PROLOGUE DEATH OF A JEDI The Pantoran Jedi Toro Irana was angry. He had been waiting on this hellhole planet for weeks now, and as his former Master, Mander Zuma, was all too fond of telling him, Toro's patience was never his most admirable trait. Meetings had been set up, canceled, rescheduled, moved to new locations, and canceled once again. And now, on top of everything else, his contact was keeping him waiting, in this rooftop restaurant, forty stories up and overlooking a planetary graveyard. By this time, Toro's patience had worn thin. Toro could feel his blue skin itch and his lips swell. He reached for the bottle of scentwine to pour himself another round. Even at the best of times a late arrival, a delay from decision and action, would frustrate him. Now, on the world of Makem Te, it drove Toro to distraction. The air of this planet reeked of smelter dust and desiccated meat. The world itself was dominated by the Tract, a huge iron-shod necropolis that from space resembled an ice cap. The restaurant windows commanded a sweeping view of the crypts and mausoleums of the Tract, which to Toro resembled nothing less than rows of odd-shaped peg teeth rising from skeletal jaws. Even a setting sun, blue-green through the swirling dust, could do nothing to improve the view. And as for the planet's inhabitants ... Toro suppressed a shudder and looked over at the Swokes Swokes milling around their dining troughs. His first opinion upon making planetfall was that they were huge lumps of malformed flesh, and increased familiarity did nothing to change that opinion. They looked more melted than crafted by any environment, their pale, sagging flesh spilling from their horned heads directly to their bodies, with no visible sign of a neck. Their teeth looked like the necropolis outside, except the Swokes Swokes spent less time maintaining them, and their incisors canted outward at all angles. Their faces were otherwise flat, with a random number of nostril holes and bland white eyes set into shallow black sockets. It would give them a comical look were the species not, to the last member, bullies and thugs. In short, they were the perfect species for this backrocket planet, the perfect caretakers of this tombstone world. And right now, every last one of them was getting on his nerves. The restaurant for this meeting catered primarily to the lumpy natives, and the tables were dominated by long troughs, into which the host poured a noxious concoction of spice-leavened boiled meats mixed with what looked like shed shinga scales and live sandbugs. There were smaller, more traditional tables around the perimeter of the room, near the windows, but he and a couple of Nikto traders two booths over were the only customers who used them--and the only customers who didn't look half melted. The temperature was set comfortable for the Swokes Swokes, which was too cold by half for Toro, and the sound of the creatures eating would frighten the old Emperor himself. Toro downed the scentwine, since its aroma killed most of the rest of the smells in the room. He waved for the waiter, who shambled toward him. "More of these beetle-things," said Toro, pointing to the pile of now-empty black shells. "And some of the local swill as well." "Timasho payen," burbled the waiter, and then shifted from Swoken to a slurred, sloppy Basic. "Pay now, blue-skin." "I'm waiting for someone," said Toro. "Run me a tab." The Swokes Swokes burbled something else in Swoken, then provided a rough translation. "Going off my shift, blue-skin. Pay now." Toro swung in his iron chair and let his robe fall open, revealing the gleam of his lightsaber. His hand drifted down to touch it, but not to grasp it. "I said," he growled, "that you should run me a tab. My contact will cover it." The Swokes Swokes frowned, or at least tried to frown through its rolls of ash-gray fat, but it backed off and a short time later another plate of broiled beetles and a two-handled mug of the local alcohol--potent but, like everything else in this place, imbued with a mild flavor of dust and spice. Still, if he rationed out the remaining purplish scentwine, it could mask most of the stench. Toro examined the bottle. A Rodian brought it, along with his patron's apologies. Unavoidably delayed and all that garbage. Toro was sure that it was only a gambit to establish power and control in this situation, but knowing that made the young Jedi even more irritated. Still, the wine was a rose in the junkyard, a bright floral smell among the rest of this iron-shod planet. Had to have come from offworld, he realized. Another symbol of power and control from his contact. Across the room, two Swokes Swokes started howling at each other in high-pitched screeches. Religious argument, guessed Toro, since most of the arguments on this planet were about religion and death. Toro wondered if it would come to blows. Not that it mattered. Swokes Swokes could regenerate all but the most grievous of damage. It was one reason members of the species were prized as mercenaries, guards, and leg breakers. Toro could feel his temples throb at the guttural shrieks across the room. Enough. Finish the drink and he would be done. His contact would have to learn that he was not the only one with power in this relationship. Something heavy and soft slammed into Toro from behind, throwing him forward across the table. The last of the scentwine spilled from its glass, and the bottle toppled and rolled out of his grasp, falling to the floor on the far side of the table with a brittle thump, along with the double-handled swill mug. Toro turned in his chair, to find that his assailant was another Swokes Swokes, its body bedecked in jewelry set over the vital spots. This one was higher caste, but still had the soggy, blank-faced look of the rest of its species. The Swokes Swokes spat out something that could have been an apology, but was more likely a warning. Toro stood up, and for a moment the room swayed beneath his feet. "Watch where you're going," the Jedi snarled. The bejeweled alien snapped something sharp. Definitely an insult, from the way the other Swokes Swokes with it reacted. It drew itself up to its full height, about a head taller than Toro. The two stared at each other for a long moment. Then the Swokes Swokes raised a four-fingered hand to push Toro out of the way. Drinking or not, angry or not, Toro's reflexes snapped into a set response. Half a step backward to put distance between them, his hand effortlessly unsheathing the lightsaber and bringing it up in a smooth, practiced move, thumbing the switch and deploying the blade in a single action. The Swokes Swokes had only a second to regret its action before Toro brought the blade up and cut through the creature's forearm. The Swokes Swokes shuddered but did not cry out, instead looking at the cauterized stump of its arm with puzzlement. Right, thought Toro, the species not only regenerates, but it also lacks local pain centers. Another reason they make good leg breakers. The injured Swokes Swokes let out a howl, more from indignation than pain. Everyone turned in their seats to see the blue-skinned Pantoran, wielding a lightsaber, and his injured opponent. As one, the aliens rose from their meals, some grabbing iron dining forks as they did so, others hefting the heavy iron stools. They converged on the pair. The injured Swokes Swokes pushed forward, its good arm raised like a warty club. Toro danced backward, up over the iron chair and onto the table itself, bringing the lightsaber around in a smooth, level arc. The Swokes Swokes's head separated at the approximate intersection of its neck and body, spilling backward into the surging mob. "Regenerate that!" Toro said. The death of the high-caste alien gave half the group pause, while it infuriated the other half. Toro noted that the two Niktos from the other table were already heading for the door--along with the waiter--but that was all he had time to notice before the mob was on top of him. Toro spun with the lightsaber, cutting through flesh and iron with equal ease. One of the attackers had thought enough to duck beneath the sweeping blade, and grabbed Toro's sword-arm in a soft but unrelenting embrace. Toro tossed the lightsaber to his left hand and brought up a booted foot into the alien's face. The entire face gave in like soft putty, which did not seem to trouble the creature in the slightest, but the grasp on Toro's arm lessened. The Jedi drew his blade through the attacker's arm and the detached limb loosened its grip fully now, vanishing into the tumult. Something heavy and dark flew toward him, and Toro reached up and split an iron-shod stool in two with his blade, the pieces caroming off the window supports behind him. Two more Swokes Swokes grabbed at Toro's feet on the table, but he leapt up, spinning and dragging his blade across the table's surface, separating hands from arms as he did so. Now makeshift missiles showered Toro--stools, eating utensils, two-handled goblets and bits of food. The Jedi wove his blade through the air, cutting down the more dangerous, dodging the merely disgusting. The glass behind him spidered from the heavier missiles, but did not break. Assailants would try to get close, but he would spin and leave these missing a few appendages for their trouble. Where they wore embedded jewels, signs of status among their people, the Jedi treated them as targets, carving them from too-soft flesh. Toro realized that he was cursing now, cursing at this planet and its people and his contact and the uncaring universe that would put him in this place at this particular time. His chin was wet, and when he wiped his sleeve against it, it came away with a bubbling, bloody froth on it. Had he been injured? Had one of these melted, horrible creatures gotten lucky against him? He snarled and his vision seemed coated in blood as well. They would all pay for attacking him. There was movement behind him, and Toro spun and lashed out without thinking. The table, already weakened from his assaults, collapsed, pitching him forward. Toro leapt, slashing as he did, and only then realizing that he had mistaken his opponent. His foe was only his reflection in the window, caught by the dying sun. But then it was too late and he was through the window itself, the fury of his blade sharding it into a thousand daggers from the blow. He twisted to catch the ledge but he had leapt too far, and he spun out into open, dust-strewn air, forty stories above the necropolis. The entire way down, all Toro could feel was the anger. Excerpted from Scourge by Jeff Grubb All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.