Star Wars: Treasure of the Force – Ch 43

Nix was glad that Ravas and Kelda were speaking. It had been all too easy to imagine Ravas fleeing once more. Or Kelda falling into the mute silence of needless guilt. It was a minor miracle that a thousand years of separation had needed only a handful of words to bridge the distance. 

Minor miracles were wonderful, and Nix truly appreciated the many she’d been given in the last several weeks.

There was a problem though.

She could feel the weight of the Dark Side pressing in on their little refuge, she could hear the whispers within it, and she could see that they were going to need more than a minor miracle for what came next.

“Who took your body?” Ayli asked Ravas. “It sounds like you know them?”

“Her master,” Nix said, the Force giving her a clear insight into that, and into the sort of monster Scytheus Dread had been. 

“Yes,” Ravas said, hanging her heard and closing her eyes.

“I’m quite sure I killed him,” Kelda said. “I was…thorough.”

“We both had the same treatments,” Ravas said. “Participated in the same rituals. Whatever this state I’m in? He could easily be the same.”

“He’s not,” Nix said, fighting to keep some portion of her attention within the sanctuary cave, “He’s much worse than you. He always was.”

“It is tempting to believe so, but I cannot be absolved of my crimes so easily,” Ravas said.

“I don’t think it’s about what you did in life anymore,” Ayli said. “We need to deal with what you and he have become since then.”

“She’s not a monster,” Kelda said.

“I destroyed your life,” Ravas said. “I’m pretty sure I’m your monster at least.”

“Good,” Kelda said. “Just so long as you remember that you’re mine.”

“Not to ask a question I probably don’t want the answer to, but, if you’re both okay with each other now, why are you still here?” Ayli asked. “Weren’t you bound by your broken connection to each other?”

“He won’t let them leave,” Nix said, unsure if it was safe to refer to Ravas’ former master at all. He was already aware of them though, so it wasn’t like she could avoid attracting his attention she supposed.

“What do you mean?” Ayli said. “How’s he going to stop us.”

“He’s waiting outside,” Nix said. “And he’s not alone.”

“It’s me he wants,” Ravas said. “I’ll go.”

“Like that?” Ayli said, gesturing to Ravas’ translucent form.

“He is as much a spirit of the Force as I am,” Ravas said. “And the one thing he cannot deny me is my own body.”

“Deny you? No. Fight you for control of? We both know the answer to that,” Kelda said.

“Do you think that’s a fight I would lose?” Ravas asked.

“Yes,” Nix said and raised a hand to forestall Ravas’ inevitable protest. “He has the weight of Praxis Mar behind him. If you go to do battle with him, you will have to destroy him. Not kill. He’s already dead. You will have to rip his spirit into some many pieces that they lose all sense of what they once were and dissolve into the Force as unthinking scaps.”

“I assure you, I am well aware of the destruction Scytheus Dread deserves,” Ravas said.

“But it’s not what you deserve,” Nix said. “We didn’t come to this place to destroy a meaningless footnote in history like Scytheus Dread. We came here for you. Letting you destroy yourself moments after reuniting you with the one you should have been with a thousand years ago? Yeah, no, we’re not doing that.”

“I am stronger than he is,” Ravas said. “I will not be destroyed.”

“Yes you will,” Kelda said. “You will be victorious. I have no doubt of that. You never lost a fight ever. I’m not sure you know how to. What will it cost you though? Where will you find the strength you need and what will you lose to do something like that.”

“I will…” Ravas paused, a somber expression pulling her zeal down. “Everything. I will lose everything.”

“Why? What would happen?” Ayli asked.

“If you had to fight for your life would you reach out to the Force?” Nix asked.

“I think I amply demonstrated that,” Ayli said.

“How do you feel now?” Nix asked.

“Better. Still a bit unstable though,” Ayli said. “If I think about what’s out there too much I want to start screaming.”

“That’s from one fight,” Nix said. “Picture if you’d lived your whole life like that and then you were faced with someone you had every reason to hate, who’d stolen your body, and where you’re only option was to inflict spiritual mega-violence on them?”

“Ah,” Ayli said. It wasn’t hard to imagine what drawing on the Dark Side of the Force to that extent would do. 

Which didn’t leave them with all that many tools given that Praxis Mar was drenched in nothing but the Dark Side.

“Can you do anything?” Ayli asked Kelda. “You were a Jedi right? You must know more about this stuff than any of the rest of us.”

“The Jedi teachings were notably lacking in techniques for manipulating the Dark Side or one which allowed you to shred a ghost’s spirit to pieces,” Kelda said. “But I should be the one to face Scytheus. I’ve killed him once already. I can probably lure him deeper into the Force, probably deep enough that he’d be lost forever.”

“Again, nope,” Nix said and turned to Ayli. “And before you even think of volunteering, that’s a hell no to you too. We’re all getting out of here. All of us. That’s the point. We don’t give up on that future, no matter how bad things look. Understood?”

“No worries,” Ayli said with an amused smile. “After our last tussle, I have no illusions that I could beat that thing. We do need a plan though.”

“I’ve got one,” Nix said. “I go out there.”

The three women in the room fixed blank stares on her.

“Not to fight!” Nix amended.

“Scytheus Dread will not talk to you,” Kelda said.

“You cannot reason with him, and you cannot trust anything he says,” Ravas said.

Ayli was silent for a moment though.

“She knows that,” she said eventually, her eyes narrowed in thought. “She has another plan though.”

“What is it?” Ravas asked.

“I have no idea,” Ayli said. “But I trust that she does.”

“It’s pretty simple,” Nix said. “I’m going to become his new apprentice.”

Ravas began to protest but Kelda raised a hand.

“Wait. She’s not the stupid,” Kelda said.

“Thank you. I’m sort of hoping Scytheus will think I am but whether he does or not doesn’t really matter. He needs me or Ayli and if he’s got me right there in front of him he’s not going to be able to pass that up.”

“Why does he need us?” Ayli asked. “He’s already got a body.”

“He does. But it’s dead,” Nix said. “That he can animate it here isn’t that surprising given how deep into the Dark Side this whole planet is. That he can’t animated it elsewhere though? This is a guess but after a thousand years here, this world would have to feel like a prison and Ravas was away from her body for weeks. If Scytheus could leave he would be on a ship somewhere on the other side of the galaxy by now.”

“So instead of Ravas’ body, you think he’ll try to take yours?” Ayli said.

“He will absolutely try to take hers,” Ravas said. “If she lets her defenses down for a moment, he won’t even blink before he tries to possess her.”

“That gets us Ravas’ body freed, unless he can possess both of them?” Ayli said.

“He won’t be able to maintain a hold on Ravas’ body if he’s elsewhere when she takes it back,” Kelda said.

“Okay, so that gets us Ravas back. How do we get Nix back though?” Ayli asked.

“She will have to fight him in her own body,” Kelda said.

“Can you do that?” Ayli asked.

“Nope. Scytheus is much too strong for me to fight.”

–  – –

Nix exited the sanctuary cave to find a small army waiting for her with Ravas’ body at the head of it.

“They sent the Padawan out first?” Scytheus said, clearly annoyed at the implied insult.

“I’m not here to fight,” Nix said. “I know how strong you are here.”

“Oh good, then you’ll be pleading for your life?” Scytheus asked.

“Um, I was thinking more of bargaining?” Nix said.

“And what could you possibly have that would be of value to me,” Scytheus asked, casting the question to the army of wisps and shades he’d drawn forth.

“Probably nothing,” Nix said. “I just thought I could learn from you and then you’d have someone to help you out?”

“And why would I want a wretched little thing like you,” Scytheus asked.

“Well, I’m not terribly useful to you if I’m dead,” Nix said. “You’ve got all these ghosts already. I thought a live assistant would be valuable, wouldn’t it?”

“And for this you would have me spare you?” Scytheus asked.

“Me and my wife,” Nix said. “If nothing bad happens to us, then it’s worth it.”

“Is that true?” Scytheus said. “Let me see inside your mind then.”

As predicted, the moment Nix relaxed a fraction of an inch and met Scytheus’ gaze directly his essence poured forth from Ravas and filled her vision, and hearing, and thoughts.

“Mine!” Scytheus roared, near mindless in his hunger for the spark of life of Nix carried.

“Is that what you think?” Kelda asked.

“He really thought we would let her face him alone?” Ayli’s voice asked in Nix’s mind.

“Greed and stupidity were always his defining traits,” Ravas said, but when she did so it was with her own voice. 

Her very real, very physical voice.

“What? No! NO!” Scytheus rage was echoed by the whole of the planet.

“Scream all you want,” Ayli said. “You can’t have her.”

“I will destroy you!” Scytheus screamed and tried to tear into Nix’s mind.

“No. You won’t,” Kelda said. “I killed you once before, and in death I have become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

“Not here. Not now,” Scytheus said. “You are but a pale flickering shade here Jedi. And we both know the power you had to drawn on to best me.”

“You know I would draw on it again before I would let you hurt anyone of those I’ve chosen to protect,” Kelda said.

“Perhaps you would, but I have legions to fight you with now,” Scytheus said. “And I too have found a greater power in death. One not even the most powerful of Jedi can stand against.”

The ground started to rumble in exactly the sort of manner that volcanoes are not supposed to rumble.

Nix felt something rising and sensed that she hadn’t planned for quite enough contingencies.

Her instinct was simple to leave. 

There wasn’t any reason to fight a crazed Dark Side ghost and his army of minions, there wasn’t any reason to risk any of the people she’d come to this place to save, and there definitely wasn’t any reason to face whatever terror Praxis Mar was about to unleash on them.

But she couldn’t leave.

Praxis Mar’s location was known now. Other people would come to it. Other people Scytheus could hurt or enslave.

“Kelda’s not going to kill you,” Nix said, capturing Scytheus’s attention as she drew forth the gift which Kelda has presented her with in the sanctuary. “I am.” 

With the flick of a switch a brilliant blue blade ignited from the lightsaber handle she held and Nix took the stance the Force guided her too.

Nix had taunted Scytheus to make sure his attention was on her. She ensured it stayed there with a swing which was guided by the Force to cleave Scytheus from shoulder to hip.

He blocked the attack with a barrage of Force Lighting, instinct overtaking the fact that as a ghost the lightsaber didn’t necessarily pose a deadly threat to him.

Ravas however did.

“Never again,” she said as she ripped the last remnants of light from his shade, crushing them in her bare hands as Scytheus’s lightning flared all around her.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 42

Ayli felt so weak. So crushingly tired and weak. The rage which had saved her from whatever was possessing Ravas’ body was still there, bubbling below the surface with an alien intensity since her emotions were completely drained.

The warmth of Nix’s hand in her own made that somehow more bearable though.

So perhaps she wasn’t completely drained.

“Where are you taking us?” she asked Ayli as they began climbing the rocky hillside above the third temple. She considered the Children of the Storm’s penchant for the overly dramatic and wondered if the rim of the volcano, or perhaps even somewhere in the caldera might be their destination but Nix apparently had other plans in mind.

“It’s not far,” Nix said. “I swung by there before finding you.”

“Evasive,” Ravas said, her tone far grumpier than Ayli had the energy to be.

“It’s something you need to see for yourself,” Nix said. “Both of you.”

In hindsight, Ayli realized that by allowing Ravas in, she’d impacted her relationship with Nix and lost a vital element of it. Up until they’d been a couple, whether they were really married or not, they were definitely building some between themselves. Something which couldn’t be just between them if Ravas was going to be a constant and unavoidable companion, privy to every word Ayli spoke and every thought that crossed her mind.

And Nix wasn’t phased by that? It wasn’t that Nix couldn’t see what had happened. She wasn’t denying that Ravas was her own person with goals and motives which were starkly different from Ayli’s. She was simply dealing with it as a thing that existed, with no thought to what it meant for their future together from what Ayli could see.

Ten thousand voices of doubt and betrayed trust slammed through that crack in her mind. The misery of Praxis Mar had taken many forms and there were endless echoes of the suffering thoughtless people could cause.

Except, Nix was being thoughtless.

She was the most thoughtful person Ayli had ever met. 

And she listened to the Force almost automatically.

The Force which was so aspected towards the Dark Side on Praxis Mar that it could hold the dead in place for a thousand years.

Nix turned around a corner and disappeared for a moment, sliding into what Ayli saw was a crack in the volcano’s exterior walls.

The Force screamed out to Ayli to beware. She was being led into a trap. Nix didn’t care about Ravas being a part of Ayli because she had foreseen in happening. The passage in front of Ayli led only to death, death at the hand of the one woman she would never see an attack coming from. 

Ayli felt her rage spark from dead embers to glowing coals. Not at Nix. At herself. She couldn’t be so far gone that she would fall for such a transparent ploy. Could she?

Nix had let go of Ayli’s hard in order to squeeze through the crevasse in the wall. It was harder without being in contact with Nix, but Ayli stomped down on the surge of fear and panic.

The Dark Side was a hell of a drug, but she’d been drugged before, and she knew better than to trust her own thoughts when she was feeling as addled as she was.

Nix was not planning to betray her. Nix had gone into the mountain because there was something worth seeing in there. Something…

Ayli felt a cool wind waft out of the cave.

There was something in there.

There was…

She pressed through the crevasse without noticing the scratches the rough wall left on her lekku.

The cave inside the mountain had been expanded. It wasn’t a large area, but there was space for a few adjoining hollows to serve as makeshift rooms.

And there was peace.

On a planet drowning in the Dark Side of the Force, there was a tiny little corner of it where serenity had taken root.

“I don’t understand,” the voice belonged to Ravas but the words could as easily have been Ayli’s.

“Your tomb is not where your body was laid to rest,” Kelda said.

“Her body is here?” Ayli asked, the expected stab of terror failing to materialize.

“Not any more,” Nix said. “I think we’ll probably find it in the tomb everyone thought it was in.”

“Why was it here at all?” Ravas asked.

“Because I wanted you to find the peace in death which you’d been cheated out of in life,” Kelda said.

“I wasn’t cheated,” Ravas said. “I deserved the suffering I endured. I deserved to die forgotten and alone for all that I did.”

“I couldn’t accept that,” Kelda said. “I still can’t.”

“What did you do?” Ravas asked.

“She built this,” Nix said, and led their odd party to the deepest of the chambers.

At the back of a small room stood a byre with a simple cloth covering atop it.

“I was here,” Ravas said. “All this time, I have been laying here. Protected.”

“The ghosts on this world are ground down to the tattered remnants of their worst memories,” Kelda said. “I didn’t know if you were still here with your undecaying body, but I couldn’t let you be swallowed by those things.”

“But you killed me?” Ravas said.

“No,” Kelda said. “It was your master who threw the switch on your pod. He tried to siphon your life away to gain the strength to protect himself from me.”

“He…” Ravas sounded like she wanted to object, to defend her master and deny that he would ever abuse their relationship like that. 

But that was too big of a lie.

Ayli saw memories of Ravas’ life flash through her mind.  Even a thousand years later, Ravas remembered her master’s cruelty and pettiness. And his cowardice. She’d been counting on that to keep her safe. 

A miscalculation. One of so many in her life.

“How did this place get so…like this?” Ayli asked, calm washing over her in gentle, rejuvenating waves.

“Kelda lived the rest of her life here,” Nix said. “Keeping watch over Ravas’ body, hidden away, and focused on reconnecting to the Force. I think in the end she succeeded and so we get this one spot where the tangles have come loose and the Force can be what it wants to be, unbound by ancient suffering.”

“You…why did you do that?” Ravas asked.

“I wasn’t there for you,” Kelda said. “And I failed us both.”

“You weren’t there because I left you,” Ravas said.

It took Ayli a moment to notice that Ravas had stepped out of her and that they were no longer connected in spirit or thought. Ayli shot a glance over to see if Nix had engineered that somehow but Nix was too engrossed in the conversation between the two Force ghosts to notice.

“You left me because I held back,” Kelda said. “If I’d told you how I felt, if I’d explained for ten damn seconds what I thought could happen, would you have left? Would it have come to this if I hadn’t let fear guide me away from the one thing in my life I should have been the bravest about?”

Ravas took a step back, blinking in surprise. Her mouth moved to form words but they were lost amidst the centuries of misunderstanding that stood between the two.

“No,” she said at last. “No. That’s not how it was. You weren’t afraid. You were never afraid. You were a good Jedi. You were the best of all of us.”

“In the eyes of our teachers? In competition with the other Padawans?” Kelda asked. “You knew me better than that. You knew how much I let everyone else’s view of me matter. How hard I tried to exceed the expectations they placed on us.”

“Exactly! The Jedi were everything to you!” Ravas said, throwing her hands into the air in ancient exasperation. 

“And you were nothing?” Ravas asked.

“In the end? What else could I be?”

“That’s why I stayed here,” Kelda said. “Because in the end, past the end even, you were the one I wanted to spend my life with. I thought I could have you and be the best Jedi there ever was. I thought all I needed to do was win enough to make everyone see that, and then they wouldn’t object to us.”

“That’s not how it works,” Ravas said. “You can’t win enough approval to go against traditions which are meant to control you.”

“Why did no one ever see that you were the smarter of two of us?” Kelda asked with a sad chuckle.

“Why would they?” Ravas asked. “I never wanted to be seen like that. I hated the expectations you lived under. Also, look where I wound up? How does this not prove that I’m the bigger idiot?”

“Question,” Ayli said. “If you lived and died here, why isn’t there a corpse in here? Did something else come by and loot the place before we got here? Or did it get up and wander around too?”

Ayli wasn’t concerned that Kelda’s body would come stumbling into view and try to lightsaber them all to death. She was terrified of that. Though the terror was a weak and distant thing thanks to the influence of the sacred cave.

“I let the Force take me completely when I died,” Kelda said. “It had been years since I’d last felt a wisp of any other spirits here.” She turned to Ravas. “I thought you were safe. Taken up by the Force after memories had faded. I thought you didn’t need me anymore.”

“I was sleeping, I think,” Ravas said. “I don’t know if it was the Force that took me, but I don’t think it was. I didn’t feel connected to anything outside myself.”

“When did you wake next?” Nix asked.

“I don’t know how long it was,” Ravas said. “People had come to the temple. Not the Children of the Storm. They were later. A Sith Master and apprentice found Praxis Mar, and were exploring our workings here.”

“What did you do?” Nix asked.

“Nothing. I was fainter than I am now. And not connected to either of them,” Ravas said. “Which was for the best. The apprentice betrayed and killed his master, who killed him in return. Their deaths were minor compared to the ones which scoured the planet of life, but they fed the Dark Side here nonetheless. That put me back to sleep I think. The pattern repeated a few more times before the Children of the Storm showed up.”

“And they never found this place, or moved your body?” Nix asked.

“I didn’t even know of this place, and no one else ever came close as far as I know,” Ravas said.

“I didn’t want them too,” Kelda said. “I didn’t want anyone to disturb you, even if that body wasn’t really you any longer.”

“Maybe it was,” Nix said. “Where else would Ravas’ spirit have slept but in her own bones? Her body was spent, but it could still have served as a refuge for her spirit.”

“Oh, yes, I suppose that could have been true,” Kelda said. “I wanted to protect her and so I imagined she might know, on some level, that I was watching over her, but maybe I really was.”

“I think you were,” Ravas said. “When I woke, I felt…safe isn’t quite the right word. Perhaps unconcerned? I thought it was because I was dead and had nothing left to be afraid of, no ability to even feel fear, but that doesn’t seem to be true.”

“You were both protected and protector I think,” Nix said. “While Kelda, and later her spirit, kept watch over you, you were protecting your body from anything else that might try to inhabit it.”

“But when I left, when I came to you…” Ravas said, the implications becoming startlingly clear.

“You left your corpse open for someone else to make use of,” Nix said. “Something with enough of a connection to you to sense when you were gone.”

“Something terrible if it came from this place,” Ayli said.

“Not something,” Ravas said, her expression going hard as stone. “Someone.”

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 41

Nix entered the Third Temple at a dead run. She’d taken one little side trip and it had almost cost her everything. Worse, it had almost cost Ayli everything.

In the center of the temple, standing between two shattered pillars of bone, Ayli writhed in place, a voice that was not her own growling defiance to the entire world while bolts of lightning crashed around her.

“We’re too late,” Kelda said, placing a translucent arm in front of Nix to hold her back.

“Like hell we are,” Nix said and strode through Kelda’s arm, leaving the blue Force ghost behind in favor of the blue living woman in front of her.

Ayli whipped around to face Nix the moment Nix’s foot touch the temple’s floor. The lightning exploding from Ayli’s hands surged as Nix looked into eyes gone red and yellow.

“Ayli,” Nix said, halting in place so as not to provoke Ayli further. “It’s me, you’re okay, I’m here for you.”

Ayli screamed and a thousand other voice screamed with her. 

“She can’t hear you,” Kelda said. “The Dark Side holds the dead of Praxis Mar bound here and she’s drowning in them.”

“Not just her. Both of them. They’re both drowning in there,” Nix said, diverting a torrent of Force Lightning away to ground out on the temple’s columns. “Ayli and Ravas. They must have joined together when they got here.”

“Then we’ve lost them both,” Kelda said, sagging in a defeat that she’d been denying for a thousand years.

“No. We haven’t,” Nix said. “Ayli’s still alive, and Ravas isn’t gone yet either. We’re going to save them both.”

“You can’t,” Kelda said. “The Dark Side has them now. They were too powerful before for you to fight alone and they’re far stronger now. You have to leave us. I didn’t bring you here to watch you destroy yourself. You saw what became of me. That can’t be repeated.”

“I saw, but they haven’t,” Nix said, pushing step after step through the lightning storm. “And it’s nothing to be ashamed of. What you did is amazing.”

“It won’t matter to Ravas, she’ll never forgive me,” Kelda said. “And Ayli won’t understand.”

“Don’t underestimate my wife,” Nix said. “Or yours.”

“Ravas was never…”

“Then we should be working to fix that,” Nix said, and began striding forward again, pushing through the arcs of Force lightning with little more than her own brand of faith to guide her.

Nix felt a sharp ping from the Force and ducked without questioning why only to watch a glowing red lightsaber fly over her head and into Ayli’s outstretched hand.

The lightning died away as Ayli entered a guard position Nix had never seen her take.

“What? They can’t be in control,” Kelda said. “They’re too lost to the Dark Side.”

“They’re still in there. That’s the women we love.”

“No. It’s not. They can’t see who you are,” Kelda said, “Or do you think either of them would be holding a lightsaber on you like that.”

“Ravas might. I think I still scare her a bit,” Nix said, holding her hands up to show she wasn’t threatening them.

“No! Stay back. They will kill you!” Kelda said and Nix felt a Force pull dragging her backwards, which seemed to confuse Ayli/Ravas as much as it did Nix.

“Let me go Kelda,” Nix said. “And trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

“You can’t,” Kelda said. “You don’t know the Dark Side like I do. You haven’t felt how powerful it can be. How much it can distort who and what you are.”

“It hasn’t distorted them,” Nix said. “They’re still in there. And they’re still fighting. I can feel them. Can’t you?”

“You can’t trust your feelings here,” Kelda said. “This place is a nexus of the Dark Side. The whole planet was is a barrow mound and there is nothing but despair and misery here. Anything the Force brings you is the Dark Side whispering your destruction into your ears. You have to leave. You’re the only one who can still escape this.”

“I am not going anywhere,” Nix said. “Not without Ayli. Not without Ravas. And not without you.”

“Please! Can’t you see what they’ve become?” Kelda said. “Look at them, not with the Force but with your own eyes. See what they are.”

Nix relaxed and let Kelda pull her back. Ayli/Ravas started to tremble either in rage or sorrow at the gesture.

“I do see them,” Nix said, laying a hand against Kelda’s ghostly face. “Look at them through my eyes.”

“I will not join with you,” Kelda said. “You do not need the power I could offer you. It won’t be enough to change this.”

“I don’t need power,” Nix said. “I just need you to understand.”

“I understand that what you see is impossible,” Kelda said. “Once you start down the path to the Dark Side, its shadow will dominate your destiny forever.”

“Kelda, look at them,” Nix said. “Looks at them and tell me what you see.”

“I see two souls lost in a maelstrom of sorrow,” Kelda said. “I see the woman I loved swallowed in the monstrous rage from which I cannot save her.”

“And neither can I,” Nix said and started walking forward again.

“What are you doing?”

“Helping them find themselves,” Nix said. “I want them back, and I believe that’s what they want too. More than anything.”

“The Dark Side has twisted them. All they can want now is destruction.”

“In this moment, maybe,” Nix said, watching as Ayli/Ravas drew up their saber once more, ready to strike the instant she was in range. “But do you know what’s true about rage, and fear, and sorrow?”

“They can consume you.”

“Only for a time,” Nix said. “And then they fade.”

She crossed the point of no return and Ayli/Ravas leapt forward and Nix caught their blade with the Force. Voice whispered to shove the blade back to her attacker, or take it away, but Nix ignored them. The Dark Side wasn’t always the most subtle or clever part of the Force.

When Ayli/Ravas tried to pull back, Nix held tight, taking one more step to bring herself no more than a hands width away from her wife.

“I’m here,” she whispered. “I’m not going to leave you. However long you need, I’m here for you. Both of you.”

Ayli/Ravas screamed once more, but made no effort to bring the lightsaber closer. The scream continued long past where Ayli’s lung capacity should have been exhausted, but eventually, it did end.

A long silent moment held everything in stillness until at last Ayli sagged, dropping her head and drawing in a long, shaky breath.

“Come back to me,” Nix said. “I know you can.”

Blinking, Ayli raised her head. Her eyes were still red and yellow but there was an awareness there which had been missing a moment before.

“Nix? What? Why are you here? You can’t be here,” Ayli said.

“There is nowhere else in the galaxy that I would rather be,” Nix said.

“It’s too dangerous,” Ayli said. “Wait, what happened. Where did the body go?”

“What body?” Nix asked.

“Ravas’s body. Something was possessing it, and it almost…”

Nix didn’t have to guess what a possessed Ravas body had been trying to do.

“You drove it off,” Nix said, making the best guess she could. It would have been easy to say that there was no body, that it had been a hallucination induced by the Dark Side, but there was an undeniable presence in the Temple with them. 

Whatever else had happened, Nix didn’t believe that Ayli and Ravas had been driven to the state there were in by a simple illusion.

“I..how?” Ayli asked.

“You and Ravas did it together,” Nix said.

“We…oh, wait, what did we do?” Ayli asked. “What did we do to you.”

“Nothing. I’m fine,” Nix said.

“No. No you’re not. We were trying to kill someone. Trying to destroy them. That’s why I’m holding my lightsaber. I tried to kill you.”

“Are you sure about that?” Nix asked, letting a teasing smile play across her face.

Ayli frowned in confusion, her expression clearly saying ‘how is this time for joking’?

“I’m in mid-swing right now, and you’re holding me back,” Ayli said. “Nix, you have to get away from me. I’m…I’m too dangerous.”

“Bantha puddu,” Nix said. “You overloaded on channeling energy from the Dark Side. You didn’t have the first inkling of what you were doing, and yet you still managed to stop yourself from doing any harm to me.”

“I didn’t stop anything,” Ayli said. “You did!”

“All I did was buy you time, and let you feel my touch,” Nix said. “There isn’t the slightest chance that I could have held you and Ravas and the entire Dark Side might of Praxis Mar back if you’d wanted to hurt me.”

“I…I can still feel it though,” Ayli said. “Every horrible thing that was done here. Every joy at the horrible things I wanted to do. I can’t get away from that, and I don’t know what it’s going to make me do.”

Nix dropped her hands, releasing Ayli, who dropped hers and the lightsaber she was carrying.

“Your thoughts? Your feelings? They don’t control you,” Nix said. “We’re not dominated by what we feel or think. We get to choose, always, even when our thoughts and feelings make it difficult, and you’ve chosen, again and again, to be someone I feel safe with.”

“I am so scared,” Ayli said. “I could hurt you.”

“You will,” Nix said. “I’ll hurt you too. We’re people, and people are, by and large, idiots, both of us included.”

Ayli gave a rueful little laugh at that.

“It’s not a question of us never hurting each other,” Nix said. “It’s a question of what we do about it. Do we change and grow so that we don’t repeat that mistake, do we pretend it never happened, or blame the person who got hurt? Or do we keep repeating the injuries and expect the other to accommodate our need to hurt them?”

“I…I did this because I thought I might hurt you,” Ayli said. “I saw your horror at finding me chopped to pieces, or…or what might happen if the thing that was possessing Ravas’ body possessed mine instead.”

“That was the Dark Side showing you that,” Kelda said, appearing at last at Nix’s side.

Ayli, or rather a certain ghost who’d taken up residence within Ayli recoiled, but Ayli froze in place before Ravas could properly free.

“This is a trap,” Ravas said, speaking through Ayli, though it wasn’t due to the medium that the words sounded uncertain.

“It never was and never will be,” Nix said. “You need to come with us. There’s something you have to see. Something I don’t think you’ve let yourself remember for a thousand years now.”

“You want to destroy me,” Ravas said.

“Never. I never wanted that. I…” Kelda said and broke off, pain creasing her face as she stared into Ayli’s eyes searching for something.

“Take my hand,” Nix said. “You’ve run away from this for long enough. It’s time you saw the tomb.”

“I’ve seen my tomb countless times,” Ravas said. “There is nothing for me there.”

“Not your tomb,” Nix said. “Although we’ll need to check that too. Unless I miss my guess, that’s where we’ll find your body.”

“It was here though,” Ayli said. “It tried to kill us. It was holding her other lightsaber.”

“I’m guessing when you two blew up at it, the lightsaber wasn’t much help,” Nix said. “You both would have been serious about destroying it, unlike with me where you weren’t really trying to hit me at all.”

“Was that true?” Ayli asked.

“I…I don’t know,” Ravas said. “When we entered the trance, I was as lost in it as you. But perhaps. I felt something. Someone I knew. I think you might have sensed her too.”

“I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t,” Nix said.

“I’m so sorry,” Ayli said.

“I’m not,” Nix said. “It’s hard to have any doubts about someone who can throw off a haze of Force Madness just because you said a few words to her. I would never have wanted to test you like that but, wow, did that make me feel special.”

“You are a strange woman,” Ravas said.

“She reminds me of someone,” Kelda said.

The scowl on Ayli’s face was purely one of Ravas’ doing.

“If not my tomb, then what tomb here could matter?” Ravas asked.

“Your guardian’s,” Nix said and led them out of the temple as the presence within continued to stalk them.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 40

Ayli’s journey was at an end. On the steps of the temple, she knew she’d arrived, at last, at the spot she’d been searching for, the place she’d been meant to be, maybe for her whole life.

Before her, gleaming doors of untarnished metal rose high enough to fly the Goldrunner through them. As blocks of Phrik, their value was enough to bankrupt a star system. As cultural artifacts they were worth even more. As barriers however their weight made them a solidly impassable obstacle.

Ayli felt the currents of the Force flowing through like a crashing river. A gentle wave of her hand and the colossal slabs of metal swung inwards gracefully.

They barred the path to outsiders, but Ayli was meant to be here.

That was not a comforting thought, but from what Ayli could sense nothing about the Third Temple was intended to be comforting.

Inside the Great Hall beyond the doors, columns carved from the bones of some gargantuan creature were intricately carved with scenes which summoned visions of conquest and strife. Adornments of gold, and platinum were plentiful, with highlights done in Phrik wherever certain characters appeared.

Ayli could have spent days, weeks, years even investigating and cataloging the work which had been done and all the styles is appeared in. Thousands of people, at least, had been part of the Temples creation, and as much as it was focused on expressing and amplifying the dark tangles of Praxis Mar’s history, the work done also told the story of those who’d shaped a living thing from a dead world.

Those years of investigation could not begin until the past was laid to rest though.

The past which took the form of Ravas Durla.

Or rather, the body Ravas Durla had once worn. 

Something else had taken up residence in it.

Something which stood at the far end of the Great Hall.

Something which bore a red lightsaber that was the twin of the one in Ayli’s hand.

“Beware,” the ghost of Ravas Durla said from beside Ayli. “That is not what it appears to be.”

The body moved like a puppet, drawing its limbs up into a formal dueling salute with the saber before gesturing for Ayli to begin the engagement.

“What is it then?” Ayli asked, igniting her lightsaber because whatever stood before had to be defended against.

“A violation,” Ravas’s ghost said. “That is supposed to be rotten away to dust by now.”

“Is that why you’re still here? Because your body is mystically preserved?” Ayli asked, starting to circle as the animated body approached her.

“I am here because of my power in Force,” Ravas said. “It was my choice to deny death. It was what I traded my life for in the end.”

“Doesn’t seem like we’ve reached the end of your story just yet,” Ayli said, growing concerned over how precisely the animated body was matching her movements.

“It never shall,” Ravas said. “Our plan to achieve immortality of the body were interrupted but my spirit it eternal.”

“I’m not sure your plans for your body were as interrupted as you think,” Ayli said.

“That is not me,” Ravas said. “But they are powerful in the Force. Let me in. Let me guide you. You will not be able to stand against one such as this.”

“We’ll see about that,” Ayli said.

When she struck, it was without thought, trusting in her instincts, in the Force, to guide her blow.

The crash of the lightsaber blades shocked Ayli out of the moment of clarity she’d begun the fight in.

In an instant, she was backpedaling, parrying blow after blow from her enemy’s blade.

“Do not be a fool!” Ravas cried over the clash. “Together we can destroy this abomination and claim dominion over this place.”

Ayli didn’t have any interest in being a planetary governor. Most of the one’s she’d met, Sali included, were corrupt and had targets the size of a large moon painted on their backs at all times.

She saw an opening in her foes defense and lunged forward to take it.

Ayli wasn’t a duelist, and the Force was so twisted by the Dark Side within the Third Temple that falling for a fatal feint had been all but a given. She sensed that even as the crackling red blade descended towards her neck.

It was too late for her by then.

Any burst of speed she could have managed would have been matched by her foe.

Any telekinetic push she could have used to deflect the blade would have been too weak even if she’d had enough focus to summon one forth.

The only thing her enhanced senses gave her was a lingering moment of understanding as death reached out to claim her.

And was stopped.

“It will kill you!” Ravas said, her ghostly voice hoarse with effort as her hand caught the red blade and held it back from harming Ayli.

Ayli shoved her foe back and brought her blade out in posture to maximize the distance between them.

“Together,” Ayli said. “We can do this together without you taking me over. I don’t have to be like you.”

“We are the same,” Ravas said. “Everything you hate in me, you will find in yourself. In everyone. Drop the lies. Stop pretending to be what others would have you be. Your anger is your strength. Your fear is your guide. Stop holding back on what you are, or you will die here, and I will be unavenged.”

“Vengeance?” Ayli spit the word out. “How is this about vengeance? Everyone you ever knew died centuries ago. There’s no one left to get any vengeance on!”

“People have not changed,” Ravas said. “People never do. The Jedi are not gone, only diminished, but their plague will cover the stars once more.”

The animated body took the offensive, and Ayli’s chance to answer.

Despite how its movements stuttered and swayed, the animated body’s offensive was far from mindless. One moment it clobbered Ayli with an overhand blow backed by enough strength to crack one of the nearby bone columns and the next the body was weaving its lightsaber through a complicated series of tight maneuvers where the point of the blade was constantly seeking out Ayli’s hands.

More than once Ravas had to step in and deflect the body’s lightsaber from skewering Ayli and each time the ghost grew thinner.

“I cannot do this much longer,” Ravas said. “We need to work together.”

“No!” Ayli screamed, pushing herself backward with the Force to herself roam to breath.

It didn’t work.

The body was as adept with the Force as Ayli was and launched itself into a series of flying attacks no matter how far or in what direction Ayli fled.

Which proved Ravas was right.

Ayli couldn’t win this one.

Maybe if Nix was beside her? Together they might be a match for the monster that had claimed the Third Temple.

Or not.

Ayli glimpsed a vision of the monster using them against each other. Feinting attacks on one to leave the other open. In an instant Ayli saw Nix being cut down or cut apart a hundred different times.

So it was good that Ayli was alone. Better that Nix was safe. Even if it meant Ayli was going to die. Especially if it meant Ayli was going to die. That was the last thing Nix needed to see.

The futility of the fight began to sap Ayli’s speed away. Why try so hard to put off an ending which was a foregone conclusion? Why fight when the outcome was inevitable.

Because Nix would see what happened.

The thought shocked Ayli back into motion. She was able to picture Nix coming upon the pieces of a corpse which turned out to be someone all too familiar.

Ayli’s blood ran cold. Nix had never seen anything like that. And Ayli knew she never should.

But that wasn’t the worst image that came to Ayli. The picture of herself dead was far less terrifying than the image of Nix finding a woman who she thought was Ayli but whose movements were those of the puppet before her. With how drenched in the Dark Side Praxis Mar was there would be a moment of recognition, followed by one of relief, followed by betrayal and confusion and agony.

“Why is it doing this?” Ayli gasped out, fleeing faster than she had a moment before.

“Through you it can get to me,” Ravas said. “Through you it can leave this place.”

And it would. Ayli saw that too. A creature in an unaging body, powered by Ravas’s hate and Ayli’s own connection to the Force.  No one she knew would survive it.

“Do it,” she said. “It can’t end like this.”

“YES!” Ravas screamed.

Ayli had expected a vast change to wash over her, or to feel supplanted in her own mind, but joining with Ravas was nothing like that.

All that changed, at first at least, was that she felt stronger. So much stronger. So many burdens and fears she hadn’t known she’d been carrying fell away leaving only a roaring confidence.

The animated body came at her again and she blocked its strike without effort and the roaring grew in her ears.

Extending a hand was all it took to blast the body back, crashing it into a pillar hard enough to send the whole thing tumbling down.

The body rose without hesitation, but Ayli was the one leaping in for a flying attack, a feral snarl tearing from her lips and she smashed blow after blow into the animated body’s faltering defenses.

It tried to give ground like Ayli had, but she was not about to let it flee.

It didn’t deserve to live. Not with what it had intended to do to her. Not for what it had done to Ravas’s body.

Yes! Focus on that! Ayli heard a voice as distant as her heart saw. This is your birthright. All of your scars were earned in service to this. Every wound you’ve born was to show you how much deeper this rage can go.

The voice should have sounded like Ravas, but it didn’t. It was a new voice, familiar and yet one Ayli was sure she’d never heard before.

Or never let herself hear.

Because she’d been weak.

Because she’d been afraid.

Because the world had hurt her and she hadn’t dared try to hurt it back.

As though that would do anything to stop the world from taking from her again and again and again. She had to play by its rules but it could change the rules, or ignore them, whenever it wanted to. There had never been anything fair in her life, but with the power she felt coursing through her, Ayli could change that.

The animated body tried to slip past her guard, using it’s superior skill to overcome the overwhelming might Ayli was tapped into.

But with Ravas’s gift, Ayli was no longer the inferior duelist.

Evading the body’s attacks was effortless in a breathtakingly familiar manner.

She had fought this person before.

Many times.

She knew their tricks even though she couldn’t yet tell who they were.

They’d taught her everything they’d known, every dirty trick, every cheat, every ruthless stratagem. But that was not everything that Ravas knew. She’d trained with so many others. And learned so much on her own. 

And was just as capable of making mistakes as Ayli was.

The animated body’s attack was one Ayli only recognized after the fact. A subtle reverse her master had favored when he was pressed. 

It wasn’t a killing shot, or even a maiming one, which made it all the more difficult to defend against. The barest touch of the body’s lightsaber against Ayli’s left arm was enough to knock Ayli’s blade out of her hand and send her skipping back.

Disarmed, but far from helpless, Ayli felt a red rage brighter than the saber’s blade rise in her as lightning poured forth from her hands to burn the animated body and burn it and burn it some more.

In the distance, a voice called out but it was drowned out completely by the roar of the lightning. 

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 39

Neither the Goldrunner’s shuttle nor the N1 Starfighter were exactly in one piece when the touched down on Praxis Mar but they did touchdown as opposed to the hard “lithobraking” maneuver the Goldrunner had clearly employed.

“Zin!” Sali called out as she leapt from the N1’s cockpit and ran towards a new port in the Goldrunner’s side which was less an addition and more a subtraction of some rather necessary hull plates.

Nix didn’t race out of the shuttle to join her. She could tell Zindiana was fine, if rather annoyed at the damage she was in the process of repairing.

Ayli was the one Nix was concerned about and, as Nix had more or less expected, her wife wasn’t present.

“Mom!” Goldie said over the shuttle’s comm system. “I’d say it’s good to see you, but Sister Zin had my external cameras offline.”

“I can see why,” Nix said. “How are you doing otherwise?”

“My datacore is fine. My body is, uh, less so,” Goldie said. 

“Anything still degrading?” Nix asked. She was concerned about Ayli but Goldie was still in peril too and of the two at least Ayli could still move on her own and hadn’t, yet, been shot full of holes.

“Nope. I’m forty one percent through a full system diagnostic and the Stage 1 checks for critical systems or spill over failures came back clean already.”

“Nice work getting everyone here safely,” Nix said, proud of her mechanical daughter.

“That was mostly Ayli’s flying,” Goldie said. “My deflectors are so weak.”

“Goldie, my dear, you shrugged off fire that’s repelling capital ships,” Nix said.

“It took more than a shrug,” Goldie said. “And most of it just didn’t hit me.”

“Most isn’t all, and from what I can see we should be able to have you airborn against a day or two, less if it’s an emergency and we rush it.”

“It’s not going to be an emergency is it?” Goldie asked. “I think I’m kind of done with emergencies for a while.”

“We’ll see,” Nix said, smiling at Goldie’s honesty. Putting a brave face on things was all well and good but being open about your limits was much more important in the long term. “Where did your other Mom go?”

Nix shouldn’t have needed to ask that question. Since opening herself to the Force and acknowledging her interaction with it, she’d been able to feel it more clearly than ever before. Her sense of Ayli’s presence was sharper than anyone else’s, even when they were separated by an ocean of stars.

Praxis Mar was different though.

Praxis Mar was a murdered world. In an age past, it drowned in despair and it’s inhabitants had been drawn down into madness and desolation on a scale that Nix could not fathom. The horror of that time was so distant that it couldn’t really touch her. No ghosts remained of the peoples of Praxis Mar, but the planet itself, the rocks and the sky still held onto the wailing hatred and empty sorrows. 

Nix knew Ayli was somewhere on the planet. Even somewhere close, but everything around her had been twisted for so long it was like walking through an eternal fog.

Of all the world’s they’d visited, Praxis Mar was the only one that could have been home to Children of the Storm, and to Ravas Durla before them.

“She went to the temple,” Goldie said. “The one at the top of the volcano we landed near.”

Nix glanced up to see the mountaintop wreathed in smoke and the glow of its inner fire.

Of course that was where Ayli had gone.

And where she was going to have to go too.

“Can you have Sali work on getting your long range scanners online?” Nix asked. “We kind of need to know what’s happening with the two fleets up there. If the wrong one wins, I’ll need to get your data core out of the ship before they land.”

“You’ll be back?” Goldie asked.

“We both will be,” Nix said.

“It doesn’t seem too safe up there.”

“It’s not, but it’s why we came here, so…”

“So we want to loot the place before we leave!” Goldie said, with exactly the inflection Sali would have used.

“In a manner of speaking, yes, yes we do,” Nix said. “That said, if we’re not back in a day, get Sali and Zindiana to patch up your main drive and head out of here to someplace where the Preservationists and the Klex won’t find any of you okay?”

“You know that’s not going to happen,” Goldie said.

“If we’re not back in a day, you’re not going to find us here at all,” Nix said. “In which case, listen to Sali.”

“And save my own hide?” Goldie said.

“What? No. Get revenge!” Nix said. “Which will require saving your own hide, but, you know, after that, feel free to take them apart, the Klex especially.”

“Okay. That I could maybe do,” Goldie said.

“Good. See you in a few hours then,” Nix said, entirely unsure if she would.

She needed to be on Praxis Mar. She knew that. What she needed to be there for however, aside from supporting her wife, was just a little unclear.

Sort of like the air was as she began to climb the slope of the volcano.

Nix reached out to the Force, trying to sense if an eruption was imminent but all she could sense was overwhelming misery. Part of her ached in resonance with the long buried pain the land still bore, while another found the unnecessary agitation annoying to the point of inducing a low grade rage the longer she dwelled on it.

So she stopped.

Getting angry at a mountain wasn’t going to help her. The rocks might remember the terror of the fallen, but they were long gone and there was nothing Nix could do that would change their fate or make it better. 

Sometimes things just sucked and the only thing to do was keep moving towards the things that didn’t.

“You’d think after waiting this long, I’d be able to sense where she is,” Kelda said. “But this place is just as miserable as it was a thousand years ago.”

“I didn’t expect to see you,” Nix said, sparing a glance over towards the translucent old lady who was walking beside her.

“I thought you could use some company,” Kelda said.

“And you’re worried about Ravas,” Nix said to which Kelda gave a small chuckle.

“I think ‘worry’ doesn’t quite cover it,” Kelda said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this day, and I can’t foresee a thing about how it will all turn out.”

“We’ll bring your girl back to you,” Nix said.

“There’s no way you can see that in Force. Not here,” Kelda said.

“That’s true. We’re still going to bring her back though.”

Kelda was silent for a long moment while they continued climbing.

“I hope so,” she said at last. “It’s hard to believe after all this time, but I hope so.”

“Good,” Nix said. “Hope’s what we need here.”

“That’s not going to be enough. Not on its own,” Kelda said.

“Hope’s Step 1,” Nix said. “Steps 2 through whatever involve knocking some sense into your girl and stabbing whatever wanna-be terror has taken up residence in the temple up there.”

That got a full throated laugh from Kelda.

“You and her would have been such good friends if you’d been born earlier, or she a lot later,”  Kelda said.

“Still time for us to be friends,” Nix said. “Especially if she can do what you’re doing now.”

“If you can break her free of the chains my Ravas is wrapped in, we’ll both be able to find serenity in the Force,” Kelda said. “This may be the last time you and I are able to speak in fact.”

“I should ask you a thousand questions then but you’re not going to be able to answer any of them are you?” Nix said, lifting herself over a boulder to find the broken steps of a path up the mountain.

“A lot of them are probably questions you’ll need to decide on an answer for yourself,” Kelda said. “But ask away and I’ll answer any that aren’t.”

“Okay, well, let’s start with the big one then,” Nix said. “What’s the real story between you and Ravas. I’ve picked up bits and pieces from you’ve both said, but I want to hear your side of it.”

“That I can tell you,” Kelda said. “Ravas and I were Padawan’s together – Jedi trainees – from when we were little. She was my best friend, and my closest confidant, and, eventually, the woman I fell in love with.”

“Something happened though, didn’t it?”

“I suppose that’s obvious. If we’d lived our lived our lives together we wouldn’t be here would we?”

“So what was it? What drove you apart?”

“It was me. Or her. Or the Jedi, depending on how you look at it,” Kelda said. “The short form is that the Jedi did not allow Padawan’s to engage in romantic relationships with one another.”

“Wait, they took in a bunch of kids and told them ‘no falling in love’? And that worked?”

“With varying degrees of success.”

“Why? I mean why would they do that? That sounds insane.”

“To help maintain balance,” Kelda said. “You’ve felt how strong the Force is when it flows through you. And you’ve seen how destructive it can be on a psyche when you draw from the Dark Side.”

“Love is not part of the Dark Side,” Nix said. “So far, love is the only thing I’ve seen that can keep people from falling down into the Dark Side in fact.”

“That’s my hope,” Kelda said. “But love isn’t all fluffy and joyful feelings. The Force amplifies us, meets us with the voice we call to it in. Drawing on it out of love can be incredibly strong, but that strength can turn love into obsession, especially among those too young to know the difference.”

“So you can’t risk loving at all if you’re a Jedi, or a Force user in general?” Nix asked, certain that wasn’t true, and determined to prove it false no matter who claimed otherwise.

“Some thought like that,” Kelda said.

“But not you.”

“I wasn’t quite quick enough with that revelation though,” Kelda said. “And I didn’t see what the threat of being broken apart was doing to Ravas until it was too late.”

“She left you, didn’t she?”

“That’s not what she would say. She would tell you that when I chose to take the tests of Knighthood I was choosing the Jedi Order over her. When I gave them my vows, she would say that I was swearing myself to another. And she would not be entirely wrong.”

“But you didn’t see it like that did you?” Nix asked. “You saw it as possible to have both.”

“I told myself I did,” Kelda said. “And I would have fought for Ravas. But she didn’t give me time. The night I passed my final test, the night I swore my oaths, she was gone. I’d spent my life striving to become a Jedi Knight and in the moment of my triumph, everything felt like it had turned to ashes.”

“What did you do?”

“I tried to be the best Jedi I coud,” Kelda said. “I filled my time with training, and helping others. I spent years building a life for myself to stand on the wreckage of the one I’d imagined I’d have. The one I was going to share with Ravas.”

“And that wasn’t enough,” Nix said, seeing for the first time all of the things she’d tried and failed to fill her own life with.

“It did. Sometimes. To some extent,” Kelda said. “There was always a Ravas shaped hole in things though. A few things filled most of it. A few people really, but the ones I stayed close to wound up creating their own spaces in my life, which left Ravas’s empty once again.”

“That’s why you hunted her down.”

“That’s why I sought her out,” Kelda said. “It took a while, and I wasn’t planning anything more than to talk with her. To ask her to forgive me.”

“Would you have left the Jedi Order to be with her then?”

“At first I thought I could bring her back into it,” Kelda said. “But eventually I saw that wasn’t going to happen. Not for her, or for me. And so I left. Even before I found her.”

“That’s why you came here alone.”

“Not my brightest idea, I will admit now.”

“But a necessary one. You had to come to her before the process she and her master were working on was completed.”

“I needed to come to her a long time before then. As it was all I succeeded in doing was preventing her master from absorbing her life and staving off his own death by the days she had left to live.”

“How did you do that?”

“Quite simply,” Kelda said.

“With the Force?” Nix asked.

“I used my bare hands,” Kelda said. “And all of the strength the Dark Side would give me.”

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 38

The Goldrunner didn’t crash. Ayli would insist on that repeatedly if asked. Yes, it was true that when it landed none of the engines were working, and, yes, it landed where gravity decided it would land rather than where Ayli would have liked to put it down, but, and this was an important point she felt, it did land.

“Did we survive that or is the afterlife really not living up to its billing?” Zindiana asked.

“You’re in fine shape,” Goldie said. “I, on the other hand, won’t be flying any time soon.”

“Any systems still functional?” Ayli asked, checking the navigational logs to see if she could pinpoint where they’d landed.

“Life support’s fine, and I’ve got one of the aft turbolaser batteries that’s still technically functional but the maneuvering brackets are fused, so it can only fire in one direction until that’s fixed,” Goldie said.

“How bad are the sublight engines?” Ayli asked.

“Checking now, pretty bad though,” Goldie said.

“Can you fix them with the waldos?”

“Maybe. Depends on what blew up,” Goldie said. “Give me about an hour and I’ll either have partial output and control back online or a list of parts we need to replace.”

“I doubt we have an hour,” Zindiana said. “If we could get through the defense grid, the Klex armada up there is definitely going to be able to get through it was well,” Zindiana said.

“The good news, I think we cleared a path for them,” Ayli said. “A lot of shots we dodged as we got deeper in hit other parts of the defense grid.”

“That seems like a terrible setup?” Zindiana said, and grabbed a sack to begin packing with supplies out of the Goldrunner’s emergency stores.

“I was able to throw off their targeting a bit,” Ayli said. “I think the must have programmed the system to err on the side of blowing up intruders rather than letting people have free lanes of access in the places where the defenses might risk shooting each other.”

“So self-destructively hostile then? That sounds in character for the Children of the Storm from what we’ve seen so far,” Zindiana said.

“Oh hey, the waldos are reporting that damage to the comm’s array isn’t too bad. I can probably have that back up in about five minutes,” Goldie said.

“Do it,” Ayli said. “Nix and Sali will be coming in behind us. They’ll need a beacon to follow if nothing else.”

“I’m guessing the Klex will object to that,” Zindiana said.

“I have a feeling the Preservationist League ships will lodge some counter-objections for us,” Ayli said. “I caught a long distance ping while we were cutting through the worst of the defense grid that a new set of ships had arrived in system. And it feels like Nix is here. And like she’d following us.”

“She’s going to wind up in even worse shape that we are though right?” Zindiana asked, which wasn’t an unreasonable thought given how much more fragile the shuttle Nix had was than the Goldrunner.

“I think she’s going to be okay,” Ayli said, growing more certain of that with each word. “We cleared some of the path and the Klex have been busy clearing more of it. I think by the time she and Sali get there, there’ll be a lot less shooting at them than there was at us.”

“That’s good. They can take us to the central command structure and we can see about getting the automated defense systems under our control.”

It was the most likely method they’d been able to think of for securing access to the planet and repelling the Klex fleet. None of their plans had accounted for a crash landing which could have left them anywhere on the planet’s surface though.

Which was fine.

Because Ayli had arrived right where she needed to be.

“How?” she whispered, looking out of the cockpit to see a fire spewing mountain rising above them.

“This wasn’t me,” Ravas said. “This was all you. You chose to be here. Don’t forget that and don’t blame me.”

Ayli turned to question what Ravas meant, but she was gone before Ayli even began to move.

“How what?” Zindiana asked.

“We don’t need a ride from Nix and Sali,” Ayli said. “We’re here. This is the Final Temple.”

Zindiana looked out of the cockpit and followed Ayli’s gaze to the top of the volcano they’d landed beside.

“Wow, nice flying there. How did you see this from space though?”

“I didn’t. I just flew where I thought we needed to go.”

“We should wait for the others then,” Zindiana said. “So far both of the other temples have been dangerous, and it sounds like in both cases you and Nix only made it out because you worked together.”

Ayli had to admit that was true.

The image of Nix speared through by a Smoke Wraith’s talons stabbed sharply through her mind, followed by the image of Nix twisting and helpless in the air under the Ancient Specter’s power.

“I think this last test is one that has to be done alone,” Ayli said.

“You don’t have to do that,” Zindiana said, strapping one of the larger blaster pistols she owned to her hip. “I don’t have Nix’s gifts, but I can come with you.”

“No, you need to stay,” Ayli said, certain that seeing Zindiana die would be terrible too, if less so than seeing Nix be hurt again. “The others need to be brought up to speed on what happened and what’s going on.”

“I can do that,” Goldie said. “It’ll be safer if you go together.”

Which was true, but Ayli hated that too.

“You’re in no shape at all to defend yourself, and the automated systems for takeoff and flight are down, so even if you get the engines repaired you’ll need a pilot to get you in the air again,” Ayli said, citing what felt like rational and valid arguments.

“Then we should all wait here,” Goldie said. “If the Klex do send a landing party, it’ll be a lot to ask Zindiana to hold them off on her own.”

“If I can get the defenses under our control, that’ll deal with Klex,” Ayli said. “Zin doesn’t need to defeat any Klex forces that show up, she just needs to buy enough time for me to get to the central control station.

“And if you encounter more Force monsters in there?” Zindiana asked.

“Then I’ll get to prove I’m worthy to wield one of these,” Ayli said holding up the unlit lightsaber.

“I want to go on record stating that this is a terrible plan,” Zindiana said.

“Agreed,” Ayli said. “It’s terribly, but it’s the best one we’ve got.”

“Take this at least,” Zindiana said and handed Ayli one of the ship’s currently inactive comm cylinders. “Five minutes from now when the comms are back online, we’ll send a ping. Don’t call, just send a ping back if you’re okay, or two pings if you need help. Zero pings means you need help immediately.”

“You concerned the Klex have the scanners to detect secured comm traffic?” Ayli asked.

“I’m concerned there might be more enemies to worry about here than just the Klex,” Zindiana said.

With that cheerful thought in mind, Ayli ventured forth, pausing outside the Goldrunner to make a quick inspection.

The results were not good. Huge slashes had been torn in the hull, exposing machinery which had been melted to slag. Ayli saw that even if the engines could be brought back online, space travel would be perilous at best give the breeches in the ship’s hull which would need some form of repair.

That was a problem for another time though.

In the moment Ayli found herself in, a far greater problem awaited her atop the volcano.

“She was right,” Ravas said, and Ayli didn’t have to ask who. “I can feel something familiar laying in ambush above. It knows you’re here.”

“Let’s not keep her waiting then,” Ayli said, and began hiking up the slope as fast as she could.

“You do not know how powerful she is,” Ravas said. “How powerful I was.”

A variety of answers leapt to Ayli’s lips but the one that came out felt like words gifted to her from Nix.

“I don’t,” Ayli said simply. The fear she’d expected didn’t take root in her heart at that admission. She didn’t need to contradict Ravas, or counter with a grandiose boast. Ravas was right. Ayli didn’t know what she was walking into. But she did know that where she was headed was where she needed to be.

“If…” Ravas paused. “If you falter, if you are not strong enough, let me in. I will not take you over. I will only give you the strength you need.”

“Why?” Ayli asked, meaning both why should she trust Ravas to stand by her word and why would Ravas offer it in the first place.

“If you fall, it will destroy the one you love,” Ravas said. “That is the purpose of power – denying that fate.”

That was a lie.

Ayli could feel it.

But she let it stand. Ravas had saved them once. If she needed to save Ayli again, then the reasoning wouldn’t matter, only the results.

“I may not be the one in danger up there,” Ayli said, glancing up to the top of the volcano and the temple which awaited her there. It was growing closer much faster than a part of her was ready for.

“I assure you, nothing but peril waits for you on that ground,” Ravas said.

“I have stood on perilous ground for so long I don’t think I can recognize anything else,” Ayli said. “I’m guessing it may have been a long time for you though.”

“I am beyond the reach of peril,” Ravas said. “It is the one gift which departing from life always grants.”

“You’re here now though,” Ayli said. “I think that places you in a unique position, and creates unique vulnerabilities.”

“You sounds as though you care?” Ravas said, a note of derision in her voice.

“It’s a surprise to me too,” Ayli said. “I think it’s Nix. She sees something in you. Something more than the face you’ve always shown us.”

“She imagines things, sees things not as they are but in whatever light is easiest and most comfortable,” Ravas said.

“Do you think it’s comfortable for her to believe in you?” Ayli asked. “Because she does. Even with everything we’ve been through, she sees something in you, something that Kelda saw, and it’s hard not to be convinced by that.”

Ravas was silent for the short while it took Ayli to finish the climb.

“She is imagining things,” Ravas said. “What she thinks she sees was never there. Only the illusion of it ever appeared and that was never worth anything.”

“I think if Nix were here she would contest that,” Ayli said. “Of all of us, she has the clearest vision and the widest view. And I am sure she would reject the idea of you being worthless.”

“She’s a fool.”

“She is,” Ayli said. “But she’s also right. You are more than you appear to be. I don’t think I could really see that till now, but that’s only because you’ve taken pains to hide that part of yourself away.”

“You cannot imagine what else lies hidden within me,” Ravas said.

“I can’t. You lived a different life than mine. You hold more power and mastery of the Force than I probably ever will. We will never be the same, but I can still understand you. At least in part.”

“And if none of that can save you?” Ravas asked.

It was a valid question. Ayli had begun her expedition in the hopes of finding the grist to bolster her somewhat shaky career. Somewhere the quest she was on had become about something more though. 

And somewhere in the process, she had become something more too.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 37

Getting on to the bridge of the Providence-class Destroyer hadn’t been difficult, or at least not any more difficult than Nix had anticipated. 

True, there had been a small cadre of independent Destroyer Droids who she hadn’t been able to shut down once she’d taken control of the central command system. The droids had massed in front of the command deck’s main blast door but Nix had removed them from the equation via the simple expedient of buying their loyalty with hard currency and a shuttle.

To Preservationist League’s credit, she felt the League was to be commended for noticing the hole in the Trade Federation’s overly centralized command structure and attempting to patch it. Their downfall was their fundamental inability to trust people though.

Which also meant they didn’t treat independent droids as people, but rather as expensive tools they could rely on to ensure their rule was enforced without question.

Nix suspected that if the League could have, they would have installed restraining bolts on everything and everyone, which was why she was glad that the bolts they used on the “independent” droids were relatively trivial to remove. 

The credits and the shuttle were supplied to the Destroyer Droids once Nix had glitched their restraining bolts in order to provide them with the option to either pursue whatever lives they chose to or remain for the battle which would inevitably arrive.

Unsurprisingly, they’d all chosen the shuttle. 

“You’d think Combat Droid would be hard to keep away from combat,” Sali said.

“These were old model Combat Droids,” Nix said.

“Ah yes, and warriors don’t grow to be old unless they avoid war, don’t they?” Thirty-two said.

“That too, but I think they were old enough to have been manufactured during the Galactic Civil war,” Nix said. “If so, their hard coded loyalty modules are all tagged for the Trade Federation leaders from back then. With the bolts gone they have no stake in this fight at all.”

“You’re far too young to have served on either side back then,” Thirty-two said. “How did you recognize that?”

“The moment you tell people you’re a mechanic, they want you to fix something for them,” Nix said. “Say yes and you get to see a lot of weird, broken things. Say no and they offer to pay you to see a lot of weird, broken things.”

“Speaking of payment, you know the League will not be honoring the contract for the inspection you offered,” Thirty-two said.

“I think they had more than enough hard currency in the ship’s vault to cover my work,” Nix said. “Not to mention the ship itself.”

“I thought the fleet was supposed to be mine?” Sali said. 

“I stole you away from one treasure hoard,” Nix said. “It seemed only fair I do a bit of work to get you a another one.”

“Wouldn’t that mean I don’t have a stake in this fight either then?” Sali said. “I mean getting my brand new fleet all shot up seems like a bad idea wouldn’t you agree?”

“You’re free to go wherever you like,” Nix said, checking the coordinates again and again seeing that they were almost at the Praxis Mar system.

“It’s the open sky for me and my new crew then!” Sali said, spinning in the captain’s chair.

“That sounds delightful,” Nix said. “Out of curiosity, will you be going to pick up Sister Zindiana? She’s on the Goldrunner still in case you forgot.”

Sali stopped spinning and frowned at Nix.

“I hate you.”

“I know.”

“How do you know there will even be a battle?” Thirty-two asked. “Unless you changed trajectory, the system we’re head for has been left off the star charts and forgotten for over a thousand years.”

“Left off the charts? Yes. Forgotten? Not so much,” Nix said. “And as for who we’ll be fighting?”

The ship’s automated systems dropped them back down into sublight space and a sky which was filled with explosions and turbo-laser fire.

“Them. We’ll be fighting them,” Nix said.

“What if we don’t want to fight them?” Thirty-two asked.

Explosions began to crash against the deflector fields, and half of the Klex’s battle units changed facing to meet the newly arrived threat.

“We could ask them nicely if they’d be willing to let us just cruise on out of here,” Salis said. “But there’s a few problems with that.”

“They have us outgunned?” Thirty-two said.

“That and the fact that they’re a bunch of pirates who are out of a lot of money at this point and would be only too happy to sell my new ships for scrap and any survivors back into the the same system we just go you all out of.”

“Also they hate Sali specifically and will assume we’re all working with her,” Nix said.

“I have to give credit where credit is due,” Sali said. “I think Darsus hates you more than me at this point.”

“True but Ulno still commands their fleet,” Nix said and watched a strange expression come over Thirty-two’s face.

“Pardon me, but did you say Ulno Klex was onboard one of those ships?”

“Yeah, he was on their command ship last I saw him,” Sali said.

“All Workers, we on the bridge would like you extend you an invitation,” Thirty-two said, keying on the shipswide mic. “We are presently engaged with a hostile force. That’s those disturbing booms you’re hearing. In less disturbing news, Ulno Klex, leader of the Klex Cartel, is on the enemy flagship. You are invited to attend a boarding party which will be hosted by yours truly. Weapons will be provided, but you will be expected to bring your own mayhem.”

“Boarding party?” Sali asked, not hiding her skeptcism. 

“You’ll need a distraction if you’re going to rescue your crewmates,” Thirty-two said. “Take one of our shuttles, they’re small and stealthy. Ulno Klex is ours and no one else gets to collect from him until we’ve gotten our piece.”

Boarding actions were, from the holonet-drama-fueled knowledge Nix possessed, terrible ideas. According to nearly every action-adventure and historical recreation she’d watched, space combat was best fought at long ranges with jump drives at the ready. Closing in to deliver a payload of attack droids involved absorbing so much firepower that there wasn’t usually anything left to be worth boarding. Delivery a payload of living being was just as bad with the added wrinkle that the payload in question was likely to be reduced to a chunky salsa long before a boarding action could be undertaken.

Which was why all of the holo-vids had an elite team do it anyways – to show how just how dang incredible they were.

She considered mentioning that to Thirty-two but decided against it as a.) he almost certainly already knew those facts, b.) just as certainly did not care, and c.) had slightly higher than normal chances thanks to the Klex’s main capital ship being in generally rotten shape still from the destruction Sali and Zin had unleashed on it earlier.

Also he was right that they needed a distraction.

“Thanks, we’ll leave you to it then,” she said therefor and grabbed Sali’s hand to drag her away to the hangar before they were too close to pass unnoticed when they departed.

“Don’t get my ships too shot up!” Sali called out as she let herself be dragged away.

The hangar was easy enough to find. It was one of the few places they’ve been on the ship, but when they got there Sali found Nix heading immediately away from her.

“Where are you going?” Not that Nix needed to ask. She’d seen the sleek N-1 Starfighter someone had lovingly restored.

“Stealth isn’t going to cut it,” Sali said. “We need firepower if we’re going to get through the Klex’s blockade and whatever defenses the locals have setup down there.”

“Yeah, and you know what else we need,” Nix said, “more than one seat!”

“Right, which is why you’re going to take the shuttle we came in on and follow me.” Sali pointed to the Goldrunner’s shuttle which hadn’t moved since they’d arrived.

“I don’t know if splitting up is a good idea,” Nix said, unsure if her hesitancy was a nudge from the Force or simply general unhappiness at the idea of flying into battle alone.

“None of this has been a good idea,” Sali said and then turned to take hold of Nix’s shoulders, “but I trust you. I’m an idiot, but I trust you. You got us here and we’ve got a chance to walk away from this with a pile of riches.”

“And the women we love,” Nix said.

Sali offered her a begrudging smile.

“Them too,” she admitted.

“And we will walk away,” Nix said. “You can go play with the shiny toy if you promise me that. No going out in a blaze of glory.”

“It’s how all good Pirate Queen’s go though,” Sali said with a teasing smile.

“Not my Pirate Queen,” Nix said. “Somebody shoots at you, you dodge, you hear?”

“Loud and clear,” Sali said, her smile broadening to light up her whole face.

That wasn’t the only reason Nix didn’t want to split up, but she held the rest to herself. Fighting back against the perfectly reasonable case of nerves as she buckled herself into the unfamiliar pilots seat of the Goldrunner’s shuttle.

Sali had probably forgotten since everyone else they knew was at least a decent pilot, but Nix’s talents with spacecraft didn’t extend to actually flying the beasts.

“None of this was a good idea,” she said as she flipped the shuttle to life and set the deflectors to what felt like the best layout she could find.

The shuttle did not disagree with that sentiment, but it also didn’t experience any unexpected mechanical failure to keep her grounded on the hangar’s flight deck.

“But it’s the best one I had,” Nix said as she watched Sali blast out of the bay in the N1.

The shuttle didn’t have a pray at catching the faster and more maneuverable starfighter. Nix’s talent at hacking together a ship from scraps was impressive but very little could compete with one of the best ship designs in the last few centuries when it came to performing it’s primary function.  

Sali was aware of that too and, after a few unnecessary loops and twirls, took up an escort position directly under the Goldrunner’s shuttle.

It was a smart move, Nix realized. On a radar ping, they would present such an irregular shape that collision tracking modules would flag them as debris rather than another ship.

That worked a charm on the Klex’s ships, especially given that Thirty-two put the Preservationist League’s ship on maximum burn and filled the sky with plenty of actual debris.

The automated defenses around Praxis Mar however were more than happy to reduce anything, ship or debris, to its constituent atoms since they’re energy budget was basically “yes”. 

“I’m going to cut us a clearer path,” Sali said. “Follow me, but not too close.”

It was a cute instruction Nix thought. As though she was able to do more than guide the shuttle through one turn in the time Sali had taken twelve.

With only a novice’s understanding of what she was doing, Nix reached out to the Force to help her guess at the right controls to press.

It wouldn’t have worked if she didn’t know what the controls did.

At least she thought it wouldn’t have worked.

Watching her hands fly across the switches and dials though, Nix found that the most important thing she could do was stay out of her own head.

She could see where Sali was going.

She knew the limits of the shuttle.

She felt at each moment where the safest path forward lay.

Deep into her trancelike state, Nix felt for her connection to Ayli and found Ayli so very close.

And so very much in danger.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 36

Ayli was used to worrying about her comrades. As a child in the rebellion, she’d been helpless to protect a lot of people she’d known. The situation hadn’t changed as far as she was concerned as she’d gotten older and more capable. The Empire had taught her that no one was ever really safe. 

Which, she reflected, probably explained why she had a wide assortment of contacts and associates and few friends. Also, possibly, she could chalk one or two (or more if she was feeling honest) failed relationships up to her reticence to risk caring that much about somehow.

So how in all the frozen hells of Hoth had Nix snuck in and made Ayli give so much of a damn about her?

It wasn’t any sort of Force Manipulation. Ayli knew that outside of someone’s presence Force Compulsions faded quickly – a little tidbit of knowledge she’d absorbed from Ravas who’d always found that fact inconvenient. Also there hadn’t been any force, mystical, social, or otherwise involved in her time with Nix.

They’d wound up married because they were both drunk idiots, and it had just worked for them in the moment.

And it had kept working. 

Which is shouldn’t have.

That wasn’t how relationships happened.

Ayli had seen it with Gewla and Vronmo after they’d all but officially adopted her. Their relationship was one of the strongest ones she’d ever seen and they’d both had to work it. According to them it had taken three years of unacknowledged courting on each of their parts before they were even willing to start calling what they were doing dating. Then it had been another five years before they were sure they wanted to be married, and decades since then building the enduring life together than they shared.

Drunken hookups on a casino planet did not lead to true love.

Not that Ayli loved Nix. 

No. It was textbook insanity to even think that.

“You might want to go easy on that scanner switch,” Zindiana said. “Breaking it off isn’t going to help them get here any sooner.”

Ayli snatched her hand away from the control panel.

“This plan sucks. Why did we agree to this?” she asked, unhappy to keep the growl out of her voice. All sorts of other dark thoughts rose with it and, lacking Nix’s calming presence, she felt like she was all wrapped up in them.

“It sucked less than the alternatives?” Zindiana said. “Are you starting to feel misgivings from the Force about it?”

Was she? Ayli took a deep breath and tried to push the anger and fear away. Those never showed her a clear view of reality she’d decided. 

“No. No visions. I just can’t believe we’re doing this,” she said. “I hadn’t planned on fighting a criminal cartel or taking over an automated fleet. This was supposed to a simple historical survey with some loot on the side to prove some University idiots wrong.”

Zindiana laughed.

“Oh have I ever been there,” she said. “They say the best revenge is living well, but there’s nothing quite as satisfying as publishing a paper with hard evidence to cram in the faces of people who thought your theories were bunk.”

“It sounds kind of petty when you put it like that,” Ayli said.

“It’s absolutely petty,” Zindiana said. “Petty can be  supremely satisfying though. Especially with the particular smugness that you find in academic circles.”

Ayli let out a sigh she hadn’t felt like she was holding.

“That’s true. Just hard to feel like it’s worth it when it blows up to all this,” she said, gesturing to the galaxy in general and all the parts that seemed to be arrayed against them.

“I’m not going to say they’ll be all right,” Zindiana said. “I don’t have your gifts with the Force, and I know how hollow those words can ring. I will say that our girls are pretty remarkable though, and if anything does happen to them, well it wouldn’t be the first time I had to wreck blood vengeance across the stars.”

Ayli huffed a laugh.

“Mine either,” she said, though her vengeance had really only been limited to a single planet, and the body count wasn’t that impressive she thought. “Wait, ‘our girls’? Does that mean you and Sali are official now?”

“We’re…hmm, you know we haven’t put a name on it really. She’s surprisingly agreeable to be around though. Not the sort of gal I’d usually share a bed or a bottle with, but my only complaints would be if I didn’t get to do either of those again,” Zindiana said. “I’m not sure if she feels the same, but it’s been fun so far.”

“Nix knows her better than I do,” Ayli said, “But I think it’s safe to say, Sali finds being with you ‘surprisingly agreeable too’.”

“Who knew a life of crime could be so rewarding?” Zindiana said. “If I’d known that getting thrown in jail would net me a hot pirate queen and a grand adventure with treasure and a fantastic ship I might have tried it sooner.”

“Awww,” Goldie said, “You think I’m fantastic?”

“Well, you’re the first ship I’ve been able to have a conversation with,” Zindiana said. “And the first one who ever saved me from a cartel’s Destroyer, so yes, yes I do.”

Ayli smiled at the flickering of colors that ran across the control panel – Goldie’s version of blushing it seemed.

“I don’t know if this helps or not,” Goldie said. “But we’re coming up on the planned time Mom had specified for how long it was likely for them to get the Preservationist  fleet here.”

“That was a guess on her part,” Ayli said. “We’ll want to give her some time past that.”

“She seems to listen to the Force a lot,” Zindiana said. “Do you think her timeframe was informed by that?”

Ayli was about to say “no” but stopped to consider why she thought that. Zindiana was right about Nix being somewhat effortless adept at sensing the flow of the Force. Was it that unthinkable that she was following it’s plan for how things would turn out?

“This feels more like Nix’s idea, if that makes sense,” Ayli said. “Freeing the Preservationist’s slaves from their collars was important to her and so she worked out how to do that and get us where we needed to go too. She might have been following the Force’s suggestions for the most likely paths to make that happen, but her estimates feel like her own. I think?”

“Works for me,” Zindiana said. “Everything I’ve learned about the Force is that dealing with it involves working in some pretty fuzzy spaces.”

“Maybe not so fuzzy,” Goldie said. “Sensors are saying we’ve got a fleet warping into the system now.”

“Wow she’s good,” Ayli said, her mood brightening in an instant only to come crashing down with Goldies next words.

“Problem,” the ship said. “It’s not them.”

“Who else…” Ayli started to ask and cut herself off. “Oh no. Not them.”

But of course it was.

“Afraid so,” Goldie said. “Klex battlecruiser inbound, along with at least a dozen other warships.”

“They have better repair techs than we anticipated,” Zindiana said.

“Or they’re running damaged,” Goldie said. “I’m reading some interesting plasma venting from the battle cruiser.”

“Are they badly beat up enough that we could take them in a fight?” Ayli asked, already knowing the answer but needing to hear it before she gave her next order.

“Not a chance in all of Hoth’s hells,” Goldie said. “They’re still a battle cruiser and I’m very much not. Also no element of surprise this time. Not to mention the other ships. Sorry.”

“No apologies needed,” Ayli said. “I am delighted beyond words that you have a reasonable estimation of your own capabilities. It’s seriously invaluable.”

“That does not leave us many good options, does it?” Zindiana said.

“That leaves us no good options at all,” Ayli said. “Which is why I’m taking us down to the surface.”

“The defenses around Praxis Mar are still quite active,” Goldie said.

“I’m aware,” Ayli said.

“They’re actually stronger than the battle cruiser,” Goldie said.

“Yep. I remember our scans,” Ayli said, flipping the deflector fields into an array which left the forward arc completely undefended.

“Anything I can do to help?” Goldie asked.

“If we take a good hit, deploy as much chaff as you can,” Ayli said. “It won’t fool them forever but if we can make them think we blew up even for a little while it’ll buy us time down there.”

“If we take a good hit, I may not need to deploy any chaff to make them think we blew up,” Goldie said.

“Want me to head to the guns?” Zindiana asked.

“No. Stay here. I don’t want to damage any of the defenses,” Ayli said. “If we can make it through, they’re going to be all that will slow down the Klex’s from following after us. Also, I might need you to handle the deflectors if they gets as bad as I think it will.”

“On it,” Zindiana said.

And she was. To Ayli’s surprise, as Zin took over control of the deflector arrays, she didn’t change anything about the pattern Ayli had setup, apparently understanding why Ayli had stripped them of protection in their forward arc.

“You can do this,” Ravas said, from the seat behind her.

It was the first time Ravas had appeared or spoken since she’d fled but Ayli wasn’t surprised by her presence. The encouragement though? That was unexpected.

With a silent nod of agreement or thanks or something, Ayli cranked the engines to full power and dove towards the array of defensive installations in orbit and mounted on the moons of Praxis Mar.

It was a death sentence.

Both the original architects of the temple and the Children of the Storm had been seriously invested in preventing unwanted visitors from reaching their holy site, and a blind rush forward at high speed was the most obvious of strategies for them to put in counters for.

All defenses had weak points though and opening herself up to the Force, Ayli felt them all.

She didn’t question the revelations or hesitate. The Goldrunner couldn’t fit through some of them, most of them, but Ayli plowed through more than a few of those, trusting the deflectors to handle the glancing shots she allowed to land in order to bypass the points where there was no chance they’d survive the coordinated fire.

The deflectors did their part, to the extent that they could. Nix had rigged them up well, and so they shielded the Goldrunner from more than their fair share of the explosions and turbolaser fire that crashed onto the ship. 

But they had their limits, and Ayli pushed them far past that.

Even with her Force enhanced flying, the load was too much for the starboard shields, which buckled and exploded. Goldie was giving status updates on the ship’s systems as they breeched the atmosphere, but since they were all varying degrees of terrible, Ayli tuned them out.

With only the rear and port shields energized, she was forced to put the Goldrunner into a dance that would have torn it to shreds if the inertial dampeners failed. With the deflectors pulling as much energy as they were from the Goldrunner’s systems, and the worrying failures of sensors on the engines themselves, Ayli wasn’t terribly surprised when the danger light for inertial failure blazed to life.

A moment later than engines quit entirely, leaving them in freefall. 

Fortunately, they were so close to the surface that most of the orbital defense could no longer target them.

The automated ground defenses on the other hand were more than happy to pick up the slack and blast the freefalling Goldrunner in places Ayli really wished they wouldn’t. 

As the ground loomed closer, she felt a familiar presence brush up against her mind and did her best to send a reassuring touch back.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 35

As plans went, Nix found herself reasonably pleased with how hers was turning out.

“We’re in a jail cell,” Sali said, pacing the length of the tiny room they were in. “Was this a secret part of your plan? Maybe one of those bits you didn’t want to tell me about?”

“We’re not in a jail cell,” Nix said. “This is a reception room.”

“A reception room with doors that don’t open from the inside and a reinforced bulkhead on either side of the one entrance?” Sali asked.

“So it’s a very secure reception room,” Nix said looking for signs of poor maintenance she could use in her negotiations.

“It’s a jail cell,” Sali said. “Trust me, I’ve been in enough of them.”

“If this was a jail cell, they’d be recording us,” Nix said, leaning over to inspect one of the seems in the floor. The weld was good, and it looked like it had been sealed properly, but the cleaning solution they were using was all wrong. The seal hadn’t degraded enough to be a problem but another year or so and they’d be replacing the whole panel or it would be venting enough gas to act as another engine.

“We are recording you,” Thirty-two said, strolling into the jail cell with a datapad in his hands. “Though, for legal reasons, I must specify that Ms. Lamplighter is correct and this is not a jail cell. It is a holding and evaluation room. We are not permitted to incarcerated anyone except duly convicted prisoners and those who are we transporting to the nearest law enforcement facility where we will be pressing charges against them.”

“And what charges will you be pressing against us?” Sali asked, her hand staying mercifully away from the two holdout blasters Nix knew she was carrying.

“None,” Nix said. “Mr. Thirty-two is here to evaluate my credentials as a licensed ship inspector.”

“You are very perceptive Ms. Lamplighter,” Thirty-two said, dropping gracefully into one of the chairs beside the room’s small desk and gesturing for Nix to take the seat opposite.

“Ship inspection requires the ability to pay attention to details,” Nix said, glancing and the jamming device in Thirty-two’s hands and upwards at the small patch of wall where the recording equipment was hidden.

She’d expected the interrogation chamber to be smaller and better outfitted with sensor equipment but since they’d been allowed to dock with the Providence-class Battle Cruiser, their reception had been farther towards the side of actually being treated like guests rather than potential felons. Possibly because the credentials Goldie had setup for Nix bore enough real seals of approval that they’d already passed muster with the Preservationist’s local command bots.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Thirty-two passed the broken jammer over to her. “Normally we hire inspectors from fully accredited agencies which the League has long standing with. In this case, however, our duty cycle has prohibited us from engaging their services in a timely manner.”

“Hence this interview and test, I understand,” Nix said. “I should tell you that this time will be considered billable even should you choose not to hire me.”

Sali shot her a look of surprised approval, which Nix had to suppress a smile against. Even the pirate queen she’d dated didn’t seem to realize how many ways in which they’d been compatible.

It was just as well though. Ayli felt like a more comfortable fit than Sali ever had.

“Oh of course,” Thirty-two said. “Payment to be rescinded if any irregularities are discovered in your credentials or if your inspection fails to turn up any problems more severe than Class 3.”

“For cursory inspections, Class 3s are guaranteed,” Nix said. “If you wished to engage my services on a longer term basis, the full suite covers Class 2 as well.”

“You initial communique indicated that you were intent on leaving the system sooner than that,” Thirty-two said, and Nix could feel his concern that he might have misread their desire to leave and its source.

“Yes, we have an itinerary to keep to,” Nix said. “I make the offer of a longer commitment in terms of future business arrangements we might enter into.”

Nix guessed that Sali would think they were discussing some secret plans, but the offers and requirements were almost a pre-scripted part of contract work.

Thirty-two smiled at her offer, calmer at the reassurance that his initial read on the situation had been correct.

“In the interest of your time and our expenditures then, if you could take a look at this device and offer you opinion as to it’s repairability?” Thirty-two asked.

“Certainly,” Nix said, taking the inactive jamming device. “What can you tell me about it’s origin and purpose?”

“Purpose unknown,” Thirty-two lied. “It’s origin was an unexpected weapon’s cache on the planet below. The controller were concerned that it might be dangerous to leave unsecured, but there does not seem to be enough of a power signature from it to suggest that it harbors any danger.”

“Power scans can be deceived,” Nix said, quite truthfully. “May I interact with it?”

“To the extent you feel our safety will not be compromised,” Thirty-two said. “Obviously should the device detonate we will posthumously cancel any financial obligations to your estate.”

“Obviously,” Nix agreed. There was something about the boilerplate nature of work discussions which was both soothing and annoying, and with her nerves already more taut than she preferred she reached out the ‘soothing’ aspect as well as she could.

The inactive jammer was an old design, one that she knew about from hanging out with people like Sali rather than any of the ones which appeared in legitimate tech catalogs.

Which meant she was pretty certain it wasn’t going to explode.

A shame since explosions were more useful than ship’s mechanics liked to admit.

“Initial thoughts?” Thirty-two asked.

“Are likely to be based on incomplete data and have the highest likelihood of being misleading,” Nix said. 

Having the customer want answers instantly was also a standard part of inspection work, though it fell solidly on the ‘annoying’ side of the scale. To his credit however, Thirty-two accepted her answer, shut up, and allowed Nix to work unimpeded which tilted the scale back towards soothing.

The jammer was easy enough to enable again. It’s battery was probably disconnected while it was switched off and still had enough charge to bring its processors back online. Nix turned it on to ‘record’ mode and debated how long she should let it go before setting it to project its loop to the sensors.

A familiar presence brushed against her awareness and she gave a little nod of her head. Far away, the Goldrunner’s engines came to life under Ayli’s hands and in an instant the presence faded away from Nix’s mind.

A moment later an alarm blared through the Destroyed.

“Intruder vessel has departed system,” a mechanized voice called out over the ship’s comms. “All hands assume battle stations and brace for potential attack.”

It was a predictable response to the Goldrunner’s departure, given that they could easily have been the forward scouts for a pirate fleet or other hostile force.

“Well, that is an unexpected turn,” Thirty-two said. “It looks as though we will have to escort you to our prison cells.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Nix said.

“I’m afraid with your friends abandoning you, we must conclude that you represent a hostile force and act accordingly,” Thirty-two said.

“That conclusion would be incorrect,” Nix said. “Moreover we’re happy to share our itinerary with you. If you wish to apprehend the rest of our crew, my compatriot can provide the exact navigational coordinates for their jump.”

“You knew they were going to leave you behind?” Thirty-two asked.

“We knew circumstances might arise which would necessitate an active response on their part,” Nix said. “We have a recording here from the ship’s captain, timestamped to our departure corroborating that fact.”

“Fascinating,” Thirty-two said, returning to the state of calm he’d enjoyed when he entered the room.

“If you wish to send a ship to retrieve them, their business in our destination system is not likely to consume much time,” Nix said, hoping dearly that Thirty-two wouldn’t send a ship she wasn’t on.

That was the weakest part of her plan, and had been the strongest argument for taking over the fleet while they were still in the Velkos Eiridini system.

The others had all been surprised at the idea that Nix’s plan called for overriding the core control after the fleet jumped to Praxis Mar rather than as soon as possible. Once she explained that, while she was sure she would be able to take over the Destroyer’s systems, she couldn’t be certain that the non-Trade Federation refurb ships in the fleet were linked in to the same control circuits and that their safest bet was to have those ships in a system where they did not have access to long range communication relays to call in the rest of the Preservation Leagues forces Ayli and Zindiana agreed with her reasoning. Sali didn’t, but that was because Sali hated everything about what they were doing.

“I am being told that according to proper doctrine, we will not expose an individual ship to the peril of a potential ambush situation,” Thirty-two said. “If you will provide us with the coordinates, we will direct auxiliary forces to that location to conduct the retrieval.”

Which could have been a disaster for Nix’s plan, except Goldie had been able to determine where the rest of the League’s forces were and none of them had a jump lane to Praxis Mar that didn’t take them through the Velkos Eiridini system.

“We will give you a confirmation message as well,” Nix said. “So that your other forces won’t be taken as hostile attackers when they arrive. Jirandris, if you would be so kind?”

‘Jirandris’ because Sali owed someone with that name money and found it amusing to get them in trouble if the Preservationists came looking for payback based on the credentials they supplied. Why Sali and Goldie had talked about that prior to Goldie sending over the fake credentials was something Nix knew she should look into but did not have the time for.

Sali, being a successful liar and cheat, one of the job requirements for a pirate queen, responded to her fake name immediately and fished a data chip out of one of her pockets. That the pocket also contained a holdout blaster was something Nix was reasonably sure of but Sali allowed no hint of that to show.

Thirty-two took the chip and slotted it into a port on the thermo-collar he was burdened with.

“Your collars have security software built in?” Nix asked, not really needing the confirmation but the role she was playing seemed like they would have been surprised at the data security dangers involved.

“Yes. If anything amiss is detected the central system can neutralize the collar before it spreads,” Thirty-two said.

‘Neutralize’ in this case being the League approved verbiage for “explode, taking the involuntary workforce member along with it.

“Curious,” Thirty-two said, his surprise entirely feigned, “Your comrade’s destination is in one of the lost star systems.”

“Yes. Discovering it was a reason we are out here,” Nix said.

“And apparently the reason you came to this system,” Thirty-two said. “Control is saying that we are closest group to it, so our support will be dispatched to this system to hold it while we pursue the fleeing ship.”

Translation: while they pursue whatever valuables the Goldrunner was clearing jumping towards.

Nix judged that to be the moment she’d been waiting for, so she flicked the jamming device to active mode and set it down on the table in front of Thirty-two.

“That’s excellent news,” she said. “Now let’s talk about getting that collar off you.”

The Force, Nix knew, was a powerful ally, but you shouldn’t expect your allies to do all the work for you. Sometimes you could make the plan come together yourself.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 34

The problem with great plans is often that when they’re laid out for everyone involved to see, they sound a lot less great.

“You want me to do what?” Sali asked.

“Take command of all the ships in this system,” Nix said.

Ayli knew that her wife was mad – evidence aplenty existed, starting with their marriage. How Saliandris had missed that fact despite dating her for longer than Ayli and Nix had been married was the only puzzling thing at the planning table.

“All the ships which follow us to Praxis Mar,” Nix said, her cheer undiminished. “Which will probably be all of them. At least if I have anything to say about it.”

Sali steepled her fingers in front of her face and drew in a breath that seemed to fill her with nothing like the patience the situation required.

“And why, exactly and in detail, do we want the Preservationist League to follow us to Praxis Mar?” she asked.

“How else are you going to get a fleet?” Nix asked, looking puzzled as to why that reason wasn’t patently obvious.

Sali drew in another breath.

“I had a fleet,” she said. “A perfectly good one. They obeyed my orders at least half the time, which is half more I would like to point out than the Preservationists will be willing too.”

“You’re last fleet sucked,” Nix said. “No offense to them. Or you know, full offense I guess.”

Ayli could heard Sali’s teeth grinding and admired the big woman’s restraint at not grabbing Nix by the neck and squeezing for all she was worth.

“No, seriously, those idiots had no idea the windfall they lucked into having you as their leader,” Nix said. “I watched them remember? I saw all the cranky backtalk and the stupid whispering they did. Sure, some of them had a brain, but even those people didn’t get how valuable you were. They all thought they could do things better, and made it a point to make your life a living hell.”

Sali frowned but the tension in her neck muscles eased.

“Getting you to leave was absolutely for you, and I’ll stand by that,” Nix said. “But it’s also going to help them, because now all the would-be usurpers will have to put up or shut up.”

“Mostly of them are going to shut up because someone slit their throats,” Sali grumbled.

“And will the galaxy be a worse place for it?” Nix asked.

“You know, I mistook you for the nice one of this crew Lamplighter,” Zindiana said.

“A lot of people do,” Nix said. “I don’t know why?”

“We’re getting a bit off topic here,” Ayli said, with less than five hours remaining until Mr. Thirty-two and the rest of the Preservation League learned that the credentials Goldie had supplied to them were backed by smoke and imagination, they needed to begin implementing their scheme sooner than later.

“Right,” Nix said. “I promise though that getting Sali a fleet is an important part of the plan.”

“But you won’t tell us why?” Sali said.

“Yeah, because you won’t like it,” Nix said.

“I don’t like any of this,” Sali said.

“But you will!” Nix said. “You just have to trust me. Just a little bit.”

“The last time I trusted you, I got shocked so hard I was tasting Bacta packet goo for days,” Sali said.

“That time though I knew you wouldn’t like what I wanted to do,” Nix said.

“You just said I’m not going to like this either!” Sali said.

“Right, which is why I can’t tell you,” Nix said, clearly pleased that Sali was understanding her.

Ayli fought valiantly to keep the smile that was threatening to explode into laughter off her face. There was something about seeing Nix drive Sali mad that was deeply satisfying. Not that Ayli was intimidated at being compared to the near perfect physical specimen that was the pirate queen. It was just nice to know Nix liked her better than Sali.

“What’s the rest of the plan then?” Zindiana asked.

“You won’t like this part either,” Nix said. “Remember when I said we’d have the whole Preservationist fleet there if I had anything to say about it? Well, I will. Because I’ll be on the Destroyer they have.”

“Why and how?” Sali asked.

“The why is fairly simple,” Nix said. “That a refurb from the Galactic Civil War right?”

“Has to be, they haven’t made those in years,” Sali said. “Not since the Empire obliterate the Trade Federation’s leadership.”

“One thing I’ve seen on all the old TF ships, is that the command systems are still in place. They were so central to the design and so efficient that taking one out would basically involve building a whole new ship,” Nix said.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” Zindiana said.

“Isn’t it though?” Nix said, clearly pleased that someone was following her line of thought.

Ayli was as well but wasn’t as happy with where it was heading.

“You’re thinking you can take over the security droids with the controls on the command ship?” she asked, hating that it was even a possibility under the circumstances.

“I know I can take them over,” Nix said. “It’ll be a little tricky getting to the command deck, but the security on the main controller is decades out of date. I could rewire it with my eyes closed.”

“You don’t think they’ve changed it?” Sali asked.

“No one changes their security as often as they should,” Nix said. “And changing the security locks on a barge like that is a nightmare. Again, it’s like building a whole new ship. The Trade Federation believed in security through security droids, so the actual challenge was getting past things like destroyer droids.”

“They still have those,” Zindiana pointed out.

“But do I look like a threat?” Nix asked.

“Yes,” all three other women and Goldie answered together.

“I…I do not!’ Nix said. “I’m just a harmless mechanic.”

“You’re not one of them,” Ayli said. “They will absolutely consider you a threat the moment they see you onboard their command ship.”

“Oh, not if I’m there because they invited me though,” Nix said.

“They’re not going to invite you onboard  their most secure vessel,” Sali said. “They’re not that stupid.”

“Of course they’re not,” Nix said. “Which is why they’re definitely going to invite me onboard their most secure vessel.”

Sali buried her head in her hands.

“You know, there used to be days when I was sorry that you’d left,” she said. “I would think ‘if only she’d come back’. Why was I cursing myself like that? Did I hate myself?”

“Probably a little,” Nix said. “I never did though.”

“That does not make it even a little bit better,” Sali said.

“It’s okay,” Nix said. “You’re on a better path now.”

Sali turned to look at Ayli.

“Run,” she said. “I’m apparently doomed by this madness but there’s still a chance for you.”

Ayli chuckled at that.

“I’m afraid not,” she said. “This whole mess was at least half my fault.”

“You have a strategy to get onto the Destroyer, don’t you?” Zindiana said, more as an accusation than a question.

“I have the shell of a strategy,” Nix said. “It’s based on some observations, things you’ve said, and, hopefully the results I’m expecting Goldie to turn up.”

“I don’t know if I want to share those with you Mom,” Goldie said.

“And now the ship’s like that too,” Sali said.

“You found something, didn’t you?” Nix asked.

“Maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t,” Goldie said. “I think I should tell the others first though because this plan sounds really bad to me.

“That’s because it is!” Sali said.

“Do you think if you don’t tell her, she’ll give up, or will she come up with a worse plan instead?” Ayli asked, ready to bet a mountain of credits on which of the two Nix was likely to pick.

Goldie was silent for a moment.

“That’s not fair,” she said eventually.

“Very little is,” Ayli agreed.

“Okay then, yes, I was able to find inspection requirements in the Preservation League bylaws,” Goldie said.

“And how far out of inspection is the Destroyer?” Nix asked.

“It’s not bad,” Goldie said. “It’s late by five weeks, but according to the public flight plans from Hillben Station, it’s due for a refueling stop there in three weeks.”

“Eight weeks? That’s perfect,” Nix said.

“Perfect how?” Sali asked.

“It means they keep a tight schedule on their ship inspections,” Ayli said, seeing where Nix’s plan was going.

“Yeah. Most ships go for six months to a year with out of date inspections,” Nix said. “Technically the Chief Mechanic’s logs can count as temporary inspection passes in most systems, but those tend to be hashed up too.”

“So you’re going to offer to write them a mechanic’s log?” Zindiana asked.

“No, I’m going to offer to give them a full inspection,” Nix said.

“Why would they care about that?” Sali asked.

“I’m sure Thirty-two doesn’t,” Nix said. “And I’m sure he’ll have a pretty good idea what I actually plan to do.”

“So he’ll want for you to board and shoot you then. Gotcha. Brilliant plan,” Sali said.

“Would you like to make a wager on that?” Nix asked with a dangerous gleam in her eye.

“I don’t bet with dead people,” Sali said.

“That’s good because I’m not going to die,” Nix said. “Thirty-two is going to welcome me with open arms to the Destroyer, and then lead me right to the command deck.”

“What’s the tricky part then?” Zindiana asked.

“Making sure no one else stops us,” Nix said.

“Can we go back to the part about the enemy welcoming you with open arms?” Sali said.

“Thirty-two’s not the enemy,” Nix said. “He, and all of the rest of the ‘involuntary work force’ are the best allies we’ve run across so far. Present company excepted of course.”

“It says something about us that they’re all convicted criminals doesn’t it?” Zindiana asked.

“It says more that she’s probably right,” Ayli said.

“I feel the need to point out that our ‘best allies’ are currently in charge of enough firepower to reduce us to space dust, and have not one but five different target locks on us,” Sali said.

“Not exactly true,” Nix said. “Thirty-two and the others don’t have the target lock on us. Their control collars do, in a manner of speaking.”

“Yeah, but they have to do what the…” Sali got that far in what she was saying before the full appreciation of the scenario hit her.

“Right. They have to do what the collars so. Which I why I’m going to turn those hideous things to scrap,” Nix said.

“Oh, that wasn’t what I was thinking you were going for,” Zindiana said.

“What else would I…oh, you thought I’d just take control of the system myself?” Nix said. “I mean, I suppose that’s part of the plan too, at least for the non-sapient droids. It’s just the thermo-collars that have to go.”

“You’re not going to have any control over them once you do that,” Ayli said, not in the slightest bit surprised at the direction Nix’s plan was heading. Contrary to Nix’s assertion, she was definitely the nicest of the four of them. Or five if Goldie’s willingness to blow up non-hostile ships was anything to go by.

“Of course not,” Nix said. “That’s what I need Sali for.”

“I’m not acting as a blaster shield for you,” Sali said.

“You know I would never ask that of you,” Nix said. “Your body is not one that should ever be ruined by blaster fire. I’m giving you a new crew. One that is going to listen to you because you’re going to let them do exactly what they want to do.”

“I am? And what would that be?” Sali asked.

“Live free,” Nix said.