Word Count: 4388
Proonefak pursed his lips as he looked through the pair of macrobinoculars he'd purloined ages ago on a raid similar to this one. He and his squad of veterans staged just outside of visual and sensor range of a landing Imperial supply drop, and waited until some moment then unknown to him to spring forth and strike.
Now, a veteran of numerous sorties and a leader himself, he knew that the moment to strike was when half of the personnel were back in the ship and unloading what would be their last load. This knowledge was gained from years of experience, knowing just how much cargo one of those Zeta-class shuttles carried in their holds. With only half the possible eyes outside of the ship, and those eyes being preoccupied with their cargo organization, it was easy pickings.
Beauty huffed beneath his legs. He leaned down and whispered soothingly into the ears of his Cracian Thumper mount, patting her neck and stroking her thick mane with his other hand. As he remained close, her familiar scent flooded his nostrils. Memories of the time he'd "liberated" her from an Imperial cage flooded back.
As an adolescent that wasn't yet an official member of a war band, it was commonplace for their rite of passage into adulthood to be sneaking into an Imperial camp and stealing one of their vast menagerie of mounts. Pulling his plains-camouflaged cape close to his body to stop it from audibly billowing in the wind, he deftly snuck through the lax Imperial cordon, far enough back from the frontlines of usual Dressellian Ranger activity to cause it to be an easy target.
The various beasts of burden were caged up in piteously small cages, and the moment he locked eyes with Beauty through one of the slats of her enclosure, Proonefak knew she was the one. As if to reciprocate the gesture, the magnificently black Cracian Thumper bowed her head and knelt on one leg. Sure, there were more vicious possibilities for him to take, including a Dire-cat, but there was just something about the innate intelligence behind the eyes of the beast currently bowing to him.
Looking around one last time to ensure he was still undetected, he unlatched the cage and quietly swung the door open. As if she understood the gravity of the situation, Beauty silently padded out and followed him out of the camp. Once they'd cleared the patrol perimeter, he gave the beast the option to go her own way, as an unwilling mount was a fast way to a broken neck. She nuzzled him instead, and the bond had been set deep.
Another huff from Beauty snapped him back to the here and now, and he once again looked into his spyglass. The time of the strike was upon them. He brought both hands to his mouth and mimicked a mating call of the native Selldu, the black-plumed reptilian avian species that the Selldu Rangers of his people flew into battle.
The response was immediate. All along the edge of the clearing, his squad surged forth as silently as their mounts could carry them. It was impossible to move silently and quickly, but speed was of the essence as the distance needed to be closed quickly to negate the ranged advantage of the Imperial workers and their scant sentries.
Beauty reared back, forcing Ugly to grip her mane tightly to remain seated. Just as suddenly as she'd gone vertical, she lunged forth and thundered forward. The only sounds Ugly picked up was the wind whistling past his ears and the muffled thumping of his treasured mount.
The skirmish was over before it had even had a chance to begin. The Imperials on the ground spotted the incoming rush and broke ranks, retreating back toward the safety of the shuttle's ramp. Just as the last booted feet reached the ramp, the ship took off and rocketed away, leaving the bounty of supplies ripe for their leisurely cataloging.
"That was weird," one of the veterans mumbled as he dismounted and immediately began hacking away at a rudimentary locking mechanism.
Ugly nodded, pursing his lips as he pondered this new development. It was unheard of until now for Imperials to give up a supply drop without a fight. They hadn't even fired a shot. He nodded, staying mounted as he scanned their surroundings. For some reason, he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. All around him the joyous cries of his squad rose up as they began breaking into the supplies and purloining prizes for themselves as well as grabbing other useful items for their clan.
A strange whistling sound rang in Ugly's ears, and Beauty's hackles rose as well. As split-second later, his eyes widened as he realized the source of the new noise.
Before he could raise an alarm, a crate erupted in a cloud of shrapnel. The conflagration disintegrated the two nearest Dresselians and their mounts. Another crate went up, taking another commando into the wind in a red mist.
Beauty roared and reared back. As the rest of the commandos found their mounts and began to back away, a green thunderclap filled the area as a space-based turbolaser blast slammed into the middle of their formation. Parts of bodies, both Dresselian and beast, flitted through the air.
"FALL BACK!" Ugly shouted, finally finding his words. He pulled back hard on Beauty's mane, and they were suddenly thumping through the wide open plain, which now struck Ugly as the perfect space-based target.
More blasts fell upon them. Direct hits completely vaporized the bodies caught beneath the verdant energy, and nearby strikes either immolated or incapacitated beast and man alike.
Ugly focused on his destination, forcing Beauty to zig and zag to hopefully be a harder target for the Imperial devils striking at his squad from space. Just as the relative safety of the dense wood was a few strides away, an awful rushing sound sucked the air out of his lungs. He was suddenly hurtling through the air, and a tree smacked him in the face, bathing his world in darkness.
The smell of cooked flesh invaded Ugly's nostrils, having the same effect as a medic cracking a vial of smelling-salts in front of his nasal cavity.
His eyes snapped open, and then immediately closed as head throbbed violently. Breathing deeply, he slowly opened his eyes to assuage the sudden trauma associated with the low dusk light.
Meters away, he saw the motionless form of his beloved Beauty.
The memory of what had occurred flashed through his mind, and suddenly all pain was gone as he found his feet unsteadily and stumbled toward her. As he closed in, a small fire was cooking her underside and almost all of her fur was completely singed off.
He angrily put out the flames with his own hands, burning himself in the process. An anguished wail escaped his lips as he laid a ruined hand on the corpse of his beloved mount. Tears flooded forth as he fell onto her, ignoring the heat of her cooked flesh as he burrowed deeper into the folds of her dead form. Once again he was overwhelmed to the point of unconsciousness.
Ugly awoke later in the camp his clan was using currently. He was heavily bandaged on his hands and face, as he'd apparently passed out and cooked himself even more against the hot flesh of his now dead mount.
As his clan moved to a new location, which was a common occurrence for their people, he continued to recover physically. Emotionally, he was despondent. He'd lost the closest thing to a partner he'd ever known. A gaping maw of emptiness had opened up in the middle of his chest, and he didn't care if the Imperials found him and finished the job they'd started with that ambush.
Not only was Beauty gone, but all of his war band had been killed. He'd been the only survivor of the ill-fated mission he'd planned. As far as he was concerned, he was bad luck. He never wanted to lead another being or beast into battle again, and if he had his way he never would.
"You need to get back in the saddle, Proonefak."
"Go to hell, Lokmarcha."
"We need an experienced raider to replace losses with the Selldu rangers. We knew you'd never have abandoned that beautiful Cracian Thumper of yours, but now..."
"Go to hell."
"Not yet, but I'm sure I'll be there soon," Lokmarcha sighed. "But the fact remains, we need you out there, now."
"I don't have a mount. I've never flown anything before," Ugly countered.
"It's as easy as riding a ground mount."
"Go to hell."
"Get up. There are a few Selldu out there for you to choose from."
After taking as much time as he could to dress, he regarded his features in a small mirror. The extra damage his face had taken made him even uglier than his already wrinkly species was known for. He shook his head sadly as the memory of Beauty's death flashed across his vision.
Splashing his face with cold water, he forced himself to exit the tent. Lined up outside were four different Selldu, the winged reptilians the Selldu Rangers rode into battle. At the end of the line stood Lokmarcha, holding the reins of his own mount as he waited patiently.
Ugly started at the other end of the line, noting that the first two beasts shied away from his presence, as if they knew the fate of his last mount. Or perhaps they were just put off by his exceptionally ugly visage; Ugly didn't know. He couldn't seem to look deeply into their eyes to glean any sort of feeling from them the way Beauty...
He shook his shoulders and moved to the third beast. This one reared up, but didn't break eye contact. This was a spirited animal, and it awoke a similar feeling within himself. It wasn't quite the bond he'd made with Beauty, but this beast seemed to be giving him just the attitude he needed to get back to his old aggressive self.
Patting it on the neck, he deftly leapt onto the rudimentary saddle on its back and gripped the reins tightly. The beast screeched and reared back, but didn't try any harder to buck him off.
"Now, let's teach you how to fly," Lokmarcha said as he mounted his own Selldu.
Ugly was exhausted. Flying was even harder than he'd ever imagined. He'd gotten over the fear of falling relatively quickly, and controlling the beast was pretty intuitive, but having to worry about a whole new axis of movement really taxed his brain.
"You look like a natural out there," Lokmarcha said as he took the saddle off his mount.
Ugly grunted, miming the steps to remove the saddle of his new mount as well. Once he'd run through it a few times, he began the process, only getting whipped once by a wayward wing from the impatient beast.
"You ought to give him a name."
Ugly looked deeply into the eyes of his Selldu, but he just couldn't bring himself to give the majestic beast a name. He couldn't put himself into a new relationship that required the level of vulnerability that could put him into another hole if it were to die. He just couldn't do that to himself ever again.
"Maybe I will," he responded grimly, eliciting a sad head shake from his new commander.
Months passed by, but he still couldn't get comfortable with his new mount. He was fine enough a flier, but to the veterans of the Selldu Rangers it was clear as day he wasn't bonded to his own mount.
Still, he'd been skilled enough to do his part. The raid today had been a hairy one, but he'd pulled through with naught a scratch. The Imperial outpost was in flames, and they'd lost none of their own number in the effort.
"You aren't at home here, are you?" Lokmarcha asked, though the tone wasn't a question.
"No," Ugly replied with a sigh.
Lokmarcha paused for a moment, looking up at the stars for a long moment before speaking again. "Do you wish to leave?"
Ugly perked up. "Leave?"
Lokmarcha turned to face him. "Yes, leave."
"As in, the clan? The Rangers?"
Lokmarcha pointed up to the stars. "The planet."
Ugly was confused. "Where? How?"
Lokmarcha sighed, suddenly seeming very tired. "It's clear to most of us that we can't win this fight alone. We need help. We can't fight the invaders on equal footing without the ability to strike them in space."
Ugly nodded along, being aware of discussions like this in the past in hushed tones amongst various war band leaders. He'd agreed, but not knowing any solution to that problem, he'd chosen to put his nose to the ground and continue fighting in the only way he knew how.
"A few of us are leaving on a freighter tonight," Lokmarcha continued, turning to look deeply into Ugly's eyes. "We are joining the Rebel Alliance."
The faction was one that Ugly wasn't familiar with. He knew there was a larger galaxy out there, as evidenced by the Imperials and Bothans that had visited before, but he wasn't aware just how fractured that vast space above his planet was. "And where would we go?"
Another voice joined the conversation, causing Ugly to jump with surprise. "Wherever they need our skills. If we can do enough up there, then they can come back here and fully liberate our planet."
"Orrimaarko?" Ugly asked in disbelief. The commando was a legend amongst his people. The eye-patch he'd earned early in his own fighting on Dressel lent him an air of danger.
Ignoring Ugly's surprise, Orrimaarko pressed on. "We help them win out there," he said as he gestured vaguely toward the stars, "and they will come back here and help us here. What do you say?"
"A rare opportunity," Lokmarcha chimed in. "Only a few are going so we don't weaken our forces here. Myself, Orrimaarko, one other, and yourself if you accept the invitation."
"Why me?" Ugly asked, finding the entire situation ridiculous. He was an adequate cavalryman and had a good mind for tactics, but he was clearly not himself lately and it was unclear if he'd ever be as cavalier as he used to be now that he knew a deep, painful loss. Still, he gripped his dark robe from his belongings absentmindedly, matching his grief-stricken demeanor. His hands hovered over the scorched green robe from his days as a ground rider, but he just couldn't bring himself to touch it. The memory of his beloved Beauty thumping along the ground staid his hands.
"You need a fresh start," Lokmarcha said, holding out an off-white robe.
The ride on the rickety freighter was forgettable as the four Dresselians left their planet behind. The words that had spurred him to join the mission had unblocked a portion of his brain that he'd long sealed off, and in doing so he accepted the off-white cloak. While he was still unsure of himself and his place in the galactic war, he knew that some of the grief that had overtaken him over the past months had suddenly washed away, and the lighter color of the cloak seemed to help in that regard for some unknown reason.
As the freighter neared a fluid, bulbous ship that dwarfed the size of an Imperial Star Destroyer in his estimation (having never seen one up close and only up in orbit as it rained down destruction and troops), he marveled at the smaller fighters that flitted about the area. All around them, more ships appeared, just as big as the one they were approaching, as well as smaller variants of puzzling utility to the technologically deficient cadre.
The smaller fighters kept drawing Ugly's gaze. The mechanical contraptions seemed to function similarly to the Selldu he'd been flying, and he was immediately enraptured by their grace.
"This would be enough alone to take back our homeworld," Lokmarcha said wistfully, taking in the view next to Ugly.
"Aye," Orrimaarko agreed. "Let's finish their fight quickly so they can finish ours back home."
Lokmarcha smiled wryly. "Yes..."
Ugly took a step away from his companion as a thought struck him. "What do you know?"
Lokmarcha sighed, but straightened himself with pride. "I was told en route that I was selected for a mission."
"What?" All three others exclaimed in unison, their eyes widening at the sudden revelation.
"Where? When?" Orrimaarko added. "What do we need to bring?"
"You three will remain behind for something big. I'll be going on something called Operation Yellow Moon I'm told, in command of the mission."
The others were incensed at the news and being left behind, but Ugly was quick to shake off the feeling and patted his companion on the shoulder approvingly. "We leave the planet and already you are leading some big fancy mission!"
Orrimaarko was still nonplussed. "How though?"
"I've been working with the Rebels for a while," Lokmarcha whispered, glancing at the other three Dressellians sheepishly at the admission. "Helped one of their Generals on many occasions. He's a good man, and knows quality when he sees it. You three will be well-utilized by him I'm sure."
Before any more questions could be asked, the ship thudded to a halt and the landing ramp opened to a bustling hangar. The four Dresselians were ushered out of the hold by the freighter's crew, and deposited smack dab in the middle of the cavernous space.
Ugly's eyes were immediately drawn to more of the smaller fighters that had been flying around them in space, and he took a few halting steps toward one, as if drawn to their intoxicating beauty. He suddenly wanted to learn everything he could about the contraption, as if it was the most important thing in the galaxy to him at that moment.
"This way, Proonefak," Orrimaarko said, tugging on Ugly's white cape and dragging him gently toward the exit Lokmarcha and their other companion had begun walking toward.
Ugly reluctantly allowed himself to be dragged away, but kept stealing glances at the wishbone-shaped fighter that had caught his gaze.
A week later, Ugly and his companions found themselves in a large briefing amphitheater with a dizzying array of beings, many of which were completely new to the relatively sheltered Dressellian commandos.
Seated nearby was the human that was called Princess Leia. Ugly stared daggers in her direction, as she'd been the one that led Operation Yellow Moon, and his compatriot Lokmarcha had given his life heroically to rescue her from Imperial captivity.
And now here she sat with her friends, smiling and carrying on as if she'd never been captured and only been saved by the grace of one of the bravest Dressellian commandos to ever live. Ugly hated her for her relatively glib attitude. A wave of hatred of all humans flooded through his body, causing him to shift uneasily in his seat as he fought off the urge to wipe the smile off her face and remind her of the sacrifice of his compatriot.
The room quieted, and another human female clad in a white robe took center stage. After a meaningful pause where she seemed to look deeply into every single set of eyes in the room, she finally spoke in a soft, measured tone filled with determination behind her words. "The Emperor's made a critical error, and the time for our attack has come."
Ugly immediately blanked out the rest of the speech, as the thrill of a coming battle caused a rush of blood to fill his veins. His pulse thundered in his ears, blocking out the rest of the Rebel stateswoman's speech, though her last line made it through.
"Many Bothans died to bring us this information," she said, a look of complete sadness washing over her features.
This brought a pause to Ugly's sudden hatred of humans. It would seem that not all humans were as carefree with the deaths of nonhumans as this princess or the human Imperials that besieged his planet had led him to believe.
The gravelly voice of another foreign species took over the briefing, outlining the two-pronged plan of a ground insertion team and a space strike. Ugly knew immediately that he and his companions would be included in the ground team, but he was curious as to whom would be leading the mission. Surely Lokmarcha would have been in charge of that job if he hadn't thrown his life away saving the ungrateful princess.
His question was answered by the human general Madine, whom had been the rebel leader Lokmarcha had apparently been working for for a while. "General Solo, is your strike team assembled?"
Ugly grimaced as a relatively sarcastic human responded. As the briefing broke up, Ugly leaned in close to Orrimaarko. "I wish Lokmarcha were here. He should be the one in charge of this type of covert mission instead of that cocksure human."
"Aye," Orrimaarko agreed sadly, rising to his feet and exiting the room with the flood of other bodies.
As Ugly and his companions filed up the ramp of the Lambda class shuttle with the rest of the predominantly human strike team, he caught sight of Leia. Orrimaarko seemed to know exactly what was on Ugly's mind, but his attempt to stall Ugly was belated.
Leia was speaking with another human, and was taken aback as she turned around and saw Ugly standing before her with his brow furrowed in anger. "Yes?"
"Lokmarcha was my friend," Ugly said tersely, while a million other curses and insults flooded his brain. He was paralyzed by the numerous insults, as his mind couldn't sift through them and choose the one that would unleash the most damage.
Leia's features softened, and genuine sadness settled in. "He saved my life, you know."
Ugly huffed, and Orrimaarko finally managed to fight against the flood of troops to get close enough to intercede. "I know. He gave his life for yours. Why?"
Leia smirked, as if a joke had crept into her mind. The gesture almost sent Ugly into a rage, and he grasped the hem of his cloak with both hands in a white-knuckled grip to stay his hands. A sneer appeared on his lips, and he prepared to unleash an insult about her flippant attitude toward his friend's death.
Leia picked up on the rage, and immediately made an apologetic gesture. "You misunderstand. I was just thinking about one of the first things Major Lokmarcha said to me when we started Operation Yellow Moon."
Ugly was confused, but his features softened as his rage subsided slightly.
"He said: 'One thing you'll learn about me, Princess— I always do my duty'."
Anger welled back up within Ugly. "And his duty got him killed while you are still here."
Leia seemed taken aback by the venom dripping from Ugly's retort. Orrimaarko seemed uncomfortable with the confrontation as well, and he gently tugged on Ugly's cloak to separate them.
A wan smile flitted across her face momentarily, but then her eyes widened for the briefest of instants as if she'd somehow gleaned a vision of the bigger picture. "I know how much it hurts to lose someone close to us. I've lost many, and I can tell you've lost more than just the Major. I can't tell you it'll get better," she said, pausing as if to gather her thoughts. "But I can promise you that if we pull off this mission and end the Empire, I will tell you just how well your friend died, and hopefully you will honor..." she trailed off, her eyes unfocusing slightly before continuing, "the beauty... of his sacrifice with me after we do our duty today."
Ugly was stunned at her choice of adjective. It was as if she'd somehow looked deep within his soul and realized the great loss he'd suffered that had started him on his downward spiral and knew exactly what to say. His mouth hung open as his mind reeled, grasping for any coherent thought to stick around long enough for him to speak. Anger, confusion, love, sadness, and hope all fought for supremacy within his heart.
"That's enough, Proonefak," Orrimaarko urged, finally tugging hard enough to drag Ugly away from the Princess and back up the ramp with the rest of the commando team. "Get a hold of yourself, man!"
As Ugly sat in his seat, his thoughts drifted back to the confrontation. While he'd been angry with the Princess all day, he suddenly felt the strongest of urges to make sure she survived this ordeal, even if it came at the cost of his life as it had Lokmarcha's. As she passed by on her way up to the cockpit, she placed a hand on his shoulder and gave him a thoughtful squeeze. She hadn't done that with any of the other seated commandos, and it drew some furtive glances from the others assembled in the hold.
As the ramp retracted, the mechanism thumped rhythmically. The familiar sound put Ugly into a trance-like state.
He closed his eyes, and he thought he heard the familiar huff of his beloved Beauty, charging up the ramp to greet him with a loving nuzzle. He felt the fur of her mane brushing against the side of his face, and her scent filled the entire hold. A tear formed at the edge of his eye and hung there, as if it wasn't sure if it was ready to release. After a moment, enough moisture accumulated and the single tear worked its way through the folds of his wrinkled face.
With the release of the tear, a giant weight seemed to be lifted off of his chest. The smell of his treasured mount was gone, as was the thumping and the feel of her against him. He opened his eyes, but didn't focus on anything, but a strong feeling of hope buoyed his mood. He checked his blaster and ensured it was ready, and then leaned back against the seat.
He was ready to do his duty.