Confrontation over Hypori
The Telia, space over Hypori
1 month BBY
This can't be happening.
No matter how many times he blinked or shook his head to clear out the noise, Alen couldn't believe his eyes. The moment—the moment his brother had left the Rebels' defensive line, an entire platoon of Imperial Dreadnoughts jumped out of hyperspace and began hammering them with everything they had. The attack had been so sudden, so severe, that the Rebels' entire command structure had been thrown into disarray. Battle strategies were slow in coming, and not enough of their pilots were experienced enough to act with any kind of effective autonomy.
Alen himself was barely staying alive, weaving through one hailstorm of enemy fire after the next, the near misses too frequent to count. While most of his mind remained focused on just surviving, the rest of him was kilometers away, on a Star Destroyer that housed two incredibly powerful Force signatures. Green plasma barely missed the bow of his X-Wing as he brought it into a complicated spiral that put his attacker directly into his sights. A quad-burst of red plasma consumed the unshielded fighter as he swung around the explosion and opened fire on another group of TIEs.
"Attention all pilots," came Commander Tobin's voice over comms. "This is the Makrin Star, calling for any and all backup that can be provided. We've been engaged by two Imperial Dreadnoughts and are taking heavy fire. We cannot hold out, I repeat, we cannot hold. Need immediate assistance."
Alen clicked his comlink on, lips pursed. "I hear you, Commander. On my way."
"Li-am?" His tone was clipped and sharp. "Where the hell did your brother go, and why?"
The Jedi scowled and looked back at the imposing form of the Retribution, stretching out with the Force to feel a twisting whirlpool of rage and determination from an all-too-familiar source. "The idiot decided he knew better than to hold formation. Assigned his own side objective, claiming it's for the greater good of the Rebellion."
"And what the kriffing hell does that mean?"
Alen locked his ship's S-foils down for maximum speed as he arced toward the Star. "It means he's gone to cut the head off the snake. And he's going to fail." The reality of that statement hit him a second later. If he fails…oh Force… Ice-blue eyes widened in horror as he cast another look toward the Retribution. In a desperate effort to prevent what he feared most, he reached out over their bond.
"Xel, I know you can hear me. Please, brother…don't do this. You can't win. You have to know that. And when he beats you…you'll be lost to me forever, one way or another. Please, vod. I can't lose you too."
Only silence greeted him as he streaked across the explosion-cracked void of space. Suddenly, something brushed his consciousness, and he nearly winced when he felt the sheer force of it.
The statement was "spoken" in a low growl, undoubtedly his brother's voice…but at the same time nearly unrecognizable. As Alen stretched out to feel Xel in the Force, his mouth went completely dry. The darkness he'd sensed in his brother after that massacre on Ilum…it was back full-force—no, it was even stronger. In the midst of his rage and lethal fury, Alen could feel a singularity begin to form, malevolent, nefarious, and impossibly dark. The Jedi's eyes squeezed shut as his hands clenched around the controls of his fighter.
He heard the screams of Rebel soldiers being annihilated by powerful cannon blasts, felt one ship after the next blasted out of the sky. The explosions sent fiery visions through his mind's eye, every single casualty felt and seen in full color as it all began to overwhelm him. After about a minute, he realized—Vader had planned for this. He had always seen this coming, known how Xel would respond. The Imperial reinforcements had been on standby from the start, until he could lure the Mandalorian away from the bulk of the fighting and into the relative safety of his waiting arms.
Instantly, the Jedi realized Vader had absolutely no intentions of killing Xel. With startling and horrifying clarity, every piece over the last year finally fell into place. He had always known something was amiss, ever since the confrontation on Obroa-skai, but he had never imagined just how deep this conspiracy had run. He had eliminated Alen from the equation from the start, before the duel had even commenced, then, by all accounts from Xel's recordings, he'd focused on the Mandalorian, holding back and gauging his skills, treating Telia as a mere annoyance.
Everything that had happened after, from the turning of their mother to her recapture, torture, and, eventually, death, had been designed to unhinge his younger brother, bit by bit. The attack by the Inquisitor, the kidnapping of Maila Yar, the Imperial overrun on Ilum…they were all connected, all manipulated by the Dark Lord in an attempt to corrupt his brother, to force him to embrace his darker nature more and more until it consumed him. He half-expected that Vader was connected, however indirectly, to the death of Linn Riilos as well.
With grudging respect, Alen had to admit that the Darth had played his cards perfectly. He had taken what little he knew of the Mando and his culture, and used that knowledge to slowly twist the good man Xel was into a cold, ruthless killer. And now, the noose was finally around his brother's neck, being tightened as the seconds ticked by. With a shuddering breath and sinking heart, Alen came to the conclusion that Vader had already won. Everything had gone exactly according to plan. Perfect sabacc, he thought with a bitter snarl, hands once again clenching around his control stick. When something else brushed his thoughts, however, his eyes snapped wide open and a shuddering breath left his lungs.
Several rapid blinks later, he stretched out to the Force once again and let his mind drift away from the battle, hearing a quiet voice once again drift through his consciousness.
"Perfect sabacc can still be beaten…"
The voice was unfamiliar but somehow reassuring. Where have I heard that before? Alen racked his brain for any memories of the incomplete statement, several seconds passing before it hit him. It was something Xel said, when we were hunting for Mom. The Mando had been teaching his older brother how to play—and cheat at—sabacc, claiming both to be useful skills for interacting with the galaxy's seedier side. I remember now. He said…perfect sabacc can still be beaten…by an Idiot's Array.
Alen's eyes opened slowly, drifting across the battlefield as he realized he'd been flying—and fighting—on autopilot this whole time. His power reserves were starting to drop, and his torpedo tubes were running near dry. He couldn't keep this up forever, and the Imperials just kept coming while the Rebels' numbers continued to dwindle. His head shook slowly as his heart sunk. We can't win this. We never could. His gaze drifted to the Retribution, its massive frame seeming to mock him and the rest of the Rebellion as it watched from a distance.
This game was rigged from the start.
With newfound clarity, he opened a channel to the Makrin Star. "Commander Tobin…pull your men out."
"Please," he pleaded quietly. "We can't win this. We never could. This entire engagement was a front. It was never about the factories."
"Jedi, what are you talking about?"
"You need to evacuate, retreat, get as far away from here as you can. Please, Commander…trust me."
"…even if I believed you, Li-am, I can't just pull out. We'll be leaving half the Rebel Fleet behind, and without our support, they'll all die!"
"They'll die anyway!" he shouted back. "Do whatever it takes to convince them. The Rebellion cannot afford to lose you, or any of the men under your command. This battle is already lost; don't go down with a crashing ship. Please. The galaxy needs men like you to keep fighting. Martyrs can only do so much from beyond the grave."
The line was silent for a few moments. "I'll do what I can, but considering the resources we've committed to this assault, the other captains will be extremely hesitant to give up so easily."
"Thank you, Tobin."
"Wait…where are you going?"
Alen's jaw set. "It's going to kill everything in me," he began quietly, "every trace of the Jedi I was raised to be…but I'm leaving."
"I can't support you anymore, Commander. There's something…really idiotic I have to do." His jaw tightened with determination. "I'm not losing any more of my family."
Tobin's line was silent for a long while, a sigh coming over the link. "May the Force be with you, Alen."
"Thank you, Commander." His hands tightened around the controls as he brought his X-Wing into an approach vector on the Retribution. "I'm gonna need it."
The Retribution, hangar
PT-37 paced from one end of the Kandosii'tal's gangplank to the other, almost impatiently fingering his rotary cannon's trigger, every sensor and receptor trained on his environment. Several minutes had passed since his master had left him to guard the ship, and every second he was gone felt like a year to the droid. Finally, eight standard minutes later, there was activity, but not the kind he was expecting. Didn't make it any less odious, though.
A low growling noise came from Tee's vocalizer as he double-checked the charge level on his cannon, then sprinted to a nearby terminal as fast as he was able. An interface tool built into his left arm was unsheathed and inserted into the computer, a worm program written by Alen making its way into the Imperials' security system. Several dozen root menus later, and he found the source of the power flux that had set his circuits on edge. If he'd had teeth, they would've been grinding together.
Evidently, there was a crew of gunners stationed about a quarter kilometer from his position, manning turbolasers aimed at this hangar's exit vector. Their orders? According to the transmission he picked up over the Destroyer's local frequency, to vaporize any ship attempting to leave via that docking bay. In addition, Xel's initial attack had only knocked out the primary tractor beam in this hangar; the auxiliaries were still in place. Master, he thought with mild irritation, I'm a guardian, not a cleanup droid.
Tapping a few keys to download the ship's schematics into his processor, Peetee keyed the blast doors of the hangar open and made for the tractor controls while wirelessly activating the Kandosii'tal's automated defenses. It may not have been as good as having a live—or droid—host at the cannons, but if any Imperials tried any funny business, they'd have one hell of an explosive surprise. Spinning up his cannon to clear any potential jams, Tee made his way toward the exit at the fastest pace his powerful legs could carry him, death and destruction in his processor.
The Retribution, bridge approach
Two white-clad stormtroopers were hurled against a bulkhead by an invisible hand as a blue-armored figure strode down the halls of the Retribution without once breaking his stride. The Force was his weapon, rage his fuel, vengeance his goal, as bright and hot as the golden sword on his shoulder. His empty fists tightened as he went through another blast door, stalking toward a door that led to a turbolift, its final destination the bridge. The moment Xel stepped through, he froze in his tracks.
The descending lift came to a stop, the doors hissing open with an air of finality as a massive, black-armored form stepped off, standing just ten feet from the Mandalorian. Xel's fists and teeth clenched until it hurt as his eyes bore into Darth Vader's unyielding faceplate.
"Xel Caden," his unnatural voice boomed, "we meet again at last."
Xel just snarled. "Do you have…any idea how long I've waited for this? How long I've dreamed of this?" His hands uncurled, fingers slowly stretching apart as his voice lowered to a growl. "Darth Vader, you stand accused of murder in unquantifiable numbers, either direct or indirect. Among your victims are Jeel, Linn Riilos, Telia Li-am, and Xander Caden. By Mandalorian law, the punishment for these crimes…is death." His right hand curled into a fist. "And I…will be its instrument."
Vader's head tilted ever-so-slightly. "Is that so?"
Without warning or further preamble, Xel leapt for Vader, right arm cocked back, not even bothering to draw a weapon. A split-second before his gloved fist impacted the Sith's helmet, he felt the wind knocked out of him as his body flew back at a massive speed, blowing through two blast doors before rolling to a stop as pain flooded his system. Calling on the Force, he suppressed the pain and climbed to his feet, his lightsaber falling into his hand and igniting as he charged the Dark Lord.
A bellowing roar came from his helmet's vocalizer as he leapt toward Vader again, blade falling like a Force-powered avalanche as he was once again yanked out of the air. This time, he was ready, and with his empty hand released a Force Blast into Vader's chest. The impact barely jolted him, but it was enough to break his grip and allow Xel's blade to fall. The hissing whine of one lightsaber meeting another filled the still air of the hallway as Vader held his attack back with one arm.
He shoved the boy back with his weight alone, not attacking or drawing back a single step. Xel yelled as he swung horizontally multiple times, the Darth parrying his blows as if they were mere annoyances and staying perfectly still save for his arms. Changing tactics, Xel leapt over him and slashed at his head, coming down the other side and making a cut for his back. Vader just shifted his saber to position four, then swung it up with Xel's blade caught on his, throwing the youth off-balance.
The Darth's first counterattack nearly took his leg off, skidding off his armor's thigh plate and sending him into a recovery roll. Still off-balance, Xel was unable to avoid the Force Push that sent him flying back another ten feet, triggering his jetpack and arcing back toward him before Vader deactivated his saber and extended both arms, a Force Wave blowing him through one door after the next until it ceased, and he skidded to a halt. Hissing in pain, Xel forced himself to his feet, took one good look at the approaching Vader, and then took off down a hallway, just fast enough to keep from getting attacked, but slow enough for the Sith to keep track of him.
Aches permeated every fiber of his being, but he drowned them in anger as he gathered every spark and fire that had accumulated over the long months, every dreg of it held and kept safe for this very moment. He would release it here and now, but not just yet. As his parents had always taught him, the key to fighting is patience. He had waited almost two years for this moment. He could wait a little longer.
The Retribution, gunnery station delta-five
Another sizzling corpse hit the floor along with a spent plasma gas pack as another was loaded into a heavy assault rifle. Heavy metal steps approached the primary control console of the turret array, a computer interface tool entering a port as a half-dozen worm programs spread throughout the system and their user utilized them to permanently cut power to that station via a local overload. Those guns weren't coming online any time soon. With a satisfied charge through his circuits, Thirty-Seven marched toward the exit door, plotting his course back to the hangar.
He stepped through the door and froze in his tracks, processor stalling briefly before reconciling the image with an account Xel had given him of a man in a black hood…with a lightsaber. Flanking this man were two electrostaff-toting riot stormtroopers, who entered the room with their commander as Peetee backpedaled and hefted his rifle, the rotary cannon on his back running near dry.
"Please, droid," the hooded figure said with a dismissive wave, "we both know your resistance will do little to deter me."
Tee's head lowered slightly. "Since when has that ever stopped me?"
"You? I wouldn't know. Your master, on the other hand, well…let's just say I can see that he programmed a bit of himself into you."
"Ni cuyi Mando'ad. There's no programming involved in that. And my master gave me specific instructions regarding you." His rifle lowered slowly as he kept a wary optic on the silver-eyed figure, the weapon going to a magnetic port on his back.
The man arched an eyebrow. "And those would be?"
Tee internally keyed up a recording, and Xel's voice drifted out of his vocalizer. "If you ever run into that shabuir, I don't want you to put two in his back. I want you to find a metal pole, preferably one that's thick and jagged at one end, and I want you to send his impaled body to haran on it."
The man just stared at the droid for a moment before chuckling softly. "Well then. I suppose that means you won't surrender."
The droid's right fist clenched as his left hung at his hip. A long look was exchanged, the man's silver eyes narrowing before he motioned once with his right hand. The two riot troopers moved on Tee from opposite sides, the droid's left hand dipping slightly to draw a concealed blaster pistol and plug one twice in the chest with it. The thick riot armor kept him from dying, but not from having his rib cage crushed by a durasteel fist. The other trooper swung at Tee's back, the electrostaff missing his metal chassis by a thin margin as he dashed toward the fallen Imperial and appropriated his staff.
Tee blocked the next strike, then spun around the trooper and slammed his metallic elbow into his back, cracking his plastoid armor, then stabbing into that crack with his staff. The trooper shrieked incoherently for several seconds before falling over and slumping to the ground, Peetee picking up his weapon also while the hooded man rolled his eyes and sighed.
"Really, must I do everything myself?"
With another sigh, he rolled his hood back, exposing a pale, bald head with pale white scars scattered across his features. The rest of his cloak dropped to the floor, revealing gray armor underneath and leaving his lightsaber fully exposed. The cylinder was unlike any lightsaber Tee had seen before, predominantly gray with black highlights in a clawed formation around the middle part of its hilt. It left his belt a second later, clutched in the right hand of its owner and pointed down and out, his arms at his sides.
With a brief processor refresh, Tee recognized the stance as one Darth Vader frequently employed to intimidate his enemies. Unfortunately for him, Tee had no fear, and possessed knowledge of every form known to the Jedi Order. Two electrostaves were ignited threateningly as Tee assumed a ready position.
"Phrik-plated body or not," Tee growled, "I was rebuilt to slay Force-users…just of a different kind."
Light and electricity met in a blinding flash as they charged.
The Retribution, command hangar approach
Blue and red met again and again as blazing arcs of deadly light clashed, the golden sparks thrown by their contact sending flashes of light across a half-destroyed hallway. The paneling on one wall had been almost completely demolished by stray lightsaber strikes, the marks still glowing from where their blades passed through. The other wall was missing several dozen metal tiles, torn from their places and thrown with the Force. The target of these attacks was breathing heavily, blade held aloft as he backpedaled, his body hunched over partway.
His opponent's audible breathing patterns hadn't shifted once since the beginning of the fight, Vader's hulking form advancing with slow, threatening steps. Another couple of heavy breaths were exhaled as Xel backed up toward the blast door leading to Vader's command hangar, then stopped and exhaled slowly, focusing all his Force energy into a single leap. He lunged for Vader, the tip of his blade inches from the Dark Lord's chest when an invisible fist slammed into his. His armored body went through the blast door at his back, ricocheting off the ground several times before skidding to a stop.
His aching body pushed itself upright as he looked up to see Darth Vader striding through the opening, saber at his side as he came to a stop just ten feet inside the room, a good fifty feet from the Mando. Xel took a moment to concentrate, feeling something tug at his head from Vader's direction and blocking it out. He snarled and charged at the Dark Lord, his blade held high in a feint until he closed to around ten feet. Instead, he threw the saber, forcing his opponent to guard left while his left hand flashed with his father's knife, stabbing toward his left side.
Vader's left hand crossed over and caught his wrist, but Xel leapt upward and delivered a flying roundhouse to his head. The Dark Lord was dazed enough to release his hand, but made a horizontal slash for the boy all the same. Xel ducked the strike and charged forward, driving his shoulder into the Darth's gut and tackling him halfway to the ground before being clubbed over the side of the head with his pommel. Feeling like the inside of a can, his head throbbed as it was beaten over and over again, his grip on the Sith slackening with every passing second. When it loosened completely, he found himself flying back once again, colliding with a railing on the far side of the hangar.
Groaning slightly, he dashed forward as his saber returned to his hand, beelining for Vader and encasing himself in a Force Shield. That shield was shattered when a TIE Fighter above him deconstructed itself and its front windshield slammed into his chest, the rest of it floating around the now-saberless Vader, his weapon hanging at his belt. Skidding back a dozen feet, new bruises forming, Xel pushed himself upright and made for the Sith again, dodging the first chunk of the fighter thrown his way and slashing through the second and third. When its left wing flew in his direction, he slid on his shins, the horizontal metal object skidding off the front of his helmet.
Leaping ten feet upward, Xel spun midair in a falling stab, but felt a sharp pain in his side when the other wing of the fighter slammed into the space under his armpit. Black spots appearing in his vision, as well as a warning for his malfunctioning jetpack, he pushed the debris off as rage began to fill his every fiber. He's taunting me. Using my head-on tactics against me. My anger isn't gonna get the job done with pure brute force. That's his domain. A memory flashed through his head from Obroa-skai, Alen's arms pinning him to the ground.
Dark blue eyes closed momentarily as the fire inside stoked even hotter, heat filling his blood when they opened, another fighter deconstructed and orbiting the Dark Lord. He made to charge forward again, but when the first chunk was thrown, he leapt to the side, firing his grappling hook and swinging off one of the rafters, then landing on an intact fighter. Two more pieces of flying debris slammed into the ship, but Xel was already gone, running atop a thin girder with sure steps until he had a straight diagonal path to Vader.
A malevolent smile came to his face as he brandished his lightsaber, keeping it off for now. And then he leapt off the side, arcing toward his target with deadly intent as the rest of the hangar began attacking him. A storage crate was shoved aside with his left arm as his body twisted away from a swoop's primary steering vane. His legs tucked into his chest when a fighter's wing was thrown at him again, actually extending to run across the surface and leap to another piece of incoming debris.
His rage kept building and building as the distance between them began to close, grip tightening around his saber as his left hand grabbed a piece of incoming debris, using its backward motion to pull him into a backflip that allowed him to dodge an even larger durasteel hunk of the wall. A TIE windshield slammed into his chest, catapulting him backward, but he responded instantly, letting his arms go limp and his body slide along the underside of the curved surface before it spun to coil his legs up on its inside. He sprung off a split-second later, Force adding strength to his leap as he shot toward Vader.
In a last-ditch effort to stop him, the Dark Lord levitated a full TIE Fighter and chucked it at the Mando from below. Xel flipped over the first wing as the Force sped up his perception, a flick of his wrist opening its top entrance hatch and allowing him inside. A thrust of his empty hand sent a Force Blast shattering the bottom of its spherical cockpit. Vader was barely ten feet below him, and for the first time, Xel could feel…surprise coming from him.
A blazing sword of blue light ignited and swung downward as the distance closed, its path meant to bisect the Darth from shoulder to hip. Instead, he found himself pulled over that shoulder and slammed into the ground chest-first, the flooring beneath him cracked with the sheer impact as his helmet went flying. A furious roar was torn from his throat as he tried to push himself up, not even succeeding in raising himself an inch, even with the Force giving him strength.
"You have fought well, young one."
Xel growled and made to move again, uselessly, feeling the pressure at his back increase as Vader's hand lowered.
"But your training is far from complete. Join me, and the Dark Side will give you more power than you have ever dreamed. No one will dare to defy you, and all will shake at the very mention of your name."
"I—never wanted power," he ground out, managing to raise himself a few inches. His head lifted to glare at the Darth. "Just enough to kill you."
Vader shook his head with a disappointed air. "Such a shortsighted goal. Tell me, child. You kill me, and then what? You go back to being a hunter? To someone who matters less than the dust beneath my boot?"
Xel's inner fire was stoked as he pushed himself up another inch, his right hand clenched around the hilt of his lightsaber.
"Your anger, your natural power makes you valuable, more so than you know. It also makes you dangerous. I know this, and if the Emperor were ever to discover your existence, he would know it as well."
"So what? This whole time, everything you've done, the deaths, the kidnappings, the torture—all of it was to convince me to join you?" He laughed sardonically as his shaking arms managed to push him into a crouch. "You've got a funny way of negotiating, chakaar. It failed, by the way."
"For now, perhaps." Vader's hand lowered, and he was pinned again, more of the floor cracking. "But perhaps this is where we must begin." A snap-hiss ignited the air as red light washed over Xel, his left arm extending to the side against his will. "A lesson in humility—and pain." The blade hovered over his wrist, the boy snarling and raging against his grip as it rose.
The moment Vader's lightsaber fell, a blue flash sliced through his armor's shoulder plate, sending it clattering to the ground as he withdrew and faced the new threat. The thrown lightsaber returned to the hand of its owner, one frowning, very much upset Alen Li-am.
The Jedi glared daggers at the Sith standing over his brother's beaten body, lightsaber held firmly in two hands and pointed diagonally up and out.
"Ah," Vader drawled. "The brother. I've been waiting for you." He strode toward Alen, saber held loosely at his side, Xel painfully starting to push himself upright. "The last time we met, you were taken out of the fight too soon for me to properly gauge your abilities." He raised his saber in a two-handed Offensive Neutral stance. "Allow me to rectify that."
Alen's head shook slowly. "This isn't some sick game, Vader." His saber pointed at the Sith. "And you're done taking things from our family."
Without another word, Alen leapt forward, making several rapid stabs at his opponent, all deflected with practiced ease. He leapt over Vader, taking a page out of Xel's book and making a slash at his head before swiping at his legs. The Sith leapt over his strike and landed some distance away, their blades clashing again and again.
"Form II. Interesting."
Alen swung wide as a feint, then tightened up his form in an upward slash at Vader's left shoulder. The Dark Lord spun his blade right to bat the strike away, then countered in the same motion with a reverse spin that nearly took Alen's head off. A Force Push sent him sliding back a few feet before he came in again, locking blades with the Darth.
"Most consider it a dead style," Vader added. "For some…that would be literal."
Darth Vader pushed Alen's blade aside and backhanded him solidly, the skin at his temple splitting and bleeding as his head throbbed.
"After all, the last Makashi master died at my hands."
Alen just grimaced and hefted his saber. "You gonna talk or are you gonna fight?"
Before he could answer, the Jedi rolled forward and stabbed low, the strike barely redirected in time. He spun clockwise with the deflect, slashing at Vader's head, the Dark Lord ducking and countering with an upward swipe. Alen dodged it with a backward tumble, a leaping cut beginning a chain of precise cuts, none of which landed anywhere near their targets. A feinted cut at his damaged shoulder was followed by an angled stab toward the control box in his chest, the Sith managing to bat his saber away mere inches before it cut through. When Alen swung downward, Vader batted the strike away hard, disarming him, and curled his left hand around the Jedi's throat, lifting him off the ground.
"Impressive," Vader said as his grip tightened and the Jedi clawed for air, the former's voice darkening. "Most impressive."
Within seconds, Alen felt like his head was about to explode, everything throbbing as blood rushed to his head.
Vader spun clockwise, his blade deflecting another blue shaft as he dropped Alen. An armored form ducked under his counter-strike, and the Jedi felt himself lifted off the ground as a familiar arm curled around his chest. Xel set him down a moment later, turning back toward Vader and angling his saber threateningly, one arm still around his dazed brother's shoulders.
"We can't beat him," Alen sent over their bond.
"Not alone, no. But working together, we might just stand a chance."
"No, vod! I've come too far, sacrificed too much to just give up now!" He scowled and met Alen's eyes. "We do this…and then we leave."
Heart sinking, Alen sighed and nodded slowly, his lightsaber returning to his hand with a gesture as they both rose to their feet, stances set.
Xel's grip clenched around the beskar hilt of his saber. "Take his right. I'll hit high and left."
"Got it," came Alen's somewhat reluctant voice.
Feinting a forward lunge, Xel leapt around Vader's left side, slashing from above and hitting empty air as he sidestepped and smacked Alen's incoming blade away with ease. The Mando made a point to stay on his "blind" side as they pincered Vader from opposite directions, but the Sith Lord just kept twirling his lightsaber in constant deadly arcs, never giving either of them an opening. Suddenly, Vader's grip shifted from his right hand to his left, and he made an attacking backward slash at Xel's neck, barely ducked in time.
Taking the opportunity, Alen made another stab for Vader's control box, but was sidestepped and thrown in the direction of his lunge by the Sith's powerful prosthetics. He recovered with a smooth roll, but Xel had already reengaged, falling into a series of attacks meant to build power by spinning his entire body and hammering repeatedly in a single direction. It wasn't working, but then, it wasn't entirely meant to. On the fifth repetition, Xel anticipated his counterattack and ducked underneath, left hand drawing a pistol and firing twice only for Vader's empty hand to simply absorb the shots.
That same hand directed a Force Push at the youth that sent him skidding back a few steps, but Xel had finally started adapting to his overwhelming power with more subtle tactics. The wave of Force energy Vader typically used could be counteracted not if he met it with an opposing wave, but shaped his Force Shield into something resembling a wedge, more pointed than flat or round. The pushes would then slide and dissipate around his walls with little overall force transferred to his actual body. He was suddenly very glad for all the training sessions with Master Din.
The next second, Vader lunged for him in a horizontal swipe, but Alen intercepted the strike, giving him an opportunity to leap over and slash at his head. The Darth ducked under his attack, the tip of his blade missing by centimeters, as he pivoted and shunted Alen off to the side, following the maneuver with a stab and cut to his leg. Alen redirected his second attack and countered with an upward slash as Xel made a swing to decapitate him. Vader sidestepped to his left, and their blades collided, leaving them vulnerable to a double Force Push that sent them flying in opposite directions.
Xel collided with a stack of crates on one end of the hangar, Alen skidding across the floor.
"We need a new tactic," Alen sent with a grimace.
"Agreed. The Voss maneuver."
"Voss. Maneuver. Now."
The Jedi's eyes narrowed as he nodded grimly, then raised his saber and charged. Xel did the same, zigzagging across the metal floor as Vader began hurling objects at the two of them. Alen side-flipped away from a torn-out rail, Xel leaping over a durasteel wall panel as they closed the distance. When the next salvo arrived, they'd already closed to strike distance, Alen flipping over his next telekinetic attack. Xel took a more direct approach, encasing his body in another pointed Force Shield and lowering his shoulder to an incoming ammo crate. Plasma gas cartridges went flying when the crate shattered with his impact, the boy still running.
As Alen fell, he took a move out of Xel's playbook, cutting downward with all the force of gravity backing him up, his brother driving forward in a rolling stab.
Caden felt his feet leave the ground when his chest was pummeled with an invisible fist, Alen feeling something in his left shoulder give out when Vader Force Gripped his body and pulled him over his shoulder, slamming him into the ground. Both dazed brothers suddenly found it hard to breathe as they were lifted into the air, their sabers dropping from their clawing fingers as their windpipes constricted.
"Your skills are certainly impressive, especially when combined, but refinement is necessary if you are to achieve your potential."
Xel snarled and growled as much as he could with black spots swimming in his vision.
"Whether you realize it or not, both of you have a part to play in the course of galactic events. I have foreseen it."
Alen shot his brother an alarmed look, trying to focus on retrieving his lightsaber, but failing as the grip around his throat tightened.
"And though some of you may be willing to abdicate that responsibility—" he shot Xel a pointed look, "—that is something I refuse to allow."
Vader's fingers tightened, both brothers letting out desperate gasps as Xel's rage began to drain, giving way to panic and desperation. No, you monster, leave my brother out of this! His teeth gritted as he felt progressively more lightheaded, the blood rushing to his head. His hands started to fall, struggling both useless and taking too much energy as he blacked out bit by bit. Suddenly, his left hand brushed against something, and a fierce hope thrummed through his system. Vader's head suddenly snapped over to him, confusion radiating off his massive frame.
A blazing green blade flew toward the Dark Lord's head, spinning with deadly intent, its image reflected in the shiny surface of his helmet. It stopped when Vader snatched it out of the air with his left hand, deactivating it. Unfortunately, his hand's preoccupation lessened his hold enough for Alen to shatter his grip and drop to the ground, gasping. In a single desperate maneuver, he reached up and stretched out with the Force, metal groans filling the room before a massive snap resounded. Xel looked up as he too was dropped, a massive Imperial shuttle falling toward the three of them.
The moment his feet hit the ground, he and his brother leapt away from the dropping wreck. As it turned out, the maneuver was unnecessary, since the shuttle began to levitate just ten feet from hitting them. Both stared at Vader openmouthed as he held the ship aloft, Xel's eyes flashing with a perverse glee as both sabers returned to his hands, igniting a moment later.
A hand on his arm stopped him from lunging forward.
Xel snarled at his brother.
"No, Xel!" Alen roared, his eyes filling. "I've lost enough tonight! I'm not losing you too!" His upper lip twitched. "Or do you really think you can survive being crushed by that shuttle if you do kill him?"
Caden stared at him for a few moments, his jaw dropping halfway as the red haze over his mind began to clear, several rapid breaths leaving his body. For the first time since he'd heard Vader's voice in his head, he could feel his brother, truly feel him, and what reached him over his bond was…devastating. Xel nearly collapsed, instead deactivating his sabers and letting them fall to his sides.
"Y-You're right," he whispered brokenly. He turned his head to look out the hangar's ray-shielded viewport, seeing the Rebellion's fleet in full retreat, or as full as they could accomplish with barely half their ships still mobile. His dark blue eyes widened. "What have I done?"
Alen's hand went to his shoulder. "Let's go." He looked back to Vader. "Now."
Xel nodded twice, stowing his sabers and retrieving his helmet with the Force.
"My ship's parked on the far side of this hangar. Get to yours as soon as possible. I'll try and clear a path."
The Mando gulped and nodded, heading for the exit door, but stopped in his tracks when he felt a wave of unadulterated rage that was not his own, turning in horror to see Vader lifting the shuttle higher, a low growl coming from his throat. "Oh no. No, no, no, Alen move!"
Before the Jedi could understand what he was saying, Vader Force threw the shuttle across the entirety of the hangar—using its metal carcass to demolish the Telia.
Alen threw the Darth an incredulous look. "Really?"
Xel just snorted and stared as his brother sprinted in his direction, feeling a sharp pain in the back of his head when an infuriated roar came from the black-suited figure approaching at their backs. "Uh-oh. Alen—"
The brothers sprinted down one hall after the next, expediting a quarter mile in less than a minute as any forces that attempted to stop them were either cut down or blown aside. When a set of blast doors slammed shut between them and the Kandosii'tal's hangar, they reacted instantly, sabers igniting and taking opposite sides of an entrance carved into the door. They were through in seconds, both running up the ramp and keying it closed as Xel chucked off his helmet and started up the engines to bring them into a climb.
"Xel, the shields!"
Lo and behold, there was a ray shield blocking their path out. With a quick scan and adjustment of the targeting systems, Xel opened up with several turbolasers blasts that tore into the walls of the hangar, destroying the generators keeping the shields in place and creating a vacuum that already began to suck the ship out. When he hit the engines, a burst of confusion flooded his system, as the Kandosii shuddered to an abrupt halt. Eyebrows furrowing, he scanned for any tractor beams or other particle-based anchor systems and found nothing. With a single blink and a brief extension of his Force Sense, Xel knew the answer.
"Xel, where are you going?"
He retrieved his helmet and made for the ship's top access hatch. "The moment that pull stops, punch the accelerator. No matter what."
"Just do it!" he yelled, hitting the airlock seal and release, shooting himself out onto the hull of the ship.
A single grappling hook was fired into the Kandosii'tal's upper hull, anchoring Xel to the ship as he leapt to the back of the vessel to see exactly what he was expecting: Darth Vader, standing behind his ship with both hands extended. A snarl came to his face as he saw another Mando in his position. His head tilted as he unstrapped his jetpack and hurriedly fiddled with it. A malevolent smile came to his face as he finished.
"Usen'ye bah haran, Imperial hut'uun."
Vader looked up at Xel as he gave a single mocking salute, then held his jetpack up—two magnetic detpacks strapped to its back. A single spark from his gauntlet's built-in plasma torch started the pack up, and it shot toward Vader like a missile. It exploded like one a second later.
"Now!" Xel roared into his comlink.
An instant later, the Kandosii'tal shot into space—and his left shoulder from its socket. An agonized scream shot from his lips as he was dragged behind his rapidly accelerating ship, his other hand reaching up to grab the cable and alleviate some of the pressure, as well as hit the reel in control. Six seconds later, he was dragging himself through the closing hatch, the cable extended and wrapped around his injured arm and chest as a makeshift sling. He slowly stepped into the hallway, taking his helmet off with his good arm and tucking it under his bad one as he made for the cockpit.
What he found sent his eyes widening and stinging. Alen was in the copilot's seat, staring blankly out the viewport at a field of debris, plasma, and little else.
"The fleet," he whispered brokenly. "It's gone. I mean…I'm sure some of them got away, but…"
Jaw tightening, Xel laid his helmet on the dash and started programming a destination into the nav computer.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting us out of here," he replied flatly.
"Are you kidding me?! Those were our comrades, our friends, we can't just—"
"What?" He rounded on his brother with a snarl. "Leave them?" He pointed out the viewscreen. "Look around you, vod. They're all dead. We owe the dead our respect, not our lives." He returned to programming the route and spinning up the hyperdrive as his brother snorted and crossed his arms.
"You're one to talk," he growled.
Xel's jaw clenched as his hand paused on the hyperdrive controls. "I know."
A loud hum came from the engines before they shot off into the blue tunnel of hyperspace.
Xel tensely stood up and headed for the armory, stripping off his left arm's plates to lessen the strain on his dislocated appendage. Once he had it in a proper sling, he headed toward his room, feeling more than seeing Alen coming at him from behind. When he turned around, a loud grunt left his vocals as a fist slammed into the side of his jaw. Xel stumbled back a step, but turned back to him without complaint to see the Jedi scowling, anger radiating off his entire frame.
"You spineless…soulless little bastard."
The Mando raised an eyebrow.
Alen pointed at the back of the ship. "You left them…to die. And I don't mean just now, I mean before. You had our backs, we had a solid defense…" He stepped toward Xel threateningly. "And then you caught one whiff of Vader…and you abandoned your post."
The Mando's eyes narrowed slightly, his expression neutral as he stared into his brother's eyes. "Vader was always my objective, not the rebels. Deep down, you always knew that, so really—"
Alen's breath left his lungs as a gauntleted, weight-driven upper-cut slammed into his solar plexus, leaving him wheezing on the floor.
Xel snarled and turned away. "What did you expect?" he hissed, walking toward his room.
"I expected—" cough, "—that you would have some honor!" Alen took several wheezing breaths as he got to his feet, approaching his brother. "If not loyalty, then honor, and if not honor, then professional pride."
Xel slowly turned to face him.
"You took a job," Alen stated simply, upper lip twitching. "You're supposed to follow through, no matter what. I thought Dad taught you that."
He grabbed the shorter teen by the collar and shoved him against a wall with one arm. "Don't you dare bring him into this."
Alen shrugged and motioned to the ship, laughing without humor. "But this was all about him…wasn't it?" He smacked his brother's arm off and shoved him back, voice raising. "Him, and Mom, and Linn. This was about you and your vendetta against the Sith."
He smiled nastily and waved a finger at him, turning away.
"And you want to know the funny part, Xel? Hm? You wanna know? In trying to avenge them, to honor their memories, you betrayed everything they stood for!" Alen approached his tense brother, the boy's good arm leaning against a wall. "Eran, En, Tobin. Your friends, your family. They're all rubble now, because of you. All dead, because of you!"
Xel whirled and roared into his brother's face. "Don't you think I know that?!"
Alen drew back, jaw dropping as he saw the younger boy's eyes fill with tears and pain.
Xel stepped away, face twisting in anguish as he slumped against a wall, head in his hands as he slid to his knees. His mouth opened and closed noiselessly several times. "I can hear them, Alen," he whispered brokenly. His eyes looked up and locked with Alen's brighter ones. "I can feel them." He looked away. "Screaming…wailing, in agony. Thousands of them." His hands fisted in his hair, oblivious to the pain in his shoulder because the pain in his head was so much worse. "So many…so many…" Several rapid, desperate breaths went through his lungs as Alen crouched next to him, a hand lightly placing itself on his good shoulder. His eyes squeezed shut and teeth clenched.
En's face flashed through his vision, the Weequay too, both consumed in fire as a ship cracked apart. Fire, death, bodies, ashes—everything blended together in an endless storm of agony.
"So much…pain," he gasped.
"Xel," Alen said quietly, concern lacing his tone. "Xel, listen to me, you have to block it out. Xel—Xel!"
"So many…because of me…"
Thousands of bright lights flooded his vision, flickering in and out haphazardly as pressure kept building in his head.
"All dead…all dead!"
One by one, they started to wink out of existence, slowly but surely revealing a massive black hole in the backdrop of their luminance. And suddenly, they all vanished at once. Xel's eyes snapped open as a startled gasp left his throat, mouth wide open. His tense hands loosened, and he stared blankly into the distance as Alen kept trying to get through to him. Slowly but surely, his hearing began to return.
"Xel—damn it, man, talk to me!"
A long gulp went through the boy's throat as his head slowly turned to face his panicking brother. He licked his dry lips. "Alen," he started in a whisper, eyes on the floor. "I can't feel them anymore." His gaze rose slowly. "I can't feel you." Xel's eyes drifted to his fallen helmet as a horrified look blossomed on Alen's features, good hand outstretching. The buy'ce didn't move an inch. "I can't feel anything." He breathed in and out a few more times, slowly turning back to Alen. "Vod…I can't feel the Force."