Though it was already well into the night in Dalon, a powerful, heavy thunderstorm had settled over Paneau's capital city, completely blocking out all starlight. Within minutes, it released a torrential downpour, drenching the quiet city streets in a sudden flood. Blinding flashes of lightning lit up vacant office buildings mere moments before ground-shattering thunder rolled through them, violently shaking their transparisteel windows. The rumble could be heard for kilometers, penetrating Dalon and its suburbs all the way to the Naeron Mountains bordering the metropolis. The storm itself was large enough to cover the entirety of Dalon, and its heaviest rain fell from its center as strong winds whipped the sheets of water in all directions.
The storm persisted for most of the night, wreaking havoc on travel in and out of the city. Already in disarray from the Huxnel blockade that had been dissolved just hours ago, the spaceports about the planet struggled to organize incoming ships and safely order ships leaving as night blanketed the busiest cities. As the fierce storm raged overhead, all craft in Dalon were grounded, including the personal luxury yacht, the Celestia, resting in its home hangar on the Rys'tihn Manor grounds.
Jedi Knight Elena-May Lyran silently sat on the edge of the bed in the fourth-floor bedroom that she and her fiancée Koril Rys'tihn had shared for the past three months. The Manor had become as much her home as his, and together they had created countless memories in it as they prepared for their wedding and later, for the birth of their first child. Hardly more than a week ago, the baby's room, next door to theirs, had been fully furnished, stocked, and arranged by servants of the Rys'tihn Manor under Koril's direction, but too busy making sure the wedding plans were on schedule, Elena hadn't yet seen it. And as she prepared to leave the planet for an unexpected mission, she couldn't bring herself to.
Koril was gone, taken away aboard a Star Destroyer crewed by the ruthless and greedy Huxnel. In an effort to impose their will on Paneau's leadership and mine a rare but valuable substance from its ocean floors, the Huxnel had captured Elena's friends Mand Natiyr and Kihara Marelleck, as well as Deilia Rys'tihn, Koril's twin sister and Ghost Heir. Offering himself as ransom for Deilia, who was also pregnant, Koril had been taken prisoner by the Huxnel, too, and was the only one of the four who hadn't escaped before the Destroyers left. When help arrived in the form of New Republic firepower, the four Destroyers that had blockaded the planet disappeared into hyperspace in four separate directions.
Though Elena could still sense that Koril was alive, she had faintly experienced part of his torture through their emerging connection in the Force. It had only pained her briefly, but she feared that it had been far worse for him. After all he had endured already over the past year, he was being subjected to even more suffering at their hands, and Elena felt powerless to help him. She had to worry more about herself and protect her son if anything were to happen to Koril...
Lost in thought, Elena held her Rys'tihn Crest lightly, running her fingers over its smooth, jeweled surface. Koril had one altered slightly for her, set with small Hoth Diamonds instead of a few red gems in its center. It had been her engagement present, customized just for her. As she turned it over in her hand, she gently rubbed her stomach, calming her son inside her. Though he was hardly developed enough to do more than stretch and kick, he was easily affected by her mood, and as upset as she was, she was surprised he wasn't more active.
Soft footsteps around the corner caught her attention, but she quickly recognized the presence as that of her best friend Mand Natiyr. The thunderstorm was still raging outside, so she knew Mand wasn't coming to collect her. Afraid her friend was bringing bad news, Elena maintained her gaze on the floor in front of her.
"Elena," Mand began softly, sitting beside her, "are you alright?"
Elena didn't answer, but rather shared the thought that had been repeating in the back of her mind since Koril had left.
"I shouldn't have let him go."
Mand allowed a brief silence to hang between them before she responded. "He had to. He was the most logical choice. You certainly couldn't have gone in his place; look at what they did to Kihara and me."
Elena knew her friend was trying to get her to think about the situation differently, but she stubbornly refused to. Before Koril had even gotten to the Huxnel's flagship, Deilia had already been rescued by Rech, rendering his self-sacrifice needless. She should have stopped him somehow, delayed him, but now he was at the Huxnel's mercy, as was she. As she faced having to raise a child on her own, she easily clung to fear and regret.
Mand sighed lightly beside her, putting a hand on Elena's shoulder. "You know he's still alive, right?"
Elena nodded after a moment, meeting Mand's gaze. Though she wasn't able to sense his presence enough to lead her to him, she at least still felt him in her mind through their connection. Mand leveled a determined look at her, her eyes intense.
"Then we're going to find him. I won't leave your side until we do."
Again, Elena nodded, accepting her friend's assertion. Once an agent for the Huxnel, Mand was their best chance at finding Koril. She would know better than anyone where to look for the elusive pirates, and that thought at least brought Elena a little hope.
"Come on," Mand said softly as she stood from the bed and gently tugged Elena up by the arm. "There are some people downstairs who want to talk to you before we leave." Curious but anxious at the same time, Elena stood and followed Mand, tucking her crest back under her tunic as they left her bedroom.
The halls of the Rys'tihn Manor were eerily quiet, and even the servant staff looked somber as they bowed to Elena as she passed. Word had spread quickly, she mused, but at least they hadn't hounded her with questions. A dozen more security guards lined the walkways and were posted at all entrances, per Koril's orders, after two Huxnel agents had infiltrated the Manor earlier in the week. The extra security pacified Elena little, though, since the Huxnel had gotten into the Manor with the Crest belonging to Deilia, whom they had captured. Though she had returned safely from a medical frigate in the neighboring system, her Crest was still missing.
As the turbolift doors opened onto the main floor, Elena stepped out to see several faces immediately turn to her. They were gathered in the main atrium, and all talk ceased as she approached them. Vianne Banarecc, Sol and Kander Gedall, and Jethro and Annaliza Trislena stood together with Kaydee, the Rys'tihn protocol droid, who was hovering around them. But behind the six were three people she was completely surprised to see: her parents, Race and Sirema Lyran, and her brother, Jeric.
"Sweetheart," Sirema said with relief as she rushed to Elena and embraced her tightly. "We were so worried when they told us we couldn't land."
"We took up orbit over Salastryn until those Destroyers left," Race answered a question Elena hadn't asked yet as he strode up behind Sirema, looking equally relieved to see his daughter.
"Are you feeling okay? They didn't hurt you or the baby, did they?" As Sirema anxiously looked her over, Elena waved away her concern.
"I'm fine, mom. They didn't touch me." After Sirema stepped back, Elena continued, diverting attention from herself. "How did you get here? Spaceport Control isn't letting anyone land or leave while this storm is on top of us."
"We landed in Narotomi and got a taxi speeder here as quickly as we could," Race answered. Though Elena was glad to see her family wasn't harmed by the blockade, the other five people patiently waiting behind them caught her attention. Wordlessly, the Lyrans moved aside, though Sirema stood beside Elena, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
Vianne Banarecc stepped forward from the group, and for the first time, Elena noticed her purple-paneled R2 astromech Eewon keeping close on her heels.
"We all came as soon as we heard what happened," Vianne began quietly. Her voice intensified, though, as she continued. "Is there anything we can do for you?"
The Gedalls and Trislenas looked intently at Elena, too, their expressions identically concerned as they awaited her response. In the face of their sincere willingness to help, Elena was rendered speechless. Mand quickly spoke up for her, though.
"We'll need someone to look after the Manor while we're gone."
"Of course," Sol Gedall answered immediately. "You won't have to worry about it at all." At his side, his wife Kander nodded, too, pledging her support.
Jethro Trislena spoke up next. "Annaliza and I will begin on your Retreat's restoration, as well."
Again wordless, Elena only nodded. The Rys'tihn Retreat had been damaged in an intense firefight between the Huxnel and her friend Kihara Marelleck who was trying to protect the Ghost Heirs Cade and Deilia Rys'tihn. Elena and Koril had decided to hold their wedding in the secluded, beautiful Retreat, but after blaster fire had nearly destroyed its interior, and now that Koril was gone, their wedding had been indefinitely postponed. With a heavy heart, she looked to Vianne again, who was ushering Eewon toward her and Mand. Shined and cleaned since she had last seen him, he rolled up in front of them and whistled a pleasant greeting.
"I want you to take him with you," Vianne said kindly. "He's been retired from active duty for a few years, but he still knows the Celestia well."
Eewon beeped and whistled again, prompting Kaydee to step forward with an offer of her own.
"Mistress Elena, I, too, wish to accompany you. I am fluent in millions of languages, and I can translate for this eager astromech, as well as almost any other sentient life form we may encounter."
Elena still remained silent, and beside her, Mand nodded, again speaking up for her.
"Thank you, Kaydee," she said, then turned to the others, too. "Thank you all. Your support means so much to us."
"Please," Sol implored earnestly after a brief silence, "is there anything else we can do?"
Finally finding her voice, Elena nodded, looking at both Sol and Kander. "Take care of my parents and my brother while they're here." Getting quick affirmations from the two, she turned to her family standing beside her. "You can stay here in the Manor as long as you want."
Sirema and Race exchanged concerned glances, but they both nodded after a moment.
"We'll stay until you get back," Sirema said with sad eyes, forcing Elena to look away. She met Sol's gaze again as he nodded understandingly, accepting her request.
Elena felt the mood of the room shift suddenly, though, as almost all of the Royals' expressions turned dark, focusing on someone behind her. She didn't need to look back to know that Rech Natiyr was approaching them.
The last the Royals had heard about Rech, they believed him a fallen Jedi, surrendered to the Dark Side. The expressions on their faces, though, indicated they were still unsure of how to react to him. They had known him at his best, a selfless, skilled healer, so learning of his turn had been hard for them to accept.
Rech continued to step towards them, and though Elena wasn't looking at him, she could tell his steps had slowed as he noticed the Royals' reactions.
"The storm has moved out," Rech began cautiously. "We're cleared to leave."
"We'll be there in a minute," Mand answered him calmly, looking to the Royals. "Thank you all, again, for your help. We'll keep you updated."
Each nodded and began to disperse, offering "good lucks" and "be carefuls" as they walked past. Sol and Kander stood behind the Lyrans, prepared to show them about the Manor once they finished their goodbyes.
Worried, Sirema tightly embraced Elena again, her voice shaky. "Please, please be safe, dear. You've got a few long months left. Take care of yourself."
"Don't worry, Mrs. Lyran," Mand offered with a wan smile. "I'll keep her in check."
At that, Sirema returned the smile shakily as she stepped back, nodding despite looking as if she could cry. The Gedalls quickly intervened, though, offering to take the three Lyrans to their rooms. As they were led away, Sirema kept glancing back with an anxious expression on her face, heightening Elena's own apprehension. Once they were around a corner, though, Elena released a light sigh, looking down at her stomach as she placed her hand on top of it. Somehow finding renewed strength in a faint kick she felt under her palm, she closed her eyes and drew in a long breath to focus herself.
"We've wasted enough time," Elena said bluntly, glancing at Rech and Mand beside her. "We need to get moving if we're going to find him."