A/N: I'm legitimately shocked I finished this as quickly as I did. All my love and appreciation to the Editing Gang; they didn't write anything, but they sure as shit get my brain turning.
Shadow of the Phoenix
O-Vhu Tar is voiced by Martin Freeman
Mirta'Parr is portrayed by Zoe Saldana
Lieutenant Bulla is portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence
Kal'Onasi Ordo is portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe
The cafeteria building was perhaps fifteen meters square, the largest one outside of the hybrid command center/hangar to the west. As it was between meals, the place was practically deserted, with only two tables occupied. A single attendant stood behind the counter on the far wall, leaning back with a look of abject boredom on his face. This was the sight that greeted Taral and his guards as they entered through the open-air breezeway.
He quietly chuckled as everyone inside took note of him.
Every single Mandalorian in the mess hall turned and glared. Distilled hatred swirled around the room and if he could feel the Force he would have drunk it up like a fine, though slightly sour, wine. The mess hall attendant didn't move from his position against the wall, even as the newcomers approached. Taral ignored him and gazed at the surprisingly large menu hanging on the wall.
Let's see if I can remember this correctly.
He placed an order for cannok steak and a side of stir-fried protatoes, plus a warm blumfruit muffin and a pint of ne'tra gal. It was everything his tormentors had eaten in front of him earlier. He also ordered a bottle of tihaar – little more than potable paint thinner – because why the hell not?
"Here's the Darjetii's order," the mess attendant said into the kitchen microphone with disgust.
"You told him it was for me. He gonna spit in it now?"
The attendant rolled his eyes. "Don't be ridiculous. We take too much pride in our work here to sully it with pettiness."
Taral narrowed his eyes, not believing a word of it. The fact that one eye was black and swollen only reinforced his feelings.
"Ugh, fine. Don't spit in the Darjetii's food."
"Roger that, holding spit."
Taral and his minders made their way to one of the nearby tables to wait. Ten minutes later the mess hall attendant announced that his order was ready. He stumbled out of his chair – a bit uneasy on his bruised and battered legs – and sauntered over to the counter, a slight hitch in his step as he grabbed the tray and brought it back to the table. The food looked and smelled divine, despite its humble origins as repurposed MREs and dehydrated beef. Small branches of steam rose from the steak. Red, irony juices flowing free as he cut into it with his plastic knife and fork. Combined with the buttery protatoes, the meal was perfect. He chased his first bite with a swig of sticky-sweet ale.
After five minutes, only the blumfruit muffin and tihaar remained. As he bit into the muffin, he heard a nearby commotion and saw the Jedi he'd passed outside near the armory. He took in her relatively modest robes which, beyond their dark coloration, were no different from those of any other Jedi.
A twi'lek that isn't dressed like a whore, now I've seen everything, Taral thought as his eyes roamed over her, Prim and proper bitch like that'll be putty in my hands. Get her tits down and ass up in no time.
He cocked an eyebrow, idly wondering why she wasn't doused in sweat from wearing something so bulky in the middle of a jungle. Was it Force projection or something more mechanical? Maybe a climate controlled slim-form armor suit underneath?
"Why is this man wearing a suppression collar and shackles?" Numa demanded as she approached the table and crossed her arms.
Taral took in her tone and felt amusement bubble up inside him. Ooh… an opportunity presents itself. Is she sympathetic? Maybe… can't tell yet, but she doesn't seem to trust her hosts. Hmm… how to turn that to my advantage?
The guard's grip tightened on his rifle as he rested a finger on the trigger. "This doesn't concern you, Jetii. Leave."
"I'm not going anywhere until I get some answers."
"You will not be told again," the guard warned, his body tense.
Numa stared into the blank features of the Mando's helmet. "If you won't answer me, maybe he will." She pushed past the soldier and sat down at the table, heart thumping in her chest. She was confident they wouldn't shoot her, she was here on Master Skywalker's behest after all, but she was still uneasy. "Greetings. My name is Numa'lestin, I'm a Jedi Knight," she said, "What's your name?"
Taral lowered his gaze to the floor. "D-Darrben."
"Do not speak to the prisoner, Jetii," the Mando warned.
Numa glared at the guard before turning a calming smile on the man she was speaking to. "It's okay, you can talk to me. Can I ask you some questions?"
He took a hesitant bite of his muffin, but remained silent.
"Why are you in chains?"
His eyes darted around the room, settling on the Mandalorians and their clenched fists before flicking back to Numa. When he finally spoke, it was in a hushed and frantic tone. "They… they kidnapped me, weeks ago."
"Do not speak your lies, Darjetii!" the Mandalorian admonished, glaring as Taral flinched like a scared animal, "You cannot trust him, Jetii. He murdered our people and will say anything to escape!"
Numa's eyes narrowed at the Mando's sharp rebuke and warning – they were hiding something. She'd spent hours poring over the HoloNet for any information on the Mandalorians as a people, unfortunately, there wasn't much available. Three hundred years of isolation from the rest of the galaxy and all anyone knew were their old stereotypes as thugs and criminals. It was incredibly frustrating, but then again, they weren't exactly doing anything to refute those stereotypes. She knew then that she had to help this man.
"I'm a Mind Walker, Master Jedi," Taral whispered in her ear-cone, "Th-They want me to unlock the Sith ruins on—"
One of the guards grabbed him by the shoulder and threw him to the ground. The shackles on his wrists and ankles coming to life and slamming together as the magnets activated.
Taral screamed out in exaggerated pain, "The Sith are evil! I won't help you learn their secre—"
"Ne'johaa!" the Mando screamed as he pistol-whipped the young man.
Numa leapt up from the table and ignited her orange lightsaber. "Unhand him, you—"
Her threat died on her lips as a stun bolt from behind pulsed through her nervous system. She collapsed in a heap, her lightsaber clanging to the floor, inactive. She could only watch as the barbarous Mandalorians dragged their prisoner out of the mess hall.
On the outskirts of the camp, near an array of communications antennae, a pair of mismatched individuals was in deep discussion over the intricacies of certain galactic affairs. Some words were heated, while others were agreeable, but no matter the tone, neither could bring themselves to fully agree with the other.
"You're blind if you think Shaheme is a better racer. Thrblin is clearly superior!" the Mandalorian scoffed.
The cerean Jedi merely shook his head in disagreement. "He's certainly won more races, my friend, but quantity is not the same as quality. Head-to-head, Shaheme beats Thrblin every time."
"They've only had two head-to-head races though. Thrblin has won fourteen grands prix to Shaheme's three. It's not even a fair comparison."
"He has the heart and drive to be the best. Every race he's lost has been due to equipment failure and crashes," the Jedi said with a shrug.
"Then he needs a better crew!" the Mando replied with a dismissive gesture, "As for the crashes, half the skill needed is in avoiding them. Podracing's no joke, that's why there's at least one death every race."
"And Shaheme has survived numerous—" the cerean cut himself off as a familiar twi'lek stormed past in a huff, "Knight Lestin, what's wrong?"
"Huh?" she said as she whipped her head around, "O-Vhu, sorry, I didn't see you there."
"Anything you want to talk about? I sense… anger."
Numa gave a sigh and shook her head, glancing toward O-Vhu's Mandalorian companion. "Can we talk in private?"
"Sure," he said as he turned to the Mando, "This conversation is not over, Mirta."
"Yeah, yeah," Mirta said with a wave as she walked away.
The two Jedi slowly made their way to the edge of the camp, still beneath the canopy shroud and at least ten meters from the edge of the forest. Neither of them spoke until they were as far from the camp as they could get. Numa wrung her hands together and kicked at the grass, O-Vhu took this in with a furrowed brow. She hadn't been this agitated in years and it was strange for him to see.
"I was on my way to speak with Master Venra," she finally said, "I'm concerned about these Mandalorians."
"Concerned in what way? They've been quite amenable to us, even though we're strangers to them."
Numa hesitated. "I found a man today… chained and abused… a prisoner of theirs. A captive."
"Found him where?"
"He was in the armory, but I didn't meet him until they brought him to the cafeteria to eat. O-Vhu, they put a Force suppression collar on him. He said he's a Mind Walker. That they'd kidnapped him and were using him to unlock Sith ruins."
"You spoke to him alone?"
"No. His guards were there. They beat him in front of me and told me he was lying. It was sickening to watch."
O-Vhu furrowed his brow. "Did you not try to stop them?"
She nodded her head before clenching her fists. "They turned their guns on me and hit me with a stun pulse."
"They attacked you?"
"Yeah," she said with a quiet nod.
O-Vhu hesitated, knowing how she'd take his next question. "Did you… provoke them in any way?"
She became indignant. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I'm not attacking you, Numa, but these are a warrior people. Their justice, fair or not, is not something they'd want us to interfere with. What exactly did you do to help this man?"
"I…" Numa began, but flushed slightly in embarrassment, staring at her feet as she ground the grass beneath her boot, "I drew my lightsaber."
"That is a violation of the terms of our agreement with Master Venra," O-Vhu said with a sigh, "By rights you should be in chains."
"What was I supposed to do?!" she nearly yelled, clenching her fists in agitation, "He was shaking with fear! Covered in swollen bruises! They were treating him like an animal, O-Vhu!"
"I'm sure there's more to this than we're seeing. You need to calm yourself, Numa. Do not let your righteous indignation lead you astray."
"I'm trying, I just…" she trailed off.
"To be a Jedi Knight is to be an exemplar," O-Vhu began as he placed a hand on his friend's shoulder, "You've only just joined our ranks; it will take time to acclimate to this new independence away from your Master, but I believe in you."
"Thanks. I'm glad we spoke; it's given me time to process this," she said as her temper finally cooled, "I wouldn't wish to speak to Master Venra with such frustration clouding my thoughts."
"Then I'm glad to have helped a friend. Go talk to him about this and let me know what he says. Perhaps there is a reason for this man's imprisonment, or perhaps Master Venra doesn't even know about him."
Numa gave a quick bow and walked back to camp, leaving the cerean Jedi to contemplate her words. It was certainly concerning if the Mandalorians were acting in a dishonorable manner, and the fact that they had set up a secret military base in Alliance Space was worrisome enough. However, O-Vhu Tar had been a Jedi Knight for the better part of a decade and he knew when to act and when not to. Right now, he just didn't have enough information.
May the Force be with you, Numa'lestin.
A low whistle broke Tokare Venra from his meditations. Shuffling over to the kitchenette, he pulled away the kettle and poured it into an earthen mug with a mesh packet filled with flower petals and stems. He blew away the steam and took a sip of his bittersweet tea. His body warmed as it filled him.
It brought a smile to his wrinkled lips, one that had been elusive since he sat down at his computer terminal. A simple search for the name 'Karorm' had turned up nothing. Now the virtual intelligence program was sifting through the entire HoloNet for any mention at all. Eight hours in and there was still nothing, but a full search would probably take weeks, so it wasn't that surprising. Maybe it was a fruitless effort; maybe it was one of the Sith's many lies. At this point, it just felt like wasted time.
Tokare contemplated speaking with the prisoner again; maybe there were more tidbits he'd be willing to part with. Or maybe he could be caught outright in a lie.
His brow gave the slightest twitch as he reached out with the Force and opened the door to his quarters. Standing outside with a sour look and her mouth agape, just forming the words to speak to the guard outside the door, was Numa'lestin. When Daniel Skywalker suggested taking in some of the Knights who came to Rakata Prime to seize the relics there, she was one of three the Grand Master had chosen.
And to Tokare's brown eyes, she was an ideal. Kind and knowledgeable, with just enough curiosity and ambition to seek out truth and justice. Everything he himself imparted into the Mandalorian Jedi he trained. "You may come in, Ms. Lestin."
Numa bowed her head in acceptance before glancing at the guard and walking past. "Thank you for seeing me, Master Venra," she said as she gave a deep bow.
"You've caught me in a rare state of idleness. It is good that you take advantage of it. Would you like some tea?"
"Uh… what kind?"
"No sense of adventure?" he asked with an amused quirk of his brow, "Cassius tea, it is. Made from the florets of a tree by the same name."
"I will try some, yes," she said as she took the offered mug, "Thank you."
"Open-minded should a Jedi be. I was worried about the state of the Order when I spoke with Knight Paal. A Jedi should know their history, but he was disinterested."
Numa gave a small laugh at his summation of her colleague. "Vetor was never much for the history crystals, too busy showing off with his lightsaber."
"Disapprove do you?"
"Perhaps I spoke out of turn, Master," she backpedaled, "He just focused on more practical matters than I did."
"What is your area of focus, Ms. Lestin?" the old Master asked as he analyzed her body language.
"History and astrophysics mostly. I spent a fair amount of time in the training dojos as well, until the masters asked me to stop."
"They… were worried about my aggression. I've had issues in the past with… temptations, I suppose."
"Mm. All of us hear the call of our darker tendencies, some deal with it in different ways."
"I only know the way of the Jedi. How do you cope with the temptation? How does Javen'Panlie?"
"By embracing our emotions as an inseparable part of ourselves. The Order has begun to slide back to the ways of the old Order. Suppression of our feelings only make a Jedi more susceptible to the dark side."
"Isn't it dangerous to be so blasé about your feelings? Any amount of anger or hatred could lead to corruption," Numa asked, her skepticism clear on her face.
"True. But by allowing those feelings to express themselves, find balance amongst them, a Jedi can. They need not be consumed by them. Only so far can suppression support you. How would you handle such strong feelings when you can no longer suppress them?" he asked, turning a critical eye upon his guest, "What techniques and experience could you lean on to keep them from overwhelming you and forcing you down the dark path?"
"Support from others…?" she lamely suggested.
"And how much support can they provide, when the very tenets of your creed force you to keep them at arm's length? I'm not saying your way is wrong, Ms. Lestin, there are just better options think I," he said before taking a sip of his tea, "Hold a monopoly on such things, does not the Jedi Order. There are numerous sects completely disconnected from you. Imperial Knights, the Quabular, Green Jedi, Gray Jedi, those I trained myself, the list goes on. How many of them have fallen? Undien would have you believe they are all corrupt, but I think you're intelligent enough to see through such a blatant falsehood."
Tokare let his words sink in as he nibbled on the end of a wookiee-ookiee, brushing the cookie crumbs from his lips as he set the remainder back down. "Anyway, I'm sure you had something else in mind when you came to my room."
Numa gave a start at the change in subject, but she was grateful nonetheless. "Y-Yes. I'm… concerned about the Mandalorians, Master. About some of things they've done."
"Mm, much of what you know is simple propaganda, my dear. Lived amongst them for over seven hundred years have I. Try to keep an open mind."
"It isn't about my preconceptions, Master. I'm more concerned about what I've seen with my own eyes," she explained, taking a pause to work up the courage to continue, "I… I saw a man in shackles recently. He was bruised and bloody and… he was wearing a Force suppression collar."
Tokare listened, but kept his face neutral. He had been informed of the prisoner's every move and he knew exactly what had happened in the camp mess hall. He took a sip from his mug and set it down on the table. "This man, spoken with him, have you?"
"I did, Master. The Mandalorians told me not to, but—"
"Listened to them, you should have."
"How can you say that? How can you just sit here and do nothing as they abuse this captive, this slave?"
He quirked a silver eyebrow at that. "Slave, say you?"
"Yes! Kidnapping a Mind Walker and then forcing him to unlock Sith secrets? It's abominable! Maybe the Mandalorians have sheltered you from this, but you have to make them free this man!"
"I see," he said, rubbing a knuckle against his chin. This was exactly what he'd hoped to avoid when he'd released the prisoner from solitary confinement. "And who do you suppose they take orders from?"
"I…" She stumbled with the odd question. "Mandalore? I guess?"
"Yes, but he isn't here, is he?" Tokare said with a patronizing smile. It was time to dispel the girl's misunderstandings. "You may believe that they keep secrets from me, but I assure you they do not. I know exactly what they have done and will continue to do to the prisoner Darrben. After all, I was the one who ordered it."
Numa grimaced as she heard his words. "You ordered them to beat him? Abuse a defenseless prisoner?!"
"Mm, I do not condone the liberties some have taken with the prisoner, but I am not naïve about the threat the galaxy faces in the shadows. Sometimes extremes are necessary to keep the galaxy turning in peace."
Numa was left speechless. Apparently, the concepts he so casually discussed were as foreign to her as the mind of a wampa.
"A moment will I now take to explain the situation to you. Firstly, much like the Mandalorians of this camp, beholden to me are you. When I give you an order, you will obey it or find yourself in chains until we leave. Secondly, the prisoner is not what he seems. You may see a victim of a marauding horde, but a façade, this is. A murderer, a liar, a threat, that man is." Tokare narrowed his eyes as he stared into hers. "He is Sith."
Numa scoffed at last part, whatever patience she had evaporated as soon as she heard the word. "The Sith are dead. That you would use them as an excuse to persecute an innocent man just shows how far you've fallen. Master Undien was right about you."
She set down her barely touched mug of tea and stood to leave, not even bothering with a formal bow as she made her way to the door.
"Before you go, Ms. Lestin, say one last thing, I must," Tokare called out.
Numa stopped at the doorway and turned her head, a frown marring her features.
"You may not speak to the prisoner again. If you do, we will have no choice but to imprison you as well. Then, when the situation permits, return you to Undien will we."
Her eyes flashed with indignant anger. She gave a huff before storming out of the door, only disappearing from sight at it slid shut behind her.
Tokare stared at the closed door, his mind awash with the implications. With Knight Grahrk dead, only two Orthodox Jedi remained in camp to provide assistance. But now it was looking like one of them had been compromised. Her sympathies preyed upon by a chained dragon. He reached for his comm-link and triggered it to call the camp overseer. As the call connected, there was a ding from the computer across the room; the search for 'Karorm' had produced a result far sooner than expected.
"Lieutenant Bulla, new orders for you have I," Tokare said as he ambled over to the computer desk.
A feminine voice sounded from the receiver, "How my I serve, Master Tokare?"
Tokare's eyes pored over the computer screen. "I need another pair of minders in camp. Someone to keep an eye on Knight Lestin and ensure she does not interact with the Sith prisoner."
"I'll put Kiloss on it. It'll help take his mind off of things."
"Very well. If she attempts to make contact, detained and fitted with a Force suppression collar, she is to be."
"Understood, sir. Should they be visible or hidden?"
"Visible. Best she know they're there."
"It will be done. Bulla out."
Tokare closed his eyes and gave a deep sigh. He hated to have to do such a thing. The girl didn't deserve to be punished for her compassion, but the situation was tenuous enough at is was. If the Onderonians discovered them, or if the prisoner escaped and someone was killed, it could jeopardize the entire mission. If an innocent had to be reprimanded then so be it.
The old Jedi lifted his mug and finished the last of his tea. Today it tasted very bitter indeed.
Numa's mind was simmering with quiet rage as she stomped through the camp, seeking out her fellow Jedi. She tried to calm her breathing and slow her racing heart, but she found the process difficult and tiring. She'd almost found her balance when she was cut off by a pair of Mandalorians, one male, the other female.
"Jedi Knight Numa'lestin?" the male Mando asked.
She eyed the pair a moment before answering, "…Yes?"
"I'm Eruul'Kiloss, and this is Mirta'Parr. Master Tokare has asked that we escort you through camp during your stay."
Numa froze at his words. "You… you can't be serious."
"His orders were clear, ma'am. You are not to be left alone."
Her eyes narrowed as all her suppressed anger came rushing back. "What does that mean?! Am I prisoner?!"
"You are not a prisoner, ma'am. We will escort you around camp, but will not interfere with your activities unless they are prohibited. Allowances will be made for privacy's sake," he reassured before continuing, "We will remain outside the entrance of any building you enter unless there are multiple entrances. We are chaperones, not prison guards."
"…Fine," she hissed as she continued trudging along the path. Unbelievable.
Numa came upon the small building that housed the Jedi of the camp, just a small prefab with a trio of cots and lockers. Leaving her guards outside, she entered and locked the door behind her before approaching the hunched figure on one of the cots.
O-Vhu Tar opened his eyes and appraised her with a frown. "Your anger is even more pronounced than it was before. What happened out there, Numa?"
"Master Ven—" she stopped herself and looked around the room, "Do you think they bugged the room?"
"I do not think, I know," O-Vhu said as he gestured to a small box in the corner, "I found them after we parted ways earlier. They weren't active, but I disabled them regardless. Your suspicions are wearing on my mind it seems."
"Okay…" Numa said as she let out a relieved sigh, "Master Venra knows about the prisoner, O-Vhu! By the Force, he told me that he himself had ordered it!"
O-Vhu Tar narrowed his eyes in contemplation, confusion coloring his features. "What was his justification?"
"He claimed Darrben had killed some Mandalorians, though he didn't offer any proof," she answered with a shrug.
"Mm, and what do you really know about this man anyway?"
"Not much, honestly. But I know what I've seen. And I know Venra is grasping at straws to justify this. He said Darrben is a Sith, can you believe that? Such rubbish."
O-Vhu's eyes widened at this. "He actually used that word?"
"Yes! It's insane! Everything I've seen just proves Master Undien's point. Venra can't be trusted. These Mandalorians can't be trusted. We need to help Darrben and get away from this place."
The cerean just shook his head. "Master Skywalker would not agree with your assessment. The Mandalorians have dealt honorably with him by all accounts."
"But how reliable is the Grand Master anyway? You've seen how he looked the other way to protect Alana. How tolerant he is of heretical teachings."
"Would you not do the same in his position? She is his great-granddaughter."
Numa scoffed, "His first priority should be to the Order. His emotions are dictating his actions. It is foolish."
"And what are your emotions dictating? Your anger and sympathy are pushing you to help this prisoner. I'm not saying you're wrong, just be sure you're making the right choices in this. Regret is not something you should force upon yourself by not thinking things through now," Knight Tar said.
He paused a moment to let his words sink in before placing his hands on Numa's shoulders. "However, if you truly believe this is the right course, Numa, I will not stand in your way. I'm not sure what aid I can offer, but whatever you need will be done. It may not seem it, but I share your concerns; the actions of the Mandalorians are questionable," his words became more urgent as he voiced his own worries, "We stand here, so close to a member world of the Galactic Alliance, and yet a foreign power has established a secret military camp within our territory. It is beyond disconcerting."
Numa gave his offer some thought. "If you can buy me some time… there's something I need to check in the armory. Could be useful if it has what I need."
O-Vhu Tar closed his eyes and gave a quiet sigh. "Whatever you're planning, Numa, ensure it does not lead to the death of an innocent. There are few things that weigh on the conscious more than that."
Numa glanced around her as she made her way to the back of the camp armory, clad only in her black armored undersuit. O-Vhu had approached her guards as they stood watch outside their quarters, continuing a conversation about racing or some such. It had given her a chance to crawl through the narrow vent slat near the ceiling, though she had silently cursed her breasts at the time, their girth almost preventing her from squeezing through in the first place. She was thankful the camp was kept so dark at night; they didn't want any light to peek out from beneath the holo-canopy and give away their position.
Making sure she was alone, she reached out with the Force and slowly manipulated the analogue tumbler of the locked case. Flinging open the hatch, she beheld an organized collection of everything she needed – wires, receivers, batteries, etc. Gathering everything into a duffel bag, she resealed the case and fled the armory, her ill-gotten goods hanging from a shoulder strap.
I wonder how long it'll take to set this all up. Six hours till sunrise, can probably get this all done in three— OHMIGODS!
She threw herself against the side of the nearest building, her heart thumping in her chest and her breaths coming in a sputter. She cursed to herself as she realized what had startled her was nothing more than a flapping tarp in the shadows.
Alright, calm down. Two hundred more meters to the bunkhouse. You can do this, Numa.
Her nerves were alight with a racing anxiety as she moved through the darkened camp toward her quarters. She knew she was doing the right thing, but the stress of such subterfuge was enormous. She felt a rush of exhilaration she hadn't experienced since the first time she'd moved the training blocks at the Academy.
Taral sat on a small outcropping of gneiss boulders, staring off into the jungles away from the camp. The air was heavy and humid, but the smell of the forest still permeated his senses. He felt a twinge of nostalgia at the back of his mind. The years he spent as a child running through the forests near his home. Happier times, before it was all swept away.
All I'm missing is a bag of jerky and a bottle of dad's booze.
There was a pair of strange, four-winged birds flying above the canopy. Fighting over nesting rights perhaps. It was like watching the local flocks of luvan birds as a child. Though the illusion lost its luster as a skreev swooped in and snatched one of the strange birds in its jaws. Such was life on the 'Demon Moon,' fleeting as it was. It made him grateful for the sonic generators that dotted the camp's edge, keeping the fauna at bay.
Taral gave a sidelong glance to the trio of guards arrayed around him, idly wondering what they felt when they took a moment to look around this place. Were they struck by nostalgia as well? Or was it just another place for them to wear their armor? Probably the latter. If they were comfortable enough to hover over him while he slept last night or stare at him while he sat on the toilet, chances were they didn't feel anything about anywhere.
Nothing more than organic droids.
He contemplated the truth of such a mild slur. They could not be bought, bribed, intimidated, fooled, the list went on. They knew who he was, they knew what he'd done, they knew what he was capable of. Without them making mistakes like they did on the Gayiyli, what chance did he have at freedom?
It brought his thoughts to the conversation he'd shared with Master Tokare the previous day. In truth, calling it a 'conversation' was a bit generous.
"You are to stay away from Ms. Lestin," Tokare ordered.
"I saw an opportunity and took it," Taral scoffed at the Jedi's command, "More the fool are you for letting an idiot like her wander about."
Tokare narrowed his eyes. "Perhaps I am being unclear. There are consequences for your actions, Darrben. Penalties you suffer for certain infractions. Speaking to Miss Lestin is now a punishable action. Knight Tar as well."
"Who? Never met… him? Her? Anyway, it's hardly a loss. Jedi make for boring conversationalists," he said with a dismissive wave, "Anything else, Jedi?"
"No. Good day, Darrben," Tokare said as the conversation ended and Taral was ushered from the old Master's quarters.
'Good day'… maybe I'll have one of those soon.
Taral sighed at the memory. Had he squandered his chance yesterday? Would he ever have another? Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he turned to the lead guard. "What's your name, Mandalorian?"
The man just stared for a moment behind his inscrutable helmet before grunting a response, "Hmph, you first."
"My name is Darrben, as you well know."
"I doubt that, but I'll humor you, Darjetii. My name is Kal'Onasi of Clan Ordo."
Taral cocked an eyebrow at the man's skepticism. "There's no reason to doubt the truth."
"If so, then it's the first honest thing you've said," the Mando replied with a shrug.
"That hurts my feelings, Onasi. A man is only as good as his word."
"A man's actions speak far louder. You dropped the scared captive routine as soon as that Jetii was out of sight."
"And what do your actions say? You've been my guard this whole time, right? What do the beatings say about you and your men?"
"That you got off easy."
Taral chuckled at that. "And what did Tokare think of it all?"
Onasi's body stiffened slightly. "I haven't asked."
"I can't imagine he didn't know, but if he actually ordere—"
"He did not," Onasi interrupted.
"Ah. So he just turned the other way," Taral said before a sardonic expression graced his lips, "What an interesting 'Jedi' he turned out to be."
"Your insinuation is obvious and transparent. Even if he is not an 'ideal Jedi,' he has more honor and dignity than a wretch like you could ever dream of."
Taral's response was a muted chuckle. Glancing over the camp, his eyes were drawn to a shadowy figure between two of the buildings. He quirked an eyebrow as the naïve Jedi met his eyes and ducked out of sight.
Hmm, what are you up to, Numa'lestin? And what can it do for me?
The young Jedi Knight felt rather than saw the four individuals as they walked past the corner she'd hidden away in. As they passed, she threw a stun grenade and ripped off the Mandalorians' helmets with the Force just as the sound dampener spun up to full power and bathed the area in eerie silence. The group collapsed to the ground as she rushed forward with a blaster pistol in her hand and placed her fingers atop the heads of the prone Mandalorians, flooding their addled minds with inconsistent sensory gibberish and forcing them into true unconsciousness.
Taral watched with glazed eyes as the Jedi approached, his shackles having activated the instant Onasi had collapsed. Enough feeling returned for him to move his lips and form words, but no sound could be heard. His face scrunched up in annoyance before Numa turned away and shut off the sound dampener.
The silence gave way to a shrill siren echoing through the camp. It was then that the pair noticed an aerial drone hovering above them, watching their every move.
"Jedi, tap his wrist to activate the… the haptic-padd, then… turn these things off," Taral forced out through his vertigo as he nodded his head toward Onasi.
Numa reached for the Mando's gauntlet and recoiled as floating haptic panels resolved in the air around his forearm. It was a fascinating piece of technology, but she gave a hiss of frustration as she inspected it closer. "It's all in Mandalorian."
"Hold it up and let me look at it," said Taral as he wriggled closer, "Bottom right in green, press it."
As she did so, the magnets became inert and Taral was able to pull himself to his feet. He snatched up Onasi's blaster rifle and loosed two bolts into the air, destroying the hovering drone.
"Grab the guns, we can hole up in that building over there," Taral said as he grabbed a holo-communicator and a handful of grenades.
The pair dove into the storage prefab as several Mandalorians rounded the corner and opened fire. The blaster bolts ricocheted off the wall and Taral gave silent thanks for the ridiculous militarism the Mandalorians embraced. Something as simple as a prefab shed had at least two centimeters of armor plating.
"Fucking hell, it would be easier to escape from Pergatorum," he groaned before turning to his unlikely savior, "Hey, Jedi, I need you to remove this collar."
Numa looked over the locking mechanism and noted the warped, raised section of the weld line. She drew her lightsaber as he lifted the collar away from his clavicle. She tapped the silver ring on the edge and used the Force to bend the metal away, the inert ring clanging loudly on the metal grate floor.
Taral gingerly rubbed his throat as the weight was lifted, silently beaming as his connection to the Force returned in full. His small smile gave way as he regarded the confused look of his companion. "What?"
"…Why can't I sense you?"
"There's more to the Force than what the Jedi teach," Taral said as he used the Force to undo the mag-shackles from his arms and legs, "We can discuss the specifics when we're not dodging blaster bolts. They use armored crates, let's set them up as a low defensive wall."
The pair moved three large crates into a concave arch around the entrance. It wasn't much, but it was the best they could manage. As they finished, the Jedi looked outside and her face dropped at the sight. "We're trapped, Darrben. I… I don't know… What are we going to do?"
"Calm your tits, girl, we ain't dead yet. First things first. We need to assess the situation," he said as he glanced through the open doorframe, "Oh, look at that, they've got a whole company out there. My professional assessment? We are fucked. Completely and utterly."
He almost laughed at his companion's crestfallen expression. "However, there's always a way out," he said as his brain performed mental gymnastics in a desperate attempt to conceive of any possible outcome that didn't end with him dead.
…Nothing came to mind.
"That being said… I don't really see one. Any ideas?" he asked as he looked sidelong at his companion.
"Uh… oh! Yeah, as a matter-of-fact," she began as she pulled out a box the size of a cigarette pack, with a small receiver and a single button, "I brought some insurance for just this kind of scenario."
"Let me see," Taral said as he took the detonator and gave an appreciative hum as he inspected it, "Aren't you just full of surprises. Where'd you plant the charges?"
Numa gave a nod out the door. "On the support columns of the holo-canopy shroud."
"Nice, that's just the sort of leverage we need," he said as he set down his blaster, pausing as he took in his companion's confusion, "What is it now, Jedi?"
Numa furrowed her brow. "You seem… different, from how you were earlier."
"How so?" he asked with a cocked eyebrow.
"I don't know. You're less… timid? I guess?" she suggested with a shrug.
Taral stared at her for a moment, one eye giving a twitch of annoyance. "You cannot be serious. There's a literal army bearing down on us, and you're questioning my timidity? Get your shit together, Jedi! Save your curiosity for when we're out of this mess," he admonished as he pulled out the holo-communicator, "Tokare, if I could have just a moment of your time. I feel like we need to clear the air between us. Let bygones be bygon—"
His plea was interrupted by the clank of several grenades skittering across the floor plates of the shed. With a gesture, the grenades were flung outside with the Force, detonating in flashbangs and sleeping gas. It was then that a Mandalorian leaned around the doorframe and fired off a stun pulse.
Taral reached out and called Numa's lightsaber to his hand, swirling it along the blue ring of the stun pulse and dissipating it into blue-white sparks. He lifted the Mando off his feet and flung him back with the Force. A twinge on his perceptions brought the lightsaber up to block a blaster bolt from a nearby rooftop. The thunderous report of a sniper rifle echoing out shortly after. He gave a quiet sigh of relief as he dived back behind cover, unharmed. He hadn't deflected the bolt; it had struck the lightsaber hilt itself.
"Ha! You missed me, fucker!" Taral yelled in faux triumph, only to grow quiet as the lightsaber vibrated uncontrollably in his hand, "Huh?"
The metal near the emitter began to glow orange as excess plasma was vented through the internal containment field. The blade energy channel and cycling field energizers liquefied in an instant as the vented plasma forced its way past the magnetic barrier.
"Whoa! Shit!" Taral screamed as he threw the lightsaber away just as it exploded. He shielded his face with his arm, only to rapidly swing it back-and-forth to cool the liquid metal that had splashed onto his skin. He hissed and grit his teeth as he nursed the fresh blisters on his forearm. "Unbe-fucking-lievable! Jedi, why the fuck would you leave the crystal exposed?!"
Numa flinched at the sharp rebuke before stuttering a reply, "S-Sorry, I… I thought it looked… cool."
"Cool? COOL?!" he screamed, "I almost lost my hand, you fucking moron!"
He let out a growl of agitation as he saw more of the Mandos starting to inch closer. He drew his stolen blaster and loosed a few bolts over the barricade and into the dirt, enough to force the Mandalorians to halt their approach and dive for cover. He did the same as another pair of sniper shots ricocheted off the armored crates.
"As I was saying!" Taral yelled over the din, even as he stared at the tiny Tokare on the nearby holo-communicator, "We can reach an agreement on this, Tokare. I'd rather not have this end poorly."
"Step outside and surrender yourself," the old Master said as his small luminous form made a sweeping gesture with his hand.
"I really wish you people would just leave well enough alone," Taral snarled as he shot off another burst of blaster bolts and threw two stun grenades out the door, each set on a proximity trigger, "All I want to do is leave."
"Freedom was never an option, Darrben. Too many have you killed."
Taral sneered, "Regretful though it was, I won't apologize for what happened. As far as I'm concerned, that was purely self-defense."
"Even Knight Grahrk?"
Numa perked up at that. Wait, what? "Master Venra… you told us Manu was assisting the Mandalorians on the ship."
Tokare closed his eyes and sighed, his jab at Taral was ill-timed. "He was killed when Darrben attempted to escape the first time."
"Why was I not informed of this? A Jedi is dead and you thought to hide this from me?!"
"I find it curious that your outrage is directed at me, instead of the one who killed Knight Grahrk. Misplaced are your priorities, Ms. Lestin."
"I…?" Numa started, unsure of how to process that. The secrecy was appalling, but if Taral really had killed her fellow Jedi…
Taral decided to step in and try to steer the conversation away from such dangerous territory. "I'm not sure it matters at this point. I've been far more gentle this time around. Not a single person has died since I was brought to this moon."
"Appreciate it, I do, but it changes nothing," the old Jedi declared.
"I disagree. I think it changes everything. I'm not going to rely on your good graces, Tokare. I'm going to force your hand," Taral warned.
"Oh? What with?" Tokare asked with a cocked eyebrow.
"A little gift from my Jedi friend."
Tokare was silent for a moment. "Ms. Lestin… what have you done?"
"There ar—" Her words were interrupted as a blaster bolt whizzed past her head; she aimed her pistol over the crate and blindly returned fire. "There are det-charges on the support columns to the canopy shroud. Set to go off with the press of a button."
"You foolish child!" the old Master exclaimed, true anger coloring his features, "Have you any idea what you've done?! A Sith cannot be trusted!"
"I'm not sure you can be trusted," she countered, "You kept Manu's death from me and O-Vhu—"
"Darrben murdered Knight Grahrk! You are allying with a Sith!"
"And you were responsible for him! What orders did you give him?! Was he trying to capture Darrben on your behalf?! Was he killed for you?!" Numa roared, her righteous anger on full display, a wave of her hand returned another volley of grenades to their owners, "I do not see a Sith before me, Master Venra. I see a man with his back against the wall. I see a man persecuted and abused by someone who claims to be a Jedi. How far have you fallen that you can't see that?"
"Not as far as you have in your ignorance," he sneered, his words thick with contempt.
"Now, now, Tokare, let's not blow this out of proportion. We're still 'negotiating' after all," Taral said with a gloating lilt, "I'm sure you wouldn't want the Onderonians to find you loitering in their space."
"Mm… fine, negotiate, we can," the old Jedi relented before raising his voice, "but you must put down the detonator and your weapons."
"I'm not dropping shit until I push the button or my blade is in my hand and your dogs holster their weapons."
"Outnumbered are you. You cannot leave that building. Even if you managed to steal a ship, the skies are a death trap. Nowhere to go, have you."
"That just means I've got nothing to lose!" Taral snarled as his thumb nervously rubbed over the activation button on the detonator, "I'm gonna start a silent countdown, and when I reach 'zero,' I'm pushing this button. So you better make up your mind real fucking quick, Jedi!" Please don't make me push the button. Please don't make me push the button. Please don't make me push the button.
Master Tokare's tiny, blue, holographic eyes narrowed as he contemplated the situation. It was then that Taral felt a tingle at the back of his mind. Apparently the Jedi was gauging his intent. He still felt uneasy about the situation and didn't bother to hide it. Instead, he forced his resolve to the forefront, he didn't want to bring down the roof, but there was no question that he would. When the tingle disappeared, he watched as Tokare's hologram dipped its head and released a quiet sigh. It was the beautiful sound of sweet, sweet victory.
"You would entomb yourself over this?"
"I would do more than that to secure my freedom, Jedi. Never doubt my resolve."
"Mm, underestimated you, did I. Lieutenant Bulla, tell your men to stand down," the old Jedi ordered as he finally relented.
Thank god, Taral thought as he watched the Mandalorians holster their weapons with only a moment of hesitation here or there. "That's a promising start, Jedi," he said as he glared at the old alien's visage, "Now where's my blade?"
Tokare opened a compartment on his hoverchair and withdrew a silver cylinder, handing it to a nearby Mando who held it out and walked toward the shed unarmed. Taral felt his heart skip a beat as he beheld the only possession he truly treasured… the feeling was utterly consumed by mirth as the Mando stumbled into range of one of the stun grenade mines. The man collapsed in a heap and dropped the lightsaber in the dirt.
The young Sith never laughed so hard in his life.
With a flick of his wrist, he stowed the detonator away and called the hilt to his hand, igniting it with a snap-hiss of ruby-red light. The ominous color brought a surprised gasp to Numa's lips, but Taral ignored her. A quick flourish of the blade brought a wistful grin to his face as he felt the familiar weight in his palm.
Biala… you're finally home.
A/N: This one wasn't fun to rewrite. I hoped to just recycle and rewrite old shit into something better, but the changes made to Chapters 1 and 2 forced this into a completely different direction. 95.3536% of this chapter had to be written from scratch – yes, I did the math. I think it turned out adequately enough, especially with the dynamite suggestions of the Editing Gang.
Numa is a difficult character for me to conceptualize, as her overall personality has gone through a few rewrites. She's genuinely a good person, but she still falls into all the same pitfalls of other Jedi. She's obnoxious, holier-than-thou, elitist, etc. That was the first rewrite, giving her personality flaws and moving away from a two-dimensional caricature.
She's very smart. I feel I need to point that out since she was so easily hoodwinked by Taral's puppy dog eyes, despite how well she organized a unilateral rescue op. She was operating heavily under a confirmation bias. She wanted to believe Taral was the victim; she wanted to believe that the Mandalorians were barbarians.
She's got a lot to think about now that this chapter is over and Taral's lies are laid bare… assuming she even acknowledges them as lies. She's in a confusing position right now, both for her and me (the author). We'll see where it goes from here.
Special thanks to Xabiar for helping round her out as a character. She was pretty dumb in the first draft.
When I first imagined the mess hall scene, there was a part where Taral would snort a line of powderized painkillers before putting on his earphones and listening to music. He would have then subconsciously projected the music into the minds of everyone in the mess hall. This was the thought process I used to create his background – I imagined him listening to sad music in a prison cell and projecting his bad memories to those around him. The song I was listening to at the time was "Behind Blue Eyes" (Limp Bizkit version, I'm ashamed to say).
It never really fit because it made him infinitely more powerful than he had any right to be. And with the rewrite turning him into an actual prisoner, there's no way he'd be able to pull that off under guard.
You may have noticed Taral's propensity to 'negotiate' and manipulate through words alone. Those are certainly important skills (especially when wearing a suppression collar), but you should ask yourself why he's so well-versed in those methods.
I wonder if anyone was curious about Biala when she was mentioned in Chapter 1. Nobody asked, but now we all know that's just the name he gave his lightsaber. Ooh, big reveal.