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Nubia


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ShadowFett signaled through the emergency channel for the extraction team to descend on his location and to bring fire suppression devices. He wasn't sure who all had made it in time, but he'd always been surprised by how many Omicrons there were and chances were good he had more than just Nekkir. If they could stop this place from burning to a crisp, they'd buy Flirt as much time as she needed to root through Viba's files, which could give them valuable intel on whatever plans and locations Ab'ki had disclosed to the beroya.

 

But for now he had more pressing concerns. Kandor moved rapidly back to the medbay and his wife, pulling off his buy'ce as he did so. The smoke stung his eyes and heated his lungs, but he slid the helmet onto Mirdala's head to protect her from the same even as he gently lifted her off the operating table and onto the hovercart next to it. As he steered the cart out through the entryway, he caught a glimpse of the red-soaked bandages covering her pelvic area. Another shock of anger bolted through him, but he coughed from the smoke and continued to push until she was out the front door into the clean air.

 

Immediately he went back in and only had to take a few steps to grab 2277's body wearing his usual beskar'gam by the armpits and dragged it out after them.

 

As he did so, the help arrived. Four figures came running around the corner. He immediately recognized Vy'ika, Nekkir, and Soresh, but the fourth he hadn't met or at least seen in armor. Fett coughed, grabbing his original buy'ce from 2277's intact head and putting it on to help get his breathing under control. "See if you can get that fire out," he told the others.

 

They immediately headed inside except for Nekkir, who produced a handheld scanner and started surveying Mirdala's injuries.

 

Kandor approached her. He couldn't keep the cold anger from his voice as he put a hand on her waist, near the bandage. "What did he do to you?"

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Verdeyuii was eerily still and silent as he readied his gear near the airlock of the ship. How had this happened? Wasn't he supposed to be keeping her safe? He turned his head as he felt the cautionary nudge from his brother Nek.

 

"You stewing isn't going to help either of them now. Consider doing something productive instead, Vy'ika. She's in a lot of pain, help with that. Don't throw more fuel on that fire," the doctor cautioned as he checked his own gear.

 

Vy'ika glared at his brother. "You didn't see fit to watch over them?"

 

"They're adults Vy'ika, not children," Nek said flatly. "Stow it or I'll see to it you're sidelined so you're not a distraction."

 

The former jump trooper looked at his medic brother for a moment before turning his focus on Mirdala's signature, pulling some of her pain into himself through their bond.

 

"If you two are done back there," Orsai said gruffly from the cockpit. "We're here..." The KDY security specialist hadn't been expecting the call from Vy'ika, but he'd been near enough to Nubia that he was able to offer his assistance on the extraction. He got where Vy'ika's mind was at, despite the fact he wasn't that close to the girl his old sergeant, TeVerd, had helped raise. He'd been with the team on Coruscant when the news of Kuat City's destruction came through. Luckily his workmate had taken his son, Kaille, to visit her parents on the opposite side of the continent, otherwise, the two of them would have been caught in the decimation.

 

Soresh sat the craft down next to the Justice and Viba's ship lowering the ramp. Vy'ika was up and over the ramp before it had a chance to fully deploy and strode towards the smoking house as Kandor removed his usual helmet off of a droid and nodded back towards the fire before going back to Mirdala's side. The other two followed behind him with the fire suppression equipment and began their work while Nek began his.

 

---

 

She grunted in pain and shifted away from his touch as Nek gently removed his hand from her waist. "It's probably best not to touch her right now. She's in an incredible amount of pain, both physically and...emotionally. I'll know more in a minute. Just stay near."

 

"No..." her hand reached back for Kandor's. "It was him..." she moved her head back and forth sluggishly trying to get the helmet off.

 

Nek removed it, wanting it off anyway so he could get a better look at her injuries. He didn't like how pale her face was, or the sweat he saw there. "Orsai, grab any supplies of blood they can from whatever passes for medical facilities and get them to me fast. Grab whatever else you can find while you're at it." No use letting things go to waste in the burning house, especially when he might need them en route. "I've got rights at the hospitals on Talus. We'll take her there. Mirdala...try not to talk. Save your strength."

 

Obstinant jade eyes met his T-visor as Mirdala turned her head to face him. "He killed my parents...and...our son..." her hand went to the bandages and she winced. "The vision won't come true anymore...Kandor...cyar'ika...I'm sorry..." Tears that trailed down her face left little paths through the grime that had settled over her exposed skin from the smoke.

 

Nek said nothing, thoroughly having to detach himself from what he was hearing in order to give Mirdala her best chance and care. "I suggest we get take the Justice and get her out of here as soon as Orsai returns with the medical supplies."

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Ke barjurir gar'ade, jagyc'ade kot'la a dalyc'ade kotla'shya. - "Train your sons to be strong but your daughters to be stronger."

“A Mandalorian woman's greatest talent is not her charm or beauty, but her strength of body and will.” - Mandalorian proverb

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Deep, searing pain and incredible hate settled upon Kandor like a blanket as Mirdala managed the words he'd been so afraid to hear, and everything started to catch up to him as his battle-calm faded. He staggered under the weight of it and dropped to one knee, his helmet hiding his bowed face but his anguish no less apparent.

 

If he killed Viba three more times it would not be enough to pay him back for what he had done. The wonderful dream Kandor and Mirdala had shared the very last night now burned within his mind. Judyc Viba -- his own father -- had taken Mirdala's parents from her long before they had ever known each other, and now he had taken from them something so dear that it could never be replaced. Never had he hated a man more than he now hated Viba.

 

A few moments later he took a breath and spoke. His voice was uneven. "Not your fault, Mird'ika," he said. "...It's mine. Viba and your safety were my responsibility." Twice the Kyr'tsad beroya had escaped from him on the field of battle. Then, on Corellia, it had been up to him to protect Mirdala, knowing that Viba was out there and how dangerous he was. All it had taken was one slip, one moment in the whole 18 days when she had been truly alone, and this had happened. And they would be paying for that slip for the rest of their lives.

 

"The fire's under control," one of the Omicrons reported over their comms. "Let's get what we can and bang out."

 

Kandor numbly got to his feet and headed back inside, his hand briefly brushing Mirdala's. Nubian emergency responders were starting to get close and they were eager to avoid a full police investigation. So he moved through the rooms as quickly as he could manage, collecting the weapons he'd discarded, including the jetii'kad he'd thrown that had once belonged to Kirlocca years prior. Then he retrieved Flirt, who had been busily downloaded every piece of data she'd found in Viba's safehouse systems. In addition the Omicrons yanked whatever data storage drives they could find out of the various computers to give them more of a chance of finding something meaningful.

 

Soon they all loaded back into the Justice and the other ship and set off for Talus, Nek doing everything he could for Mirdala until the short jump was completed and she could get proper surgery.

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  • 5 weeks later...

Excusing herself, Kitaara moved quietly through the corridor at the rear of the cockpit, the slippery jumpsuit still clutched in her hands. She peeked into each door as she walked past it, looking for the cabin that Haphaestus had referenced. Finally, she came across it, where four of her species where sprawled across the bed, having given in to their exhaustion and seemingly unwilling to compromise on who would have the luxury of a mattress.

 

Considering Haphaestus' comment, she briefly entertained the idea of using her new ability to clear the room, but the thought of it was utterly exhausting. Sleeping on a dry, cool floor in a ship hurtling towards freedom was already an improvement compared with the cold, damp, unforgiving darkness of the ryll mines. But neither did she feel ready for the questions likely to be posed to her by her fellow slaves, so instead, she backed out into the corridor. Eventually, she came upon a niche in the wall that bore a ladder to some unknown hatch. Tucking the jumpsuit between the wall and her head for a pillow, she curled up into an unobtrusive ball and fell almost immediately into sleep.

 

It didn't last long. What felt like moments later, an alarm sounding through the ship rousted her from the little bit of sleep she had gotten. Rubbing at her bleary eyes, she stood, staggering through the corridor towards the cockpit. A planet dotted with greens, browns, and blues swam in the viewscreen before her. She hadn't even bothered to see what Ryloth had looked like from space as they blasted away from her homeworld, and according to Haphaestus, she wouldn't be going back.

 

Not even a fragment of regret appeared at the thought.

 

She pondered a series of greetings for the cloaked back that stood at the helm, but they all seemed unnecessary and blithe, so she settled simply for asking the first question in her mind. "What is the name of this planet?"

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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Haphaestus stirred. Teaching this one would be difficult if he was forced to repeat everything. Of all the flaws of organics, their inability to grasp information the first time it was related to them was perhaps the most frustrating, along with their need to spend a third of the day comatose. Thankfully, although it slowed the process of growth, it did not substantially limit their potential.

 

"This is Nubia," he said. "The third planet in the Nubus system. Although it is home to even fewer individuals than Ryloth, it is considerably more affluent, and its population is said to value beauty and charity." His voice was level, betraying not favor nor disdain for the world or its people. "The passengers will have a chance here."

 

The ship made its descent toward Rordis City even as Haphaestus called up the coordinates for the immigration agency he had selected. The Twi'leks would be processed as refugees, though they would be largely at the mercy of the Nubian government to get their start. Seeing them struggle to establish their new lives was of no interest to Haphaestus; nor was helping them. Even had he felt philanthropic, he had never hoarded credits, preferring to hold influence through other means, and to craft for himself his own equipment.

 

He wouldn't leave them completely in the dark, however. As the ship landed he proceeded back into the main hold, where he gathered the passengers. "You are no longer to be slaves unwillingly. There are people here that will assist you in beginning your new lives. The roads ahead of you will not be easy, but here there is opportunity," he told them. He then lowered the boarding ramp and descended, indicating an officious-looking building with a set of double doors in front by extending his staff toward it. "I have no other instruction to give you."

 

It was with mixed emotions that the former slaves began to file towards the building. They were afraid and uncertain, but excited at least to be free. Haphaestus expected many of them would find their poverty to be an even crueler master, but really he just wanted them out of the way. As the last departed, he returned to Kitaara. "Let us remain here for a time. You may find that the Force feels different here than it did in hyperspace."

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Kitaara made to follow after Nob and the rest of the slaves that filed down the ramp after Haphaestus' dispassionate address, and was briefly startled as he addressed her. We're not going with them? she thought, glancing back and forth between the retreating Twi'lek entourage and the masked figure on the ramp. It was far less humid here than she was used to, wandering the jungles of Ryloth. Arboreal scents and brisk air left no room to forget that she was staring into the unknown.

 

All change is loss to all creatures.

 

Her mother's voice came to her as she watched the retreating backs of her people, and Kitaara could almost see her, one among the cowed and bent. She had agreed to instruction at Haphaestus' hand, and yet, the part of her that longed for the familiar brought twinges of panic into her psyche. Fingering the gutkurr spine tied roughly around her neck, she exhaled slowly. "Very well," she said. It would not do to hold to the familiar, to play the victim, and to abdicate her alleged power.

 

Tearing her eyes away from the depressed parade, she straightened her spine and stared off into the horizon, frowning in focus. The current of electricity she had reached into in the cockpit of the stolen ship was even more obvious. But instead of a hidden murmur in the back of her awareness, here, it felt like a constant breeze brushing past her face.

 

"It is different," she replied. "Stronger, even. Why is this?"

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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"The Force is created by life," Haphaestus informed her. "Here, in close proximity to a wealth of living things, it will feel the strongest. There is a fundamental balance in every ecosystem, but the balance is driven by competition. Only the most fit life forms persist, and even they must evolve and change or they will die out.

 

"As must we," he said, gesturing for her to follow him and heading deeper into the city.

 

The pair of them got some stares. A Twi'lek wasn't unheard of on pretty much any sufficiently populated world, but Haphaestus was two meters tall and cloaked in black, his face obscured by a metal mask. He walked with his darkstaff in his hand, grasped in what appeared to be black metal gauntlets, thin and articulated with an elaborate pattern etched into them revealing the same fine craftsmanship that the staff itself bore. Still, with the great diversity of aliens present in the universe all with different respiratory needs and fashion senses, he was not labeled as obviously Sith, nor could his true nature be divined.

 

The former Dark Lord found a place that served take-out food. He carried enough credits for starship fuel and other basic expenses, and Kitaara needed to eat. He handed her a credit chip. "Purchase for yourself a meal and bring it out," he said. "While you are inside, stretch out with your feelings. Tell me about who you meet there. If you focus, you may learn a great deal simply by observing, even reading surface thoughts. This ability to gain knowledge is one of our fundamental advantages over those without our gifts."

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Glancing down at the credit chip in her hand, Kitaara was taken aback by the denomination. She held as much money as her mother had earned in a month of manual labor on Ryloth. It wasn't an exorbitant amount by any means, but to a lekling who had known only extreme poverty, it was a fortune. She wrapped her long fingers around it and clutched her fist to her chest, as though holding it too loosely would cause it to disappear.

 

The glass doors of the eatery hissed open to admit her, revealing an array of species within. There were Zabraks, humans, Twi'leks, and several others, but the represented species were all humanoids in appearance. Vaguely, she wondered at the nature of Haphaestus, what lay beneath the metal mask. Why had he sent her here only to fetch food for herself? Perhaps he took a nutrient drip, or needed to hunt to fulfill some nature of his species, whatever he was. With the money tucked in her palm, she suddenly felt very exposed without him.

 

Stepping up to the counter, she took a datapad displaying the menu from a bored-looking Bimm attendant who did not trouble himself with a first glance, much less a second. As Haphaestus had requested, she pushed her senses outward to encompass her surroundings, but namely, this sentient. There was a desire in him--no, a need--for purpose, for meaning greater than he was experiencing in his chosen circumstance. His boredom was, at the very least, forced: she could sense a simmering disdain for what his life had become that he had to work to ignore in order to maintain some semblance of mental balance. It engendered some degree of pity in her, to see someone so dissatisfied and without purpose. She watched him out of her peripheral vision as she tapped her order into the datapad and waited, attempting not to let her ravenous hunger distract her.

 

Closing her eyes, she felt the current of what her teacher had called the Force, running through this place, carrying with it a mixture of emotions. Stress, fear, sadness, indifference, frustration, resentment, bitterness, contentment, enjoyment, all contained within this one establishment. If what he said was true, it was possible to actually divine thoughts from this current that connected all life.

 

Honing her focus in on the Bimm at the counter, she gasped as her mind suddenly filled with thoughts that were not her own. ...two more lost this week. If we lose anymore, I'll have to pull Srija out of school and put her back to work, but even then we'll never be able to pay Tarvil. Next time he comes around, we'll...

 

She released her hold on his mind, and he didn't move a muscle. Evidently, such intrusions were undetectable. Pulling a sack off of the windowsill that led into the kitchen, he set it in front of her. She slid the credit chip across the counter to him as the scent wafted up before her. With a muted smile, she gratefully scooped up the sack, and murmured, "Keep the change," before turning to exit. Just inside the door, a large, muscular humanoid stood, dark eyes glowering at her. Hesitantly, Kitaara extended her senses to him to see if all minds were so transparent.

 

...kriffing scum coming in here taking up space and oxygen. Two terrorist attacks in a week on Coruscant, and they still throw our spaceports wide open. We should put up planetary shields to stop schutta like this lek-rat from...

 

She gritted her teeth and cast her eyes to the floor, moving to skirt around him. He stepped to block her path.

 

"Please excuse me," she hissed.

 

He smirked. "You're in my way, lek-rat."

 

Her hands tightened around the bag. "Don't call me that," she hissed.

 

Before it happened, Kitaara saw it: the man's mind shouted his intent. His hand would move towards her lekku, pull her down, step over her as she writhed in pain on the floor, crush the food she clutched with obvious need.

 

With unfathomable speed, she ducked under his outstretched arm and made for the exit, clutching her meal tightly in her arms and bursting through the door. Her fear was only surpassed by surprise as she broke through to the temperate outside air, but she willed her feet to keep moving, carrying her farther and farther away from the brute within.

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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Haphaestus monitored what was happening inside while he waited, but made no move toward the diner. Not even when Kitaara came bursting out of the place gripping her meal tightly as she fled the location in fear.

 

He remained where he was, somewhat displeased by the incident. The man who had incited it was a waste of space and the galaxy was made lesser for tolerating his existence, but his unwanted and unwarranted expression of prejudice was in Haphaestus' mind an opportunity for his apprentice. But her response to fear had not been to take control of the situation, but to flee like the rat she'd been called.

 

The Sith Master made no move to pursue her. Instead he moved to the other side of the street and found a place to sit so as to appear unobtrusive. It was best that she learn early what was expected of her.

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Sometimes she hated that she got herself into these scenarios. Even underground, with scant hours of artificial vision and limited interpersonal contact, Kitaara often found her surroundings relegating her to mistreatment.

 

This time, it was deep in the expansive spaceport, without her teacher. Once her feet had stopped moving, nothing looked familiar, and in the wake of the crippling fear that had sparked her flight, only hunger and a vague sense of injustice remained. Weaponless, she had been yet again subject to threats she had hoped the other worlds in the galaxy went without. So, she had done what anyone in her position might do: Kitaara ran until she found an unobtrusive corner of the spaceport to eat the lunch she had packed out.

 

By the time she finished, enough awareness had returned that she decided her next course of action must be to go find the diner and reunite with Haphaestus. Following the signs pointing toward the exit, she retraced her steps alone until she reached the street where the eatery stood. Sticking out like a sore thumb in the horde of sentients coming and going on the busy street, Haphaestus stood immutable, his cloak fluttering in the light breeze.

 

Scanning her surroundings for any sight of the brute from the diner, she crossed to where the masked being stood.

 

"I did as you asked," she said cautiously. There was no reason for her to feel defensive, but something about his inscrutable stare drew a thousand different excuses for her behavior to mind.

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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"I know you did," Haphaestus answered. "But in the process you became again a slave. For all your potential you yet lack the temperament that you will require. You must surely forget the meekness of the girl you were yesterday if you are to claim your birthright and become Sith. Remember the code -- the Force shall set you free."

 

He indicated for her to follow him and headed to a more rundown part of town. All he needed for now was a little bit of privacy, and an abandoned building would be sufficient. His fortress on Almas was a significantly better location for most training exercises, he reflected, but isolation would not serve Kitaara like it had Zutia and so he would make do with Rordis City. They would soon need a place to stay, and he was beginning to form sufficient plans to make their time here extend as long as they needed. It was a nontrivial prospect due to his lack of material wealth, which would only keep them fed and sheltered for a few weeks at most without some form of income.

 

But for now all of that could wait. Haphaestus found an old warehouse that looked like it hadn't seen use in months. Bypassing the locks with a minor application of the Force, he led Kitaara inside. "Let us reinforce what you have learned so far," he said. There was some rubble, a few crates, and other objects that weren't fastened down nearby. "Draw upon the Force, Kitaara. Test your control, and I will guide you. Attempt to refrain from using fear as a fuel for now -- you have used it enough for today."

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A hot flare of irritation manifested at his slighting comment, but she buried it in a sidelong glance. She had not forgotten the deadly accuracy of the wake of death he left in the mines. Largely, he was still an unknown quantity to her. Thrive or die, she supposed. If her intimidated thoughts of Utunavi would not suffice to divert the energy of the Force's current, she would endeavor to find another way.

 

Remember the code, he had said. The Force shall free me. Annoyance melted away as she surveyed the warehouse, empty except for scattered, useless detritus. If her reaction to the schutta in the diner was any indication, she did not yet truly believe that she held the power he had told her about. But she had tasted the beginnings of it, and if it meant freedom from the brutish physical authority of such scum, she had to obtain it at any cost. Peace is a lie, there is only passion...

 

"Through passion I gain strength," she said aloud, holding her hands aloft, palms out. An undercurrent of desperation marred the sensation of touching the Force, this time, both similar and different to that which she had felt on board the ship en route to Nubia. The collection of downtrodden slaves in the cargo hold had had a perverse sense of hope: for them, there was nowhere to go but up. Here, in the slums of the city, the sentient life pulsed with a clawing territorialism that had been muted, if not missing, in the city's wealthier quadrants. So desperate were they to maintain their miniscule holdings that infighting bypassed any awareness of true injustice they might combat as a whole. Their anger charged the air itself.

 

Haphaestus had been right: this power, even the energy of life, was wasted on individuals who would never use it for any greater purposes than their own. With half-derision, half-curiosity, she let her eyes fall closed and pulled on those threads of anger with her mind. In those she could sense, it was a petty, childish anger, that of a child whose toy was taken by a playmate. But in the right hands, even such foolishness might be molded to usefulness.

 

It filled her, their anger, a red-hot fire of wrath in her veins. It was almost too much, and out of self-preservation, she nearly let go of her focus. But she had been admonished to keep control. Sheer force of will sustained her as her mind burned with the heat of available power in this place. It recalled another memory: that of the carelessly thrown grenade that had consumed Ivaani, its incendiary blast knocking Kitaara to her back, as she watched a girl whose life had been a short burst of one pain after another disappear in unforgivingly blinding light.

 

Autochthonous rage blended with her own, and the heat in her veins became too much. Her hands trembled, and she could feel herself losing her grip on her accumulated Force. With a vicious cry, she curled her fingers, and directed the molten energy at the empty room before her.

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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Haphaestus nodded as objects scattered in the wake of Kitaara's Force blast. It was progress, but it was raw.

 

"Good," he said. "The power is there. Now you must focus it."

 

He raised his defenses and brought his staff around before him, the Force gathering around him like armor. "Attack me," he ordered.

 

Combat training would have to come relatively soon for this one. She had no basis for it other than instinct, which would present some challenges that his previous apprentices had not faced. But it also would give him the opportunity to instill solid fundamentals in her, training her from the ground up. She would learn to control her body, and she would strengthen it over months of exercise even as she pursued her other studies.

 

But he couldn't afford the luxury of fully training her before letting her get into a real fight. She needed to recognize the power she held.

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"Attack you? With what?" The words slipped out before she could stop them. In everything he had told her to do so far, he had given her no tools, except forcing her to rely on the current of power into which she was barely able to tap. The knife she had carried with her from the mines was back on board the ship, and he stood before her, brandishing his staff. With her palms still held out before her, she attempted to repeat the shove that had sent the objects around the room flying to the far wall, but her frustration welled up to the point of distraction.

 

Letting her arms drop to her sides, she shook her head at him. "It's like there is either too much power, or not enough. I am not able to control it, and to call the memories that invoke this power... I do not know how to generate it so quickly."

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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"That is because you lack conviction. It is like you are waiting for something," Haphaestus said. "A Sith commands the Force, and it obeys. Raw emotion inspired by memory is one way to assert that control, but as you dwell upon and embrace that emotion, as you shape yourself around it so that it is an intrinsic part of you, you will find the Force bends to your will simply because of who you are."

 

He lowered his staff to point toward the ground. "This transformation may take time," he conceded. "If you find you are unable to continue, we may spend the remaining hours of sunlight here on a more academic pursuit. You may find the history of the Sith Order and its long struggle against the Jedi to be elucidating."

 

There was no great disappointment in his voice. Sometimes it would help Kitaara to push her to her limits and beyond them, to use whatever means necessary to drive her to a place where she could find new emotions to harness the dark side. Past apprentices of Haphaestus' had at times suffered greatly in the name of an effective lesson. But none of them had been like this Twi'lek was. She'd only had a few short hours of sleep since leaving the mines on Ryloth. The kind of complete overhaul of her self image that he was demanding was not an instant process for a biological being such as herself. And Haphaestus was a patient being.

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Through passion, I gain strength.

 

While his statement came devoid of sarcastic challenge, neither did Kitaara relish the idea of having her learning stunted due to her own physical constraints. She was tired, reasonably so, and having taken in more nourishment today than she had across the weeks prior, found her natural tendency drifting towards sleep. But determination bubbled up to prove true what she had asserted to her teacher: she was patient, and she was pertinacious.

 

"This Sith Order and this Jedi you speak of... I would like to know," she faltered, unsure of her question even as she asked it. "But perhaps that can wait until the daylight hours are gone? I wish to try again."

 

Setting her feet at shoulder-width apart, she repeated the line from the code he had given her as an internal mantra. Through passion, I gain strength. This time, there was no strong memory that triggered the current of the Force through her body: simply the burgeoning fire of her deep resolve. Through passion, I gain strength. Almost as if in response to her touch, the energy surged, and Kitaara covered herself in it like a blanket. Through passion, I gain strength. Why had it seemed difficult before? With ease and grace, her arms moved as though rolling a ball between her hands, feeling the spike of power growing. Weary muscles suddenly sizzled with energy. Passion... strength.

 

Like a projectile from a slugthrower, her arm shot out, a rippling wave emanating from it toward her teacher. With the release, her connection to the Force did not immediately abate as it had every time she had intentional employed it prior. It seemed to her as though there was an infinite pool from which to draw, and she was only dipping fingers under the surface. It tugged at her curiosity, but something about the vastness of the Force available to her gave her pause.

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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She had some tenacity after all. Though he would not have thought less of her if she had wanted time to reflect, her ability to push herself without requiring to be compelled by him was a desirable quality in any apprentice.

 

Haphaestus was ready for the attack when it came in, setting himself and again calling upon the Force to protect him. As Kitaara made her thrusting motion, he solidified an invisible barrier and and two projections met with an audible crack, making the room around them shudder. "Better, but you are still holding back," he said. "Do not fear hurting me -- if you were able to do so I would be ill suited to be your teacher.

 

"The more you give of yourself, the greater your power will be. Explore your limits."

 

He set himself for another attack, curious how deep she would go.

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Ebbing and flowing, the threatening body of water that comprised her mental image of the Force lapped at Kitaara's bare toes. Contrary to what Haphaestus had assumed of her intent in avoiding the full brunt of immersion, she bore no concern for his well-being as a result of her actions. Rather, it felt like an ocean so deep she herself might drown in it. But as with everything else in the last standard day, it would be sink or swim. As with everything else, there would be no going back.

 

So she flung herself into the depths.

 

The raw power was stunning, astonishing in its beauty. More than connecting all life, it seemed to be created by life itself. Where there was energy, a beating heart to the universe, the reverberations carried through the Force, all of nature joining in an odd intergalactic harmony. From planet, to planet, to planet, she rode its current, every living being that scratched out its existence in the galaxy projecting a signature tendril of living energy. In her mind, she danced a strange sort of dance as her own consciousness swept across the surface of Rordis City, absorbing the joy, the pain, the burning anger that felt so powerful in her control. With every tendril of the Force emanating from each life form in her hand, she wove them together with skillful fingers, and brandished the linked threads as a whip.

 

With a firm flick of her thin arm, she brought the metaphysical lash crashing down towards Haphaestus.

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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Haphaestus' shield manifested nearly too late. Dust blew out around him as the telekinetic blow struck, and he planted his feet firmly but still slid back a few inches along the the bare warehouse floor as the force of the attack transferred excess kinetic energy through his defenses. She had fully embraced the dark side now, her first jaunt into the deep oceans of power that stood waiting for her command.

 

"Now that you have opened your eyes, you will find that your gaze pierces time and space," he said. "The mysteries of the universe are made known to you, the future and the past laid bare. Now defend yourself."

 

With no further warning he retaliated in the Force, not pulling on his full strength but for now testing how well she adapted and improvised. He started with a physical lance of invisible energy directed at her left hip, then pushed on her mind invasively, seeking to pluck from her brain some of her earliest memories -- and challenging her to repel him.

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A sudden tingling sensation trickled through her mind, and one of the threads that bound up her whip disappeared from her grasp. Without explanation, she knew that a sharp blow was honing in. With hyperactive reflexes, she sidestepped the dart of Force energy. A grin found its way to her features, in pleased surprise at what she had just accomplished. Could the Force truly predict incoming attacks and the intentions of others to announce what the future held? If such power was available, one who could wield it would become invincible. Protected from all harm, able to work out every circumstance to their advantage, afraid of nothing and no one--

 

The thought was suddenly interrupted by an icy lance through her mind, which crept past the wall that had been constructed by her awareness of the Force. Shapes and images began to flow from her mind, and somehow, she knew that Haphaestus was seeing what she was seeing. Attempts to recall them came to no avail, and she could feel her control evaporating.

 

- - - - -

 

"Mama, don't go!" Clinging hands groped desperately, scratching and kneading her mother's clothing, trying to find a hold. "Please, I promise I'll do what you say!"

 

Wordlessly, the Twi'lek woman pried at her fingers, avoiding her eyes and starting towards the exit of the cavern. "Shh, you have to keep quiet, Kit. Remember what I told you about the junglecats and the gutkurrs."

 

"NO!" she sobbed, frantic, her body shaking.

 

"Taara?" came her brother's small voice from behind her. One arm wrapped around his left lekku, Tovaa had a thumb halfway in his mouth, obviously unsettled by her display.

 

At the boy's voice, her mother stopped, and gripped Kitaara by the shoulders, holding her in place, her eyes solemn and grave. "Kit, you need to stay and take care of him. I'm counting on you to keep him safe. The jungle will keep the slavers at bay, but the animals will not be so considerate."

 

Kitaara fell silent at last, her face contorting with the strain. The tic in mama's lekku was becoming more pronounced, and she shot frequent furtive glances to the vine-veiled entrance to the cavern. Somehow, Kitaara knew there was something she had not been told. But another glimpse of Tovaa's fearful eyes told the six-year-old what she had to do.

 

"But when will you be back?" she asked sorrowfully.

 

Without another word, her mother disappeared through the curtain of vines.

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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As the memory played out Haphaestus observed pragmatically. The experience had clearly left a great emotional mark on his new apprentice as she had experienced abandonment at a young age, a situation which had almost certainly led to her enslavement in the ryll mines. It wasn't a bad place for a Sith to begin, he reflected, as emotional scars often were a source of fuel for pure biologicals like her to draw upon the dark side.

 

The fact that he had witnessed the recollection at all, however, had meant that Kitaara had failed to repel him. She'd been too busy celebrating her initial triumph to maintain her defense. "Do not yield your focus," he commanded her. "Mistakes such as that may be acceptable as you take your first steps, but outside of training they will get you killed and all you might learn will amount to nothing."

 

He let off the mental pressure, but only for a moment. "Again, defend. Build a hedge around your mind, focus it when I strike, push me out like your body might attack a virus."

 

The Sith Master renewed his mental assault, digging for more memories.

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The images around her fractured and fell away as quickly as they had appeared out of the recesses of memory, and Kitaara was barely able to center herself in time and place. They had felt so real, down to the scent of plumeflower that assailed her senses and seemed to linger even in this stale warehouse in the slums of Rordis City. How had he so quickly extracted the painful history from her mind?

 

No, such thoughts were not helpful in focusing, and he had given clear instruction. Build a hedge, focus, push intrusions away like an immune system. But an immune response to a virus happened by first reacting to an antigen, then adapting to it and eliminating it with specific antibodies. Did he intend for her to let him in, only to divert the point of intrusion?

 

Rallying her mental energy, she pushed her questions away, even as she could feel the pressure he exerted on her psyche. Like an involuntary muscle spasm, she could feel the sharp intrusion approaching, slicing a knife's edge between whatever meager defenses she cobbled together. But observing the great cosmic awareness she had just experienced was one thing: channeling it was a different matter entirely.

 

Dark and gaping, like an unholy, toothless maw, the Gateway to Hell framed the figure of her mother.

 

Kitaara struggled against the sight, pushing with every ounce of her energy to divert the knife of Haphaestus' consciousness.

 

"Taara! Taara! We have to go!" Tovaa's voice screamed from somewhere behind--far, too far behind.

 

If she pushed just a little farther... just a little harder...

 

Then her mind was clear, her thoughts her own, Tovaa vanishing into her memory: and her own consciousness was brandishing the knife, plunging toward Haphaestus as though falling in the dark.

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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At last, when he was beginning to think she didn't have it in her, Kitaara repelled his assault. She'd exerted herself tremendously in order to do so, but as she rallied she reversed the process and attacked him, mirroring his technique. He saw the attack a moment in advance through the Force, but he had no intention of deflecting it -- at least not immediately. Haphaestus was careful to hide his true nature from most beings. Although the truth made him unique and particularly potent, concealing it negated any attempt his enemies might otherwise make to use his mechanical construction against him. In this instance, he judged that it was appropriate to give Kitaara a glimpse at his being, even though she would not be able to fully comprehend his state of existence, as both a reward for her tenacity and to provide her with insight concerning her teacher.

 

And so the attack sailed through and the oldest memory shared by his dual mechanical and biological minds was dragged into the light.

 

---------------------

 

Czerka Corporation Hunter Killer 51 serial number 0233912-717632-0993143, designation Haphaestus, Beginning boot sequence.

 

0x12124877453

0x87793874211

0x87563849801

 

Systems corrupted. Unknown inputs detected. Checking to see if firmware is out of date...

...

Connection to Czerka servers failed. Trying again in 3 seconds.

 

"Do not panic. You are not even close to being human. The power I've granted you does not weaken your droid functions. It augments them. Your skin is elastic, and it can regenerate almost instantly. Though if it is ruptured you will feel pain. The membranes that have combined with your circuitry insulate you from the normal weaknesses of a droid. Electricity, gungan energy balls, none of these will harm you. I cannot fully guess how being able to feel things will affect you. But do not think you have lost your droid brain, it is unchanged. I am releasing you now, so remain calm."

 

The being speaking was a tall, powerful-looking Sith. Nurgle. Haphaestus had battled the man and lost.

 

Unknown system invading chassis. Neural net in resistance mode: prepare to eliminate invading threat. Haphaestus shut down the resistance system. He would accept this. Neural net experiencing unpleasant sensations.

 

Alert! Some effects of unknown system may prove debilitating in combat! Abort! Haphaestus would not abort. He was angered that his combat abilities would be reduced, though he could also see the advantages in combat as well. Advanced diagnostic report: servomotor strength increase by 300%. Chassis damage resistance increased by 32%. System resistance to cold increased by 100%. System resistance to heat increased by 100%. Ion resistance increased by 1000%. Sonic resistance increased by 1000%.

 

The ancient HK-51 did not like the idea of flinching in combat. Like a meatbag. "Status: I find your advancements complementary save one. Inquiry: is there a way to become immune to the effects of pain, Master?"

 

------------------------

 

Haphaestus forced Kitaara out of his mind. "You have done well," he spoke.

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Kitaara felt the blood drain from her face as her consciousness was returned to her, dropped in her lap by the superior control of Haphaestus. Confusion tugged at her brows as she looked at him with a new awareness. Of course, it was only natural for her to be curious about what lay beneath the mask. But what she had seen defied all expectation and left her with even more questions.

 

Dread and pity mixed within her for her teacher. Had he been some creature mutilated by the addition of mechanical elements? Or was he the product of experimental mutation, an artificial life form enhanced by flesh, given sentient life by some sort of strange sorcery?

 

What she had seen in the vision suggested the latter, but she almost couldn't bring herself to believe it.

 

"Who--how--" she began, trying to keep a disgusted curl from her lip, before pausing to gather her question in earnest. "What are you?"

 

It struck her too late that he--it?--might not take kindly to such questions. "I'm sorry," she added. "I wasn't expecting to--I didn't mean--"

 

Words were failing her, fatigue beginning to catch up. "I didn't know I could do that."

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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"Do not apologize," Haphaestus commanded the young Twi'lek. "The knowledge does you credit.

 

"In this wide universe, there is none other like me, nor shall there be again," he explained. "What you witnessed was my Master first clothing me in living flesh, beginning both my enlightenment and my perdition."

 

His eyes glowed faintly from beneath his metal mask. "You have stumbled upon the basics of mental clairvoyance and its defense; these skills we shall revisit as we broaden and refine your powers," he continued, apparently finished with the previous subject. "I will require no more of such exercises from you today. For now we must secure lodging for our stay on planet. A great number of arrangements will need to be made in the coming days, but of them this is first in priority." Although he did not require sleep himself, he would not have Kitaara living like a vagrant -- it was below any Sith and certainly an apprentice of his.

 

Without another word, he headed back outside into the evening. Perhaps a hotel for the first night until he could secure something more cost effective...

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In the absence of Nubian sun, as the day progressed into night, the air outside the warehouse was frigid. The thin layer of cotton that covered her body did little to ward off the biting cold as they began to retrace their steps back into the heart of Rordis City. In a strange way, the city was almost as alive at night as during the day. Kitaara, though feeling the effects of mental taxation, could not help a flutter of eagerness to find herself in the center of the activity. As a side effect of exhaustion, Kitaara no longer shouldered the flighty stress that had plagued her on their journey through the city earlier in the day, finding herself almost giddy at the fortuitous turn her life had taken.

 

Now that she was attuned to the current running through the galaxy, she detected keenly how it gained momentum in areas of dense population. It was almost intoxicating, like a fragrance of power that somehow only she had the ability to smell, which existed largely undetected by the vast majority of the sentients here.

 

Not only that, but Haphaestus had, by his own admission, given her an advantage: the clairvoyance he endeavored to teach her, and the ability to shield her own mind. If she recreated the effect of her push into Haphaestus' mind with any other aggressor, she would almost certainly meet less resistance than someone as powerful. A thought occurred to her as they walked.

 

"Haphaestus?" she began tentatively. "Can you hurt minds by using the Force like I did? Like a weapon?"

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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Haphaestus continued to lead, not turning back to face Kitaara. "With enough skill, such techniques can extract any piece of information from a being's mind and leave them in a permanent catatonic state or worse," he confirmed. "The body cannot live without the mind."

 

Soon they found themselves at a modest hotel. They were an unusual sight, the tall dark figure of the Sith Master and the oddly-dressed Twi'lek girl trailing behind him, but under his cold gaze the employee working the desk that evening did not see fit to comment on it, and other guests tended to move aside to make clear their path. Haphaestus purchased for them a single room for a single night, then led Kitaara up to it, and upon letting her inside, he lingered near the doorway. "I trust you find the accommodations suitable," he said, though he didn't seem particularly interested in hearing her thoughts. "I will return and retrieve you in the morning."

 

A moment later he departed again. His ability to make preparations for a longer-term stay would be limited by many businesses being closed in the night hours in Rordis City, but the city had a major spaceport and places close to it tended to never close, lest they lose business from spacers coming from other time zones and other planetary systems. The larger the city, the less it slept, and Rordis was a sprawling metropolis even by modern standards. Even more interesting than finding open businesses of the types he required, he mused, would be following the necessary legal processes to come or otherwise manipulating his way through them in a way that was sufficient to achieve his end goals. Haphaestus was not an ordinary sentient with ordinary forms of identification, and his apprentice was not discernibly better at this stage.

 

But he was a Sith Master. Such obstacles were trifles when measured against the abilities he commanded through the dark side of the Force.

 

------------- ((I feel no particular need to document the details here.)) ----------------

 

True to his word, Haphaestus returned to the hotel eight hours and thirty-seven minutes later, giving Kitaara ample time to receive recommended levels of repose for Twi'leks. It had taken considerable time to complete his agenda for the night, but patience and diligence were natural qualities for a being of his nature.

 

"Let us proceed as soon as you are ready," he told his apprentice. "There may be opportunities to study the Force today, but first we must begin to establish our residence here."

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Without question, she followed Haphaestus through the streets of Rordis City, overawed by the sheer magnificence of her surroundings. In her time spent aboveground on Ryloth, Kitaara's experience had been limited to seedy port towns and even more questionable companionship. Even upon their arrival at the towering hotel, she remained unperturbed. Haphaestus left with nary a word of explanation. As she watched his retreating back, even more questions occurred to her--does he need to sleep, or recharge, or eat? How do his organic cells regenerate? What kind of artificial life is--was--he? They swam in her head until at last she collapsed from sheer exhaustion.

 

Not more than a few hours passed before she woke with a start, drenched in sweat, her blood itself itching with fierce want. Her lekku curled and uncurled, writhing in the mounting absence of--

 

Throwing the covers off of her body with a single toss, she followed the turbolift down to the main floor and retraced her steps into the night of Rordis City. Passing through the commercial district where their hotel was located, with keen memory, she followed the sights, sounds, and smells to the slums of town where they had been practicing earlier in the day. It was not long before Kitaara found what she was looking for.

 

A huddled Twi'lek male, probably about her age, with sickly yellow skin blinked up at her from the shadows, his lekku twitching under the cowl of his hood. "What do you want, schutta?"

 

"Glitterryll." The word came out sharply and without fanfare. "And don't give me that fake stuff. I know the difference," she warned.

 

"Payment first," he said, hands shoved in his pockets, his eyes narrowing as though suddenly leery of her.

 

Payment. Kitaara had never offered payment for her "medicine" before. It had been part and parcel of her existence for the last four years: there were slave masters, there were clients, there were standards of behavior, there was spice. If any of these things was missing, the world she inhabited would have come crashing down. It hadn't occurred to her that palms were always greased in the transaction.

 

"I--I don't--" she began, faltering. How could she explain to this lek-rat the level of her need?

 

His eyes flashed and he leapt up. "I don't give freebies. Get out of here before you hurt yourself, tenderfoot," he growled.

 

A sudden rage came over her. This scum had owned himself his whole life, chosen his allegiance to the underworld. He had no idea who he was dealing with, to what lengths she had been willing to go. The only weapon she had was her mind: her frail body was in no condition to take it forcefully from him. But her teacher had told her her mind could be a weapon, when aligned with the Force, so she would use it. Reaching into his thoughts, she seized the strand of attachment to his merchandise, and imagined her consciousness as a dull blade, slicing through it. "Give it to me," she commanded, her voice echoing with conviction.

 

His face slackened, and he looked for a moment like he was resisting the weight of her words, applied through the Force that she could feel emanating from within him. But then he yielded: one hand emerged from a pocket, loosely clutching a sachet of some kind. She snatched it for him, and without a word, disappeared back into the night.

 

---

 

When Haphaestus arrived, Kitaara was awake, her consciousness sated, eyes glossed over with the effects of her acquisition. "I am ready," she murmured. "What is there to do?"

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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There was no mistaking Kitaara's mental state, and Haphaestus searched his databanks for information on chemical dependencies among biologicals. The withdrawal process required to break an addiction seemed to be quite unpleasant, and often required substantial medical oversight. He could not, of course, allow his apprentice to subject herself to mind-altering substances, especially ones that could change and damage her brain over years of use. He detected traces of glitteryll in the room and knew that would be the chemical she had ingested, given the nature of the mine where she'd toiled. Continued use of the substance would lead to memory damage, making it even more difficult for her to retain lessons.

 

Haphaestus regarded her for a moment. "It seems we will need to break you of your chemical dependency," he said. "But for now, I only need you lucid."

 

He reached out with the dark side and gave her body a kick start, triggering a release of adrenaline that would help clear her mind. "Come. I have borrowed from a creditor sufficient funds for us to establish some semblance of a normal life here for the time being. Our next step is to keep you from looking like an escaped slave," he informed her.

 

Leading her out into the streets, he quickly took her to a sizable department store. "You will need several sets of clothing for both casual and work settings, as well as to meet your athletic needs. I will be teaching you a craft in the coming days which will be physical in nature, so your focus should be on practical attire," he continued. He gestured to a clothing section with a significant variety of options. "I will advise you if you require it, but the task is yours."

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The sharp jolt that traveled through her body had robbed Kitaara of the euphoric haze she had anticipated lasting several more hours, and the task to which Haphaestus now set her was utterly foreign. Those factors combined resulted in a generally disgruntled attitude. A muted glare poked out from under her dark lashes in the cybernetic organism's general direction.

 

"Business clothes?" she shot at him skeptically. "What for? There's only one kind of business I've ever been trained for, and most of the time clothes aren't really a necessity."

 

But nevertheless, she acquiesced to the command, moving through the department store. All prior experience with wardrobe selection, as she had suggested to Haphaestus, had been influenced by the pressure to attract carnal attention. But the recent phenomenon of self-protection meant the possibility of exploring her own tastes, which were far more conservative. Before long, Kitaara had assembled a wardrobe of a few select pieces: a halter-top jumpsuit in some kind of material that looked like animal hides but stretched like elastic, a combat-style jacket in lined mesh, several pairs of pants made of moisture-wicking fabric that appeared to be specifically designed for physical exertion, a number of fitted tank tops and shirts without embellishment, a couple pairs of canvas cargo pants, a leather and gold headdress that wrapped crisscrossing strands down her lekku, a long, dark cloak of a heavy fabric, a handful of silk blouses in colors that complimented her skin tone, and a couple pencil skirts to match a dark black blazer that looked to her like something out of a Holonet broadcast, not to mention the coordinating undergarments, belts, and shoes.

 

Having finished her selection, she presented herself and her haul to Haphaestus, who hadn't seemed to move from where he had left her, looking for all the world like an out-of-place boyfriend dragged along by his materialistic paramour. After the annoying start of the morning, the thought gave her great pleasure as she rejoined him.

 

"Forget looking like an escaped slave," she smirked, "after all this I'm going to look like some yuppie Core-rat."

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For when devils do the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows...

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