Dragon's LibrarySympathy for the Devil
by Robert DeFrank

Author's note

I've been a Nom Anor fan since Vector Prime, even though I'm the first to admit he hasn't been portrayed very well. Recently someone pointed out that in Clash of Fates my characterization of Nom Anor was inaccurate, so I got the urge to write about the present day Executor and show it's not that big a stretch between him and his young and somewhat idealistic counterpart of twenty years past. Reading Conquest gave me the idea for the perfect setting for this kind of story.

Sympathy for the Devil is partly about my take on Nom Anor and partly my speculation of how one NJO storyline may develop. I debated whether or not to wait until Clash of Fates was finished before writing something new, but because of the subject matter I needed to finish and post this before Rebirth hit the shelves. Also I remembered my promise to quit Star Wars after Clash of Fates.

The title of this piece struck me as very fitting, but for deeper significance, well, I invite the reader to give Nom as much or as little sympathy as you think he deserves.

Spoilers: Vector Prime, Edge of Victory: Conquest, Agents of Chaos: Hero's Trial

***

The worldship Endless Void
Outer Rim
several weeks after the events in Edge of Victory: Conquest

Brak watched the young shaper adept leave her chambers and walk down the damutek corridor, the weaving feelers of her headdress indicated contemplation, perhaps in her duties, but more likely she was planning her next infraction.

The apprentice shaper waited a few minutes in case she should return, then he grinned, stepped around the corridor and casually walked to the self-sealing doorway. Brak blew a handful of shaped pollen onto the door, which automatically opened in an allergic reaction, a flaw in these older-generation worldships the shapers had never gotten around to treating. He entered and quickly retrieved five small, camoflauged sight-beatles from where he had strategically placed them around the main room the day before. He replaced them with five fresh beatles and left, closing the door behind him. The reaction to the pollen would wear off in less than an hour, leaving no traces.

He held the bottle-shell containing the five beatles as tightly as though it contained drops of Yun Yuuzhan's sacred blood: the images caught in the tiny crystal bodies, covered by color and texture shifting carapaces, could very well mean escalation for him. Once they were joined to a villip, one would be able to view all that transpired in the shaper's room last night.

Not that it really mattered at this point, Brak already knew of one protocol the adept had broken: the theft of living matter for personal use with intent to shape such matter without a master's permission or knowledge of the fact. Master Phaath now had reason to request a full search of the adept's quarters and an interrogation of the shaper herself. Even if no other evidence was found, wasting valuable resources the aging worldship badly needed was a serious crime in an of itself. When Yal Phaath heard Brak's report he would probably make him an adept on the spot!

Wrapped up in his daydreams, Brak didn't notice the shadow that followed his springing steps. He did take notice when a coufee was rammed hilt-deep into his back, however.

The living blade bit deep into the youth's upper back, then was withdrawn in an eyeblink. Brak stumbled a few steps forward on feeling the impact, the shock nearly made him drop the bottle- shell. He spun around, his mouth opening, but before he could call for help the other Yuuzhan Vong casually whipped his amphistaff at him with a flick of the wrist. The serpent's tail coiled around his throat and constricted. The garrote effectively kept Brak's screams from getting past his throat.

Brak dropped the bottle shell, which bounced and rolled across the floor. He clutched the amphistaff with both hands, tried to clutch anyway: suddenly there was no strength in his fingers, or his legs, which folded up under him. His vision swam, dimmed, and he fell full-length on the floor.

Brak's killer had stabbed him with an assassin's coufee. The living blade released a series of chemicals including fast- acting poison on piercing Brak's body, and the edges secreted an enzyme that sealed the cut as the coufee was pulled free. Among the chemicals released into the unfortunate shaper was an agent that made his muscles clench in death. There would be no blood, no discharge, nothing to worry about if this hallway were ever investigated for signs of violence.

The other chemicals in the blade were already doing their work. In moments all the fluids in the initiate's corpse would be a solid, gelatinous mass, making the disposal of the body all too easy.

The amphistaff pulled away from Brak's bruised neck and coiled around the killer's arm and shoulders. He glanced down at his stainless coufee: the thirsty blade had absorbed the shaper's blood it had touched into itself. As if pleased by the meal, it looked even shinier than before entering Brak. The Yuuzhan Vong tucked the weapon into the folds of his clothing.

Less than an hour later a bundle wrapped in dead oozhith skin, about the size of a small Yuuzhan Vong and no different in appearance from the mountain of bags it was buried under, was dumped into the gaping pit of a maw luur. The corrosive acid made short work of the worldship's refuse, transforming the bags and their contents of dead organic material into nutrients that the capillaries in the bottom drained away and carried to needy sections of the living ship.

***

Nen Yim waved goodbye to her coworkers and walked down the coral hallway leading to her chambers in the worldship's damutek. Once she was alone she paused for a moment to rub her eyes with the back of her hand, her original hand, not her enhanced adept's hand. She'd become so used to her new appendage by now that she occasionally forgot it wasn't the one she'd been born with, which could lead to accidents: a small scar below her left eye marked when she'd forgotten about the pincer-tip on her little finger.

She suppressed a yawn and rubbed her forehead, temples and the bluish sacks under her eyes until the worst of the weariness left her. She'd been awake since the earliest hours of the day- cycle, working with the other lower-ranking shapers on realigning the klev membranes separating the worldship's digestive fluids. She'd just turned down an offer to dine with her fellow adepts in the communal area, saying she wanted to turn in early.

Nen Yim squashed a pang of guilt in the pit of her stomach and told herself it was not a lie: she did want to turn in early. She just wasn't going to.

She placed her hand over the door to her quarters, it recognized her and irised open, then sealed shut behind her when she entered. Inside, Nen Yim sighed and took off her headdress. She set it on a table and ran a hand through her hair.

The shaper took in her chambers at a glance. A single domed room with a few pieces of furniture, only two chairs, a wall-niche to store clothing and personal effects and a few living appliances. Her small library, composed of six villips, was lined on a shelf and a cognition hood connected to a tap-node in the corner gave her access to the worldship's information network and database. Two closet-sized rooms, one for bathing and one for sleeping, adjoined the main room. That was all she rated.

It reminded her, as did everything else, of how much she missed the sectors deeper into this new galaxy. Everything was more open out there, new and fresh. Also there was more space available. In the Endless Void you had to wait in line for hours before getting some time in any of the great vessel's contemplation pools.

Not that I have hours to spend. She thought and ground her teeth in frustration at an entire day wasted. During her work, she had seen ways to complete the realignment in less than a quarter of the time, using half the resources and still have the fluid exchange process work out as efficiently as ever, if not more so, yet she and the others had no other option but to follow the same old protocols, never varying, never daring to try something new.

Well, there was nothing to be done now, so she told herself as she opened a food storage unit, its interior lined with living crystals that produced an endothermic reaction in the air around them, which kept the contents of the coral box cold. She took out a shell-bowl of gelb, a kind of soup, nutritious but tasteless: fancier fare was in short supply on the Outer Rim. She peeled back the shell's membrane cover and considered heating the soup up, perhaps add some spices for flavoring, but decided it wasn't worth the effort. What she was really interested in was a hot mug of ze'xaj, a stimulating beverage similar to the caf the infidels drank, but manufactured entirely by living creatures. That, she heated and poured into a gel flagon with a coral handle.

Nen Yim had a long swallow before setting the meal on the table and turning to the row of villips on the shelf. She moved the second one from the left aside and reached behind it. The small alcove she'd installed in the wall her first day here opened in response to her pattern of finger-movements on its seal and she took out the storage villip she had hidden there.

The shaper looked down at the leathery sphere in her hands. She had lied when she'd told Tsavong Lah all of Mezhan Kwaad's records had been lost on the jeedai moon called Yavin IV: Nen Yim had been able to save this one storage villip from the damutek during the confusion that followed the jeedai Tahiri's escape and before the infidel bombardment. The adept had managed to smuggle the storage organism with her on her trip to the Endless Void.

It had been a risk, but one well worth taking: contained within this villip were all her late master's 'heresies': records of Mezhan Kwaad's experiments and the discoveries that resulted from years modifying and going beyond the sacred protocols. It was a wealth of knowledge that tantalized Nen Yim, the problem was most of the information was encoded and the villip was trained to respond only to Mezhan Kwaad.

During her weeks working in the old worldship, Nen Yim had devoted every moment she could spare on unlocking these secrets. She had to be careful: if the villip sensed anything out of the ordinary it would destroy the precious information it contained. Yet Nen Yim had managed to decode large portions of her master's records despite that, and transfer copies of them to blank storage villips of her own. Perhaps tonight she could coax a little more out of the reticent villip before going to bed.

Nen Yim had tried to carry on her master's work as best she could, occasionally she'd even been able to sneak into an unused laboratory during night-hours and try to replicate and even build on some of her experiments, but there was always a danger. Even the suspicion of heresy could lead to a thorough investigation by the masters, and if they discovered anything about her that could be deemed ungodly...

She shivered, they might sacrifice her out of hand. Or, if they decided she was too low even to warrant that, they could decide to let her try and redeem herself through a lifetime of penance.

That would be infinitely worse. Her mind and memories utterly destroyed, she would be reduced to little more than a beast of burden with wit enough only to perform whatever manual drudgery her superiors assigned her.

I'll kill myself before I let that happen, she vowed, and let Yun Yuuzhan and Yun Ne'Shell judge if what I've done is heresy.

Nen Yim swallowed, but instead of fear she made herself feel awe instead: awe of her late master, who had braved those risks and accomplished all she had in spite of them. It will be a long time, if ever, before I'm even half the shaper she was. It would be easier if she didn't have to do all this alone... but letting anyone get close to her, for any reason, was too dangerous. So she told herself as she looked down at the table with its single setting.

Those thoughts turned the adept's mind to her other goal: that of spreading Mezhan Kwaad's heresies to the other shapers. She had been paying close attention to her colleagues and so far had noticed three, two adepts and an initiate, who seemed as dissatisfied as she. Nen Yim devoted some mental energy to puzzling out a way to judge how receptive they would be to trying new, unapproved-of methods.

The shaper thought she had a strategy. During their off-hours tomorrow she would point out how some things could be done better, not making any suggestions, just casual observations, then watch them for reactions and see which way the conversation turned. Then the next day she could-

"Such a pity."

Nen Yim shot to her feet and spun in the direction of the voice. A Yuuzhan Vong was leaning casually against a wall where no one had been a second before and away from any door.

"Who are you?" She demanded, trying for a tone of cold authority and dismayed at the high squeak she got instead. "How did you get in here?" Had they come for her? Gods protect her, was this it? She flexed her enhanced hand to stop it trembling. She would need it steady: she'd already put some of Mezhan Kwaad's experiments to work within her own implants. Although her hand wasn't anywhere near as deadly and advanced as her master's had been, it still hid a few surprises. She wouldn't be taken without a fight!

"Who am I?" The Yuuzhan Vong cocked his head. "Merely someone making an observation. As I said, such a pity."

"What?" Nen Yim asked, confused.

"You." The uninvited guest stepped away from the wall. Nen Yim readied her hand, but he merely circled around to the opposite side of the table, talking as he went. "Look at yourself," he appraised her with a quick glance from the top of her head to the tips of her feet then back up to her eyes, "young, brilliant, but surrounded by fools who cannot appreciate your greatness." He nodded sympathetically. "I can relate."

He stopped and stood across the table from her. A youngish male in nondescript dark clothing, his straight black hair tied severely back from a spare, almost cadaverous face. He was lean and, Nen Yim, practiced in knowing the inner workings of a living creature, judged from his walk across the room, strong and agile. His face was elaborately scarred and tattooed, one eye had been removed and a leathery plaeryin bol set in its place. Altogether, the stranger didn't have the kind of looks that quickened a female's heartbeat with a glance, but there was something compelling about him all the same.

"I will ask you again," she spoke in a measured, carefully controlled voice. "Who are you? How dare you enter a shaper damutek without invitation?"

"I do as I please." He answered the second question in a voice that seemed to freeze the air molecules themselves. Nen Yim fought a nervous swallow, but then the dangerous aura vanished as quickly as it appeared. He smiled slightly and inclined his head. "But you're right: I haven't introduced myself. I am Nom Anor, and I bring you a proposition. One to our mutual advantage. Sit down and I'll explain."

Nen Yim found herself sinking into the chair without being conscious of her decision to obey. In a flash of anger she almost stood back up for no other reason than spite. She sensed, however, that this was no time to be stubborn. Whatever was going on, she needed information and she needed it fast. This could be one of those the high-ranking Yuuzhan Vong use to make certain individuals... disappear. Say, in cases where it would be difficult or potentially embarrassing to seize and formally charge a Yuuzhan Vong, then that person would perhaps suffer a fatal accident. A good deal for everyone: it helps the powers-that-be save face and saves the offender an ignoble death.

"What kind of proposition?" She folded both hands in front of her on the tabletop, prepared to strike at anything and everything with her adept's hand. Nom Anor pulled the other chair out and sat down across from her. Reflexively, Nen Yim pushed the valuable storage villip toward her and to the left, in her sphere of protection and out of the line of fire. Nom Anor rested his elbows on the table and laced his fingers under his chin.

"You are a heretic." He said without preamble.

"You're mad!" Nen Yim half rose, sputtering, trying to cover her dread with outrage and indignation. "Who is it that slanders me? Who told you this?"

"You did." Nom Anor said. "It's something I and others, some of whom you would rather they never knew you exist, have suspected for some time, and you confirmed it the moment you saw me. Any shaper, any good shaper with nothing to fear, would have raised an alarm immediately. Unless of course the shaper in question has something to hide. Something she wouldn't want the authorities to know about."

"And what if I had raised the alarm?" She asked stiffly, lowering herself to the chair again. Nom Anor merely shrugged.

"Anyone who came would have found you dead, and me not at all." He said it so matter-of-factly that Nen Yim couldn't help but believe him, yet her fear was swiftly dissipating. The simple fact that Nom Anor had neither attempted to arrest nor kill her by now suggested a few illicit motives on his part.

"Point taken." She considered going to get her headdress: wearing the vestments of a shaper's authority might add to her confidence. Unfortunately she could think of no way of retrieving it without making her motive obvious. "What do you want?"

"To tell you you're wasting your time." His smile took on an ironic twist. "What have you been doing with yourself these last weeks? Studying scraps of heresy on your off-hours? Trying to convert low-range adepts and initiates to your way of thinking? Huh," he scoffed, "the only thing you'll accomplish is your own discovery, arrest and death."

"I wont sit back and let our people decay!" Nen Yim bristled. "And I wont let our potential be bound by superstition and backward thinking!"

"Oh, bravo." Nom Anor lightly tapped his hands together a few times in a mockery of applause. "It must be nice knowing you have right on your side. But it's also meaningless. Do you really think you'll change anything by playing with a few toys in a laboratory or gossiping with ineffectual shapers? That's no way to affect change."

"I might." She lifted her head. "Given a few more weeks to find receptive shapers I could spread Mezhan Kwaad's ideals."

"Given a few more days you would be taken and killed out of hand." The skin around his eyes crinkled.

"I'm not as big a fool as you seem to think." Nen Yim drew herself up, tried to sound as regal as...as a shaper in her own damutek. "I've been clever, I've taken no unnecessary chances, the masters have no reason to suspect me and even if they did they could do nothing without proof. I-" Nom Anor reached into his pocket and casually tossed five tiny sight beatles onto the tabletop. He folded his hands under his chin and smiled.

"This morning these were placed in your quarters by a shaper initiate named Brak who was in the service of master shaper Yal Phaath. You know him?"

Nen Yim looked at the spying beetles, unable to answer, it seemed her vocal cords had frozen. Yes, she knew Brak: a thoroughly unpleasant initiate of little skill and less imagination. Oh, he could follow the protocols to the letter, but was unable to look beyond or outside their bounds. Any advancement he would ever receive would have less to do with skill than his ability to toady up to his various masters. She forced herself to nod.

"And was there anything you've done in here that would look suspicious to the masters?" That smug little smile irked her. He gave a meaningful look at the villip on the table, his genuine eye gleaming. Nen Yim grabbed the villip with her original hand and held in the cradle of her arm. It was an instinctive reaction, and she barely held off a grimace.

"Mezhan Kwaad is a figure of some controversy," Nom Anor began, "but no one could deny she was brilliant. There are those, such as myself, who suspect that she was capable of much, much more than she let on: breakthroughs and innovations beyond the average shaper's wildest dreams. I also believe that not all of her secrets perished with her on Yavin IV. Perhaps they are hidden, perhaps in the care of a trusted apprentice." He leaned forward. "The results of years of experimentation, untold advancements. They should not be wasted."

"Even if this were true," Nen Yim returned, "such discoveries would be the result of heresy. What right-thinking Yuuzhan Vong would make use of them?"

Nom Anor leaned back, chuckled and spread his hands. "Now who's to say what is heresy and what isn't?" He mused. Then he leaned forward, his gaze an arrow of ice. "I'm serious." He snapped. "Who would say whether or not something is heresy?"

"Supreme Overlord Shimmra." Nen Yim's reply was immediate.

"And if questionable methods were put to practical and effective use, such as would benefit the Yuuzhan Vong greatly, do you think lord Shimmra would be inclined to call them heresies or divinely inspired?" He finished smoothly.

"No!" Nen Yim held the villip tighter. "I wont let you take it from me!" She stood and backed away, nearly knocking over her chair. "I'll die first!" She blinked, and Nom Anor was out of his chair and standing inches away when she opened her eyes again. The adept yelped and tried to back away, but the wall stopped her.

"Wrong." He waved his claw-tipped finger under her eyes. "Lesson the first: don't sacrifice your life for your dreams. Make others sacrifice theirs." He stepped away and broke into a warm smile again, but his eye never changed. "You have a lot to learn, Nen Yim."

"Such as?" She wouldn't let her voice break.

"You have knowledge, but knowledge by itself isn't enough to change anything." Nom Anor clenched his hand into a fist. "You need power."

"And you have power?" Nen Yim raised her chin. For an instant she thought she saw something like rage flash over Nom Anor's face, then in was gone as quickly as a flash of lightning in the storms she'd seen on Yavin IV.

"No," he admitted, and laughed a little, "no, I don't have power. Not really. But I have a degree of autonomy, which I'm willing to share with you. I have connections. I know social and political structures, who holds wields power both among our own people and the infidels. I know how your master's knowledge can be used effectively." He inclined his head. "I am the means by which you could acquire power."

"What are you talking about?" Nen Yim shook her head, feeling like a particularly dull child all of a sudden.

"As useful as it would be to have Mezhan Kwaad's work, one would still need an exceptional shaper to understand that work and make it reality. Someone with an open mind and a close understanding of how she thought, what methods she used." Nom Anor turned toward her. "I'm currently running several missions in the Inner Rim of this galaxy, and I came here looking for an able shaper to accompany me back. You could be that shaper."

"You said I could acquire power," Nen Yim said warily, "power for you, you mean."

"For us." Nom Anor corrected. "I'm offering you a way out of...this," he made a disparaging gesture that took in the room and the worldship beyond. "Your own laboratory, all the materials you need and no supervision or interference by the master shapers." He looked closely at her. "This is a great time, adept. A new galaxy to take, and endless opportunities for those with the will and the courage to seize their own destiny." His eye flashed and his voice grew more animated with every word, weaving a spell that caught Nen Yim for a second.

"But how can I explain this to my superiors? And what about Brak? What will happen when he returns for the spy bugs? He-"

"Brak has suffered an accident today." There was an icy undertone to his voice. "He his no longer a factor. As for the rest, I leave immediately. Will you be coming with me or not?" His mouth twitched. "We could accomplish great things together."

Nen Yim stroked the villip like it was a beloved pet. This man was insane, he had to be.

But he was clever too, very clever: he hadn't directly threatening her once, yet he'd laid out her position in a way that negated every option beside doing what he wanted. Her assistance would be valued, but it was the villip she held that was all- important. If she turned him down he would try to take it and kill her for her troubles.

She flexed her enhanced hand, but didn't employ the weapons hidden therein. Even if she overcame him, she had no future here. Nom Anor had killed Brak. Sooner or later Yal Phaath would notice his agent's disappearance and his suspicions regarding Nen Yim would be confirmed. He would then take lethal steps to deal with her.

Every route was blocked.

But would it be so bad? If she believed him, this could be a chance to do what she wanted most. She had made a pledge to continue her master's work, and certainly she had the best chance of encoding the villip and understanding the full potential of Mezhan Kwaad's discoveries.

If she believed him.

Did she?

Nen Yim met Nom Anor's gaze, trying in vain to see into the mind behind that cool smile and that killer's stare. He was a stranger, but one thing was clear: this was someone who would do as he wished. Someone who wouldn't let his own fear or the ignorance of others bind him. He had his own plans, and not the masters or the ancient traditions would stop him. And gods help anyone who got in his way.

She needed to think, to calmly analyze everything and reach a logical conclusion, but without being conscious of making a decision she found herself smiling slightly and speaking in a light voice.

"When do we leave?"

***

They were in hyperspace less than an hour later. Nom Anor showed Nen Yim to her berth in the supply ship as it departed the worldship on its course for the Inner Rim.

"Quarters are a little cramped, I know," he observed, "but anonymity is best for now." He set down the bags holding the adept's few personal effects and set his hands on his hips, turning a critical eye to the shaper. Nen Yim, dressed in the clothing of a common laborer, her shaper's hand hidden by flesh-colored gloves, was peeling a patch of living skin off her forehead. The same color and shade as her flesh, it obscured her domain-markings and bore a symbol t hat identified her as a member of Domain Carr. She looked at it with disgust and threw it at the narrow bed.

Nom Anor snatched the piece of ooglith in midair and folded it into a nutrient shell. "You'll get used to it." He smiled, and Nen Yim thought she saw a trace of sympathy in his face. "In the course of my duties I've spent weeks at a time in the guise of an infidel, how do you think I felt?" Nen Yim said nothing, but she did feel a little creeper of guilt growing into her heart. He had gotten her off the worldship and possibly saved her life and her dreams if Master Phaath really had been closing in on her. A little gratitude wouldn't hurt.

"Thank you." She didn't look at him, lavished great interest on the storage villip as she took it from the bag and examined it for injuries.

Nom Anor placed another villip on the outgrown platform of coral that served as a table and a shelf. "Memorize the information in this one." He tapped the top with a claw. "It's your new name and history. We'll arrive at a major transit point for Yuuzhan Vong supply and warships. The disappearance of two shapers, even low-level ones like you and Brak, are sure to cause a stir.

"Tomorrow at the latest Yal Phaath will hear of this and assume you've learned of his suspicions, disposed of Brak and fled. People will be looking out for a young female shaper of adept- level, traveling alone, so you'll stay disguised awhile longer. We'll lose any pursuit at our first stop, where we can go literally anywhere in occupied space." He shrugged his shoulders. "I'll be wearing a disguise as well, it's best no one is able to connect us."

Nen Yim looked at him with alarm. "That's your plan?" She asked, incredulous, "there are constructs that can sniff out a specific Yuuzhan Vong's chemical trail among thousands even if it's been cold for days!" She resisted the urge to stamp her feet in frustration. "They'll catch us both in less than a day! You idiot!"

Nom Anor let her vent a little longer before snorting out a laugh. "That outburst is hardly appropriate behavior for a shaper, isn't it?" He produced a small orb of chitin that expanded and contracted in his palm, as if breathing. "Swallow this once we arrive within minutes you'll have a different chemical signature. It will last for about three days before you'll need to take another." He smiled. "I'm already using mine: as far as anyone knows, Nom Anor never came near the Endless Void."

Nen Yim snatched the pill from his hand, anger forgotten. She examined it with bright-eyed interest, wishing she could pry open the shell to see how if functioned. "I've never heard of anything like this," she breathed, not bothering to disguise her excitement.

"I'd be surprised if you had." Nom Anor crossed his arms. "As I was saying, our destination is a supply depot in the Mid-Rim. Lots of material to choose from, resources and equipment, and negligible danger of discovery. You can go back to being a shaper once we arrive, though one of a different name and domain."

"For how long?" She asked quickly. She unpacked her headdress and set it on the table to let it breathe.

"Until your work is done and you've made a significant contribution to the war against the infidels." His pale blue eye gleamed. "Then if will be revealed that you've been in seclusion, working on several secret projects for the Overlord." He chuckled. "It'll even be true. You'll be something of a celebrity then, you'll probably even be promoted to master status. Not bad, eh?"

Nom Anor turned toward the door, leaving her to digest all this. My quarters are down the hall. If you have any more questions-"

"Wait!" Nen Yim spun around to face him. "Yes, I do have a question." She licked her lips. "Who do you-who do I- work for now? The Praetorite Vong?"

"You'll never get them to admit it." Nom Anor grinned. "There are layers upon layers of deniability here. Not even a truthhearer could trace the strings on this web."

"Then why are you doing this? Why aid and support a heretic?" Nom Anor considered a minute, at least if felt like a full minute, before answering with a question of his own."

"Tell me, Adept Nen Yim, do you believe the Yuuzhan Vong will win this war?"

"Of course!" She answered immediately. "The gods have ordained it."

"Really." Nom Anor said dryly. "Well I don't think we'll win. Even if the Jedi are exterminated down to the last apprentice I believe we'll eventually lose. I'll tell you something else: a lot of Yuuzhan Vong agree with me, some of whom occupy very high places." He leaned forward slightly. "Do you want to know why?"

Nen Yim was suddenly numb, dry-mouthed and frozen. What this man had just said went light years beyond mere heresy! She made herself nod, only knowing she'd succeeded by the way Nom Anor seemed to bob in front of her eyes.

"When the infidel encounters a new enemy or a problem different from what they've faced before, they don't worry about the will of the gods, they investigate both the situation and modify their way of dealing with it according to whatever works best. They do so because their 'science,' their art of shaping nonliving matter, is completely divorced from any religion.

"That is the infidel's great strength Nen Yim, they adapt, they grow stronger while we stay the same. If we are to claim this galaxy we must adapt our technology as well, at a rate equal to the speed with which they develop theirs, not simply wait for the gods to show us better ways. The Yuuzhan Vong need people who aren't afraid to seize their own destiny in both hands and shape it the way they see fit!" He punctuated the speech by ramming his fist into his open palm, hard.

For a long moment Nen Yim didn't know what to say or do. She felt she should sit down on the long shelf of coral that served as a bench, but at the same time she was too elated to get off her feet. She was finally, truly serving her people, using her gods- given skills to do something good and right and useful for the Yuuzhan Vong! Her mind whirled, she wanted to ask another question, simply to keep this wonderful conversation going, but she couldn't think of one. Finally something triggered in her brain.

"I want to ask something else." She said. "How did you suddenly appear out of nowhere in my quarters?"

For a response, Nom Anor grinned and touched his upper sternum with one knuckle, pressed down on his chest through the tunic and twisted his wrist. Before Nen Yim's eyes the fabric rippled as if something was flowing beneath his clothing, spreading up his chest and down to his legs. An ink-black substance oozed up his neck and out of his sleeves to coat his head and hands. Presumably the same was happening to his legs and feet. The creature reminded Nen Yim of an ooglith cloaker, only it covered Nom Anor's eyes, nose and mouth, something the normal variety would never do.

But is she hadn't seen anything yet.

Once the body under his clothing was completely coated, he seemed to shimmer, then before the shaper's eyes Nom Anor faded into mirage of heat-haze.

"Where are you?" She gasped, and jumped when she sensed someone moving past her.

"Right here," Nom Anor answered casually, the invisible source of the voice moved across the room as he spoke, "and now I'm here." A few seconds of silence, Nen Yim strained her ears to hear the light footfalls, all but laughing in delight. She looked around quickly. He was completely invisible when he stood still, but when he moved she could glimpse the faint outline of his body for a second or two.

"Why shaper," the air shimmered and the intendant appeared inches away from her, "can't you see what's right under your nose?" She gaped at the featureless black head, then the creature detached itself from his face and withdrew down his shirt. "I call it the omnis masquer," Nom Anor replied to her unvoiced question. "When active, it produces an energy field about three inches from its skin. A field that bends light around it. Unless a being can see ultraviolet light, senses body heat or has an unnaturally good sense of hearing or smell the wearer is completely undetectable.

"It's something another eager young shaper came up with when he encountered a most unusual denizen of this galaxy: a being that called itself a defel, or a wraith as the race is known to the infidels. After studying samples of the creature's flesh he postulated a way to integrate the defel's genetic materiel into the masquer and cloaker shaping process to produce this effect."

"Will I meet this other shaper?" Nen Yim asked eagerly.

"No, unfortunately," Nom Anor's face fell, "I'm afraid he crossed one too many lines in his research. He was taken as a heretic and executed with disgrace a week ago. Luckily I obtained some of his records before they were destroyed. After a few modifications I was able to make this prototype." He patted the creature under his tunic. "This is just the kind of behavior I was telling you about. Imagine what our assassins and spies could do with omnis masquers: they would never have to worry about blending in with an infidel crowd again! Yet we were nearly denied them because of the backwards thinking of those in power."

"Wait, wait," Nen Yim held up her hands, "backtrack a second. You shaped this?"

"As I shaped the pill I gave you." Nom Anor nodded briefly. "My mother was a shaper, she taught me a few tricks."

"Your mother," the adept's face slackened as she made the connection, "I hadn't realized it could be the same... was she named Lyrra Anor?"

Nom Anor swung his head around so fast she feared he'd snap his own neck. For the first time since she'd known him he looked completely taken aback. "You've heard of her?" He said.

"From my master's notes, those I'd uncovered from the storage villip," Nen Yim nodded slowly. "She mentioned Lyrra Anor a few times, one of the first shapers to touch this galaxy. They met through a mutual acquaintance, Zeld Kwaad, a cousin of my master who also had the honor of being among the first in this galaxy."

"They corresponded for some time by villip over twenty years ago, while my master was still an young apprentice on a worldship bearing for the Outer Rim. Mezhan Kwaad said she'd been honored, and a little shocked, that a master shaper would even spare her a glance back then. She was also impressed with Lyrra Anor, and the other way around. They were exchanging ideas right up until her death." Exactly how she'd died wasn't known to Nen Yim. "Mezhan Kwaad thought very highly of her. She called Lyrra Anor an exceptional shaper."

Nom Anor's mouth twitched and he looked away for a second before turning back to her. "I'd like to hear those notes sometime." He said casually.

"Of course," Nen Yim laced her fingers to keep her hands from shaking. She sensed this was a sensitive area, best change the subject for now. "That new masquer is impressive," she said, "but it would take more than 'a few tricks' to shape something so complicated, even if most of the groundwork had already been mapped out. It would demand real skill." She sat down on the bench, realized he must be getting uncomfortable and motioned for him to sit down as well.

Nom Anor smiled. "The hardest part was correcting some notions about the integration process."

"Tell me about it."

From there they entered into a lengthy discussion wherein they both exchanged their own theories about the shaping of masquers, cloakers, dovin basals, villips and numerous other creatures. They discussed what could be changed to make them more efficient. They even talked about ideas for entirely new organic devices of various form and function.

Nen Yim grew more animated with every passing moment, and those moments seemed to fly and light speed. She finally had someone she could talk freely with, someone who would listen to and appreciate her ideas while offering up intriguing thoughts of his own. She'd feared she would never experience that again after losing Mezhan Kwaad.

What's more, it soon became apparent that Nom Anor not only knew what he was talking about, he excelled at it. Nom Anor kept up with the latest debates, discoveries and projects of the master shapers and he understood all the techniques and jargon. He could have been a shaper himself easily, and one of exceptional skill at that. Though, Nen Yim noticed with some pride, not nearly as good as her.

"Did you ever try to become a shaper?" She finally asked.

Nom Anor shook his head. "No. I have a passion for shaping, but I find my work in the intendant caste too... fulfilling... to give up."

"I can't imagine being anything except a shaper," was Nen Yim's shocked protest. "There's nothing like it in creation."

"Not entirely true," Nom Anor raised a brow, "in fact, there isn't that much difference between what you and I do." He smirked at her confusion. "You seek to understand and control the life around you so you can alter them to suit our purposes. I seek to understand the people and events around me and alter them to suit our purposes. In essence I shape reality itself."

This revelation had Nen Yim taken aback. Suddenly she suspected something about the way he thought, how he saw connections not immediately apparent.

"Nom Anor," she asked carefully, "have you ever experienced the vaa tumor?"

"Once," he answered, "a long time ago." And it had left its mark on him.

They talked all through the voyage, and it didn't begin to whet the adept's interest in her new work, and her new companion.

***

Rysoc, Yuuzhan Vong occupied world
Mid-Rim
Three weeks later

Nom Anor stretched his sweat-slicked body, reveling in the ache of his sore muscles. He'd heard the rumors that circled among the other castes about the shapers. About what they could do with their intimate understanding of the body, and how some of their implants could be put to.

It had surprised him to no end when he'd learned those rumors were true.

Nen Yim was curled up beside him. He could feel her warmth against him, creeping into his flesh, into the frost-lined pit that had once housed a soul. He had no desire to leave her quarters in the damutek. He felt, in fact, as though he could lie here forever. It was an odd sensation, a strange sense of complacency that was entirely foreign to him and not entirely unwelcome.

Is this contentment? He turned his face to the back of her head, inhaled, her heady, dark scent stirred his blood even as it made his skin crawl. I never thought I could feel this way. I've never even wanted to. He thought with consternation. For so long he had worked at remaining cool, in control: how could he control others if he couldn't govern himself. Thins like anger, hate and fear were acceptable. He'd learned that those emotions, properly controlled and channeled, could work as valued motivators.

This...state of mind...was different. It was as though she had stolen a piece of him and was carrying it around with her.

What is this woman doing to me? He thought helplessly. And the one thing he absolutely despised was being helpless. It made him angry. Made him want to break things, such as other people's bones.

Nen Yim stirred beside him. "What are you thinking about?" She turned on the bed and draped her left arm and leg across his body.

"Hmmm?" He look at her and donned a genial and slightly surprised expression.

"Your heartbeat increased." She ran a finger of her enhanced hand down his chest. "And your body heat. What were you thinking about?" Damn shaper implants.

"That I made a mistake when I first spoke to you." He plucked the lie from thin air, spun it into something highly believable without having to stop and think, then delivered it flawlessly. It was one of his best talents. "I said you were young and brilliant, I forgot to mention beautiful."

She grimaced. "And now you're lying." Nom Anor's face froze for a fraction of a second.

"How do you know that?" He asked, on instinct, instead of "why would you think that?" which he might have said. Getting into and argument would be pointless and whatever the result suspicion would take root in Nen Yim's brain. Best to minimize the importance than have her think he was hiding something.

Besides, he was curious. How had she know he was lying?

Nen Yim shrugged. "You do that thing with your face when you lie."

"I do not!" Was his response. The outburst was immediate, affronted and, to his horror, uncalculated. Lying and being believed was his livelihood, after all, and he'd worked long and hard to rid himself of all the facial expressions and body language that gave a liar away. He would never telegraph a falsehood!

"Yes you do." She smiled the knowing, amused smile females of every sentient species seemed to access when dealing with males. In Nom Anor's opinion, backed up by no little experience, most of those expressions were simple bluffs. It was a basic strategy: to trick an opponent into revealing something by pretending you know more than you do. Yet Nom Anor still felt like the proverbial child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

But he also felt anger coming on, a wrathful tide of fury. He felt as if he'd been violated somehow, as if he were the wronged party!

He banished the anger, slowed his heartbeat, kept his breathing regular. Rage was a useful servant, but a poor master, and he wasn't an animal to be ruled by hormones and chemicals. Control, control was everything.

"Politics," Nom Anor made his smiled self-depreciating, "I let my mind wander and wound up thinking of political troubles," idly, he traced the tattoos running up her leg and hip with a claw- tipped finger, "decisions I disagreed with, that sort of thing. Nothing a wanted to disturb you with." His sharp talon broke the skin and a line of welled from the cut, trailing the path across her skin. Nen Yim hissed in pleasure and her eyes lost some of their focus.

The cut itself wasn't worth mentioning, the wound closed almost immediately and it wouldn't even leave a scar, but the warm, red blood was more than he could resist. He was moving almost without thought, his eye bright and gleaming. His head bent down as the line of blood continued running parallel to the tattoos. His tongue flicked out, tasting. It tickled and Nen Yim stifled a laugh.

"Stop it!" She snickered and lightly punched him on the shoulder. Lightly meaning only hard enough to bruise: they were Yuuzhan Vong and all their games were rough.

"What kind of troubles?" The shaper said when she recovered. "Do they affect our work?" She wiped the blood with her original hand and managed to get most with her first two fingers. The shaper made to get up but Nom Anor's hand snapped out and caught her wrist. He drew her hand down and licked the still-warm blood from her fingers. Nen Yim shivered and reluctantly stepped away from the bed when he released her.

"I keep my ears open for anything that might interfere with you." Nom Anor said truthfully. "I don't think you have to worry about being taken as a heretic."

Nen Yim nodded "We've come a long way, but we're still just beginning." Nom Anor knew what she was talking about. Just two days ago she had succeeded in breaking the last of Mezhan Kwaad's codes, and all the marvels the heretic master had dreamed of were open to them. They had both celebrated with heartfelt enthusiasm: the future was now rich with possibilities.

And later, after Nen Yim had dosed off, Nom Anor had copied the contents into a storage villip of his own.

"I think I see a way to shape those coralskipper mantles Master Kwaad was theorizing," the adept went on, excited, "I'm going to start the tests right after the meeting."

"I might join you in the lab." Nom Anor perked up at that. She was referring to Mezhan Kwaad's plan to cover a coralskipper with crystalline scales that would feed on energy bolts and use the power to almost instantly regenerate damage caused by the energy they couldn't assimilate. The idea had seemed farfetched to him, but if it worked it would give coralskipper pilots an advantage in speed and maneuverability in combat: coralskipper pilots would no longer have to use their dovin basals as shields.

"I could use the help," Nen Yim admitted hesitantly as she entered the adjoining washing room, Nom Anor got up and followed her, "this work is exciting but," she stopped in front of the water basin, uncertain, "it's more than one shaper can do." She finished with a rush. "Especially for just an adept."

Nom Anor might not be able to hear Nen Yim's heartbeat at close range or feel the synoptic flashes of her brain, but by now he should know the paths her mind would take and the decisions she would make, both consciously and subconsciously, better even than she did. This had been the case with all his other allies: the priest Harrar, Malik Carr, the foolish Red Knights of Rhommamool and that idiotic would-be Emperor Xandel Carivus.

You had to get a quick and accurate feel for how people think before you could manipulate them, and Nom Anor was a past master of the art. He had convince a great many infidels to betray their own kind, after all.

He knew she was feeling both guilty about making the admission and intimidated by a job she felt might be too much for her. She was also afraid of disappointing him: he had brought her here and provided her with the means and the freedom to follow her dream, and at considerable risk to himself.

It was just the reaction he wanted, yet he was surprised to feel an uncomfortable twinge in his abdomen on seeing her dejection and self-doubt.

"You're more than just an adept." He took her shoulders and turned her around. "You're doing a master's work now, and better than many I've seen." He tilted her chin up. "All we need are a few working prototypes, just a few, to present to the Overlord and he'll sanction your methods. You'll get the recognition you deserve. You'll have an eight-fingered hand within the week and your own damutek, staffed with adepts and initiates of your choosing." He stared at her intently. "We just need some viable results, can you do provide them?"

"Count on it." She whispered, and her whole face seemed to glow. "And you haven't seen anything yet. Once I'm escalated I'll fill my whole damutek with heretics, and we'll shape marvels beyond anyone's dreams!" Her excitement was infectious, and Nom Anor was taken with the idea of shaping without having to conform or confine the experiments to the ancient protocols.

He was even more intrigued by the limitless power that kind of shaping could bring to the one who controlled it. He reached for her and she stopped, her face flushed, and only then remembered their close proximity and unclothed state. Nom Anor's hands traveled up her neck to run through her hair. His face lowered to hers.

Nen Yim's hands pressed against his scarred chest and gently shoved him back. "I have to get cleaned up and dressed," she said in a quiet but firm voice, "or I'll be late. That could raise suspicions, and neither of us want that." She meant suspicions regarding her real identity, not suspicions regarding the two of them: most of the damutek knew that the new shaper was having an ongoing tryst with Nom Anor. The shapers here were all initiates and newly-raised adepts working on minor projects like healing and maintaining the base's creatures. There wasn't a master on the planet to disapprove of cross-caste relationships.

"The sacrifices we make for the Yuuzhan Vong." Nom Anor intoned in an overly-mournful voice. They toyed with each other awhile longer as she groomed and dressed. It was a constant in every galaxy that no female will spend less than an hour working on her appearance before going anywhere, and usually Nen Yim was usually no exception. By necessity, however, a Shaper's working garments were utilitarian so she readied herself quickly. She lost all amusement, however, when she took out the piece of skin with the domain symbol on the center and applied it to her forehead.

"I think this is the best motivator I have." She murmured while holding the skin in place. "The sooner I can make a significant breakthrough, the sooner I can stop wearing this." When the skin bonded seamlessly she took her hand away and donned her headdress.

Nen Yim spread her arms and twirled once. "How do I look?"

"Like you said, a marvel beyond my dreams." He shook his head. "I'm tempted to try and touch it, just to make sure its real." He made a mock-lunge in her direction...and nearly toppled to the floor, unbalanced when white-hot pain spiked into his head. He caught himself, barely, on the bedpost and clutched his head with both hands.

"It's the vaa tumor, isn't it?" He heard Nen Yim's concerned voice when the pain finally faded. "It has to come out." She said firmly. "Today."

"Yes, yes you're right." Nom Anor wiped blood from his nostrils. He blinked rapidly, trying to recapture the colors he'd glimpsed during the flash. "It's just..." he swallowed, "it's been so many years since I've felt Yun Ne'Shell's touch."

"I've just started, and I can't even imagine going without for so long." Nen Yim reluctantly agreed. Nom Anor had hesitated in asking her to implant him with the sacred creature of the shapers: as per his wishes she had kept him conscious during the insertion, but he was still helpless during the operation. His life, his very mind, completely at the adept's mercy, but he couldn't resist: the memory of those days more than twenty years ago when he'd hosted a vaa tumor was still strong. He had to have it again.

And it would be removed today. To Nom Anor's surprise, the shudder he'd expected to accompany the thought didn't come. During the removal he would be as helpless as he was in the insertion, yet he wasn't bothered.

Reassured that Nom Anor was fine for now and would meet her in the laboratory later, the adept walked to the door. "I really will be late if I don't go. You can let yourself out." Nom Anor waited until she was two steps from the doorway...

"Nen Yim!" He barked sharply.

The shaper continued to the doorway without missing a step. Nom Anor shouted her name once more in a tone of command. This time she stopped and turned, an expression of confusion on her features. "Excuse me?" The voice matched the expression perfectly. "Are you speaking to me? I think you've made a mistake." She indicated the domain mark on her forehead.

"Very good." Nom Anor smiled and saw her eyes glitter with pride. "I'll meet you at the lab later." She nodded and left. The door sealed behind her.

***

"A thing with my face?" Nom Anor muttered when he was alone. "She practically advertises every thought she has and I do a 'thing' with my 'face'?" His father would have beaten him bloody on hearing that, then he would have put himself in the Embrace of Pain for days without rest for failing to teach his son better.

Nom Anor shook his head as he entered the washing area. His thoughts were troubled, as they usually were of late, by the shaper adept.

At first she had seemed perfectly suited for his purposes: brilliant, inclined to obey authority and with just the right touch of naivity. She had been too good to be true, better even than Mezhan Kwaad.

He'd watched Mezhan Kwaad's activities for nearly a year but had been reluctant to approach her, not when he knew the master shaper was both highly intelligent and had ambitions of her own. Nom Anor had kept tabs on her, though, until he could find a way to gain some control over her. He thought he'd found something too: evidence of her personal involvement in heresy, just the leverage to make her cooperate with his plans.

Then she'd gone and gotten herself killed. Nom Anor had been furious at first, but in retrospect it was all for the best. He'd formulated a new plan, one focusing on Mezhan Kwaad's new apprentice, Nen Yim.

Circumstances for recruiting her into his plans had been perfect. His biggest worry had been that she'd give herself away as a heretic in some inane martyr complex before he could arrange for her disappearance, get to the Endless Void and make the initial contact.

Once on the worldship, it had taken him less than a day of observing her to assess the adept's situation and personality and decide which approach would work best (not that anyone knew Nom Anor was anywhere near the Endless Void around the time of Nen Yim's flight: a combination of doctored I.D.s, use of the omnis masquer and the sheer size of a worldship guaranteed he would not be noticed).

It had been almost painful watching her attempts at scheming and covert activity. Honestly, when it came to intrigue the adept was like a pitten playing in traffic. Nom Anor would never admit it, even to himself, but he'd felt an almost protective urge to get her out of there before the little fool got herself killed, a feeling that had nothing to do with her potential usefulness to him. That wasn't supposed to be the case: she should have feelings for him, not the other way around.

Seducing her had always been a part of his plan: it was one more control he could have over her, a useful one. He needed her willing cooperation since he didn't have the resources or personnel to keep her prisoner, not in secret. Obeyers and restraint implants were and remained an option, but she would get more and better results working with a will and eagerness of her own.

Nom Anor had learned much about manipulation both as a disciple of Yun Harla and from psychology texts he'd read during his years studying the infidels. Nen Yim had a strong sense of duty and was inclined to obey authority, so he had made sure her first impression of him was of an authority figure. It was easy: a show of confidence and a decisive attitude was all it took.

The next step was to make her like and trust him. Revealing his interest in shaping and his views on the protocols showed they had something in common and formed the basis of an emotional connection.

His other steps were more subtle, like a master musician he had to play with her emotions to get the behavior he wanted, without her even realizing any manipulation was taking place. She had a desire to rebel against the perceived injustices of her society, yet she also craved the security and approval of that society. Nom Anor had solved that by leading her to believe he was part of a large group with members occupying the highest levels of Yuuzhan Vong elite.

In reality, this project was composed of just three conspirators: Nen Yim herself, Nom Anor and the High Prefect Drathul, though Drathul's only contribution was to provide resources and a cover story for Nom Anor's activities and whereabouts. If charges of heresy ever came to light the Prefect would vehemently deny any part in it. Co-opting Nen Yim had been Nom Anor's idea and planning entirely.

Next he isolated her from her old life and gave her a new identity, which created a sense of dependence on him. She didn't know it, but there was no pressing danger of her being found out. Neither Yal Phaath nor anyone else was looking for her: as far as anyone knew, adept Nen Yim was three weeks dead.

Nom Anor had planned her escape quickly but thoroughly. When their transport had landed, Nen Yim had used the scent- masquer pill Nom Anor had devised to hide from the trackers, and as soon as the transport docked a female dressed similarly to Nen Yim swallowed a pill of her own, one that altered her chemical trail to mach the errant shaper's.

The agent had then walked a circuit around the base, a route planned by Nom Anor to give the trackers the impression of nervousness and panic. The agent had then stowed away in the hold of a departing transport ship.

Before the transport took off, Nom Anor saw to it that one extra piece of cargo was loaded onboard: an unmarked container.

By chance, Nom Anor had been close to the Yavin system when he'd heard of the smuggler attack that had wiped out the occupation force. His arrival practically coincided with that of Tsavong Lah's flagship, the Yammka, though Nen Yim didn't know that. When the Executor heard of Mezhan Kwaad death and her apprentice's survival the germ of a plan formed in his mind.

He'd gained access to the hold where the recovered bodies of the dead shapers where stored, there he found the corpse of an adept and harvested her implants and enhanced hand. That done, he preserved the desired body parts and disposed of the rest in the battleship's maw luur. He then altered the ship's records to show that the body was never found, probably dragged off somewhere by a jungle beast and eaten.

Nom Anor then paid a visit to the worldship Baanu Kor, Nen Yim's birthplace. A worldship's archives house the preserved genetic material of every Yuuzhan Vong born within it's shell, taken from them as infants for identification purposes. Nom Anor secretly gained access to those archives, located and removed some of Nen Yim's and placed it in a growth vat. In a matter of days he had enough skin, bone and blood cells to equal that of an adult Yuuzhan Vong.

The container held that material and the dead shaper's implants.

The transport took off, heading for a world at the border of Yuuzhan Vong territory. The ship never made it, was intercepted at the edge of the target system and destroyed by a vigilante fighter squadron commanded by a Jedi Knight named Kyp Durron.

Nom Anor smiled and reminded himself to thank the Jedi for his help if the opportunity ever arose.

Agents of the Peace Brigade, instructed by Nom Anor, had leaked information about the transport's destination and arrival time, hinting that it carried important cargo. In reality there was nothing of real value onboard and its sacrifice was negligible in its effect on the Yuuzhan Vong, but all-important to Nom Anor. The agent who had stown away onboard doubtless would have been overjoyed at the importance of her sacrifice. Not that she was aware of it, or anything else for that matter: two days prior Nom Anor had burned out her brain and implanted her with Obeyers that would move her living-but-empty shell according to his instructions.

The outcome went exactly as planned. The trackers had followed the agent's trail, assuming it was Nen Yim's, to the transport's cradle. Analysis of the charred and frozen wreckage floating through the vacuum yielded a shaper adept's implants and Nen Yim's genetic material.

The conclusion: obviously the fugitive had secreted herself on the transport, hoping to reach the edge of Yuuzhan Vong- controlled space and possibly to go beyond it, but had the bad luck to be killed in an infidel ambush. The gods had seen her escaping justice and punished her themselves. The 'heretic's' remains were incinerated and the foul ashes returned to the cold embrace of the vacuum. Case closed.

There was no suspicion of anything underhanded. Why should there be? As far as the trackers knew Nen Yim had found out she was being watched, had panicked and killed Brak, then made an unplanned attempt to escape the authorities, perhaps even to defect to the infidels. That was how the investigators saw it, so that was what happened.

Nom Anor grinned. He'd told the truth when he described his occupation to Nen Yim. He was a shaper of reality.

He chuckled as he stepped out of the wash room, pulled his hair away from his face and tied it, then pulled his tunic on. Nen Yim had never realized that it would be impossible to place her anywhere as long as the masters thought she was alive: every damutek would be on the alert for a fugitive heretic, and any newly arrived shaper would come under suspicion. It amazed him sometimes to think that such a brilliant shaper could be so dense!

No, that wasn't fair. Nen Yim was getting better, getting smarter, learning to apply the principles of observation an analysis on the world outside the lab.

That was the problem: she was growing and learning, and in so doing she became unpredictable. She was constantly surprising him in little ways, he had to work to keep ahead of her, at least until he had what he wanted.

Helping the Yuuzhan Vong win the war through superior shaping, that was all well and good, but it took a backseat to Nom Anor's true goals. He'd needed only one thing to achieve them: Mezhan Kwaad's secret of turning a true-caste Yuuzhan Vong into a shamed one at will.

That formula was what Nom Anor had been after all along, and now that he possessed it he was making good use of that power. In a few weeks several troublesome commanders would show the ignominious signs and defects. It was the groundwork for his plan, culminating in the death of Warmaster Tsavong Lah. Ah, but it would be a glorious death, one that would inspire the warriors to greater feats of bravery and make Tsavong Lah a martyr for generations.

In more mundane terms, the warmaster's death would also necessitate the Overlord choosing someone else to lead his army, and with every possible successor reduced to shamed status (sure portents from the gods of their unworthiness to follow in Tsavong Lah's wake) who would the Overlord turn to? Only the Praetorite Vong, and Nom Anor's influence in the Praetorite Vong grew every day.

A wave of agony from the tumor overcame him, and this time he didn't bother to control his reaction at all. He cast himself on the bed and writhed in joy and pain. He abandoned himself as the vaa tumor expanded his mind until it seemed he held all creation in his brain, that he was aware of the tiniest atoms and their intersecting courses through space. He could create stars and planets if he chose, or reduce the existing ones to clouds of fine powder.

Eventually the tide of brilliance ebbed, leaving Nom Anor panting and shivering on the bed. Again he wiped blood from his nostrils and stood. Everything was in motion. All that remained was to gather up the loose threads and draw them close - into a noose around Tsavong Lah's neck.

Nom Anor quirked a smile. Prefect Drathul, his supposed master, didn't know a tenth of the Executor's plans, though he'd take advantage of an opportunity for power. Drathul was ambitious, but he didn't go far enough: he dreamed of the day the Praetorite Vong would be first in the Overlord's eyes. Nom Anor dreamed of the day he would wear the Overlord's mantel himself. And if Drathul proved an impediment to those plans, well, Prefects could be eliminated as easily as warmasters.

Drathul and Nom Anor were the only survivors of the secret cabal behind Da'Gara's pre-emptive incursion on Helska Four, all the other conspirators had either perished with the unfortunate Da'Gara or demoted and executed by the Warmaster. Nom Anor's involvement was suspected, but Drathul's name was clear: Nom Anor had made certain all suspicion fell on him.

It was a sound decision: it cast him in a bad light at Shimmra's court, but keeping Drathul above reproach earned him the powerful Prefect's support, protection and friendship, vital to carrying out further schemes.

The good cheer evaporated. Nom Anor would be in control of the invasion and well on his way to Shimmra's throne by now if not for a group of Jedi and their last-minute interference to ruin his plans.

A flash of hatred overcame Nom Anor. A sick, sour, burning, bubbly hate in the pit of his belly. He took a moment to indulge in a fantasy he'd originated and added to over the months. He imagined the Solo children first. The arrogant, snotty brats Who'd caused him to lose face at Shimmra's court to begin with.

He saw himself raising his tightly-clenched fists high over his head and bringing them both down on those smooth, still- maturing faces. He pounded them until blood sprayed, until he could see red-smeared bone, until their heads were nothing more than mush and bone-splinters.

Then he would fling their bodies one-by-one before their parents and laugh at their anguished faces and debilitating sentimentality before burning them both to ash with a fire- breather.

He reserved his best torment, however, for Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, the jumped-up farmboy who'd been responsible for pulling the Jedi Order out of the dead past where it belonged.

"I've killed your wife." He would say to Skywalker, that machine-hand freak, "she may be moving and speaking right now but make no mistake: she's dead. You're going to watch as she withers away before your eyes, Skywalker, and none of your powers or your students or your tainted machines will save her. You're going to watch her die and know that I, Nom Anor, did this to her, and that I could cure her anytime, I could maker her well and whole in a matter of moments. But I never will."

He had to stop then, otherwise he might get caught up in more revenge fantasies, perhaps starring Nas Choka, the overstuffed Supreme Commander and Tsavong Lah's right hand. Nom Anor had often wondered how much pain that diminutive numbskull could really embrace, increased in small increments over a long period of time, before overflowing and reducing the great warrior to a broken shell, bawling like an infant at Nom Anor's feet.

The Executor smiled a bit before relapsing into anger. He should have killed Leia Organa Solo, her space-happy spawn Jaina and interfering sister-in-law Mara Jade Skywalker (and what about this business with 'Organa-Solo' and 'Jade-Skywalker' anyway? Couldn't these infidels even decide which domain they belonged to?) back on Rhommamool when he'd had the chance.

He should have wired the hallway, the whole building even, and blown it all to hell with them inside and worried about testing his damn coomb spores on some other Jedi. The act of 'terrorism' would have accomplished his objectives too: blowing up himself (so the infidels would believe) and the New Republic VIPs would have focused galactic attention to the backwater Core worlds much more effectively than a petty civil war. The demoralization effect alone would've been worth it!

So why had he let them and their chatty, gold-colored abomination go? In retrospect it was idiotic. It was almost as if he'd been some shock-character in a play written by an imbecile!

Jedi. If it hadn't been for the actions of a single Jedi over twenty years ago Nom Anor's parents would be ruling the galaxy right now and I, he thought bitterly, would be ruling with them. His mother and father had been great people, with great dreams, and the Jedi had destroyed them. It was small consolation that the avian Jedi was dead and gone herself, now a part of that 'Force' she had worshiped.

Nom Anor had thought the Jedi were gone forever when she had died and he'd heard that Darth Vader and the Emperor had perished with their super-abomination, the 'Death Star,' only to find the Order was being revived by Vader's spawn, with new supercreatures springing up like weeds underfoot. Now wherever he turned it seemed a Jedi stood in his way, frustrating him. From Helska to Fondor to Duro, with every step forward he was pushed three steps back. Well, no longer. He had the tools he needed.

Which led him back to the main question: what to do with his latest ally?

Originally his plan was simple: he had arranged for her to 'die' with the intent that she never surface again, it left less loose ends. Yet now that the time had come he felt a strange reluctance to take that step.

He had grown...attached to her during their time together and found himself hesitating to end their ties, or her life. It had started the moment he made contact back in the Endless Void and realized she wasn't quite as gullible as he'd first assumed. Then he actually found himself enjoying spending time with her here and during their trip. She was different from the reclusive, unimaginative shapers he was familiar with, the type that knew nothing of life outside the damutek and cared less about the state of the universe beyond.

He admired her open mind, the way she was able to take on complex problems and find quick and accurate solutions, how could inventively apply her intelligence to different situations. She never seemed discouraged by failure, but simply learned from the experiment and looked for another route to her goal. Nom Anor had experienced all those qualities firsthand while helping her in the damutek labs.

He liked talking with her.

He liked working with her.

He really liked sleeping with her.

This was a problem. Odd feelings were moving through him, disturbing his normally calm, rational plan: to shed his ally once he had what he wanted. Did he want something else? Need something else?

Ridiculous.

And yet he had an emotional connection with her, to the point where he was actually beginning to feel guilty about using her work without her knowledge or consent. For more than a decade guilt had been something foreign to him. A sickness other beings were preyed with. Nom Anor had no desire to experience it again, nor to feel...to feel...

"Love." The word was acid in Nom Anor's mouth. He said the same word in Basic and found it just as distasteful. Love was a disease. It got under your defenses and chipped away at you from the inside, warped your thinking and priorities, made you react instead of think, allowed another to gain control over you. Love made you vulnerable.

For a long time Nom Anor had been alone, and he had never felt the need to be otherwise until now. To be able to stand alone without depending on anyone, Yuuzhan Vong or the gods they invented to give their lives meaning, that was the mark of a superior being.

Mezhan Kwaad was a prime illustration of this point. For all her cunning and intelligence the master shaper had shown she was flawed: she had allowed herself to develop feeling for another, this Vua Rapuung. She had shared herself and her plans with him, and when he proved too blind and small-minded to appreciate her viewpoint she didn't do the smart thing and kill the commander, even though he was a threat to her.

Whatever her emotion-twisted motives for doing so, sentimentality for what they'd shared or vindictiveness for spurning her, she had let him live and sown the seeds of her own destruction. It was because of Mezhan Kwaad's former lover that Anakin Solo had been able to approach and penetrate the shaper compound and steal away a powerful potential weapon in the single captured Jedi student. Just as Nen Yim's sentimental feeling over an old flame had gotten them both seized as heretics.

Nom Anor thought he'd grown past this after the troubles He'd faced more than a decade ago, and what it had taken to resolve them.

About fifteen years ago, in the early days of the New Republic, there was a female named Ceis Grasm, someone Nom Anor had been involved with. For a time it had seemed like earthly paradise, then they had drifted apart. Following the disastrous clash with Grand Admiral Thrawn Ceis Grasm, like most of the few Yuuzhan Vong survivors, wanted to hide in the remotest corners of this galaxy, pretend the infidels didn't exist and wait for the coming of the Yuuzhan Vong jihad.

Not Nom Anor. He had gone out among the infidels, determined to learn their ways and their weaknesses. He studied their ways and histories, followed the currents of power and the actions of the New Republic's founding members. As he grew more sophisticated he began to doubt first the wisdom of the gods, then their existence. But while Nom Anor had grown, his paramour had stayed the same.

Ceis Grasm couldn't deal with this. She was devout, unwilling to open her eyes. She had seen the Yuuzhan Vong humbled and yet the subaltern refused to admit there were things to be learned from the infidel. She wouldn't listen, no matter how often he tried to convince her to join him on a foray to an infidel world.

Eventually, she became convince his fascination with the infidels was something unhealthy. The subaltern was going to denounce him as sporting with heresy, but Nom Anor found out. And he had taken action.

The Executor clenched his hand. Ceis Grasm had suffered a fatal accident before she could voice her suspicions. Emotion had made him careless around her, reluctant to do what had to be done, but he had come to his senses and overcame that flaw. Nom Anor had felt something for her, he really had, she had been his gateway to manhood after all. He still felt some lingering affection for her memory, but when it came to her or himself, he had chosen himself and his ambitions.

So why was the idea of eliminating Nen Yim so difficult to contemplate?

While he considered this another thought tugged at him: the idea that she might love him in return. He had began the partnership the same way he had all his other alliances, by projecting the image of the kind of person the ally would best respond to. Over the weeks, however, he found himself revealing more and more of his true nature, though not his true plans of course. By rights the adept should be repulsed at a glimpse of the Executor's inner self, yet he didn't see any signs of abhorrence. For more than a decade Nom Anor didn't think he could be loved, he had resigned himself to the fact. If this wasn't so, then one of his most fundamental beliefs about himself was wrong.

No, he shook his head, don't try and make this into more than it is. He paced the room restlessly. This in infatuation, nothing else. Yes, he was only feeling relief at finally being able to put aside some of the masks he'd worn for so long.

Well, he'd solved the side-issue, but the main one hadn't been touched yet. What would he do with Nen Yim?

Nom Anor turned to leave, then looked back at the untidy state of the room. He grimaced. Like any sensible plotter he liked neatness, both in his environment and his plans: nothing was worse than a loose end or a misplaced item. He took a moment to straighten things up, and as he knelt to pick up a living coverlet that had fallen off the bed an idea came to him.

Now supposing, just supposing, he actually kept his promise and made Nen Yim a master shaper after his immediate plans were complete and he and the Praetorite Vong ascended to Shimmra's right hand? Keeping his word was a new concept for him, but just think about it. Nom Anor always meant to use Mezhan Kwaad's secrets, along with the shaper heresies he'd collected and capitalized on himself, to help the Yuuzhan Vong win the war (what good would it do to be Supreme Overlord of a defeated people?). Who better to oversee the development and application of those heresies than Nen Yim?

Yes, it could work, and Nen Yim would be a powerful ally as a master shaper. He would do just that, not for any sentimental reasons, but because it was a wise tactical move. So Nom Anor thought to himself, ignoring the warm, light feeling in the pit of his stomach when he imagined her face when she realized he had made all her dreams come true.

***

Nom Anor's quarters
Two weeks later

"What?" Nom Anor stopped in his tracks and turned back to Nen Yim. He was very good at controlling his emotions and body language, but the adept sensed the spike of alarm her statement triggered. Odd, how she hadn't paid this kind of attention to Tsun, surely he was less practiced in deceit than Nom Anor. Then again, she'd been lied to so often perhaps she was beginning to recognize Yun Harla's face.

She observed the Executor closely while arranging her features into a quizzical expression and repeating the statement she'd thrown out in such an offhand way.

"I think I've found out how to cure Yuuzhan Vong of shamed status." She smiled and paused a moment before continuing. "All it would take is one quick treatment for every newborn Yuuzhan Vong in its creche to guarantee they will never know the affliction. I can't do anything about those already afflicted, not without some shamed ones to experiment on." A wave of relief from Nom Anor. "But once my work is legitimized I'm sure there will be no shortage of volunteers." She finished.

"That's wonderful," Nom Anor laughed, "I can't begin to imagine what that will do for us."

Nen Yim listened, made herself smile. He was so sincere she almost believed him. Almost. Now he'll tell me why it shouldn't be done. I wonder what argument he'll use. Maybe he'll say that since shamed ones were punished by the gods it would be blasphemy to undo their work. She considered. No, he's built up my trust by showing himself as forward-thinking. Probably something about the impact on society.

"But I think we should wait and think through things before looking any further." He went on. "We need to consider how the end of the shamed ones will affect our society. Shamed status is the most visible symbol of the divine wrath, so what will it do to the average Yuuzhan Vong to find out that it can be prevented or reversed?"

"Or inflicted." Nen Yim put in. "Aimed like a razorbug and thrown at a victim." Nom Anor's face froze.

"What are you talking about?" He asked carefully.

"I'm talking about Mezhan Kwaad's formula for causing the marks of shame to appear on a true caste, information we erased from the storage villip the day after I broke Mezhan Kwaad's codes. We agreed that it should never be used, remember?" She stepped forward, eyes flashing. "I'm talking about five prominent commanders, all afflicted with the gods' curse in the same week. It's hard to miss such 'obvious' signs of the gods' displeasure. The priests are searching everywhere for portents."

Outrage colored her voice. That her work would be used to hurt or kill wasn't a new concept, but she had always understood what she shaped would be used against infidels, not her own people! "I agreed to this," she grimaced, "alliance, to help the Yuuzhan Vong, not to dispose of your political enemies!"

"It's more complicated than you think, Nen Yim." Nom Anor held up his hands, speaking quickly, reassuring. "I have a plan and Mezhan Kwaad's formula plays a key role, but afterward I, we will have more power than you can possibly imagine!" He took by the shoulders. "That will be the time to develop and use the cure."

"Yes, and what better testament to your regime could there be than having the gods grant you the power to decide who is shamed and who redeemed?" Nen Yim spoke in tones of disgust and shoved him away. "But that can only work if the Yuuzhan Vong are kept ignorant, and how could you do that except by persecuting shapers who try to seek knowledge?"

Nom Anor licked his lips. "You would be free to pursue knowledge however you like."

"And the other shapers?" She pressed in a cold, low voice.

"Surely you realize knowledge is most valuable if only a few beings possess it." He frowned. "If you'll just sit down and consider-"

"I'm leaving." She broke in.

"Leaving what?"

"You. The work. Everything!" She snapped. "I wont be a part of this, and I wont have my work perverted."

Nom Anor slammed his fist against the wall. "Will you listen to yourself?" He exploded. "I'm offering you the chance to help shape the destiny of an entire galaxy and you're fussing over some minor details."

"Minor details?" Nen Yim was astounded. "You lied to me, betrayed my trust-"

"It was necessary at the time. Look, I have definite plans that must be carried out and I couldn't afford to waste time with a moral argument."

"And I don't have plans of my own?" She said coldly. "I do. I want every shamed one restored to true caste, I want the shapers free to use their talents and to have a say in how our work is used.

I once asked you why you never became a shaper. I didn't really understand your answer then, but I do now. You want power, but shapers are essentially powerless. We shape what the intendants, warriors and priests tell us to shape, when and how they tell us, and if we disobey or go beyond our instructions we're called heretics and killed out of hand. Well I want more, starting with an end to the tyranny!"

"Those aren't plans." Nom Anor hissed. "You have idealistic dreams but no practical way of accomplishing them." He rolled his eyes. "I thought you'd grown past this unrealistic nonsense. You want to end oppression?" He laughed out loud. "Never. Rulers have always abused power and they always will. It couldn't and shouldn't be stopped. Besides, the Yuuzhan Vong crave a strong hand over them. You?ll never stop the abuse, so the best thing to do is become the abusers!? He struck his chest with a clenched fist.

"No," Nen Yim shook her head, "I've been oppressed, Nom Anor, and I've lived in fear. I've seen friends seized as heretics and killed without cause. I'll never become an oppressor." She took her headdress from a shelf and donned it. "I'm leaving."

Nom Anor was stunned. "You can't go!" He shouted. "You're a fugitive from justice, remember? You'll be taken and executed!" Was that desperation she heard in his voice? No, ignore it, she couldn't let him get to her.

"I don't think anyone is looking for me." She said with forced calm. "I'm dead. You made sure of it." Nom Anor's mouth worked, but no sound emerged. "I have learned, you see. I observe and make deductions. I heard of a cargo transport that was destroyed shortly after we made the first leg of our trip from the Endless Void, and there's no search out for an adept of my description. I take it I was on that transport, along with the crew?"

The Executor nodded. "It was the only way to save you." He said earnestly. She felt an uncomfortable tug in her chest and belly and averted her eyes briefly so he wouldn't see the affect he was having on her.

"I know how to disguise myself, I can fool the sensors on Yuuzhan Vong ships and bases, in essence I can go anywhere in occupied space with impunity. I've even made myself an omnis masquer." She finally said, "and no one is looking for me anyway." She shook her head at Nom Anor's stunned expression. "You've learned much from me, didn't you think I would learn from you in turn?"

"This is ridiculous," Nom Anor pulled himself together, "where will you go? What will you do? You need me!"

"I'm going to find a way to help our people, in my own way." Her headdress twined in a resolute expression. "Maybe it is foolish, and maybe I'll fail, but I can?t stay here." She turned to the door.

"Nen Yim, wait." She kept walking. "Damn you I said wait!" Nom Anor seized her arm and twisted her back around, she tried to pull away but couldn't break his grip. "You don't just walk away, you owe me more than this!" He dragged her away from the door. "And just remember before you start on another self- righteous tirade," he pulled her close, his face inches away from hers, "where would you be right now without me? Dead as a heretic or a beast working the fields, except when your keeper calls you inside at night to warm his bed!" He spat.

The truth of his words twisted in her stomach, but she couldn't let him get to her, she put on a mask of rage and contempt and shot back, "Anything I owe you I've more than repaid by now. I gave you my master's secrets, and that's the only reason you helped me in the first place!" In spite of herself, real pain showed in her voice and eyes. "You lied to me, and you used me."

Nom Anor breathed shallowly, only then becoming aware of the crushing grip on her arm. He released her, and Nen Yim didn't feel for the bruises she knew were present. She kept her eyes on Nom Anor's face, could almost see the thoughts racing behind his eye.

"Yes, I lied to you, but I didn't know you then. I know you now, and I know something else: we're good together. You know that. Tell me you don't. Tell me you don't feel it!" He ran a hand along her jaw. "Think of everything we could do together.? His voice was low, intense. "If you'll just see this my way-"

Nen Yim wasn't listening, she was thinking instead of some notes she'd recently found in the storage villip. Not records of experiments or theories this time, but a personal journal. For the past few days she'd pored over her master's most intimate thoughts. She had been surprised at what she'd found out.

She was warmed at Mezhan Kwaad's recent entries concerning her, at how the master was beginning to see Nen Yim as a sort of daughter-figure, and she'd been shocked at the earlier entries, the ones concerning Vua Rapuung.

Outrage and raw, red fury had poured from the villip. Mezhan Kwaad had cursed her lover, his narrow minded attitudes and stubborn refusal to see things the way she did. The tirade ran on about how she'd make him pay for rejecting her, how she would turn all that he knew of his 'perfect society' against him, take away everything he took pride in about himself. She would make him crawl back to her on his belly.

Mezhan Kwaad would render everything he believed in meaningless, and when Vua Rapuung saw she could perform the acts of the gods he would know that she held the only truth, and his only salvation.

Later entries were calmer, but in their own way more horrible. Mezhan Kwaad rambled on in a way Nen Yim's analytical, efficient master would have frowned on in anyone else. In these entries she talked about how it was all for the best, really: by shattering Vua Rapuung's preconceptions she opened his mind. In essence she had infected him for his own good. And besides, there was no lasting damage. He could be restored, and he would be, once he admitted she was right. Then everything between them would be just like it was before.

The entries went on in similar veins as she struggled to justify what could never be justified, and all the arguments were tinged with the guilt she refused to acknowledge. It chilled Nen Yim to see love turn into something so monstrous, to see what it could drive someone to do. Mezhan Kwaad had never stopped believing she could get Vua Rapuung back. That was most likely the reason she had held back from killing him when he and the jeedai had attacked them, why she?d wanted him brought aboard their escape craft.

It's the same, she thought, transfixed by Nom Anor's gaze. What Mezhan Kwaad felt for Vua Rapuung, what Nom Anor felt for her...what she felt for him.

"We can work this out," Nom Anor was insisting. "You can't leave, I..." he swallowed, then forced the words out as if his throat were lined with broken glass, "I love you." He steeled himself. "You complete me, Nen Yim. When we're together I feel invincible!"

The admission was like a spear driven into her heart. She knew what it cost him to admit it. "Do you know something," tears threatened to spill from her eyes, "I think if I stay with you long enough I just might come to agree with you. That's why I have to leave."

"I don't understand."

"I love who you are, not what you are."

Nom Anor drew himself up. "And what am I?" He asked, voice soft and dangerous.

"Evil." She said sadly, not condemning but consoling, as though he had contracted a debilitating and incurable disease. "You're missing something the rest of us have, call it a soul for lack of a better word. Maybe you never had one, but I don't think so. I think you brewed a solvent of bitterness and hate, and I think you drank it down, slowly over the years, until it corroded you like acid, until it ate away everything good inside you. Everything that could care."

"I care for you." It was the only answer he could come up with.

That was the worst part about all this: that he still had a hair-thin shed of compassion left, and that she would be the one to crush it.

"Nen Yim, listen to me. I have worked my entire life for this moment, and thanks to you it's almost upon me. Give me a few more weeks and you'll have everything you've ever dreamed of and more. Freedom. Recognition. You'll be the one who writes the protocols!? He clenched his fists. "I will lay the stars themselves at your feet if you?ll just stay."

That moment of sincerity struck into her every cell. How couldn't it? He was offering her the thing he valued most: power. She almost reconsidered. Almost. But what would happen then? He would never change. Does he really think what he promises holds any attraction for me? No, probably not, but it was all he really understood, the only thing he had ever been able to offer.

"And if I don't agree?" She stepped away. "You're thinking of restraint implants and Obeyers. I can tell." His wide eyes proclaimed the guilt. "You'll implant me, but just for a little while, right? Just to make sure I can't leave or threaten your plans. Until you convince me to see things your way." She shook her head. "Besides, it's for my own good anyway." She recited Mezhan Kwaad's self-justification and saw currents of shock animate Nom Anor's face as she gave him his own thoughts.

"This has to end," tears were streaming down her face now, "I love you," she said, "and I pity you. I'm afraid of you, I'm afraid for you, but most of all I'm afraid of what I'll become if I stay with you." Nen Yim wiped at her tears. "That's why I have to leave now: I don't think I'll be able to later." She moved to the door, was a step away from the seal when the Executor finally spoke.

"No." Nom Anor forced the word through a constricted throat. His eye burned with a thousand passions warring for primacy. "I don't accept that." Without warning he surged forward. "I wont let you go." He hissed through clenched teeth. "How can you do this to me? I need you!" He bounded toward her, eyes wide and burning. Nen Yim watched him sadly, let him get within three steps of her, then gave an almost negligent flick of her wrist.

The stinger dart that shot from her enhanced hand flew too quickly to be seen. It struck home in Nom Anor's neck. He stopped, blinked in surprise, and reached for his neck. He pulled the needle out and looked at it, then at her. He dropped the dart and staggered another step on wobbly legs, unable to accept having his will thwarted, determined to shape reality into what he wished it to be.

His legs buckled a second later as the lightning-fast venom coursed through him. Nom Anor dropped to his knees, swaying gently. With visible effort he forced his head to tilt upward. His eye floated, unable to focus. He opened his mouth to speak, or perhaps he just couldn't keep his jaw closed any longer. At any rate, all that passed his lips was a low, gurgling sound. He reached out for her with both hands, and to look at him, one would think his shaking arms were durasteel weights.

When his arms were fully extended he was overbalanced and fell forward. His hands struck the floor but his arms stayed ridged for a moment. Nen Yim looked down at Nom Anor, on his hands and knees before her, then the strength ran out of his limbs and he dropped, prone, to the living floor.

Nen Yim knelt and gently turned him over, checked his breathing and other vital signs with her hand. He was alive, but in a deep sleep. In unconsciousness, the Executor's face gone slack and smooth, he looked as though he was resting comfortably, but it was a lie: Nom Anor would never rest.

The venom would keep him out for hours, long enough for her to make good her escape. She would leave no tracks, no trail for Nom Anor to follow: she had learned from the best. She could also defend herself if necessary: the stinger darts were the least of the defensive enhancements she'd made on her person.

She was packed and ready. There was no way for him to follow, if he was able to look that is.

This was the time, now that he was helpless. She could end his life right here. She should. She knew it. Nom Anor was dangerous: he knew much of her work, and Master Kwaad's. He was clever and he could build on that work, or co-opt a more tractable shaper to do it for him. The damage he could do with that knowledge was almost limitless.

She should kill him. It would be the smart thing to do, the sensible thing. Mezhan Kwaad would tell her to do just that.

But Mezhan Kwaad hadn't been able to follow that advice herself, not even when Vua Rapuung became a threat to her.

She tilted her head and brushed his face with her hand, then stood and turned to the door. Sheer willpower kept new tears from springing forth. She couldn't do it. She had become strong, but she wasn't that strong. Not yet.

The shaper looked at him once more, over her shoulder as she reached for the door. The feelers of her headdress bunched tight against her skull. "I'll never forget you," she whispered. She never would: he was her burden now, from this moment on she was responsible for everything he did, everyone he hurt, because she had spared his life today.

She bade the luminescent growths turn dormant as the door irised open. Light from the coral hallway beyond splashed into the room. Nen Yim stepped through and the door closed behind her, leaving Nom Anor in the dark.

Alone.

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