Friday, June 6, 2014


Bobby Derie

Bastion was the heart of the old Empire, or what was left of it. Through interminable civil wars and conflict, the planet had kept itself as a model of Imperial civilization - clean, well-laid streets, and mostly human. No-one glanced away nervous or afraid when they saw the characteristic white armor of a stormtrooper or the dark gray uniform of an officer; or raised a fuss when the same slipped into buildings without warning only to exit a few minutes later with a suspect in custody.

Eiven Task was barely spared a glance as he walked through the streets in full armor, the metal butt of his unlit lightsaber pike clanging gently with every other step. His full armor and robes were based on those of the old Royal Guard, save colored white instead of scarlet; on any other world that might raise suspicion or cause concern, but on Bastion the flitting thoughts of the populace still had respect for the armor, and any curiosity about it restricted to what obscure branch of the Imperial military it belonged to.

Task sweated inside his helmet, spoke little, and presented his electronic documents at every security check point without hesitation. He hadn't had anything to eat yet today, but a bad feeling gnawed at his guts. There were places in the universe that the near-human would rather be. Even here, he knew he might be recognized, and he felt the presence of other Force-users here in this very city - Imperial Knights, most likely Task told himself, but who knows what visiting Jedi or secret Sith might yet lurk in the old capital?

Yet Eiven made his way from the spaceport deeper into the city, past stately residences shaped like truncated pyramids topped by garden, and soaring apartments in the Imperial Monolith style where windows like gun-ports peeked out from dark walls that seemed to drink the light. No street was straight, every intersection a potential trap for invading ground forces, and quiet memorials praised the faceless heroism of the common stormtrooper and the tactical genius of the Moffs.

On Mitth'raw'nuruodo Avenue, Task turned and came to a small business set off from the street, unmarked by any sign. An electronic eye was set into the middle of the door - not durasteel, Eiven knew, but Mandalorian iron imported at enormous expense of credits and favors - and Task raised his left hand to make a gesture in clear view of the eye. The droid beeped a command in droidspeak, and the human wrapped his robes about his arms and slowly circled as it scanned him, consciously aware of the weapons quietly trained on him - turbolasers probably better suited to a TIE fighter than the defenses of a simple artisan's shop. When he had completed his revolution, the droid beeped again, and the door slid aside. Dropping his arm and letting the robe fall back into place, Task stepped inside.

Lightsabers of every style and material rested in niches and hooks on every wall; a rack of lightpikes and lightclubs rests on his left, while on his right were a spiraling display of curve-hilted dueling sabers and lightfoils. A trio of lightwhips lay curled on the far wall, before which was a heavy metal work bench that looked for all the world to have come from an Imperial battleship. In the spaces between these more ostentatious displays were lightsaber hilts both prosaic and exotic - double-hilted, light tonfas, laser daggers and more than even Task was familiar with. Seated behind the desk was a squat, balding Firrerreo, his two-tone hair reduced to a horseshoe around his balding pate golden-skinned pate, his prominent canines capped with electrum.

Under Palpatine, lightsaber technology had been outlawed, the sources of most natural lightsaber crystals destroyed, all to seek and root out and exterminate the Jedi - and other rivals to the Sith Emperor's power. Subsequent governments had maintained the ban, but a few clever and quiet entrepreneurs and collectors skirted the law, dealing in facsimiles, antiques, and non-functional models that lacked only lightsaber crystals. Of them all, Karn Fullo was the best and most successful. Not Force sensitive to any great degree himself, he was nonetheless as skilled an artisan as any the Sith or Jedi orders had ever produced, and it was rumored that his services were even retained by the Imperial Knights.

"Mr. Task," Karn Fullo said. "It has been some time. What can I do for you, sir? I trust the weapon remains functional?"

"Through fire and blood, Mr. Fullo." Task said, raising his lightsaber pike. "Although I've had to make the odd repair. No what, I need from you is information."

Fullo raised a two-tinted eyebrow, nictating membranes sliding down over his eyes in a slow blink.

"That can be an expensive proposition, Mr. Task. What do you want to know?"

Eiven fished a small holoprojector from his belt, and thumbed the activator. A pale blue scene shot up - a Miraluka, armed and armored as an Imperial Knight.

"This woman. Do you recognize her?"

Guardedly, Fullo nodded.

"Who trained her?" Task pushed.

Fullo sighed, his hands remaining carefully in view on the work bench in front of him.

"That," the Firrerreo said, "is where we must talk of payment. He is powerful, well-positioned with the Imperial government, and a valued customer."

Task thumbed the activator again, shutting down the hologram. He replaced it on his pouch, then untied a gray pouch and placed it on the bench in front of Fullo. The Firrerreo raised a two-toned eyebrow, and Eiven nodded; the artisan reached forward and opened the pouch. Light glinted off crystals of every color. The artisan quickly reached to his side, bringing forth a soft black cloth and an electronic monocle, spilling the rainbow of crystals onto the square of darkness and beginning to examine them, one by one.

"Where did you get them?" Fullo said.

"Mimban." Eiven said.

Fullo started and looked up.

"Kaiburr?" the Firrerreo barely breathed the word. Task nodded.

"This puts a different perspective on the matter, Mr. Task, I must say." Fullo said, as he returned to examining the gems. "His name is Uto. He is...he was the blademaster for the Imperial Knights, responsible for their training in lightsaber combat. For some years now he has been retired, but he runs an academy in the city where he trains prospective Knights."

"I need to meet with him." Eiven said. "Can you arrange an introduction?"

"As the Force would have it, I believe I can do better than that..."


Uto's academy was set in a low-land residential district that had been razed in the last planetary assault and never rebuilt; poor drainage left the ground marshy and pestilent, the shattered apartment blocks peeking up out of a viscous black ooze swarming with six-winged flies and slowly strangled by wire-like creepers with hooked thorns. Task kept to the main street, which was set above the muck, and walked toward the only intact building: the rather humble dojo of the former Imperial Blademaster.

Fullo's "introduction" was in fact a delivery - crooked in Eiven's left arm was a golden casket containing four lightsabers which the Firrerro had refurbished for Uto to the Blademaster's own specifications. Armed with this and Fullo's authorization as his agent, Task passed unmolested through the gates, and four human tweens in padded training armor escorted him across the couryard to the open-air training hall.

The floor was gravel and sand, designed to let the water drain away, and their steps crunched and shifted rather than echoed. The ceiling was a good eight meters overhead, and instead of walls, the roof was supported by eight angular pylons that were more than a meter wide at the base and narrowed as they reached the top. The central effect was to give the room tremendous space, while keeping the inside shadowed from the sun - though Task guessed that at sunrise and sunset, an unfortunate duelist could easily be blinded as the sun peeked out from behind one of the pylons.

The knot of trouble in Eiven's gut increased with every step inside that space. The whole place seemed charged with the Force, but to what side he couldn't say. It seemed on the edge - between light and dark, soft and hard, order and chaos. A new generation of Force adepts was training in this space, but Task wouldn't have been surprised if Uto had built his academy on top of something even older.

Blademaster Uto stood in the dead center of the compound, dressed in the red armor of an Imperial Knight, holding a lit lightsaber horizontal, parallel with the ground, feet shoulder-width apart, his eyes closed and breathing controlled. Eiven had seen this sort of meditation before, among Jedi.

"Why have you come here?" Uto rasped.

Task almost gasped at the old man's voice. There was something deeper in that rumble than a scarred larynx and a trained voice used to command; there was an imperative in there that reached into his backbrain and almost made him come to attention.

"Karn Fullo asked..." Task began.

"No lies, boy." Uto said. "I know who you are. I recognize you. Give the box to the cadet nearest you."

Deciding to play along, Eiven handed the box to the nearest cadet, who promptly opened it. The four lightsabers within were a fairly typical design, but the casing and styling reminded him of nothing so much as Stormtrooper armor. The cadets each took a hilt out of the box, then quickly took up positions flanking Uto.

"The miraluka." Task said. "You trained her."

"She was my finest student. It was a great loss to the Empire when she fell to the Dark Side."

The old man opened his eyes, revealing durasteel grey orbs that stared out at Eiven like he was looking right through him.

"Now. What do you want?" he said.

"Vaapad." Task said. "The lost style of Mace Windu. She used it against me, and I barely survived. Now I need it."

The wind picked up, moaning through the training hall.

"Why?" the old man said, his raspy voice reduced to a whisper.

"I need it. I have...something I can't control. A weapon that draws me toward the Dark Side."

Task's gaze was drawn to the old man's lightsaber, which though it had not wavered since he had entered the hall, had begun to crackle. Subtly, the atmosphere of the hall changed, and the cadets began to move.

"What you call Vaapad consists of three elements, which come together to form the most lethal style of lightsaber combat." Uto said. "First, there are the actual movements and positions which constitute the style. These are largely refinements from Juyo, as well as the other six forms, but organized and categorized according to a more complex system - to master Vaapad you must comprehend this system until it is nearly instinctive, to see the world in terms of a series of attacks and movements, threats and probabilities. The physical style may be recorded and emulated, as it was by General Grievious during the Clone Wars."

As one, the four lightsabers ignited, revealing burning orange blades. Two each circled around Task on each side, moving to flank him. Eiven responded by igniting his own lightsaber pike - a shorter, silver-white blade, but the haft of the weapon gave him a reach that the tween cadets lacked, and he carefully set himself in a defensive guard. On the fringes of his perception he was aware of an audience: other cadets, standing between the pylons, looking on at the strange duel.

"This brings us to the second element, philosophy. For most martial artists understanding and intent in combat are ephemeral qualities that do not contribute to the result; a strike delivered in anger or calm is in the end simply a strike. For the Force-user, however emotion translates into power, and the intangible qualities give tangible results. Simply put, those who do not understand and embrace the spirit of Vaapad will never master it. That spirit is aggression; it is the channeling of emotions through the user's will, the Force flowing through them like a torrent. To master Vaapad is not to be the calm in the eye of the storm, it is to be the storm."

The attack came almost without notice, the cadets moving in unnatural synchronicity. Task cut wildly with his blade, trying to keep the quartet from closing in where he'd be at a disadvantage. Still, numbers were against him, and the cadets worked together with precision - they seemed trained to work in pairs, one always guarding the other as they moved in for a strike. Eiven had heard that Knights had perfected such styles, the defensive Praetoria Ishu and the aggressive Praetoria Vonil...

"The final element are the Force disciplines; while these techniques may be seen as separate from Form VII, they are really the expressions that complete the form - for if you have absorbed the spirit of Vaapad, then you already draw the energy into you and it must find release. The core of these expressions are the focus meditations, forms, and stances of Jedi combat, where the adept combines physical technique and Force application as one, striking harder and faster, weaving mind-tricks into feints, evasion and counterstrike with precognition, buttressing blocks with the Force, bolstering one's physical attributes while degrading the resolve of opponents. Vaapad is, at its core, a moving meditation, where the Force supports and augments the user in all things."

Task snarled in rage as the cadets pressed their assault, moving with a skill and precision beyond human capability; only his Force-given precognition allowed him to step where the burning orange blades would not be, avoiding death or dismemberment by seconds. Yet every moment the four tightened the noose, drawing closer and cutting off his room to maneuver. In a flash Task realized that the droning blademaster must be guiding them, focusing their movements and efforts...

"Taken together, you can see how Vaapad has gained a reputation for being so formidable - and so difficult to reconstruct. The physical style is demanding, the philosophy difficult to fully express and internalize, the Force powers require considerable training; to put them all together into an effective combat form requires considerable dedication and discipline."

With a quick movement Task swung his lightpike one-handed as he reached for the hold-out blaster he carried in the small of his back. One of the cadets reached past the blade of the lightpike and grasped the hilt, pulling it from Task's grip just as he brought the blaster to bear, and Task squeezed off three shots; the smell of burning ceramic and plastic filled the chamber as three cadets fell, clutching their shoulders as lightsabers fell from suddenly nerve-less hands. The fourth moved in with a bold two-handed overarm strike, but without protection from his comrade left himself open: Eiven's toe cracked the boy's codpiece and caused the cadet's scream to glissando into a high-pitched squeak.

Breathing hard, Task spent a moment looking at his fallen foes. The crunch of gravel brought him back to matters at hand as the blademaster came forward. Arcs of blue-white lightning traveled up and down the length of the former Imperial Knight's lightsaber. With a thought, Eiven reached with the Force to telekinetically activate the force saber embedded in his prosthetic left arm even as he brought it up to parry.

No simple lightsaber, the force saber was an ancient artifact of the Dark Side, modified and amplified by Task's tweaking. As the red blade ignited, Eiven felt the familiar mix of enervation and berserker rage that had overcome him the last time he had used the weapon - every thought and memory erased save for pain and hate, fear and rage, anger and cruelty, burning through whatever mental and physical reserves Task had in an explosion of power. Uto seethed with aggression, his crackling saber moving with dizzying speed and pounding strength, and Eiven ran almost on automatic pilot, reduced to precognition-fed instinct and muscle-memory training as he tried to match the blademaster blow for blow using his knowledge of Juyo, the incomplete form VII.

It was not enough.

Uto was a blur, his blade seemingly everywhere, bashing down Task's defenses in a whirlwind style, those grey eyes in complete control. In his own right mind, Eiven would have retreated from the battle, or sought some other advantage, but the force saber would not permit him to run away from a fight, blood lust stirring him on to superhuman efforts.

When Uto made yet another pass, Task brought his own blazing blade up to parry - only to gasp as the blademaster's lightsaber crackling blade passed harmlessly through his own; the canny former Knight having thumbed the blade power adjustment knob down to its lowest setting, rendering the deadly weapon into little more than a flashlight...yet still a potent conduit for the Force lightning crackling up its length as it made contact with Task himself. Paralyzed by the sudden electric shock, Eiven couldn't even scream as the blademaster held the blade there for a few moments one handed, and with his gauntlet-clad right hand reached out and grasped the force saber blade. The cortosis in the former Imperial Knight's gauntlet caused the blade to collapse with a sudden snap, and Task felt the familiar exhaustion that accompanied every use of the weapon wash over him.

When the old man finally released him Eiven collapsed face-first onto the gravel, utterly spent.

"I see now why you want Vaapad. The weapon controls you, not you it." Uto said. "But you are not ready, or worthy, for such teaching. It is no surprise to me that none of the orders would have you, Task. You have some skill, but neither the patience or strength to master what power you have. You subsist on trickery and small advantages, tilting the odds in your favor and always running from the fair fight because you know you will lose. You believe in nothing, not even yourself. You fear the Dark Side? You do not have enough hate in you to become a Sith. Your weapon will consume you, in time, of that I am sure...and in truth you deserve nothing else. Search your feelings, and know what I say is true."

With a snikt, the blademaster extinguished his lightsaber, then attached it to a plate at his belt. With a loud clap of his hands, other cadets moved in, and Task felt their hands on him as they lifted him up.

"Take him back to the city." Uto said. "If he comes here again, I'll cut off both his arms."


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