Emerging from the Vraaladash, the crew of the Mako's Run stared about in shock. Several Republic LAATs had crashed in various positions nearer the treeline, their debris scattered about across the expanse of the ta'niala. As they watched, hundreds of droids broke from the tree line, advancing implacably forward.
Paz pointed to one of the downed ships. "Look!" she shouted.
Crouching within the cover of one the LAAT's damaged hulls, a couple of troopers were pinned down alongside a brown-robed Weequay. A familiar blue-skinned figure wearing a duster, wide-brimmed hat, and binder cuffs was slouched a bit further in.
"They need help!" EZ cried. "The droids will overrun them!"
Mrrowl's nostrils flared and he growled, his ears flattening dangerously. "Weequay!!!" he snarled, baring his teeth.
Shre'ka understood her mate's caution. Closing her eyes, she felt along Sa'uuk in an attempt to discern the Wee'quay's intent. She blinked and looked to her mate. "He does not seem to mean us harm. Let's go help them."
Paz and Shre'ka headed toward the downed vessel, carrying one of the altered Cathar between them, struggling in the soft footing of the bog. After a moment, Mrrowl snarled again, then hefting the other Cathar over one shoulder, followed. EZ ran with them a ways to gain some distance from the ancient Togorian vessel, then waved them on.
"You go on ahead. There's something I need to do." So saying, he began preparing equipment to call down an air strike on the advancing droid forces, rapidly going over Republic emergency frequencies in his mind while fervently hoping allies were close enough to help.
Meanwhile Paz, Shre'ka and Mrrowl reach the small Republic force at the LAAT. The Weequay quickly stepped forward, beckoning them to take cover. "I am Master Akon," he told them.
"Where are Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jedi Ahsoka Tano?" Shre'ka asked.
"They are not here," Master Akon replied. "They sent me instead. Do you have the holocron?"
"Yes," Shre'ka answered.
Master Akon smiled, obviously relieved. "Very good. Give it to me," he said, holding out his hand. "I will take it to them."
Shre'ka backed her ears and scowled. "No!" she growled. "I will give it to Jedi Master Obi-wan Kenobi or Jedi Ahsoka Tano! Not to you!"
The droids advancing from the tree line opened fire. "Look out!" Mrrowl hissed in warning.
Paz ducked to one side, trying to put as much hull as possible between herself and the Separatist force. "That's a lot of droids," she muttered to no one in particular. Taking careful aim and returning fire with her blaster, she instructed her IG-88 droid to do the same.
Shre'ka looked that way as well. When she did, Master Akon pulled a blaster from his robes and shot at her. Perhaps warned by Sa'uuk, Shre'ka miraculously managed to dodge out of the way. She and Mrrowl turned on the Weequay with twin snarls of outrage as the "troopers" also join the Weequay impostor in the attack. Noticing a hole and scorch marks on the Weequy's robe from blaster fire, Mrrowl lunged furiously toward the fake Jedi. Swinging his vibroaxe in a vicious arc, he managed to wound the Weequay. Calling upon Sa'uuk, Shre'ka struck all the attackers with invisible force, knocking them to the ground.
With Mrrowl's attention focused on the Weequay, Shre'ka's with the troopers, and Paz's with the approaching droids, Cad Bane drew a round object from within his coat, tossing it into their midst. The explosion of the thermal detonator caught all three friends unaware. Staggered, they were unable to react as the bounty hunter, speaking quickly into a comlink, leaped nimbly to his feet and stepped forward, aiming a device on his wrist at Shre'ka.
A cable swiftly shot out, wrapping itself around the her to bind her tightly. Smirking evilly, Bane tried to relieve Shre'ka of the Sith holocron. The Cathar noticed his attempt and managed to free a paw enough to claw his hand away. Undeterred, the bounty hunter fired his rockets boots, and despite her struggles, he began to drag Shre'ka from the battered wreckage toward a Weequay saucer ship that had landed nearby. The ramp lowered and a Verpine emerged from the vessel only to be picked off by EZ who was trying his best to thin the numbers of the advancing droids from his position and now deal with this new threat as best he could.
Continuing to struggle as Cad Bane pulled her ever closer to his ship, Shre'ka managed to grip her dagger and tried to cut the cord to free herself, but to no avail. His hands full with other combatants, Mrrowl roared in frustration as his mate was dragged away. Seeing the danger, Paz tried to shoot the cable in two with her blaster, but missed her aim as the droids closed in and open fire.
"Grab her!" the Mon Cal yelled to her IG-88 droid.
The droid obeyed, catching hold of Shre'ka's leg with a strong metal hand. It was dragged along as well, but helped to slow down the escaping bounty hunter. Faced with possibly being overrun by the advancing droids, Bane cut the cable himself with an angry snarl.
"Another time, then," he assured Shre'ka, before turning and fleeing up the ramp into the ship.
Mrrowl received some unexpected help when one of the Separatist droid's blaster shots took down 'Master Akon'. With a last swipe to finish off the "troopers", he charged after Bane and onto the ship just as the ramp closed and the vessel lifted off.
"Mrrowl!" Shre'ka gasped, as she struggled from the cable and clambered to her feet, watching the departing ship in dismay.
Something threw her to the ground and everything seemed to go silent. An instant later the ground bucked like some great beast of dirt and rock. A deafening roar filled the air. Shre'ka looked around wildly. The world seemed to tilt and sway crazily. At first she could not make sense of what had happened, but finally she saw the great plume of smoke and fire rising high into the sky from the fallen Vraaladash.
Wincing from her wounds, she painfully stood up, looking around for Paz. The Mon Cal, too, had been hurled to the ground from the force of the explosion as had most of the advancing droids. Many were clambering to their feet however, and Shre'ka knew she wouldn't last much longer against them...unless....
She turned to Paz. "Shoot me!" she cried.
The Mon Cal blinked. "What?!"
"Shoot me, Paz!" Shre'ka repeated. "Please!"
Still her friend looked uncertain. "Y-you sure about this, Shre'ka?"
The Cathar nodded, glancing toward the droids. "Hurry!"
Paz grimaced, unable to keep from looking surreptitiously around for Mrrowl. "Okay, if you say so," she muttered, pulling the trigger.
The bolt caught Shre'ka full in the chest, Paz was sure of it, but the energy beam dissipated and amazingly some of Shre'ka's wounds seemed to mend. The Cathar sighed in relief and looked at Paz, gratitude in her blue-green eyes. She smiled. "Thank you."
"Just don't tell Mrrowl," Paz replied, ducking as droid blaster fire shot dangerously close.
Growling, Shre'ka ran toward the LAAT hull and drawing upon Sa'uuk, lifted the wreckage from the ground, hurling it into the oncoming droids. It landed with a crash to crush many of the metal warriors, but the others just kept coming. Her ears fell. The droids had them surrounded now, blasters leveled. She went over to Paz to help her up and with a gentle touch on the Mon Cal's shoulder, allowed some of her vitality to flow into her friend. She bared her teeth and snarled at the droids as Paz stood tall, lifting her head defiantly.
Y-wings streaked through the sky overhead. A rumbling roll of deep booms followed and droids went flying. Startled, Shre'ka and Paz turn to see a Republic Attack Shuttle landing nearby. The vessel disgorged two squads of Coruscant Shocktroopers along with a Togruta and Gotal, both adorned in brown robes, as well as a strangely dressed Cathar.
Seeing the Shocktroopers, Shre'ka snarled, her ears going flat. She held her crystal weapon in front of her threateningly. Paz gripped her blaster tightly, uncertain.
The Togruta stepped forward. "May the Force be with you," she told them. "I am Master Shaak Ti, and this is Master Batal." The stranger then gestured with a delicate red-skinned hand to the female Cathar standing a little bit behind them. "And this is Senator Vash'ti, representing the homeworld of Cathar. We have been sent to aid you by Master Obi-Wan Kenobi."
Shre'ka's expression did not improve. "If that is so," she spat, "then why do you travel with these?" She gestured to the Shocktroopers standing in disciplined ranks nearby.
Shaak Ti looked nonplussed. "We always travel with a contingent of troopers," she replied.
Shre'ka stabbed a clawed finger at the elite warriors. "A group of these attack me, my mate, and my friends on Vaynai," she growled. "They tried to kill my mate and friends and take me captive! They must go from here!"
Shaak Ti spread her hands in a placating gesture. "I assure you, they mean you and your friends no harm..."
Shre'ka snarled. "Send them away! Now!"
Shaak Ti considered the angry Cathar before her a moment, then motioned for the Shocktroopers to go back aboard the shuttle.
Mrrowl's footfalls thundered up the ramp as the Togorian charged into the Weequay ship. He was not so much after Bane as he was control of the vessel. He hoped if he and the others could commandeer the ship, they could use it to escape from the droid army. Familiar with such vessels from his past pirating days, he charged down the corridor toward where the bridge should be, noting damage and other dead crew caused by subsequent shots from EZ trying to stop the vessel from taking off prematurely.
Axe held at the ready, the big felinoid came upon a tableau--Cad Bane with a couple of Weequay and a Rodian manning various control panels. Ignoring the others, Mrrowl went straight for Bane. One of the Weequay, bearing a force pike, stepped to intervene. Mrrowl growled. The Duro bounty hunter fixed Mrrowl's jade stare with a dark crimson one before he waved his guard away.
"Nothing personal, big kitty, you understand. Just after the holocron, that was all. What do you say I drop you any where you like and we call it even for today, eh?"
Mrrowl's throat rumbled ominously. His paws flexed, claws griping his axe tighter.
Bane arched an eyebrow. "Last chance, big cat. What do you say?"
Mrrowl's eyes narrowed. "Any where?"
Cad gave the barest of nods. "Any where."
Mrrowl snarled. "Take me back."
Cad Bane gestured to his pilot. "You heard him." He favored Mrrowl with a sly smile. "Don't worry. We'll get you close."
Shre'ka sagged with relief when Mrrowl touched her mind using his crystal bracelet, letting her know he was not only safe, but where to come pick him up. As he had been equally relieved to discover she, Paz and EZ were safe, now assisted by Republic forces.
Overcoming their initial mistrust for the moment, traveling back to the village was fairly quick via the shuttle and the group was informed upon arrival that the villagers had been busy fighting their own battle against the droid army. While the friends rested and recovered from their wounds, Senator Vash'ti visited with the Ra'van'ti leader and elders as well as those of the other tribes, expressing a desire to establish ties between the People and both their distant brethren on Cathar and the Republic.
For her part, Shre'ka kept her opinions about off-worlders mostly to herself. After all, she was not a leader of her People, not yet. Her old mentor did discuss the issue with her one evening when she visited him at the former home they used to share.
"These crystals," she told her foster father, placing a hand on her own weapon. "The metal men are interested in these as are the off-worlders. I fear for our People and for the Cave of the Ancients."
Fey'qua'ri nodded solemnly. "That is indeed why they are here." He puffed on his pipe thoughtfully before continuing. "This Senator Vash'ti, her offer will appeal to some of the People. Some of them may wish to travel the stars to see the lands of our lost kin, and some may not. It may take some time, even many years perhaps, for the People to decide what they wish to do."
"Senator Vash'ti has said a person will be needed to represent the People to this Re'pub'lic," he went on. "I am thinking this person would best be someone who has traveled the stars before."
Shre'ka backed her ears. "I do not think I would be a good choice, Sa'uuk Mo'at," she protested. "Mrrowl is my mate and Paz, Sparg, and EZ are my friends, but for the most part, I do not think much of the off-worlders. I do not trust them."
Fey'qua'ri smiled slightly. "Perhaps that is why you would be a good choice to represent the People. You would hold our interests close to heart, not theirs."
Shre'ka did not reply, but she remained thoughtful for some time.
Paz opened her eyes and sat up in her bunk on board the Mako, a hand reaching for the small sport blaster under her pillow. A light tap sounded at the door. "Captain?" a familiar voice called softly. Throwing back the covers, the Mon Cal put the blaster in her desk drawer along with a framed hologram that had fallen to the coverlet when she fell asleep. Moving to the door, she opened it and smiled down at the short Illyrian standing there. His worried expression stole the smile from her face.
"Sparg? What is it?"
The Illyrian jerked his head toward the cockpit. "A priority message over the Holonet. Encrypted." His one eye looked at her significantly. "It's from Oneron."
Paz muttered a curse under her breath and hurried to the bridge, Sparg right behind her. "Play it," she ordered.
Sparg touched a control and a holographic image of the Vaynai Transport Company's operator and head schemer, Oneron Fil'vye, shimmered into pale blue life.
"Greetings, Captain Paz," he began silkily. "It has been far too long since last we spoke, yes, much too long. This distresses me. Good friends should stay in touch, Captain, don't you agree? However, I did receive your message about giving me a hand in the future, and I wanted to tell you, I think I have a job for you and your crew." The Bothan's smug smile was maddening. "A special job that should take care of all your past debts to me. A simple little task, really. I assume you still have the item we discussed previously, hmmmm? All I need for you to do is to deliver it to a Mistress Salacious on a space station called Kemplex 10. I am sending you coordinates with this message. Yes...deliver the item to her and use the 'delivery' to bring me proof she will not trouble me further. I believe her kind have special weapons that are dear to them, do they not? 'Deliver' the item to her and bring me her weapon as proof I will never need fear her displeasure again, you take my meaning, Captain Paz? Do this for me and all your debts to me will be considered paid in full."
The hologram shimmered once, then vanished. Paz looked at Sparg. "Ready the ship for departure," she said.
Sparg's one eye nearly popped out. "But-but," he spluttered, "Captain! We can't trust him! He's setting us up for sure! It's a trap!"
Paz scowled. "Undoubtably."
Sparg stared at her determined face in dismay. "What about the others?"
Paz sighed. "I'll talk to them. Ready the ship."
"Please, be seated."
Shre'ka and Mrrowl made themselves comfortable as Master Shaak Ti took a seat opposite them. The Togruta's calm gaze flowed over the big Togorian, then settled on the tiny Cathar by his side.
"Regrettably, Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and Padawan Ahsoka Tano could not be here," she explained. "They are currently assisting the war effort in other regions, but they wanted to be sure to send you their well wishes."
"Thank you," Shre'ka replied. "I hope they are well. The Ra'van'ti owe them a great deal...And I thank you, Master Shaak ti, for you and your warriors coming to our aid."
Shaak Ti nodded. "We are servants of the Republic," she replied. "We are pleased to be of assistance to your people, but there is much left to be done to ensure the safety of your tribes here. The Republic hopes to establish ties with your world. I am sure Senator Vash'ti wishes to as well. She is most eager to reunite the Cathar here with those of your people's homeworld."
Shre'ka backed her ears slightly. "Perhaps, but this is the home of my People."
Shaak Ti wisely let the matter drop for now. "There is another matter," she said. "The Sith holocron. Were you and your friends able to retrieve it from the crashed vessel?"
Shre'ka hesitated a moment, flicking a quick glance at Mrrowl. Finally, she nodded. "Yes, I have it."
"May I see it?" Shaak Ti asked.
Shre'ka considered. Was Shaak Ti like the other "Jedi", the Weequay who tried to shoot her when she refused to hand over the holocron before? Reaching out to Sa'uuk, she sensed no hostility from the Togruta, but she hadn't from the Weequay either. Perhaps Master Shaak Ti would feel freer to try and take the holocron by force if Mrrowl was not present. Many found her mate intimidating--and rightly so! She turned to him. "Will you please leave us, Mrrowl?" she asked.
Her mate looked at her, his green eyes widening ever so slightly. His ears flicked. After a moment, he nodded and left without a word.
Shre'ka turned back to Master Shaak Ti when he had gone. "No, I will not give you the holocron," she said.
Shaak Ti looked neither pleased, nor disappointed. She merely nodded acceptance. "Very well. May I ask what you will do with it?"
"I would destroy it, if I knew how," Shre'ka growled. "It is Shadow. It is dangerous."
"I can show you how," Shaak Ti offered. "One must use the Force to destroy it."
The Togruta's willingness to aid in the destruction of something she apparently wanted gave Shre'ka pause. "Why do you want the Shadow Object?" the Cathar asked.
Shaak Ti's gaze met her own. "The Sith holocron is dangerous, true," she admitted. "but it also contains much knowledge that would be useful and beneficial. That is why the Jedi Order wishes to preserve it."
"And you could keep it safe?" Shre'ka asked.
Shaak Ti nodded.
The Togruta smiled. "The Jedi temple on Coruscant. I assure you, there is no safer place."
Shre'ka flicked her ears uncertainly. "I will have to think on this."
Shaak Ti bowed. "As you wish. May the Force be with you."
Shre'ka returned the Togruta's bow as she turned to leave. "Sa'uuk ah meh yah."
Shaak Ti stared thoughtfully at the door, her hands clasped behind her back, long after Shre'ka had gone. EZ had given her a full report not only on the activities of his squad, but the observations he and his team had made during their time here. She had felt prepared for her interview with the young Cathar Force user, but still found herself astonished. How extraordinary these people were! Primitive, true, and lacking in the finesse of Jedi perhaps, but their connection to the living Force was quite impressive! Most back water world Force users she'd encountered commanded only rudimentary powers of the Force at best, but from what EZ had told her, these adepts, the young Shre'ka in particular, possessed skills that would challenge Jedi--and Sith! EZ himself had seen it!
The Sith! Shaak Ti's brow furrowed in concern. The discovery of the holocron was disturbing enough, but now it was beginning to appear as if the ancient enemies of the Jedi had returned! She hoped Shre'ka would reconsider giving the Sith holocron to her. The Togruta sighed, seating herself comfortably once again in her chair. Closing her eyes, she cleared her mind and meditated upon the Force.
"So there you have it," Paz said to Mrrowl and Shre'ka as they all sat around the mess table on the Mako's Run sharing some tea. "I've ordered Sparg to ready the ship for departure. I know it involves killing this Mistress Salacious, but I'm taking Oneron up on this deal." She glanced at the two felinoids uncertainly. "I guess what I need to know is if you'll be coming along."
Shre'ka looked at Paz earnestly. "You and Sparg were the first off-worlders I met, Paz," she began. "If it hadn't been for you I would not have been able to find and rescue my People. I have sworn ka'met'ma to you, my friend. I will help you however I can. Besides, Sa'uuk has shown me this Mistress Salacious. She has been commanding the Shadow Hunters we have encountered while trying to locate and free my People all along. She is behind this...and she has much to answer for."
Mrrowl placed a paw over his mate's. He favored the Mon Cal with his best ferocious grin. "We're in," he told her.
Paz grinned back.
"There is something I wish to ask..." Shre'ka said, looking to Paz and her mate. "...of both of you. Master Shaak Ti wishes to take the Shadow Object to be kept safe at the Jedi temple on Coruscant. She says it has information that could be beneficial, but she has offered to show me how to destroy it. What do you think I should do?"
Mrrowl and Paz exchanged a look. "Give it to Master Shaak Ti," they replied in unison.
Sparg was beside himself with glee as the Mako's Run lifted off from Sorn 5 escorted by Master Shaak Ti's Republic attack shuttle and two Jedi Starfighters. As they approached the Separatist blockade ships currently engaged with the Republic attack forces, he chuckled grimly. "You call yourselves pilots?" he muttered. "Let's see if you can do this!"
As the ship jinked and jostled its way through the blockade, Paz shot the Illyrian an irritated glare while she punched coordinates into the navicomputer. "Try not to shake us up any more than you have to, Sparg."
The Mon Cal punched the all-ship button. "Look sharp! We're coming up on them! EZ! Mrrowl! Ready on those guns! Shre'ka! Find us a path!"
Acknowledgements came back over the open channel. In a few moments, laser fire shot out to blossom against some vulture droids that ventured too close as the Mako slipped and careened along, their escort struggling to keep up. Shre'ka pointed a way by a Separatist command ship. Sparg frowned at first, then noticed the Republic cruiser moving in to flank it. He grinned and dove the Mako in closer.
"Hang on!" he yelled. "Not far now...we're clear!"
"Coordinates in!" Paz warned. "Prepare for hyperspace!"
Moments later, the Mako's engines flared with brilliance and the freighter jumped, disappearing from real space. Cheers came over the com as EZ and Mrrowl abandoned the turrets and came forward.
"We made it!" Ez said, relieved.
Mrrowl, Paz and Sparg grinned.
Shre'ka smiled and nodded, but canted her ears back. She wasn't sure what, but she sensed something had gone horribly awry....
To be continued....