Sanctum of the Hierarch, Shakuras

In every group of people, there are always troublemakers. That one person or group who always gets into trouble, in spite of (or because of) everyone's best intentions, usually at the worst possible time. Sometimes, you just wish that you could get rid of the whole lot of them, just to remove that headache out of the equation. To Artanis, this troublemaker seemed to be the entirety of the Ara tribe these days.

The Ara were always the odd one out in Protoss society. According to Khas' teachings, all Protoss and all the tribes were equal. In reality, this simply didn't happen. When the Conclave was still in power, the Judicator tribes all but ruled the Protoss Empire, with the Ara as first amongst equals. Inevitably, the Ara came to see their privileged position as a birthright and effectively became the Protoss' rulers. While it may not be entirely fair to the other tribes, the system had more or less kept the peace for centuries. Then the Zerg changed everything.

No one could deny it: the Conclave screwed up, as James Raynor had put it at some point. They had convinced themselves that the Swarm was just another uppity minor race and that the Templar could deal with the problem in time. If they had listened to Tassadar and opened their eyes to the world around them, perhaps Aiur could have been saved. Instead, they wasted valuable time and resources trying to bring Tassadar to 'justice', trying to kill the only ones that could destroy the Zerg permanently, and ignoring the fact that millions were dying while they retreated to deal with 'personal matters'. Not to mention Aldaris' ill-fated rebellion…

When things began to settle after the evacuation and the Brood War, many started looking for people to blame for their misery and found them in the Conclave and the Judicator caste as a whole. The Ara, being the largest and most influential tribe of them all, took the brunt of the hatred, even if the other tribes were every bit as culpable as the Ara were.

With great power comes great responsibility, Artanis grimly noted. The Ara tribe just wasn't able to bear it.

That said, they were still one of the most powerful tribes around after the war, even if their numbers had suffered and their reputation was damaged beyond repair. When the Protoss Protectorate was formed after the Brood War, the people knew that a new government just wouldn't be representative without including the Ara tribe as well. Still, the general population was unhappy. They still resented the Ara for being half the reason that they were stuck on Shakuras to begin with, yet still being rewarded for it.

The Ara themselves weren't happy with the situation either: in the new system, they only had a fraction of the power they once enjoyed. People in power rarely like having their authority taken away from them, and now they had to share it equally with people that they considered their inferiors, while at the same time being ruled by someone who was, by Protoss standards, little more than a child. It was a massive blow to their pride and the Ara were sure to make their displeasure known. Nahaan, their leader, refused to attend most meetings unless it was of the utmost importance and even when he did, he devoted half of his time trying to convince the others that the Hierarchy was too inefficient to work anyway. The fact that he was at least partially right didn't help either.

In short, everybody disliked the Ara, and the Ara disliked everybody in return. It was only a matter of time before something bad happened. Artanis knew that one day, the situation would spiral out of control…

"Hierarch, you cannot allow them to get away with this!"

…which apparently was today…

"Chief custodian Lakena, I understand your frustration, but this is not the time to be rash."

"One of our greatest have just been murdered and a dangerous relic has been stolen. Our people demand justice!"

"Justice, or revenge?" The Hierarch said, trying to cower the seething custodian into submission through sheer presence and force of will. "There will be an investigation and when that is complete, the appropriate authorities will punish the guilty, and only the guilty. A due process is the birthright of every Protoss and I will not allow you to take that from anyone, not even the Ara. Do you understand?"

"I do, Hierarch." Lakena conceded. "But know this: others will not be so understanding. Do your investigation quickly before it no longer matters."

Artanis wondered if he should call him out on the implied threat, but decided against it. The headache that would be stirred up in the process wasn't worth the effort. "We will. Now, you are dismissed."

The chief custodian stormed out, every bit as angry as he came in.

"I will have an observer track his movements." Executor Selendis said. "If there is to be a retaliation against the Ara, he will be at the forefront of it, I fear."

"Indeed. Still, I doubt stopping him will change much in the grand scheme of things. Others will take his place and we may be forced to take up arms against our own brethren anyway." The Hierarch sneered. "That I am contemplating war to defend these Judicators…"

"Only we chose to intervene, that is…"

Artanis looked up in surprise. "My duty, our duty, is to protect the Protoss people at any cost. I will not allow an entire tribe to be massacred. Especially when we have no idea if they are guilty in the first place!"

"Please, Artanis." The executor argued. "We both know the Ara are responsible for this. A witness told us so."

"One witness." Artanis corrected. "One who is also in the process of losing his mind, if I am not mistaken."

"The other temple guards claim that they have no memory of any of this occurring. To manipulate so many minds on such a scale would require a virtually unheard of mastery of psionics. The elders of the Ara tribe are some of the few powerful enough to do it. If they are not responsible, who is?"

"That is circumstantial evidence at best. Certainly not enough to stand by and allow an entire tribe to be slaughtered." Artanis lowered his head. "What has happened to you, Selendis? You were always so devoted to our ideals. I can scarcely imagine why you would be willing to sacrifice so many."

"I am not, but the Ara have always been a problem. At their best, they are a square peg in a round hole. At their worst, they nearly doomed our entire civilization. Tassadar recognized this when we turned on the Conclave. You recognized this. There will be violence, Artanis. It is inevitable. Someone will die in the coming weeks. The question is how many lives are lost in the process. If I cannot save everyone, I would rather support the ones I can work with."

Hearing this, the Hierarch could barely control his anger. "You are talking about allowing thousands to be killed, Executor. Innocent lives we Templar are sworn to protect!"

"We both know that the Ara are the most likely culprit. Do not take me for a fool."

"You are a fool, Selendis." A third voice said. "And you too, kid. Both of you, idiots to equal degrees."

"Alexi Stukov." The Hierarch said with an annoyed tone. "I had recently upgraded my security system. They told me it was foolproof."

"And yet, you two managed to get in…" The former vice-admiral said with a smirk. "Now, why don't we all sit down, have a drink…okay, I'll have a drink… and let uncle Stukov tell you why he thinks you guys have single digit IQ's. All ready? Good. Now, we humans have a saying: 'it takes a thief to catch a thief'. Ever wondered what that meant?"

"No," The executor said "but you will tell us anyway."

"One point to the lady. It means that if you want to catch someone, you have to be able to think like one. Or hire someone who can, but I digress. The thing is, this whole mess started because some fancy crystal…"

"A crystal containing the Dark Archon Ulrezaj." Artanis warned. "This is not a matter to be taken lightly."

Stukov shot him a tired glance and continued "…some fancy crystal got stolen by somebody, and everyone thinks it's the Ara so we're all out for their blood."

"The Ara are one of the few with the means to do so." Selendis argued. "On top of that, they have been ostracized from Protoss society as a whole. It is entirely possible that they are trying to use the crystal to regain what they have lost."

Artanis shook his head. "That is assuming that the Ara can control him. The Dark Archon is immensely powerful and has a firm hatred for the Khalai. He will not cooperate willingly and I doubt even Nahaan has the means or power to force him to."

"Now you're getting it!" Stukov exclaimed. "The reason everyone's crapping themselves is because this Ulrezaj is basically Armageddon in a can. It is in everyone's best interest, Ara tribe included, to make sure that our friendly neighborhood Dark Archon never gets out."

"Perhaps they seek to use that as leverage…" The executor wondered.

"Great idea! 'Bow down to us or we'll blow ourselves sky-high.'" The human snickered. "Selendis, the Ara are politicians. They may be a lot of things, but they're not stupid enough to try something like that. All we'd need to do is call their bluff and they'd end up losing everything. Trust me, Nahaan would rather keep what little power he has now. He knows that he'll be dogpiled to death by everyone else if he tried using Ulrezaj. Assuming, of course, Ulrezaj doesn't kill him first. In short, the Ara have nothing to gain and way too much to lose by trying to steal that crystal. Even if they were desperate enough to try, why leave witnesses? There's one guy left who can ID them, right? Why didn't they just chop his head off and be done with it? Why attract all this attention to themselves? It doesn't make any sense."

"If that is the case, why would they do it?" Selendis asked.

Stukov grinned. "Exactly. It's a lose-lose situation if they did. The only sensible conclusion would be: they wouldn't."

"If not the Ara, then who?"

"Not a clue."

"This is not helping." The Hierarch exclaimed, exasperated. "An artifact of unspeakable power is missing, we are on the brink of civil war, and you are here, dancing around the issue."

"You know what, kid," The former vice-admiral said "I'll make you a deal. When you figure out why I'm not really wasting your time, I'll stop doing it. Anyway, where were we? Oh, right, the crystal. Now, I think you're idiots because you're both so focused on the Ara that the real culprit is getting away. So, let's try to correct that, shall we? Discounting the Ara, who else has the resources to steal one of the most dangerous artifacts in your possession? Gimme ideas, people. You know your enemies better than I do."

Selendis was the first to speak up. "If the Ara are innocent, then the other tribes represented by the Hierarchy are likely to be blameless as well, for much the same reason. It is possible that the Zerg are responsible for this."

"Possible, but unlikely." Artanis replied. "I doubt Kerrigan would be arrogant enough to think she can control a Dark Archon for long. Even if she was, any Zerg would be destroyed before they would even set foot upon this planet and the custodians are trained specifically to resist her power."

"That did not stop her from claiming Raszagal's mind."

"True, but we at the time we did not realize that Kerrigan had that kind of power. We have learned from this mistake and the custodians would have searched specifically for those showing signs of being under her influence. No, I think someone else is responsible. The Terrans, perhaps?"

Stukov laughed. "Seriously? You see any of us under-evolved monkey-men infiltrating a planet full of mind-readers?"

"The Terrans of this sector, probably not." The Hierarch conceded. "However, those of the UED…"

The admiral looked at him, stunned, before laughing even harder. "Okay, it's nice that you think so highly of us, but please, it'll be at least another decade before the UED can even think to pull something like that off. Besides, I think that when they want to get their sector back, they'll show up with a fleet of dreadnoughts and blast your nice, little planet to bits. They wouldn't bother being subtle. Not after what happened the last time we tried that." Stukov took a swig from a flask that he had hidden under his coat. "Rest in peace, Gerard…"

"Perhaps we should consider other Protoss first." Selendis said, trying to get the discussion back on track. "The Tal'darim…"

"…are scattered and broken." The Hierarch sighed. "With Ulrezaj in our custody, who could have led them?"

"There have been reports of Raynor's Raiders engaging their forces…"

"And what does it say about their fighting strength if a small band of Terrans are powerful enough to crush them? No offense to you, Alexi Stukov."

"None taken." The human answered. "I was about to suggest the same thing. That said, they could have found someone else to lead them and they do make perfect infiltrators. Sure, cults tend to fall apart when their leaders die or get locked up, but still, Ulrezaj has a boss, right?"

"He was rumored to serve another, yes. Whether that is actually true…I do not know. Even if it is, I do not know who or what would be powerful enough to command a being of such power." Artanis sat down, thinking.

"Maybe it's the same thing that's got Zeratul running scared." Two pairs of glowing eyes suddenly bored into the vice admiral. "What? I hear what I hear, and you're all so obsessed with the elephant in the room that you're forgetting the axe murderer trying to sneak into your house." Noticing the confused stares, he added: "What I'm saying is that is that you need to broaden your horizons. For this mess to happen right when all the tribes are one big disaster away from murdering each other? No way that's a coincidence. Now, we all know the Protoss aren't stupid enough to steal the crystal unless they're on someone else's payroll and we know that neither the humans nor the Zerg have the means to pull it off. In the words of a great detective: when you discard the impossible, whatever's left, however improbable, must be the truth."

"The danger Zeratul speaks of is a possibility, if it exists." Selendis agreed. "In spite of our weakness, we are still a force to be reckoned with. The easiest way to for an outside force eliminate the Protoss army and conquer the sector would be to allow us to tear each other apart before attacking."

"Our scouts are already investigating the matter. If the hybrids are on the move, they should be able to find evidence." The Hierarch said, still sounding a little unsure. "I do not know if I should hope for success of failure…"

"Guess you're screwed either way, eh? Welcome to politics, kid." Stukov chuckled, mirthlessly. "Anyway, what's going to happen to the Ara now? Guilty or not, you have to do something or people are going to do it for you. Believe me, you don't want that."

"A fact that I am very much aware of, Alexi Stukov."

"If you need any help…"

"I will dangle an alcoholic beverage from the balcony." The Hierarch said, smiling for the first time. "Your assistance is appreciated, but if I am to lead my people as Tassadar once did, I have to be able make difficult decisions myself. I cannot afford to use you as a crutch."

"Fair enough. Just try not to let anyone die if you can avoid it. Imprisonment, fines, even torture is fine, but once heads start rolling, things will get ugly, fast." With that, the former admiral left.

"Infuriating though he may be at times, I fear Alexi Stukov may be wiser than we give him credit for." Selendis muttered.

"He is. There is a reason I still tolerate his presence in spite of his…unusual behavior. That said, can I count on you not resorting to violence for the moment?"

"You can. Perhaps I was too rash in my judgment of the Ara. I should have known better than to act without being certain."

"The day you stop learning is the day you die, or so I have been told." Artanis nodded in agreement. "Still, reprisals may be inevitable. While you are still willing to listen to reason, I suspect others may not."

"What would you have us do with them?" The executor asked. "On the one hand, vigilante justice cannot be tolerated, but on the other we cannot allow people to think that we are taking sides."

"Then we make it clear that we do not act on the behalf of any particular tribe. Now please, I will need to meditate on this. I trust that you will use your judgment if the situation escalates."

"Of course, Artanis. I will inform you if it does."