The Shadow Council
The planet of the surface was just as unsettling as it had appeared from space. The sky was a harsh red, bathing everything in a crimson hue that added an extra hint of gloom to the planet. A forest of brambles that curled and twisted into dense thickets hid whatever creatures lurked beneath watching the First Light’s elongated vessel flying overhead. Vast craggy mountains with sheer cliffs that reached toward the blood-red sky sat at the edge of the forest like towering guards sneering down at the land below.
Qi’ra did as the mysterious woman had ordered; sending the craft to the coordinates that had been given before setting down in what was the first clearing she had seen on the planet. As First Light came to a stop she took a deep breath.
As soon as she stepped foot from this ship she would be vulnerable in a foreign world where the very nature’s aesthetic screamed terror. There was something wrong about this place. Something…dark. She now understood why she had never heard of Maul until now. Why he never had been seen conversing with Dryden Vos in person. One could live on this planet for the duration of their years and never be found, for who would ever think to come to a place like this?
She walked over to the fallen sword that had killed Dryden Vos. As she knelt to pick it up she found her gaze involuntarily drawn to Dryden’s pale corpse. At his eyes whose pupils had reddened with the death blow, revealing his mysterious alien genes. She brushed her finger over his cold cheek and shuddered.
Even though she didn’t want to admit it, something deep within her had grown to love him. And she had killed him. Just as easily as she had killed her worst enemy. What did that say about herself? Would she have done the same thing to Han if a chance for a better life presented itself to her in the way that killing Dryden did? She didn’t want to know the answer even though in her heart she knew what she would do…and it scared her.
Qi’ra stepped onto the hard soil of Dathomir, the squawks of alien birds and other strange creatures she hoped not to confront filling the air. Her sword rested in a sheath on her back and her tan jacket now covered her bodice. She was thankful for the jacket, for the air was crisp with biting cold.
She surveyed her bleak surroundings and decided to walk forward. As if on queue three people clothed in shrouded cloaks stepped from the bramble forest before her. She stopped, her hand moving to the pommel of her sword.
The three individuals halted a couple of yards away before the one in the middle removed their hood, revealing what Qi’ra guessed was the woman who had been in the hologram.
The woman was of a pale complexion–exactly which color Qi’ra could not tell due to the sky’s red tint that discolored everything–and her skin was wrinkled from very old age. That devious smirk that Qi’ra had noticed on the hologram still rested on her face as she beheld her.
“He was right. You are definitely a fighter,” the woman mused.
“What are you talking about?” Qi’ra demanded. She didn’t have time to deal with this old woman and her strange sayings about Qi’ra as if she already knew her.
“Maul has spoken many times with the man that you announced was slain,” the woman began. “Dryden Vos, I think was his name.”
Qi’ra nodded in approval.
“Dryden said a lot about you,” she continued. “He told us of your uncanny fighting skills. I do not need to see you display your abilities to know he was right.”
Qi’ra didn’t want to feel a hint of pride at her words of appraisal but she did anyway. Qi’ra had worked hard when learning the technicalities of Teräs Käsi. She trained every day, waiting for the moment when she would use her knowledge of the martial-art form to defeat Dryden Vos. Her persistent training came in handy.
The woman gestured toward the forest behind her. “Come with us.”
Qi’ra’s jaw clenched but she walked forward. The woman’s smirk deepened as she turned, leading Qi’ra into the thicket of brambles.
Qi’ra kept her vigilance up as the other two cloaked individuals walked behind her in perfect side-by-side formation. When she glanced back at them she noticed that their gazes never left her. As her attention faced forward once more she felt a bit of sweat trickle down the back of her neck.
The smirking woman she could take with an easy cleave of the sword at the neck but the cloaked ones behind her…there was no doubt that they were trained warriors–their demeanor said as much, meaning she would probably have a hard time fighting the both of them.
She was so caught up running scenarios in her head in case she did have to fight that she didn’t know they had reached their destination until she heard the woman speak.
“Maul’s domain,” the woman announced.
Qi’ra’s gaze refocused and when she looked ahead a building made of dark crimson stone with towering turrets sat before her in the thicket of the forest. Glowing red lines riddled the building’s otherwise pristine surface, flowing in thick rivulets down its walls and turrets. Once again, Qi’ra found herself thinking the red lines looked unnervingly like blood.
Into this building they walked. The front entrance slid open with a loud hiss after the woman punched in a secret combination so quickly Qi’ra couldn’t have possibly seen the passcode. The woman looked back with that incessant smirk as if knowing Qi’ra had been looking.
They walked through the building’s dark and vast halls, the red light from outside streaming into the castle’s interior through elongated slitted windows, bathing everything in an eerie red glow. Their footsteps echoed on the stone floors, adding yet another sense of spookiness to the situation as they moved through the furniture-less citadel.
And then finally, they reached a foreboding door whose surface had been engraved with glowing green ancient runes that Qi’ra could not understand.
“Mother Talzin’s curses are engraved upon this door for protection,” the woman suddenly spoke as if sensing Qi’ra’s curiosity. The woman looked at Qi’ra. “Even though she is no longer with us her blessing lives on.”
The woman simply touched the door and it opened in response. Inside the room was the first sign of furniture within the castle. A long black table sat in the middle of the vast space with walls lined by ridged columns that stood slanted as if holding up the walls that enclosed them.
Eight pairs of eyes belonging to four individuals seated at the table turned to her as she entered the room. Qi’ra immediately recognized them to be the leaders of the other four crime syndicates.
Ziya Reeves, leader of the Black Sun Syndicate, was unmistakably Falleen with her olive-green skin, ridged head crowned with a bronze headdress that perfectly perched upon the topmost ridge in the middle of her skull, and a long black ponytail that jutted from the back of the head and down her back. She was of a particularly thick build that was even visible under her sweeping blue robe with its massive red collar, giving her an instant air of menace.
Opposite Ziya Reeves was Jabba the Hutt, leader of the Hutt Clan, whose size was too great to sit in a chair. Instead, he rested on the ground, his massive slug-like body, dark grey on the backside and a putrid mottled yellowish-brown on the front side, taking up two chairs worth of seating. His bulbous orange eyes seared leeringly onto Qi’ra and his slimy tongue, thick with white saliva, eased out of his mouth as if he was tasting the air. Qi’ra thought she was going to be sick.
Next to Ziya Reeves was Tarnaj Ahuul, leader of the Crymorah Syndicate. She easily recognized him to be a Cerean due to his elongated cone-like cranium that stood out amongst his fellow Crime Syndicates. His head was hairless but the color of his thick eyebrows and beard was a dark violet. His face, faintly lined, was surprisingly handsome and reeked that born of noble blood. He wore a black tunic lined with golden tracings whose close-fitting bodice revealed a muscular physique.
And across from Tarnaj Ahuul sat Gurk-Hute Halla, leader of the Pyke Syndicates. His gaze, lost behind the Pykes’ patented helmet that resembled a halved hexagon, focused on Qi’ra intently. She only hoped he wouldn’t realize that she was the same person who had helped orchestrate the rebellion on Kessel.
And then, at the very end of the table, cloaked in shadow, sat Maul. Qi’ra’s heart skipped a beat when she saw him. The fear that had seized her aboard First Light was threatening to overwhelm her again as she mentally quaked beneath his yellow gaze.
There was something about his stare. Like he could see directly into her, mentally extracting the lies she had told him about Dryden’s death, discovering the truth which is, of course, that she had been the one to kill him. Not Han.
Snapping her out of her fearful state, Maul said, “You arrived quicker than I expected.”
She raised her chin, trying to look self-confident even though her heart was hammering within her breast.
“After what happened to Dryden Vos I knew I needed to get away from Savareen as quickly as possible, lest his killers return,” she replied. She was thankful her voice hadn’t quivered.
Maul nodded. “Then sit. We have much to discuss.”
In the split-second, before she abided by his wish she found herself wondering again what would happen if she turned around and ran for her life. The odds of her survival were nearly nonexistent.
So, with her palms sweating and her heart racing, she walked toward the table and sat.