Chapter Forty-Six: Durge's Revenge
The moment Tobin's shuttle left the Miraluka, Chinlee began repositioning ships around the planet. The Blackguards had 6,253 corvettes, frigates and the large assault cruisers in orbit around the planet, while Tobin's forces attacked with just over 10,200 capital ships.
Because of the numerical superiority, they were able to match ship sizes well enough and double-up on those larger ships that could take a larger beating. By the time Tobin landed and the fleet sensors alerted Mariha that the enemy was about to open fire, her own ships were in position.
They opened fire before the Blackguards had a chance to do so themselves.
Even so, capital ships were built to withstand horrific punishment. Even as the Miraluka and other ships began to beat down on the unresisting Blackguard ships, the enemy themselves were firing on the surface with devastating effect. Still, the barrage could only last so long. Blackguard ships started blossoming in flame as the Tobin's fleet began to take their toll.
Things seemed to be going too easy for the threat Mariha felt in the Force, so the appearance of another three thousand enemy ships should not have surprised her. What did surprise her, though, was Shol Dinteri's voice screaming over the holo emitter, "They're heading straight for the Miraluka! They're going for the Empress! Captain Deastri, get Mariha out of there now!"
The scarred Captain Taryn Deastri, former Wookiee slave transport captain, responded with a screamed flurry of orders. The tight formation of enemy ships attacked with frightening efficiency, cutting through the now thinned Imperial fleet to hone in directly on the Miraluka.
The refurbished Scythe-class heavy cruiser had recently been refit with the strongest shields available in the galaxy, and it was only because of these shields that the ship survived the initial bombardment from the vanguard of the attacking ships. Even so, the sheer kinetic force form that first wave of concussion missiles knocked Mariha, Slana and every other person not seated to the floor.
Deastri continued shouting orders even as she picked herself up, and through the viewports the planet-scape spun dizzily as the Miraluka began a hard burn down toward the surface. Mariha heard other voices through the holo relay, including Shol's familiar voice ordering their ships to collapse in behind the Miraluka to buy the Empress time to escape.
The problem, however, was that their forces were spread in an even blanket around the whole planet, which, Mariha realized, was the whole point. The nearest ship was hundreds of klicks away, though it was approaching quickly and already firing.
"Captain, we've lost after shields completely! The reactor's taking fire!"
Deastri turned her scarred face to the Empress, and then to Slana. "Get her out of here!" the captain said to Slana. "We're dead!"
Reality froze for a moment as Mariha comprehended what the captain and the Force was telling her—the Miraluka was now crippled and would soon die a fiery death. She was up before Slana was and had her lady in waiting by the arm as they ran toward the nearest executive escape chutes. Behind them, the Captain gave the order to abandon ship while in the space around them the new Imperial fleet converged on the Blackguards to try and stave off the inevitable.
"You move in slow motion to me, Artin," the being that was once Amorine Hubrin said. To prove her point, a pseudo-pod like limb shot out almost faster than even Tobin at the height of Force awareness could avoid. But just as the Gen'Dai were the penultimate survivers, living for thousands of years, Tobin was the pinnacle of the Force.
He cart-wheeled over the blow and brought down another chandelier onto Hubrin's…well, the part of her where her head would have been.
She made a strange, hollow growl as she threw the five ton lighting fixture off and charged Tobin at astounding speed. Rather than try to avoid her, he caught her in the Force and tossed her through the air, only to have another of her obscene limb extensions shoot down and swat him away like an insect.
Hubrin landed with a wet thud and instantly reformed into a bulging, bipedal mass of muscle and nerve tissue. She shot out limb without pause. Tobin, trying to heal himself in the Force from the massive blow, had no choice but to defend himself with the Force. He caused her blow to go wide, and then threw one of his sabers to amputate the limb. As the saber came back to him, another limb snatched the fallen one, and in seconds she had it reattached to her body.
Even in the midst of the fight of his life, he could feel the Force screaming in warning for others. He knew Hubrin's threat did not just extend to him—somehow she was threatening Mariha as well.
"Mariha, are you rated to fly?" Slana asked hysterically as she and Mariha climbed into the captain's launch. Behind them, more bridge crew—those specifically assigned to this as their escape craft—came on board as well.
The Empress said, "Tobin's been teaching me!"
The last to arrive was Deastri herself. "Go, go go! The reactor's been breached!"
The captain's barge was a heavily modified shuttle with enhanced shields and two torpedo launchers to augment the four laser cannons in sported. It would be hardpressed to go against a capital ship, but it could hold its own against anything short of that. It was also very, very fast.
Mariha pushed the thrusters to full power as the emergency systems kicked in and used a powerful magnetic pulse to shoot the barge out from under the bridge of the Miraluka at full sublight. Even with dampening systems, the pull was enough cause those inside not strapped down to fall. Mariha immediately banked hard right, following a warning from the Force, which allowed them to avoid the concussion missile that passed by.
Deastri stumbled forward until she reached the weapons station. "Majesty, I hope you're up for this," the captain said.
Mariha did not answer; she was not even fully aware of the others in the ship as, for the very first time, she allowed herself to sink wholly, completely into the Force. She felt her husband on the planet, fighting for his life against and impossible foe; she felt the crews of her fleet watching in horror as a battle group hunted her mercilessly; she felt the massive hulks of burned out Blackguard ships littering the space around the planet.
She discovered that the blood of her ancestors flowed true in her.
"Holy stars!" Slana screamed as Mariha banked around a burned-out heavy cruiser so close to the dead hulk they scraped paint off the hull. She put the barge into a tight barrel roll as she did so, using the rotating and timing even Tobin would not have been able to handle, to flit through a hole punched in the Blackguard ship's hull. Behind her, the lead pursuing ship hit the dead craft full on.
Though Deastri could not tell how she knew, she felt the Empress's desire and fired a single proton torpedo into the fray, and with a spectacular explosion the hulk's still simmering reactor exploded in a brilliant white flash that destroyed the lead pursuer as well.
"I understand now," Mariha whispered to herself. "We don't use the Force. We are the Force. And the Force is us."
Around them, though the pilots and captains did not understand why, everyone in the Imperial fleet suddenly knew exactly what they had to do. The convergences went from a desperate race to one point to organized thrusts along a stepped path out of the thick of the battle and into open space. The attacking capital ships launched their fighters for the first time, but already loyal fighters had arrived to defend the barge. Their pilots fought with a precision not seen in hundreds of years, quickly and easily decimating the conditioned, lobotomized pilots employed by the Blackguard.
And yet still the Blackguard ships came, relentless as droids. Mariha spun the ship around on its axis, allowing momentum to carry her forward and to the right abruptly as she continued on full burn. Though it momentarily exposed the side of the barge to fire, the exposure did not last long enough for the pursuing ships to take advantage of it, and in moments she was flying under the hull of the Hubris, the ship that gave Tobin and his mother a home after they fled Nalderaan.
The massive Pellaeon-class star destroyer, refitted and lethal, barreled into the formation of Blackguard ships without hesitation—one big destroyer against twenty-nine hundred ships. Yet so determined where the Blackguards that they did not even fire on the Hubris, which was fine for Dila Hershied, the commander of the behemoth.
As the Blackguard ships flew by, she unleashed duel broadsides of every concussion missile the huge ship had, accompanied by a massive barrage of turbolaser fire. Four of the Blackguard ships simply evaporated under the onslaught. She continued firing, tagging half the ships before they finally blew by her.
Mariha had already turned, controlling her barge with unbelievable finesse as the ship danced around the heavy turbolaser and missile fire. She flew into a loose formation of loyalist frigates and corvettes, and once again the Blackguards took heavy fire while concentrating solely on her.
One shot got through and the barge began to spin wildly.
And then the Sword of Stars arrived. The converted Ithorian liner piled into the Blackguards with the superlaser blasting away, while the whole fleet could hear Grand Admiral Silmari growling threats against those who would threaten Tobin's mate.
More loyalist ships arrived. "Empress, are you well?" came Shol's voice.
"I'm alright, but the ship is damaged."
"Who was your pilot?"
Mariha smiled at the pause that followed. "Mariha, lass, that was the most incredible flying I have ever seen in my life. Make for the Goddess in high orbit. It's over, Princess."
"Not yet, it isn't," Mariha said. "I'm going to the surface. Have landing parties join me at the palace."
"Empress, are you sure?"
"I'm sure, Shol. Hubrin is not a human—the threat she represents is too great. Tobin needs me."
"Then go. We'll handle things up here."
Tobin fought with a ferocity and skill that would have made Darth Valus proud. He defended himself with a skill that would have left his mother ablaze with love.
It was not enough.
Two thousand years of hate boiled out of the Gen'Dai, and the hate had learned several trips along the way. Whenever he got close, she deployed personal energy shields to hold off his sabers while she attacked with those grotesque limbs of hers. Force kinetic attacks were next to useless, and his Force lightning did little more than irritate her and make her move faster.
Worst of all was the constant stream of insults and taunts about how his wife was killed.
But still he fought, because he knew there was no surrender. The Force itself assured him of this. If he failed, the future itself could fail.
Mariha chose not to try and land first—but only because of Slana and Deastri's warnings. The warnings were right, though. She came down into the middle of a massive firefight. Tens of thousands of Blackguard soldiers poured out of the palace while the palace defenses themselves played havoc with the attackers.
General Kenth Shandor himself led the assault from behind a pair of hovering Armageddon tanks. Mariha brought the shuttle down behind the tanks and rushed out with Slana to determine the situation. Shandor looked at the Empress when she arrived with open horror. "What in the Force are you doing here?" he demanded, momentarily forgetting himself.
"Tobin needs me!" she said.
"We're getting plastered!" Shandor said. "We're going to need five times the troops we have before we can even make a dent in the palace."
"What if I can get you in from underneath?" Slana said. "It was the way Tobin showed me to rescue Mariha. It was an old sewer tank from the first Empire. If we blast our way down to the tank, we could lead an assault force of heavy-armored troopers into the palace itself."
"Do you know where the pipe is?"
Mariha closed her eyes, reaching out with the Force. "I do," she said. She walked over to the general's hastily assembled table. "Punch a hole down at these coordinates."
"Why not?" Shandor said. He called the coordinates in for a barrage, and in minutes massive bolts of green light shot down from the sky, impacting a point five clicks away with such fury the whole area shook as if from an Earthquake.
The barrage lasted for three full minutes before Shandor pressed his earpiece closer. "I'll be damned, the ships in orbit say their comscans have detected a shielded pipe."
Mariha gave Slana a hug, and then turned to Shandor. "We need armor. We're leading the assault."
"Empress, are you sure? If anything…"
"I'm not leading it as Empress, Kenth. I'm leading it as the only Imperial Knight you have."
Shandor looked down at Mariha's lightsaber, and then absently put a hand to the Unitarian sigil he war. "And who am I to refuse a knight?" he said reverently.
The thought that Tobin was going to lose came with an odd, detached calm. It was different than what he felt in the Force-free cell in this very palace, facing the execution squad. It was instead the knowledge that the Force was with him, and that even with his death, he would not end.
Even with the Force he struggled with terrible exhaustion. The fight was now easily in its second hour, the longest sustained fight he had ever experienced, and Hubrin showed no signs of tiring.
He could hear voices in the Force, whispering to him. Their messages were all one—comfort and peace. He was One with the Force. Death could not truly touch him; only move him from one phase of existence to another.
These thoughts came to him as he fought a desperate and losing rearguard action against Hubrin. The Gen'Dai was unlike any opponent he had ever fought, and he wondered repeatedly how his ancestor was able to beat one. He could not have known that Durge had been insane at the end, driven so by centuries of torture and abuse, and though he had nearly destroyed Anakin Skywalker, it was his insanity at the end that gave Skywalker the opening he needed.
Hubrin might have been insane as well, but her rage did not change her fighting style. She fought with cold, lethal precision. She was a living bundle of nerves and muscle, without bone or even a central nervous system. Her awareness was instantaneous and a thousand times faster than mere human. She moved faster than any other species could move, and her consciousness was sharpened to a razor point with only one goal—killing Tobin Solo Artin.
Through the Force Tobin could feel his wife—he knew she lived. He could feel soldiers fighting and dying outside of the palace. He knew now that the future was secured even if he died. As long as Mariha lived—as long as their son lived—he knew he could die in peace.
But the Force had other plans.
Their fight was momentarily interrupted when the far entrance exploded. Blackguard troops spilled out, but not to attack. Rather their backs were to the two combatants as they fought a rearguard action against a swarm of troopers in heavy assault armor—mechanized battle suits that carried the heaviest weapons available off a capital ship.
"Well," Tobin said, gasping for breath, "it would appear your plans have faltered."
Hubrin's muscles and nerves contracted momentarily into something resembling a human shape, and from that shape she grinned. "You think so, Artin?"
Then Tobin felt it, and his heart constricted in terror. Mariha was there, in the palace, and somehow Hubrin knew it. The Gen'Dai shot off, moving in some obscene parody of a run that covered ground faster than even Tobin could, and moved straight for the entrance where Mariha emerged, respondent in white armor with her purple lightsaber flashing.
Mariha, watch out! Tobin shouted into the Force.
The Empress had just a moment to look up and see the Gen'Dai barreling toward her before she launched herself into a twenty-foot somersault over Hubrin. Whatever her powers were, not even the Gen-Dai could arrest their own momentum that quickly. It bought Mariha time to land in a roll and run toward Tobin before Hubrin barreled after them.
"What is she?" Mariha said.
"Gen'Dai," Tobin said. "Whatever the hell that is. She's faster than we are, even with the Force, and she can reattach limbs instantly. What are you doing here?"
"Saving you!" she snapped back.
"Jump!" Tobin shouted.
The two launched themselves away from each other as Hubrin attacked. Rather than pick one or the other, Hubrin shot limbs out after both, only to jerk them back as both were amputated. Tobin Force-threw the beast away and rejoined his wife, falling in time with her as if they had been fighting together their whole lives.
Outside their combat zone, the last of the Blackguards fell, which gave Shandor's men the time they needed to take out the defensive emplacements and shields. The end was approaching, but none of that mattered for Tobin and Mariha.
They moved as one, like two limbs for attack and defense. Tobin felt a surge in the Force as he realized that with Mariha, he was stronger than he was alone. And in this new strength, he realized what needed to happen.
"I have a plan!" he shouted.
"I don't like the sound of that," Mariha snapped back.
They twirled away from another attack, this one glancing across Mariha's brow and sending her stumbling. Tobin grabbed her with the Force just as Hubrin made a huge first and cracked the floor in a blow that would have killed the Empress.
"It's a good plan!" he assured her as he spun her away to defend against another assault.
"So tell me!" she said.
He did, through the Force. He sent images and his desires to her, and his fear of what it could do. The Gen'Dai was functionally immortal, and if she got away she would always be a threat not just to them and their empire, but to their children.
Mariha did not even bother to respond aloud. With a grunt at the effort, she reached out both hands and grasped the Gen'Dai in the Force, lifting it twenty-feet into the air. Hubrin responded with shooting limbs, but Tobin was there instantly, cutting the limbs off with ruthless efficiency. He Force-pushed every limb away to prevent her from reattaching them again, until at last she'd lost enough muscle mass she stopped trying.
"So now we shoot it?" Mariha said, straining.
"Shooting won't kill it," Tobin said with conviction. "Not while any of it lives. No, there's only one way to deal with this."
He ignored her and shot himself forward, flying into the air until he landed right on the stunned Hubrin. To Mariha's horror, Hubrin seemed to expand and suck him into her body.
"No!" Mariha said. She let Hubrin fall and ran forward, prepared to chop her husband free. It was only the Force that stilled her hand.
Hubrin writhed on the floor, howling in agony as a red light seemed to glow from within her.
"Empress!" a trooper called.
Mariha turned and saw with shock that the amputated pieces of muscle were wilting into dry, desiccated strands of meat and gristle. She turned back to Hubrin and saw that her whole body seemed to be drying out, while the red light from within her grew brighter and brighter.
Moments later, she saw her husband free himself, even as he continued to place his hands on Hubrin's body. The red light came from his hands, while his face was warped with an expression of agony. Still, he did not relent until at the very last, Hubrin's last strange of muscle dried into a husk.
Tobin straightened and stumbled away toward the throne, and Mariha followed without a thought. She found him kneeling in the hidden space behind the throne, throwing up violently. She tried to approach, but had to back away at the sickening, twisted feel of him in the Force.
"It was a Sith technique," he said between gags. "A way to drain your enemy's life force. It was the only way to kill Hubrin. The force of her life itself was her only weakness."
"What's wrong with you?"
"It was a twisted life," he said. "Stand back. I need to get rid of it."
She did as she was told and watched as Tobin straightened, yelled at the top of his lungs and fired a veritable thunder-storm of Force-lightning into the air. She glanced over her shoulder and saw troopers kneeling down, some making the sign of the Unitarian sigil as they did so. She looked back as the last of the lightening left his hands, and Tobin Solo Artin, first Emperor of that name, collapsed unconscious to the ground.
The battle for the future was over, and somehow, they won.
Epilogue: The Future Begins
"Initiate Anakin Skywalker Fel, kneel."
The young man with curly black hair tinged with natural red highlights knelt before the Emperor and Empress. Behind him the rest of the newly initiated knights stood with their silver lightsabers blazing in the otherwise darkened room, casting a silvery light over the initiate and his master. Otherwise the throne room was empty.
"You have trained with dedication and skill for this day," the Emperor intoned. "You have shown leadership, intelligence and strength. You have shown mercy when warranted, and ruthlessness when needed. You have saved the innocent and destroyed the wicked, and you have served the Empire well. Do you wish now to dedicate your life to the Empire and enter the Order?"
"By the Force and all my heart, I do," the Initiate said with his head bowed.
"Then say the words, Initiate, and let the Force know the truth of them."
"I walk the path between emotion and peace. I reject ignorance and seek knowledge. I embrace both passion and serenity. I hover between chaos and harmony. I accept that there is no death, only the Force. I am Force, and the Force is me; I am the Empire, and the Empire is me. Through the Force, I make the Empire strong, and through the Empire I am made strong. I pledge my life, my soul and my power to protect and serve the people of the Empire. On the Force I do so swear."
The Emperor did not smile, but next to him the Empress did.
Anakin twenty-year years of age, stood straight in his red Initiate's gear. The Emperor stepped down and reached out his hands to show two lightsaber handles. Anakin took them wordlessly and lit both—they were the silver of the other knights.
"Anakin Skywalker Fel, in the name of the Force I declare you a Knight of the Empire, with all the rights and responsibilities therein. Let all the Empire know you as a member of the Order of the Republic."
The Empress quietly stepped down from the dias and by the light of the lightsabers draped the red armored chestplate over his shoulders. The chestplate was decorated with the Unitarian sigil bisected by a lightsaber.
"You have earned your place among the knights," the Emperor continued. "By the words of Knight General Aaris Bard, you achieved the highest rank possible on your trials. I would be proud of you on your merits alone. The fact that you are also my son fills me with a happiness I cannot expression."
Anakin extinguished his swords as the Emperor stepped forward and embraced his son. "The future is you, my boy," Tobin whispered. "Make it a good one."
"I will, Father," Anakin said as he returned the embrace. "Not for the Empire. Not for the Force. But for you."
Tobin stepped back. "My friends, may I present my son, Knight of the Empire Anakin Skywalker Fel."
The Order of the Empire, which was now composed of almost a hundred Knights, as one raised their silver ligthsabers and roared their approval.
Tobin stepped back to let his son mingle with his friends and fellow knights. He felt Mariha take his hand. "He has done remarkably," she said.
"He is everything I hoped," Tobin agreed.
Mariha leaned over to whisper in his ear. "As good as he did, though, Jaina will do better."
Tobin turned and looked at their sixteen-year-old daughter who had her mother's fiery red hair and temperament. She wore the red uniform of an initiate herself, and watched her brother's celebration with wistful smile, as if she were seeing herself.
Tobin turned to his wife and kissed her. "I'll take that bet."
"And I'll be happy to do so," he said. "Because in the end I'll still win. With him I see myself; with her I see you. And together—together there is nothing they won't be able to accomplish."
She took his hand and raised it to her lips. "Just like us."
"Like us," he agreed. "I love you."
With a laugh, the two held each other and watched their children celebrate, while around them they knew their Empire was strong and, at least for the moment, the Force was in balance. It was everything Tobin could hope for.
"Thank you, Klinti," he whispered.
Your welcome, the Force whispered back with a hint of Klinti's voice.
Yes, Tobin realized, it was everything he could have hoped for and more.
The last two chapters in a flurry. Please note I had to do some real work-arounds to get these up, so I apologize for any formatting issues you may encounter.
Thank you all for reading!