A major problem with this story, from my point of view anyway, is the scene in "Hero's Trial" when Nom Anor meets Vergere, which invalidates most of my work.
To addressing this: I imagine Vergere altered her appearance somewhat over the twenty-plus year period between the two stories to the point where Nom Anor is unable to recognize her (besides, not to give too much away, but by the end of this duology he'll have good reason to believe she's dead).
As for why he doesn't recognize her name, simple: he doesn't know it. In case you didn't notice, no Yuuzhan Vong has ever called Vergere by name in this duology. Either she gave them a phony name when she was first captured or the Yuuzhan Vong never bothered to ask her name in the first place.
I hope this clears things up. Happy reading!
Nom Anor rammed his fist into a bora tree as he hacked the last of the smoke from his lungs. The living gauntlet groaned in protest. He gnashed his teeth and punched the tree six or seven more times in rapid succession, until he felt the glove crack.
Much of his armor was dead or dying already: the segments no longer moved with him like a second skin but hung like dead weight. None of the cuts from the Jedi's lightsaber had gotten through to Nom Anor's flesh, but many had pierced the vonduun shell to wound and kill the membrane-thin organs beneath. He flexed his fingers and watched with disgust as bits of shell fell to the ground, then he braced both hands against the trunk and rested his forehead against the tree.
He heard Ceis Grasm moving behind him, but didn't turn around. The Yuuzhan Vong female pulled off her helmet and ran a gauntlet-covered hand through her hair. "Well?" She asked lightly. "This is your mission, where do we go from here?"
Nom Anor bit back a few choice words about where she could go and considered the question.
"Back to the seeding grounds," he finally said, "we need more warriors, and a new trasedak." The tracker he'd worn had been suffocated by the smoke while they were fleeing the fire that still raged to the south. Without it he had no way to track the Jedi.
Not that finding her would do me any good. He thought bitterly. How by all the gods had she recovered so fast? He'd almost disemboweled her just hours before! Well, first thing's first: new armor, a new amphistaff, and reinforcements. Then he needed a plan. A better one than running after her through the swamp.
A plan...but what was the Jedi planning? Coming here, saving the stranded Imperials and helping the slaves, why? Did she have some goal in mind? Nom Anor felt certain he could defeat the Jedi if he could figure that out. He might not be able to outfight her, but if he could outthink her...
"That's too bad." Ceis Grasm said reluctantly. "I was really enjoying this," she smiled, "you're fun to be around, but the Prefect's orders were very clear, you're not to come back."
Nom Anor froze, then chuckled as he turned from the tree. "Of course, I was wondering when we'd get around to this." The subaltern had drawn her coufee and was balancing the blade in one hand. Her amphistaff she left twined around her arm and shoulders. "By the way, is there any particular reason for this?"
"Just following orders," she shrugged, "I apologize, by the way, for interfering in your fight with the jeedai. What was it you said as we were closing in on them: "She's mine, you take the other infidel and the slave, but leave her to me.'" Ceis Grasm grinned. "Sorry I got in your way, I saw you had the situation well in hand."
Nom Anor's mouth twitched as he unsheathed his own coufee. "I'm really going to enjoy this."
"In all honesty, I doubt it." Ceis Grasm took a thud bug from her bandolier and tossed it at Nom Anor. The creature didn't streak to impact him, but flew in a slow arc. Nom Anor watched, confused, then understood. He tried to jump out of the way, but the round ball of chitin exploded, covering him with a thin, red mist. He fell as his armor locked around him, paralyzed by the agent in the mist.
The impact knocked the wind out of him as he landed on his shoulder and fell face-up. He struggled to move his arms, his legs, to expand his chest, but the armor was as unresponsive and inflexible as coat of durasteel. He was able to get some movement due to the injuries in the vonduun shells, but it amounted to plaintive wiggling.
He turned his head to see Ceis Grasm kneeling over him, her coufee inches away from his face. "That was a catalyst," she explained, "it reacted with a formula I treated your armor joints with while you were being blessed by the priest."
"Looks like I underestimated the Prefect," Nom Anor licked his lips, "he wasn't quite the fool I thought." Ceis Grasm shrugged. "Like I said, it was nice knowing you." She drew back the blade. "I'll give your regards to the Executor-" a rustling sound behind her. She paused and Nom Anor looked past her into the trees.
"You've got more pressing problems." He said.
"I think you're right." Her free hand crept across her body and took a razorbug from her bandolier. "I'll get back to you in a second." She spun and threw the blade-edged bug at the sound. The slave-creature lost an arm for its carelessness. It screeched in rage and surprise, then it and its three friends charged.
Ceis Grasm was up, amphistaff ready, and bounded forward to meet them.
Nom Anor had seconds and he knew it. There were some especially deep cuts in the vonduun shell covering his right arm, and he redoubled his efforts at moving that limb. The links on the stubborn armor refused to release. "Come on," he hissed through clenched teeth, threw back his head and squeezed his eyes shut. After an eternity of seconds he heard a small but wonderful series of cracks at his right shoulder, elbow and wrist as all resistance gave way.
He could move his right arm, the dead shell segments sliding and turning awkwardly on his upper and lower arms and elbow. He felt a laugh bubble up in his throat. Thank you, Jedi! he thought. The irony! The wounds she'd inflicted on his armor might have saved him. His gauntlet was still frozen, so he brought his right hand to his mouth, bit down on two fingers and pulled and wiggled with his wrist. In moments he had worked his hand free. He threw the gauntlet aside and attacked the links on his other arm. He opened and closed his mouth a few times to make sure he hadn't dislocated his jaw.
He checked on Ceis Grasm's progress. She was a skilled fighter, but these slaves didn't care if they died, so long as they took a Yuuzhan Vong with them. A shadow fell over Nom Anor, he looked up into a reptile's hate-filled eyes. He twisted his head to the left just in time to avoid the spear it aimed at his face.
The point sank into the soft ground, and when the reptile tried to pull it out Nom Anor heaved his body and lashed out with his free arm. He clutched the slave's ankle, sank his claws into the tendon and pulled. The hamstrung slave fell backward, regained its balance and managed to fall forward instead, on top of Nom Anor. Snapping jaws and reptilian claws scrambled over his body, but the immobile armor protected him.
Then the red, tooth-lined tunnel of the slave's jaw was rushing toward his face. Nom Anor managed to get his forearm between the slave's mouth and his face. It bit down on the dead armor, pushing at Nom Anor. He managed to fling his arm and the slave attached away from him, knocking the back of the slave's head against the ground. The jaws loosened for a moment, long enough for Nom Anor to pull his arm from the thing's mouth and wrap his free limb around its neck. He heaved his left shoulder up, got some weight behind his arm, and snapped the slave's neck.
Nom Anor shoved the dead body away and resumed his work on the links. He freed his left arm and pulled off the remaining gauntlet. Now with both arms, he began pulling shell segments from his chest, shoulder and abdomen. He tore at the leg joints. Seconds later he was free and on his feet again.
He looked to Ceis Grasm. It seemed the tide had turned against her. The one-armed slave, already dying of blood loss, was wrestling with her amphistaff. The other two had charged her, bore her to the ground, trying to bite and claw through her armor.
Nom Anor frowned, considering the situation. After a few seconds he ran toward the struggling fighters.
"I apologize, Executor, I've kept you waiting." Ke'Nass smiled at the villip. "But you must realize my many duties prevent me from rushing to report to you whenever you choose to call. The infidels and slaves that infest our seed world, for instance."
"Oh, quite all right Prefect." Sang Anor said pleasantly. "I didn't check in for a report anyway."
"Really?" Ke'Nass raised a brow-ridge. "Enlighten me then, how may this humble subordinate serve you?" Irony dripped from his tone.
"I have need of the desk hai." He said without preamble. Ke'Nass blinked.
"So soon? I understood it would be years before they had to be deployed." The shapers in the asteroid belt have been working on them, but they were never a high priority. "There can't be more than ten of them."
"Eight, to be precise, but that is more than enough to suit my purposes. As I said, I have need of them. Immediately."
"Of course," Ke'Nass shrugged, but inwardly he smiled, whatever folly Sang Anor was planning, this was just the opportunity the Prefect needed to discredit him in the eyes of their superiors. Ke'Nass would make certain the Executor wouldn't get those desk hai, would delay their preparation by every means at his disposal, and when Sang Anor fell Ke'Nass would finally be free to take his rightful place!
"You have to realize, though, that it will take some time to fit the desk hai with dovin basals, not to mention imprinting your instructions into their brains. I assure you, however, that I will do everything possible to see them delivered to their task. Now, what instructions should I have the shapers imprint them with?"
"You misunderstand," Sang Anor chuckled, "I am telling you this as a courtesy, not to ask for your aid. I've contacted the attending shapers already, the desk hai have just been sent on their way."
Ke'Nass opened his mouth, but no words came out. He didn't think he'd ever been this angry in his life, his entire body had gone numb, cold. The kind of cold that burns. "You," he finally said, "dare!"
"Is there a problem, Prefect?"
"The seed world is my responsibility!" He all but screamed at the villip. "My jurisdiction! You said so yourself!" That pompous, arrogant, smug spawn of ngdins! He assigns Ke'Nass to this worthless backwater, wastes his valuable talents and abilities, and then as the final insult, Sang Anor goes over his head and usurps what little authority he retains! "Any orders regarding the seed world must go through me!"
"True," Sang Anor replied pleasantly, "you administer the seed world, but the desk hai were made in the asteroid belt. Your authority ends at the planets atmosphere so you see, I have not overstepped my bounds. The shapers working in the asteroid belt have always reported directly to me." The villip assumed a confused expression. "I would have though you knew that, seeing as you've never received a report from them."
Reports? Bile rose in Ke'Nass' throat. Who had time for reports? They never concerned anything interesting or important: progress on the various Yuuzhan Vong creatures being grown and requests by the overseers for more slaves to tend their particular area. That sort of thing. Truthfully he hadn't bothered listening to a one in weeks, he'd just let them pile up in a storage villip. His subordinates could handle whatever minor problems arose in seeding grounds on their own.
"Anyway, I'm glad that's settled." Sang Anor's tone concluded the subject and packed in away. "By the way, how is Nom Anor doing?"
The last question caught him off guard. Did the Executor know what he'd planned? No, he couldn't possibly, Ke'Nass was far too intelligent for anyone to see through him.
"He still hunts your Jeedai," he stumbled over the infidel word, "I expect him back soon enough."
"Tell him to contact me when he does. Goodbye Prefect, and continue your good work." The villip inverted. Ke'Nass looked down at the head-sized creature for a moment. He didn't move, didn't speak.
Then he roared, raised a clenched fist over his head and brought it down on the leathery sphere with all his considerable strength. The villip flattened and splattered across the table as the membrane broke, and Ke'Nass continued to pound it and the table with both fists.
When there was nothing solid left of the villip he overturned the table and kicked the living piece of furniture across the room. Sang Anor had done it to him again! He thought he was so clever, so smart well Ke'Nass would show him! He suddenly grinned. Sang Anor wanted him to continue his good work? Fine. He would eliminate the infidels and rebellious slaves this very night, and no matter what happened, that boy of his wouldn't leave this world alive. They would both pay for mocking him.
Prefect Ke'Nass was no one's fool!
"That was stupid of you." Ceis Grasm said when they stopped to rest. There were no signs of natives around them and it felt safe to talk. "So why aid me?"
"Subaltern, I'm offended." Nom Anor theatrically placed a hand over his bare chest. He had shed most of his dead and useless armor by now, leaving him little more than his own scarred skin. "You think I'd see a fellow Yuuzhan Vong subjected to the indignity of being torn apart by infidel slaves?"
"And that was your only motivation?" She crossed her arms, and inhaled sharply as Nom Anor abruptly discarded his offhand manner. His eyes turned cold and predatory, seemed to drill into her forehead.
"No," he said softly, "Truthfully, I think I had another reason for not wanting you in a reptile's belly." In the space between two heartbeats his right arm reached out, gripped the back of her neck and pulled her forward. His mouth gaped open, sharp teeth bared, and closed on hers. The taste of blood filled his veins with fire.
Two seconds later Ceis Grasm shoved him away with both hands, with such force that he nearly fell. But she had waited a second more than she had to before pushing him back. There were bleeding gashes around her mouth that would quickly become new scars. The subaltern's eyes took on a wild quality. Quick as a striking amphistaff she stepped forward and struck with her own claws. The blow tore three furrows in Nom Anor's face and nearly cracked his neck.
He slowly turned his head back to her, blood welled from his wounds, his face twitched as if mini-jolts of electricity stung the muscles. Ceis Grasm watched him, breathing heavily, gripped by some raw emotion. She looked from him to her bloody hand, then slowly ran her tongue across the crimson-spiced fingers. The intensity in her face doubled, then redoubled. Her lips twitched up in a grin.
Nom Anor sprang forward, took her by the waist and slammed her back against a tree trunk. Her claws raked him. He caught her wrists in one hand and attacked the joining-places on her armor so he could return the sentiment.
For a long time the only sounds in the darkness were soft grunts, low moans and the occasional hiss as pleasure and pain became one.
"Lyrra Anor was a Shaper," Vergere said as they trudged through the swamp, "one of exceptional talents. She was promoted to master-level shortly after Nom Anor was born, that's why they only have one child: master shapers aren't permitted to breed."
"One is more than enough." Stent muttered under his breath.
"I'll give her this: Lyrra Anor had a rare love of knowledge. It was almost a hunger with her, and she took not knowing the deepest secrets of how anything and everything around her worked as a personal offense. Eventually her obsessions settled on me: most of the shapers had given up on studying me decades ago, not her. Five years before my escape I was put in Sang Anor's keeping, he immediately placed me in her custody." The Jedi shivered at memories of all she'd suffered under that eight-fingered hand.
"For five years she ruled my life. She was determined to find the secret of my power, and she dug deep. She put me through trials, analyzed samples of my cells, even modified the ancient protocols all shapers follow to better understand me." She grimaced. "That's not really permitted, but neither was her cross- caste bonding with Sang Anor. Those two had a lot in common: they made their own rules, and Force help anyone who got in their way.
"It took time, but eventually she found something the others missed." Vergere went on. "Like I said, she was a clever one. Nom Anor inherited some aptitude for shaping from her and she encouraged the interest, taught him a few secrets. From some things I overheard I even believe she implanted him with a Vaa- tumor once." It didn't occur to her that neither of her companions had the slightest idea what a 'Vaa-tumor' was.
"Vergere," Oin prompted, "you were talking about what this invader did to you?" Stent grunted something about prattling, feather-brained avian sorcerers.
"Uh, yes," Vergere nodded uneasily. She had unconsciously tried to change the subject: these were still unpleasant memories for her. "On examining my cells, she discovered the existence of midi-chlorians."
"Midi-whats?" Stent asked.
"Midi-chlorians. They're a secret of the Jedi. I probably shouldn't be telling you about them, but seeing there are no Jedi to worry about betraying I wont bother. Midi-chlorians connect the Jedi to the Force, they exist in all things, but the amount is what allows some beings to sense and manipulate the Force. Not many outside the Jedi Order know of them: we Jedi like to cloak our power in mysticism and avoid discussing the actual mechanics of what we do.
"At any rate, Lyrra Anor now knew about midi-chlorians, and she began working on a way to eliminate them in living cells." The Jedi's smile was tinged with bitterness. "Amazing what you can overhear when your keepers forget you're not just a lab animal. She was developing a self-producing microbe that would completely and permanently rid a being of all midi-chlorians in a matter of days." She looked closely at her companions. "She hesitated to use it on me: my high concentration of midi-chlorians made me too valuable a specimen, but she might decide to at any time.
For a while I despaired, but the Force must have taken pity on me, because it was a few days after her initial breakthrough that I saw a chance to escape when the worldship had set down scouting parties on an uninhabited planet to gather sustenance. Before I made good my escape, though, I sought out Lyrra Anor."
"For revenge." Stent nodded. "And to keep her from testing this thing she made on you."
"No," Vergere said firmly, "don't you understand what I've said? If she succeeded in perfecting the microbe the Yuuzhan Vong could seed their conquered worlds with it and effectively destroy every being's connection with the Force. It would be the true and final end of the Jedi Order. That was the root of my despair: I had given myself up to the Yuuzhan Vong for the sake of peace, and instead I'd helped guarantee the Jedi would never rise again." She met Stent's gaze, and the Chiss found himself looking elsewhere. "I knew what had to be done."
Vergere vaulted over a waist-high root and continued through the grass. "Like I said, I sought Lyrra Anor out. She was planetside in a temporary damutek, analyzing some of the local life and comparing the minute numbers of midi-chlorians in their cells with the concentrated numbers in mine." The Jedi swallowed, feeling a lump in her throat. "It was easy: she'd experimented on me, so I knew my way around such buildings by now. There were no guards, no other shapers nearby. She was very cautious you see, didn't want anyone looking too closely at her work.
"I killed her." Vergere went on. She remembered. Lyrra Anor turning from her specimen table and seeing her lab animal standing in the doorway. Her eyes had widened at the sight of the lightsaber in Vergere's hand - the weapon had been kept for study instead of destroyed - and narrowed in understanding. She had drawn a coufee, a small, curved blade designed as a scalpel, not a weapon, and kicked over a table. The gel bulbs and bottle-shells ruptured, filling the room with a noxious cloud that teared the eyes.
Vergere had doubled over, hacking and weeping. Lyrra Anor wasn't bothered: she'd taken a deep breathe before releasing the cloud, and among the enhancements made on her person was a second set of eyelids, clear membranes that sealed over her eyes, giving her natural goggles. She tried to run past the Jedi, out the doorway, but Vergere still had her Jedi reflexes and her Force- enhanced hearing clued her in to where the shaper was. A quick stab dropped her in midstride.
Afterwards, when her tears healed her eyes, the Jedi had looked at the corpse. She had taken lives before, in battle and in self-defense, but never like this: never as an assassin, a murderer.
"Then I destroyed all her work: records of the experiments, the live specimens, the storage villips and memory nodes. Everything."
"Did he love her?" Oin caught her by surprise with that question.
"Sang Anor, the one who brought all this on my people. Did he love her? Did he grieve for her?" He was watching her with strange, flat, dead-looking eyes.
"Yes," Vergere heard herself say, "losing her must have been painful to him." Oin said nothing, then he gave a single, sharp nod.
He continued walking. Vergere was silent. What was there to say? But in her heart she knew the dark side had won at least one victory out of all this: the Nesz had learned to kill, to hate.
They continued walking for a few minutes, then Vergere stopped in her tracks.
"Wait." She held a hand out.
"What is it?" Stent whispered. He had crouched, drawn his blaster and half-lidded his eyes so their red glow wouldn't give him away. He was looking all around, but the danger was above.
She felt it coming. Or rather, she didn't feel it. A mass of nothingness rolling through the heavens, dispersing the Force as it went. And in it's wake...pain and death like blood welling from a stab-wound. The Nesz around them had perked up too. They felt the deaths of some of their kith and kin unlucky enough to cross the destroyers path. It was far away but flying quickly, already she could see the light of the fires in the horizon, columns of smoke blotted the stars.
"Run!" Oin shouted. "Run!"
The newly completed Yuuzhan Vong battleship, the first to be born in this galaxy, pulled free of the coral field. The weapons were freshly filled with plasma and the young, recently installed dovin basals fought the seed world's gravity and overcame it. The ovoid of yorrik coral rose above the Yuuzhan Vong buildings, the residences and slave quarters, the damutek and the temple. It left a deep pit beside where its brothers and sisters grew, the four incomplete ships turned their immature sensors up and watched the creche's firstborn enviously.
In the command chamber, Ke'Nass watched the terrain below the ship on a visual field while a shaper in a cognition hood directed the vessel. Ke'Nass would have preferred to control the battleship himself, but it was always best that a shaper took a new vessel on its first few trips until it become accustomed to using its dovin basals, get its 'legs' under it so to speak.
Well, this would be good enough. The visual field showed him the surface of the planet as clearly as if he were looking through a window at the outermost edge of the great coral ovoid, and with a command he could get a detailed look at the smallest blade of grass on the surface.
He licked his lips as they flew beyond the coral fields. For a moment he saw the dim shapes of the trees and swamps, glistening in the starlight, then rivers of molten plasma coursed down through the air. Very soon every infidel within a hundred miles of the coral field would be so many charred bones. Every Imperial. Every rebel slave.
And Nom Anor as well.
In moments, walls of flame were sweeping through the trees and tasting the plantlife. The Prefect watched, entranced, as the dancing flames consumed all they touched. The world below was bathed in a glorious orange light. It was so beautiful, so pure, like the hand of a god sweeping As the ship flew over the swamp trailing death, Ke'Nass had a moment of inspiration and gave the ship its name: Night of Fire.
"My master sends you greetings, Eminence." Krelt heard the young adept's voice from the blackness that surrounded him. His sharp ears pinpointed the source of the voice about three paces behind him and to his left. Of course, the acoustics of the temple might throw the estimation off a bit, but the old priest was familiar enough with the great hall to make accurate judgements. He held his hands out, palms up, and waited.
"I hear your greeting, adept. What purpose brings you to Yun Yammka's sacred place?" One of Krelt's acolytes approached. The priest heard the opening of a small sclipune. A few seconds later he felt the acolyte place two olc'its in the palm of either hand.
Krelt was blind, but in the eye of his mind he could see the Olc'its, still wet from being fresh out of their fluid-filled sclipune: a soft, yellow orb in each burned palm, a tiny black hole in the front side and a long, hair-thin tendril on the opposite side, lashing with tickling strokes. A ridge of tiny barbs ringed the orb, tucked in for now.
Not that Krelt felt the sensations very clearly: regrettably, the burns that covered his body had deadened most of his nerve endings, he could sense little in the way of pain. He needed the vashi membrane that coated his thin form to simulate those sensations, and his hands were currently bare. He would need his specialized oozhith gloves to get the complete sense of the olc'its.
No matter, they would not be in his hands for much longer.
"An exceptional specimen from among the infidels has been delivered to you," the adept answered as Krelt slowly raised his palms up to his skull-like face, "my master would know when you will turn this Imperial over to us?"
"When he has been reeducated to my satisfaction." The tendrils explored Krelt's empty sockets for a second before probing deeper. Then they were inside, making the connection. Bright flashes of white light seemed to explode in front of the priest as the nerve endings bonded. The olc'its were close relatives of the maa'its used by master shapers, but while those specialized creatures gave the shapers their enhanced vision, the olc'its gave simple sight, which was more than Krelt required. Within seconds the flashes resolved and he could see again.
"My master questions the need for reeducation when she can manipulate the infidel's mind and memories with a minimum of difficulty." The adept hazarded.
"If he is to be one of us then we must instill what it is to be Yuuzhan Vong into his flesh, his bones, the very core of his being. It is not enough to alter his mind: he must be made ready, as soil must be plowed before seeds can be planted, otherwise they will not take." He could see, but right now he saw only the palms of his hands. He gently pressed the olc'its into his sockets until he felt the surrounding ridges extend and grasp the sockets' interiors. He took his hands away and the orbs remained in place, then the ridges contracted, slowly pulling the ocular creatures fully into the sockets.
"Ah, so you seek to break him first." The adept stated.
"To put in bluntly, yes." Krelt held out his stick-thin arm, around which was coiled his guide amphistaff. The acolyte tucked the sclipune into a pocket of his tunic and gathered up the amphistaff. He bowed to Krelt, then went to drape the serpent on a nearby stand. The priest then turned to face the shaper adept, his olc'its still appeared to bulge unnaturally, then the creatures gave a final tug that settled them in place. Krelt swept his eyelids over the new sensory organs and moved them experimentally with his facial muscles.
"In that case, may I be permitted to examine the infidel, that my master might better understand the preparations to be made?"
The old priest went blind most of the time, to do otherwise would make the sacrifice of his eyes meaningless, but there were some instances when sight was useful in doing his work for the gods. When he was satisfied that the olc'its responded to him as normal eyes would, he turned his attention to the visiting shaper: a thin, serious youth with a simple headdress, his enhanced adept's hand and original hand clasped before him.
"Your name?" Krelt asked.
"Zeld Kwaad, Eminence."
"Very well, Zeld Kwaad, this way."
Krelt led the young shaper past the great statue of Yun Yammka, Yun Yuuzhan's right hand and defender, to a large chamber in the rear of the temple. The human pilot lay on the coral floor, senseless. The attending acolyte bowed to the priest and retreated to a corner. To Krelt's new vision, it was clear the man was still breathing.
Zeld Kwaad stepped forward and knelt by the unconscious infidel, rolled him onto his back and gently probed him with the sensory organs of his enhanced hand.
"You'll notice I have refrained from leaving scars." Krelt knelt beside the adept, embracing the pain the blossomed in his old knees. "I thought it inappropriate to give him marks of honor before he had come to accept the pain." Zeld Kwaad nodded, the feelers of his headdress reflecting deep thought.
"No lasting injuries," he pronounced as he withdrew his enhanced hand, "but vital signs are very weak." He turned his head to the priest and spoke firmly but with respect. "My master is uninterested in a dead specimen, she has enough of those already and precious few live, healthy Imperial humans." He stood. Krelt raised his arm and the acolyte took his elbow and helped him to his feet.
Krelt glanced back at the human's sweat-covered face, twisted in a grimace that evidenced a world of nightmares in his tortured mind. "This one has rare potential," he said at last, "I believe he is close to accepting us. Tell your master I am nearly finished with him. I will deliver him to her damutek the day after tomorrow."
"She thanks you, as do I."
Drash Tevock dreamed he was sinking to the bottom of a mudhole. He tried to swim up to the surface, but he was sucked a meter down for every half meter of headway he made. It seemed he'd been struggling through the darkness and the thick, hot mud for hours without a break, but even though his arms felt like durasteel weight he didn't dare give up. He knew somehow that whatever was at the bottom was a thousand times worse than what he was going through now. Worse even than when he'd hidden from the adults in the commune, knowing they would find him eventually, and when they took him to Frae his punishment would be worse for every time he didn't answer their calls.
That was before his tenth birthday, when he'd subconsciously begun to make Frae and his lieutenants not notice him, to will away the suspicion that he needed punishment and even deflect that desire to punish onto some other child. It had been his first use of the Force, though he still didn't know he done anything, and he never stopped. This was how he'd kept his superiors from noticing his exceptional flight performance and obvious mental instability, why they always forgot all about him once he was transferred: he generated a cloud of obscurity and forgetfulness and took it with him wherever he went. The talent had evolved as a survival trait: if he hadn't learned to avoid Frae's discipline in some way, odds were he'd have been dead before he was fourteen.
This kind of dreaming was an altogether new and unwelcome experience for him. He'd never been able to sleep for more than four hours at a time, and then only when he was near to collapsing with exhaustion. He spent hours in the workout areas of the various Star Destroyers he'd served in simply to drain his energy. He could run for days on adrenaline alone. His dreams, when he dreamed at all, were all loud noise and flashes of light, disjointed images that he barely remembered on waking.
Drash didn't know where he was nor remember how he'd gotten there, and he didn't want to know either. On some instinctive level he knew he was dreaming. If he stopped to think then he might wake up, and reality was nothing but pain and hopelessness.
The monotony was interrupted, however, when Drash noticed a speck of light above him. His dream-self's eyes widened as the speck became a golden tunnel that cut through the mud, streaking towards him. The light enveloped him and there was a sense of being yanked upward, the pressing mud vanished and a cool, welcome wind was all around him. Then he was...somewhere else.
There was mist all around him, but the mist was made of soft, golden light, and he wasn't so much standing as hovering. More, he wasn't alone: he somehow knew another presence was nearby, but though he peered through the mist he saw nothing. Then, like water flowing into an empty vessel, his memories returned. He remembered where his real self was, and what the Yuuzhan Vong had been doing to him before the blind priest had allowed him to slip into unconsciousness. He instinctively hugged himself, but though his flesh felt whole and real, he knew the body he wore wasn't genuine.
"Am I dead?" He whispered.
"No, but you will be worse than dead if you stay where you are now." The presence took form before him. It looked like one of the reptilian natives the Jedi traveled with, but its features kept shifting.
"Who are you? Where am I?"
"When I most recently lived, my name was Vlu. For the sake of convenience you may call me that." The shade tilted its head. "Your name is Drash Tevock. This," he gestured around them, "is where my kind exist. It is a kind of sanctuary. The invaders cannot harm you here. I want to help you."
"Why?" He asked immediatly and sensed a wave of surprise from Vlu at the vehement question. "You expect gratitude?" Drash laughed. "I'm not a fool. There's only one reason you'd bother with me: you want something." That was the only constant of the universe: the only reason one being would ever help another was for remuneration. The Imperials had gotten him away from Frae, but they expected him to fight for the Emperor in return. The Yuuzhan Vong spared his life, but they wanted him to follow their gods. Frae had given him food and shelter, and he wanted to own Drash's body, mind and soul, just as he'd owned the lives of everyone in the commune.
"I sensed your pain." Vlu said. "I wished to help you."
"That's it?" Drash asked skeptically.
"In life I was an elder among my people. I counseled those with wounds of the soul. It is against my nature to allow a being to suffer."
"Well aren't you a saint." Drash quirked an eyebrow. "You want to help me? I'm game. Get me the hell away the Vong."
"It's not that simple. I cannot affect the invaders, and it drains me to even be near them and their creatures."
"Then what good are you?" Drash snapped as the small flame of hope was snuffed.
"You have the power within you to escape." Vlu said. "All you need to do is realize it."
"Power?" Drash didn't know whether to laugh or scream at the mad Eternal (somehow he knew what the being called itself). "I need a blaster, or better yet a TIE fighter!" With a TIE fighter he could strafe the alien base, burn every Vong on the ground, then crash into this temple at top speed!
"You have power like Vergere, the power of life, but you cannot control it. I can help you do this."
"There's a glitch in your nav computer, buddy. I'd know if I could do that Jedi stuff."
"No you wouldn't. You're blind to it, as you are blind to most things. Blind and bound by fear."
"I'm not afraid of anything!" Drash snarled.
"You're not afraid to kill and you're not afraid to die, because you see nothing good in life, but you're afraid of everything else. You fear the past. You fear the people and things around you. You must learn to control yourself and your power, and you must learn soon." Vlu's shimmering eyes bore into him, turning his spirit to frost. "You must take a journey with me, and return with your mind intact."
"Yeah, well what if I don't go back at all?" He challenged. "What if I just stay here?"
"You cannot. Your body exists there," the Eternal pointed behind him, Drash turned and saw a vast field of nothingness, a void that stretched farther than he could see, "and you are being drawn back even now. I spent a good deal of my strength to reach you through the aliens' void, and it takes all my power to hold you here. My fellow Eternals will not aid me. You are not one of our young one and so they feel no obligation to aid you. They sense you are tainted with darkness and they shrink away from your presence. They call me a fool for trying to help you when our own young ones are in need."
"They're probably right." Drash whispered, still staring into the nothing.
"Tevock!" Vlu snapped. "Listen to me, for I look inside you, and I know you better than you know yourself, for you have never turned your gaze inward! You do not fear death because, secretly, you wish for it. Every time you climb into a fighter's cockpit you hope to be swallowed up by the flame and the void so you fight every battle as though it were your last. Let me tell you this, though: the Yuuzhan Vong will not kill you, but what they will do is infinitely worse. This is your last chance, your only chance." Vlu drew back. "You can accept my offer of help now, or I can release you back to your body and stop wasting both of our time."
For a second Drash looked like a harried, cornered beast. He'd never been afraid of death, he'd been in such close contact with it all his life that it was practically an old friend, but he sensed that what Vlu offered, and what the Yuuzhan Vong intended, were both equally terrifying paths, and each was a thousand times harder than simply dying.
"What do I have to do?" He finally said.
"Just open your eyes." Vlu drifted toward him, reached out...
The mist swirled around them and grew brighter, until it seemed they were plunging into a sun.