“You were talking in your sleep again, your Majesty.”
The speaker was a young human of slight build, with shaggy brown hair hanging down over a sun-worn face. He sat at a small table in a tapcaf, across from a hooded man of later years. Named Romeo Six, the younger human was a clone agent created to protect, serve, and advise the Lord Emperor of the Sith Imperium, Darth Arestenax.
The figure across from Romeo, the Emperor himself, was carefully dressed to draw as little attention as possible. He kept his cowl pulled low over his pale, bearded face, and was avoiding his typical pure-white garb while he traveled. He had been away, or rather, dead, for too long, and the galaxy had continued spinning. He had embarked on a pilgrimage to reacquaint himself with the worlds he used to rule and re-evaluate those he had coveted.
“Did I say anything of note?” Arestenax replied, his voice uncharacteristically amiable. Romeo, the original, had been his guard and confidant during his first rule. When Arestenax had perished, so had Romeo - but the Imperium’s bloodline needed people like him. So, using a sample of Romeo’s blood gathered from annual tests, a clone was created to serve Arestenax’s heir... and then another for his heir, and then her heir. It was both unsettling and gratifying to have his old friend back, in some way, in a galaxy where so many friends had perished or passed on.
“Oh, just the usual, your Majesty. Doom, gloom, and various mutterings where you attempted to find an equally-dark way to say ‘bad things’ that still managed to rhyme... Oh, and something about Makhzor.”
At this, Arestenax stiffened sharply. Makhzor had been his first Hand, and had been no small help in establishing and stabilizing his rule. The Old Soul had been immensely powerful and had only gotten more so before abruptly leaving, shattering his essence into a dozen or so shards and scattering them across the multiverse to prevent its potential collapse.
He had also been on the Lord Emperor’s mind for some time, now, and Arestenax had been unsure why. Now that he knew Makhzor had been present in his dreams, as well, he decided it was time to figure out why.
The pair paid for their meal and returned to their hotel room in Kaas City. The latest stop in Arestenax’s incognito pilgrimage was also the most fascinating to date, with the Immortal Emperor Vitiate, later known as Valkorion, denounced and Empress Acina rising to take his place. A colder, more practical Sith, she reminded Arestenax much of himself.
Once the Lord Emperor and his guard had shaken off the ever-present rain, Romeo took up a guard post while Arestenax sat in the middle of the room, cross-legged. He intended to meditate on the thoughts of his old friend Makhzor in the hopes that their source would become clear. Settling his breathing and slowing his heart-rate, he quieted his mind of all thoughts, feelings, and images, save one: Makhzor.
Instantly, he found himself walking through a murky Voss forest alongside his old friend. Taking in his surroundings, he quickly recognized the location as a grove that stood near the Voss Vergence. A focal point in space, time, and the Force, the Vergence leaked images of times past and yet-to-be, and it radiated immense power. Some speculated that the Vergence was the source of the Voss Mystics’ frequent and highly accurate visions. Arestenax, however, had not wasted time with musings. He conquered Voss quickly and quietly where others had failed to even form diplomatic ties, and bound the Vergence to his will. It granted him even greater power than he had previously wielded, and was a closely-guarded asset.
Having gained his bearings, Arestenax turned to Makhzor as they strode towards the Vergence. Makhzor himself was a being purely of the Force, but his host body had remained the same during his time in the Imperium and so was quite familiar. A heavily muscled Zabrak who may have been attractive beneath the scars, the host-body (named Vesanis) had long since been “cleansed” of its natural mind and replaced with Makhzor’s will. However, Makhzor had almost always worn a mask of some sort, signifying that his face did not define him; at this moment, his face was laid bare.
“By the Force, it’s good to see you, old friend,” Arestenax said at last, choosing not to question the uncharacteristic lack of a mask as they drew nearer to the Vergence. “Remind me again why you insisted on leaving?”
Makhzor smiled at Arestenax, which in itself was unnerving. The Old Soul had abhorred the displaying of emotions, believing them to weaken him and tie him down to his mortal body. Arestenax was about to comment on this when Makhzor’s lips started moving in answer to his question.
The unease the Lord Emperor felt only deepened. Though Makhzor’s lips moved as though in speech, no sound escaped, and though the skin of his face moved, the inside of his mouth stayed still. Realizing that this awful parody was not really Makhzor, Arestenax decided he did not want to continue walking alongside it. Yet he couldn’t seem to stay his feet.
Arriving at the Vergence, Arestenax finally managed to stop, though he still couldn’t move back. The thing that looked like Makhzor took a few extra steps, turning to face Arestenax from between him and the Vergence. It opened its mouth again.
And started to laugh.
It was a laugh that echoed through the air and the Force all at once, and scraped across the inside of Arestenax’s head. Dropping to his knees, hands clapped over his ears, Arestenax looked up at the thing standing in front of him. Noticing his gaze, it reached up and removed Makhzor’s face like a mask, revealing utter nothingness beneath. It laughed harder as a hole appeared behind it, engulfing the Vergence. Ringed by a hodgepodge of ancient machineries adorned with sigils of Sith sorcery, the hole appeared to be a tear in reality itself. From the hole, shadows began to spew, leaping forth and falling against the landscape. Wherever shadows fell, everything disappeared. No shapes, no light, no dark - just pure, unadulterated void. The shadows spread further and faster and the thing that had been wearing Makhzor’s face cackled harder than ever.
Eventually, there was nothing left but the ground beneath Arestenax. He kneeled on a spot of dirt surrounding by emptiness of a sort more bitter than that of space. Looking up, he saw a shadow descending for him as well. It was shaped like a left hand...
And then he slept.
Hoth is a Force-forsaken world if ever there was one - perhaps quite literally, Darth Bahr’ve’ahz B’Makhzor, Hand of Lord Emperor Arestenax, thought to himself. He and his apprentice had been hiking through the sub-zero temperatures and blinding storms that covered the ice planet for what felt like days, but in reality had only been hours.
Bahr've'ahz was a human male of average height and wiry build, his pale skin, bald head, small beard, and permanently concerned-looking eyebrows hidden beneath several layers of insulated clothing. Also hidden were the scars that marked his forehead and traveled along just beneath his eyes: a circular one above and between his eyebrows indicating his knowledge of the Multiverse, granted by Makhzor, and a line with sigils inlaid inside it beneath his eyes acknowledging his Sight.
Bahr've'ahz’s Sight was a gift that had been at times useful, at times distracting, often both. Where most people saw only what was currently happening around them, and many Force-users would be permitted flashes of the past or future, Bahr've'ahz saw so much more. He was constantly witnessing things centuries past, events in the present, and multiple possible futures simultaneously. It was an ability that had, in the past, driven him mad. He had since mastered it, but he would never really be thankful for it.
Alongside him trudged his apprentice, Demial Enax. Demial had about the same build as Bahr've'ahz, and was just as bald beneath his own cold-weather gear - but the similarities were few and far between after that. About ten years younger, Demial had been born a citizen of Zakuul, and after showing considerable skill with combat and the Force had been selected for a program secret to all but those involved and the Immortal Emperor Valkorion. The Wardens of Zakuul were black-ops agents of the highest caliber, conditioned and programmed to dismantle organizations that opposed the Eternal Throne from the inside, quickly and quietly.
There was only ever a single Warden at a time, and Demial was the last. He had been nearing the end of his training when Arcann betrayed Valkorion, sending a broken Demial to the Imperium. Having been freed of his programming and placed under Bahr’ve’ahz, he had long since proven his loyalty
“Master, forgive me, but... Why are we here, again?” Demial’s question startled Bahr've'ahz, who realized he had been lost in thought.
“My vision, Demial. The Force nexus where the Guardian rested is in danger.”
Bahr've'ahz’s former master Makhzor had discovered that the Guardian, a Celestial-created artificial Force-spirit of extraordinary power that was designed to ensure Balance in the Force, had gone into hiding on Hoth in shame after its unchecked might had devastated the Rakata. One of the hints that led Makhzor to this conclusion was how immensely unwelcome he had felt on his visits there. Makhzor was unused to feeling much of anything except professional pride or regret, yet he wanted to get off the planet the moment he arrived. Following this feeling to its source, he discovered it was a planet-wide Force suggestion, and quickly traced it to the mountainside to which Bahr’ve’ahz and his apprentice now hiked. Though the Guardian had long passed, having granting its power and life to Makhzor to carry on the work it couldn’t do, the prolonged presence of such an immense Force entity had left behind a powerful Force nexus.
The vision of which Bahr've'ahz spoke to Demial led him to believe that the nexus should be placed under strict guard. He shuddered at the memory of the thing that had pretended to be his former master, wearing Makhzor’s face like a mask. His vision had turned into a nightmare soon after, with the figure growing exponentially in size once it reached the nexus, and changing in composition to a silhouette of void. The vision had culminated with the giant shadow laughing down at Bahr've'ahz as it reached its hand into a portal in the sky, and everything had gone dark. Bahr've'ahz had blacked out for hours after, and immediately upon waking had brought Demial to Hoth. They were traveling to the site of the nexus to ensure it remained untouched.
Arriving within macrobinocular range of the mountainside they were heading towards, Bahr've'ahz signaled a stop to his apprentice. He pulled out the binoculars to look at the site, and immediately grew tense. There was a huge encampment there of sentients of all races and sexes, all of whom were dressed in religious garb of some sort - perhaps a cult. Scattered around the encampment was ancient-looking machinery, some Rakatan in design, some Gree. There were even circular and triangular frames that resembled descriptions of Kwa Infinity Gates.
The technologies came from three races who had two things in common. The first was that each had had close contact with the Celestials, the beings who had ruled the galaxy before the Infinite Empire had built its first ship - the Kwa and the Gree had served them, and the Rakata had driven them out of the galaxy. The second similarity was that each of these races was highly technologically advanced and had developed technology that allowed them to teleport. The Rakata had intra-planetary transportation from teleporter-to-teleporter; the Gree, hypergates that created hyperspace wormholes; the Kwa had made Infinity Gates, which had relied on the power of the Force.
This mystery group was trying to harness the power left by the Guardian to open a portal of some kind. But to where, and how did they know this place?
Sensing the direction of Bahr've'ahz’s thoughts, Demial grinned beneath his gear and said, “Shall we ask them, Master?”
“Hold, young one. You’re strong, but not invincible. Always take the measure of your enemies before... you...” Bahr've'ahz trailed off. He had been reaching out in the Force to inspect the group, and felt something all-too-familiar. He dropped his macrobinoculars and used the Force to dash ahead, charging at the group.
Demial was briefly shocked into stillness, then quickly sprinted after his master. “Master, wait! What happened to taking their measure?!”
Bahr've'ahz looked over his shoulder at his apprentice and yelled, “We need to stop them - now! They are empowered by an Old Soul!”
Demial immediately grew silent, emanating a mix of confusion, apprehension, and excitement. As Bahr've'ahz’s apprentice, he had heard much about Old Souls, and was eager to test their power - but Makhzor has supposedly been the only one in this universe.
Closing on the group, the pair were spotted. An alarm rang out from the encampment, and the cultists immediately began packing their equipment away. Several dozen of them ran out to meet the Imperium interlopers head-on, blasters and even some lightsabers at the ready.
The battle was a flash of action too fast for most eyes to follow. Demial’s intensive and unrelenting training had forged him into a weapon of mass destruction, and he began to cut his way through his foes in groups of two to four. Bahr've'ahz had a more subtle (yet equally effective) approach, utilizing his Sight to predict his enemy’s moves. He could also share this ability, using a technique called Gifting - he did so, showing his opponents a future move that he would avoid acting on in order to have them guard the wrong area, leaving them defenseless where he really intended to strike.
Demial, after his first dozen kills or so, was radiating disappointment, and called out as much to Bahr've'ahz. “I thought their connection would make them difficult to take down! These people are nothing!.”
Bahr've'ahz was about to speak when he had a premonition of danger. He swung around, though too late. One of the males, a twi’lek, that Bahr've'ahz had cut down had risen again, his lightsaber wound stitching itself closed. He grasped a hand around Bahr've'ahz’s throat, and Bahr've'ahz lost himself to the Sight.
When he came into contact with another being, he would often be forced to witness their future or their past. This time it was the latter, and Bahr've'ahz watched the twi’lek being blessed in some sort of ceremony by a hooded figure, viewing the proceedings from a point just above and behind the twi’lek. The hooded figure paused its blessing and looked up, seemingly making eye contact with Bahr've'ahz. It smiled and lowered its hood, and Bahr’ve’ahz felt as though something had caressed his mind.
“Hello, little one.”
Demial was fighting towards Bahr've'ahz, killing the same cultists time and again, inching his way to where his master lay on the ground near a cliffside, spasming. There were cultists surrounding Bahr've'ahz, but they weren’t harming him - in fact, they were facing away, towards Demial, as though guarding the older Sith. Demial, however, would not be denied, despite the growing number of cuts and gashes that exposed torn skin and muscle to the burning cold. His lightsaber and vibroblade rended flesh from bone time and time again, and he grew closer to Bahr've'ahz, eventually reaching the cultists standing around his master. They prepared their weapons, prepared to engage in battle with a severely-wounded Demial. He, however, had another plan.
He had been gathering the Force within himself as he cut his way through the crowd, and on reaching his master he let it out in the form of a powerful chest-high Force-push. The cultists flew over the edge of the cliff and away from Bahr've'ahz. Demial took their position, standing over Bahr've'ahz and ready to take on whoever wanted his attention next, the snow at his feet turning pink with blood. However, on turning around, he realized that he was alone. The cultists he had cut down most recently were in the process of turning to ash, and the rest had vanished alongside their machinery.
Uneasy with his apparent victory, Demial gingerly picked up Bahr've'ahz and radioed for medical evac, limping away from the site.
Arestenax awoke, covered in sweat, in the bed that resided in his chambers aboard the Sovereign, flagship of his fleet. He sat up abruptly, noticing an IV and heart monitor beside his bed. Turning to the other side, he saw Romeo Six fast asleep in a chair he had pull into the room. Arestenax smiled briefly before disconnecting the monitoring equipment. As the machines started to beep in panic, unable to find a heartbeat they no longer had access to, Romeo Six jolted awake with a knife in each hand, ready to take down the fool messing with his Emperor’s equipment.
Seeing that Arestenax was awake, Romeo Six immediately got out of the chair and kneeled. Arestenax sighed in exapseration, using the Force to tug Romeo to his feet, and asked, “How long?”
“Two days, your Majesty,” Romeo intoned, worry-lines etching his face. “There was nothing medically wrong, and none of our Force-sensitive healers managed to get through to you. They kept saying they were being pushed back out... whatever that means.”
Arestenax pondered this as he moved to the refresher to clean himself up.
He exited some time later, dressed fully in the pure white that marked him as the Supreme Lord, and gestured for Romeo Six to follow. He needed to be caught up on the events of the past forty-eight hours, and he needed the advice of someone who knew Makhzor as well or better than he did.
Entering the bridge of the Sovereign, Arestenax pointed to a communications agent, telling him “Get me Darth Bahr've'ahz.”
As the comms specialist got to work, Romeo Six whispered to Arestenax about Bahr've'ahz’s recent mission, from which he had only just recovered. He had insisted on speaking about it only to the Lord Emperor himself, and refused to say why. Arestenax was simultaneously amused and annoyed; Bahr've'ahz was almost as stubborn as Makhzor had been, but was the intel he was safeguarding really so sensitive that he had to keep the rest of the Imperium in the dark?
The comms agent saluted to Arestenax, signifying that he had contacted Bahr've'ahz . The Lord Emperor told him to send the call to the throne room. Understanding that Bahr've'ahz believed this to be a delicate situation, Arestenax ordered that no one was to be allowed up until he gave the word. Marching from the bridge quickly, he ascended the lift to the throne room and sat down, tapping the armrest to activate the holocall.
Bahr've'ahz appeared in grainy blue in front of Arestenax and kneeled. Arestenax gestured for him to rise and speak, and Bahr've'ahz began to tell him of the mission spawned by his vision.
“Hold. This vision... Describe it in detail,” Arestenax interrupted. Bahr've'ahz seemed frustrated, apparently feeling that the vision wasn’t the most important part. When he spoke of the massive figure reaching his hand into the portal, Arestenax interrupted again. “Which hand?”
Bahr've'ahz paused, evidently feeling like the point was being missed. But he thought back, and responded, “His left.”
Arestenax nodded, his suspicion confirmed. His vision and Bahr've'ahz’s seemed to be linked, though he was not yet sure why. “Continue.”
Bahr've'ahz nodded his thanks. “We found a cult of some kind, experimenting with ancient machinery - Rakatan, Gree, and what seemed to be Kwa - at the center of the nexus left by the Guardian. I believed they were attempting to open a portal, and reached out with the Force to inspect them. They were connected to an Old Soul, my Lord.”
At this, Arestenax could hardly keep his jaw closed. Makhzor had made it clear how damaging the presence of more Old Souls could be to the universe, and had implied that he was the only one left. Worse, Arestenax had seen the power that an Old Soul possessed, and the strength it could grant to its servants. Makhzor had, for example, had a servant named Rotzkha, whom he had suspended between life and death. The servant was essentially damned to living purgatory, feeling no pleasure or pain, and was not granted sweet release until Makhzor had been forced to depart for good. Rotzkha had, according to those he was near at the time, begun laughing hysterically before dissolving into dust.
“I had a vision around the same time you did, I believe, Bahr,” Arestenax murmured, unintentionally calling Bahr've'ahz by his familiar nickname. “Except mine was on Voss, at the Vergence. The thing masquerading as Makhzor opened a portal on top of the Vergence through which shadows spewed, the final one landing on me. It was shaped like a left hand.”
Finally understanding Arestenax’s earlier line of questioning, Bahr've'ahz said, “My Lord, we must go to Voss immediately. There is an Old Soul on the loose, and if our visions are to be believed then he endangers us all.”
Arestenax nodded, signing off by Bahr've'ahz to meet him in Voss-ka. The city was still rebuilding after an assault by the Eternal Empire, but was as yet the only viable port on the planet. They wouldn’t be staying in the city long, regardless. They had a vision to chase.
Their encounter at the Voss Vergence went somewhat better than that at the Hoth nexus. Bahr've'ahz was prepared for the connection he felt, so much like the one that had allowed him the stability to master his Sight - and he knew better than to let his guard down, even amongst supposed corpses. The presence of Arestenax and Romeo Six cinched it. Though Bahr've'ahz and Demial were a formidable pair, there was a reason Arestenax was the Lord Emperor; his power assured their victory, even amongst the temporarily deathless cronies of an Old Soul. Romeo Six played the sniper, ensuring that the dead remained so and that there were no suprises from behind, this round.
The group even managed to capture one of the cultists, briefly. Just as most of them teleported away with what looks like a more mobile Rakatan Teleporter, Arestenax disarmed one of those who were left behind - quite literally. However, their attempts at interrogation proved fruitless. The crazed Zabrak female ranted about the Bridge Builder and the salvation of the Force before turning to ash. Arestenax, Bahr've'ahz, and Romeo Six had collectively shrugged, and retired to Bahr've'ahz’s suite on Kaon, within the Imperium’s borders in the Indrexu Spiral, to consult with Makhzor’s holocron.
The repository of all the Old Soul’s knowledge, Makhzor’s holocron was understandably large, standing at least as tall as the Sith who sometimes ogled around it and at least twice as wide and thick. Specially shielded through the Force and secret technologies that Makhzor had never spoken of, it was only accessible to Bahr've'ahz, only when he meditated with a specific mantra, and only if he did so above an access point on the top of the holocron with the hoverchair that Makhzor himself had gifted to Bahr've'ahz.
That was where Bahr've'ahz sat now, muttering his mantra in order to unlock the holocron while Arestenax watched. Romeo Six remained outside with the HK units and Massassi guards, much to his annoyance. Never one to make demands of his Lord Emperor, Bahr've'ahz had still suggested that Makhzor’s knowledge was as carefully guarded as it was for a reason, and he may not even have wanted Arestenax present for this - though the Emperor made it clear that waiting outside was currently not an option he was willing to consider for himself.
Eventually, there was a hiss as if steam was released, and an image of Makhzor appeared in front of Arestenax. The image, the avatar of an artificial replica of Makhzor’s own mind designed to guide Bahr've'ahz through the knowledge contained in the holocron, looked silently at the Emperor, then up at Bahr've'ahz, and raised his brow in question. Bahr've'ahz shrugged apologetically, and the avatar turned back to Arestenax.
“Lord Emperor Arestenax, old friend. This is an unexpected pleasure,” the avatar said with a deep bow, programmed to behave as though it were Makhzor. “May I ask what led to your visit? Bahr've'ahz is not the type to break promises, and he swore to me that only he would access this holocron.”
“Understandable, Makhzor, but desperate times, so on,” Arestenax sighed. He then proceeded to recount everything, from the visions to the battles. He made special note of what Bahr've'ahz’s Sight had shown him on Hoth, and of the supposed Old Soul using Makhzor’s own vernacular, like calling non-Old Souls “little one”.
When he arrived to their interrogation of the cultist on Voss and that Zabrak’s ravings about the “Bridge Builder,” the avatar of Makhzor winked out. Arestenax looked up at Bahr've'ahz in surprised annoyance, but Bahr've'ahz could only shrug again. Inside the holocron could be heard whirring and humming, as though it were straining to process this new information. Eventually, the avatar returned, its features grim.
It said only one word, “Voritas,” before both Arestenax’s and Bahr've'ahz’s holocomms went off. From the hall, they could hear Romeo Six’s beeping insistently as well.
“Learn what you can from the holocron, Bahr. I’ll return in a moment,” Arestenax said, turning to leave the room. He walked down the hall to Bahr've'ahz’s room for privacy before answering the call.
“Your Imperial Majesty, Darth Arestenax, first of your name-” his protocol droid and personal assistant D4-R9 began.
“Cut it short, D4. I’m in the middle of something.”
“Apologies, your Majesty. We’ve been receiving reports of anomalies popping up.”
Arestenax perked up, his eyes boring into the holoimage of the protocol droid. “What kind of anomalies, D4?”
“They appear to be portals of some sort, your Majesty.”
“Where?” Arestenax demanded, looking up at Romeo Six as the clone entered the room. His face was pale, his eyes wide and his hands trembling.
“Well, your Majesty,” D4 said, “to quote your OPs officer on the Sovereign... Everywhere. Though of course, that is a preposterous over-exaggeration. As you can see, there are no portals here, and...”
Arestenax turned off his holocomm, silencing the droid. Storming back into the Arcane Library where Bahr’ve’ahz consulted the holocron, he saw the same ashen look on his Hand’s face that he had seen on Romeo Six’s. The avatar of Makhzor was speaking to him, but ceased when the Lord Emperor arrived. Arestenax used the Force to gently but firmly pull Bahr’ve’ahz down to the floor, deactivating the holocron in the process.
“Come, Darth Bahr’ve’ahz. We have no time to lose.”