"Station Aurek, Station Aurek, come in, damn you!" The soldier’s voice was shrill with panic. "We need reinforcements right fragging now!" Static crackled, and there were other noises as well - blasters being fired, screaming, sounds of death.
"Station Aur-- aaargh! No! NO!!!" A horrible shriek of agony that was drowned in a wet gurgle, then nothing.
The recording had been audio only, yet Captain Childress’s face was pale as he reached over to switch off the device. "That was the last we heard of Nexu squad", he said, his voice hoarse. "We sent out an S&R team, but they only found corpses. Badly mangled corpses."
"Rakghouls?" Veluona asked. When patrol teams vanished on Taris, rakghouls were always a safe bet.
Childress shrugged. "We don’t know. The team brought back all the bodies they could find, but those were only our people, they found no remains of the attackers. And they didn’t find all of ours."
"How many were missing?"
"Two. No trace of them, but I don’t imagine they’re still alive. The corpses that were recovered had been pretty much torn to pieces."
Veluona paced pensively. "I presume an autopsy has been performed on the recovered bodies."
"Standard procedure", confirmed the medical officer who until then had been silently leaning against a wall. "Doctor Urkyn", she said by way of introduction as she pushed herself away from the wall and walked over. "I’ll spare you the details of the autopsy, but my personal opinion is that we can rule out rakghouls."
Veluona raised an eyebrow. "Explain, please."
"I’ve seen plenty of rak victims", the doctor said. "While the wounds on these bodies were similar, the claw and tooth marks were the wrong size and shape to be made by fully grown rakghouls. Besides", she paused for a moment, then went on in a low voice, "besides I’ve never seen raks who could fire a blaster."
"There were blaster wounds?" Veluona asked. Urkyn nodded.
"Could those soldiers have been shot by someone and the corpses been torn apart by scavengers?", the captain asked.
The medic shook her head. "Some of the mutilations were inflicted post-mortem. Most of the damage, however, was done while the victims were still alive. In most cases, the bites and claw wounds, and not the blaster shots, were the immediate cause of death."
Childress sighed and turned to Veluona. "I’m sorry we can’t give you more to go on, Master Jedi. Still, I would appreciate if you could look into this. Something out there is killing our men, and unless we know what it is we can’t defend against it."
Veluona inclined her head. "Give me the coordinates of the attack site. I will go there and see what I can find."
The muddy ground had of course swallowed all traces of the fight, and what the search team hadn’t recovered, scavengers had dragged off. Veluona looked around. A bubble burst in the mire next to her with a wet sound, releasing a noxious cloud of swamp gas.
"Finally! I thought you’d never get here!" The voice behind her sounded very relieved and slightly hollow.
Veluona whirled around, hand on her saberstaff. A few metres away stood a Mirialan wearing the armour of a Republic soldier. He was missing several pieces from his outfit, as well as the left half of his face. He was also translucent and hovering half a metre above the ground.
Veluona studied him thoughtfully. "You were waiting for me?" she said, not giving any indication that the ghost’s appearance had perturbed her.
"Not for you specifically", the ghost said. "But for someone who can hear me. I needed to tell someone what happened, warn the base, so I… stuck around. When the S&R team got here I tried to talk to them, but they just ignored me. Comes with being dead, I guess." His light tone was deceptive, the Jedi realised. Even though it was almost impossible to read an expression on his ruined face, she could sense the dead man’s anguish.
"You were part of Nexu squad." It was not a question.
"Yeah", he said. "Seven of us and almost two dozen of them, we never had a chance."
"Who were they?"
The soldier shrugged. "Dunno. It was dark when they came, and it all happened so fast. At first I thought they were raks, but the shape was wrong. And they had rifles. Never seen a rak with a blaster." He paused for a moment, and Veluona could feel that he had trouble focusing his thoughts. Something was affecting him, and she wondered if it was the pull of the Force which he had resisted so far because he thought it was his duty. "They behaved like raks", he said finally. "But they looked almost human." He fixed his one good eye on her. "They took two of our guys."
"Yes, I heard that not all the bodies were recovered. Do you know where they took them?"
The dead man nodded. "I followed them for a bit until they vanished below ground. Couldn’t go in after them, there’s something… not right down there. But that’s where they went."
"Show me", Veluona said.
The ghost flickered briefly, then set off without another word. The Jedi followed him silently.
"Here it is", the soldier said at last, stopping next to the shattered end of a huge pipe that jutted from the ground at a flat angle. "They went down there." He had been flickering more and more frequently while they had walked, and his voice sounded more distant.
"Thank you", Veluona said. Then she looked at him. "What is your name, soldier?"
"I’m… I was… Private Rellos. Martin Rellos." He winked out of sight again, then reappeared. "You’ll get them, won’t you? Stop them?"
"I will do what I can", Veluona promised. "I thank you for your help."
"Will you… make sure they send my body home to Coruscant? I had a girl there…"
"I will", she said gently. "But I think it is time for you to go now. You have done all you could."
"Yeah, I guess I have", Rellos said wistfully. "Just wish it had been enough." He raised a hand in farewell, then faded. A moment later his presence was gone completely, finally one with the Force.
"May the Force grant you peace", Veluona said softly. Then she drew the shadows around her and vanished into the pipe.
There’s something not right down there, Rellos had said, and Veluona couldn’t have agreed more. She had sensed it as soon as she had entered the tunnel, and as she was carefully making her way downwards, it became more palpable. She had not yet seen a living thing, but she could feel something moving in the distance, something dark and hungry that stirred restlessly, waiting for prey.
Reaching out to pull the Force more tightly around her and hide her from sight, she stepped out of the tunnel into a large cavern. The floor was strewn with rocks and debris, and the remains of ancient metal structures blocked part of the room, too badly damaged to make out what they once might have been. A rotten stench wafted through the cavern, and somewhere ahead there was a pale flicker of light.
Veluona silently climbed up a withered metal scaffold, carefully testing the ancient structure before entrusting it with her full weight. A few metres up she moved out on a broad beam and crouched down at the end of it to study the scene below.
Several creatures were milling around near a tunnel entrance, fitfully illuminated by a single lamp on the wall. They looked almost human, Rellos had said, and indeed they did. They wore the tattered remains of clothing and armour, civilian as well as Republic and Imperial uniforms, and two or three of them also had weapons. The creatures were the right size for humanoids, but the shape was wrong; their bodies looked malformed and mangled, and all of them were disfigured by grisly wounds. To Veluona’s Force sight, they all were heavily tainted by the dark side, but what was remarkable was that the signature on each and every one was identical. They had no aura of their own, nor could she detect any trace of a mind. They were dead, all of them, and something was animating them.
The creatures were clustered around something that was lying on the floor, and it took Veluona a moment to recognise the thing on the ground as a corpse. The creatures were feeding.
The Jedi dropped noiselessly down from her beam and slipped into the tunnel behind the feeding ghouls, determinedly ignoring the sounds they made. Something told her that the real enemy was deeper in these tunnels - the sorry things behind her, disgusting as they were, were mere tools.
Veluona quietly made her way through the tunnels, easily avoiding another group of the strange creatures. The feeling of wrongness that she had felt up at the entrance and that had prevented Rellos’ ghost from descending was growing ever stronger, telling her that she was heading in the right direction. Finally she perceived another light just ahead, and when she came up to it, she saw that it was a small sconce that was fixed to the wall next to a door.
The door was definitely a recent addition to the tunnel, it looked new and quite sturdy. Someone seemed to have built themselves a safe haven from the inhabitants of the caverns. Veluona carefully tried the door, and to her surprise it slid open without a sound. Quickly the Jedi slipped through and closed it again behind her.
Beyond the door was another, smaller cave that by contrast looked almost tidy. At the far end a workspace had been set up with tables and shelves, and three kolto tanks were lined up against the wall. At one of the tables a figure in a tattered robe was busy at work. Safely shrouded by the Force, Veluona stopped and studied him.
Unlike the creatures outside, the robed man was definitely alive. He was human, maybe in his late forties, of medium height and stocky build, starting to go bald. He moved around his workspace with a kind of feverish determination, all the while muttering to himself under his breath.
As Veluona was watching, he picked up a glass cylinder from a rack and approached one of the kolto tanks. A figure was floating in the liquid, motionless. The robed man opened an outlet on the side of the tank and poured the contents of the tube inside. Then he stepped back, tilted his head, and watched the tank intently. Moments later, the figure inside began to twitch.
Veluona decided that it was time to intervene. Dropping her Force veil, she stepped out of the shadows. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
The stranger turned around and stared at her. "I could ask you the same thing, you know", he said in evident surprise. "This is my home, after all." His eyes narrowed. "You’re a Jedi."
"Yes." As she stepped up towards the workspace, Veluona saw that the figure inside the kolto tank was a twi’lek dressed in the remains of a Republic uniform. His throat appeared to have been ripped open by a claw, but he was undeniably moving. Veluona wondered if she had found one of Nexu squad’s missing soldiers.
"What have you done to this man?" she demanded and pointed at the tank.
"What does it look like?" the stranger shot back. "I’m bringing him back to life, of course."
"This is not life", Veluona stated coolly. "So you created those things outside?"
"Results of my earlier experiments", the man sighed. "Far from perfect unfortunately, but I’m getting there."
"Why are you doing this?"
The stranger eyed her with disdain. "You’re a Jedi. You wouldn’t understand. Your kind never understood. I was like you once, but then I saw what you were really like."
Veluona stared at him. "You were a Jedi?"
"Jedi Knight Harkan Len, at your service", he said with a mocking bow.
"The name isn’t familiar", Veluona admitted. "How did you come to be here? What happened?"
Harkan’s snorted. "Why would you care? Your order never cared when she died and you just told me that I should let go of my emotions." His voice was caustic. "But I’ll show you, all of you. My research is almost at a breakthrough, and I’ll bring her back. You’ll see!"
"I see", Veluona said quietly. "I’m afraid I cannot allow you to continue your… research. If you come with me I will take you back to Tython. The healers at the temple will help you."
He laughed. "Seriously, Jedi, has that line ever worked? Promises of healing and redemption? I am not going anywhere with you, and I am not going to stop now that I’m so close."
Suddenly he grabbed a glass tube from his bench and hurled it at Veluona. She twirled aside, bringing up her saberstaff to deflect it. The tube shattered against a wall, spilling a greenish liquid that hissed as it started dissolving the rock.
A lightsaber sprung up in Harkan’s hand, its blade glowing a sickly yellow. He leaped at her with surprising grace, assuming a classic attack stance as he landed.
Veluona watched him carefully as they circled each other. He stabbed at her, an almost negligent movement that was intended to test her rather than harm her. Veluona brushed it aside and spun her saber around for a counterattack.
They exchanged a few blows, still wary and trying to gauge each other’s strength. Harkan’s eyes glowed fanatically as he gradually stepped up the speed and power of his attacks. Veluona was still holding her own with relative ease, but something about him disturbed her. He was drawing power from somewhere, or something, and as she fended him off she tried to focus and figure out where that power was coming from.
Suddenly he leaped at her with his blade extended, at the same time pushing at her through the Force. Veluona dodged his blow, then stepped around him in a flowing movement and buried her saberstaff in his back. He gave a surprised groan, then collapsed.
"No…" he rasped and drew a shuddering breath. "You can’t… I’m not finished yet!"
"Yes, you are", she said gently and took a step back. "I am sorry."
Suddenly he screamed, an inhuman sound that should not have been possible with the wound in his back that had ruptured his lungs. His body convulsed for a long moment, then lay still. Veluona took another step back as a dark cloud started to form above him and solidified into an amorphous black mass whose only distinguishing feature were two glowing red spots like malevolent eyes.
"Jedi", the thing hissed. "Always meddling at the most inopportune moments. You killed my tool."
Veluona eyed the cloud warily. This was where Harkan had drawn his power from, she was sure. Darkness emanated from the thing like a sickening stench, and she could feel her stomach heave just from being near it. "What are you?"
"Angry", the thing yelled and lunged at her. Veluona twisted aside and lashed out with her saberstaff, but the white blade just passed through the creature without any visible effect. The thing formed a tentacle of pure blackness which shot out at her. She managed to dodge, but only partly, and the tentacle touched her shoulder, instantly burning her skin with icy cold. A numb feeling spread from the frost burn, and Veluona knew that she had to avoid a full hit at all costs.
She vaulted away from the creature, rolled over her uninjured shoulder and came back to her feet in a graceful movement. Desperately she reached through the Force to grab a piece of debris and hurl it at the blackness. As expected, it passed through the thing without harming it.
"You killed my tool", the creature repeated. "I’ll need a new one. You will have to do."
"I won’t serve you", the Jedi stated flatly and narrowly evaded another tentacle.
"That’s what he said too", the thing retorted, sounding almost amused. "But I broke him. He really believed I could help him to bring back his lost love."
"What happened to her?" Veluona asked, trying to distract the creature by keeping it talking.
"Nothing", it said simply. "She never existed. But he thought she did, and that provided the most powerful motivation I could wish for. It took me months to break his mind and plant the memories, but in the end, he believed. As will you."
Veluona could feel the thing prodding her mind, and she instantly tightened her mental shields. She could feel the creature’s power, and she knew that it would overwhelm her eventually unless she managed to destroy it quickly. Reaching out she grabbed another chunk of debris and hurled it. It missed the creature and crashed straight into the kolto tank behind it, shattering it and sending shards of glass and a stream of kolto over the floor.
The black cloud cackled maliciously. "You cannot harm me", it said and floated almost lazily towards the Jedi. "Why don’t you just give up and… what?"
The dead twi’lek rose from the shards of the kolto tank with a horrible gurgle. With blinding speed it jumped at the cloud, claws extended. The thing didn’t seem to be harmed by the attack, but for an instant it was distracted.
Veluona closed her eyes and let the Force guide her as she reached out with her mind. The creature might be immune to physical damage, but everything had a weak spot in its essence. The trick was to find it and breach it, and the brief moment in which the thing’s full attention was on the dead soldier was enough. Veluona reached, grabbed and twisted sharply.
The creature screamed. Now that she had an opening, the Jedi pushed relentlessly. Her eyes still closed, she tore at the dark being’s essence and ripped it apart. Finally she could feel it growing weaker, then it vanished. Exhausted, she dropped to her knees, breathing heavily.
The dead twi’lek stood perplexed for a moment, then shambled towards her. Wearily Veluona got back to her feet and raised her saberstaff, but then she noticed that the animated corpse didn’t appear hostile. Instead, he stopped a few paces away from her and looked at her.
He tried to speak, but all that came from his ruined throat was a wet gurgle. Anguish showed on his face, and he raised his hand in a pleading gesture.
Veluona understood. "Do you wish me to end it?" she asked quietly. The dead man nodded. "Then I will do so. You saved my life, soldier, and I thank you for that."
The twi’lek reached into his uniform and dragged something out, then held it towards her. Veluona took it. It was an ID tag. "Yes", she said. "I will take it back to the base and let them know. You will be remembered." Then she raised her saber and ran the man through. He fell to the ground, and the last expression on his face was one of profound relief.
Veluona looked around. She wasn’t sure that the dark creature, whatever it had been, was really defeated once and for all, but for now she had done all that she could. Almost all. Harkan’s research was still here, and she could not risk anyone stumbling across it and producing any more of the sorry creatures.
There were plenty of flammable liquids in the laboratory, and the Jedi generously doused the workspace and everything around it in them. A single spark was enough to set everything alight. Veluona watched for a moment until she was sure that everything would be consumed, then she turned and walked away from the blazing remnants of Harkan’s false dreams.