Star Wars: Kandosii'tal

The Battle over Hypori

Hypori

1 month BBY

The golden light of Hypori's sun lit up the cold void of space, the planet below its rays spinning on inexorably as one edge of its shadowed side flickered with the occasional pinprick of artificial light. Rounding this corner of the shadow side would reveal at a glance a massive increase in light, which, once one's eyes adjusted, would resolve into hundreds of distinctive metal shapes. If the vacuum of space allowed any sound, however, there would be too much noise to decipher much of anything. At least, not for the first few seconds.

A newly arrived entity, however, an MC80 Liberty-type Star Cruiser, coasted soundlessly over the atmosphere of the planet below, moving in a straight line through space as dozens of side hatches opened, releasing smaller ships into the open void. All headed for the source of the disturbances before two more dropped out of hyperspace behind the cruiser. One, a gray Kuat Heavy Striker, was escorted by a blue-striped Incom X-Wing, its S-foils contracted to allow for maximum speed as they streaked by the Makrin Star. Their engines brought them over the surface of the kilometer-long vessel as they flared with thrust, both rolling to the left and arcing down relative to the nose of the Star.

Right into the biggest firefight the pilots had ever seen.

Star Destroyers and Mon Calamari Star Cruisers pounded each other with weapons that cracked the empty void in bursts of green and red plasma. TIE Fighters and A, X, and Y-Wings gyrated in deadly dances at high speeds, their attack vectors sometimes taking them off-course into a passing capital ship, where crash-and-burn was the order of the day. Into this mess the two ships waded, the Kandosii'tal and the Telia, spinning around plasma and explosions and ramming ships. A Venator-class Star Destroyer bombarded a Nebulon-class frigate with proton torpedoes, the now-unshielded vessel cracking in half just as the two fighters streaked through the flame-filled gap.

A squadron of TIE Fighters arced toward them and engaged, only headed off when a Corellian Corvette flew in and opened fire, all guns blazing, as was the style of its creators. The Kandosii'tal shimmied sideways around passing flotsam as the X-Wing on its tail followed suit, throttle decreasing as they weaved through a debris field from an obliterated Star Destroyer, then increasing once clear. They beelined for a ship in the distance, forming up on each other's wings as their course set in stone.


The Kandosii'tal, Hypori

"Tee, you have missile controls."

"Yes, sir," the droid answered in its usual monotone, though this statement held an element of excitement to it.

"Do we have a lock on that Destroyer?"

"That's an affirmative," Alen's voice said over the comlink. "Two formations of rebel fighters are moving to back us up."

Xel gave a feral grin. "Now where's the fun in that?"

"Fun?"

"Yes, for instance, counting the number of TIEs we can vape in the space of an hour." Even as he finished his sentence, Xel could see multiple X and Y-Wings arcing to join them in their approach. He mock sighed. "Guess we'll just have to share the glory."

"That's assuming you get any," another voice laughed. "Red Three, reporting for duty. We'll keep those TIEs off you and the Golds."

"Roger that," Alen answered. "Red group, set S-foils in attack position. All Y-Wing bombers, form up behind the Reds and in front of us. We'll take care of the rest."

Xel smirked malevolently and tightened his hold on the controls. "Oya, vode."


1 month earlier

The Kandosii'tal, Makrin Star

A pair of red lips gently traced their way over a set of firm pectorals, their owner chuckling lightly as his left hand glided over the woman's back. The soft contacts and caresses were mirrored by the softness of the sheets covering the pair as they slowly began to wake. When her lips went to his neck, he sighed gently and pulled her up by the arms, lips meeting in a soft embrace a second later before they pulled apart. His right hand stroked through her soft blue-black hair repeatedly, lips pressing to her forehead briefly before she nestled her head on his shoulder. He kept stroking her hair, smiling slightly.

"Did you sleep well?"

He felt her nod.

"Good." His arms went around her torso, tucking her body close to his.

She looked up at him. "Feeling any better?" Her voice was still a whisper, but managed to be musical all the same, like the sound of a gentle breeze through tall grass.

Xel smiled sadly as he felt a familiar pang in his chest. "Somewhat."

Maila smiled back understandingly, pressing her lips to his cheek tenderly. "It's gonna take time," she breathed.

"I know." He drew her closer. "For both of us."

She stiffened a little. "What makes you think I need to?"

He chuckled mirthlessly. "Maila, don't kid me, or yourself. It may not have affected what we did last night, what we're doing now, but it did affect you. You can't even speak above a whisper, and that's not due to physical damage."

She lay still in his arms, expression tense and drawn.

He stroked her face with one hand. "We're both damaged, Mail—beyond repair, in some aspects—but we still have each other, and you have no idea how grateful I am for that."

She smiled into his hand. "I have a few."

He smiled back and kissed her again, slowly, their contact deepening after a few seconds.

"Hey Xel, I—oh, Force!"

The pair immediately broke contact and nearly leapt six feet in the air as their heads snapped to the open door.

Alen just stared at them openmouthed for a moment, his jaw completely slack and face going red as an exploding sun. "Uh…"

The couple still in bed also reddened, though only one was in embarrassment, the other in embarrassed rage.

"Ever heard of knocking?" Xel hissed through his teeth at his paralyzed brother.

That seemed to snap Alen out of his stupor, and he blinked rapidly, swallowing nervously at the look on his brother's face, then quickly turning around when he saw his bare chest. "Oh Force," he breathed, starting to hyperventilate. "You're committed now."

Caden just cocked his head in confusion. "What?"

"Uh," Maila let out nervously, reddening more. "We didn't exactly—"

"Don't—say—anymore," Alen interrupted with a hand blindly extended in their direction. "I'm gonna walk away now and try to pretend I never saw this."

"Nothing happened," Maila whispered as loudly as she could.

The Jedi blinked and looked back at them, opening and closing his mouth repeatedly as confusion filled his features. "But he's—and you're…ugh—" he rubbed his temples, "—I'm so confused."

"Why is this even an issue?" Xel asked, still lost at Alen's "committed" comment.

"'Cause I thought you and her…you know…"

One black eyebrow rose, the eyes beneath widening as he realized his brother's implication. "Whoa! Whoa-whoa-whoa, nothing happened here, okay? We just kinda…slept. In the most literal way possible."

"Uh…uh huh," Alen said uncertainly, eyes still wide in horror. He pinched the bridge of his nose, clearing his throat. "In any case," he said, voice stabilizing, "as your older brother, I feel the need to remind you of the dangers should you decide to pursue a more…physical relationship."

"Whoa! That is not happening!"

The Jedi lifted his hands. "But in case it does, just a friendly reminder." His ice-blue eyes met Maila's as he smiled dangerously. "And in case you ever even think of breaking my brother's heart." His eyes turned fiery, and Maila gulped.

"Oi," Xel scolded, "really not necessary, vod."

Alen smiled. "I know. Just making sure." With that, he turned away and shut the door behind him.

Xel slowly turned to the woman at his side and shrugged, frowning when he noticed the slight pallor of her features. "Whoa, hey." He tipped her chin up to make her eyes meet his. Hey, what's wrong?"

She smiled reassuringly. "It's nothing. Your brother's just…he can be a little scary when he wants to."

Xel looked back at the door. "Hm. Guess it runs in the family." He pulled her close again. "Come here. I wasn't done cuddling."

She giggled tonelessly, pressing her face into his chest and humming her enjoyment as her hands laid against him.


1 week later

"A vision, you say?"

"I think so," Xel answered with a nod, looking over his shoulder to ensure he was alone with Master Orgus' holocron.

"Of what exactly?"

He rubbed the back of his head, slumping against a nearby crate. "Hard to tell, really. Even now, it's kinda shrouded in fog. I remember seeing a void, space. A yellow star. A world. I remember…fires and explosions of light. There was a battle, that much is clear."

"Okay? What else?"

"I remember…fear. Not just of myself or any one person, but thousands collectively. I remember…" His eyes scrunched up tight. "I remember hearing breathing…his breathing. And after I heard it, I felt the terror of those thousands vanish bit by bit, massive sections of it disappearing instantly. But it wasn't like what happens when you stop feeling another's emotions, it was like…just a sudden absence, a vacuum of noise. Almost as if—"

"As if they were all killed at once," Orgus finished.

Xel looked down. "Yes. And it's all because of him. Sometime in the near future, Vader is going to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of rebel soldiers, presumably in a space battle. How that's going to happen is beyond me, since the Alliance has abstained completely from engaging the Empire in space thus far. They just don't have the firepower—or manpower."

"Don't be too quick to jump to conclusions. Visions from the Force are often shrouded in mystery and nuance. There may be a completely different message you're not seeing. You yourself said that you couldn't remember it clearly."

Xel groaned in frustration and lay back on the ground of the armory. "Why can't anything ever be simple? I mean, it's not like I'm asking for easy, just simple."

"The Force has its reasons. Sometimes, it only allows you to remember part of a vision on purpose, to see how your reaction may shape the course of history." The hologram smirked. "I remember an apprentice of mine whose foreseen destiny was very great, but turned out not to be at all what was expected. See, what appears to be the case often is only a front for the truth."

The Mando snorted. "I don't have the time or patience for all this mystical osik. Get to the point."

The Jedi rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. "Just don't jump to conclusions. All I'm saying."

Xel thought for a few moments, staring off into the distance. "Fine."


Present

The Kandosii'tal, Hypori

The rebels' approach on the massive Star Destroyer was hampered almost immediately. Evidently, they had developed a new cannon that used particle-filled slugs to scatter flak shots of energy across open space at velocities that tore through shielding and armor. Under fire from one of these, two X-Wings and a Y-Wing went up in flames. Xel scowled at the loss, juking out of the way of another exploding shell as the rest of his escort did the same. A flick of the thumb sent a charge to his primary blaster cannons, arming them and targeting a squadron of incoming TIE Fighters.

Rapid firing plasma engulfed the first pair of TIEs to get in range as Xel weaved toward the passing wreckage of a defunct Mon Calamari Cruiser's bridge, the wreck blocking incoming plasma from the Star Destroyer. A TIE Bomber dropped in behind him and fired repeatedly before launching a single proton torpedo in his direction. Osik. Xel scowled and took the ship into a series of twirls, managing to put a large piece of debris between him and the missile as it closed to around 30 meters and causing it to detonate early. The bomber was not to be deterred, however, and as its accompanying TIE Fighters engaged the other rebels, Alen included, it stayed on Xel.

The Mando cut his engines suddenly, twitching the stick backward to juke his ship above the incoming bomber's trajectory. The ship streaked past, falling into a series of sluggish rolls as the pilot realized his mistake. Xel just smirked and opened fire, the shields of the bomber managing to repel the plasma for a few moments before his very illegal rotary turbolaser cannon chewed it to molten shreds. Satisfied at his victory, he arced back over to the rest of his escort, noting with some anger that they had lost at least three more ships, all X-Wings.

"Damage assessment," Xel transmitted.

"Lost too many fighters in that engagement," Red Three answered,
"but our bombers still have enough of a payload to nail that ImpStar."

"Good," the Mando growled, pushing his throttle to the limit. "Alen, Darklighter, form up on me. We're not getting ambushed like that again. Clear a path."

"Roger," Red Three answered.

Flanked by two X-Wings, the Kandosii'tal charged toward a line of TIEs and opened fire with all cannons, giving Tee orders to open fire on the Star Destroyer's turbolaser arrays as soon as they were in range. The droid obeyed, and within seconds, they were engaged in a dozen-way battle between a capital ship, fighters, and one kick-ass Mandalorian vessel. Finally managing to knock out a good portion of a turret array and draw off most of the fighters, Xel opened a channel to the Y-Wings.

"Gold group, set up for your attack run!"

"Roger that, sir. Estimated time to target thirty seconds."

"Copy. Keep those chakaare focused on us!"

The Kandosii'tal strafed the ImpStar several times with useless fire from his rotary turbolaser, its shields more than enough to defeat his attack. This was only white noise to cloud out its sensors, however, as that exact same spot was hammered by ion cannons from a dozen Y-Wings at once, that section of its shields flickering briefly before suffering a quick and violent death.

"All bombers," Gold lead said, "fire on my mark…now!"

And at once, twenty-four proton torpedoes streaked death toward the Star Destroyer's main hull, the chain reaction caused by their impacts cracking the ship in half and sending its burning wreckage drifting into Hypori's gravity well. A universal cheer came from the rebels, Xel included.

"Hooyah, gar mir'shebse!"

Alen gave a small chuckle while the rest of the pilots broke out into laughter.

"All right, people," Alen interrupted, "cut the chatter. We've done well, but there's a lot more work to do." He paused a moment. "Transmission from Commander Tobin. The Makrin Star is under heavy fire. We're needed to back them up. Without their support and field maintenance teams helping our boys, we could lose this battle before it has a chance to start.

"Roger that," Xel answered. "Ready when you are, vod."

And they streaked away toward the ship in question, over a dozen other rebel fighters in tow.


The Retribution, Hypori

The bridge doors of the Star Destroyer Retribution slid open with a hydraulic hiss as an imposing, black-armored figure strode through with all the broad shoulders and poise that intimidated all others into submission. A small ripple of fear passed through the bridge crew before their previously built-up tolerance for his presence kicked in, and they all returned to their stations without a word. All except the captain, that is.

"Lord Vader," he managed evenly. "I regret to inform you that the rebels have already destroyed four of our capital ships and lost five of theirs. Despite this ratio, their bombing crews are growing bolder and more effective, especially those escorted by this ship."

He held a datapad in front of Vader's faceplate, and the Sith's eyes narrowed behind the helmet as a small smirk made its way to his face. So he is here. Good.

"It is of little consequence," Vader dismissed. "Continue your assault as planned."

"Yes, Lord Vader," the captain answered with a bow.

The Darth's eyes closed as he grabbed hold of the Force and mentally shoved aside all the chaff and noise that comprised this space-bound battlefield, narrowing his focus to a laser point and bringing it to bear on a nexus of professional focus and cold fury. Satisfaction filled him as he sensed everything he was expecting and hoping for, little by little working his way into disrupting Xel's focus until he could feel everything around him. And then he laid himself bare, his presence a dark beacon in the middle of this cacophony.

You want me, boy? Here I am. Come to me, child. Come and meet your destiny.


1 week earlier

The Kandosii'tal, Makrin Star

A blood-chilling roar filled the captain's quarters as metal, wood, and carbo-plas vibrated and shook throughout the room, the cause of the disturbance sitting bolt upright in bed, arms tensed to their max and fists clenched as hard as possible. Looking around quickly, he confirmed that his rage was misdirected and began the arduous process of calming himself before—

He detected movement at his side. Damn.

"Xel?" a small whisper asked.

"Y-Yeah," he coughed out.

Maila sat up slowly, putting an arm around his shoulders. "They're not calming, are they?"

He briefly considered deflecting the question. "No."

Her voice increased in volume, still low but containing most of her former tone and timbre. "You need to tell your brother."

His head shook hands scrubbing his face. "I can't. He won't understand."

"You don't know until you try."

His teeth clenched. He knew. Oh yes, he knew. He'd absolutely understand—and then he'd do everything in his power to ensure that Xel failed in his mission, and he couldn't allow that. He loved Alen, loved him like they'd known each other their whole lives, like his twin was an integral, irreplaceable part of him—which he was—but damn, the boy could be a self-righteous chakaar sometimes. Okay, most of the time. Which, at its core, was the problem. He would do everything in his power to convince Xel to stop once he knew about the visions, and the fact that they not only hadn't calmed down these past few weeks, but actually intensified, didn't help.

Things were no clearer in the big picture than that first night, but some things were more defined. Perhaps the most intensely defined quality of the visions was the sheer amount of death. It would be devastating to the Rebellion, that much was certain. But Vader would be there, and if he could get to him…

"Xel," Maila said sharply, snapping him out of his thoughts. "You need to tell him."

"No," he said flatly. "You know what he'll say."

"And he'd be right."

Xel scowled. "You too?" he asked, tone laced with betrayal. "You should understand exactly what I'm going through…more than most."

She blinked as her features hardened and eyes went cold.

He sighed hard. "I'm sorry. That…that came out wrong. No," he said with a shake of the head. "That was wrong."

"Yes," she whispered, "it was." Her arms wrapped around him more tightly, her face nuzzling his neck. "When are you going to live?"

Xel blinked hard and turned toward her. "What?"

She drew back with a sigh. "You've been driving yourself toward this one goal for nearly a year, relentlessly, without barely a pause or rest. You're breathing, yes, and your heart is beating…but you're not living. This—" she put a hand on his cheek, forcing him to meet her eyes, "—this isn't living. And I can't…" She choked. "I can't watch you make my mistakes."

He blinked rapidly. "What?" he breathed in shock.

She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "Before Tenau…you know…I was always focused on the job, on maintaining my business and image. I was so focused that I didn't realize there was a traitor in my ranks." She cast him a regretful look. "We both paid the price for that. And then I ignored the rational side of my head that was telling me to get the hell off Nar Shaddaa after the Maltis incident, and Tenau found me, all because I thought I knew what I wanted, and refused to do anything but pursue it."

His eyebrows furrowed. "What do you mean, you 'thought' you knew?"

Maila smiled sadly. "It had become routine. Boring, even. But I stayed with it, because it was familiar, easy. Easier than…" Her voice trailed off as she looked away.

He tipped her head back up. "Easier than what?"

She gulped slightly. "You."

Xel's mind stalled briefly, a slow, hard blink snapping him out of it as his jaw dropped. "You mean…"

She nodded slowly. "When you left to find your mother…I considered going with you. There was really nothing left for me on Nar Shaddaa. After Yetha, I thought I could move on in the business, but…it stagnated. My heart wasn't in it anymore. Sure, I was the best damn information broker on the planet, but…" she shrugged, "it wasn't enough. Not anymore."

"Mail," he whispered, "I—I never knew."

The Zeltron smiled sadly, pressing her face into his shoulder. "Of course not. I never told you, and you're far too polite to read my mind." She nuzzled closer to his chest, relishing the primal comfort that came from his heat. "I never wanted you to leave, though. Even from the first day, I could feel a connection between us, emotionally as well as physically."

Xel smiled wryly. "Wish I could say the same, but…I've never really been one for warm fuzzies."

Maila's smile vanished.

"What?"

Her finger traced the line of his jaw, all the way up to his temple, whereupon she pressed her lips to his, pulling away a brief moment later and staring into his eyes. "Nothing," she said after a while, tucking her head under his chin.

Xel pursed his lips, but said nothing, only wrapping his arms around her torso and holding her closer against him. He didn't know when he drifted off, but the moment it happened, he was aware of a foreign presence in his mind and immediately feelings of dread overtook him. They were rapidly and consciously replaced with feelings of anger.

"What the hell do you want?" he growled mentally.

A small, amused snort answered him. "Save your anger, child. You will need it. Soon." "How soon?"

"Soon enough for me to tell you to settle your affairs and say goodbye to all you love. You will suffer more pain than you ever imagined possible, but you will not perish. No, you will be broken to be remade in the image of the Sith. You will be mine, child, one way or another."

Xel's mocking laughter flowed over the link. "I don't make it a habit to become the property of a dead man, but in the spirit of keeping things fair, I'll say 'we'll see about that.'"

"So we will."

Dark blue eyes snapped open the moment the last word reached his mind, drifting over to Xel's bedside chrono to see it was nearly eight hours later.


5 days later

The Kandosii'tal

While Maila bustled around the Kandosii'tal's crew quarters, the Zeltron employing the food synthesizer to produce something for the both of them, he stared at a far wall intently, two fingers pressed against his temple.

"Xel, your tension is palpable, even without my abilities." Maila sat next to him, two plates landing on the table between them. "What's wrong?"

Caden blinked slowly. "I'm going to send you away."

Ice-blue eyes widened in shock, then in fury. "What?" she hissed.

His eyes softened and turned to hers, a concerned frown on his face. "It's not what you think. I'm not…I'm not changing us, or ending us." He took her hands in his and smiled slightly. "These past few weeks have been…some of the best I've had in a long, long time." His smile vanished. "But the fact is, I can't get these damned visions out of my head. I know something's coming, something horrible, and no matter how many times I try and see something good that could come out of it, I just…can't see a way where we end up on top."

"So you're sending me away."

To her surprise, he smiled widely. "Yes. To family."

She blinked. "Family?"

He nodded slowly. "My family."

"But I thought—wait, you mean—"

"Mandalore."

Her eyes resembled saucers.

"I'm sending you to Mandalore. I'll call my uncle ahead of time, let him know he's gonna have company. You'll get to meet the whole clan, family friends…it'll be great. Just the vacation you need."

Her eyes narrowed. "And you're not coming with me. Not even for the drop-off."

His head shook. "No. I can't afford to be away from here for that long. I'll send you with Iola on the T-6." He saw her fright clear as day and chuckled lightly. "Mail, there's nothin' to worry about, trust me. They'll love you." Xel smiled reassuringly, holding her hands firmly until she nodded. He grinned. "Excellent. Iola should have the ship fueled and ready by now. You'll leave whenever you're ready."

Her eyes widened. "Wait…you were going to do this either way, weren't you? With or without my permission?"

His expression darkened. "Sometimes…we don't know what's best for us. Sometimes it takes a concerned third party to see the truth." His thumb stroked her hand. "And I'm tired of watching you get hurt."

Her lower lip vanished inside her mouth as she assessed him with critical eyes. "I want to be mad at you," she admitted finally.

He arched an eyebrow, an amused smirk tugging at his lips. "But?"

Maila sighed in resignation, shaking her head. "I can't help but feel that it's sweet."

Xel chuckled and laid one on her before she could react, rising from the table and moving toward the armory. "Good," he called. "S'what I was goin' for." When he emerged fully-armored a few minutes later, Maila looked him over with unabashed admiration, her eyes roaming his frame with abandon. His head tilted to the side, a confused smirk coming to his face. "What?"

"Oh, nothing," she said sweetly, a diversionary smile on her face, eyes still wandering. Her smile dampened as a frown replaced it, her eyes looking down and narrowing as they darkened.

"What?" he asked again in a far more serious tone.

She looked at him, gaze piercing and intense. "Maybe you should take your own advice, Xel. Because you're right. Sometimes we don't know what's best for us." Maila rose and took his gloved hands. "Come with me," she pleaded in a low voice. "You don't owe the rebels anything. You've given your all."

He gently pulled his hands away. "You know that's not what this is about."

"I know!" she cried. "And that makes it even worse."

He took a step back, eyes narrowing. "You too?" he asked in a dangerously low tone.

Her eyes widened. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Xel's head shook slowly. "All this time, you've claimed to support me, to believe in me, yet now, when it really counts, when it really matters, you won't get behind me. Why?!"

"Because it's insane!" She grabbed his shoulders, shaking him slightly. "Snap out of this damned rage, Xel, and face facts! Darth Vader is a Sith Lord. He's lived for decades longer than you, trained for decades longer, experienced far more in the way of battle…and he has slain…more Jedi than any fifty Mandalorians combined." Her voice lowered to a near-whisper. "He cannot be stopped. Not now. Not by you." Her face crumpled. "Maybe not ever."

Xel stared at her for a few moments, his initial feelings of betrayal ebbing into sympathy at her despairing expression. He raised a hand to her face, cringing when she flinched at his touch. "Maila…anything that lives…can die. Vader is no different from any bounty I've hunted in the past. Just tougher…and scarier." He cupped her face with his gloved hand, smiling slightly as she leaned into it the same as on Ilum. "I can beat him…and even if I can't, I'm not going anywhere. He wants me alive, that much is certain, and if I'm alive…I can come back to you."

Maila deflated completely, her body shaking as she leaned into him. "Then come back," she choked out, hands fisting in his bodysuit. "Please come back."

His lips pressed to the top of her head. "I will. I promise."


Present

The Kandosii'tal

"Come and meet your destiny."

Xel's eyes snapped wide open as the sentence passed through his mind, features twisting into a snarl behind his helmet as his hands tightened around the control yoke.

"Xel?" Alen asked over their comlink. "Xel, what happened? Xel!"

"He's here," Caden growled, hands twitching as the Kandosii'tal twisted away from an incoming TIE Fighter, turning about and vaporizing it a moment later.

"Xel," the Jedi began warningly, "don't even think about it. We're needed here, on the front, where our Force abilities can keep the tide of the battle in the Rebellion's favor. We cannot afford to have you go off half-cocked."

The Mando huffed a humorless laugh. "You don't get it. It's not a matter of being half-cocked. He's here, and because he's here, the battle will never be in the Rebellion's favor." His jaw clenched. "I've seen it."

"What are you talking about?"

Xel shook his head. "I don't have time for this." He charted a course in the direction of the tug in his head. "Without Vader, without the head of the snake, this fleet flounders and the Imperials are decimated. With him, we all die."

"You mean you—"

"Had a vision, yes. And I need to stop it."

"Xel, you don't understand." Alen sounded panicked. "Visions are never that clear-cut, there's something you're missing—"

"I love you, vod," he interrupted, hands twirling the Kandosii'tal into a spiral that took him toward the Retribution, "but I can't let you stop me."

"Xel, no, don't—"

Static replaced his brother's voice until he turned the comlink off completely, every dreg of his focus on the battle between him and his target. His head shook as he observed the exploding and flaming ships all around him, noting the sudden turn against the rebels. They're completely outmatched—but I can save them. I have to. For Alen and Eran and En and Linn, for Sabine and Ezra, Maila and Telia and Xander and everyone this monster has hurt. They deserve that much. A twist of the control yoke brought the Kandosii'tal into a spiral around a particle beam sent his way from an Imperial Dreadnaught, two proton torpedoes streaking toward the now-unshielded vessel and knocking out its primary sensor array.

Two Star Destroyers converged on his position from opposite sides, their slate-gray Vs forming a pincer as he spun several times, Peetee sending another duo of missiles toward the nearest hangar bays on each destroyer. Their active and running tractor beams pulled the explosive projectiles home, annihilating a large portion of their fighter force and forcing them to disengage, letting Xel through on his bee-line trajectory for the Retribution.

"Tee, get a lock on that ship and give me an approach vector. We're goin' in hot."

"Yes, sir," the droid answered, the mechanical fingers of its left hand flying over the navigational controls as its right handled missiles. "Course set."

"Roger." Xel's HUD lit up as Peetee's route flashed in his vision. A grim smile made its way to his face as he angled his ship in line with it, then punched the throttle up to max, a brief flicker from the Force warning him of the dozen incoming fighters. "Tee, take control of the rotary cannon and target the edges of that group, then aim two concussion missiles at its dead center. We'll fire in stages. Wait for my mark."

The droid nodded, hands hovering over the fire controls. The TIEs closed to just over a kilometer, not a word coming from Xel even as alarm klaxons started to sound when target locks were picked up on the ship's sensors. PT-37 gave his master a glance when they closed to half a kilometer and opened fire, over eighty green bolts of plasma streaking death toward the Kandosii'tal, the pilot not moving his stick an inch. Then suddenly, he came alive and snapped the ship into left roll.

"Now!" he roared, spurring Peetee into immediate action as the droid released twelve-round bursts of rotary plasma fire at the enemy's flanks.

The Imp pilots responded about as he'd expected, forming up in two lines and providing PT with the perfect clustered shot as he assigned four concussion missiles to various points in the formation within a half-second. The missiles fired by the second's end, exploding two more seconds later, the force of the blast knocking the Kandosii slightly toward the planet below as it streaked by. Xel brought the ship back up into the prescribed flight path, dodging fire from six different turbolaser cannons and closing on the Retribution fast. He was out of the others' range in seconds, the Striker approaching a side hangar on the Star Destroyer just as fast and arming all weapons as he prioritized high-value targets.

A feral roar left Xel's throat as the Kandosii'tal stormed into the hangar, red and green plasma mixing midair as anti-air cannons and the incredible firepower of the Mandalorian ship combined in a deadly crossfire. Explosions and the screams of Imperial pilots and stormtroopers resounded throughout the bay as target after target fell to Xel and Thirty-Seven's relentless assault. Within seconds, it was over, and the Kandosii set down in a spot previously occupied by two TIE Fighters, its ramp descending with its pilot already on the gangplank.

"Protect the ship," he ordered firmly, voice dark and made even more threatening by the filter in his helmet, "at all costs." Xel popped a gas cartridge into Xander's Blackjack as he hefted the weapon. "I'll be back."

With an acknowledging nod from his robotic companion, Xel Caden broke into a run, making his way into the belly of the beast, toward the bridge and his destiny.

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