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DARK PROTOCOL

By Jaime Scheffler

Kell ‘Dragon’ Arcfire finished his routine pre-flight checks and initiated takeoff procedures. His A-Wing lifted off, hovering a couple meters above the CRS Vigilant’s deck. He unplugged the craft’s tracking beacon and grinned before slipping it into one of his flight suit’s pouches. With a steady, practiced hand, he spun the A-Wing smoothly to face the launch bay exit.

“Second Lieutenant Arcfire, you are not cleared for takeoff,” Syntax said. His voice eerily calm.

Well, them’s the breaks, I guess. Dragon opened the comms. “Copy that.”

“Power down, Second Lieutenant, and await further instructions.” Syntax’s ocular receptors twitched as his synapses processed multiple data vectors. He turned towards one of the control room operators. “Close the launch bay doors.”

Vardak’s blood! Dragon cursed. Box me in, will you? Kark no, OH KARK NO! You’re not faster than me, Corsair Leader. He punched the throttle of his rustbucket A-Wing, managing to boost out of the launch bay of the Vigilant with only a few new scratches on its hull.

Syntax stared at the control room operator, who began to sink in her seat—visibly uncomfortable. Corsair Leader turned to the viewport, watching the unmistakable rustbucket A-Wing speed away. “Engage the Vigilant’s tractor beams. Corsair Squadron, deploy with ion weapons. Do not allow Second Lieutenant Arcfire to leave.”

“Belay that order.” Colonel Vince ‘Stryker’ Rambo walked into the control room. “Second Lieutenant Arcfire has been authorized to execute Operation Dark Protocol. Further details are classified, I’m afraid.”

Syntax’s ocular receptors flashed briefly, analyzing Stryker’s words. He shot one last glance through the viewport. “Disengage tractor beams. Corsair Squadron, stand down.”

***

Planet Arris, Outer Rim

Jungle

Dragon’s A-Wing pierced the atmosphere of Arris like a finely honed blade, a night and day experience compared to the first time he had arrived on this planet in a badly wounded TIE defender. He descended rapidly, maneuvering into the jungle proper to enjoy dodging some obstacles at full speed. Commanders frowned upon stunts like these, but they weren’t here to see them. What eyes cannot see; the heart does not feel.

He set down his A-Wing at the entrance of the cave where his TIE defender slept. Dragon opened the A-Wing's cockpit and took a deep breath of the hot, humid jungle air. Never gets old. He changed into more comfortable clothes, and pulled out two containers full of spare parts taken from the stores of the Vigilant. Hoping his old ship was still there, he walked into the cave.

The TIE defender had seen better days. Its hull was scored by laser fire and rusted in multiple spots, just like his A-Wing. He patted the Imperial ship. I’ve need of you again, old buddy. Got some parts for you. Dragon chuckled. Today, you officially become a Rebel . . . no, a New Republic fighter. I’d say welcome to the team, but you’ve been part of it since that fateful day.

Dragon spent a few days repairing his old craft. More than once, accompanied by a litany of colorful expletives, he wished to have a skilled mechanic on hand to work on his TIE defender. It wasn’t an easy task, but he got it done on his own. As the final touch, he added a life support system to the former Imperial fighter. Should make the trip more comfortable.

With repairs out of the way, he packed up his tools and remaining spare parts, and hid his A-Wing. Dragon looked to the North, towards Bekker, towards home. I’ll drop by once I take care of things. I promise. He got into the cockpit of the TIE defender, and ran through all his routine pre-flight checks. Green across the board. All right old buddy, here we go. The ship took off without a hitch, and Dragon set course for Anklam.

***

Planet Anklam, Outer Rim

Eisenach Outskirts, Imperial Territory

Dragon landed in a small, uninhabited area a few klicks away from the city of Eisenach. If Lock’s sources were right, his former wingman, Kai ‘Dark 2’ Loran was holed up in there. Memories, even the mere whisper of her name, still caused Dragon’s rage to bubble and stir. Focus. He muttered. After concealing his ship, he put on a hooded grey cloak and began the trek to the city. If his estimates were correct, he’d arrive by nightfall.

Eisenach was a mid-size city, offering most of the standard creature comforts, as well as the nonsense, one has come to expect from such urban places. In its defense, the city was fairly clean. Its inhabitants, however, didn’t seem too happy. Too much doom and gloom to go around. Living under the thumb of the Empire will do that to people. It saps one’s will, one’s strength, and eventually one’s life. I know that all too well now. Dragon checked his datapad, and headed towards a modest neighborhood with mid-income apartment buildings.

Bright holo-screens aggressively pushed products, news, or Imperial propaganda. Mainly Imperial propaganda. The Empire hadn’t changed one bit, still clinging to their outdated playbook. Same methods, same protocols. I wonder if my Imperial codes still work. Dragon walked past two Imperial soldiers talking about the olden days, when the Empire was glorious, and condemning the Rebel scum that brought it low. Dragon shook his head and moved on, eventually reaching his intended location. He went up the stairs to apartment 201, and pulled out a scrambler key. In a matter of minutes, he had gained access to the apartment. It was dark, seemingly unoccupied. He donned his monocle ocular enhancer and slipped inside.

Dragon’s breathing was methodical. Each of his steps slow and deliberate, just like the master hunters of Bekker taught him. He moved like a shadow across the apartment. He checked the bedroom. No signs of life. Dark 2 was either out and about, or she did not live here. That would be a pity, and a colossal waste of time. Dragon approached the apartment’s terminal and used the scrambler key to gain access. When he saw her name onscreen, his heart started beating faster. Focus, the hunter is patient. One file was open, today’s diary entry, it seemed. A diary, huh? Let’s see, Imperial base, tonight . . . Dragon grit his teeth, swallowing his rage once more.

Click.

In one swift motion, Dragon jumped behind the couch and blended in with the furniture. The entrance door opened with a hiss, and someone walked in, a female dressed in civilian clothing. Her red hair was tied up in a messy bun. Kai ‘Dark 2’ Loran, in the flesh. After all this time, after what you did. She seemed older, but not physically. Dragon reckoned her soul was old and tired. You have no one to blame but yourself, Kai.

Not even bothering to turn on the lights, Kai sat down at the dining room table and buried her face on the palm of her left hand. Dragon unsheathed his claw-knife and snuck behind a column. He knew he should take her out with one strike, and without making a sound, but he couldn’t resist—and wouldn’t avoid—playing with his food. Not this time. It was personal. He was going to enjoy this up to the last drop of blood.

“Hello, Kai. Long time no see.” Dragon spoke softly.

“W-what?” Kai jumped from her chair and pulled out a blaster. “Who’s there? Show yourself or I’ll shoot!”

Dragon placed a holo-projector next to the column he was using as cover, and snuck behind the couch. “Oh, now you’re ready to shoot. Perhaps even to kill. Are you finally tired of running away?”

She took a step back, confusion etched in her face. The voice was familiar, very familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. Dragon activated the holo-projector. The hologram startled her, and she retaliated with three well-placed blaster shots that went through the projection and burned holes on the bedroom door. She saw movement out of the corner of her eye, followed by a powerful blow that shook her skull. Her vision exploded into a sea of stars, her knees buckled, and she collapsed like a bag of rocks. Through blurry eyes she saw a hooded figure towering above her. Kai raised her blaster, or thought she did, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. She blinked at her empty palm, realizing she must have dropped the weapon when she fell. Shaking with pain and fear, she shut her eyes, expecting to die, but all she felt was a light impact on her chest, accompanied by a metallic clink. When she opened her eyes, she saw three dog tags.

“W-what?”

“If you make any sudden movements, you’re dead, understood?

She nodded timidly, and looked at the tags. They read: Irimore, Jon; Thiddex, Anthony; and Mereel, Kitty. Kai’s eyes opened wide as the past clawed back up from the depths of a Sarlacc pit to grab her. “K-Kell? I-is, is that y-you?”

Dragon pulled the hood off his head with his free hand. “I’m sure you wish it weren’t me, betrayer.”

“I . . .”

“Jon, Anthony, and Kitty died because of you. My friends, OUR friends.” Dragon’s accusatory gaze felt heavy on her, almost painful. “You sold us out to the Imperials!”

“N-no!” She cried out, her eyes filling with tears. “I did no such thing. I would never . . .”

“How much did they pay you, huh? I hope it was worth it.”

“K-Kell, no, p-please . . . y-you have to believe me, I d-did not . . .”

Dragon roared. “YOU SOLD US OUT AND LEFT US TO DIE!”

“Please! J-just, just h-hear me out.”

His fingers tightened around the hilt of his claw-knife, its blade gleaming in the penumbra. “I heard all I needed to hear when you hyperspaced out of the battle.”

Tears began to stream uncontrollably down Kai’s cheeks. “I’m sorry! I-I’m . . . I,” Her words punctuated by violent sobs. “I hear their dying screams every single night!” She swallowed. “M-my waking hours are unbearable. My sleeping hours are plagued by n-nightmares.” She began to tremble, burying her face in her hands. “I . . . I see their faces burn, while their empty stares judge me. I t-thought . . .”

“Yeah, I thought we had something special you and I.” Dragon scoffed.

“We did!” She bawled. “I didn’t want any of this to happen!”

Dragon’s breathing became more and more agitated, like a predator moments before the kill. His heart pounded in his chest like a power hammer. His rage mounting as a familiar pain lanced across his left arm. “You should’ve thought of all this BEFORE selling your soul to the Empire!” He bared his teeth. “I’m going to skin you alive for what you did, and I’m going to enjoy it.”

“I DIDN’T SELL YOU TO THE EMPIRE!” Kai howled. “I WAS AFRAID! I DIDN’T WANT TO DIE! Those TIEs were on us so quickly. It was all so fast and sudden. Anthony was the first to go, then Jon, and finally Kitty.” She began breathing rapidly, bordering on hyperventilation. “I’d n-never seen that h-happen before! I w-was barely a F-F-Flight Officer! Fear gripped me. I h-had to get out of there. I . . . by the F-Force, I didn’t want to DIE! I didn’t want anyone to die! I DON’T WANT TO DIE! PLEASE!”

Dragon raised the claw-knife and, in that instant, saw his face reflected on the blade. It was contorted, pure evil. It gave him pause. He didn’t recognize himself at all. Soon, the words of the Seer of his tribe filled his mind. The hunter brings death, but cherishes life and respects it. He takes only what is necessary, and never kills for the sake of killing. This is the path of the hunter. You, my child, have been touched by the dark. You walk enshrouded by it, and it will threaten to consume you. But you are the fire that burns the darkness. Never forget that.

Dragon’s vision blurred as his eyes filled with tears. Blood began to drip from his left arm, hitting the floor with a steady rhythm. Disgusted with himself, he let go of his knife, which clattered on the ground.

After a long silence, Kai finally mustered enough courage to open her eyes. Dragon stood there, unmoving, staring into space. She frowned, but her confusion and fear turned into concern when she noticed the expanding crimson pool at his feet.

“Kell, you’re hurt!”

“W-what?” He snapped out of his trance. “It’s nothing.” “You’re bleeding! Let me have a look, please.”

Dragon glared at her. “Don’t touch me!”

“P-please . . .”

His eyes found hers, and a cascade of painful memories flooded his mind. He looked away, defeated. “Fine.”

Kai took his hand and guided him to the couch. She helped him out of his cloak and jacket, and frowned. “What’s wrong with your tattoo? Why’s it bleeding?”

“I never told you the full story, did I? It’s not a simple tattoo, it’s the brand of the Secret Order of the Emperor. It was burned onto my flesh with energy from the dark side of the Force, a reward for my unfaltering loyalty and service,” Dragon said with contempt. “Now, whenever my rage surfaces, either voluntarily or not, the brand rips open from the inside, making a mess. You just never saw me enraged before, is all.”

“What kind of monster . . .?”

“One who would’ve subjugated the entire galaxy if he hadn’t been killed during the Battle of Endor.”

Kai nodded. “Wait here, I’ll get something to stem the bleeding.” She came back with a bottle of disinfectant spray and a bacta patch. “Okay, it will sting a bit, but you’ll feel much better once the bacta kicks in.”

“Tell me something, Kai.”

She looked up from the wound. “Hm?”

“Why were you at the Imperial base tonight?”

“I . . .” Kai averted her gaze, ashamed. “I wanted to destroy it. I’ve been wanting to do so for a long time now, but my scant courage abandons me every time I try. I thought, maybe, if I helped free the people of Eisenach, my burden, my guilt, would become more bearable.” She finished applying the bacta patch. “There, should feel better soon.”

“Thank you.”

She sat down next to him and sighed. “What happens now?”

“As an agent of the New Republic, I’m placing you under arrest. I’m taking you back to the CRS Vigilant, where you will, most likely, be court martialed for desertion.”

“I s-see.” Kai hung her head. “I-I w-was . . . I h-hoped . . .”

“What?”

“I h-hoped you’d help me destroy that Imperial base, and liberate Eisenach.”

Dragon frowned.

“K-Kell, please. I’m begging you. I-I need this. I . . .” she choked on her words as fresh tears emerged. “I’m sure someone gave you the opportunity to atone for your past sins. P-please, give me the opportunity to atone for mine.”

“How do I know you won’t just leave again?”

Her eyes glistened. “I can’t, I w-won’t. I won’t fail again.”

“You may die in this. We both may die.”

“I know.”

Thirty minutes later, Dragon and Kai, dressed in stormtrooper armor they had commandeered from a pair of hapless troopers on patrol duty, walked slowly towards the Imperial base. They didn’t have TK numbers, but Dragon hoped his old Imperial credentials would get them past the main gate, and also prevent any Imperial entanglements. At the door, Dragon input his codes. To his surprise, the door unlocked and slid open with a hiss.

“Well, we’re in,” Dragon whispered. “I hope that map of yours is up to date.”

Kai gripped her E-11 blaster rifle and nodded. “So do I. Let’s go.”

The ‘stormtroopers’ blended in with the rest of the base’s crew as best they could, attempting to move to their destination without raising suspicion. There was, however, one element neither Kai nor Dragon could have predicted, a visitor in the right place, at the wrong time.

In her quarters, Jathne Garr, a Sith Warrior, meditated. She was floating in mid-air, legs crossed in the lotus flower position. She was focusing her anger and rage, honing them, when she felt a disturbance, a faint but powerful echo of the dark side of the Force within the Imperial base. She opened her eyes, wondering if this was another test from her murderous master, or a rival seeking to challenge her. It didn’t matter. She descended gently and stood up. It’s not polite to show up unannounced.

The disguise held. Neither Imperial rank-and-file nor officer types suspected anything. The ‘stormtroopers’ made the rounds. They made note of possible escape routes in case the operation went south, and found a healthy supply of 74-Z speeder bikes in the hangar. They also disabled the alarm system; it wouldn’t do to have the entire Imperial base after them once the reactor went critical. After paving the way, they moved onto the reactor proper. Once inside, they neutralized the technicians, flushed the coolant, and overloaded the core. It was time to get out.

As Dragon and Kai were making way to the hangar on the double, a hooded figure dressed in black robes cut them off.

“Is this some kind of joke?” Jathne sneered at Dragon. “A stormtrooper?”

Dragon tilted his head sideways. “W-what?”

“Infiltration and deception, of course. You’ve come to kill me, that much is clear now.” Jathne began to pace slowly, each of her steps light on the metal floor, but resounding like thunder. “Who sent you?”

“I don’t know what you’re . . .”

Kai took five steps back, raised her E-11 blaster rifle and aimed it squarely at Dragon. “Traitor! Drop the weapon, NOW!”

Dragon looked at her, disbelieving. “W-what are you doing?”

“DROP IT, OR I’LL DROP YOU!” Kai snarled.

Betrayal cuts deeper than any blade, especially when you don't see it coming. VARDAK’S BLOOD, DARK 2! Dragon muttered under his breath. YOU HAVEN’T CHANGED ONE KRIFFING BIT! Pain crackled all along Dragon’s left forearm. Boiling with rage, he dropped his E-11 blaster rifle.

Jathne directed her attention to Kai. “Bravo. It seems not all stormtroopers live up to their legendary incompetence. Now leave us, trooper. I shall dispose of this traitor personally.”

“As you wish, ma’am.” Kai turned around and left.

Jathne extended her left hand to choke her would-be assassin. Dragon felt sudden pressure, and something akin to thousands of invisible needles barely touching his skin, but nothing happened. He never cared much for the space magic mumbo jumbo that was the Force, but it was quite real. Fortunately, whatever the angry lightsaber-wielding lady tried to do, didn’t work on him.

“Sith’s blood, how?” Jathne frowned. “What are you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, ma’am,” Dragon said. “I’m a simple moisture farmer from Eisenach.”

“ENOUGH!” Jathne’s red lightsaber came to life with a hiss. “WHAT ARE YOU?”

Dragon raised his fists and adopted a fighting stance.

“What game are you playing?” Jathne said, incredulous. “Where is your lightsaber?”

Dragon couldn’t see a thing inside that stormtrooper helmet, so he took it off. “Lady, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t know who you are, nor do I care.” He snarled, his rage mounting by the second. Blood started to stain the left armguard of his pristine white armor. I need to neutralize her and get out of here before the reactor reaches critical mass and turns this whole place into space dust.

Jathne pondered his words for a minute. She felt fear. What if this fellow was a powerful Sith Lord? Was he simply trying to deceive her? She’d seen the holocrons, and heard the stories of certain Lords possessing unlimited power, and the ability to appear as weaklings. He didn’t even carry a lightsaber. Why? Jathne frowned. Is that blood? Is he wounded? Her thoughts were interrupted by the footsteps of a dozen stormtroopers entering the room, blasters aimed at Dragon.

“Leave him to me,” Jathne said. “I’ll deal with him myself.” If he truly is a powerful Sith Lord, his death would bring me great renown. She raised her lightsaber, and Dragon beckoned her with his bloodied left hand, taunting her, inviting her to do her worst.

“Very well, then,” Jathne growled. “DIE!”

She charged, the tip of her lightsaber scoring the metal floor as it rose upwards in a violent, semi-circular slashing motion. Dragon jumped to his right to avoid the attack, tucking into a combat roll to cushion the fall, and unsheathed his claw-knife.

All stormtroopers, except one, turned their heads in perfect synchrony, following Dragon’s movements and muttering approvingly.

A knife, of all things? Jathne paused. Who is this man?

During this lull in the fight, the stormtroopers started whispering among themselves.

“A hundred creds say the guy with the knife wins,” a stormtrooper said.

“Five hundred on the Sith lady, she will stomp him.”

“You think so? Nah. Look at her, she’s scared.” The first stormtrooper replied. “One thousand on knife guy.”

“Are you crazy? Lower your voice, she’ll hear us.” Another stormtrooper whispered. “Count me in with fifteen hundred creds for the Sith lady, though.”

“Perfect, any more bets?” The first stormtrooper asked in a low voice.

“Yeah, twenty-five hundred creds on Sith lady.”

“Oh, you’re on! Anyone else? No?” The first stormtrooper nodded. “Hey, look, seems like they’re finally going to get this show on the road.”

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Dragon roared at Jathne as he brandished the claw-knife. “COME KILL ME, IF YOU DARE!”

Fear gripped Jathne’s heart once more. She shook her head. No. NO. This is nonsense, grandstanding. FEAR IS MY ALLY! She gripped the hilt of her lightsaber with both hands and charged at her enemy. She raised the weapon with practiced ease and unleashed a downward strike so powerful that it could’ve cut cleanly through a starship’s hull.

Yet, her lightsaber found nothing but defiance. The hissing energy blade denied by Dragon’s claw-knife. Dragon pushed the lightsaber out of the way. His teeth bared. His face contorted in a terrifying rictus, like that of an apex predator. Jathne gazed into his eyes momentarily. She saw the shadow of the Emperor himself. Impossible! This simpleton cannot be HIM! She froze.

Dragon slashed across Jathne’s face with his claw-knife, slicing deep into her eyes. She screamed in pain, stumbling backwards. Her lightsaber clattered on the floor and rolled away. Dragon turned to face the stormtroopers. The veins in his face displaying prominently, his eyes bloodshot, his left arm bleeding, and his mouth dripping spittle like a wild beast. “WHICH OF YOU KARKERS IS NEXT?” He bellowed.

“KILL HIM!” Jathne screamed, still nursing her eyes.

Eleven stormtroopers raised their blaster rifles.

“Hey, boys . . . you owe me twenty-five hundred credits each,” Kai said.

One stormtrooper turned around, and Kai took his weapon arm, twisting it until it snapped with a satisfying crack. The trooper screamed as she relieved him of his weapon.

“What the . . . ?” said the rest of the stormtroopers.

Kai opened fire with two E-11 blaster rifles set to full auto. The surprised stormtroopers were engulfed in a veritable barrage of laser fire, and dropped like flies, large, charred flies. When the dust and smoke settled, she was the last stormtrooper standing.

“K-Kai?” Dragon fell onto one knee, dizzy, and suddenly very tired.

She took off her helmet. “I told you I wouldn’t leave you, that I wouldn’t . . .”

The base shook as the reactor passed the point of no return. An explosion slammed Kai against the far wall of the room. Her body bounced off of the metal surface like a ragdoll and came to a crashing stop a few meters away from her initial impact point.

“KAI!” Dragon ran to her motionless form to check on her. Her armor had burns and scores, and she had a deep cut on her forehead. “No, NO! Kai, don’t do this to me! Wake up! Wake up, please!”

The hissing sound of a lightsaber igniting brought Dragon back to reality. Jathne was trying to pinpoint his location by means of the Force, but the pain from her injuries, and her pride, were blocking her senses. I could take her out easily now. Dragon thought. She doesn’t know where I am, and she won’t hear me coming. The Imperial base shook from another explosion that caused Jathne to stumble and fall. Kark that, I’m not trading Kai’s life for yours. Dragon picked Kai up and ran as fast as he could towards the hangar.

More and more explosions bloomed throughout the superstructure of the base. Plumes of fire and smoke rose to the sky. Dragon took a right and entered the hangar. It was bustling with panicked activity. No one seemed to care about him, they were too preoccupied with the base going the way of the Death Star. He commandeered a 74-Z speeder bike and hit the gas. Behind him, the Imperial base burst into a fireball. Dragon didn’t slow down or look back. He kept the accelerator pedal floored, hoping by the Force that the expanding shockwave wouldn’t catch up to them.

Many hours later, Kai regained consciousness. She sat up. There was a bandage wrapped around her forehead, and everything hurt. She looked around. Kell had set up a small camp next to a TIE defender. He was sitting in front of a fire, roasting a six-legged creature on a spit.

“Hey . . .” she said.

“Kai . . .” Dragon bit his lip. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“What happened? I remember . . . ah, it’s hazy.” She winced. “I think we won. We won, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, we did.” He sighed.

She sat down next to him and rested her head on his shoulder. “I guess it’s time to go back to the, what was it? The CRS . . . something? To be judged for my crimes.”

Dragon cut a piece of the creature on the spit and offered it to her.

“What’s going on?” She took the piece. It looked terrible, but she was hungry.

“I thought you would leave me hanging once again, I . . .” Dragon rubbed his left forearm absently. “S-sorry, I’m no good at this.”

She gave him a comforting smile. “You never were.”

“It hurt. I was back in Aeryhsia City all over again, watching them die one by one. Seeing you go.” Dragon shook his head. “Fighting for my life, all alone.”

“I understand, and I’m sorry.” She took his hand and squeezed. “I just . . . I just didn’t know what else to do. I was attempting to reposition in the hopes of surprising the Sith, but I ran into a squad of stormtroopers. I had no choice but to follow them. You know the rest.”

“You did good, Kai. Thank you.”

Kai looked into Dragon’s eyes. “What now?”

“As an agent of the New Republic, I assisted Kai ‘Dark 2’ Loran in the destruction of the Imperial base that kept the people of Eisenach under Imperial rule. Unfortunately, she paid the ultimate price to ensure the success of the mission.” Dragon cut another piece of the six-legged creature and ate it. “That’ll be my report of last night’s events.”

Kai’s eyes brightened up. “Are you serious?”

Dragon produced a cred stick and extended it to her. “There’s enough credits in here for you to start a new life. Book passage to a remote planet, get a new identity, and begin anew. Clean slate. Take the speeder bike and get out of Anklam. Today if possible.”

She took the cred stick, dumbfounded. Her brain hadn’t quite processed what was happening. “Kell?”

“Hm?”

“Come with me. We could start over, you and I. Have the life we didn’t have a chance to . . .”

“I thought about it. As a matter of fact, I thought about many things while you . . . slept.” Dragon remained silent for a few minutes. “I’ve had nothing but hate for you since you abandoned me. I thought you had betrayed the Rebel Alliance and sold us out to the Empire. I didn’t . . . I couldn’t . . .” He closed his eyes. “I’m rambling, sorry.” Smooth, real karking smooth. He thought.

Kai smiled. “Unlike most, you never wore masks. You were always you, regardless of the circumstances. That’s what I’ve always loved about you.”

Dragon looked up to the sky. “There’s monsters out there, Kai. Throughout the galaxy. Someone has to stand up to them. There’s always a kid, a girl, a woman, or a man who could use help from someone like me.” He squeezed her hand. “That’s why I cannot join you. It’s no consolation, I know, but if the circumstances were different. I would.”

Tears formed in her eyes. “Perhaps you’ll come visit me one day? You found me once . . .”

Dragon tried to push his own tears back, mostly succeeding. “Yeah . . . I’d like that.”

Kai kissed him on the cheek, and got on the bike.

“Kai?”

She wiped her tears. “Yes?”

“My soul feels lighter now that I know the truth.”

A soft smile formed on Kai’s lips. “Thank you, Kell. I’ll never forget what you did for me this day.” She delayed her departure, both exchanging gazes, knowing full well they would probably never see each other again. “Thank you for everything.” She started the bike’s engine, and after one final glance, got on the road.

Dragon watched her in silence until she disappeared into the night. He let out a sigh and closed his eyes. He was exhausted, and his left arm was killing him. He pulled the claw-knife out of its sheath and looked at his reflection on the blade. His soul felt lighter indeed, but many questions, and much confusion remained. He forced himself to clean up the camp, and to prepare for departure. Once all pre-flight checks were accounted for, he set a course for Arris.

The TIE defender lifted off elegantly into the clear night sky. No one in Anklam would ever know he’d been here, except for a dark-robed figure standing on a nearby cliff. She couldn’t see the ship. Her eyes were ruined, but she didn’t need them. The Force showed her everything she needed to see. She knew. She felt his faint presence. The Sith Lord, no, the Shadow of the Emperor, who bested her with a meager knife and a rage so primal, so overwhelming, that could instill fear upon darkness itself, was departing. Jathne sat down to meditate. She had no means to follow at present, as her ship was lost along with the Imperial base, but time was on her side. Our paths will cross again, I promise you.

***

Planet Arris, Outer Rim

Jungle / Bekker Tribe

Dragon set his TIE defender down next to his A-Wing. It would be unbecoming to return to the Vigilant piloting it. They’d probably confiscate it, labeling it property of the NRI or some such. That just won’t do, it’s poor form. Dragon made sure the TIE defender was well-hidden, and then prepped his A-Wing for departure. Just one stop left.

He walked into Bekker, the settlement where his tribe lived. There were many new faces who didn’t know who he was, but others, some of the kids he’d crafted metal toys for, had become men—hunters. They recognized him.

“Hey, look! Latis is back!”

Latis, now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a while. For all the burdens he carried, he felt at peace here. It was home. Perhaps I should’ve brought Kai over. She would’ve fit in. He chuckled. You’re getting old, Dragon. Old and sentimental.

After spending some time socializing and reminiscing of old times, Dragon entered the Seer’s abode. The Seer of the tribe, as tradition dictated, renounced his given name to become the guiding beacon of his people. Such was the way of Bekker.

“Seer.” Dragon bowed his head.

“Child, good to see you. Come.” The Seer gestured. “What brings you here?”

Dragon pulled the claw-knife out of its sheath. “I . . . I saw myself as a monster, Seer. Reflected on this very blade. Then I heard your words. Were you speaking to me?”

The Seer merely smiled.

“I don’t know what to do, Seer. Am I no different from the monsters I hunt?”

“Oh, child. Sit.” The Seer sat cross legged, facing a fountain filled with strange water. The surface was reflective, like a mirror. “Do you remember your first kill? The Vardak?”

“Of course, that’s how I earned my place in the tribe.”

The Seer nodded, his form a bastion of tranquility. “The apex predator of Arris. Few would ever dare hunt it, let alone do so armed only with knives. But we Bekkerians do when we come of age, and if we succeed, we earn our claws. We become hunters.”

Dragon remained silent.

“Do you think the Vardak sees itself as a monster, child?”

“I . . . I d-don’t know, Seer.”

“The Vardak simply is. It was made an apex predator, and it cannot go against its nature.” The Seer offered Dragon a bowl filled with a pungent liquid. “The Vardak is not a monster.”

Dragon took the bowl, bowed his head, and emptied it in one swig.

“You, my child, were made fire that was branded by the darkness along the way. But the dark never snuffed the fire. The fire held on. It kept burning, even in the absence of everything.” The Seer took another bowl of pungent liquid, bowed his head, and emptied it in one swig. “You, like the Vardak, are not a monster.”

“But . . .” Dragon protested.

The Seer raised his hand, indicating silence. “You, my child, have been touched by the dark. You walk enshrouded by it, and it will threaten to consume you. But you are the fire that burns the darkness. Never forget that.” The Seer brought his palms together in front of him and bowed his head again. “You, are monstrous, like the Vardak. You gained the essence of the apex predator of Arris when you hunted it. Your gift allows you to hunt the true monsters of the galaxy, those who do not cherish life, those who are made evil, and fill them with fear. This is your burden, but it is also . . .”

“My calling.”

“Yes, my child.”

Dragon sighed. “But I can’t do what you do. I have no connection to the Force. I don’t even understand why these strange immunities of mine work at times, and why sometimes they don’t.” He extended his left forearm towards the Seer. “And then there’s this brand, which rips open from the inside whenever my rage boils. How can I effectively . . .”

“Hush, child. I sense the touch of one of the dark ones on you. I sense her fear of you. It is strong, her fear, very strong. This is good.”

Dragon shifted uncomfortably on the cushion he was sitting on. “I don’t understand.”

“You have all the weapons you need, child. All you must do is choose.” The Seer smiled. “You set off seeking vengeance. But you returned with forgiveness, and hope. You chose. You have come a long way.”

Dragon remembered his unrecognizable face reflected on his blade. “I did not act in spite of my hate.”

“And you did not kill the dark one,” the Seer noted. “You maimed her. You chose life over death, and took only what was necessary.”

“I chose Kai. She saved my life.” Tears filled Dragon’s eyes. “I couldn’t leave her. I did not want to become a monster.”

“Follow the path of the hunter, and you never will.” The Seer offered Dragon a fatherly smile. “May your wings never tire, may your fire be ever burning, and may your claws keep your enemies at bay. You are monstrous, like the Vardak, but not a monster—never a monster.”

“Thank you, Seer.”

“Go to the blacksmith, he’ll give you something to forever remind you of who and what you are—and of your place in the galaxy—my child.”

Dragon bowed his head.

The blacksmith of Bekker was a taciturn man who only spoke truth. He asked Dragon for his knife, and got to work in his forge without saying another word. Dragon fell asleep on the visitor’s cot. His dreams were strange, but his sleep was restful. The blacksmith did not wake him until many hours later, when his work in the forge was completed. He returned the weapon, its blade now etched with the sigil of a dragon.

“This sigil belongs to an ancient clan,” the blacksmith said, absently rubbing his right arm. “It’s yours now.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ve also strengthened the blade.” The blacksmith ran a finger along the spine of the weapon. “It held up well to the stress you put it through, but now you’ll never have to worry about it ever failing. If darkness itself were to assail you, this knife will cut it.”

Both men shook hands the warrior way, clasping each other’s forearm, and parted ways.

Dragon entered the tribe’s cemetery, and produced his friends’ dog tags from his pocket. He hung them from the great guardian tree that watched over the dead. He could not erect graves for them, as they were not part of the tribe proper, but he could leave them in the hands of the guardian, who would welcome their souls and give them a place to rest. The nightmare is finally over. You are home now.

He briefly contemplated staying, disappearing again, but someone had to stand up to the monsters of the galaxy. There's always a kid, a girl, a woman, or a man who could use my help. Perhaps one day the hunter would lay down his claws and rest, but that day was not today.

***

CRS Vigilant

Classified

Dragon plugged his A-Wing's tracking beacon back in its socket before opening the comms. “Control, this is Second Lieutenant Arcfire, requesting permission to land.”

“Copy, Second Lieutenant,” responded Rex ‘Wizard’ Troy, the Vigilant’s Flight Control Officer. “Please stand by.”

“Copy,” Dragon said.

“There, no ears anymore.” Wizard grinned. “Sooooo, how’s my favorite Lizard? Where you’ve been, man?”

“Heh, around half the galaxy, it feels like.”

Wizard laughed. “Chasing a girl, probably. You rogue, you.”

Yeah, rub it in why don’t you? “Uh, something like that.”

“Oooh, what’s her name? Do I know her? Is this the beginning of a sordid tale of star-crossed lovers?”

“Wizard . . .”

“Alright, alright! I’m just messing with you. Don’t get your thrusters in a tizzy.” Wizard let out a chuckle before lowering his voice. “By the way, you didn’t hear it from me, but you might not get a warm welcome today. Some people aren’t happy with your antics.”

“Water is wet, man. What else is new?”

“Weeeeell, speaking of girls . . . Silence’s been asking for you.”

Dragon frowned. “Why? What could she possibly want with me?”

“She wouldn’t say, but look at you, all popular with the ladies. Traveling the galaxy far and wide, cutting a dashing figure as a New Republic hero, stealing hearts at every port . . . making me proud. I could shed a tear; my little Lizard has left the nest!”

“Oh hush, you.” Dragon shook his head. “Silence barely talks to me.”

“Well, you know what they say about the quiet ones . . . right?” Wizard laughed. “Anyway, time’s up, back to work.” He made a brief pause, then enunciated in a smooth-as-silk radio operator voice. It would be blasphemous if Flight Control ever sounded bad, or slightly off, on the radios. “Second Lieutenant Arcfire, you’re cleared to land. Welcome home.”

Dragon guided his A-Wing to the spot indicated by the hangar crew. The glowing sticks were impossible to miss. The ship touched down gently, almost soundlessly, save for the metal-on-metal contact between the landing gear and the flooring, and the hydraulics compensating for the weight of the craft. Dragon opened the cockpit and climbed out. He was about to remove his helmet when four sour-faced individuals aimed their guns at him.

“Second Lieutenant Arcfire,” said Darlene Orvan in a crisp, all-business military voice. “You are under arrest for desertion, and for stealing New Republic property. Anything you say will be used against you in your upcoming court martial.” She leaned close to him and whispered. “I’m going to bury you, Arcfire.”

“Hi, Darling, no welcome home kiss?” Dragon grinned. “If you’re gonna have your way with me, at least buy me a drink first, hm?”

Her expression immediately hardened, but said nothing. She looked at her subordinates, and she was sure they were stifling laughter. “Show Second Lieutenant Arcfire to his accommodations.” The NRI soldiers exchanged furtive glances until Darlene raised her voice. “NOW!”

***

CRS Vigilant

The Brig, Dragon’s Cell

Twenty-three standard hours later, Darlene Orvan walked into Dragon’s cell. She sat down quickly, without saying a word.

“Hey, Darling, nice of you to drop by.”

“Be silent, Second Lieutenant.”

Dragon raised his hands in a conciliatory manner. “All right. I was just trying to lighten the mood, you know? You seem stressed. Have you ever thought of getting a massage? Maybe . . .”

Darlene glared at him. “Why did you leave the CRS Vigilant?”

“I had work to do.”

She leaned close. “What kind of work?”

“Oh, just close encounters of the Porg kind. It was an out-of-body experience, I tell you.” Dragon summoned up all of his willpower both to not laugh in front of Darlene, and to keep a deadpan face.

I hate my karking job. Darlene muttered to herself. “I’ll ask you one last time. Why did you leave the CRS Vigilant?”

“I’d say it’s all in my report, but you decided to drag me here as soon as I landed, so . . .” He shrugged.

She slammed her right fist on the table. “SPIT IT OUT ALREADY!”

“Use your NRI powers and search for Operation Dark Protocol, Darling.”

She huffed. “What’s Operation Dark Protocol?”

“Classified,” Dragon put forth his best druk-eating grin.

Darlene massaged her temples. Yep, here comes the migraine. It never fails. “You know what, I might just do that instead of wasting my time with you.”

The cell door opened with a hiss and a soldier walked in. He offered a crisp salute. “Captain Orvan.”

She returned the salute. “Soldier.”

“Here’s the prisoner’s paperwork, Captain. It needs your signature.”

“What?” She took the flimsiplast sheets and began reading. Second Lieutenant Arcfire was acting under authorization from Colonel Vince Rambo to execute a classified operation known as Dark Protocol. Any and all charges levied against . . .

“WHAT IS THIS STEAMING PILE OF DRUK!?” Darlene slammed the flimsiplast sheets on the table. “ALL CHARGES LEVIED AGAINST THIS KARKING SLUG SPAWN ARE ACQUITTED? THIS IS PREPOSTEROUS!!!”

The soldier grimaced and seemed to shrink. “I, uh . . . it’s Colonel Rambo’s prerogative ma’am. I’m just the messenger, please, j-just doing my job. All of this is way beyond my paygrade.”

Darlene hissed. “Yes, of course. Of course.” She signed the forms, and then turned to face Dragon. Her right leg came up like a flash of lightning, striking him on the jaw with brutal precision—a roundhouse kick no one saw coming.

Dragon fell off the chair and crashed against the wall before ending up splayed on the cell’s floor. Stars and spots danced in his vision, like a million angry Ewoks mugging an Imperial AT-ST. What in blazes ran me over? He groaned.

The soldier drew his sidearm. “Ma’am! Step away from the prisoner, NOW!”

From the ground, Dragon raised a hand. His speech slurred. “It’s okay, soldier . . . Captain Orvan is just stressed, is all. Ow, kark it all.”

“Sir, should I call security?”

With supreme effort, Dragon pulled himself back up to the chair and sat down. “No, no, everything’s fine, we’re all fine here. How are you?”

The soldier frowned. The Second Lieutenant didn’t seem fine at all. “Are you sure, sir? I think your jaw may be broken.”

“Yes, yes, no beer though, something stronger. I mean, wait. No, you did your duty, soldier, uh, what’s the word? Dismissed, yeah, you’re dismissed, at ease, or something.” Dragon managed a groggy salute.

The soldier returned the salute, clearly concerned. “Yes, sir. Uh, I’ll notify medical. They’ll be expecting you, yeah?”

“Sure, I’ll drop like a bag of rocks. Yes.”

The soldier nodded, confusion, incredulity, and concern bidding for real estate on his face.

Once the soldier was gone, Dragon painfully raised his head to look at Darlene. “By the Force, Darling. You got some legs on you.” He half-laughed and half-winced.

Darlene ground her teeth and leaned very close to his aching face. “Consider that your ‘welcome home kiss’ Second Lieutenant. If you can’t take the heat . . .” She turned and left, leaving the door open.

Oh, I can take all the heat, Darling, make no mistake about that. I just think your career is wasted as a spook. You’d make a killing as a professional fighter in the ring. Why are you even hanging around these stiff military gonks? Anyway, big points Darling. Bonus for breaking my jaw too. Dragon winced. Oof, I’m going to need something for this throbbing headache. It even hurts to think, argh. He looked at the open door, but he didn’t want to move. I’m just gonna nap here until someone comes to kick me out, hopefully not in a literal way, and then I’ll drag my sorry butt to medical. The nurse will get a ‘kick’ out of it, I’m sure.

Footsteps echoed on the hallway outside, and someone peeked into the cell.

“There you are!” Said a female voice.

Oh kark, no . . . what now? Can it wait until later, perhaps next week? Maybe next month? Or never? Head spinning and mind sinking into a swamp of molasses, pain, and slug spawn primal fluids—shaken, not stirred, of course—Dragon forced a pain-wracked smile. “Silence, what can I do for you?”