The images unfolding in front of Thrawn could have been something out of a dream. The poor lighting, the dank, musty smell; even the way a solitary fly slowly buzzed about had a languid, dreamlike quality to it. But the Grand Admiral never dreamt, so the effect was largely lost on him. As such, he was forced to make do with a simple feeling of unease. Animated by the low fire in the corner, long shadows danced across the walls of the small hut, bathing the room in alternating light and darkness. Seated near the low table that dominated the center of the room was the person he?d come to see. Her black cloak with its towering hood and voluminous folds helped lend the diminutive figure a presence he was sure she wouldn?t have had were it not for the menacing aura that seemed to emanate from her. And yet despite his misgivings, Thrawn had to know.
Grand Admiral Thrawn was nothing if not a disciplined and calculating tactician; it was something he prided himself on. His superb analytical mind and flawless reasoning had proven his worth many times over to the Emperor. It had never been particularly difficult for him to solve his problems, all he had to do was take the time to think matters through. Before one achieved a solution, one had to first formulate a problem. That part was easy enough. The galaxy needed to be his. Incontestably, undeniably, and inescapably his. While the so-called "New Republic" would try to oppose him, the Grand Admiral felt fully confident in his ability to counter any attempt of theirs. However, something gnawed at Thrawn.
The Grand Admiral was not a superstitious person. He had always placed his confidence in mighty fleets and legions of men, not the dark mumblings of fools and charlatans. Why a man as brilliant as the Emperor would choose to surround himself "prophets" and "acolytes" and listen to their rubbish all day long was something Thrawn had never understood. And yet...since the death of the Emperor at Endor, something didn?t feel right. It wasn?t just discomfort at the idea that the Empire had disintegrated and that his master had been slain. He was a warrior above all else and had been prepared for that eventuality. Just the same, Thrawn had felt something shift the day Palpatine had been thrown down to his death and the Death Star had been destroyed. At first he had tried to ignore it and moved ahead as planned, building his fleets and his armies, biding his time. Despite his misgivings about the Force, Thrawn had seen enough from his days with the Dark Jedi Jerec on the Vengeance to know that regardless of whether or not the Force existed, belief in it was undeniable. The belief in the Force was something that drove ordinary beings to do irrational, unthinkable acts that could not be anticipated or controlled. An enemy that could not be anticipated was an enemy that could not be defeated and thus after months of searching he had come to this place to see Oizys, the Force Witch. Here he would suspend his disbelief ever so briefly and observe the Force?s ability firsthand. Tonight he would see what it was capable of. And although deep down Thrawn knew that the Force couldn?t be real, he was beginning to have his doubts. He cast his gaze back over to the crone.
Hunched over the rough wooden table the woman remained motionless, her features obscured by the shadow cast by her hood. The seconds ticked by audibly on his chronometer. It felt like he?d spent forever in that little hut. The Grand Admiral, growing ever more self-conscious, prepared to speak but upon opening his mouth suddenly found that he had nothing to say. His mouth was dry and sticky. Even by his standards the place seemed warm and stifling. How could it be so hot in such a tiny little dwelling? The fire was almost dead, that was no cause for the temperature. He could feel the itch of sweat beginning to coat his neck and hands. The room was smothering. What was it? The humidity? The lack of ventilation? The fly that had been flitting ever so lazily about the room slowly drifted up towards his head, its gentle buzzing becoming an almost deafening crescendo; he could have sworn he?d heard TIE fighters that made less noise. He did his best to ignore it as had so many other things in his life; he had always prided himself on his ability to keep a cool head in battle, so there was no reason for him to lose his temper for the sake of the tiny creature. His calculating restraint was what he was known for. And yet despite his best efforts it drove him insane. He was about to drop his helmet and attack the fly with all his fury to crush, to kill that filthy little abomination when at last, the woman spoke.
"Why are you here?" came the raspy, gnarled voice. Thrawn was startled. Quickly regaining his composure, he answered.
"I thought you were the one with the gift of sight," he replied with less confidence in his voice than he would have wished. The old woman chuckled.
"Indeed I am. Indeed I am. But you did not answer my question. Why are you here?" The figure remained motionless as the shadows danced over her dark form. The admiral shifted his weight. After a pause he answered.
"Surely you must know." No response. "I..." He trailed off in mid-sentence. In the darkness, something seemed to have shifted. Perhaps it was just another trick of the light, a case of his imagination toying with his senses. Yet the woman seemed different somehow. Awakened.
Again, the woman spoke. "I do know, my boy. It was not for my sake that I asked the question." She made no attempt to conceal the irony in her voice, and though he knew he couldn?t really see anything under that hood, he somehow felt that she was smiling at him. "Have you brought it?" she continued, though the finality in her voice confirmed that she already knew the answer, the question was a mere formality. None but a fool would come to Oizys empty-handed. Unless of course he thought he could gain something for nothing, in which case he was even more of a fool than the one who simply forgot his tribute, and Thrawn was no fool.
He reached into his bag and pulled out the two sticks of Mardarian-210 glitterstim. He stepped forward towards the table and quietly deposited them on its coarse wooden surface before stepping back, lest the baleful presence in the center of the room draw him in closer. Slowly, delicately, the figure beneath the robes began to stir and, ever so deliberately, the flesh he knew had to be somewhere under those kilometers of fabric came to life. A pale, skeletal hand slithered out of some hole in the robe and snaked its way towards the two sticks, enclosing them in its talons. The hand slowly turned the sticks over and held them up to the light.
"Good. Good!" she hissed, evidentially pleased by the offering. It hadn?t been easy or cheap to get that spice. The quality of its processing and the high degree of its refinement alone would have made it worth a considerable sum even before taxes, duties, and smuggler?s fees. If he had been offering it to any other woman on such a forgotten, uninhabitable planet, it would have been a waste of epic proportions. Such was not the case however, and deep down he knew that this was an investment well made.
The claws that clutched the spice slowly retreated back under the robes from whence they came. The fire was nearly out. The fly who had been buzzing so intently earlier had long since vanished, perhaps sensing what would happen next. In the stillness that followed, something changed. He couldn?t identify it precisely, it was not the sort of change one could quantify. But it was there just the same, lurking somewhere in the confines of that adobe hole, never far off. Though his ears might have been betraying him (which was rare, but did at times happen) he could swear he heard an animal calling in the distance. When the woman next spoke, her voice had dropped an octave.
It began with a low, deep growl, the sort of noise one might expect a ravenous creature to make. It had lost that sore, rasping quality and had assumed a distinctly hollow, almost metallic sound, as if one were speaking in the bulkhead of a ship. Nevertheless, it chilled him to the core.
"Torment and agony be upon he who cast me down into this place of fire and darkness," emanated the voice, bubbling with rage. Trembling with all the raw power of a rabid animal, the words gushed forth. "And cursed be his seed. May it be wiped from the galaxy for all time!" The woman, though small and immobile, seemed possessed with new vigor as she remained perched on her stool. In stark contrast to the heat he had felt earlier, the room now felt cold, almost as if some malevolent force was sucking the warmth out of all the living things around it. All that remained of the fire now were a few glowing embers among the flaky white residue in the fireplace.
After a moment of silence, the voice spoke again, this time calmer, though still brimming with unmistakable rage. "Though I no longer have eyes to see or a body to feel, do not think I cannot see your plots, son of Csilla." The last phrase had a razor sharp edge; it was almost mocking. Startled, the Thrawn stumbled back. Was it true? Was it possible that even after all these years the Emperor?s life essence still remained strong with the Force?. No, it wasn?t him! It wasn?t possible! The Emperor was dead and gone, there was no returning from the other side. It had always been his way to trust in the true and the tangible, rather than relying on ghost stories or half-forgotten lore to plot his course. Even so...
In the distance the snarling of the animal grew louder. Humming with power, the voice continued.
"You would take my place, son of Csilla. You would rule the galaxy and put your enemies to the torch with all those who would defy you." The voice cackled with an unholy glee that sliced deep into Thrawn?s soul. Although he didn?t know if it was the voice that had such an effect on him or whether the temperature really had lowered, but he was now truly cold. The room was almost completely dark now, the fire having long since gone out and the light of the moon unable to penetrate the thick jungle canopy. If such a cursed place even had a moon.
The laughter had slowed to a chuckle and finally stopped. When the voice spoke again, it had regained its composure. "My time is short, son of Csilla, my grip is weak." As if to underscore the statement the shrouded figure shuddered. In the distance a second animal joined in the calls, braying and bellowing as the first animal howled louder and louder, snarling and barking until the Grand Admiral could almost hear the gnashing of its teeth echoing in the very room above the hum of the woman-his voice. "One thing must you know if you are to rule the galaxy, son of Csilla."
Mastering what fear he possessed, the Grand Admiral carefully leaned forward. "Yes?" he asked, his voice almost a whisper.
"Beware the dark ones," growled out the voice, shaking with malice. Silence. And then- "Beware the dark ones!" the voice roared as the woman suddenly shot forward towards him, her bony, claw-like hands gripping his flight suit and pulling him in towards her hood. Thrawn backpedaled as fast as he could but he was unable to escape her grasp as she tore at his clothing and yanked him in towards her void of a face. The stench of her rotting breath and the chill of her body was nearly overpowering as he desperately fought to pull her hands off of him, to loosen her grip and free himself from her vice-like claws. He gripped her hands hard and pushed with all his might, hoping to pull her loose. Unable to break her hold, he let go of her and brought his forearms down on her arms hard. The crone screeched in surprise but still clung on, possessed with a strength that seemed to be from beyond the grave. The Grand Admiral brought his arms back up again, readying himself for one final blow when the old woman suddenly began to shake, as if in the midst of a seizure. Her laughter died. Ever so slowly, she released her grasp on his suit. Thrawn was too relieved to say anything as she sank back down to her stool, groaning if all the life had been sucked out of her.
Already unsure of what to do next, Thrawn straightened himself and stared at the woman. The tang of adrenaline still coursed through his system and he could feel it in his stomach. The hunched figure remained mute. There was nothing to suggest that the woman was now even capable of motion, much less the feat of strength he had just witnessed. As if by its own accord the fire, which had up until this point appeared dead, had slowly reignited and now burnt a warm if unwelcoming orange. Ever the strategist, he concluded that for what it was worth Oizys had spoken and there was nothing more to be gained. Besides, as much as he would have hated to admit it as a creature of science and logic, the place made him extremely uncomfortable.
He quickly bent over and picked up his flight helmet from where he had dropped it on the floor of the hovel. Looking back up he assured himself that indeed, nothing had changed, and proceeded towards the door of the hut that led out to the murky swamp. As soon as he was out the door he breathed a sigh of relief.
Oizys had struck a chord with him. Unlike all the others she did not seek fame or fortune; did not bask in her own glory or tell her visitors what they wished to hear. Creatures had spent years, sometimes even decades trying to decipher what her cryptic statements and riddles had meant. Beware the "dark ones." Beware the dark ones? Thrawn paused. The Noghri? The Grand Admiral chuckled. Those pitiful creatures were no threat to him. While they were maniacal killing machines and implacable foes when confronted, their loyalty was beyond a doubt. He was the last true successor to Vader, the last representative of the Empire, their savior. He had but to say the name of his enemies and their deaths were assured. Oh yes, the Noghri were extremely dangerous, but not to him. Had this trip been a waste? Was there a deeper meaning to what she had said that wasn't readily apparent?
Oh well, he mused to himself, you?ll have plenty of time for that later. Force or no Force, all will be revealed in due course. In the meantime, you have better things to worry about than the vague predictions of some old crone on this forgotten part of space. And in the dead silence that followed as he walked out into the night, Grand Admiral Thrawn could swear that he heard the faint, almost indistinguishable buzz of a fly humming behind him.
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