Once A Warrior, Part VI Rating: PG-13
ThrawnMcEwok

This is how it feels to be Anakin Solo right now.

He hurts. They’ve done something to him. Done things to him.

He can feel distinctly physical gaps in himself, as cool and numb and sore and keen as blades — voids and absences where the frayed fibre of his being has simply ... parted.

But these wounds also have a weight and purchase of their own, tugging at the torn, nebulous edges of his slashed and butchered body, threatening — and promising — a further unraveling of his human skein.

He floats on a cocktail of steroids, garnished by pain-skewered thoughts.

He lies on a cold, smooth slab, like a cut of meat, no longer knowing what is happening. He feels, suddenly, very alone.

He blinks, and his eyes try to focus.

Pain flashes along his optic nerves, like molten metal bursting into the crucible of his brain.

Light, bright enough that it hurts.

Ticking. A golden light.

He writhes, speared by the light, and a reedy wail rises in his ragged throat.

Even that effort exhausts him, and he sags slack on the slab, as his mind starts to make sense of what has happened, and where he is.

’Hiri? Jaya? He blinks. Huh?!

The ticking is a small beam, shining from a slim lightquill, being shone into his dilated pupils. His eyes follow the light instinctively, as though hypnotized. The lightquill is held in a clawed hand — not a human hand — gloved in rough, segmented armour. The golden light comes from the gleaming eyes of the man whose hand it is.

The face could be human — so aged that species is almost meaningless, so deeply lined that several centuries’ worth of scars and tattoos have become merely details in the map of wrinkles. Even the shifting, knotting snake-dreadlocks which frame his visage have grown old beyond recognition, more like the folded gossamer wings of a star dragon than the tendril coils of a Shaper’s headdress — so old, so frail, they have a diaphanous quality, an ethereal, weightless dignity to the way they move.

But there is a familiar, oily pattern in the skin of the cloak clasped round his shoulders, matching the gloss of the feather quills which form a loose mantle around the collar.

Anakin manages a gurgle of surprise.

“You are a very lucky young man,” the Master Shaper remarks, and amid the lines, Anakin Solo can see a kindly smile. “You were clinically dead for twenty miniketts. You’re very lucky we were able to bring you back.”

He answers this news with another gurgle in his throat, feeling the pain seep back into him — then flinches sharply in several directions at once as the pain becomes real again.

His arms and legs are raw and burning, more like fire than flesh. Every breath is agony, each heartbeat a lead weight. But the cold pain of the deep wound in his guts is the worst, the black, unblinking eye of a savage storm of pain that rages from ribs to groin. Above that, the slash across his chest yawns like the sabre-toothed maw of a hungry voxyn, rich with heat and venom, while all across his body, the surgical incisions stab and sting and sing, in harmony with the sharp, acid-edged amphistaff bites on his arms and shoulders. Lower and more subtle are the needlepoint prickles, the cuts and bruises, the playground scuffs and grazes, the old-fashioned exhaustion.

Compared to all this, the symbiotes and implants are merely knots of cold discomfort slipped between layers of torn tissue, almost like refuges, in which his thoughts can curl up safe, away from all the pain.

For a moment, being alive feels almost bearable.

But still, instinctively, he struggles against the clamps that bind him to the slab — and he is seized by the sudden thought that he is already dead himself, that he is simply an echo, a Yuuzhan Vong construct composed of cold, dead nodes and subtly-varied fields of pain, shaping twitches and spasms into his dead body.

He feels dead.

Cold, numb, empty, hollow.

Gone.

The Master Shaper tuts slightly, and he feels the touch of something icy cold against bare, livid skin. Pain screams along trapped nerves like live current, and his body howls its hurt at his already pain-crazed mind.

He feels his lip quiver, feels tears sting his eyes. Perhaps the Master Shaper glances up at his face for a moment, but he continues with whatever he is doing, as though indifferent.

Anakin Solo shakes like a dry leaf with the shame of being so helpless. The shame of being alive, and a prisoner, when too many others are dead. The pain flares again, as the Master Shaper does something else, and he shies away from memories — from who, and why, and where, and how.

Mom? Dad? Jaya? Tahiri?

“Mwaa-aaaaaaaaugh!!

He is surprised that, trapped inside this keening, weeping, burning, thing that was once him, thoughts come clearly, like shafts of light.

Perhaps everyone else is dead, he thinks.

Where they should be, silence roars.

Force ...?

For a moment — an awful, infinite eternity of despair — Anakin Solo believes that he is the only infidel left alive in the universe, that the Yuuzhan Vong have wiped out everyone else. All of them.

Even the Force itself.

Then his staring eyes roll back in their orbits, to meet the beady gaze of the ysalamir peering down at him from the branch above his head, curiously indifferent to his pain.

The knowledge that he is a prisoner, cut off from the Force by his captors, brings only further anguish, which makes itself heard as a keening wail.

Something long and deep as a needle slides into him — he can’t tell where, only that it is sliding through hard muscle as though it was hot fat, grazing bone.

And because he is now a Yuuzhan Vong ... a Yuuzhan Vong prisoner ... pain, rather than soothing anaesthetic, scatters his thoughts.

He clenches what remains of himself into a knot as tight as a newborn’s fist.

After a while, determination forms inside this knot of him, and he risks unfolding, unclenching like the scrunched petals of a viliflower — What’s a viliflower? — dragging his reluctant self out to face reality.

For a moment, he wavers with all his old bashfulness.

Ow.

His eyes sting with hurt — though he can’t tell whether it is the salt prick of tears, or the dry smart of dry irises. Above him, he can see only the vault of the damutek, though people are still hovering on the edge of his vision. He feels scalpel blades slice flesh, the quick dance of sutures, and the chink of chitin-handled surgical implements on the acid-washed surface of pearl trays.

Thoughts come slowly, through an acid fog that sears his mind. He feels slow, sluggish, heavy. He’s still on the operating table — or the Yuuzhan Vong equivalent thereof.

Not, he reflects, that that necessarily means he’s a patient; or a human being ... or him.

He’s just ... helpless?

Okay. Not good.

What now?

He blinks at the question.

He is surprised to realise that he can still move. He’s pinned down by clench-jawed clamps that feel as though they’re actually biting deep into his arms and legs — Kriff, that hurts! — partially paralysed, and — as crab-armoured hands lift something warm and pulsing out of his torso — pretty sure that he’s not exactly intact any more.

He tries to find his fingers and toes.

He can’t.

Forearms? Nope.

Oh, great ...

Lower legs? Maybe.

But he can roll his eyes, lift his head, try, however hopelessly, to lift his body from the slab.

His buttocks clench, almost painlessly.

To his surprise, he farts.

He laughs.

Though when he does, it sounds scary — and he feels odd wrenchings in his torso that suggest that’s maybe not the best idea.

Oww.

He lies back again until the hazing pain fades, takes several deep breaths — he can feel the careful hold of something closed around his lungs. His eyes twitch and roll as he looks around.

The Master Shaper is standing beyond his shoulder, talking with his apprentice, a slim girl whose headdress and cloak seem like younger versions of his own. She has a thoughtful frown on her face, and even in his current condition, species-gap and general situation notwithstanding, Anakin Solo thinks that it makes her looks cute.

She glances across at him, and smiles.

He smiles back.

She laughs, and says something to the Master Shaper, and he watches them walk across, as though putting a few steps between themselves and him will make much difference.

Surprisingly, it does.

He watches the Master and the Apprentice confer. He hears the word Jeedai a few times, and they nod in his direction.

For a moment, her dark eyes widen, but then she nods, and turns back towards him. He watches her walk back over, seeing the brisk pace which she uses to escape her own uncertainty. She is slim and long-legged, and her face is lean, thin and sharp-cheekboned. Her skin is grey, light for a Yuuzhan Vong, but her eyes are the same deep, oily black as her cloak.

More to the point, her eyes are solemn, soulful and intelligent, brim-full with thought and feeling.

Jeedai,” she says, and he shivers. There is something tender in the way she speaks his name, as though she cares. Before his thoughts have really caught up with what’s going on, she’s slipped something into his ear. He feels it wriggle and hunch its way deeper, but before he can protest, he realises what it is. A translator slug.

A tizowyrm.

“Thanks,” he whispers, and she smiles in delight.

“This will hurt, Jeedai,” she says, like a lover’s promise, and then the smile slips most of the way back into whatever sheathe she keeps it in. “And you are not yet used to our ways. My Master tells me that I must ... ah, apologize, before I hurt you. This is an infidel concept. Master Yal Phaath says that this is an exchange, an honour-barter — my apology, in exchange for your pain.”

He nods numbly, trying to work out whether he should be doing something else.

“Thanks,” he says again.

The girl grins, then flicks free the bone-and-sinew clamps from around his left leg, and lifts him out of the stirrup, holding his swollen ankle in her left hand.

He feels nothing, but when she grips his knee in her right hand, digits digging into the skin, new pain adds to the pattern which defines him, almost abstract among the aches. She looks up, and smiles at him. He smiles back, and then his eyes bulge in horror as he sees the blades crouched in the sheathes of her fingers.

What?! No!

He tries to protest, but he can manage only a feeble quiver.

He looks at the hand, the Shaper’s Hand. He see the claw come out of the thumb, and slice neatly through the skin above his kneecap.

Pain flares, lancing deep, cutting through the complex, layered map of hurt that has come to define his being.

She doesn’t seem to notice. She just slides her thumb under the flap she’s sliced open, and starts to peel back the soft tissue. He stares at the bright, raw meat underneath. The white bone, the blood welling across the exposed muscle as she moves her scalpel-nail expertly up the inside of his thigh. The flap is ten inches long now, and she slides her thumb back deeper under it, severing his skin from the muscle of his inner thigh.

Skinning him alive.

He watches in horrified fascination for a moment longer — then throws his head back, and screams.



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