Monday, February 26, 2007

The Eye of Malice

He stood in the doorway of the cantina, looking out over the scene of his own handiwork. The tables all lay in ruins, shattered bottles were strewn across the floor, and the symbol of the Scarlet Wake was fused into the walls by the laser cutter on his belt. The bar, run by a pair of Grann recently moved to Tatooine, was a complete loss - the point of tonight's exercise.

Inwardly, he was both disgusted at what he had done here but he did see the blessing in disguise; no one had been injured. This mission was a message. "Aliens, get out."

The proprietors of the bar were upstairs, stunned unconscious by Maya and left in the shambles of their own sleeping chamber. By the time they woke up, Darrus and his partner would be long gone. Their efforts here would linger, though. This place was one of the most popular establishments in Anchorhead, catering to more than four hundred non-humans and spacers on average each day.

Tightening his grip on his rifle, watchful for trouble while Maya finished her vandalism upstairs, Darrus could not help but acknowledge the tactical skill this particular choice of targets suggested. The Scarlet Wake was more than a hate group; this was psychological warfare. Each body, each wrecked home, each terrified alien was one piece in a greater plan.

Figuring out that plan was his real mission, of course, but after two weeks "on the inside" he was no closer to the power behind the organization. Red One was still a complete mystery and his proxies were either too cordial and aloof to question or too violent and ignorant to be of much use. Performing these acts of terrorism were the only way he could see to ingratiate himself into the Wake and work his way up the command ladder. One rung at a time seemed the best possible course of action.

In truth, it seemed like the only course.

Maya agreed. Both his partner and his only confidant, she had proven an invaluable asset to the mission. Calm and capable, willing to do anything for him, and never questioning his decisions, she had even taken his apparent execution of that Ithorian in stride. It had relieved her when he told her the victim was still very much alive but she had not asked or treated him differently beforehand. If something difficult needed to be done, she was his unflinching right hand.

It had been so long since he had been in the position of having someone at his back he could trust. Even during the war, he had never fully believed in the "docile" nature of his Clone Soldiers. Perhaps that was why he was still alive, but he knew the real reason all too well. His connection to Aayla, his feeling her death, had been a warning exactly when he needed one.

Jeht could still close his eyes and see the look on Marr-ek's face when he evaded the bastard's death trap and chopped his own men to pieces. He could hear the panic in Marr-ek's voice when, lightsaber in hand, he forced the traitorous ARC trooper to surrender.

And, with a twist of guilt in his gut, he could still smell the charred flesh as he drove his weapon into Marr-ek's face. A plasteel garbage pod had been Marr-ek's tomb, flushed into space along with the pieces of his sundered squad. Darrus felt guilt over his former friend's execution, but not much. The man had killed Trill; he deserved nothing better. Hells and Fire, he had deserved far worse.

Darrus caught himself in that thought and forced his mind to let go of such hate. It was not just a feeling unbecoming of a Jedi, it was a distraction he could not afford right now. If he was lost in the past, he could easily be surprised bu something in the present.

As if reading his mind, "Echo" did just that. Snaking a hand over his shoulder and startling him into nearly checking her against the wall, Maya brought him back to the here and now. "It's done. There's not enough left intact upstairs to buy a used speeder and two Grann are sleeping off one mother of a headache."

He nodded and gestured for her to stand by the exit while he checked outside. It was nearly first light; the smaller of Tatooine's two suns was almost at the eastern horizon. There was a line of false dawn about to give way to the real thing. There were cutting their mission parameters close but they had finished within the time given. In the end, that was all it took to earn their paycheck.

Wraith and Echo made their way to the Starwing and climbed in quickly. They had landed far enough out that the ARC-170's huge engines would not alert their quarry. That had been a fine plan until Darrus remembered his craft no longer having a speeder. The walk, and Maya's constant "We could have been done by now" stare at the back of his head had both been unpleasant.

Still, it was better than murder.

Murder was on Darrus' mind a lot lately. The missions they were running for the Scarlet Wake had not involved killing anyone, but that could change at any moment. He knew there were people in the Tatooine chapter capable of doing far worse and more than willing. He suspected that others were handling removal missions while Echo and he were doing these less fatal tasks.

That both relieved and worried him at the same time. Why would the Scarlet Wake make him kill an alien just to get in and then not even ask him to rough one up? Were they saving his talents for something bigger? Were the leaders of the Wake suspicious?

No, he decided. If they were suspicious of his motives, an assassination or assault would be the first thing they would want from him. If that were true, however, why was he stuck doing jobs any handful of moisture farmers could handle? Why use a capable killer to vandalize a bar or plant explosives on a food transport?

Looking at this from a logistical viewpoint, it made no sense. He had never been one for self-aggrandizement but he knew what he was good at doing. Darrus had always been an instrument of violence, even in the Academy on Coruscant. As a youngling, he had been in more fistfights and force battles than any student his age in the history of the Council. he was firmly convinced that, had it not been for Master Windu's patronage, he would have been expelled from training long before becoming a padawan.

Thinking about Mace was always painful, especially now. His mentor, the closest thing he had ever known to a father, was dead. Everyone he knew on Coruscant, dead. His entire Order, dead. There might still be a few friends back on Cularin, but they were in a safe place now and he would never jeopardize their well-being by disturbing the Sanctum there.

That left Maya. She was really his only lifeline now. Without her, he would truly be alone. He wondered if she knew how grateful he was for her company. He considered telling her, but his skill with a lightsaber was inversely proportional to his skill with words. Likely, he would just sound silly or offend her accidentally. He had no desire to do either. Somehow, someway, he would let her know when the time was right.

"Hey, dark eyes. You all right up there?"

Darrus blinked behind his shadow glass visor. He had been distracted again. That was happening a lot lately. Too many thoughts, not enough attention to what was happening around him. If Yoda were still alive, the little green taskmaster would be smacking him in the skull with a cane right now.

"Sorry. I was just... considering the jobs we have been given. Don't they seem odd to you?"

Maya scoffed in the gunner's seat behind him. "Odd? We had scattered burning protein bars over southern Mos Eisley, robbed an alien money collector and vaporized the funds in a refinery incinerator, sabotaged a Devoranean transport, stolen a Bith band's instruments, and royally wrecked a cantina in Anchorhead. All without ever being seen aside from that stupid Scarlet symbol we keep blasting into things. Odd? You could say that."

Darrus agreed quietly. "Exactly. Strange work, and no common theme aside from terrorism." Then his own tactical skills caught his attention and showed him the element in every job he had missed before. "Wait..."

Maya's voice took on a note of concern, something he would normally have found endearing if he had not been so preoccupied. "What is it, Darrus?"

"There is a denominator in common, Maya." He had been thinking about these jobs all wrong, looking at them through the vantage point of a hatemonger. Hate was too imprecise to describe the rationale behind the Scarlet Wake. He needed to use something more focused to understand what was really going on here. This was not hate; it was something colder. More malevolent. It was pure, rational, unyielding malice.

Darrus continued once the realization came to him. "Every mission has had one thing the same in every case. Each time, we've been asked to do our work without being seen. We have already proven ourselves capable of violence. I think they are testing our subterfuge."

Maya considered that for a while before answering. "Okay, but if that's true, to what end? People don't normally test something without a reason. What do they intend for us to do that involves both violence and stealth?"

Darrus shook his head. "I don't know, Maya. That's what worries me."


It was a secure transmission; Gannarsen Kayvus could talk freely now.

"I've just received word, sir. The cantina went flawlessly, just as I predicted. In my estimation, they are ready. These two new recruits are perfect for the job."

The voice that answered him was both somber and dark, nearly emotionless yet edged with intense hostility. "Are you sure? I dislike trusting something this important to agents so new to the Wake. If this fails..."

Red Two bowed to the holographic bust of his master. "It won't. I assure you, our message will be sent out loud and clear. By this time tomorrow, everyone in the galaxy will know about the Scarlet Wake."

Gannarsen's superior, his face hidden by a full helmet and his shoulders concealed under a thick cloak, intoned pointedly. "Do not fail me in this. The Order has no room for failure."

Without hesitation, Gannar nodded his agreement. "It won't need any. I won't fail and neither will they. I will comm you again when the deed is done." He saluted the holo-image by clapping his hand to his chest, palm against his shirt and ring prominently displayed. "Humans first."

Red One returned the gesture, ending the transmission with the answering line of the pledge.

"Humans only."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

< Double Update >

As always, to avoid confusion when I update twice in a day, here's the reading order for the last two posts:

Inevitable first, then In the Shadows.



In the Shadows

From a darkened door nearby, a small metal eye focused on the three men leaving the newcomer's room. The eye, attached to a silent, hovering surveillance droid, watched as two of them dragged the third away, a small trail of red following the downed man's face.

Its black steel iris opened and closed, taking several pictures for its hidden master, transmitting each one along a private channel as untraceable as it was unstoppable. Even down here, surrounded by iron-laden stone and privacy fields, the droid could get its messages through to its controller. It helped that the signal was not going very far; it only had to beam data a few hundred yards.

There, in a solitary dormitory room, someone looked over the images with growing interest. "Well, that's not going to please the big idiot's controllers one bit." Touching the screen with one gloved hand, the shadowed man moved back to a picture of the newcomer standing in the door of his room.

A shrouded finger traced Wraith's outline, tapping the screen as he pondered. "There's something about you, bounty hunter. Something familiar."

A chime interrupted the man's musings. He quickly pushed his spy droid's Return button and shut down his monitors. "Come in."

The door opened to reveal a man dressed in a crimson flight suit and a weather-beaten dewback hide duster. "Come on, Narr. We got a job; time to go spread the good word!" He didn't wait for a response before running off down the hall towards the complex' underground hanger.

The figure turned in his chair, rising and reaching for the jacket of his combat thinsuit. Wraith, and the questions the newcomer posed, would have to wait...


"Get up, you!"

Darrus was hefted out of bed and thrown bodily across the room; this was how he woke up. He'd taken in the last two days to wearing a cloth mask to sleep since his helmet was too cumbersome. Now he was glad he'd done so. These quarters were not as "private" as the Wake made them out to be.

The lock also wasn't terribly useful. He hadn't even been roused from sleep by the sound of it being prised open. Darrus attributed that to the amount of personal training he'd put in since arriving here. Maya had been doing the same and garnering a lot more attention doing so. Of course, he could hardly blame the men in this place from admiring his partner during her workouts. She did have quite a nice figure and preferred very tight, very sheer exercise uniforms. He almost pitied the poor men trying to concentrate on their own routines.

Pity, sadly, was entirely lacking in his present situation. He smashed into the wall, tucking and bracing just enough to avoid any serious injury. There would be a impressively dark shoulder bruise but little else. Only now did he open his eyes, braving the possibility of bright light to get a look at his attacker.

What he saw past the haze of radiance did not surprise him. Since he'd gotten here, there'd been one man taking silent offense to everything he did. The others called him Bantha because of his sheer size and, Darrus assumed, his pervasive body odor. Bantha was the Wake's animal handler, which explained some of the stench, and was built like... well... a Bantha. Broad shoulders, thick body, and a monolithic jaw. From the force of his throw, Bantha's build wasn't just for show. He had a lot of power in those huge arms - power he wasn't afraid to use.

"It ain't fair! Why should we pay you for what the rest o' us are doing fer free?" Bantha rushed him, shoulder down, obviously intending to crush him up against the wall again. It was a simple matter to sidestep the attack, but Darrus saw that bantha's other arm was pulled back in a waiting jab. The man was big, but he was also smart enough to anticipate a dodge.

Skimming the edge of the Force, Darrus drew on it just enough to send energy through his legs. His spiraling jump took him over Bantha, twisted in midair, and brought him down facing his opponent from behind. Without his helmet to disguise his voice, Darrus did not want to speak, so he remained silent. His only reaction was to crouch in a combat stance and wait for the next move.

It came quickly; Bantha turned and lacked out with a scything kick. It was a surprisingly agile and skilled maneuver, one that almost caught Darrus off-guard. He ducked it and came up with the intention of catching Bantha's leg, but his own reaction to how well the big man attacked threw his timing off enough for Bantha to pull back and evade him.

"You ain't better'n us!" Again came the attack, this time a pair of punches moving faster than the big farmer had a right to throw. The man had been trained, recently by the feel of him and very well. It was a commando-style assault - upfront, swift, and obviously intended to be knockout punches. One was coming low for his vitals while the other was an overhead smash to the skull. Darrus would be in trouble of either landed.

So, of course, he didn't let either one strike home. He needed to get across to this man that he was not to be trifled with but he didn't want to have to seriously injure him. Even though it was hard to see right now, Darrus didn't have to see his enemy clearly to sense where his was or what he was doing. Or why. Bantha was obviously just acting out of jealousy and outrage; there was no need to kill. Besides, Darrus had his own reasons for not wanting to take another life. Not if he could help it...

...and he could. Darting faster than Bantha could see, Darrus was out of the bigger man's reach and on the other side of a metal nightstand. Grabbing it, Darrus slid the table under Bantha's smashing punch and winced as four fingers shattered on impact. The gut strike fared no better, hitting the stand's front drawer. More splintering bones.

Howling in pain, Bantha turned and kicked again. This one was fueled by rage and faster than the one before. It actually clipped Darrus across the side of the face despite his best dodge but it wasn;t enough to do more than sting. Darrus spun away from the impact and answered with a kick of his own. It snapped up, out, and caught Bantha in exactly the same place. There was just one difference between the two attacks.

Bantha's had glanced. Darrus' had not. It was a full-on hit to the jaw. Even without the Force to enhance the impact, it was enough to send Bantha reeling. With the Force, there was another crack as the big man went down, gurgling past a mouth full of blood, spit, and loose teeth.

His door opened just as Darrus was putting on his helmet. There was a faint hiss as its lining inflated to lock around his head and a hum as its optics activated. Instantly, the light in the room filtered to a non-painful level, allowing him to see clearly again. Standing in the doorway were two other farmers, friends of Bantha's who'd obviously been waiting outside in case the big man needed help. It almost amused Darrus to think, "Oh yes. He certainly needs help. He needs help breathing."

The only one to speak was the farmer called Wease, a thin, angry-looking human with a scar on his cheek and a chip on his shoulder the size of a speeder. "You... you broke his jaw!"

Darrus nodded. His voice modulator kicked in as he spoke, filling the room with a voice like something rising from its grave. "He should not have been here." Darrus did not bother reaching for a weapon even though the other two men were armed. He didn't need one and going for a gun now would only make him look weak.

Wease shook his head. "No, I meant you broke his jaw! How?!?" Wease was referring to the inch thing plate of solid bone that was bantha's formidable lower mandible bone.

Letting himself seem as hostile as possible, Darrus took one step forward. "Shall I demonstrate?" The two men startled and began dragging their heavy friend out of the room. They scrambled over each other trying to get away, fear rising off them like Bantha's pungent personal stink.

"Wise choice." And with that, Darrus pushed the control panel of his door and shut it again. The autolock was broken but there was a manual lever. He wedged it closed, making the door physically impossible to open without cutting tools. Not that he suspected it would be necessary; there was little chance anyone would be disturbing him again tonight. He settled back into bed before thinking to contact Maya through her headset.


"Echo, do you copy?"

Maya's voice was a warm relief to hear once she finally answered. "Yes, Wraith. I'm here."

"I just had an unpleasant late night visitor. Unfortunate but inevitable. Are you all right?"

There was concern in Maya's voice when she replied, "I am fine. We are just sitting here, doing girl things."

He furrowed his brow, not that anyone could see the expression. "Girl things?"

"You know, talking about boys, painting our nails, modifying blasters and discussing past kills." There was enough humor in her tone to make Darrus believe she was kidding but also enough of an edge to lend a little doubt.

"Oh. Okay."

Then a soft laugh. "Wraith, get some sleep."

"Right. Wraith out."

"You'd better be. Soon. Good night."


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Uncomfortable Silences

They stood together in the middle of a large room, the awkward feeling of being surrounded growing by the moment.

There were twenty or thirty beings here, most of whom were human but a few were slight variants on that theme. A blue-skinned man, a Zabrak woman with metal-capped horns, and a slender pale white androgynous person were staring at them from the raised balcony that ran the length of all four walls. This was a gallery of sorts, with bare walls only occasionally interrupted by trophies - grisly trophies well preserved and staring just as intently, though with eyes of glass instead of distrust.

As focused as the watchers seemed to be, this room felt to Darrus more like a shooting gallery than anything else. Most of the people above them were armed and those that weren't were not far from weapons mounted in racks on the walls nearby. If this went badly, even his skills would not be able to defend him from so much concentrated fire. Not for long, any way. Regardless, he wouldn't be able to protect Maya either, which made a fight here a non-option.

Of course, that assumed he had any control over hostilities. They had been led down here to meet "the Boss" and then left to wait. One way or the other, Darrus assumed combat - or the lack thereof - would depend entirely on how they conducted themselves during this appointment.

Conduct implied contact, however, and the anticipated appointment was already twenty minutes late. How much longer was this man going to make them linger here, getting holes stared through them by the rest of the cabal? As a Jedi, he should not let himself feel apprehension, which was a difficulty since any rational, emotional person would probably be getting really annoyed at this point.

Fortunately, Maya wasn't a Jedi. "Hey! We can just go if you don't want us here!" She shifted to put one leather-clad fist on her curvaceous hip. "You called us here, remember?!"

Muttering filled the upper part of the room; several of the watchers were now talking among themselves. Darrus dearly hoped the conversation wasn't turning to how best to discipline their guests for their bad manners. Inwardly, he agreed with Maya. This was intolerable.

Intolerable, or a test. It suddenly occurred to Darrus that if he and Maya were infiltrators, they would probably just accept this delay for fear of compromising their mission. A spy would deal with any setbacks or hurdles because to do otherwise would mean failure. Now, they actually were spies and infiltrators, but they could not afford to act the part.

"Indeed." His voice modulator, thanks to Vaaro, made the word sound like a vicious, ghostly echo. "We are leaving." He turned and walked towards the thick blast doors, leveling his rifle at them as he moved.

The gallery above them reacted instantly, bringing blasters to bear in a rattle of weapons and energy hums. No one fired, but everyone seemed willing to do so. As he expected, the unarmed among them grabbed carbines and pistols as well. Darrus and Maya were now under the gun, exactly where he didn't want to be.

"I am sensing a lot of hostility." Even as Maya said it, her voice took on the tone of, "Gee, thanks Maya; how bloody insightful of you." Her eyes rolled and her face took on a sheepish expression.

Darrus did not let himself react other than to thumb the energy-on switch of the rifle. "Open these doors." Slowly pulling back the focusing bolt to bring up a maximum charge, he increased the volume of his mask to be heard over the growing pulse of his weapon. "Now."

As he expected, that got a lot of reaction from the shooters above, but the doors did not open nor did they start shooting. It was a moment of stalemate, one he hoped would not last because at this point, he was out of moves. If they called his bluff, Darrus would have to blow open the doors or back down. Neither option was attractive. The former could easily set off the twitchier members of the Wake and bring blaster fire down on their heads. The latter choice made him seem weak - something that would only jeopardize his ability to deal with the leadership of this organization. This moment burned in his mind and he realized where he was.

Shatterpoint. Act or wait. The choice was his.

He chose to do both, holding his fire but reaching down to pull a grenade from his belt. The gesture was an obvious one; shoot at me and I'll throw this. Someone, maybe a lot of someones, up there will die. Maya followed suit, taking grenades out of her vest with both hands. Now the bluff had a few more teeth.

Time to bump the pot. "I won't ask again."

A door slowly opened, but not the blast doors in front of them. On the other side of the room, a single figure strode confidently into the gallery. "And you will not have to, my friends. Please accept my apologies for the long wait. I was... detained."

The man was well-dressed, mostly in dark red, and had the look of a Republic senator to him. Older but not ancient, grey haired but not infirm, he had no visible weapons yet did not seem entirely unarmed. He was alone, though of course he was far from unguarded. The unwavering barrels of the blasters above were a succinct reminder of that fact.

Darrus lifted his rifle and put the stock back against his chest, barrel pointed to the ceiling. The grenade went back to his belt pouch. "Echo is right. You invited us."

The man gave him a cordial, almost stately half-bow. "That I did, and again, I am sorry for the delay. If you will allow me to make amends, I will see to it that your time is suitably compensated. The Scarlet Wake is not, after all, a charity organization."

With a curt nod, Darrus put his hand on Maya's shoulder, visibly indicating that she should relax her death grip on her explosives. She relented with a scowl, though he could sense from her a sheer relief in not having to carry through with the threat they implied. It pleased him to also feel her willingness to have done so if things had gone poorly. One way or another, she was with him on this. All the way.

His mask turned his rasp into an ominous rumble. "Then just what sort of organization is it?"

The man smiled and stepped aside, gesturing for them both to follow him through the open door. At that sign of acceptance, the people on the balconies relinquished their aim and weapons disappeared again. Their near-military precision and simultaneous reactions were both impressive and disconcerting.

"A generous one, I assure you, to its friends. Even as a full member, nothing you do for us will be for free. Wakers earn a substantial premium in the field." Following them as Darrus and Maya walked through the far door into a downward-slanting hallway, the man continued amiably. "Which, I suspect from your gear and mannerisms, is where you will best serve the order."

His use of the word 'order' did not escape Darrus or Maya, though neither showed any outward sign of noting it. That was something to check on later. Groups that call themselves an Order tended to be more zealous and more pervasive than a typical collective. This Scarlet Wake could be a lot bigger than Darrus had estimated.

"And who are you, friend?" Darrus let a bit of suspicion creep into his ghostly tone. It made sense for any sane person to be concerned in a situation like this.

"Ah, my manners are horrible today. I am Gannarsen Kayvus, Red Two of Tatooine, but you can call me Gannar. The Red Two is a title and honestly, I am more comfortable with first names." The older gentleman reached out to take Darrus' hand, a gesture the Jedi returned reluctantly. "And you are Wraith, a bounty hunter with a considerable and impressive record. After proving yourselves, I am sure Red One will want to meet you personally."

A considerable record? Just what did Vaaro do when he 'arranged for a bounty hunter's license and identity'? Somehow, Darrus suspected this would be trouble in some way. Anything touched by that crazy Rodian tended to get... complicated.

Maya asked what Darrus was about to say. "Red One?"

The man nodded and slid a card through a sensor to open a door barring their passage. Beyond was another set of halls. They were now deep under the sands of Tatooine, sheltered from the environment, assault, and of course, unwanted attention. This was an impressive base and far too much of it seemed of new construction. Just what level of resources did the Wake have?

"Oh yes. The founder and leader of the entire order. The Scarlet Wake would not exist without his guidance and generosity."

Darrus narrowed his eyes, but he knew she couldn't press more than they had. Not yet. "About that. You've used the word generosity twice now. When will we be seeing some of it?" A mercenary cares only for money; that was a lesson he'd received from an Alderaan Jedi Trainer at the Academy when he was a Padawan. Remembering that and acting the part would serve him well now.

Their escort smiled. "In just a few moments. We've a feast waiting below and after we dine, we'll discuss how to best accommodate each other. You want stable employment and we want a strong hand to do the Wake's will. I think together, we can accomplish both goals. Don't you?"

Maya frowned and leaned against Darrus' side. "We'll see," she told the man. her acting was excellent, helped along by her genuine nervousness at the situation.

There was a long period of silence after that, uncomfortable for both sides it seemed. They reached another door and beyond it, a dining hall filled with people eating at several long tables covered in food. The feast had, at least, not been exaggerated. A smile returned to the man's face at the sight of the busy room.

"I can see that trust will be a long road but I am determined to make the journey pleasant. Please, join the meal and afterwards, we will discuss details."

Darrus nodded, taking Maya's hand and heading to an empty section of the room. "We'll do that. Thanks."

The common courtesy made their host smile wider and nod. "Excellent. I look forward to it."

Then they were left alone. Dinner was well prepared, generously portioned, and eaten in total isolation. The room was boisterous elsewhere but the rest of the Wake spared them only looks of suspicion and thinly-veiled violence.

Oh yes, Darrus thought to himself. Trust was going to be a long, ugly road...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

<--- Update: Double Stories --->

There are two updates today. Please read the second one, Initiations, before you read Smoke and Mirrors. Things will make a lot more sense that way!

Take care,

Smoke and Mirrors

*What Actually Happened*

~Hold completely still. If you move, you will die.~

Shialsha had never been so terrified in his life. A street merchant with no friends and no family on this desolate world, he was only here because all Ithorians underwent the Journey eventually. The Journey, a ritual by which a mature Ithorian left his or her Hive Ship and traveled the galaxy until they felt ready to return and take their place in society.

Shialsha had felt ready for years now; he just hadn't felt capable. Returning to the Hive required several things, chief among them a ship capable of doing so. He did not have the credits to even book passage on a vessel, much less buy a craft of his own.

That sad truth was why he was still on Tatooine years after he should have been home and why he had taken to selling hydroponic vegetables from a street stand in Anchorhead to survive. The slim margin of profit he made off each sale was his tiny glimmer of hope; with each credit earned, he was a little bit closer to leaving this terrible place.

Unfortunately, it was his need to make at least a sliver of profit from his sales that got him in trouble with the Scarlet Wake. He'd refused to give one of their agents a jamb-fruit for free and in return, he'd been forced to watch at blaster-point while the man and four others devoured their fill of his wares and then beat him into unconsciousness.

Now he was here, staring up at a masked man and listening to a voice in his head. Holding still was not at all a problem. He'd have been hard pressed to move at all, honestly, so remaining stationary was an easy request to grant.

When the cut came, it was a shallow one that only stung for a moment. The blade came within a hair's breadth of his head, ran down his chest, and cleaved open the bindings around his wrists. He was bleeding now, but it wasn't a serious wound.

~Fall and remain motionless. When you are out of here, go to my ship and retrieve the speeder out of its aft bay. Get to Mos Eisley, sell it, and get off this rock. Never come back.~

Shialsha could only echo his gratitude mentally. He did not dare react physically since, if that stroke was supposed to look as serious as it felt, he should probably be dead. He did not understand how a shallow slash over his chest would fool anyone, but he wasn't going to question the man who'd just spared his life.

When he stopped rolling, Shialsha waited a short time before spitting sand out of his mouth and struggling to his feet. He did as he was told, finding the man's ship easily even though he hadn't consciously known what it would look like. He just knew which one it was and even how to pull the speeder out of its compartment. Luckily there were no guards on the landing bay; everyone was inside for some reason.

He didn't question his good fortune. He just started the speeder, headed to Mos Eisley, and thanked the Green Mother that he was free. When he reached his Hive, this would be a story worth many, many retellings....


While Kyvo was reacting with startled surprise to Jeht's violent execution of the Ithorian, Jeht was struggling to maintain concentration. This was the most elaborate use of the Force he'd attempted in a long time. The ability to make others see what he wanted them to see was a trick he'd learned on Almas but it was a gift for the subtle. Subtlety wasn't really his area of expertise. Thus, this was very, very difficult. He would not be able to maintain it for long.

That's why he used the Force to also affect the minds of the guards around the Ithorian. "Throw him outside, where garbage belongs." It hadn't been a suggestion; it had been a Force-imbued command. That got the body out of line of sight, allowing him to end the illusion and recover his senses before going inside.

Even the trail of blood would be real. He'd regretted having to cut the Ithorian at all, but real blood lingered in the sand long after a mental image would fade.

As they went inside, Darrus recovered his wits. Breathing deeply, he regained his focus even as his mind began to turn on what he'd just done.

"You know, just killing the alien would have been easier. You can't afford to let yourself get weakened like this before the real battle begins. It's just one alien, after all. Some sacrifices are worth making."

Jeht struggled inwardly to silence that voice, but it remained in the back of his thoughts as everyone proceeded into the sandstone villa and the inevitable meeting below...


The biggest among them stuck out his hand, an act of courtesy that still managed to seem hostile.

"Name's Bruul." It was the most he'd said since Darrus and Maya landed. This delegation had been waiting at the landing pad to meet with them, heavily armed and practically radiating distrust and violence. Even without Maya's empathic gifts, Darrus had been able to sense that. One false move here and there would be pain.

Pain, and the end of their mission one way or the other.

Darrus took the offered hand and shook it once, letting the servos in his gauntlet do what his own meager strength could not. The big man seemed to appreciate the tight handshake, pulling back with a satisfied grunt.

The smaller human beside him spoke immediately afterwards. "Forgive the formalities, but I trust you have the little gift you were sent? I'll need to see it before we can..."

Darrus cut him off by thrusting out his left hand and opening it, palm upwards. There, resting on leather and metal, was a thick ring set with a scarlet stone.

The speaker smiled widely. "Excellent. Well then, let's get down to pleasantries. I am Kyvo, the mountain here is Bruul as he already said, and our third companion here is Hollow. Hol, show these folks where you got your nickname."

The woman he was speaking to, tall and dark haired with a willowy build, turned to face Darrus directly. With virtually no emotion on her face, she opened her mouth and he saw nothing. Absolutely nothing except the back of her throat. Her teeth, her tongue, all of it was just gone. Scar tissue made the inside of her mouth as ugly as the rest of her was lovely.

"Hol here was a guest of the Tusken for nearly a week before one of our hunts came across her. They'd been playing especially rough with her, it would seem, but we took care of them for her. Even gave her the honor of the last shot. And what a shot it was, let me tell you. She took my blaster and lined it up right between the Tusken's..."

The woman raised one hand and made a complicated set of gestures with her first two fingers. Darrus recognized it as Twi'lek Leeko speak, a language normally reserved to that race's head tendrils. He'd never seen anyone agile enough with their fingers to mimic the language.

In this case, the message was short but expressive. "You talk too much."

Kyvo apparently also understood her. "Yes, yes. Well, I get excited when we have new guests. Still, we've others to meet, right? We should move on." Kyvo gestured to the desert sand-coloured manor behind him. They were more than a hundred kilometers north of Mos Eisley; Maya hadn't known there was anythign out here. It wasn't on any map, but that didn't surprise either of them. A secret headquarters, a hate group, and a planet full of aliens - the perfect equation for a bloodbath waiting to happen.

"Fine. Let's go then." Darrus started forward and then instantly stopped as Bruul's meaty hand barred the way.

"No. We give names. Now you."

Kyvo nodded, looking momentarily regretful. "Ah yes, my apologies but the lummox is correct. Shall we finish introductions before proceeding?"

Darrus nodded, slowly pushing Bruul's hand off his chest. he wasn't very strong normally, but the Force made up for a lot. He did not want to rely on it here around so many unknown variables, but he also did not want to seem weak around these people. They respected strength; indeed, it was likely the only thing they considered worth respect at all.

"Call me Wraith." Darrus found another reason to appreciate his helmet. Though it looked like it was open over his mouth, the rim of the faceplate incorporated a set of microphones and direction speakers. It amplified his voice and made every word sound utterly ominous.

Kyvo gave a half bow. "Well met, sir Wraith. And your lovely companion?"

Inwardly, Maya cringed. She'd hoped some regulars from her bar would have been here. Then she could have just gotten past without having to speak. This was all Jeht's idea; she was just here to make sure he didn't get caught up in things. Caught up and, if she had to be honest, taken away from her.

Now she needed a name and she needed one quickly. Jeht's was easy - Wraith. She needed something that went well with it but fit her enough that it wouldn't seem forced or suspicious. The only times she'd ever heard the word Wraith used were when people were talking about ghosts and, oddly, back on Hoth.

On Hoth, the conversation had been about ways to infiltrate the Imperial Fleet. The concept she'd heard bandied about the command table was for Rebel pilots to fly Imperial craft and work their way into the Fleet. The idea would be for this "Wraith Squadron" to then supply the Rebellion with information gained on the inside. A daring thought, to be sure, but she wasn't sure it had ever been employed.

Wraith Squadron... basically, it was doing what Darrus and she were doing right now. So what went with Wraith in that sense? Another squadron name?

"Echo. The name's Echo. Where he goes, I follow." As she spoke, Maya moved up against Darrus' left side to emphasize the point.

Another bow. "And fortunate he is to have you, no doubt. All right them, Sir Wraith and Lady Echo, let us proceed inside."

A few steps past the main gate of the compound took them all into its courtyard. Still open to the sky, the inner area was completely surrounded by sandstone walls. A massive iron door barred the way into the villa's main building, flanked on either side by armed humans in sleeveless red long coats. "You are fortunate to have been issued an invitation to join us, you know. Most require a great deal more... 'initiation' to get this far."

Even as Kyvo was speaking, a smaller outbuilding to the right of the villa opened up and three red coated men came out, dragging an obviously injured Ithorian. The three moved quickly towards them, bringing the hammerhead alien painfully along.

"But, I am afraid, there is one test of loyalty I have to ask of you. It seems some of the scum on this planet haven't gotten the message of our ascendancy yet. It's tragic, but those who won't learn have to feel. So, if you want to be part of the Wake, I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to..."

Jeht's hand flickered, moving with nearly impossible speed to his shoulder. The sound of his songsteel blade rang out across the courtyard, an aria of murder that ended only when it was buried near the bottom of the Ithorian's sundered entrails. His wide, flat head fell in two pieces, spilling viscera all around him, a low burble of anguish seeping from his ruined throat.

"Well!" came Kyvo's surprised exhalation. "That's that then, ay?!" He looked down at the Ithorian, nearly cleft in twain. Even Bruul beside him looked impressed, his expression one of admiration for the perfect stroke, the violent end of that alien slime. Only Hollow seemed, unmoved, though she was staring intently at Jeht the entire time.

"Throw him outside, where garbage belongs," 'Wraith' told the three guards, who quickly moved to obey. They dragged the dripping carcass out of the compound, hurling it through the open portcullis and spitting after it as the corpse rolled down the dune hill beyond.

It was a few moments before Kyvo spoke again. "I... yes, well. It would seem you are not here to waste time, are you, Sir Wraith? I can respect that; yes I can! All right then, allow me to welcome you both into the Tatooine manse of the Scarlet Wake. The Master is downstairs, ready to greet you personally. I look forward to introducing you."

And with that, Bruul opened the iron door and ushered everyone inside. Maya, stunned and silent, allowed herself one last look back to where the poor Ithorian had been so brutally executed. Then, swallowing deeply, she pushed those emotions away and acted like her new namesake.

Darrus was going inside and, for better or worse, she would follow...