out of the adjoining corridor.

With their glossy black military-grade exoskin covering them from head to toe, including the varied skull ridges that protruded from their heads like ceremonious antlers, the squad resembled a swarm of very large, bipedal beetles. Their musculature was accentuated and enhanced by the biotechnological armor they wore, adding a distinctly threatening characteristic to their appearance. All of the soldiers carried the latest model of the Trade Federation’s most popular heavy assault blaster, and several were already raised and poised to fire upon the Jedi.

Obi-Wan threw out his left hand and Force-pushed the vanguard violently into the nearest wall. Even with the protective exoskin, the skeletons of the three unfortunate point soldiers shattered loudly as they slammed into the wall, their shouts of surprise cut short. With his right hand, Obi-Wan drew his lightsaber, the blue plasma of the blade erupting out of the hilt upon his touch. The padawan heard the distinctive buzz of his Master’s lightsaber powering on next to him, but he did not spare a glance. Instead, before the rest of the security squad could recover, Obi-Wan Force-pulled on the next two soldiers while launching himself into the air; simple physics did the rest for him, sending him flying through the corridor towards the soldiers hurtling straight toward him. Before they could collide, Obi-Wan used the Force to push himself down to the floor, fatally smashing the two soldiers against the corridor’s ceiling. Their bodies hadn’t even collapsed to the floor by the time Obi-Wan bounded into the midst of the remaining squad.

The surviving members of the squad had finally managed to start discharging their weapons, but with Obi-Wan among them in extremely close quarters, and with Qui-Gon using his lightsaber to easily deflect any stray plasma rounds that shot down the corridor toward him, their resistance was far too weak and too late to save them. Obi-Wan’s blue saber buzzed and whirred lethally, hewing through the squad with ease. The intense heat from the plasma blade cauterized as it cut, so that by the time Obi-Wan was finished and the seven bodies of his victims lay about him in various pieces, only very little of their deep purple blood tarnished the brilliant white walls and floor of the corridor.

Obi-Wan straightened out of his fighting stance and powered off his lightsaber. He drew open his robe and placed his lightsaber against the outside of his right thigh. The electrotissue of his exoskin eagerly stretched out and grasped the hilt of the weapon, securing the lightsaber to the padawan’s side.

Qui-Gon calmly approached the outside edge of the carnage, his lightsaber already securely tucked away beneath his robe as well. Glancing around at the bodies, Qui-Gon shook his head sadly.

“Ours is a tragic task,” he commented. “Such a waste of life.” Obi-Wan nodded in agreement. “The fleet commanders should know better than to use aggression in an attempt to stop Jedi,” he continued.

“I believe the problem is that their superiors did not care for their lives,” Obi-Wan suggested sagely. “These soldiers were expendable, meant to slow us down.”

“I hope they see how little time that afforded them,” Qui-Gon said a bit louder than needed, for the benefit of whomever might be monitoring the security feeds of the corridor. “No doubt, though,” he directed to Obi-Wan more quietly, “they will continue to try. It is time to discard our outerwear, Obi-Wan. We will get to the bottom of this dispute, even if the our hosts choose the barbaric route over civilized negotiations.”

Obi-Wan obediently disrobed, revealing the off-white exoskin he wore beneath. The armor molded to the padawan’s bare skin, mimicking his musculature, the physique of young man trained for combat since childhood. The armor was about two centimeters thick, adding considerable bulk to Obi-Wan’s body. He was a small man, at a height of 170 centimeters compared to Qui-Gon’s 185, but his frame was wider and his body younger; particularly with the exoskin, Obi-Wan looked like he was built for war.

The padawan imagined the armor extending itself to cover his head and face, and the thought sent the appropriate signals to the cluster of nerve receptors plugged into the small implant at the base of Obi-Wan’s neck. The exoskin responded immediately, the bulge of extra electrotissue that ringed Obi-Wan’s shoulders surging upward, growing over his head to form a featureless mask and helmet. Millions of nanoscopic bioreceptors on the ends of each fiber of electrotissue covering his face constantly fed visual and auditory data directly into Obi-Wan’s nervous system, giving him enhanced sight and hearing capabilities.

When he turned to look at Master Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan saw that the Jedi Master was also now completely covered in armor, with the same featureless mask presented to the world. Obi-Wan briefly noted that a fully armored Jedi was likely terrifying to his or her enemies.

Let us find this Captain Tukhano and Vice-President Nguwen, shall we? Qui-Gon’s voice was projected directly into Obi-Wan’s auditory receptors via the exoskins’ ad hoc network. The Jedi turned down the corridor where the security team had come from, walking at a brisk pace.

Obi-Wan cast a glance around at the bodies and parts strewn around him. Using the Force to quickly gather his victims’ remains into a neat pile, the padawan draped both his and Qui-Gon’s large brown robes over the pile. Finished, Obi-Wan bowed respectfully toward the bodies, and then turned in a smart about-face and jogged down the corridor to catch up with his master.

2.0 – Star Wars Fan Fiction This thread is going to be a tribute to Star Wars, and as such will feature many characters, plot elements, and other similarities to George Lucas’s vision of the fantastic universe he created. We do not own the rights to those things, and this will only be a work of fan fiction. This material is free to any user, we will not be using the material for any commercial purposes, and we do not endorse the use of any of this material in any commercial setting by any other user. Also, to all the Star Wars fans out there: please don’t hate us for the angle we’re taking with this. It is simply a creative experiment to see how things might have unfolded if the Star Wars stories had taken place in a universe just a little bit more grounded in realism, with modern sci-fi technologies (things that George Lucas, through no fault of his own, could not have even imagined in the ’70s) and a much darker, more adult take on what a “galactic” war might actually look like. We still love Star Wars! This is simply a direct product of our affection for the amazing universe that George Lucas created and allowed us to grow up with. We hope you enjoy!

2.0 – Star Wars Fan Fiction

This thread is going to be a tribute to Star Wars, and as such will feature many characters, plot elements, and other similarities to George Lucas’s vision of the fantastic universe he created. We do not own the rights to those things, and this will only be a work of fan fiction. This material is free to any user, we will not be using the material for any commercial purposes, and we do not endorse the use of any of this material in any commercial setting by any other user.

Also, to all the Star Wars fans out there: please don’t hate us for the angle we’re taking with this. It is simply a creative experiment to see how things might have unfolded if the Star Wars stories had taken place in a universe just a little bit more grounded in realism, with modern sci-fi technologies (things that George Lucas, through no fault of his own, could not have even imagined in the ’70s) and a much darker, more adult take on what a “galactic” war might actually look like.

We still love Star Wars! This is simply a direct product of our affection for the amazing universe that George Lucas created and allowed us to grow up with. We hope you enjoy!

Downtime I want to take this time to apologize to readers for the hiatus between posts. It’s my turn for the next post, and I have quite a bit written, but I recently went through several employment changes and I don’t have as much time to write as I used to. Nevertheless, the next post is coming, and I hope you will enjoy reading! Mikol [sic]

Downtime

I want to take this time to apologize to readers for the hiatus between posts. It’s my turn for the next post, and I have quite a bit written, but I recently went through several employment changes and I don’t have as much time to write as I used to. Nevertheless, the next post is coming, and I hope you will enjoy reading!

Mikol [sic]

1.7 – Mauk [sic] It was more a beast than a man standing before him. Isryle had heard of locals protecting their lands with monsters from a distant past, but had always figured it was superstitious legends spurred by fear. The thing standing before him was at least twice his height, with arms as wide as him. It held a giant club lazily in its spiked fingers. On its head, the creature wore an ash-covered helmet that hid most of its face. All Isryle could see were the glowing orange eyes. Most of its body was covered in armor, and that which was not armored was as dark as tar. In fact, the only reason Isryle first considered it a man was the fact that it was a bi-bed wearing armor. Upon closer examination he wasn’t entirely sure. The thing tilted its head and gripped its club a bit more tightly. Isryle lifted his hands before him, hoping the creature would recognize his sign of defenselessness. “I mean you no harm.” He spoke in a calm voice. “I’m just looking for shelter for the night, and perhaps a place to restock my supplies.” It continued to stand there, watching him. Isryle took this as encouragement and continued.  “I don’t want to fight, but if you attack me I will kill you. And, honestly, if there is one thing that I detest, it’s senseless death.” The creature made a sound that sounded like a chuckle. At least, Isryle hoped it sounded like a chuckle. It could have been a growl. “I’m going to demonstrate.” With that said, Isryle whipped his gun from his sling and shot the club out of the creature’s hand in less than a second. He kicked his spear up off the floor where he had dropped it when raising his hands in peace. Slinging his shotgun, Isryle ran over to the creature and knocked its legs out from beneath it, and jumped back before it crashed into the ground. His gun was now shoved into the creature’s face. Its eyes were emotionless, but it moved its hands up as Isryle had before, in a display of defeat. Isryle took his finger off of the trigger and walked backwards a ways. He then slung his gun back behind him. The creature placed its left arm on the floor and pushed, allowing it to climb to its feet. Now that Isryle was so close, his neck was bent backwards as he stared up at the giant’s glowing eyes. And then they dimmed. The creature’s chest began to split down the middle before cracking  and splitting in a flash of blinding light. Isryle lifted his arm to shield his eyes from the brilliant rays. He’d seen this before. It was as if standing before the sun. And then it was gone. He opened his eyes just as the naked man jumped out from the chest of the thing. A naked man covered in tattoos. His wounds still bleeding from the spikes he’d just removed. “That was cool.” The man said. Isryle’s heart stopped as he examined the wytch before him. It wasn’t a man but a boy. He looked no older than sixteen. Still. It was dangerous. Isryle shoved the gun into the boy’s face. Honestly, he was terrified. Though the wytch had no stakes on him, it was always better to be safe than sorry. “Wha—what is that?” He said in almost a whisper. The boy looked just as terrified. He had his hands lifted again as if to convey his harmlessness. Isryle knew better. “I thought you said you detest senseless killing.” The boy squeaked.   “I’ve spent half your lifetime hunting your kind, boy. I know what your kind is capable of. I’m just looking for a reason not to kill you. Now: what is that thing?” “I—I don’t know, to be perfectly honest.” The boys arms were still raised with his palms out as he tried inching away from the gun. “I mean, it’s been the protector of my village for my entire life. We take turns guarding our haven. Today was my first day.” He gulped as sweat poured down his brow. “Can I put on some clothes? Maybe?” Isryle nodded, but kept the gun leveled at the boy’s nose. He crouched down and slung his pack from off his shoulder. “Crouch down with me. I’ll give you my coat. I don’t want you grabbing any of your stakes.” The boy looked puzzled, but obeyed. With his free hand, Isryle reached into his pack and pulled out his heavy desert cloak. He tossed it to the boy, who nimbly caught it. As the boy placed the cloak over his head, Isryle turned to examine the defender of the village. Inside, he could see the spikes that had pierced the child’s body, which he assumed was how it got its power. A Weapon of Old. It clicked. He’d heard of the machines that had played a part in the war that lead to the Rending. He’d never bothered to imagine what they might look like. The boy raised his arms again after he was dressed. “So. Can I ask you why?”  Isryle lifted an eyebrow as the boy continued. “Why have you been hunting us?” The corner of his mouth twitched as he smirked. “That’s…mostly personal, kid. But, I’ve never been asked before. And if I’m going to kill you, I think I’d prefer you to know why. It was your people that were the catalyst for the destruction of the Old God. Your people, your machines. Your war. And now we have a demon watching over us. The new God. The Artist. Have you heard of him out here?” The boy shook his head. Negative. “Well. I work for the new God. And he wants you, some of you anyways, exterminated.” “If he’s such a monster, why do you do his bidding?” The boy questioned. Isryle’s face became stern. “The only way to stab someone in the back is to get them to offer it to you. The Artist sees almost all, and turns his back on very little. I’m that very little.” “There’s more, I know it.” The boy’s eyes had narrowed. He was a good eye for a liar. “Tell me.” “What’s your name, kid?” “Frey.” He replied. Isryle nodded before standing back up. “Well. When you go crazy,” the boy again looked puzzled, “I hunt you. And if you can best me, well then that will make you the End-Bringer. The one the Artist is looking for. The one I’m looking for. I want to find him. Fast.” “Can I ask you some more questions? You seem to know a bit about us….” Isryle nodded. “Well, what do you mean by stakes?” Isryle was taken aback. “Uh…Wh—How…” He closed his mouth and lifted his coat to reveal the spikes he had in his criss-crossed belts. He pulled one out and tossed it to the wytch. “That’s a stake. It’s what allows you to burn. To use your gift. Like in your weapon.” He said as he nodded towards the giant. The boy nodded and tossed it back to the wytch-hunter. “I’ve never seen one. And I don’t entirely know what you’re talking about. But thanks. What do you mean ‘go crazy’?” Isryle sighed. “I don’t know why. Perhaps as part of your punishment or maybe it’s always been so, but you wytches tend to go crazy. You hear voices. And then you go berserk. You fight, brutally. I’ve seen a wytch destroy a small army before.” “Punishment?” “For destroying God.” The boy fell silent after that. Isryle’s arm was getting tired from holding the gun out for so long. He lowered it. “So,” Isryle broke the silence “there are more of you in there?” The boy nodded but remained silent, staring at the hunter. He walked over towards a large boulder and noticed Isryle tense before he plopped down, taking a seat on the rock. Great. Isryle thought. A village of wytches. What plans does the artist have for them? Does he even care? Or is it only when they crack that he fears them? Isryle had to find the secret. It was the key to defeating the a Artist, he knew. "When is your watch over?" Isryle questioned. "When the sun leaves the sky," the wytch replied. Isryle made his decision. “I’ll wait with you, and when I leave, I’d like you to consider coming with me.” He could teach the boy, and learn. Most importantly, if he heard God, he’d be close for the kill. No epic journey. The boy was silent for a minute, but then replied, “I’ll go. But I have one final question. If you’ve seen one of us destroy an army, how do you kill us?” Isryle smiled. “When fighting a crazy person, I have many advantages. The best of which is reality.”

1.7 – Mauk [sic]

It was more a beast than a man standing before him. Isryle had heard of locals protecting their lands with monsters from a distant past, but had always figured it was superstitious legends spurred by fear. The thing standing before him was at least twice his height, with arms as wide as him. It held a giant club lazily in its spiked fingers. On its head, the creature wore an ash-covered helmet that hid most of its face. All Isryle could see were the glowing orange eyes. Most of its body was covered in armor, and that which was not armored was as dark as tar. In fact, the only reason Isryle first considered it a man was the fact that it was a bi-bed wearing armor. Upon closer examination he wasn’t entirely sure. The thing tilted its head and gripped its club a bit more tightly.

Isryle lifted his hands before him, hoping the creature would recognize his sign of defenselessness. “I mean you no harm.” He spoke in a calm voice. “I’m just looking for shelter for the night, and perhaps a place to restock my supplies.” It continued to stand there, watching him. Isryle took this as encouragement and continued.  “I don’t want to fight, but if you attack me I will kill you. And, honestly, if there is one thing that I detest, it’s senseless death.” The creature made a sound that sounded like a chuckle. At least, Isryle hoped it sounded like a chuckle. It could have been a growl. “I’m going to demonstrate.” With that said, Isryle whipped his gun from his sling and shot the club out of the creature’s hand in less than a second. He kicked his spear up off the floor where he had dropped it when raising his hands in peace. Slinging his shotgun, Isryle ran over to the creature and knocked its legs out from beneath it, and jumped back before it crashed into the ground. His gun was now shoved into the creature’s face.

Its eyes were emotionless, but it moved its hands up as Isryle had before, in a display of defeat. Isryle took his finger off of the trigger and walked backwards a ways. He then slung his gun back behind him. The creature placed its left arm on the floor and pushed, allowing it to climb to its feet. Now that Isryle was so close, his neck was bent backwards as he stared up at the giant’s glowing eyes. And then they dimmed.

The creature’s chest began to split down the middle before cracking  and splitting in a flash of blinding light. Isryle lifted his arm to shield his eyes from the brilliant rays. He’d seen this before. It was as if standing before the sun. And then it was gone. He opened his eyes just as the naked man jumped out from the chest of the thing. A naked man covered in tattoos. His wounds still bleeding from the spikes he’d just removed. “That was cool.” The man said. Isryle’s heart stopped as he examined the wytch before him. It wasn’t a man but a boy. He looked no older than sixteen. Still. It was dangerous.

Isryle shoved the gun into the boy’s face. Honestly, he was terrified. Though the wytch had no stakes on him, it was always better to be safe than sorry. “Wha—what is that?” He said in almost a whisper. The boy looked just as terrified. He had his hands lifted again as if to convey his harmlessness. Isryle knew better.

“I thought you said you detest senseless killing.” The boy squeaked.  

“I’ve spent half your lifetime hunting your kind, boy. I know what your kind is capable of. I’m just looking for a reason not to kill you. Now: what is that thing?”

“I—I don’t know, to be perfectly honest.” The boys arms were still raised with his palms out as he tried inching away from the gun. “I mean, it’s been the protector of my village for my entire life. We take turns guarding our haven. Today was my first day.” He gulped as sweat poured down his brow. “Can I put on some clothes? Maybe?”

Isryle nodded, but kept the gun leveled at the boy’s nose. He crouched down and slung his pack from off his shoulder. “Crouch down with me. I’ll give you my coat. I don’t want you grabbing any of your stakes.” The boy looked puzzled, but obeyed. With his free hand, Isryle reached into his pack and pulled out his heavy desert cloak. He tossed it to the boy, who nimbly caught it.
As the boy placed the cloak over his head, Isryle turned to examine the defender of the village. Inside, he could see the spikes that had pierced the child’s body, which he assumed was how it got its power. A Weapon of Old. It clicked. He’d heard of the machines that had played a part in the war that lead to the Rending. He’d never bothered to imagine what they might look like.

The boy raised his arms again after he was dressed. “So. Can I ask you why?”  Isryle lifted an eyebrow as the boy continued. “Why have you been hunting us?”

The corner of his mouth twitched as he smirked. “That’s…mostly personal, kid. But, I’ve never been asked before. And if I’m going to kill you, I think I’d prefer you to know why. It was your people that were the catalyst for the destruction of the Old God. Your people, your machines. Your war. And now we have a demon watching over us. The new God. The Artist. Have you heard of him out here?” The boy shook his head. Negative. “Well. I work for the new God. And he wants you, some of you anyways, exterminated.”

“If he’s such a monster, why do you do his bidding?” The boy questioned.

Isryle’s face became stern. “The only way to stab someone in the back is to get them to offer it to you. The Artist sees almost all, and turns his back on very little. I’m that very little.”

“There’s more, I know it.” The boy’s eyes had narrowed. He was a good eye for a liar. “Tell me.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Frey.” He replied.

Isryle nodded before standing back up. “Well. When you go crazy,” the boy again looked puzzled, “I hunt you. And if you can best me, well then that will make you the End-Bringer. The one the Artist is looking for. The one I’m looking for. I want to find him. Fast.”

“Can I ask you some more questions? You seem to know a bit about us….” Isryle nodded. “Well, what do you mean by stakes?”

Isryle was taken aback. “Uh…Wh—How…” He closed his mouth and lifted his coat to reveal the spikes he had in his criss-crossed belts. He pulled one out and tossed it to the wytch. “That’s a stake. It’s what allows you to burn. To use your gift. Like in your weapon.” He said as he nodded towards the giant. The boy nodded and tossed it back to the wytch-hunter.

“I’ve never seen one. And I don’t entirely know what you’re talking about. But thanks. What do you mean ‘go crazy’?”

Isryle sighed. “I don’t know why. Perhaps as part of your punishment or maybe it’s always been so, but you wytches tend to go crazy. You hear voices. And then you go berserk. You fight, brutally. I’ve seen a wytch destroy a small army before.”

“Punishment?”

“For destroying God.” The boy fell silent after that. Isryle’s arm was getting tired from holding the gun out for so long. He lowered it. “So,” Isryle broke the silence “there are more of you in there?”

The boy nodded but remained silent, staring at the hunter. He walked over towards a large boulder and noticed Isryle tense before he plopped down, taking a seat on the rock.

Great. Isryle thought. A village of wytches. What plans does the artist have for them? Does he even care? Or is it only when they crack that he fears them? Isryle had to find the secret. It was the key to defeating the a
Artist, he knew.

"When is your watch over?" Isryle questioned.

"When the sun leaves the sky," the wytch replied.

Isryle made his decision. “I’ll wait with you, and when I leave, I’d like you to consider coming with me.” He could teach the boy, and learn. Most importantly, if he heard God, he’d be close for the kill. No epic journey.

The boy was silent for a minute, but then replied, “I’ll go. But I have one final question. If you’ve seen one of us destroy an army, how do you kill us?”

Isryle smiled. “When fighting a crazy person, I have many advantages. The best of which is reality.”

1.6 – Joseph The dim, dying fire gave off enough light to illuminate the dark cave. This night mirrored the last one, with the obvious exception of the demon Guardian. Donovan and Sol’s temporary sanctuary had a orange hue because of their only source of warmth. He lay asleep. She sat hugging her knees. Donovan had been passed out for the majority of the last twenty-four hours. Every time the fire crackled, Sol would jump with anxiety; this night was cold despite the fire. It caused her to shiver even though the blistering sun of the day heating the surrounding desert sand and rocks. Although she was no more than three feet away from her teacher, lover, and savior, Sol was alone. After their confrontation with the Guardian, Sol had fallen into unconciousness leaving Donovan to make preparations for that night. He was able to carry her away some distance from their fight ground, where they both rested that night in the open desert. When sunrise came, it was Sol who got up and took charge. She nudged Don out of his sleep in order to get them out of the heat and into safety. She came to the conclusion that the best viable option was to head back the way they had come, where they knew for a fact there was shelter. What should have been around a three hour journey ended up being more around five hours due to Donovan’s tired state and that Sol had to dress the wounds that were made the night before for both the Torch and herself. Most of his injuries were actually healed by his Burning, but a few still remained that needed seeing to. When they got back to the canyon, the two hid in the first cave they came across. They sat near the back of the alcove and ate some of their rations. By the time they were finished, only one loaf of bread remained. Food was going to be an issue, but not one as alarming as water would be if they didn’t get out of this desert soon.  Donovan fell asleep after their meal and had stayed like such all day. Sleep was what she wanted – no, what she needed. That, however, evaded her like they were playing a game of cat and mouse. Thoughts plagued her mind; nothing made sense anymore. She was so sure of herself in the past, but now, she felt like a lost, frightened little girl. For some reason, this made her want to wake Donovan and leave this desert. She wanted to go somewhere more familiar, some place that felt more like home. That place didn’t exist anymore, the Artist saw to that. Just the thought of him made her shiver more. Unconsciously, Sol clenched her fists as she hugged her knees. Presently, the queen looked up at the cave wall opposite of her and saw something there. No, that wasn’t quite right. To “see” implies that she used her eyes; Sol felt something there. At first, she thought that it was perhaps one of the Artist’s men, or even the Artist himself, but that wasn’t the case. She felt no malice here, no animosity or even wrath. What she felt was…warm. Like something was inviting her as a friend. Come. Come, your salvation awaits, is what it said to her. It continued to say, I was made for you, and you alone. I was crafted for this day, even if neither of us knew it at the time. The mysterious forced beckoned her, and she could do nothing to ignore it. Sol unwrapped her arms from her legs and stood up. She turned to the shallow cave’s entrance, then stopped and looked down at Donovan; he was still sleeping peacefully. Sol didn’t feel any immediate danger in leaving him here alone for a short while, but she knew she shouldn’t stray for long. The Artist was a devious but attentive man after all. With that, the emerald eyed queen left the cave. She walked slowly, but with purpose, towards the body of water the Guardian had used as a trap. She continued on her way while feeling the wall of the canyon with her right hand. She came to a halt when she found what she was looking for. Etched into the cave wall was he words, “death will never be the end”. She traced the individual letters as if this act would reveal the deeper truths of this message. As she felt each symbol, Sol came to the realization that the force that summoned her here came from within her. Memories guided her feet here and it encouraged her fingers to softly caress each letter. When she was finished, Sol pulled her hand away. Her mind was flooded with the singular memory of engraving these words herself. Even though she only wrote these words four years ago, Sol reprimanded herself for being so immature.  Again, the forsaken queen felt that same mysterious force upon her. This time, however, she was able to tell that it compelled her from within; her memories were surging up again. It told her only one thing: wrong. She didn’t need it to say anymore, she knew what was wrong here. These words, they were first meant to give Sol hope, but now the hardened woman looked upon such an act as foolish and ignorant. Even back then, Sol knew the tale of God and the Usurper. She knew what terrible task was laid before her. She knew – but would not accept – that her mission was foolhardy. “Death will never be the end” were words that seemed to stem from a past long forgotten with the destruction of God into the very future. Sol scratched them into the stone for two purposes: the first was to reassure her that even with God’s death she would never stop fighting the Usurper. The second reason was to remind her that she wasn’t the only one standing up against the God slayer. Four years ago Sol was leaving her adolescent age and entering complete womanhood. Back then, Sol thought herself mature, intelligent, and aboveall, ready to face her fate. Now Sol found herself to have been weak and childish. She had been so focused on facing her own fate that she overlooked the importance of the person closest to her: Donovan. For the longest time Sol only considered herself as the full force opposing the Artist. She could not have been more wrong. If anything, it was possibly her contributions that were the most insignifigant. Donovan would be forced to bear the burden of the entire world on his shoulders, and there was so little she could do to aid him. She loathed the words she enscribed for her own cowardice almost as much as she despised herself for being so weak. She may have the only power that could confront the Artist, but she would never stop having to lean on Donovan. Even with power, she was nothing but an insect without her companion. How weak she was! Sol was certain it was her weakness that would lead Donovan to his death. Then the one real source of her happiness would come to an end. Death would be the end. Sol walked towards the pool of water and looked around. After only a few seconds of looking, she found what she wanted. The queen returned to the engraved message with a sharp, hand-sized rock in her hands. She bent beneath the words and started to etch something there. Unlike the  last time where she used Donovan’s knife, these letters were coming out in scribbles; a sharp, messy jumble of lines and curves that met and made obscure letters. Sol was finished. She stood up straight and stepped back; Sol observed that each word looked like battle scars upon the cave wall. Where as the last message was neat and readable, this one was incoherint and unattractive, perhaps symbolizing the dourness of the current situation. Upon the wall it now said: Death will never be the end, and below it read: Death is but a means to the end. All things come to an end. Do not be fooled by the illusion of time, do not be tricked by the subterfuge of the mind. Afterall, it is so easy to fall victim to the concept that familiar and timeless things are indeed immortal. This is especially the case when dealing with a living entity — say, for instance, humans. A deep-seeded realization soon took Sol as finished going over what she had just wrote. She did not trick herself into believing she understood everything — in fact, she succombed to the truth that she knew almost nothing at all — but from what she had seen, this passage was far more accurate than her last. And if that was the case, then she had to question one thing: if everything eventually came to an end, then would God fit into the category of “everything”? Is Donovan and her crusade nothing but folly then? Was there even a point in continuing? Of course there was, Sol resolved. Perhaps there was nothing the pair could do for God, but they still could fight the Usurper. If not for God, then for man. That would be their focus. She would make sure that the Artist would die, even if it was the last thing she did. Mankind needed a future free of a tyrants hand, of that she was sure. Sol, deep in thought, dropped the rock to the floor and left the cave. Though the majority of her mind was preoccupied with itself, some part realized she had to return to Donovan soon. As the emerald eye queen made her way, she went over in her mind as to figure out how she was going to explain everything to Donovan. What to tell him? How to explain their current situation? There is so much to explain. Do I dare say too much too soon? I’m sure there is much that he will ask about, and I have my own inquiries. Do I broach that subject? No, it was probably no more than exhaustion that forced Donovan to believe that there was more than just me with him. But that is just one of few questions in mind. So much information needs to be shared between us, but still…  She slowly trudged into her and Donovan’s little alcove. Sol didn’t even notice that he was awake, sitting up waiting for her to return. She simply walked right past him and sat down on her own makeshift cot. "Where did you go?" he asked. Sol startled at the sound of his voice. She was pulled violently from her introverted mood like gravity held everything down to the planet.  "Donovan! I didn’t notice you. I was just…investigating. Went back to the pond is all. We appear to be safe, which in and of itself is a mystery." She leaned forward into his pack and produced their last piece of bread. "Here," she said, handing the bread to him. "Eat this. I’m sure you must be hungry." "But, Sol, I —" "Don’t worry. We need more water than food right now. I imagine if we don’t leave the desert soon, a single peice of bread will do no good. Besides, we humans can survive longer without food than without water, espescially in this environment. We can collect plenty of water from the pond — it is no longer charmed due to the Warden’s death, afterall." "Fine," Donovan muttered grudgedly. He took a meager bite of the bread then set it aside. "Sol, I need you to help me to understand. I need you to explain what is going on." "I figured as much. Perhaps I should start at the very beginning. Before the Rending. There was man and all life of today, who stood along side creatures of long since past. And these life forms were bound in harmony by the presence of God. But one saw fit to throw chaos into such harmony. That one goes by the title, "The Artist". A cruel and foul being. Usurper. Now this part, I do not know why, but the Usurper decided on his own that God had no place among the living. No one knows how, but he succeeded. The Artist gave death to God." "Those of faith see shadows of deities in prophecies and the most minute of actions," Donovan quoted. "Do not paint me a mindless fanatic, Wayward Sword!" she roared. He instinctively pulled away from her, then relaxed. “I’m sorry, Sol, but how exactly does one kill God? Is there any real evidence of these events?” "I understand; it is difficult to accept at first," her tone had softened and she was no longer yelling. "Have you ever felt like there was an emptiness within? Like there was a hollow void in you that you could never really fill? Don’t lie. I know you feel it like I do. That is our humanity telling us we are nothing without our Father. Then there is also the Rending to consider. When God died, the world was reshaped. The planet was scarred and creatures went extinct." "How exactly did that happen? I mean, how could God’s death cause all that?" For some reason, even though any solid evidence of what Sol said was true was missing, Don felt a powerful compulsion to believe in her with all his heart. "You see, the creatures of today sort of….evolved. We adapted to a life style where God was no longer a necessity even before the Rending. Those creatures that were lost to the abyss did not." Silence ensued for a minute or two afterwards. It felt like an eternity to Sol. Would Donovan shoulder the future with her — could he? His deccision had been made, eons before his own birth perhaps, but the queen was oblivious to that fact at the time. "Sol, you made references to ‘Wardens’," Don said.  "That thing we fought — that demon — was that one of those Wardens?" "Yes." "Why would the Usurper send one of his Wardens after us? In fact, for that matter, what did they plan to do with you?" "I don’t know, Donovan. If the Usurper sent one of his top warriors after us, that must mean he sees merrit in our death. It seemed to me that your death was the prime objective, but I don’t see how that could be right. I can say this for now, however. The Usurper sees all. He observes and documents what he wills. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume he watches us even now." Donovan showed obvious signs of internal strife with this new development. After awhile, he replied, “Even so…we dealt with one Warden, so that means one of these Pillar things is destroyed, right? So then, where do we go from here?” Donovan presently looked down at the remaining piece of bread in his hand, lifted it to his lips and took a bite. "I have good and bad news on that subject. The good news is that we did manage to destroy a cursed Pillar, but I’m sure the Usurper has many more for us to deal with. I know of their existance, and yet I don’t know where they are or how many of them there are. Great source of information I am!" she joked. Donovan, however, saw a total lack of mirth in her eyes. Solemnly, Sol continued, "I think we must destroy all the Pillars, even though I know not how many there are. Once that is done we may finally have a chance to place our hands around the throat of the Usurper! But first, we must leave this damned desert. This merciless land may yet be the death of us both." She wanted to say more. She wanted to check on her people; no, she would need to go to the capital, Cunabula Deus. Not now. They couldn’t afford to go right now, but soon. It was her duty as the queen. "Well then," Donovan said. He quickly finished off the bread and stood up. "We should be on our way, right, Sol?" Asking about his wounds at this point would be useless. “Yes, I think that would be best. We can’t stay in one place for too long with that cursed Usurper always about.” She too got up and began to pack up their belongings. “We’ll make quick work of crossing this desert.” The two companions were packed and ready in a matter of seconds. Donovan did the best he could to cover up their fire even though it was a futile effort. He shouldered his pack and meet Sol outside the cave. "I think we should go west," Sol voiced. "West it is then." Sol the queen and Donovan the Torch turned westward and began their trek all over again. This time, however, their feet marched with a purpose in mind now. Still, shadows squirmed all around them, snapping at their heels. Purpose helped, but this evil would be upon them and then crash down upon them with ferocity. And soon, too.

1.6 – Joseph

The dim, dying fire gave off enough light to illuminate the dark cave. This night mirrored the last one, with the obvious exception of the demon Guardian. Donovan and Sol’s temporary sanctuary had a orange hue because of their only source of warmth. He lay asleep. She sat hugging her knees. Donovan had been passed out for the majority of the last twenty-four hours. Every time the fire crackled, Sol would jump with anxiety; this night was cold despite the fire. It caused her to shiver even though the blistering sun of the day heating the surrounding desert sand and rocks. Although she was no more than three feet away from her teacher, lover, and savior, Sol was alone.

After their confrontation with the Guardian, Sol had fallen into unconciousness leaving Donovan to make preparations for that night. He was able to carry her away some distance from their fight ground, where they both rested that night in the open desert. When sunrise came, it was Sol who got up and took charge. She nudged Don out of his sleep in order to get them out of the heat and into safety. She came to the conclusion that the best viable option was to head back the way they had come, where they knew for a fact there was shelter. What should have been around a three hour journey ended up being more around five hours due to Donovan’s tired state and that Sol had to dress the wounds that were made the night before for both the Torch and herself. Most of his injuries were actually healed by his Burning, but a few still remained that needed seeing to.

When they got back to the canyon, the two hid in the first cave they came across. They sat near the back of the alcove and ate some of their rations. By the time they were finished, only one loaf of bread remained. Food was going to be an issue, but not one as alarming as water would be if they didn’t get out of this desert soon. 

Donovan fell asleep after their meal and had stayed like such all day. Sleep was what she wanted – no, what she needed. That, however, evaded her like they were playing a game of cat and mouse. Thoughts plagued her mind; nothing made sense anymore. She was so sure of herself in the past, but now, she felt like a lost, frightened little girl. For some reason, this made her want to wake Donovan and leave this desert. She wanted to go somewhere more familiar, some place that felt more like home. That place didn’t exist anymore, the Artist saw to that. Just the thought of him made her shiver more. Unconsciously, Sol clenched her fists as she hugged her knees.

Presently, the queen looked up at the cave wall opposite of her and saw something there. No, that wasn’t quite right. To “see” implies that she used her eyes; Sol felt something there. At first, she thought that it was perhaps one of the Artist’s men, or even the Artist himself, but that wasn’t the case. She felt no malice here, no animosity or even wrath. What she felt was…warm. Like something was inviting her as a friend. Come. Come, your salvation awaits, is what it said to her. It continued to say, I was made for you, and you alone. I was crafted for this day, even if neither of us knew it at the time. The mysterious forced beckoned her, and she could do nothing to ignore it.

Sol unwrapped her arms from her legs and stood up. She turned to the shallow cave’s entrance, then stopped and looked down at Donovan; he was still sleeping peacefully. Sol didn’t feel any immediate danger in leaving him here alone for a short while, but she knew she shouldn’t stray for long. The Artist was a devious but attentive man after all. With that, the emerald eyed queen left the cave. She walked slowly, but with purpose, towards the body of water the Guardian had used as a trap. She continued on her way while feeling the wall of the canyon with her right hand. She came to a halt when she found what she was looking for. Etched into the cave wall was he words, “death will never be the end”. She traced the individual letters as if this act would reveal the deeper truths of this message. As she felt each symbol, Sol came to the realization that the force that summoned her here came from within her. Memories guided her feet here and it encouraged her fingers to softly caress each letter.

When she was finished, Sol pulled her hand away. Her mind was flooded with the singular memory of engraving these words herself. Even though she only wrote these words four years ago, Sol reprimanded herself for being so immature.  Again, the forsaken queen felt that same mysterious force upon her. This time, however, she was able to tell that it compelled her from within; her memories were surging up again. It told her only one thing: wrong. She didn’t need it to say anymore, she knew what was wrong here. These words, they were first meant to give Sol hope, but now the hardened woman looked upon such an act as foolish and ignorant. Even back then, Sol knew the tale of God and the Usurper. She knew what terrible task was laid before her. She knew – but would not accept – that her mission was foolhardy. “Death will never be the end” were words that seemed to stem from a past long forgotten with the destruction of God into the very future. Sol scratched them into the stone for two purposes: the first was to reassure her that even with God’s death she would never stop fighting the Usurper. The second reason was to remind her that she wasn’t the only one standing up against the God slayer.

Four years ago Sol was leaving her adolescent age and entering complete womanhood. Back then, Sol thought herself mature, intelligent, and aboveall, ready to face her fate. Now Sol found herself to have been weak and childish. She had been so focused on facing her own fate that she overlooked the importance of the person closest to her: Donovan. For the longest time Sol only considered herself as the full force opposing the Artist. She could not have been more wrong. If anything, it was possibly her contributions that were the most insignifigant.

Donovan would be forced to bear the burden of the entire world on his shoulders, and there was so little she could do to aid him. She loathed the words she enscribed for her own cowardice almost as much as she despised herself for being so weak. She may have the only power that could confront the Artist, but she would never stop having to lean on Donovan. Even with power, she was nothing but an insect without her companion. How weak she was! Sol was certain it was her weakness that would lead Donovan to his death. Then the one real source of her happiness would come to an end. Death would be the end.

Sol walked towards the pool of water and looked around. After only a few seconds of looking, she found what she wanted. The queen returned to the engraved message with a sharp, hand-sized rock in her hands. She bent beneath the words and started to etch something there. Unlike the  last time where she used Donovan’s knife, these letters were coming out in scribbles; a sharp, messy jumble of lines and curves that met and made obscure letters.

Sol was finished. She stood up straight and stepped back; Sol observed that each word looked like battle scars upon the cave wall. Where as the last message was neat and readable, this one was incoherint and unattractive, perhaps symbolizing the dourness of the current situation.

Upon the wall it now said: Death will never be the end, and below it read: Death is but a means to the end. All things come to an end. Do not be fooled by the illusion of time, do not be tricked by the subterfuge of the mind. Afterall, it is so easy to fall victim to the concept that familiar and timeless things are indeed immortal. This is especially the case when dealing with a living entity — say, for instance, humans.

A deep-seeded realization soon took Sol as finished going over what she had just wrote. She did not trick herself into believing she understood everything — in fact, she succombed to the truth that she knew almost nothing at all — but from what she had seen, this passage was far more accurate than her last. And if that was the case, then she had to question one thing: if everything eventually came to an end, then would God fit into the category of “everything”? Is Donovan and her crusade nothing but folly then? Was there even a point in continuing?

Of course there was, Sol resolved. Perhaps there was nothing the pair could do for God, but they still could fight the Usurper. If not for God, then for man. That would be their focus. She would make sure that the Artist would die, even if it was the last thing she did. Mankind needed a future free of a tyrants hand, of that she was sure.

Sol, deep in thought, dropped the rock to the floor and left the cave. Though the majority of her mind was preoccupied with itself, some part realized she had to return to Donovan soon. As the emerald eye queen made her way, she went over in her mind as to figure out how she was going to explain everything to Donovan. What to tell him? How to explain their current situation?

There is so much to explain. Do I dare say too much too soon? I’m sure there is much that he will ask about, and I have my own inquiries. Do I broach that subject? No, it was probably no more than exhaustion that forced Donovan to believe that there was more than just me with him. But that is just one of few questions in mind. So much information needs to be shared between us, but still… 

She slowly trudged into her and Donovan’s little alcove. Sol didn’t even notice that he was awake, sitting up waiting for her to return. She simply walked right past him and sat down on her own makeshift cot.

"Where did you go?" he asked. Sol startled at the sound of his voice. She was pulled violently from her introverted mood like gravity held everything down to the planet. 

"Donovan! I didn’t notice you. I was just…investigating. Went back to the pond is all. We appear to be safe, which in and of itself is a mystery." She leaned forward into his pack and produced their last piece of bread. "Here," she said, handing the bread to him. "Eat this. I’m sure you must be hungry."

"But, Sol, I —"

"Don’t worry. We need more water than food right now. I imagine if we don’t leave the desert soon, a single peice of bread will do no good. Besides, we humans can survive longer without food than without water, espescially in this environment. We can collect plenty of water from the pond — it is no longer charmed due to the Warden’s death, afterall."

"Fine," Donovan muttered grudgedly. He took a meager bite of the bread then set it aside. "Sol, I need you to help me to understand. I need you to explain what is going on."

"I figured as much. Perhaps I should start at the very beginning. Before the Rending. There was man and all life of today, who stood along side creatures of long since past. And these life forms were bound in harmony by the presence of God. But one saw fit to throw chaos into such harmony. That one goes by the title, "The Artist". A cruel and foul being. Usurper. Now this part, I do not know why, but the Usurper decided on his own that God had no place among the living. No one knows how, but he succeeded. The Artist gave death to God."

"Those of faith see shadows of deities in prophecies and the most minute of actions," Donovan quoted.

"Do not paint me a mindless fanatic, Wayward Sword!" she roared.

He instinctively pulled away from her, then relaxed. “I’m sorry, Sol, but how exactly does one kill God? Is there any real evidence of these events?”

"I understand; it is difficult to accept at first," her tone had softened and she was no longer yelling. "Have you ever felt like there was an emptiness within? Like there was a hollow void in you that you could never really fill? Don’t lie. I know you feel it like I do. That is our humanity telling us we are nothing without our Father. Then there is also the Rending to consider. When God died, the world was reshaped. The planet was scarred and creatures went extinct."

"How exactly did that happen? I mean, how could God’s death cause all that?" For some reason, even though any solid evidence of what Sol said was true was missing, Don felt a powerful compulsion to believe in her with all his heart.

"You see, the creatures of today sort of….evolved. We adapted to a life style where God was no longer a necessity even before the Rending. Those creatures that were lost to the abyss did not."

Silence ensued for a minute or two afterwards. It felt like an eternity to Sol. Would Donovan shoulder the future with her — could he? His deccision had been made, eons before his own birth perhaps, but the queen was oblivious to that fact at the time.

"Sol, you made references to ‘Wardens’," Don said.  "That thing we fought — that demon — was that one of those Wardens?"

"Yes."

"Why would the Usurper send one of his Wardens after us? In fact, for that matter, what did they plan to do with you?"

"I don’t know, Donovan. If the Usurper sent one of his top warriors after us, that must mean he sees merrit in our death. It seemed to me that your death was the prime objective, but I don’t see how that could be right. I can say this for now, however. The Usurper sees all. He observes and documents what he wills. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume he watches us even now."

Donovan showed obvious signs of internal strife with this new development. After awhile, he replied, “Even so…we dealt with one Warden, so that means one of these Pillar things is destroyed, right? So then, where do we go from here?” Donovan presently looked down at the remaining piece of bread in his hand, lifted it to his lips and took a bite.

"I have good and bad news on that subject. The good news is that we did manage to destroy a cursed Pillar, but I’m sure the Usurper has many more for us to deal with. I know of their existance, and yet I don’t know where they are or how many of them there are. Great source of information I am!" she joked. Donovan, however, saw a total lack of mirth in her eyes. Solemnly, Sol continued, "I think we must destroy all the Pillars, even though I know not how many there are. Once that is done we may finally have a chance to place our hands around the throat of the Usurper! But first, we must leave this damned desert. This merciless land may yet be the death of us both."

She wanted to say more. She wanted to check on her people; no, she would need to go to the capital, Cunabula Deus. Not now. They couldn’t afford to go right now, but soon. It was her duty as the queen.

"Well then," Donovan said. He quickly finished off the bread and stood up. "We should be on our way, right, Sol?"

Asking about his wounds at this point would be useless. “Yes, I think that would be best. We can’t stay in one place for too long with that cursed Usurper always about.” She too got up and began to pack up their belongings. “We’ll make quick work of crossing this desert.”

The two companions were packed and ready in a matter of seconds. Donovan did the best he could to cover up their fire even though it was a futile effort. He shouldered his pack and meet Sol outside the cave.

"I think we should go west," Sol voiced.

"West it is then."

Sol the queen and Donovan the Torch turned westward and began their trek all over again. This time, however, their feet marched with a purpose in mind now. Still, shadows squirmed all around them, snapping at their heels. Purpose helped, but this evil would be upon them and then crash down upon them with ferocity. And soon, too.