Once A Warrior, Part VII Rating: PG-13

It doesn’t take long to skin a man alive.

It feels like years. Years in which you spend most of the time immersed in boiling oil, bathing in the fire of a Star Destroyer’s main heat exhaust, locked in the heart of a star — wrapped in a pain so complete that you become a part of it, your thoughts themselves mere expressions of agony, flares from the surface of the flame.

Occasionally, almost by accident, your consciousness is borne back to the real world, to take a few lucid breaths of clear awareness. Your eyes are wide, and your prone body stretches away beneath the vantage-point of your perceptions to a distant horizon like a sea of fire. Every nerve burns with the white heat of an oxy-torch, while sparks of superheated awareness try to flee the pain in panic. From the wildfire of your body, thousand silent, screaming voices rage at you.

For a moment, perhaps, you touch the Force, and you remember the jungle on Yavin 4, burning.


You look down at the slope of your leg, seeing the red-blooded ham of your thigh pulsing and bloody, horribly alive; seeing the thick, fleshy rope of peeled skin hanging loose below it, loosely spun and slung between hip and knee. You see the shaper’s thump flick back your kneecap, and you see the knife slice sharply through the joint underneath, amputating your leg.

You don’t feel a thing, though.

But then you realise how much everything else hurts. You realise that your body has become a molten crucible, that this physical working is merely the alchemy that smelts flawed humanity, burning off the useless slag, purifying and forging what remains into a blade of strong and perfect pain.

And then the red-gold currents drag you back down again.

Your last thought is that the thought-destroying pain itself has saved you from the horror of becoming truly pure.

And then, even that is lost.

When they’re finished, they rub salt into the wounds. Literally.

I roll my eyes back in their sockets, feeling tears welling up from under them. Stupid tears. Why do I have to cry. Why can’t I be strong?

Why can’t I be like ... like ...

My breath stalls, catching in my throat as the symbiotes bound to my lungs reach the end of the latest beat in their mechanical rhythm.

As I breathe out, I realise that I am Darth Vader.

I cry — letting the tears fall, letting a long wail of despair whistle out around the thick, pulsing, choking vine that snakes and worms its way down in my throat and into me.

The ysalamir looks down at me from its branch, apparently quite indifferent to what is being done to me.

The only good thing I can think of is that I am inside the bubble. The ysalamir projects a Force-null bubble, hiding me, and my pain, from everyone else.

Here, my pain — my shame — belongs to me, and me alone. I remember Ben being born, how that nearly knocked me out. And that was just life, just perfect.

Mom, Dad, Uncle Luke, Aunt Mara, Jaya, Jace. Tahiri. They can’t feel this.

They probably think I’m dead.

Assuming any of them are still alive.


I roll my eyes to slough off the blurring tears — I can’t blink any more — and I see Niia Phaath carrying a pink bundle across the damutek, depositing it into a clear tub full of some sort of liquid. I flinch, and focus, and watch the bundle unfold like a rose, staining the liquid red.

As I watch it, my mind finally catches up with the fact that it’s trapped in a physical cage of muscle and bone, wrapped only in pain.

As I sink beneath the surface of the molten fire, I remember green eyes, solemn and sympathetic, with a calm, self-aware knowledge in them.

I want to scream.


After another eternity.

Through the pain that scatters my thoughts, through tears I can no longer blink away, I realise that I’m no longer the centre of attention in the damutek. I’m no longer being skinned alive.

I’ve been skinned. Psychologically, at least, the fact that it’s over makes the pain easier to bear. That puffy pink thing earlier was my skin — maybe some other parts of me as well.

I look down, surprised that I can still move my neck. I see a shifting, gleaming sea of muscles, exposed bones like half-sunk spars of pale wreckage, things that squirm and pump and slide just beneath the surface like slick-backed creatures swimming through the depths, their smooth backs breaking the waves.

The neatly-wrapped package strapped against my loins stands out like a sore thumb — a starchy, linen-coloured parcel of clyriz-impregnated silkskin, carefully packed and bandaged. For a moment, I feel a surge of gratitude, and the muscles of my cheek twitch in a movement that would have shaped a lazy grin onto my lips, when I still had lips to smile with.

It’s sore, though, cracking the stiff scabs forming on my face.

I raise my head, through the blur of hurt, I watch the Shapers working. There’s a familiar corpse on the slab over there.


It’s me.

Or at least, someone that looks like me. They’re wrapping him in my skin.

My skin.

Oh, kriff, it hurts ...

Ah! Ah! Ah!

Pain blurs my thoughts.

When I surface again, Master Shaper Yal Phaath is peering at me, the glow from his implants bleeding like sunrise around his narrowed eyes.

Beyond him, I can see my own corpse. I recognize my trashed Jedi jumpsuit, my battered old lightsaber, my limp hand flopped off the side of the table, my floppy, fairish hair.

I wonder how much of me is in that corpse, and how much is left in this thing that thinks it’s me, over here, observing.

I look up at Yal Phaath.

“Come here, Niia,” he says — my hearing isn’t much good any more, but the tizowyrm is still squirming inside my skull, translating the meaning, and the words dance along a clear path in my thoughts, like cool water. Contact. “You have a deft touch.”

“Nuh,” I say. Whatever that means. “Nuh-huh. Uh. Uhh!”

Yal Phaath smiles sympathetically, and tilts my head to the side. I feel the smart of his rough palm against my cheek see the tizowyrm wriggling in the palm of his hand.

Silence roars in my ears.

Tears flood my eyes.

I feel numb.

Niia — the Shaper Adept — steps over, gripping my raw cheek, tighter than Yal Phaath did, and pressing her thumb into the corner of my eye-socket, the tactile pad against the soft sphere of my eyeball.

My first coherent reaction is to realise that she must have slid her sharp-edged nail underneath the lid.

I remember what that thumb can do.

My eyes bulge.

No! Not my eyes!


Pain stabs along my optic nerve, like a nail driven into my skull. Like Force lightning in my mind.

For a moment, agony.

Numbness follows, and in the narrowed field of vision of my one remaining eye, edged with fireworks of pain, I watch as Niia Phaath steps away, my amputated eyeball held carefully in the crook of her claw, and drops it into a little sac of saline liquid. It sinks to the bottom, bobs happily up again, and settles just below the surface — a cyclopean tadpole with a bloodied tail like a newborn’s cord, looking at me like some sort of Yuuzhan Vong sight-gag.

Niia smiles at me, the same sort of reassuring smile that Yal Phaath gave me back when I woke up and found myself here. I stare back, my one-eyed gaze rolling around her body. I try not to think of what my face must look like.

Face? What face?

Yal Phaath is attaching my face to the corpse on the table.

I watch Niia carry my eye over to the corpse that has been dressed in my skin, and hand it to him.

He nods, and lays the jar down on a desk, and she comes back for my other eye.

That one eye is all I have left — one blue eye, swiveling in its socket. I look at my other eye, and my other eye looks back at me. I feel the surface of my eye stinging with dried tears.

At least my lack of eyelids won’t be a problem now.

Then, there will only be pain.

I think I’m going to laugh.


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