Many Happy Returns: Chapter Thirty-Eight
Iella

In the frantic first minutes of the fight, Lando's bellowed command to the Black Knights to pair up for support was overwhelmed by the clamour as he and Qorl charged in Vehn's wake towards the laser cannon. Two of the Rancors saw them and began spraying them with erratic, but nonetheless dangerous, blaster fire, which Blue and Pania countered from behind the shelter they had made from a snack dispenser that they had wrenched from the wall and crashed down on its side. Another three of the enemy gang had taken up positions against the wall beside where the end of the stairwell corridor debouched into the room, obviously intending to deal with the rest of the Black Knights as they ventured out. One of Qorl's shots put an end to that idea for one of the men, and his roar of pain alerted Blue to his presence and, more importantly, to that of his companions.

Lando managed to let loose a shot that put the rifle wielded by another Rancor out of commission, before he had to dodge a swinging blow from the erstwhile operator of the cannon. Tag, his eyes bulging with fury above his florid cheeks, had pushed the man aside and was fumbling to swing the weapon round to target the corridor at the bottom of the stairwell, where Tendra and the rest of the Black Knights were still holed up.

Vehn reached the bald man first. "Oh no you don't, sunshine!" he growled as he channelled his momentum into a tackle that sent Tag's bulk crashing into the wall. The younger man struggled to his knees, intending to smash the butt of his pistol down on the warehouse owner's head, but the latter lay still, like a beached krakana. Vehn hesitated uncertain whether to pander to his instinctive mistrust and carry through with the action anyway, but the sight of Lando in the grim embrace of a large Weequay wiped the problem from his mind. He clambered up intending to make a grab for the G-40, but thankfully Qorl was already there, attempting to disarm it. Vehn turned quickly to go to Lando's aid, but stopped in his tracks when he heard a howl. He swung round to see Qorl clutching at the top of his arm where a chunk of flesh and bone had been burned away.

"Qorl!" he yelled as he saw the lanky body of his friend drop to the ground.

"I'm okay," the old pilot groaned, although the reassurance was belied by his unsuccessful effort to stop writhing with the pain.

Any desire Vehn might have possessed to help either of his friends was quickly stifled by his realisation that the cannon operator had leapt back into position, and was already in the process of re-aiming the weapon. He lunged over to stop him, but the man saw him coming and swung a punch intended to connect with Vehn's jaw. Instinctively, Vehn ducked under the man's oncoming fist, coming up like a spring with an upper cut to the man's jaw that shattered teeth. He followed through with a blow to the head, strangely relieved to be able to translate some of his concern for Qorl into revenge. The man wobbled and reached down for his blaster, but Vehn was well into his fighting rhythm. He let loose with a series of full-bodied punches to the man's stomach, allowed him a few seconds to stop retching, and then, leaning back slightly, he threw all his fury and frustration into a final head shot.

The man's knees buckled but Vehn didn't see him fall, as he was too busy racing back to the cannon. So busy he didn't see the viscose projectiles zooming towards him from the side. His hand reached out for the controls of the cannon only to become encased in a sticky substance that immediately turned solid on contact with his flesh. Confused, he turned — a movement he regretted a heartbeat later when several tendrils of the same substance swept across his face, one entering his mouth that he realised too late had opened in surprise. Even his sudden ability to identify the strange weapon did little to appease his frustration. He clawed desperately at the extrusions from the Stohkli spray stick that were in danger of choking him, at the same time aware that they had set like cement over one eye, making him effectively blind on that side. Not only that but one foot was now stuck to the floor, and ...

Mother of vaping meteors!

... the Weequay, grinning triumphantly and viciously, was in the process of sitting down at the laser cannon. Slowly and deliberately, indulging in the moment like a concert musician, he reset the controls, re-aiming the long firing tube at the group of Black Knights still holed up in the tower stairwell and desperately fighting Rancor fire.

Vehn's soul cried out in anger and bitter grief. To get this close to freedom — and then have it snatched away so ignominiously was more than he could ...

A sudden flurry of movement in the peripheral vision of his good eye made him twitch reflexively to the side. But even so he saw the Weequay's finger pause above the firing switch — and caught the feral glint of his teeth as the ugly creature smiled a mock apology. For the tiniest instant their gazes met, before Vehn's reaction threw him awkwardly on to one knee and up against the thing that he had tried to avoid.

The thing roared in desperation as it collided heavily with Vehn, and then, in a tumble of unconnected limbs, it struggled past him, clawing along the floor and then hauling itself up and launching itself at the Weequay. It was the ugliest and ungainliest save Vehn had ever seen, but, as the tall hurtling body glanced off the positioning lever, and the firing tube swung up to target the roof, and the Weequay's finger hit the trigger — Vehn whooped for joy.

And then hit the deck in an awkward crouch with his arms over his head as fiery chunks of ceiling rained down on him.

Lando half-dragged himself, half-rolled over to the wall. The Weequay wasn't quite so lucky, or maybe his brain just didn't move fast enough. All Vehn knew was that one instant the creature was there, and the next a large section of roof had usurped his place, oozing telltale crimson trickles.

Lando lurched over to him looking pale and strained beneath his tanned complexion, but eyes blazed like live coals.

"Hey — not too bad." Vehn forced a grin. "A bit showy though — leaving it to the last minute like that."

"Well — got to keep the myth going. You know how it is." Lando's sides heaved as he studied the hardened tendrils holding his friend to the floor, and then he aimed and blasted them. "Don't think I can use that technique with your eye though." He helped him up just as Blue scrambling over.

"I'll live," grunted Vehn, "as long as I can move. Qorl's always telling me I'm one-eyed anyway. I ... Qorl! He was —" He glanced around, at the same time realising he'd have to turn his head as well to compensate for his blindness.

"No worries — Tendra's seeing to him," panted Blue. "Good diversion by the way — I gather it was carefully planned."

"Of course." Lando managed to sound outraged at the implication that anything other could be the case — and then followed Blue and Vehn as they scrambled for cover behind the chunk of roof.

The blast from the cannon had created some welcome confusion as people dodged debris or alternatively, like the Weequay, failed to do so. It had also opened up a hole large enough to let in the pale twilight, light that the billows of dust rendered somewhat sickly, but not so sickly that it failed to provide a useful counter to the gloom. Through the murk Lando spared a few precious seconds to locate what he had hoped to find, and find it he did: the amethyst glimmer of a lightsaber steady and unflinching, carving its message of cool determination in the air.

"Ready for round two?"

Lando turned to find that Blue had followed his gaze.

"You bet," he replied grimly.

Blue's eyes lingered briefly on the curving, sweeping shaft of light, before continuing their circuit of the room. "Reckon we can't let the kid do all the work, can we?" he grunted.

"Bad for his ego," Lando agreed as Chukka appeared in between them, his needle-sharp fangs bared in what passed for a grin. Wordlessly he extracted a DL-44 from his belt with a flourish, passed it to Lando and then, emitting a blood-curdling bellow, he charged up and over the lump of ceiling.

Lando and Blue exchanged quizzical glances.

"A trifle dramatic," Blue observed.

"Far too blatant," Lando nodded.

They watched Chukka's progress for a minute as he charged towards a cluster of Rancors who were still in the process of struggling back to their feet, shrugged, hoisted their weapons and, echoing his battle cry, raced after him.

******

The Yuuzhan Vong warrior whom Anakin had grazed with his blaster began to clamber back to his feet, unaware that the tail of his amphistaff had thrust through the armoured knee joint of the warrior who had cushioned his landing. The muscles on his upper arms bunched as his effort to swing the weapon at Anakin met with a bone-crunching jolt of resistance, and his grin of anticipation faltered in momentary surprise. For a nanosecond Anakin saw the Yuuzhan Vong's lips curl as he tracked the hyphen of light speeding towards him, and then they drowned under a gushing fountain of black blood. He had a fleeting glimpse of a perfect bulls-eye painted on the charred flesh in the centre of the warrior's throat before the sight was blocked out by the looming figures of the remaining four.

He could feel the Force swirling and billowing augmented as always by his bond with Tahiri. He could almost liken the feeling to the two of them fighting within a protective bubble and sharing their combined strength, so they could distribute it as needed to meet the oncoming threats. And it was not only their strength they shared. The connection between them worked like double sight, allowing him to share Tahiri's view of the situation and she his. But even then their perception of the battle beyond the advancing warriors was nothing more than a blur of hurtling bodies punctuated by crimson streaks. Anakin could only hope that Lando, Rongo and the others were all right because he had no sense of them individually in the Force. This was the stage he hated — wanting to be there for his friends, but knowing they had to fight their own fights.

He studied the leading member of the ersatz Peace Brigaders, carefully noting the ridged scar that ran in a diagonal from his left temple until it was engulfed by the iridescent blue sheen of his armour. He wasn't overly tall for a Yuuzhan Vong, but he was sleek and athletic, and his movements implied a measured confidence. He was also young, as were his companions, and Anakin couldn't help being curious as to their agenda. Were they part of an advance force sent to reconnoitre the Nevoota System, or were they merely opportunists looking for glory, or to advance the status of their domain?

He felt a flutter of recognition from Tahiri. "I'm not certain, but I think they belong to Domain Lian," she murmured, "who lost face when Corran showed Shedao Shai who's boss."

Anakin nodded. He remembered now. Deign Lian was Shai's second in the duel; Luke had been Corran's. Lian's escape from Ithor was thwarted by a combined fleet under the command of Pellaeon and Kre'fey.

That answers that question.

"That was a bit of a messy start," he said snidely. "I gather you're a little out of practice."

One of the warriors growled, but was silenced by a baleful glare from his war captain.

"Eagerness I encourage — over-eagerness, however, is as you say messy." He turned his dark gaze back to Anakin. "The gods winnow as they see fit."

"Your gods are a little too fond of blood for my liking," Anakin informed him. Although the Yuuzhan Vong were a void in the Force, he could still read their body language, and his heightened awareness was feeding him a barrage of data, not the least being their battle stances and their fascination with Tahiri. No doubt the story of the Jedi-who-was-shaped had spread amongst the domains like the proverbial first abomination.

"And of collaborating with cowards," he continued, noting the way the warriors were arraying themselves into pairs, and sending a mental warning to Tahiri. "I'm surprised you'd even consider contaminating your high ideals by making deals with a scumball like Tag."

"I make deals with nobody!" The leader snapped his amphistaff up angrily at lightning speed, his words erupting with a hiss like a burst of hydraulic energy escaping from his sinews.

Anakin had his lightsaber in a high block a split-second before the leader's weapon came chopping down, and then, when the Yuuzhan Vong rapidly altered his attack in mid-strike to a lunge at Anakin's chest, he leapt back sweeping his weapon low and wide in response. He caught a blur of motion beside him as Tahiri nimbly ducked a whipping amphistaff, rolling forward and slashing at her attacker's feet and sending him into a backward leap. In the same heartbeat, the leader thrust at Anakin again, his staff rigid against his forearm, but at the last minute Anakin spun clear. The alien, unable to pull out of the movement, pitched headfirst into a seething group of bodies and slammed into Doc who was dodging a blow from the two-headed swooper. The three fell together in a heap of tangled limbs. The warrior and the Rancor struggled to their feet both howling with rage, but Doc, who had recovered first, launched himself on to the Yuuzhan Vong's back.

With the leader temporarily out of the picture, his companion grabbed his opportunity to attack, flicking his staff viciously at the young Jedi's head. Anakin feinted right and caught the spitting head on its return with an upward stroke of his blade that sizzled into the grey flesh. In the second it took the warrior to retrieve his wounded staff, Anakin's saber continued its motion — traced an almost casual loop against the backdrop of frenzied activity — and lopped off the Yuuzhan Vong's head.

The alien's body stood for a instant as if confused by its sudden lack of purpose, and then collapsed, revealing a view of the group's leader flailing and bucking violently in his efforts to rid himself of Doc who was clinging like blorash jelly around his neck. Anakin lunged toward where Tahiri was blocking and parrying, noticing as he did that the warrior who had been knocked down at the start was twitching weakly as if slowly regaining consciousness. But there was no time to let loose with his blaster, because one of Tahiri's opponents was already within striking distance. He spun in a rapid circle to avoid the staff spearing toward him, dancing from one foot to the other on landing to snap-kick the warrior in the chest just as Tahiri sprang sideways to land beside him. The alien pitched backward, but recovered quickly. Behind him Anakin caught the flash of Doc's vibro-knuckler, but all else was lost to view as two amphistaves curved in opposing trajectories toward the spot where he and Tahiri were standing. It was an opportunistic move obviously based on the possibility that their proximity might confound their dual efforts to counter it, especially as Tahiri fought left-handed.

Fortunately, for them anyway, the plan failed. Rather than try and parry they stepped back, flipped in two backward somersaults, spun on their toes and met back in the middle in time to slash down on the serpent-like heads. One thudded to the floor, its fangs expending the last of their venom harmlessly into the wood, but the other curved away sweeping smoothly on its gyre as it returned to its point of origin. Unfazed by the sudden limpness of his staff, the warrior facing Anakin had already unleashed a swinging blow with his coufee that Anakin ducked, coming up beside the alien with his lightsaber already deactivated.

Before he could stab the hilt into the warrior's side, however, a Force image of a large human missile, heralded simultaneously by an oncoming roar, made him hit the deck in a roll that brought him up further away from Tahiri than he intended. But he had no time to check whether Doc had survived his brief experience of flight, because the Force breathed a warning and Anakin's blade sprang back to life, its purple radiance sparking and hissing as it melted the vibro-axe cleaving its way downwards towards his skull. The swooper wielding it stared dumbfounded for an instant at the molten lump left in his hand, before dropping it with a growl of pain. Nursing his burned palm under his armpit he aimed at Anakin with his blaster, only to have the weapon wrenched from his grasp by an invisible hand and hurled at the blonde-haired Rancor bearing down on them from the left. The speeding blaster caught the approaching swooper a stunning blow to the temple and, as Anakin leapt back to his feet, the man dropped lifeless to the floor.

"Bender!" roared one of the man's compatriots who then promptly prepared to launch himself at the young Jedi. But before he could coordinate his limbs to obey the command to jump, the room lit up with an incarnadine glow that was punctuated an instant later by a throaty roar like that of a mythical fire-breathing monster.

Anakin spun away from where he sensed chunks of matter falling and spared a quick glance up to see a jagged hole in the roof. He glanced around desperately to locate Tahiri, and saw her blonde head bobbing up and down as she dodged through the raining debris. His effort to find Lando, however, was rapidly curtailed by the looming figure of the swooper who had recovered and resumed his attack. Anakin deflected several blaster bolts and sidestepped to avoid the man as he thrust angrily with his vibro-blade. He sliced down on the weapon as the man toppled past him and hastened his progress toward the far wall with a hefty, and very unsophisticated, kick to the hindquarters.

Not the sort of move Uncle Luke would be too happy about, but sometimes style just doesn't fit the job.

He turned, intending to work his way over to Tahiri, but found himself face to face instead with the Yuuzhan Vong war captain.

"We meet again, Jeedai." The alien sounded genuinely happy.

"I have to say — it's nice to meet a man who enjoys his job," Anakin replied.

The warrior's black eyes studied him coolly. "I sense you are mocking me," he said calmly. "But I respect the fact that you are not afraid of death."

Anakin steadied himself. With no sense of his enemy's thoughts through the Force he was forced to rely purely on close observation of his movements, on the merest twitch of muscle reflexes.

"Death comes to us all," he replied slowly.

The warrior's lips peeled back in the semblance of a grin.

And Anakin was already parrying the thrusting amphistaff before it was halfway through its journey.



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