The hovercraft was an ugly thing. It had looked gorgeous from the outside, with its subdued blue and yellow paint and sleek curves. It seemed to be a vessel fit for royalty. The inside was hideous. Its pitiful attempt at interior decoration did not go unnoticed; it had twirling trappings hanging from its padded ceiling, bright little knick-knacks placed along the back of seats and near the armrests that not even the most insane businessman would have on his desk, and a floor-scheme that clashed with the seats, the windows, and everything else about the vehicle.
Five years ago, Captain Rajes Thonnel would not be caught dead in such an atrocious means of transportation. Such a disgusting vehicle, he thought, was only worth melting down and using for scrap metal. In fact, he complained so vehemently about the lack of beauty in military-grade equipment that he was confined to office management and secretary duties for the first seven years of his military career. It was quite a disappointment to the man who had once been the top of his class at the military academy at Corulag.
He was the first army-boy to come from the venerable—and in some circles, ruthless—Thonnel family, a prestigious Core World dynasty that could trace its ancestry back to the very foundation of the Galactic Republic itself. While most of his childhood friends had taken jobs in their family’s stores or taken up some sort of pitiable trade, his status enabled him to go to whatever academy he chose. In fact, he had been personally invited to attend Ord Carida’s academy for proper military training. His teachers, Ord Carida’s military instructors, and even senators begged his family to send him there for the fame and recognition he would bring the academy.
When it came time to make a decision, he denied their pleas and chose to go to the Academy of Corulag. A poised and intellectual Human like himself would not dare to set foot on a world in the Colonies to attend school. Only the Core Worlds provided the atmosphere and facilities to match a brilliant individual such as himself. His parents, despite being naval officers and proud of their own accomplishments, gave him their blessing. Gain power by any means necessary. That was his family’s mantra. It didn’t matter if their boy was a senator, a governor, or a soldier. As long as he had power, he had their approval.
Upon graduation, Lieutenant ‘Secretary’ Thonnel complained about the state of the military’s uncomely vehicles and was kept from advancement for several years. Despite all of his works, his high marks, and his tactical and leadership prowess, he was forced to serve as an attendant. The Republic military leaders saw him as a threat, for sure. Why else would they subject him to such humiliation? They kept him down as long as they could. However, he only needed to learn a lesson once. He kept his mouth shut, and now he was a captain.
Even if this craft was an affront to beauty itself, of which he was a connoisseur, he would say nothing. He had to endure it. Yet even just sitting inside the vehicle caused him to squirm about. He groaned at times, moaning and muttering incessantly about everything he hated about the hoverspeeder—namely, all of it.
A single soldier sat by Thonnel’s side in the back seats. Thonnel had forgotten his name, but he was sure he had seen him serving alongside him somewhere. The other soldier looked older than Thonnel, but not by much; war had the nasty habit of wearing away youthful beauty. The other soldier had no hair, sans the black remains of a beard that were left on his chin. Wearing red-and-yellow combat armor in contrast to Thonnel’s rather casual attire, the soldier sat in silence, ignoring Thonnel’s complaints and irritated wriggling. Rugged professionalism at its finest.
“What’s your name?” Thonnel asked, his voice not masking any condescension for the lowly grunt at his side.
“Sergeant Kae Gaethon, sir.”
“Is this your first time on escort duty?”
“You look it. Put the blaster away, Sergeant.” Thonnel motioned toward the weapon that danced in the sergeant’s hands, just barely hovering over his lap. “You’re making me nervous with your twitching.”
Thonnel wasted not a minute more of his elegant voice on his fretting bodyguard. Turning his head to the window, he tried to find contentment in the vivacious life of the forest around them. It didn’t work. He felt sick. Just looking through the window and knowing it was attached to the abominable craft left a sour taste in his mouth. Disgusted, he started muttering something about the state of the universe and the terrible hovercraft that sullied it so.
“Captain Thonnel, are you all right?” the hoverspeeder pilot asked.
Thonnel glared at her. The young woman responsible for driving this waste of metal was awfully nosy. She could not stop asking questions, even before they had left the spaceport. In fact, she seemed to want something; she wanted to pry and get Thonnel to talk about military secrets and private facilities and all other sorts of classified things. At least, that was what her voice said, but her actual words said something much different.
She constantly asked questions about him. Was she genuinely interested or simply making conversation? He couldn’t tell. He had idly chatted with many women, particularly at parties and social functions required of the galactic elite, and he admired many of them for their beauty. Women were the most beautiful things in this galaxy, and many of them—the driver included—escaped the scars of war known to befall many men. But this woman seemed to have her own scars. She was physically beautiful, of course. Her long blond hair shined illustriously in the dim light, sometimes braided and sometimes flowing uninhibited over her shoulders. She had fair hazel eyes, and fairer skin. She looked fine. But he had not become a prime judge of art and beauty without knowing how to interpret what his senses told him. And her eyes told him that she was hiding something.
The driver noticed Thonnel’s silence and turned around for a split second. “Sir? Are you okay?”
“What?” Thonnel managed to utter.
“You seem distracted, sir.”
“It’s nothing. Are we there yet?”
“Just about… oh! Yes, sir. This is the place your letter described.”
Thonnel glanced out the window of the speeder. Sure enough, there was a barely noticeable dirt path littered with stones, branching from the edge of main road and heading into the forest. To the east of the path, a secluded, rustic cabin was situated nearly out of view, concealed by thick brush and situated between two trees. He was surprised that it was not hidden better. The truly determined would be able to find a place like this, even deep within the woods of this backwater planet. Squinting, Thonnel could see soldiers standing guard around the building, but they neglected to wear the usual colors of the Republic military. Suspicious, but not unexpected; the message did seem to hint at a desire for secrecy.
Either way, he could finally leave this vehicle.
“Sergeant, stay with the speeder.”
“Sir?” Sergeant Gaethon looked genuinely surprised.
“I’ll be fine. Stay with the speeder and make sure I’m not disturbed.”
The sergeant nodded grimly. If he had wanted to say something, he lost his chance when Thonnel opened the door to the car and stepped onto the road. Thonnel breathed in the thick, frosty air with an audible sigh. This was freedom. After having been forced to endure such a disgusting ride for what seemed like forever, Thonnel was able to look upon the beauty of nature without the hindering presence of a windowpane.
He didn’t dare look back at the ugly hoverspeeder. His boots almost clicked as he headed from the road onto the dirt path, ambling carelessly toward the cabin in the distance. He took his time, not caring quite how long it took to get there, as long as he got there with a light heart. Being stressed and furious would not endear him to anything that happened inside the cabin. And from the message he received, this news was big. Bigger than Thonnel, bigger than his family, and bigger than any of the silly wars the Galactic Republic had fought in the past few decades.
Upon arrival, he realized that there were other guards that he had not seen from the road. A sniper was situated atop a rocky alcove nearly half a kilometer away, and several soldiers lay prone in the foliage, concealed in camouflage. This was quite serious, then. The soldiers on duty at the door didn’t even bother to stop and inspect him, letting him in without question. They knew who he was, and they knew he was expected. Thonnel entered without a word, but he cast a cheery nod at them before the door sealed shut behind him. How rude, he thought.
The interior of the cabin was spacious and not at all properly decorated. A few crates lined the wall at the farthest end of the building, and a set of stairs nearby had been torn down to make room for a refrigeration unit and a trash compactor. To his right, a few small sofas and a table were set up near a few potted plants. The entire design reeked of amateurism and lacked any semblance of tidiness and order. He could have made this place into a palace; alas, there was no time for such niceties.
After all, Ducian Eto was never known for being tidy or orderly.
Thonnel had once described Eto as the pinnacle of barbarianism, even though he never said it to his face. Neither of them looked any different than when they served together in the army. Thonnel’s long blond hair and slender figure contrasted Eto’s muscular and rugged features. Thonnel was pale, thin, and his voice fluttered like a songbird. He was beautiful, but he was not a soldier. Ducian Eto was a soldier. The former Republic colonel had a rough, battle-scarred face with sharp edges and jagged points. Even sitting, his stature reflected a professionalism and rigorous alertness that had been driven into him as a recruit. Nothing about him could be called beautiful. He was what the military molded him to be. Only his gray eyes remained unscarred by the brutality of war, but they remained a constant source of mystery to the exceptionally clairvoyant Thonnel.
“Take a seat, Lieutenant.” Eto’s voice was rich and deep, without the slightest hint of emotion. It was not a request; it was an order.
Thonnel stepped between the two guards standing in the center of the room and brushed away some dust that had settled where he intended to sit. “It’s captain now, actually,” Thonnel quipped as he settled into the sofa across from Eto. “Colonel.”
“I’m not a colonel anymore, either.”
“Will Rajes do?”
“I prefer Captain Thonnel.”
“Of course you do,” Eto scoffed. He motioned for a nearby soldier to procure a cup of water from the refrigeration unit. “Shall we begin?”
“You said this was important?”
“Very. Do you remember Major Altesius?”
Thonnel paused for a moment. Hardly a name he liked hearing. Major Altesius was a rough-and-ready soldier who had gusto and fervor for combat that Thonnel never had. He had served under Eto until the colonel abandoned his post, seemingly against regulation, and Altesius took over his unit. Thonnel was transferred before he had the harrowing experience of serving under that oaf.
Thonnel smirked. “Vaguely.”
“He was serving as an envoy between the Republic military and the Jedi. His unit and their Knights participated in several dozen missions together, including the liberation of Alderaan and capture of Korriban.”
“You don’t have to tell me that. I read the reports.”
This time, Eto paused. “He’s dead.”
“Oh?” Thonnel couldn’t say he was grieved, but he was certainly surprised. It would take a monster to kill the giant that was Altesius.
“A clean kill. No witnesses, no substantial evidence or leads. Based on the autopsy, he never stood a chance against his assailant.”
“Why kill Major Altesius?” Thonnel wondered aloud. “Surely, there are more important or prominent military officers out there-”
“He wasn’t killed because he was in the military. He was killed by the military.”
Thonnel blinked only once. “Sir?”
Silence crept across the room. The soldiers positioned throughout the room tensed, their already stolid forms becoming even more rigid and inanimate. Thonnel fidgeted only slightly, alarmed by the sudden stillness. Even the woodland creatures beyond went silent. Eto glanced at the soldiers, and then at Thonnel, but he didn’t say a word. He seemed content to let the silence take its course, finishing his water in the meanwhile.
“What I’m about to tell you… you can never repeat. Understood?” Eto asked.
Thonnel’s eyes shot the door. He had the sudden urge to flee the scene and leave Eto and his secrets behind. After all, no secret—no amount of knowledge—was worth dying over. This was illegal, strictly speaking. Eto was a traitor; he abandoned his post and forsook the well-being of those under him. He should have got up and arrested the erstwhile colonel. However, Thonnel remained in his seat, and Eto’s eyes remained on Thonnel. The hapless captain sighed aloud and nodded. He owed Eto his time, if nothing else.
“He was not killed because of who he was.” Eto crossed his arms and leaned back, as though he had told this story many times before. “He was killed because of what he knew.”
“That doesn’t make much sense, sir,” Thonnel admitted.
“Major Altesius was confronted for a promotion prior to his death. He could have been a lieutenant colonel, but he refused.”
“Why did he refuse, sir?”
“He was given the offer by Senator Oro Malthesinores,” Eto explained without even waiting for Thonnel to finish.
Thonnel’s eyes widened. “The senator from Rendili, sir?”
“And a former general of the Republic Army, yes.”
“But why… what are you saying? I don’t understand.”
“Major Altesius led a task force to Wayland. The mission was to defeat the last vestiges of the Mandalorian clans.” Eto knew Thonnel had heard of this mission before, but he continued: “Senator Malthesinores had been donating funds to the military hospital on Wayland before it was taken over by the Mandalorians.”
“What does this have to do with anything, sir?”
“They found… something there. The Mandalorians first, then our soldiers. Something Senator Malthesinores was searching for prior to the outbreak of the Mandalore War. Since Major Altesius found it first, the senator figured he could promote him and get his hands on whatever it was the major uncovered.”
“Hold on, sir. Are you suggesting that he killed Major Altesius because he found buried treasure on Wayland?”
“He was killed because he refused to play along with the senator’s little game,” Eto snapped. “Major Altesius was an uncooperative pawn, and soldiers that don’t follow orders are useless.”
Thonnel sighed. “Sir, accusing Senator Malthesinores of murder is a rather outlandish claim, even for you. He’s received hundreds of commendations, won dozens of battles, and he’s led the Republic’s military into a golden age of technological advancement. He-”
“That’s why he’s so dangerous. That’s why I need your help.”
“I wish you didn’t.”
“Thonnel, it’s important.”
“You’ve lost it, sir. You really have.”
“I need you to return to Coruscant.”
Eto glanced back and forth once. “I need you to find out what your parents—what your family—knows about Senator Malthesinores. I need to know his schemes and-”
“No!” Thonnel practically yelped. “I won’t do it, sir. Please use someone else. I won’t… I can’t spy on my family.”
“You have connections I don’t. I can’t set foot on Coruscant, and my people can’t get close to the senator. You’re the only one left that I can trust.”
“Eto, I just don’t know…”
“One last time. For old time’s sake.”
A blaster shot was fired outside the house. Eto instinctively reached for his own blaster while the two guards stationed nearby returned to life. Thonnel glanced at the wall, trying to peer through it and see what was going on beyond the cabin. Per Eto’s orders, the guards positioned themselves on both sides of the door while Eto took cover behind the couch he had been sitting on. Thonnel didn’t know what was going on and no one told him; everything was happening far too fast. He simply hoped that whatever was going on outside could be handled by Eto’s other soldiers.
As he tried to position himself behind the refrigeration unit, Thonnel heard a cry from one of the guards outside. There were a few more blaster shots, and the muffled groans of another guard were heard. Then there was silence. Whatever had just happened, it was over before anyone could properly react. Not good.
“No comm chatter,” one of the guards muttered.
“Permission to engage, sir?” the other asked.
“Granted.” Eto checked his blaster. “Stay near the entryway. Don’t venture from the building.”
One of the guards opened the door and scanned the area around the entrance with his blaster rifle. As suspected, there was no evidence of combat. There was, however, a distinct lack of guards; even the two soldiers who had been positioned outside the building to monitor the immediate perimeter were gone. And yet again, there was a silence most unusual for a forested area this far away from civilization.
“Nothing, sir,” the lead guard said.
“Pull back,” Eto growled. “Thonnel, contact your team, but do it quick. I need you to check the motion sensors. Find out what’s going on here.”
The guard swept the area with his blaster once more before returning inside. However, as he attempted to close the door behind him, a cloaked figure suddenly dropped from the sky as if from an overhead vessel. Racing inside before the door could deter entry, the figure threw a long dagger at Eto, who narrowly avoided the incoming weapon. The two guards reacted immediately, firing their guns at the intruder. The intruder proved too quick for them to hit and gracefully leapt over them. Landing on the couch Eto had taken cover behind, the intruder revealed another blade. The intruder had jumped over to him so quickly, Eto practically dodged on instinct; the dagger missed his chest but left a scathing wound on his shoulder. The few blaster shots Eto fired proved useless, and he fled from his assailant while the guards struggled to maintain fire.
Thonnel realized that Eto was in trouble, and he threw a small parcel at his assailant in an effort to give Eto a moment to escape. The small package was stopped in midair, as if suspended on an invisible pedestal before the assailant. However, Thonnel had succeeded in distracting the intruder, and Eto promptly made his way to a stack of crates at the back end of the room. Thonnel was still shocked that his projectile had been stopped by some sorcery, and he didn’t even react when the parcel flew back on its own and struck him square in the face.
A second opponent entered the building while the cloaked intruder rushed Thonnel. A larger figure, this one without a cloak but armored head-to-toe like a Republic soldier, lumbered inside with a heavy repeating blaster at his side. The two guards, who hadn’t expected company, were caught completely unaware; the invader gunned down one of them before they could escape behind cover. The sole remaining guard and Eto traded shots with the faux soldier. Their shots filled the air, shattering windows and scarring walls.
The cloaked intruder moved in and attacked the bewildered captain in seconds. Thonnel avoided the dagger that stabbed at him and grappled his opponent’s arm. With his free hand, he struck the cloaked figure in the face, eliciting a cry of pain from his foe. The back of his mind noted that his opponent was female. Noticing he had the upper hand, Thonnel wrestled the dagger from the dazed assailant. Thonnel’s foe recovered, but she proved very skilled in unarmed combat: a series of quick punches managed to force Thonnel into a wall, and an unblocked kick to the shoulder caused the captain to lose the stolen weapon.
Now both of them were unarmed, and Thonnel used this to his advantage. His cloaked opponent struck with a flurry of high punches, hoping to score a clean hit at the captain’s head. However, Thonnel proved a stronger combatant than that, and he easily blocked each of her attacks. His opponent was better than she initially appeared—almost Thonnel’s equal—but the cloaked figure seemed to be going easy on him. Indeed, the intruder refused to adequately defend herself and focused on attacking.
The cloaked figure underestimated Thonnel’s abilities, and now it was time to pay the penalty. When the intruder went for a wide swinging punch, the captain grappled the incoming arm and held it steady. Suddenly off-balance and uncoordinated, she was defenseless as Thonnel planted a strong kick to his opponent’s chest. The thud of his boot against the intruder’s body was coupled with a light gasp, and his opponent was down in seconds. Using his momentum, Thonnel rolled underneath the blaster fire overhead and scrambled to Eto, who had received a painful burn on his already-injured arm.
“Are you all right, sir?” Thonnel asked.
“It’s nothing,” Eto replied curtly, still dressing the wound in gauze. “He just got a lucky shot.”
“Can you fight?”
Eto scoffed. “Can’t even lift my blaster.”
“Do you have transport offworld?”
“I have a speeder in the back that is set to take me to my freighter.”
“Why are you still here?” Thonnel glanced at the second opponent, who was still trading fire with the last guard. “If you escape, I’ll deal with him.”
“We’re all leaving. I’m not leaving anyone behind.”
“That’s an order,” Eto growled.
Thonnel lamented at Eto’s stubbornness but acquiesced all the same. Taking Eto’s blaster, he stood up from behind the crates and opened fire on the faux Republic soldier. His target was distracted by the other guard, and Thonnel managed to score a few hits on his target’s personal energy shield before the second intruder returned fire. Thonnel strafed from one end of the room to the other, eventually finding cover behind Eto’s couch. Blaster fire slammed into the fabric, ripping and tearing away at the captain’s fragile cover. While his opponent was distracted, Eto scurried from his own cover behind the crates and escaped out the backdoor unseen.
Trading targets for a moment, the faux Republic soldier shot the last guard in the gut, scoring a clean hit. The guard wheezed as he crumpled onto the floor, completely defenseless and useless. Instead of finishing him off, the second intruder turned his attention back to Thonnel, who had moved out of his own cover. In his neglect, he did not realize that the last guard was barely alive, his organs ripped to bits and then cauterized from the follow-up shot. Thonnel saw the guard activate the grenade on his belt in the corner of his eye.
The explosion that followed sent shrapnel into the enemy gunman. Bits of metal and debris rained down on him, tearing through his shield and eventually his armor. Thonnel realized what had occurred almost instantly, and he fled from the scene after taking a few sloppy blaster shots at his wounded enemy. Eto was already waiting for him in the speeder, and the two fled the area before they could be pursued. In mere minutes, they had escaped into the safety of the forest. Thonnel tried contacting his own team, but he received no response. Just who were those assailants? Thonnel asked himself as the speeder made its way toward Eto’s ship unhindered.
“Thonnel, about Coruscant…” Eto began.
“A damn mess you’ve gotten me into, sir. I don’t really have an option now, do I?”
The colonel let a hint of a smile escape his grizzled expression. “No, I suppose you don’t. Welcome aboard, Captain.”
“Arcana, are you all right?”
Arcana’s eyes fluttered open. The starlight overhead proved too strong for her weakened vision, and she blinked several more times until the glare died down. Groaning aloud, she struggled to sit up, but her efforts proved futile. A stinging sensation coursed through her chest, and she gasped suddenly before returning to her position on the ground.
“Don’t try to stand.” The other individual, sitting nearby, waved his hand. “Thonnel got a good kick at you before you went unconscious. He may have broken one of your ribs.”
“I’ve… been through worse,” Arcana managed to reply, but it hurt to speak.
The cloak she had worn to conceal herself from Captain Thonnel was now draped over her body, keeping her warm in the brisk night air. Morgue had insisted that the cloak wasn’t necessary, but Arcana insisted otherwise. If Thonnel knew that his unit—or at least, his aides—had been infiltrated, then he would likely step up his security measures. Perhaps. Thonnel was not known for caring about the minute details of military command.
The assassin known as Morgue had taken on the persona of Sergeant Gaethon, the only guard Thonnel had been assigned for his mission, and Arcana had been his hoverspeeder driver. Once they had received Eto’s location, they simply waited until the two soldiers had gotten comfortable, and then they left the hoverspeeder and struck. The guards outside fell quickly; they hadn’t expected a young woman like Arcana to be strong enough to debilitate all of them. Despite the two agents’ best efforts, however, Eto had not died. They failed in their mission.
Morgue had removed the Republic armor of Sergeant Kae Gaethon and assumed the black and blue mesh armor worn by the elites of the GenoHaradan. As assassins in this shadowy organization, Morgue and Arcana had assumed aliases to protect their identities as well as any relatives or friends. After all, assassins could not trust anyone, even those they thought were closest to them in their brotherhood of killers. Arcana didn’t know Morgue’s real name, and he did not know hers. It hindered their relationship and prevented her from getting to know him as a companion and partner, but she had no choice. That was how it had to be.
“So… we didn’t get him,” Arcana finally said.
“No.” Morgue was staring into the sky, as if he paid Arcana no mind. “The overseer will not be pleased.”
“Do you think he’ll punish us?”
“Doubtful. We are…” Morgue hesitated. “You are far too valuable an asset.”
“I suppose I am.” Arcana paused. “What about the other soldiers?”
Morgue eyed her darkly. “The ones you neglected to kill? I finished them before they regained unconsciousness.”
“Get some rest, Arcana. I’ll arrange for offworld transport in the morning.”
“Wake me up when it’s my turn to take watch.”
Arcana turned her head from Morgue. Closing her eyes, the female assassin didn’t even bother to brush away the blond hair that had drifted into her face. It was comforting. It reminded her that, in spite of her failure, she was still alive.
“Stupid girl,” she heard Morgue say as her senses faded into sleep. “The wounded cannot watch in the night. Sleep and recover.”
“Her life signs are fading. I don’t think she will make it, Master Jram.”
The Quarren Jedi Master heard the news, but he did not react. His dark eyes were locked on the young Human girl’s body. The younger, medically inclined Jedi Knight began reading off information about her vital signs and heart rate that the Jedi Master did not listen to or care about. All that mattered was that the young Force-sensitive girl before him was dying, and there was nothing he could do.
Each beep of the heart monitor seemed to take valuable seconds from the young girl’s life. Rescued from the Sith fortress on Alderaan, she had been tortured and maimed in a most sadistic fashion. Her beauty was tarnished, and whatever strength she once possessed was most assuredly gone. Burned flesh and deep scars were evidence enough of her pain. Wrapped in a white medical cloth, the young girl was limp and practically lifeless.
“Will she survive until we reach Coruscant?” the Quarren Jedi asked.
The Jedi medic tapped the datapad in his hand. “I don’t think so, Master. We’re still several hours from the capital. Shall I report her as a casualty?”
“No. Master Telerus does not need to know about her death. I will tend to her in her final moments.”
“Would you mind if I…?” the medic paused. “There are other patients who need my attention.”
“You may leave, doctor. That is all.”
“Very well, Master.” The Jedi hesitated for a moment before leaving without another word.
The Quarren Jedi pulled his seat closer to the young woman’s bedside. Her torn blond hair and ravaged face seemed as though they belonged on an actual corpse, not a dying patient struggling for her last breath. Dried blood and sweat had intermingled on her body, creating a biting smell that left some of the most hardened Jedi medics disgusted. They had done their best to clean her, but her body was still practically ruined. Dark arts coupled with Sith torture was enough to destroy life at its core, and there was very little the Jedi Watchcircle aboard the Foray-class blockade runner Veneration could do to counter their effects.
The Jedi Watchcircle struggled to balance a life of pious dedication to the light side of the Force with an indignant wrath toward all things dark. Splitting from a corrupt Jedi Order, they were the remnant; they were all that remained of the true Jedi from before the dark times of the wars against the Sith. It would not be long before the Jedi Order crumbled and fell to its own darkness. When that happened, the Jedi Watchcircle would rise and rebuild it anew.
However, in their pursuit of justice, they seemed to lack something. Jram believed that their fervent dedication to righteous judgment left them without mercy, and this disturbed him deeply. He had been ordered to abandon this woman—brutally wounded and destroyed by the Sith—simply because she had experienced the dark side. That was something he could not abide. He had seen too many brutal deaths and harsh abandonment in his time to accept it. Against the orders of Telerus Eston, the leader of Watchcircle Dominus, Jram rescued the girl and brought her with them.
Yet it seemed his action was in vain. The Sith had broken her body as well as her spirit. She did not respond to external stimuli, and she was clearly dying. The esteemed Jedi Master could not help but wonder if it would have better for her to die on Alderaan in that prison than here, where the Jedi would likely eject her body into space once she perished.
Jram placed his hand on her forehead and, in a moment of weakness, called upon the light side of the Force. Summoning its power, he bathed the young woman’s body in a healing light that cleansed her of the lesser wounds on her body. She still did not react, but her life signs improved slightly; her heart rate—which had nearly flatlined—seemed to recover and her breathing began to stabilize. Suddenly hopeful, Jram called upon all the power at his disposal, rendering his own body weak at the cost of her recovery.
He knew that if he continued to call upon the Force, he would simply weaken himself to the point of exhaustion. She could die in spite of any other aid he offered. But she would die anyway. Ignoring his body’s natural inclination toward self-preservation, Jram summoned the Force’s power and continued to heal his patient. It became more difficult to draw on the Force’s external presence, so he turned inward.
She was not better. She had not recovered. The Jedi Master’s liberal use of the Force, even though it was the light side of the Force, weakened him to his breaking point. He could feel his aged heart quake within his chest, and his lungs struggled with each breath he took. He refused to give up. He had to rescue this girl. He had lost too many students, too many victims, and too many friends in his long tenure as a Jedi Master. But no more. The Force began tearing away at his own life, compensating for the immense power he called upon. The old Jedi felt a chill run across his body, and he knew that there was nothing left for him to do. He fell from his chair and landed on the cold floor of the ship’s medical bay.
Lack of breath and a weakened resolve left him on the floor longer than he would have liked. His vision blurred, and his legs trembled, but he was determined to stand. Grasping the side of her cot, Jram pulled himself to his knees. His eyes met hers for a brief moment before he fell to the floor again. He wasn’t going to get back up. The Force had left him, and soon his life would escape him as well. His body had reached its limit.
But her eyes had opened. He had seen them. He had succeeded.
The Quarren Jedi Master was dead by the time Telerus Eston entered the medical bay some time later. The leader of Jedi Watchcircle Dominus sauntered inside, flanked by three Jedi guards. The guards were unnecessary commodities; there was no danger here. The danger—the girl—had left her confinements and fled toward the hangars. Telerus received periodical situation reports, but they were of little interest to him. The girl would be dealt with.
Pulling his auburn robes at the legs, Telerus’s corpulent figure knelt over near the deceased Jedi Master, stooping over the body an awkward manner. He ran some of his grubby fingers through traces of his fiery red hair, mumbling as he did so. While the other Jedi investigated the area, Telerus bided his time drearily, simply examining the corpse itself. What a strange occurrence.
“So, Jram, you disobeyed me after all,” Telerus finally cooed. “You paid for your disobedience with your life, but your legacy lives on, it seems.”
Telerus called upon the Force and pulled Jram’s lightsaber from its place on his belt into his own hands. The Jedi fiddled with the weapon in his hand for a brief moment, lost in thought, before laying it to rest on his sash alongside his own weapon.
“They said you couldn’t train a perfect Padawan,” Telerus continued. “Aels died just before the Mandalore Wars, and Cesi betrayed your trust only to die in battle. Isidokis fell to the dark side, swayed by Revan’s power, and Betror died defending the Republic against that darkness. This is your last student, it seems… or is she something more?”
One of the guards turned toward Telerus. “Sir! Hangar Checkpoint Aleph is reporting in! You may want to hear this.”
Telerus nodded, and activated his earpiece comlink. “This is Master Eston.”
“Master, she’s coming this way!” the lead Jedi replied. “We still have a chance to stop her before she reaches the ships. What should we-”
A shockwave was heard on the other end of the transmission, and the Jedi on the other end was cut off abruptly. Telerus winced as static overpowered the silence. He didn’t bother confirming their deaths; he felt them perish in the Force. Switching off his earpiece comlink, Telerus stared at Jram’s motionless body, still lying on the floor at his feet.
As he stared at his dead companion, the rotund Jedi received a revelation from the Force. In that moment, he realized Jram’s plan. Jram was a loyal servant to the Watchcircle—to the true Jedi—but his loyalty was less important than his dedication to the light side of the Force. That meant if Jram disobeyed Telerus and his orders, he must have been listening to the light side of the Force itself.
Telerus almost smiled. “I see. So this is why you saved her. She is your light. You found her.”
“Sir, we’re getting reports from the gunners!” another Jedi guard said. “They’re asking for permission to destroy the personnel carrier she’s commandeered. I think if they fire now, we can do minimal damage to the stolen ship and still recover-”
“Instruct all gunners to hold their fire.”
“Do not make me repeat myself. Give the order,” Telerus snapped.
The guard nodded sheepishly and bellowed into his comlink. Once the orders had been received, the guards repositioned themselves outside, leaving Telerus alone in the medical bay. Telerus had not moved from his spot over Jram since he first stepped inside, and for the first time he turned away from the Quarren’s body and sat down in the cot that the girl had nearly died on.
He finally understood. Jram did not save her because he was content in disobeying orders. He did not rescue her because he had mercy or compassion or any sort of foolish emotion that dared to impede justice. Jram had been called by the Force to save this girl, and Telerus was certain of this. The light side had guided Jram. Amidst the darkness on Alderaan, only the old Jedi Master had seen what was meant to be seen. How could Telerus have been so blind? He had lost focus of his original fervor in his eagerness to dispel the Sith. The Watchcircle was never meant to destroy the Sith; it was meant to protect the Jedi. Protecting the Jedi meant honoring the light side of the Force.
To remind him of his pious task, the light side had become incarnated. It was the only way to get his attention. Telerus knew that the Force itself had called out to Jram, and he rescued it from its bondage on Alderaan. The light side had taken a female’s guise to elicit pity and reverence at the same time. It needed to escape that harrowing darkness. And now, the beautiful representation of the light side itself walked among them. Ashla herself was present in the universe, and she had just escaped their ship.
It was a sign, of course. The fleeing Ashla meant that it was not yet time for the Jedi to meet their goddess. They had to first venerate her beauty and prepare a sacred place for her. It only made sense. Telerus now had a purpose greater than reforming the Jedi Order. What did that matter? The fallen Jedi would all be corpses soon anyway. He was beyond their frailty now. He was a servant of Ashla herself. There was no greater honor.
“Do we have security recordings of the fugitive?” Telerus mused aloud, his voice weak and cracking.
“Yes, sir! Would you like us to procure some still images?” one of the guards replied without delay.
“Yes. I would like that very much. Let us see our goddess.”
The vast cityscape of Nar Shaddaa was so unlike Alderaan. The soft feeling of the breeze was replaced by the lingering musty smell of pollutants. Grass and flowers had been abandoned in favor of duracrete and various metals. Speeder traffic drowned out any sounds of nature that may have existed. Everything was foreign. Everything was wrong.
Dynatha Aris ran through the crowd, whimpering apologies and pardons to anyone she accidentally crashed into. The cries of her pursuers were hardly audible over the angry curses and annoyed shouts from the pedestrians around her. Guided through the sea of people, Dynatha escaped the crowd and found herself at the ledge of one of the city’s elevated walkways. Peering over the railing, she couldn’t even see the planet’s surface hundreds of kilometers below.
Ripples through her mind warned her that if she did not do something quickly, her assailants would emerge from the crowd and capture her. She had only one option. Holding her breath, desperate words ran through her mind as she climbed atop the railing and leapt off the suspended walkway. A few people in the crowd saw her out of the corner of their eyes and cried out to her, begging her not to jump. Under normal circumstances, she would have plunged to her death, colliding with a passing hoverspeeder or—if she was unfortunate—the ground.
The speed of her drop reduced dramatically. In seconds, she was safely suspended in the air, motionless and unaffected by the winds or gravity. Repositioning herself, Dynatha floated horizontally and placed herself meters above a hoverspeeder traffic-control arch. Her body smashed into the arch. Her breath was knocked out of her, and something cracked in her chest. She yelped weakly as tendrils of pain raced from her arms to her back. The Force proved a quick and able helper; the tingling sensation of its healing quickly overcame any pain she felt from the collision. Despite being fully healed in minutes, Dynatha rested on the arch, startled by her body’s rapid recovery.
Some of the civilians who had been angry with her for crashing into them scrambled to the edge of the walkway. They wanted to see if she had actually jumped, but it was too late. She was beyond their view. Little by little, the crowd dispersed; even those who pursued her eventually drifted back into the endless crowds of Nar Shaddaa.
Safe from the leery eyes of passers-by and drowned out by speeder traffic, Dynatha began crying. She didn’t now what was happening to her. Incomplete memories blurred her mind, and she was very lost. She was from Alderaan, and her last memory involved De’dlay Yavalaaka, its Sith Master. She didn’t know how she had left. After enduring unspeakable suffering at the hands of the Sith, she awoke in a mysterious ship with a dead Jedi at her feet. She didn’t know if she had killed him, but something within her had changed. Her body bore no traces of her sufferings, and her spirit seemed renewed in spite of the torture she endured. Even the Force, which she could hardly summon before, responded far more vigilantly to her call. Soon, it began to act on its own through her, saving her from incoming Jedi who intended to do her harm.
She escaped the Jedi ship and ended up here on the moon called Nar Shaddaa. Bounty hunters had been chasing her since she arrived, but the Force—although not as strong in her as time went on—protected her from them, giving her speed, resilience, and abilities she did not know were possible. In the rarest cases, it was able to heal her from crippling injuries or calm her nerves without her having to call on it. She was grateful for the assistance, but very ignorant and confused.
“Do you think she fell to her death?” she heard a bounty hunter with the Force, several hundred meters away.
“Probably jumped onto a nearby speeder,” chimed in another.
“Scan the area,” the lead bounty hunter shouted. “We’ll fetch a prize for her pretty head yet!”
Dynatha struggled to her feet, but the smooth apex of the arch proved difficult to stand on. She wanted to rest here forever, lost in thought, but just because the bounty hunters were confused didn’t mean they were finished. They would soon begin a more thorough search of the surrounding area and could get lucky and find her. As she attempted to stand, a figure suddenly faded into view nearby where it had been waiting for her invisibly. Wearing dark mesh armor and a combat helmet, the figure’s entire body was concealed from her.
He reached out his arm to grasp hers, but she backed away—nearly falling off the arch in the process.
“Go away! Don’t touch me!” Dynatha screamed.
“Peace. Be still. Are you the girl who escaped Watchcircle Dominus and killed Jedi Master Jram?” the figure asked.
“Did you not escape the Jedi?”
“Yes… I did.”
“Then you are the girl I’ve been looking for.”
“The GenoHaradan. We are assassins who defend the Republic, but they do not know of it. Only the leaders of the galaxy—those with influence and wisdom—recognize our power. Our ranks are filled with the greatest killers, thieves, and spies in the Republic.”
Dynatha backed away, careful to avoid overstepping her bounds. “Are… are you here to kill me?”
The shadowy killer chuckled. “Hardly. We heard you killed a Jedi Master on your own. That is quite a feat for one as young as you, and you’re an unbound Force-user. That is very rare. You have no family. Your life seems to end on Alderaan. You are an outcast and enemy of the Jedi. You are quite an asset to us.”
“I won’t join your league of killers!” Dynatha snapped. “I… I didn’t-”
“Well, you can find your way off this planet on your own, if you would prefer. Those bounty hunters are awfully tenacious, you know. They’ll follow you across this city until they catch you. And when they do, you are doomed to a life of slavery… or worse.”
“Are you… are you offering to protect me?”
“If you join our organization, the GenoHaradan will protect you.” His arms reached for her as he spoke. “You have nothing to fear.”
Dynatha glanced at the ledge she had leapt from and then back at the figure. She was not an assassin—or a killer. She had never killed anyone. These assassins thought she had killed that Jedi Master at her bedside on that ship. But she hadn’t done that. He was already dead… wasn’t he? She didn’t know; everything was so confusing. She needed to escape those bounty hunters, and the GenoHaradan representative made a tempting offer. She was tired, and there was nowhere to go from here. She could have refused, but in the end, it would do her no good.
She hesitated, but Dynatha finally said: “Fine. If you’ll protect me, I’ll help you and your group.”
“Excellent, then let us-”
“Wait. May I have your name, sir?”
“My name is my business. But you may call me Morgue.”
The space station Rebel Dawn orbited a lifeless planet of desert wastes in the farthest reaches of Wild Space. Its large arms collected energy from the system’s red giant while translucent but dense sheets protected the satellite from the star’s radiation. The four levels inside the station housed many of the assassins, mercenaries, and pirates under the employ of the GenoHaradan.
At one time, in its greatest days, the station could hold two thousand killers. Now, with the death of many of its overseers in the last war against the Sith, the organization struggled to survive. Maintenance and upkeep were shunned as manpower remained limited, and many sections of the station succumbed to disrepair and extensive damage. Fighting over the station had only proved to weaken the organization further, and many veteran, experienced killers had perished in the infighting. Only the very strongest remained.
As he promised, Morgue called for pickup and the two assassins were ferried back to the Rebel Dawn within a few days. Dynatha ‘Arcana’ Aris had recovered from her injuries quickly; Captain Thonnel’s hit had been less damaging than initially expected, and medpacs had accelerated the healing process. The trip back had been a silent one, and Morgue was visibly disturbed, unable to face Arcana or discuss their failure. Even when Arcana tried speaking to him, Morgue found a way to avoid her presence.
Once they reached the station, Morgue crept off and left Arcana to face the wrath of the overseer alone. Several senior-ranking assassins escorted her through the dreary halls and unnecessary security tunnels, and none of them paid her any mind. She was not a threat, nor had she ever been, but protocol was important, even for killers. Once she was deemed safe and unarmed, she was permitted into the overseer’s office after several minutes of pointless waiting.
The overseer’s office had little protection against the red giant’s radiation, and its vivid light poured into his office from a single transparent screen located behind his desk. The overseer himself was very much resistant to this painful radiation, but most of his underlings were not. Therefore, only those who failed in their mission saw the overseer personally. Luckily, the Force passively shielded Arcana from harm. Statues of defeated regimes and crushed empires lined the office’s walls, and great chests—filled with ancient treasures and lost technology—dotted the room. Such were the spoils of war. The ambient sound of a station’s internal systems kept the office from being totally silent, which Arcana counted as a blessing. The room was eerie enough as it was; silence would have made it haunted.
The overseer’s desk was modeled after his love of all things ancient, and it looked far more like a throne than a traditional workspace. Sitting on his lofty perch, the massive Chagrian was free to stare down at any visitors with disdain. Adorned in red robes lined with blue markings—one for each of his many kills during his tenure as a lowly assassin—the overseer almost blended in with the red light of his chamber.
Arcana nodded meekly as she approached the overseer. “Sir, Morgue and I returned from our mission. I’m here to give you our report.”
The Chagrian’s massive lethorns, otherwise resting on his shoulders, twitched slightly. Smiling toothily, he said: “Dynatha Aris, I have already heard of your mission.”
“I have heard of your failure from Morgue himself.”
Arcana frowned. Morgue used her injury as a chance to discuss the mission with the overseer and ensure he would remain out of trouble. She hadn’t expected this from him, but there was nothing he could do now. “I’m sorry. It’s true. I have failed.”
“Your apologies are unnecessary.” The overseer cupped his hands atop his left knee, seemingly relaxed. “You did not kill Colonel Eto. That is all that matters.”
“You have yet to complete a job satisfactorily.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“You’ve told me this after every mission. In my mercy, I have spared your life. Perhaps I am wrong to do so. In fact, I believe you are not the effective killer I thought you were. When you are alone, you fail. When you are with another, you provide little assistance. You have the strength to be an unstoppable killer. I know this, and those who work with you know it as well. Are you so averse to the GenoHaradan that you try to subvert our methods from the inside?”
“That was not my intention, sir.”
“Really? Then what do you intend to do?” the overseer growled, his anger far more evident now.
“… All I wanted was protection,” Arcana muttered. “You hadn’t told me I had to-”
With a booming laugh, the overseer spat on his visitor. “You didn’t think you’d have to pay us back? You didn’t think you would have to owe us your safety? Dynatha Aris, I knew you were kindhearted, but I did not think you were stupid!”
“Shut up, you insolent brat!” The overseer’s façade of patience had faded entirely. He leapt from his seat, reaching her at a speed so startling it would have impressed a Force-sensitive. “How dare you try to pander to me with your blasé words of respect? How dare you betray my good will? You will kill for me, Dynatha Aris, or you will find yourself begging for death at the hands of my most experienced torturers. Do you understand?”
At full height, well over two meters, the Chagrian giant dwarfed Arcana. Even if he had not, she was too frightened to look him in the eyes. ‘Yes’ was all she could force herself to say.
“Excellent,” the overseer continued, his tone calming considerably. “I will give you one final chance to complete a mission successfully. If you do not, your life is mine. You will be working with the Ghoul-”
Arcana’s eyes widened. “The Ghoul, sir?”
“Yes. You and he will be killing Lucius Velle, a fugitive and criminal who has a knack for stealing secrets. If he was captured by the Sith,— or the wrong figures in the Republic hierarchy—it would cause irreparable damage to the Galactic Republic. Do you understand?”
“Why not Morgue?”
“I’d like to ask for Morgue’s assistance in this missi-”
The overseer struck Arcana across the face. She remained upright, but she realized that her nose was bleeding.
“How dare you?” the Chagrian growled. “Make requests of me? You are lucky to be alive long enough to go on this mission. Be gone: do not enter my sight unless you are bringing me Lucius Velle’s head.”
“Yes… sir,” Arcana whimpered. She left his presence without another word, wounded and frightened.
She could feel the rumbling of the engines. She could hear the tiniest blips of the ship’s autopilot system. In her meditative trance, her surroundings escaped the confines of crude matter and exploded into an ethereal vivacity. The Force, binding all life together, created webs of energy throughout the ship—throughout the galaxy—that Arcana could sense. After their ship took off and left the station behind, Arcana retreated to the cargo hold and immersed herself in the Force. She knew the Ghoul was on board but had not seen him and did not acknowledge his presence. They were alone on the ship, and that frightened her. It took all her strength not to scream when she discovered that he would be accompanying her.
The Ghoul was infamous, even in the company of assassins, torturers, and convicts, for his homicidal psychopathy. A killer of some renown even before joining their ranks, he had amassed a kill count not seen since the days before the Great Hyperspace War, and he occasionally dabbled in treason by killing those fighting on his side. Every member of the GenoHaradan, given the chance, would have refused to work with the Ghoul. In spite of his skill, in spite of his knack for success, he was simply too dangerous to be trusted.
Arcana took some comfort in the fact that it would soon not matter. She wasn’t going to complete this mission anyway. It was time for her to escape these killers. Sure, she had tried several times before, and each time she had failed. But this time would be different. The GenoHaradan had many contacts, but Arcana had learned recently they were all confined to Republic space. If she could escape Republic jurisdiction and flee to Sith space to begin a new life, there was no way the assassins could track her down.
The GenoHaradan would be her death if she fled, but she could not bear to bring death to others. It would be difficult, but she had to flee. All she had to do was figure out a way to escape the Ghoul.
“You… you are the one they call Arcana, correct?”
The hoarse voice pulled her from her meditation. The Ghoul walked around the room, not actually watching Arcana but encircling her like a predator. She had not sensed him approach; in fact, she had hardly sensed him at all. His location in the Force, like his person, seemed to drift at random, as though he was actually very far away despite the fact he stood mere meters from her. Did his species have the ability to conceal their presence in the Force? Such a thing was certainly impossible.
Arcana focused on Ghoul himself. He was as disturbing as his name suggested. Dressed like a macabre eremite, his flowing blue robes raced down his arms and over his legs to the floor. He was hunched over slightly, but he moved about with vigor that suggested that it was not age that caused it. His grotesque mask—complete with cranial horns and four fake eyes—smiled back at her with an eerily inhuman smile, and his face beneath was entirely concealed.
She had only glanced at him for a moment, and she already never wanted to see him again. She felt uncomfortable just thinking about him. “Yes… yes I am. You must be the Ghoul.”
He simply nodded. Names were precious in the GenoHaradan. Only the overseer himself knew the true names of his operatives because it was far too dangerous for other agents to have that much knowledge. With a real name, an agent could track down friends, family, and use the past as blackmail. Names were dangerous. Identities were dangerous. To give out a name was practically to hand over all the nuances, weaknesses, and fears of a target. Only the overseer had such absolute power. Therefore, Arcana and the Ghoul would know each other by the code names they had been given.
“I suppose you’ve been briefed on the mission?” she asked.
He nodded again and turned to leave.
“Wait!” Arcana called after him. “Ghoul!”
“What is it?”
“Why did you come down here?”
Arcana heard what seemed to amount to a confused murmur, and the Ghoul turned to face her yet again. “I wanted to know if you were still alive back here.”
“That’s nice of you,” Arcana managed to say.
The Ghoul scoffed. “Just because I have yet to kill you.”
“But… you can’t…”
“You think your precious overseer cares what I do? You think your rank protects you from me? Don’t be stupid.”
“I don’t think you’d actually kill me.” Arcana couldn’t believe she had said that.
The Ghoul turned and faded from view, leaving Arcana alone in the cargo hold. There she remained for hours, not able to muster the strength to stand, much less leave. He confused her, and she didn’t feel like running into him elsewhere on the ship. He had to keep her alive, didn’t he? The assassins couldn’t just kill each other. The GenoHaradan were immoral and sadistic, but how could they be so self-destructive? Afraid that she would die the next time she saw him, Arcana stayed where she was. Sadly, the cargo hold was cold, and the room was pitifully empty. There was nothing to do except meditate in the Force and ponder her situation.
After many hours, her body grew weary, and she curled up in a corner to rest. The savage tortures of the Sith and the long days without food, water, or hope returned to her in her sleep. Nightmares beckoned, and every time she awoke she did so with a cry. Every night, she slept like this. Ever since being rescued, her rest was haunted by memories of her past. De’dlay’s cackling laughter echoed in her mind even after she woke up.
During their journey, she had to force herself to stay awake as long as possible. Her mind tried to wander to happy things—Alderaan before the Sith, her infatuation with Raen Benax, and her rescue—but such things did not remain with her for long. Even meditating on the Force was not as effective as she hoped. She endured three standard days and nights of silence, loneliness, and night terrors, not being confronted by the Ghoul again until their fourth day in hyperspace.
“You were crying in your sleep,” he said matter-of-factly. “Will you be ready for the mission?”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine. Thank you for caring,” she replied coldly.
“I’m not.” He took her comment at face value. “If you slow me down, I will kill you.”
He was almost out of the cargo hold. “What is it?”
“Is it true, what they say? Are you really a…” she hesitated. It was stupid question. She had to ask it. “Have you really murdered other GenoHardan before? And… civilian targets?”
“Is that so hard to believe?”
“No, I… I just… I’ve heard stories.”
“And they’re all true, I assure you.”
“So you’ve killed parents? Elderly? Children?” Arcana jumped to her feet. Even in her weakness, she was seething. He seemed so relaxed. Did he have no conscience? Why was he not furious at her accusations? It was disgusting. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it bother me? I get paid by the head. No heads, no food. It’s like putting down game. The hunter doesn’t complain. He has to eat, after all.”
“Speaking of eating,” the Ghoul mused, ignoring her, “you haven’t left the cargo hold in a while. I thought you’d be hungry. Here.”
Arcana caught the packet of sealed rations he threw at her. Examining the label, she was led to believe that, although healthy and nourishing, it probably would not be like dining in Alderaan’s regal district. She couldn’t complain; it was food, and she was very hungry. The reluctant assassin turned to thank the Ghoul, but he was already gone. Crept out as silently as he had arrived.
After she finished eating, Arcana ventured from the cargo hold in search of the Ghoul. They were certainly nearing their destination, and she had to thank him for the food, regardless of his opinion of her. The ship was not at all spacious, but it certainly accommodated the two passengers well enough. Neither of them seemed to need much room, anyway.
She searched for nearly an hour, surprised at how easily the Ghoul could conceal himself in such a small vessel. She was ready to retire to the cargo hold, but convinced herself to perform one more sweep through the ship. Luckily—or unluckily—for her, she found the Ghoul in the cockpit, even though he had definitely not been there before. His hands rested on the chair’s arms, and he seemed utterly lost in thought. The viewport was still awash with the blurred view of hyperspace, and they were not close enough to their destination for him to take control of the ship.
He shivered when he heard her voice, as though she had woke him from a light sleep. “What is it?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Do you think here often?”
The Ghoul shrugged, spinning the seat to face her. “I think when I can. What do you need?”
“I just wanted to thank you for the food.” Arcana motioned to the cargo hold, hinting at their previous encounter. “I appreciate it.”
He grumbled something under his breath and nodded sluggishly. “You had not eaten. How will you kill if your body and mind are unprepared?”
“So you’re not planning on killing me?” Arcana found herself teasing.
“That’s not what I said.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, all the same.”
The Ghoul spun the chair to face the viewport. “I’ll contact you when we land.”
“You don’t mind if I sit-”
“Yes, I do. Leave.”
The Ghoul refused to acknowledge her presence or respond to her call. Knowing it was useless, Arcana left the cockpit, returning to the cargo hold as quietly as she had entered.
She was awakened by the sudden absence of the rumbling caused by the ship’s engines. She didn’t know what time it was, and she didn’t know what time they had landed, but Arcana realized that the Ghoul had not roused her. She hadn’t expected him to, but he had had promised her that he would. Gathering her meager possessions and equipment, Arcana left the cargo hold and returned to the ship’s cockpit, eager to confront the Ghoul on their situation.
The Ghoul was still facing the viewport when Arcana arrived. Gone were the azure lines of hyperspace, replaced by the image of a barren wasteland stretching before them in all directions. He had set the ship down by himself, then. The planet’s two suns were visible in the distance, beating down upon the savage wastes with a tenacious ferocity.
“You’re awake. Good,” the Ghoul muttered. “We have much to do.”
“You didn’t wake me up!” Arcana protested. “You said you would!”
“We have to hurry and find our prey. Don’t waste my time with such trivialities. The longer we linger here, the longer they have to prepare their defenses.”
Arcana appeared startled. “Do they know we’re here?”
“I don’t know. There were several ships stationed near a beachhead several kilometers to the west. I do not know how long they have been there, but it is unlikely that they were derelicts.”
“We should scout with our ship and try to discern their strengths.”
“No,” the Ghoul replied. “There’s no point wasting precious time and resources by taking the ship. If we’re to scout at all, we should scout on foot.”
“That’s ridiculous. It will take hours to travel there,” Arcana countered. “If you’re worried about them amassing defenses, going by foot will only give them that chance!”
“And if they don’t know we’re here yet by some chance, then taking our ship will surely alert them. Come, we don’t have time to argue about this.”
Arcana grumbled loudly, but surrendered to the Ghoul’s demands. She didn’t like the idea of walking all the way to their target, but she decided that picking a fight with the Ghoul over such an issue was not the wisest course of action. Besides, he was far more experienced than her, and it was only fair that he decide the course of action they took. He may have been an insane killer, but he was evidently intelligent enough to plan ahead for these things. Falling in step behind the shadowy assassin, she armed herself with a blaster rifle and followed him outside. The Ghoul had not grabbed anything, but he slipped on a pair of gloves with slender, serrated vibroblades attached to the edges.
“No blaster?” Arcana asked.
“No point,” the Ghoul countered. “Assassination is pointless if you cannot see their dying expression clearly.”
As expected, the planet was as uninviting as it appeared. Scalding daytime temperatures and dry winds made Arcana immediately regret acquiescing to the Ghoul’s idea, and she bitterly cursed her luck as she trekked across the arid earth. The Ghoul seemed to pay his surroundings no mind, either because he knew better than to complain, or he did not want to admit his idea was a terrible one. If he was suffering, Arcana couldn’t tell.
The two marched for some time in complete silence. The Ghoul seemed well-oriented on this alien world, and he led the way while Arcana followed not far behind. The winds picked up as they traveled farther from their ship, whipping across Arcana’s face viciously. The Ghoul ignored Arcana’s calls to slow down or rest until the weather calmed, and the two proceeded undeterred but uncomfortable.
As they pressed onward, Arcana heard something behind a large rock to the south. She glanced at the Ghoul to see if he had heard anything, but the other assassin paid her no mind. He seemed far more interested in reaching their destination than anything. Slowing to a halt, Arcana wandered toward the rock.
She approached the source of the noise, and three armed warriors leapt from behind the rock to greet her. They were Weequay marauders, immediately identifiable by their leathery wrinkled skin and stout constitution. They were all lightly armored, but the marauders all held a blaster pistol and vibrosword in their hands. Whooping and screaming like crazed beings, the middle warrior—apparently the leader—goaded his associates on, eager to attack.
Arcana fled from the three attackers, calling out to the Ghoul for aid as blaster fire raced toward her. The Ghoul noticed the attackers, but he didn’t act until Arcana had returned to his side. Dodging a few blaster shots, the Ghoul kicked up a massive billow of dust around them, shielding them from their assailants’ sight. Before Arcana could turn and thank him, the Ghoul disappeared into the cloud without a word. Arcana instinctively dropped to the ground to avoid incoming blaster fire; the dust cloud lasted only a few seconds before it cleared, exposing her again.
One of the Weequay in the distance let out a gurgling cry, and then he toppled over with all the grace of a durasteel slab. His two allies noticed his death immediately and stopped shooting at Arcana. She recovered her footing and raced toward the confused gunmen while the Ghoul used his finger-blades to kill another Weequay. The lead brigand was the last enemy standing. He turned to flee from the two assassins, but Arcana was practically on his heels. A quick kick to the back sent the Weequay to the ground with a thud, and the Ghoul arrived seconds after he had been incapacitated. Placing a firm boot on the assailant’s right wrist, he pressed down until he heard a satisfying crunch. Arcana winced as the Weequay let out a terrifying scream and cursed the two assassins in Huttese.
“Do you speak Basic, beast?” the Ghoul asked.
The Weequay shouted something in Huttese, and it didn’t sound flattering. Neither of the assassins spoke Huttese, but Arcana sympathized with their wounded hostage. The Ghoul gave him a swift kick to the jaw to silence him.
“Wrong answer.” The Ghoul’s foot returned to the Weequay’s wrist. “If you don’t speak Basic, you are useless to us. Answer my questions, or I’ll just kill you and move on with my day.”
“I talk your mangled tongue,” the Weequay spat. “But I not die today.”
The Ghoul seemed pleased. “I never asked what your intentions were. But you speak Basic, and that’s good. Why did you attack us?”
“Orders,” the Weequay mumbled.
“Whose orders?” Arcana spoke up.
As if on cue, several small skiffs raced across the wastes toward them. These hovering skiffs surrounded the two assassins and their single unfortunate victim, their various onboard turrets facing toward the center of the circle. Each skiff housed at least a dozen more warrior—including Nikto, Klatooinians, and Vodrans—all armed with various vibroweapons and blasters.
Once they were in position, a larger skiff entered the circle as though it were the alpha male of its pack. It had no turret defenses of its own, making room for the single largest Hutt Arcana had ever seen. Surrounded by Gank warrior-guardsman that he easily dwarfed, he nearly filled the entire skiff by his lonesome. Drool collected just below his mouth and his gray hands were stained green from the remains of his latest meal. His tail flickered with delight as he observed the scene, pleased with himself for catching the two assassins by surprise.
“Oh, ho, ho,” the Hutt rumbled. He spoke in Huttese, and his booming voice was translated by a rather bizarre floating droid. The droid’s audio settings matched the tone of the Hutt’s voice almost perfectly. “I am Mercium the Grandiose, chief tradesman in this sector. Who might you be, sentients, and why are you harming my mercenaries?”
The Ghoul said nothing. Instead of addressing the Hutt, he pulled the Weequay to his feet and placed his bladed glove against his back. Each step he took was monitored by the numerous turrets surrounding them, ready to vaporize him in an instant. Mercium simply had to say the word, and they would be dead.
“Ghoul!” Arcana whispered. “What are you doing?”
“If you give the order to kill us, I guarantee this warrior will die,” the Ghoul growled.
The Hutt laughed. He didn’t understand the Ghoul, but the message was clear. As his translator droid translated the Ghoul’s words to him, Mercium spoke: “I like this warrior; he has backbone! A very interesting change of pace. Tell me, why are you in this sector?”
“We’re looking for someone,” Arcana said, ignoring a sudden glare from the Ghoul.
“Looking? Have you lost one of your companions?” the Hutt chortled even as his droid finishing cross-translating.
“No, we’re looking for a man named Lucius Velle. We’re going to kill him,” Arcana admitted.
“Lucius Velle!” the Hutt bellowed. A few of his other warriors jumped at the sound of his furious voice. “That cavalier has cost me more credits than a shipment of malfunctioning hyperdrives. Let me tell you: if you are enemies of Lucius Velle, you are friends of mine!”
“What did he do to you?” Arcana asked.
Mercium paused for a moment before explaining. “Lucius Velle kidnapped many of my newly acquired Wookiee and Twi’lek slaves, intent on selling them to the Coruscant elite for great prices. I chased that stealing slaver trying to apprehend him, but he holed himself in very well—like the rat he is!”
Arcana turned to the Ghoul. “We should help him.”
“I don’t like it,” the Ghoul replied curtly.
“His goals are our goals. I think it would benefit us both of we worked together,” Arcana said. “Or would you prefer to hunt your prey alone?”
“The girl has sense. You would do well to listen to her, assassin,” Mercium noted.
The Ghoul sighed and separated himself from the injured Weequay. Withdrawing himself, the Ghoul watched his target hobble from the center of the circle to the nearest skiff.
“Very well,” he said at last. “I don’t like it, but if you’re after Lucius, we can work together.”
“Excellent!” Mercium boomed. “Then you must come with us. We have a great many things to do, and so little time!”