ONE
Message from Bpfassh


Folding her arms and ignoring the plume of steam that escaped her lips with each exhalation, she looked out across the stark, craggy desert that dominated much of the planet Bpfassh's surface. She contemplated the stars in the cloudless blue-black velvet night sky, the cries of desert predators in the distance. It all appeared to be so peaceful. So serene.

Appearances could be deceiving.

War was tearing the galaxy apart: the most destructive, terrible conflict in a millennium. The Clone Wars had begun on the Outer Rim, on the distant desert world of Geonosis and had spread like wildfire through the stars. For two years now they had raged, all but unabated. The Republic, the bastion of galactic sovereignty that had stood for a thousand generations was now teetering on the brink of collapse. The Jedi, the guardians of that Republic and the peace and prosperity it was meant to ensure, were dying in droves. A dark shadow was falling across the galaxy.

Bpfassh had largely escaped the ravages of the war, even though the rest of the Sluis sector had not been so lucky. That was all about to change. Darkness was coming to Bpfassh. She would be its herald.

She allowed herself a cold, tight smile.

Turning away from the desert, she beheld the city that stretched away on the other side of the escarpment. A modern, thriving metropolis, including a busy spaceport and an ancient citadel that had become the administrative and political heart of Bpfassh, the city of Pfalla was compact and quiet for a planetary capital. It was hemmed in against one of the planet's shallow seas by the escarpment.

Down in the city, positioned at strategic locations throughout the urban sprawl, her fellows were awaiting her signal. There were eight of them, all as talented, as vicious and as cunning as she. Bpfassh's moons raised higher and higher in the night sky. When they reached their zenith, she took the lightsabre hilt from her belt.

Lifting it above her head, she thumbed the activation stud.

The crimson blade sung into life, plunging the area around her into a red-tinged twilight. Watching her through electrobinoculars, her compatriots understood that the call had been given. She deactivated the weapon and returned it to the clip on her thigh. She waited for a few minutes, counting the passing seconds as casually as she might count out how many pieces of fruit she wanted from a market vendor.

Then the night shattered, a blossom of fire errupting in the northwest quadrant of the city right at the primary power distribution node. Entire swathes of the city went dark. Then a second explosion: the main generator at the spaceport. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth. Three more came in unison. Chaos filled the air like a song.

She almost laughed.

Flicking her dark cloak over her shoulder, she walked the few steps to her waiting speederbike. Kicking the engine into overdrive, she shot off down the escarpment, kicking up dust behind her. She covered the rocky plain to the city in a matter of minutes and flew through the outskirts with purpose. She knew exactly where she was going and how to get there.

The ancient citadel rose over the burning city like a mountain, its upper reaches lost in the thick black smoke that was rising in columns from the fires her compatriots had set off. A forbidding, dominating presence, the citadel was connected to the plaza at its base by a long, wide flight of stone steps. Blue-uniformed guards stood at attention at intervals on the stairs, many of them looking in horror at the fires raging out in the metropolis.

It took less than an hour to reach the plaza. Aiming for the stairs to the citadel, she raced across the cobbled ground, past fountains and sculptures and carefully tended trees with twisted, gnarled trunks. The guards, distracted by the chaos, didn't notice her approach until it was too late. She reached the first guard post and leapt from her bike: it roared up the remaining steps as she came to the stone ground, lightsabre in hand.

In one sweeping motion, she'd activated it and beheaded one of the guards, bisecting another. She advanced up the stairs, slicing left and right, killing, maiming, taking life with the merest flick of her blade. She deflected blaster bolts back at the men that had fired them at her effortlessly. The speederbike roared upwards, too: she was dimly aware of it smashing against the thick, ancient door.

It exploded spectacularly, blowing a hole in the wood.

She wasted no time, expertly dispatching any of the citadel guards that dared come close. Finally, she reached the top of stairs and stepped through the sizzling remains of the shattered door. In the ancient, stone lobby, a small cadre of guards waited, their panic and fear sizzling about them. It took her mere minutes to destroy them all.

She advanced through the twisting stone passages of the citadel, ignoring the priceless cultural artefacts that surrounded her. At chokepoints, guards tried to accost her: she killed them. Extraordinarily limited security for a building of such importance but Bpfassh had always been a peaceful world, far removed from the troubles of the galaxy.

The master of this place would learn the foolishness of that parochial, limited viewpoint. She would make sure of that. Nothing would stand her way. Not now.

At long last, she reached the old feasting hall. Richly hued tapestries hung on the high walls, holographic display screens showed a realtime feed of the horrors unfolding in the city around them. The Provost was still there, enraptured equally by the displays and an internal security feed that, she realised, had showed him her relentless march. The elite of his guards stood between her and him. They clutched their blaster rifles, aimed...

"Hold your fire," the Provost warned. He turned his wisened body towards her, eyes lingering on the lightsabre she held almost casually in her hand. "What have we done to displease you, Jedi?"

He spoke with such contempt.

"I'm no Jedi, Lord Provost," she answered. She raised her blade in a duellist's salute. "And neither are they."

From the shadows that lined the edge of the hall, eight other figures emerged. Just as she had, they'd raced from their positions all over the city to the citadel. Her frontal assault had been meant as a distraction to enable them to slip through to the feasting hall all-but undetected. They were all Bpfasshi like her, with pale blue skin, waxy dark hair and faintly glowing red eyes. They all wore dark cloaks, like her; they all moved with a practice, menacing intent like she did. Like all Bpfasshi, they had been ritually tattooed with clan markings. Unlike most Bpfasshi, however, they each carried deactivated lightsabre hilts.

"What is the meaning of this?" the Provost demanded. "Who are you?"

"We," she said, "are the Nine."

The other eight activated their lightsabres with the familiar, bonechilling snap-hiss. Their bloodshine blades filled the shadowy chamber with a red half-light.

The Provost's age-sunken eyes widened. He shouted "Kill them! Kill them now!"

The guards didn't need to be told twice: these were the elites of the Bpfasshi military. They opened fire in volleys. The lightsabre-wielding saboteurs were waiting. They spun their blades, deflecting the oncoming blaster bolts. Soldiers began to fall but still they pressed their attack.

The Provost, she saw, was starting to retreat back towards an exit in the far wall. Gathering the Force beneath her, she leapt, flipping over the heads of the guards. A few of them spun to track her movements but she used the Force to pull their legs out from under them and send them sprawling. Before she could recover, she moved with all the grace and fluidity of a dancer to the aged, slow-moving Provost.

She grabbed the back of his richly-embroidered robe of office and hurled him with the strength of a being twice her size backwards. He stumbled to the stone floor. She lifted her lightsabre and held it beneath his throat.

"Order your men to stand down," she growled, her pearl-white teeth glinting in the light of her blade.

"Never," the Provost growled, motioning to the holographic displays he'd stood at a few moments before. "You did this, didn't you? You've killed my people!"

"Before this is through, we'll kill so many more," she insisted, grinning wickedly.

"Why?"

"Because the Force wills it, Lord Provost," she said as she snapped her blade up just in time to deflect an oncoming blaster bolt back at the guard that had fired it. Her people were amongst them now, locked in combat: some of the guards wielded vibroswords, their duranium blades bonded with a cortosis weave. They fought like expert duellists, though no amount of skill would save them. Returning her attention to the old Bpfasshi, she said "Order them to stand down or they will all die."

"You won't spare them," he growled in response.

"On the honour of my house, I swear it," she said.

"Your honour means nothing!" the Provost cried. "You've destroyed this city, sacked my citadel..."

She smiled. "And this is only the beginning, my Lord Provost."

Spinning on her heel, she faced the remaining guards. Deactivating her lightsabre, she clipped it to her belt and flung out her hands. Splaying her fingers, she felt dark side energy dance across her fingertips: purple lightning ripped from them, the smell of ozone filling the air. It tore across their bodies, biting into their flesh, cooking them from the inside out. They screamed, cried, fell to their knees and died.

Her own people stepped back, keeping their lightsabres up to defend them from any stray bolts of energy.

Finally, the last of the Provost's guards fell dead.

He shuddered, jaw slack and eyes wide. "Who are you? What do you want?" he demanded, but his voice was little more than a hoarse whisper.

"We are the Nine," she repeated. "We want nothing."

"But why? Why this? All those people... not just my guards, but all those people in the city. Thousands are dead. Tens of thousands. Why did you kill them?"

She shrugged. It was an elegant, careless motion, cold and furious. "We serve the Force. We serve chaos."

In one fluid movement, she took her lightsabre from her belt, activated it and decapitated the Provost. His head rolled across the stone floor, a thin sigh escaping his cauterised trachea. The head came to a stop beneath the big, booted foot of one of her compatriots. The tall, broad Bpfasshi, who weilded a lightsabre with an over-sized hilt almost a metre long, contemplated the Provost's twisted facial features.

"And now, Arianda?"

She smiled. "And now, Ment, we tell the galaxy what has happened here."

Glancing up, she confirmed the presence of no less than six holocams fastened to the high walls of the chamber. The cams would have captured the events in the feasting room in full three dimensional detail.

The rest of the Nine approached, stepping over the still-smouldering bodies of the guards she'd fried with Force lightning.

"Those holocams have recorded everything that happened here," she said, nodding to the closest one. "Take the recording and send it to the Jedi. I want them to know what happened here. I want them to know that I want them to know. And I want them to know that there is much, much more to come."

The High Council Chamber of the Jedi Temple was in darkness, obscuring shades lowered over the high, arched transparisteel windows that typically offered an unobstructed, unmatched view of the Coruscant skyline. The only illumination came from the three-dimensional hologrammic representation of the feasting room in the Pfalla Citadel on Bpfassh that was projected in the room's centre.

"I want them to know that there is much, much more to come," said the bluescanned figure of the Force-using, lightsabre-wielding woman that had murdered the Lord Provost of Bpfassh. She deactivated her lightsabre and the horrific recording ended.

As the hologram died and the shades automatically retracted, silence gripped the nine seated council members. Only six of them were there physically, the other three attending via holoconference. The final three members of the venerable body were incommunicado, off fighting for the very survival Republic on some far-distant, out-of-reach world. Long seconds slipped by before the leader of the council and the Grand Master of the Jedi Order tapped his gnarled gimer stick on the polished marble floor.

Yoda, a dimunitive alien with big ears, green skin and the wisdom of hundreds of years of life at his disposal, looked around at the assembled Jedi Masters. "What we have seen... disturbing, it is."

"I fear that is an understatement," the Togruta Shaak Ti spoke up from across the chamber.

"Are they Jedi?" Master Saesee Tiin asked. One of the foremost swordsmen and pilots in the Order, the Iktotchi had had one of his facial horns severed in a battle early during the war.

"Recognise them, I do not," Yoda said with a shrug. "Matters, it does not. Jedi are they no longer."

"Indeed," Ki-Adi-Mundi, his bluescanned form hovering a few centimetres above his chair, said with an inclination of his long-skulled head. "And that is surely a gift from the Force. We've seen this happen too many times during this war. To many of Force users have fallen to the dark side..."

The masters shared significant looks, unspoken names coming to mind. Depa Billaba, Sora Bulq, Asajj Ventress, even their former compatriot-cum-Sith Lord, Count Dooku...

At length, Mace Windu, Master of the Order and elected president of the council, said "We must decide what to do."

"Allow this to go unpunished, we cannot," Yoda said, turning to his friend. "Lead a task force I will to apprehend or defeat these..." He came up short, unable to classify what he had just seen. Finally, he settled on: "Dark Jedi."

"Could they be Sith?" Shaak Ti asked.

Yoda shook his head. "Sense the hand of the Sith in this, I do not..."

"But we didn't sense the hand of the Sith in Dooku's defection," Agen Kolar reminded them all.

Yoda smiled ruefully. "Correct you are, Master Kolar. Careful we must be. The dark side grows strong. Late, the hour is. Jedi only, shall my task force consist of."

"This recording was sent to us and, as far as we can tell, us alone," Plo Koon said, his Kel Dor face obscured behind his large breath mask and tinted eye visors. "They're clearly attempting to lure us into a confrontation."

"I'm loathe to grant the forces of darkness any chance to strike at us," Mace Windu said, "but I fear we lack any other option."

"This isn't Haruun Kal, Mace," Tiin countered. "This isn't Depa. We don't know these people, they aren't our responsibility. I do not believe we should act alone."

"I agree," Agen Kolar chimed in. "If this is a plot by Dooku to open up a new front on Bpfassh it's our responsibility to contact the chancellor and let him know."

"Identified the second Sith Lord, we have not," Master Yoda said, looking to Windu for support. "Risk informing him or her of these dark Jedi, we must not. Only Jedi will I take. Hand pick them, I shall."

"We're already stretched thinly, Master," Ki-Adi-Mundi reminded him.

Yoda hung his head, momentarily feeling the weight of the last years of conflict pressing down upon him. "Aware of this, I am, Master. Nine Dark Jedi are there on Bpfassh. Eight Jedi shall I take with me to confront them."

"You're going to lead this team yourself?" Master Kit Fisto commented. Like Ki-Adi-Mundi, the Nautolan was there only in holopresence.

"The dark side clouds much," Yoda said after a moment of consideration. "But sure I am of this: whatever else happens, being guided towards my destiny, I am."

There were several long seconds silence after his pronouncement. Each of the Jedi in the room was powerful, wise and skilled in the ways of the Force, yet every single one of them deferred to Yoda for guidance and advice. His word, though not sacred, was usually profound and always respected.

"I volunteer to join you, Master," Shaak Ti said, breaking the quiet. "Our opponents clearly know how to disrupt and terrorise. We'll need cunning and guile to oppose them."

Yoda offered the Togruta a smile. "And those you have, Master Shaak Ti."

"Those I have," she echoed, mimicking the unusual cadence of Yoda's speech patterns.

"I'm not entirely comfortable with this," Agen Kolar said, shaking his head. The vestigial cranial horns that marked him as a Zabrak were visible beneath the cowl of his robe. Several other masters voiced their agreement.

"I don't think any of us," Mace Windu said, "but I sense Master Yoda is right."

The small Jedi Master slipped off his chair and tapped his gimer stick on the marble floor. "Then to Bpfassh I must go."