A Mother's Hope
Senya braced herself as she began her descent; the polluted atmosphere of Ord Mantell made turbulence common. Tightening her grip on the controls, she fought to stabilize the shuttle as it rattled and bucked.
A sharp, high pitched beep rose from the back of the ship, the various machines hooked up to Arcann's unconscious body in the makeshift med-bay signaling in protest as they were jostled by the rough ride. She was coming in fast and steep, making the turbulence worse. But the longer she stayed airborne, the greater the chance sensors from the surface would pick her up. The people of Ord Mantell had no love for the Eternal Throne's new Empress, but the massive reward Vaylin was offering for her mother's capture might be enough to make some of them reconsider their loyalties.
The surface of the planet below her was virtually invisible in the night's gloom, but Senya knew where she was going. She punched in the coordinates and brought the shuttle safely down a few kilometers away from her destination. Making the last part of her journey on foot may have been overly cautious, but the stakes were too high to take unnecessary chances. She checked on her comatose son one last time, ensuring his vitals were stable and that all the tubes and wires running to his body were still connected. Satisfied the landing hadn't jarred anything loose, she exited the shuttle and sealed it behind her.
Just coming to Ord Mantell had been a risk, but it was one she was forced to accept. She'd done her best to tend to her son, but Arcann's injuries were beyond her ability to heal. If she couldn't find someone more skilled to help him, he wouldn't last much longer.
Allies were in short supply for Senya. She'd turned her back on the Alliance, betraying the Outlander for the sake of her son. And Vaylin was hunting her with all the resources of Zakuul and the Eternal Empire. Yet when all seemed darkest, a single ray of hope had emerged from an unlikely source: the Scions. Scattered and in hiding since the death of their leader, the visionaries that once guided the Eternal Empire had reached out to her.
At first, Senya had suspected some kind of trick. During his reign Arcann had hunted the Scions to the brink of extinction. But the Scions were driven only by their prophecies and visions, not by vengeance. They claimed they wanted the deposed Emperor to live; they believed he still had some role to play. She hadn't asked what destiny the Scions had foreseen for Arcann – she wasn't even sure she wanted to know. Saving her son's life was all that mattered, and she was desperate and running out of options. So when the Scions told her to go to Ord Mantell, she had listened.
She wasn't here to meet with the Scions themselves, however. They were still too cautious – too vulnerable – to risk exposure. Instead, they had sent her to meet her own kind. The vast majority of the Knights of Zakuul were still loyal to the Eternal Throne, regardless of who sat upon it. But given Vaylin's violent history towards their ranks, there were some who were not ready to swear fealty to her. They feared Vaylin would disband – or even destroy – their order.
These men and women who dared to stand against the new Empress, the Scions had explained in their message, were now Senya's best hope. They had medical equipment and supplies she could not acquire, and experts who knew how to properly use them. And they respected Senya. She'd fought side-by-side with many of them; the others knew her well by reputation. If she could convince them to help her; to help Arcann…
They will listen to me. They have to.
The night was dark; Ord Mantell's twin moons shrouded by thick, noxious brown clouds. The only illumination came from her lightsaber pike, the soft blue glow of the blade just barely piercing the blackness only a meter ahead.
Her steps were slow and cautious; the uneven, hard-packed crust of dirt crunched softly beneath her boots as she made her way through the impenetrable gloom. Based on the coordinates she'd been given, she knew she was close. But something felt off. There were no signs of a camp: no flickers of light in the distance; no whispers of far-off movement; no sentries stepping forward to challenge her approach.
Senya reached out warily with the Force, delving into the surrounding darkness. She sensed nothing unusual, but her probings were clumsy and awkward: her training had focused primarily on using the Force in combat.
Her senses now on high alert, she crept forward until her foot stepped into a small puddle. The audible splash brought with it the sharp, almost metallic, scent of rhydonium. The sickly smell of fuel amplified her unease, and her fingers clenched around the hilt of her pike.
She took another step, then noticed something on the ground – a dark, misshapen shadow barely visible in the illumination of her glowing pike. She tilted her weapon downwards to reveal a severed arm at her feet. She recognized the metal gauntlet encasing it: she'd worn the same armor herself for decades. A few steps away she found the rest of the body lying face down, the remaining limbs twisted and contorted into unnatural positions.
Steeling herself against a mounting dread, she pressed on further. The second body was only a few meters away, but in the pitch-black surroundings she didn't notice him until he was at her feet. Unlike the first victim, this one was on his back. In the dim glow of her weapon, she could clearly make out the grotesque expression of pure terror etched on his face.
Even though she didn't recognize him, Senya felt a kinship with the fallen warrior. She had been a Knight of Zakuul herself; these were her brothers and sisters. She had trained with them, lived with them, fought with them.
Moving slowly, Senya paced off an ever widening circle in the darkness. Puddles of rhydonium dotted the ground, the tiny chrome pools reflecting and amplifying the glow of her lightsaber to reveal the broken bodies of several more fallen knights. She had come to their camp for help, knowing they wouldn't turn away one of their own. Now they were dead, their bodies broken and scattered… and Senya knew it was her fault.
This wasn't coincidence. Reaching out to the rogue knights had drawn Vaylin's attention. Their blood was on her hands. But she didn't have the luxury of guilt. Not if she wanted to save her son. It was time to go; there was nothing here for her now.
A soft splash from the darkness snapped her head around. She took a step towards the sound, extending the tip of the pike to investigate. In the soft illumination she saw something she recognized immediately: a hand-carved child's toy, cast aside and abandoned in the dirt.
She braced herself as brisk footsteps approached. A familiar figure materialized from the darkness, her hands alight with crackling sparks of energy. Vaylin flared her fingers out, the sparks arcing from the tips to catch on the rhydonium pool at her feet, setting it ablaze. The fire spread quickly, leaping from puddle to puddle, crisscrossing the surrounding ground to carve out a blazing pattern that lit up the night.
With the rising flames, Senya finally witnessed the true carnage Vaylin had unleashed on the camp: dozens of Knights – bodies mutilated and mangled – had been tossed haphazardly amongst the scattered wreckage of ships and shuttles torn asunder. The full breadth of the slaughter sent a chill down her back; grim evidence of the horrors her daughter was capable of.
Senya raised her weapon, only to have it wrenched effortlessly from her hands by the Force. The pike sailed ten meters through the air and into Vaylin's waiting grasp.
She could crush my skull in an instant, Senya realized. And I'd be powerless to stop her!
But when Vaylin raised the stolen lightsaber pike and charged, she knew that wouldn't happen – her daughter wanted the visceral pleasure of slicing her down in combat.
Using the Force to pull the lightsaber of one of the fallen knights into her own hand, Senya met the charge head on. The glowing blades clashed with a loud, crackling hiss, and for an instant the two combatants stood face-to-face, only centimeters apart, surrounded by the orange flames spreading rapidly through the camp.
Senya was close enough to stare into Vaylin's eyes. They burned with hate, pure and savage; all trace of the child that had once clung to her mother's side was gone. Shocked by the intensity of her daughter's vicious loathing, Senya was forced to look away. In that instant Vaylin dropped down into a crouch, swinging her pike in a wide, sweeping arc meant to cut her mother's legs out from under her. But Senya had already sprung clear with a graceful backflip, landing in a defensive stance to meet Vaylin's next assault.
"Afraid to stand and fight me, Mother?" Vaylin asked with a sly smile. The flames burning all around them cast strange, flickering shadows across her face.
Instead of replying, Senya braced herself for the coming charge, quietly confident in her own skills. They'd clashed once before, and Senya had prevailed: her daughter might be stronger in the Force, but Senya had spent decades mastering the art of hand-to-hand combat. If Vaylin wanted to fight her, the outcome was inevitable.
As expected, Vaylin rushed at her with unrestrained fury, the pike becoming a spinning, whirling instrument of death in her nimble hands. Senya parried the initial flurry, redirecting each blow with subtle counters and deflections that allowed her to slow the momentum of Vaylin's charge. Then she switched from defense to offense, retaliating with her own sequence of quick cuts and thrusts meant not to kill, but to drive her daughter back, keeping her off balance and in perpetual retreat.
But instead of giving ground, Vaylin countered with another vicious assault, putting Senya on the defensive again. Surprised, the older woman staggered back, ducking to the side as the pike skimmed past her cheek close enough for her to feel the heat of the glowing blade. It clipped the tip of her shoulder, carving a small chunk from her armor.
The next blow nearly took her leg below the knee – at the very last instant Senya snatched her foot clear. But though she'd spared her limb, she was off balance and out of position. Vaylin pounced, hacking and slashing at her mother; what she lacked in technique she more than made up for in speed and relentless aggression.
Reflexes and instincts honed over thirty years of training allowed Senya to keep the killing blow at bay… but only barely. She ducked and darted to the left, leaping over one of the raging walls of fire crisscrossing the camp.
She's stronger now. Faster. More confident.
But there were still flaws in Vaylin's form. Now that she had measured her opponent, Senya saw subtle imperfections she could exploit.
Her daughter leaped over the wall of fire between them and charged again. She was pressing the action, trying to overwhelm Senya and go for the quick kill. On the next pass, Senya let the tip of her lightsaber dip, offering a brief opening. As expected, Vaylin seized on the sudden vulnerability. But Senya was ready; anticipating her daughter's strike she sidestepped the blow and got in close enough to throw an elbow into Vaylin's chest, staggering her back.
Vaylin caught her footing a step before she stumbled into the nearby flames. Enraged, she rushed her mother again, redoubling her efforts. Senya continued to feint and bait her opponent, using her own aggression against her to control the battle. She could sense her daughter's frustration mounting as the battle dragged on – her attacks became more desperate, more frenzied. Time and time again Vaylin saw what she thought was an opportunity to end the battle in a single blow, only to have it snatched away at the last instant by her elusive foe.
Fatigue began to take its toll. The blinding speed of Vaylin's attacks slowed ever so slightly as her muscles began to ache. She was lunging and flailing, off balance and out of sorts. Both combatants were breathing heavily, but unlike her daughter, Senya had been pacing herself, holding something in reserve.
"You still fight with too much raw emotion," Senya grunted as she parried another blow, hoping there was still some part of the little girl she had raised inside the savage creature in front of her. "It clouds your mind."
"You sound like SCORPIO," Vaylin sneered, swiping ineffectually at the air where her target had been a split second before. "Always talking about logic and reason."
"Is that who you take orders from now?" Senya pressed. "A machine?"
Vaylin flicked her wrist, hurtling Senya through the air to slam against the hull of one of the broken vessels surrounding the camp. Senya crumpled to the ground, momentarily stunned.
"SCORPIO is not the Empress!" Vaylin snarled, striding towards her fallen opponent. "She commands the GEMINI fleet, but they all answer to me. I am the one who sits on the Eternal Throne!"
Shaking her head to clear the fog, Senya rose to one knee. A few meters away on either side, twin rows of flames blazed, the acrid smoke stinging her eyes and nostrils.
She can't defeat me in hand-to-hand combat, but she could still kill me anytime she likes. She's been toying with me this whole time.
"Why does the throne even matter to you?" she asked her daughter, still trying to reason with her.
Her question froze Vaylin in her tracks, giving Senya enough time to get back up on her feet.
"Your brother always wanted to be the Emperor," Senya reminded her. "But you never used to care about that."
"Zakuul needs a strong ruler," Vaylin replied, speaking slowly. "And the throne is mine, by birth and by right."
"Those sound like SCORPIO's words," Senya told her. "But I don't believe that's what you really want."
For several seconds Vaylin didn't answer, the silence broken only by the crackling flames.
"You know what I want mother—to kill you!"
Vaylin hurled her lightsaber pike like a spear, looking to impale Senya against the hull of the broken shuttle. But Senya anticipated the move, and rolled out of the way. The blade sliced through the metal plates and plunged deep into the side of the vessel.
A shrill whine rose like a scream: the sound of pressurized coolant spewing from a punctured hyperdrive. Senya had just long enough to register what had happened before the damaged hyperdrive exploded.
She came to a few seconds later, groggy, disoriented and with her ears ringing. The blast had thrown her twenty meters; tiny bits of twisted, melted metal that had once been the hull of the ship lay all around her. Forcing herself to her hands and knees, Senya turned her head from side to side, looking for Vaylin. But all she saw was smoke and flame; the fires had spread to consume the entire camp.
Somehow Senya rose unsteadily to her feet, then set off in a stumbling run back towards her ship and her son. As the flames fell farther and farther behind her, her head slowly cleared. Her thoughts briefly turned to the fallen knights, consumed by the funeral pyre that had once been their camp. They'd risked their lives to help her, and Vaylin had slaughtered them all.
She and Arcann were alone again. No allies. Nowhere to turn. But she was still alive… somehow.
The blast should have vaporized me.
There was only one explanation for her survival: Vaylin must have used the Force to shield them both from the worst of the explosion.
But why? So she can kill me later with her own hands? Or was she only trying to save herself, and I was just close enough to get caught up in her shield. And where is Vaylin now?
She knew her daughter was still alive; on some level Senya would have sensed her death. But even shielded by the Force, the blast would have been strong enough to leave Vaylin disoriented and weakened. Vulnerable and fearing for her life, she might have fled.
Or maybe she's still here. Maybe I'm leading her right to Arcann!
Senya slowed her pace, though she was already near the shuttle. Her daughter hated her; she had seen it in her eyes. But what – if anything – did she feel for her brother?
And if she's coming for him, can I even stop her?
She still hadn't come up with an answer by the time she reached her shuttle, which was as dark and silent as when she'd left it. She punched in the access code and the boarding ramp extended. With one last look over her shoulder, Senya climbed quickly inside, sealing the ship behind her.
The shuttle's interior lighting was dim, but compared to the blackness of the night there was ample illumination. Her son lay where she had left him; unconscious on the bed, ensnared in the web of tubes, wires and machines keeping him alive.
Senya crouched over him and gently caressed his brow. In her fingertips she felt his fever still raging, as hot as the flames that had consumed the knights' camp.
"I will find some way to save you," she whispered, letting her hand drop.
Taking a seat at the controls, she fired up the engines. A second later the vessel shot skyward, swallowed by the darkness.