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He stood on the highest point on the planet of Almania, the roof of a tower built by the once-powerful Je'har. The tower was in ruin, the stairs crumbling as his boots touched them, the roof littered with debris from battles years gone. From here, though, he could see his city, a thousand lights spread before him, the streets empty except for droids and the ever-present guards.
But he was not interested in looking down. He wanted to see the stars.
An icy wind rippled his black cloak. He clasped his gloved hands behind him. The death's-head mask he had worn since destroying the Je'har hung on a silver chain around his neck.
Above him the stars winked. Hard to believe worlds existed there. Worlds he would control.
He could have waited in his command, stood in the observatory specially constructed for his needs, but for once, he wanted no protective walls around him. He wanted to feel the moment, not see it.
The power of sight was so pitiful against the strength of the Force.
He tilted his head back and closed his eyes. No explosion this time. No bright flare of light. Skywalker had told him of the moment when Alderaan died.
I felt a great disturbance in the Force, the old man had said. At least, that's what Skywalker told him.
This disturbance would not be as great, but Skywalker would feel it. All the young Jedi would feel it too, and they would know that the balance of power had shifted.
But they wouldn't know that power had shifted to him. To Kueller, Master of Almania, and soon, lord of all their pitiful worlds.
* * *
The stone walls were damp and cold against Brakiss's unprotected hands. His polished black boots slipped against the crumbling steps, and more than once he had to balance on a precarious ledge. His silver cloak, perfect for a brisk stroll across the city, did not protect him against the winter wind. If this experiment worked, he would be able to go back to Telti, where he would at least be warm.
The remote's metal casing was cool against his fingers. He hadn't wanted to give it to Kueller until the experiment was over. Brakiss hadn't realized, until a few moments ago, that Kueller would wait for the results here, at the site of his enemies' triumph and their eventual deaths.
Brakiss hated the towers. It felt as if something still raffled in their walls, and once, when he was in the catacombs below, he had seen a large white ghost.
Tonight, he had climbed more than twenty stories, and had almost run the first flights until it became clear that some of the steps wouldn't hold his weight. Kueller hadn't summoned him, but Brakiss didn't care. The sooner he left Almania, the happier he would be.
The stairs twisted and finally he reached the roofor what he thought was the roof. A stone hut had been built to protect the steps, but the hut had no windows or doors. Only pillars, which gave a good view of the gravel inlay surface, and of the star-filled sky. Stones had fallen out of the hut and shattered onto the rooftop. The remains from bombs and blaster concussions formed little mounds on what had once been a level plane. Kueller had not repaired the tower or the other Je'har government buildings. He never would.
Kueller never forgave anyone who crossed him.
Brakiss shuddered and clutched his thin cape tightly around his shoulders. His frozen fingers barely got a grip on the material.
"I told you to wait below." Kueller's deep voice carried on the wind.
Brakiss swallowed. He couldn't even see Kueller.
The starlight fell across the roof, giving the dark sky a luminescence that Brakiss found eerie. He climbed the remaining stairs and stepped out of the hut. A gust of wind knocked him against the stone. He braced himself with his right hand, losing his grip on his cloak. The fastener tugged against his neck as the wind made the material flutter behind him.
"I had to know if it worked," he said.
"You'll know when it works." Kueller's voice was a live thing.
It surrounded Brakiss, resonated within him, and held him at bay. Brakiss concentrated, not on the voice, but on Kueller himself.
And finally saw him, standing near the edge, overlooking the city below. Stonia, the capital of Almania, looked small and insignificant from this height. But Kueller looked like a powerful bird of prey, his cape billowing in the wind, his broad shoulders suggesting great physical strength.
Brakiss took a step forward when suddenly the wind died. The air around him froze and so did he. In that moment, he heardfeltsawa million voices scream in terror.
The terror rose in him, and he saw again that moment when Master Skywalker led Brakiss deep into Brakiss's own heart, that moment when he saw himself clearly and nearly lost his mind
A scream formed in his own throat
And died as the other screams exploded around him, filling him, warming him, melting the ice in the wind. He felt stronger, larger, more powerful than he ever had before. Instead of fear, his heart felt an odd, twisted joy.
He looked up. Kueller had raised his arms, his head tilted back, his face uncovered for the first time in years. He had changed, his skin filled with a knowledge Brakiss wasn't sure he wanted.
Yet Kueller glowed, as if the pain of those million voices had fed something within him, had made him even greater than he had been before.
The wind returned, its frigid gusts knocking Brakiss against the stone. Kueller didn't seem to feel it. He laughed, a deep, rumbling sound that shook the entire tower.
Brakiss braced himself against the stone. He waited until Kueller's arms fell to his sides before saying, "It worked."
Kueller slipped the mask over his face. "Well enough."
Such an understatement for such a great moment. Kueller had to remember that Brakiss was strong in the Force as well.
Kueller turned, his cape swirling around him. He almost appeared to fly. The skull-like mask that adhered to his face shone with its own internal light. "I suppose you want to return to your paltry job."
"It's warm on Telti."
"It could be warm here," Kueller said.
Brakiss shook his head almost involuntarily. He hated Almania.
"Your problem is that you do not understand the power of hate," Kueller said, his voice soft.
"I thought you said my problem is that I serve two masters."
Kueller smiled, the thin lips on his mask moving with his mouth. "Is it only two?"
The words hung between them. Brakiss's entire body felt as if it were made of ice. "It worked," he said again.
"I suppose you expect to be rewarded."
"I never promise," Kueller said. "I imply."
Brakiss crossed his arms over his chest. He would not get angry. Kueller wanted him to be angry. "You implied great wealth."
"So I did," Kueller said. "Do you deserve great wealth, Brakiss?"
Brakiss said nothing. Kueller had put him together after Yavin 4, after the disastrous debriefing that had nearly cost Brakiss the rest of his sanity. But Brakiss had long since repaid his debt. He only stayed because he had nowhere else to go.
He pushed off the wall and started down the stairs. "I'm going back to Telti," he said, feeling defiant.
"Good," Kueller said. "But you will give me the remote first."
Brakiss stopped and looked at Kueller over his shoulder. Kueller had grown taller in the last hour. Taller and broader.
Or perhaps that was a trick of the darkness.
If Brakiss had faced any other mortal, he would have asked how Kueller knew about the remote. But Kueller was not any other mortal.
Brakiss held out the remote. "It's slower than the controls I built you."
"You have to set the security codes. You have to instruct it which serial numbers to follow."
"I'm sure I can do that."
"You have to link it to you."
"Brakiss, I can operate remotes."
"All right," Brakiss said. He braced himself as he moved inside the stone hut. It was warmer in there, out of the wind.
He didn't believe Kueller was letting him leave so easily.
"What do you want from me, when I return to Telti?" Brakiss asked.
"Skywalker," Kueller said, his voice thrumming with the depth of his hatred. "The great Jedi Master, Luke the invincible Skywalker."
The chill had reached Brakiss's heart. "What do you plan to do with him?"
"Destroy him," Kueller said. "Just as he tried to destroy us."