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04.05.2012 , 09:58 AM | #2
Record 001: Nal Hutta

Kjara allowed herself a little bit of pride at a job well done as she strode into the Poison Pit. Vexx had been the toughest bit of scum they could find on Hutta, and she'd taken down the loudmouthed Corellian fool without any real difficulty. If Braden thought that would be enough to get Nem'ro's attention, things were looking good.

"Hey, guys, mission accomplished!" she called as she stepped through the doorway of their rented HQ. "Who's up for a round of—"

Unable to understand the scene in front of her for a moment, she fell silent, her hand going instinctively for her blaster. Jory, the green Nikto, was sprawled on the floor near his console, and near the center of the room was Braden, marked by blaster fire and clearly dead.

What happened? Who could have...

"Hey, old-timers!" Mako's voice chimed behind her. Still in shock, Kjara couldn't turn in time to stop the slicer from coming in and seeing her friends in this state. "Jory? Braden?" She ran into the room, but stopped several strides behind the Chiss bounty hunter, her eyes on the man who had virtually been a father to her. "What happened?! Is he..."

"I don't know, I just got here, but..." Kjara hesitated, but Mako knew Braden's fate; there was no point trying to hedge it. "I'm sorry, Mako, but... he's gone." She hastily reached out and caught the girl as she rushed towards Braden's prone form. "Hey, slow down and breathe for a second, okay?"

"Stop treating me like a child!" the slicer cried, angrily shoving her away. With the way clear, she made her way to the old hunter's side, falling to her knees. "Braden's... he's really..."

Kjara looked away as Mako burst into tears. She didn't know the girl well enough to try to comfort her, but she should say something. "Mako... I'm—"

"You." The accusation in the girl's voice as she turned to face Kjara took the Chiss woman aback. "You had something to do with this, didn't you?!"

"I— what?" The hunter could see the logic in the assumption; she'd been here alone before the slicer arrived, with her pistol in hand, but... "Mako, I just got here myself — but besides that, why would I do this?"

Doubt clouded Mako's expression for a moment as she wrestled with the question, but she finally sighed, her shoulders slumping. "I... I'm sorry, I know you don't have any reason to do this. I don't know what came over me. I just... I can't believe he's gone..."

"It's okay, I know this has to be difficult," Kjara replied awkwardly. "I'm sorry."

Mako wiped her eyes with seeming impatience at her bout of weeping. "Not nearly as sorry as whoever did this is gonna be," she said in a determined voice. "Jory and I set up surveillance gear all over this room, so whatever happened here should've been recorded."

Yesterday, the hunter might have found that overly paranoid, but today's events proved how naive she'd been. "Good. Then we can find out what kind of bastard did this. But..." Tentatively, she reached out and laid her hand on Mako's forearm. "First, we should..." She glanced towards the bodies of their crewmates.

The slicer's expression was blank for a moment, but she finally nodded in acquiescence. "Give me Vexx's ID tags. The creds from his bounty should cover..." she trailed off.

"Right." Kjara handed over the tags without a word of complaint. They weren't totally destitute, yet, and some things deserved to be done properly.

"I'll... get this taken care of," Mako said sadly. "I know who to talk to to keep it quiet." She met Kjara's eyes, and the hunter nodded her understanding: this was not to be discussed outside of this room. "Let me see if I can get a hold of Vorrtu, or Lek'shin..."

As Mako turned to the main terminal and began poking around, Kjara sank into a chair and rubbed at her face. Was this going to be the end of her bid at the Great Hunt, before it had even begun?

When Kjara returned to their makeshift base at the Poison Pit the next morning, any trace of the violence from the day before had been removed.

Mako was already there, tapping away at the main terminal. She spoke up before the bounty hunter could inquire how she was feeling. "I tried to pull up the security recording, but someone's tried to tamper with it. They didn't do a very good job, though, so I'm reconstructing the part we need."

"Tampering? Probably our killer, huh?" Crossing her arms, the Chiss waited for Mako to work her magic.

"Probably, who else would need to? Oh, here we go, easy really, they didn't even lock the—"

Before the splicer could offer an explanation that Kjara probably wouldn't have understood anyway, a holorecording popped to life on the tabletop terminal behind them. As the pair looked on, two men in Mandalorian-style armor walked into the room, the hostility in their posture visible even in the small holo. Braden and Jory rose to meet them and told them to leave, and then one of the Mandos spoke.

"Oh, I know precisely what's good for me. Winning the Great Hunt won't merely be good — it will be splendid."

Kjara was glad that her arms were crossed; it concealed the way she tensed at the sound of that voice. No. No, it's not possible, how—?

The build was the same, the hair was the same, and the arrogant tone was the same. She held her tongue; if she made note of any connection to Braden's killer, regardless of how incidental and fleeting it was, Mako would be convinced of her involvement, she was sure. In silence, she watched the rest of the holo playback, feeling as if the floor was dropping out from under her feet.

"When I win, the entire galaxy will know the name of Tarro Blood."

Blood turned slightly towards the recorder, and the rayed tattoo across the right side of his face was instantly recognizable, solidly confirming his identity. That isn't the name I knew, was all the Chiss could think, her mind whirling.

As the recording continued, Braden said something about Blood being in the Great Hunt before, and being beaten by other Mandalorians. The younger hunter's voice and expression turned darker at that.

"Ah, yes. That. An... unfortunate bit of history, wouldn't you agree, old man?" He seemed to stare Braden down for a moment. "This time, I plan to win. Of course, that will be simpler if my competition doesn't include any real rivals beyond my fellow Mandalorians... That Twi'lek vibroblade master from Ord Mantell? Gone. The Chiss droid builder fond of explosives? Gone. That just leaves your protege to remove. I saved that bit of satisfaction for last."

Me. One of Kjara's hands crept up to her throat; she could feel her pulse hammering beneath her skin. He missed his chance. He could have...

Poor Jory defiantly told the Mandalorians that they'd failed, that Kjara wasn't there, but Blood just shook his head.

"You misunderstand," he said in the tone of one explaining something to a child or a simpleton. "The rules forbid killing competitors before the allotted hour. Thus, the promising up-and-comers I mentioned are very much alive."

And then he told his lieutenant to kill Braden and Jory, and left the room. Kjara might have told Mako to look away, but she knew the girl would have none of it. Together, they watched in silence as the other two members of their crew were killed in cold blood.

The holo abruptly disappeared as the slicer jammed a button on the console. "That scum," she grated, her voice shaking. "He didn't even have the guts to kill them himself. He had his lackey do it, the coward!"

The hunter had to agree with Mako's assessment of his character. What kind of bounty hunter got others to take care of his dirty work? That was half the point of their profession. Unless his disregard for Braden and Jory was meant as an insult, an assertion that they weren't worth getting his hands dirty for... But blast it, this was a dirty job, and if he didn't like that part, he didn't have any business being a hunter, let alone running in the Great Hunt!

"Is that really him? Tarro Blood?" she made herself ask. The name sounded passingly familiar; perhaps she'd come across it researching past Great Hunts, but she'd had no face to associate with it, until now.

"Seems like it." Mako shook her head, as if to clear it, then began working the terminal. Displays popped up with articles dated ten years before — mostly rumor reports rather than true news — and the visage of a younger Blood appeared, without the distinctive tattoo. Still, there was no doubt about it: he was the man who had come here, the same man Kjara had recently met under vastly different circumstances.

"He's a big shot even for a Mandalorian," Mako was explaining, gesturing at one of the articles to enlarge the text. "When he started out, he was major news: some minor Alderaanian lord's son who got himself trained by one of the best hunters in the galaxy. Rumor says that a bunch of Mandalorians united against him when he joined the Great Hunt and they took him down hard — nearly killed him. He was out of the picture for years."

"So now he's cheating to give himself a leg up," Kjara said darkly. How could she have known...

"Looks like." The discussion seemed to have distracted Mako from her grief, so far, but now she fell silent for a moment.

The hunter was still reeling with the implications of what had happened here, but there was one thing she was sure of. "He'll pay for this," she promised in a low voice. Braden had been an esteemed hunter and deserved better, and both Braden and Jory had been killed to strike at her. In her mind, it was her responsibility to find retribution for them.

...And if Tarro Blood thought that he was going to keep her out of the Great Hunt like this, he had another thing coming. He'd only managed to add to her determination to get in.

"If he wants the Great Hunt so bad, that's where we'll take him on," she declared, causing Mako to look up at her in mild surprise. "I signed on with you guys to win, and I've got no intention of letting some sore loser push me out before we even start. Are you still with me?"

"Of course!" the slicer assured her. "We've gotta do this... for Braden. He thought you could make it, he really did."

Kjara nodded, her expression solemn. "He gave me a shot, and I'm gonna take it."

"Okay." Mako took a deep, steadying breath. "Nem'ro's still our ticket in, but Braden..." she faltered for a moment, "Braden was going to help get you on the Hutt's good side. I think as long as no one knows that Braden's gone, I can still get you an audience with Nem'ro. It'll be tricky, and I'll have to call in a lot of favors, but..." She wiggled her fingers in a pantomime of typing and gave Kjara a weak smile.

"All right, good. Great." The Chiss shook her head in a vain attempt to focus. "If you're gonna work on that, I'm gonna go have some target practice." She could really use something to shoot, right now. "I imagine taking out some of Fa'athra's goons wouldn't hurt my chances, yeah?"

"No, you're right. In fact," Mako added, "if you can take down some of their street captains, Nem'ro might see it as a favor."

"Huh. Even better, then." Kjara's hand dropped to rest on the grip of her holstered blaster. "Give me a buzz if you need me. I'll be taking out the trash."

"‘Kay. I'll probably be here for a while." The girl's attention was already drifting towards her slicing, and she punctuated her words with a distracted wave of farewell.

Wishing she could tune out distractions half as easily, Kjara took her time walking down the Pit's back hallway, trying to parse her thoughts. Half-formed ideas writhed around in her mind like that smuggler's tank full of fancy eels, and she'd have no peace until she sorted them out and examined them.

Tarro Blood. What did he really want with me on Nar Shaddaa? Had he known or suspected, even before she had, that Braden was there to recruit her for the Great Hunt? She remembered his annoyance when she wouldn't explain her next job; had he been fishing for that very specific information?

And if he did know that, or even thought it likely, why didn't he simply get rid of her before she was protected by the rules of the Hunt? I was careless, that night. I never thought I'd have to worry about something like that. I don't have any other hunters hating my guts — at least, not that I know of — and I don't owe anyone money... I keep my slate clean. Again, she'd been naive, dangerously so. He could have killed me with his bare hands if he wanted; I never would have expected it. And even in the casino district, it's not hard to make someone disappear on Nar Shaddaa.

Maybe he hadn't thought she was worth the trouble. Perhaps he'd taken the evening to size her up, and ruled her out as a serious competitor — it sounded on the holorecording that he'd only eliminated certain hunters he saw as real threats. But if that were true, what had changed his mind? She hadn't done much here on Hutta besides taking out Vexx, and that was when Blood and his lackey had attacked. They must have made the decision to do so before yesterday, so it was unlikely some action on her part had prompted it.

Of course... she couldn't dismiss the possibility that their meeting on Nar Shaddaa had been nothing more than a strange coincidence.

She could only imagine his chagrin when he found out that she was a prospective competitor, if that were true. Or maybe that had been a reason for him to attack her crew — a spiteful lashing-out when he realized he'd missed his chance to eliminate her earlier. But that gives me too much credit and Braden too little. If Blood was trying to eliminate really troublesome rivals, surely he'd aimed for Braden's group because of the old hunter's reputation, not her own. He had seemed a bit hostile towards Braden at some points, perhaps as if the older man had crossed him before, but Braden had seemed dismissive and impersonal. Was there some perceived slight from Braden in Blood's past? The sort of thing a Mando would carry a grudge for?

Possibly. Bounty hunters made enemies and gained rivals; it was just part of that way of life. That Kjara hadn't managed to do so until now simply demonstrated how inexperienced and unknown she was... but that was apparently changing.

Maybe, possibly, if. Maybe he's done all this to just drive me mad before the Hunt even begins, she thought, rubbing her forehead. Flames. There was a saying on Dromund Kaas: Give a Chiss a five-piece puzzle, and they'll solve it into seven pieces. Kjara wasn't a great example of the typical Chiss mindset in most ways, but even she had that tendency to assume a problem was complicated, and to dissect it as minutely as possible. She didn't truly think Blood knew that about her or her people, but even if it was unintentional, the confusion he'd caused her was almost as much of a handicap as losing Braden and Jory.

She'd reached the cantina's main taproom by now. This early in the day, it was relatively unpopulated, and she was strongly tempted to stop for a spiked mug of caf. She knew, however, that sitting down and trying to relax would be an open invitation for all of those half-baked ideas to come bursting forth, each "maybe" vying for her attention. No... her first instinct had been the right one. It was time to go shoot things, to lose herself in the simplicity of aiming and firing her blaster, ducking for cover, and sowing general mayhem with her wrist-rockets. Hunting down Fa'athra's gangsters would require her full concentration, but blessed little conscious thought — just what the doctor ordered at a time like this.

Gonna be a bad day to be on Fa'athra's payroll, she thought grimly, drawing her blaster as she stepped out into the sunlight.
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