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The suns had long since set over the eastern skies, and darkness overtook the wastes. A chill air spread across Mercium’s camp, but Arcana managed to keep warm near several fires set up around the central amphitheater. Mercium’s camp was situated near small hills near the end of the beach further away from the water’s edge. Inside his camp, there were more tents than Arcana could count, all set up in the shade of the troop carriers that the Ghoul had seen during their descent. Several skiffs and speeders were lined up on the opposite side of the camp while turrets rested near the water’s edge.

Arcana had never seen so much food. The Hutt had prepared a masterful banquet for his two newest allies, despite the fact that the Ghoul did not take part in the festivities. Arcana had been awed by Mercium’s entertainment and his exotic foods. However, the novelty of the situation wore thin quickly; she found herself unable to eat very much. Mercium seemed to understand, and he gave the order for his slaves to join in the feast in the place of his allies.

It didn’t take long for boredom to set in, and Arcana could not enjoy herself. Excusing herself from the banquet, Arcana drifted from the campsite into the beach itself. The Ghoul had wandered off, and she had not seen him in several hours. She didn’t know why, but she was worried about him. He had been wholly uncaring, and he was still quite terrifying, but her concern remained. Perhaps she just felt terrible for enjoying herself while he wandered in the cold night.

At the water’s edge, she could see a derelict ship in the distance. The modified light cruiser seemed to be the target of every single deactivated turret on the beach. The light of the stars provided practically no visibility, but she could clearly see the scars of combat across the port side of the ship, including a massive whole in the portside hull. How the ship remained above water at all, she had no idea. The water was fairly shallow, but the damaged vessel should have drifted into deeper waters as the tide poured in.

The ship had totally captured her attention, and Arcana didn’t even notice the Ghoul’s approach. Wandering toward her from the distant ends of the beach, he stood by her side and waited silently. His gaze also turned toward the ship, and she didn’t notice him for some time.

“Ghoul!” she cried, suddenly noticing his presence in the Force. “How… how long have you been standing there?”

“Not long. What are you doing out here, Arcana? I thought you would be inside, enjoying Mercium’s hospitality,” the Ghoul countered.

She shook her head. “I wanted to see the ocean. What about you?”

“I don’t like banquets.” His eyes drifted toward the sea. “I came here to think. Prepare for tomorrow.”

“Can I stay with you?”

The Ghoul’s mask seemed to eye her suspiciously. “It’s dangerous.”

“I don’t care. I want to speak with you.”

The Ghoul hesitated for a moment, not sure how to respond. Arcana didn’t budge, and she was clearly serious. He finally nodded and walked off. Arcana fell into step near the Ghoul, joining him in his silent trek.

The two of them said nothing to each other for a very long time. The Ghoul was lost in his own thoughts, and Arcana was enraptured by the beach and its beauty. Shells in a rainbow of colors littered the sand beneath them, sparkling in the dim light. The waves tossed and tumbled, spewing bits of aquatic vegetation and wet sand toward them. Even the chill air seemed to invigorate her. Despite the Ghoul’s warning, there was no danger as far as either of them could see, and the entire trip was actually rather serene. Arcana’s nerves were calmed, and the Ghoul seemed rather content with himself after his introspection.

“Arcana,” the Ghoul said without warning.

“Yes?”

“Why haven’t you killed?”

“My previous targets, you mean?” Arcana clarified.

The Ghoul nodded.

Arcana stopped for a moment. “I’m not a killer, Ghoul. I never wanted to take lives. I don’t know—I was stupid. I joined the GenoHaradan expecting to remain with them for a few months and then leave.”

“That is stupid of you.”

“I didn’t think I’d be forced to kill. But it’s okay.”

“Why is that?”

Arcana paused for a moment. She did not think the Ghoul would have her justify her answer. He probably did not even care; thus, there would be no harm in telling him. On the other hand, he was an assassin, through and through. If he had any loyalty to the GenoHaradan at all, her plan would fall through. She could lie, of course, but what good would that do? She was still unsure if he was Force-sensitive or merely extraordinarily stealthy. No, if she was going to work with the Ghoul at all, she had to trust him.

“I’m going to escape,” she said at last.

“Is that so?”

“During this mission, while you and Mercium’s men hunt Lucius, I’ll flee. I’ll take a ship and escape from Republic space,” Arcana said.

“I’ll have to stop you.”

Arcana’s eyes fell to her feet. She was afraid he would say that. “Why?”

“I have my own reasons to remain loyal to the GenoHaradan. If I let you escape or die here, I won’t be able to accomplish my own goals.”

“So you are with them against your will, too?” Arcana pressed.

The Ghoul said nothing.

“Ghoul?”

Again he said nothing. Arcana trembled. Why she did that, she had no idea. She knew that she should have ignored him, or merely said nothing. And yet there was something within her that told her that he was a kindred spirit, somehow. The Ghoul could easily keep her from escaping. In fact, it would be impossible for her to escape now. The Ghoul would return to the GenoHaradan and tell the overseer of Arcana’s plans. He had to do whatever was necessary to ensure his own plans would succeed, after all, and Arcana couldn’t ask him to surrender his goals for her sake. He wouldn’t.

Struggling to maintain her composure in the face of this sudden disappointment, Arcana abandoned the Ghoul to his musings and returned to camp. She didn’t look back.

*** ***

Arcana and the Ghoul met with Mercium in the central amphitheater as soon as the suns rose, per his request. The Hutt was surrounded by his usual contingent of Gank killers. He was positioned near a vast holographic projector, displaying the camp, the beach, and the damaged ship resting in the ocean. The Hutt’s advisers joined the two assassins: Bal’thuk, the Weequay injured by the Ghoul yesterday, stood near Mercium, and Rashinodies, the Hutt’s massive Trandoshan lieutenant, sat on a nearby footlocker. Combined, the two of them led some eight hundred men, and there were several dozen droid combatants that were monitored by Mercium himself.

Neither of them had spoken to Rashinodies, but he seemed neutral toward them. Bal’thuk, on the other hand, regarded them coldly. Naturally, Bal’thuk’s injuries and lack of involvement in the planning process made him irate at both the assassins and the Hutt himself. He had seen the assassins’ vessel as it descended and had been tasked with investigating the disturbance even though he was the leader of the mercenaries. That left Rashinodies, the one in charge of the Hutt’s contingent of slaves, responsible for deciding their plan of attack.

“Now that you are all here, we may begin,” rumbled Mercium’s translator droid. “Our goal for today is to eliminate Lucius Velle. Please turn your attention to the holoprojector.”

The four guests obliged, turning to face the image of what would soon be a battlefield.

“As you can see, Lucius Velle’s ship has crashed into a rather sturdy—shockingly so, as I’ve been informed by my xenobiologists—garden of reefs. Furthermore, it is close enough to the shore that it is affected very little by the waves, keeping the ship from sinking into the ocean entirely.”

“Is Lucius inside?” Arcana asked.

Bal’thuk nodded and growled: “Lucius Velle and seventeen warriors—including eleven Lord Mercium’s slaves—lived in crash and fight back our attacks.”

“We have reduced their numbers considerably,” Mercium continued. “As far as we know, there are only three of them left inside the ship, and they are weakening with each passing day. With your help, we will succeed and kill them all today.”

“What do you need us to do?” the Ghoul grumbled.

“You will be lead team,” Bal’thuk noted, quite bitterly. “You assassins, after all. You have good killing skills. Get by defenses and reach ship while our warriors distract them. Once inside, you give signal, and we attack with full power.”

“Unless we kill them all first,” the Ghoul replied.

“Of course, assassin,” Mercium replied. “Now, let us prepare. Low-tide begins in less than an hour, and we still have to rally our troops.”

*** ***

Arcana and the Ghoul stood side-by-side at the water’s edge. They observed the damaged cruiser—their target—floating in the distance, and Arcana reminisced about how much had changed since last night, when they stood alone in the darkness. Now they were surrounded by Bal’thuk and his men, and a vast number of Mercium’s warrior-slaves. The turrets that had been used on the skiffs had been placed nearby, erected to fire upon the ship itself.

“Are you ready, Arcana?” the Ghoul seemed to be livid in anticipation.

She sighed. “I suppose I have no choice anymore. Let’s go.”

Once they were ready, several slaves left the horde on the beach and charged into the water. Advancing with whooping cries, they held their blasters aloft as they raced through the water at low tide. As they pressed forward, laser fire erupted behind them, and the turrets began a constant barrage at the half-submerged vessel in the distance, pinning its defenders inside and damaging the ship itself.

The cover fire kept the slaves from harm for some time, and they had begun swimming the last hundred meters toward the ship. Their success proved fleeting. An arrow fell from the sky, as if from an overhead vessel, and struck one of the approaching slaves in the head. His body sank for a moment before rising to the surface in a dead man’s float. Several blaster shots were fired from the derelict; none of them hit at their targets, but they did frighten the incoming warriors. More arrows fell and picked off the slaves one-by-one, establishing half a dozen watery graves. Only three slaves reached the reef that the cruiser was stuck on, and they were peppered with blaster fire before they could enter the ship.

While the slaves had advanced audaciously, the two assassins swam from the beach toward the ship, navigating around it and using the deep water as cover from projectiles. The Ghoul led the way, and Arcana was very glad the water was calm. They arrived at the starboard side of the ship—the side facing away from the beach—but realized there were no entryways here. Any additional entrances must have been created by the turret fire from Mercium’s men. The Ghoul and Arcana carefully ventured across the massive reef that kept the derelict mere meters from plunging into the ocean’s depths and found themselves on the port side. Turret fire was raging around them, blasting chunks off the hull and scarring the battered vessel. Glancing at the beach, it was clear that Bal’thuk did not intend to send more troops to their aid until he was certain they were inside.

The Ghoul withdrew his bladed gauntlet. “Are you ready?”

Arcana nodded.

The Ghoul had taken Arcana’s acknowledgement of preparation as permission. Leaping through the hole in the side of the ship that proved to be the only entrance, he narrowly avoided a trio of shots from a turret in the distant. Arcana followed the wily killer, jumping headlong through the opening and finding herself in a decimated chamber. What had once been presumably been a navigation room was now a near unrecognizable mess, littered with emergency crates and damaged footlockers. Small puddles of seawater remained from when high tide had flooded this area. Durasteel beams and the damaged remains of the hull tore through what had been the ceiling, opening the chamber to the planet’s sunlight. The other areas of the ship seemed to be blocked off, leaving this as the last bastion for its wearied defenders.

In the corner of the room, the Ghoul was already fighting two of their targets. The first target was a bearded Human male with flowing blond hair and piercing green eyes. His face reflected a tired spirit that struggled with ferocious tenacity. He fought back the Ghoul’s numerous finger-blades with a vibrosword in one hand and a vibroblade in another. The other target was a Vultan male with a dark complexion and a mass of cartilage wrapped around his head. He was older than his ally and the assassins; the kill-marks on his pauldron hinted that he was an experienced combatant. Even so, he couldn’t shoot at the Ghoul with his blaster rifle because his ally seemed to keep drifting into his line of sight. Knowing he could accidentally wound his compatriot, the Vultan remained stolid, watching the duel while his blaster at the ready.

Arcana joined the fray immediately. Concentrating her power and calling upon the Force, she launched a telekinetic burst at the Vultan gunner. As expected, he was launched off his feet and sent into the nearby wall. The Vultan was incapacitated in moments, and once she was sure that he was harmless, Arcana turned her attention to the Ghoul’s opponent. However, she didn’t know how to help the Ghoul without interfering in the duel, and she remained vigilant despite not acting.

The Vultan recovered from his injuries startlingly quickly. Sneaking behind Arcana, he took his blaster rifle and smashed the butt of his rifle into the back of her head. She hadn’t heeded the Force’s warning and was not prepared for his attack; with a soft gasp, she hit the floor. The Ghoul noticed Arcana’s defeated and nearly lost a hand in his distraction; a quick roll saved his limb from his opponent’s blades.

However, he had lost his focus. The Ghoul didn’t even notice their third target’s arrival—a titanic Wookiee. The Wookiee leapt down from a hole in the ceiling and bellowed in rage. Too startled to fight back, the Ghoul failed to dodge the hairy sentient’s attack, and the Wookiee knocked him to the ground with a single swing of his muscular arm.

It took a few minutes to get the two dazed assassins in binders, restraining them and separating them from their weapons. The Ghoul awoke soon thereafter, finding himself staring down the muzzle of the Vultan’s blaster rifle. The Wookiee was nearby, armed with a longbow of crude design. Arcana awoke several minutes later, startled and disoriented, with the Human’s blade near her throat.

“Well,” the Human said coolly. “They’re both awake.”

“We might as well kill them now,” the Vultan insisted. “They’re not worth keeping alive.”

“Aren’t they?” the Human countered. “Their lives could be worth something to Mercium. We might be able to work out a trade.”

“They are the vanguard force, and they are probably valuable. However, they are also dangerous. Too dangerous to be kept alive, I think,” the Vultan reasoned.

“What do you think, Syrook?” the Human asked the Wookiee.

The Wookiee, apparently named Syrook, growled and roared at the two defenders.

“I agree. Let’s just kill them now,” the Vultan said.

“Let the girl go,” the Ghoul spoke up.

The Vultan kicked the Ghoul in the face, and Arcana yelped when she heard something shatter—either on the mask, or underneath it.

“Shut up,” the Vultan snapped. “You don’t get to speak! You’re a hostage!”

The Ghoul’s mask cracked down the center, revealing a stream of blood that raced down the grotesque face. “Let her go,” he said again. “I convinced her to do this. She’s only Mercium’s slave. You’d do him a disservice by freeing her.”

“And an equal disservice by killing her!” the Vultan growled.

“You don’t understand,” the Ghoul interrupted, “which is understandable. You don’t look too smart. She has information about the Hutt’s defensive placements. Troop count. Reinforcements.”

Syrook growled, and Vultan asked his question for him. “Syrook’s right. How would she know any of that?”

“Mercium’s favorite slave has constant access to his bedchambers. She can listen to all his plans and secret deliberations,” the Ghoul said.

“Ghoul,” Arcana whispered, flustered at the implications, “what are you doing?”

“Shut up,” he snapped. Turning his attention to their captors, he concluded: “How about it? Free her and keep me. The price of my bounty is enough to buy a heavy cruiser. Dead or alive.”

“That’s stupid. Let’s just kill them both here,” the Vultan said. “We need to return our attention to the defenses anyway.”

“We’ll free the girl,” the Human said.

“What? Vaerk, no!” the Vultan objected.

“She knows the Hutt’s offensive and defensive capabilities. If she is a slave, then she could be doing this against her will. We don’t have a right to keep her here, especially if she’s willing to help us. We’ll keep him though.” The Human, Vaerk, motioned toward the Ghoul.

“Fine,” the Vultan grumbled. “Syrook, free the girl.”

The Wookiee snapped Arcana’s binders. Rising to her feet, Arcana began to speak, but she was silenced by a stern glare from the Ghoul. She hesitated for a moment, and then turned to her captors, who seemed intent on actually letting her leave.

The Ghoul wanted to remain here. She didn’t know why. What reason did he have to stay behind while convincing them to free her? It made no sense, at first. Then an epiphany struck her. The only reason he had was to allow her to flee. If he died here, then there was no way for him to prevent her from escaping the GenoHaradan. He couldn’t be questioned later about her disappearance. In fact, there was almost no way for the GenoHaradan to discover whether she had vanished or simply died. But why would he do that? Hadn’t he said earlier it was his job to stop her?

“You may leave. We will not strike you once your back has turned. You have my word as a soldier,” Vaerk said.

“But any help you are willing to offer us would be helpful,” the Vultan quickly added.

“I’m not leaving,” she said suddenly.

“Arcana, shut up and go!” the Ghoul growled. “Get out-”

“No, you shut up! I’m not leaving you here, Ghoul!”

“Then both of you will die!” the Vultan shouted, obviously agitated.

“Hold on, Raxsus!” Vaerk grabbed the Vultan’s arm, redirecting his weapon. “Who are you people, and why are you so intent on staying?”

“My name is Arcana, and this is the Ghoul. We are members of the GenoHaradan.”

“The what?” Vaerk asked. “I’ve never heard of them.”

“We’re an organization of assassins who try to defend the Galactic Republic from external disarray and internal disunity,” Arcana explained. “Lately, we’ve been losing members from infighting.”

“Ah, so you were here to kill me,” the Vultan mused. “I suppose it all makes sense; I, Raxsus Nuli, am a great pirate-”

“We weren’t here to kill you,” the Ghoul growled. “We were here to kill a man named Lucius Velle.”

“Lucius Velle,” Vaerk repeated. “Now that is a name I haven’t heard in a very long time, and one I did not expect to hear again.”

“You know him, then?” Arcana asked.

“Of course I do. It’s me. I am both Lucius Velle and Vaerk Luus, Republic starfighter pilot and Sith captain.”

“That makes no sense,” the Ghoul pointed out.

“So you are trying to kill my comrade-in-arms and Syrook’s life-debtor,” Raxsus noted, ignoring the Ghoul. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”

“We don’t intend to kill anyone!” Arcana quickly countered. “Not anymore, anyway.”

“We don’t?” the Ghoul asked, surprised.

Arcana shook her head. “I don’t know why our organization wants you dead, Lucius, but if it’s the same reasons Mercium wants you dead, then I don’t approve of their decision.”

“I see. So what do you intend to do?” Lucius asked, keeping his hand on his blade. “You can’t just leave. If you tell Mercium of your failure, he’ll surely kill you. You could try to flee, but it would be difficult.”

“That defensive line he’s set up has made any sort of escape impossible,” Raxsus noted dryly.

“We could assist you,” Arcana suggested. “I don’t know all of his strengths and weaknesses, but I know enough to aid you. We did try to kill you, after all. We owe you.”

“So you’ll simply have another chance?” Raxsus snapped. “What a brilliant idea, miss assassin!”

“Peace, Raxsus,” Lucius snapped at the pirate, and then returned his attention to Arcana. “I’ll consider your idea. You may not be threatening to us, but your friend is. He will remain in binders for now. Is that fair?”

“That sounds reasonable,” Arcana reasoned. “Ghoul?”

The Ghoul grunted his approval.

“Very well. If you’ll excuse us, we have to attend to the defenses. Mercium will definitely not end his assault after a single wave,” Lucius explained.

“If only it were so easy,” Raxsus replied gloomily.

The three defenders dispersed around the derelict ship, watching the beach for any incoming warriors. Once they had left, Arcana approached the Ghoul and helped him to his feet. Although he was having difficultly standing without the aid of his arms, he did not admit it to Arcana and brushed off her help.

“Are you all right, Ghoul?”

“I’ll be fine,” he snapped.

“Don’t be angry with me.”

“Why didn’t you leave?”

“I wasn’t going to leave you here to die.”

“You should have. Now you can’t escape.”

“You told me you were going to stop me,” Dynatha replied. “What changed?”

“Why do you have to question it? You should have just left.”

“No, now we’ll escape together.”

The Ghoul shook his head and wandered from Arcana.

“Ghoul!” she called out to him.

“Yes?”

“My name. My name is Dynatha Aris.”

*** ***

Mercium the Hutt feared very little in the galaxy. Surrounded by Gank warriors-guards at all times, he could not be attacked directly or even spoken to unless he willed it. His slaves suffered under wanton abuse and neglect, and he had no qualms with letting those poor servants who displeased him die without a second thought. His property was his business, and he prospered by sacrificing his ineffectual property.

The Republic did not extend its jurisdiction to his business locales. Policing agents could be bribed easily because he was so wealthy. Unlike other Hutts, who had to fear the wrath of a more powerful Hutt at some point or another, Mercium feared none of the other members of his species. He decided that he was the most imposing and grandiose specimen of Hutt in existence. They lived on Nal Hutta in fear of him. He was the supreme Hutt, and the most profitable of them all.

Mercium was far more audacious and pleasure seeking than most of his kind. Without oversight, the crafty merchant did as he pleased, assembling armies from slaves collected across the Outer Rim Territories and hiring mercenary groups for assassinations and public executions. He was feared on the worlds he visited, and all who saw him were demanded to pay homage to him unless he decreed otherwise. He was effectually a king in this section of Wild Space, and no one dared to oppose him.

He once declared that he feared no one, and his bold dealings seldom got him in trouble. After all, if anyone tried to cross him, he could have them killed. If anyone tried to surpass him, he could enslave them. However, he could not escape his bargain with the woman with no name. She was the only one he could claim to possibly fear. She was an enigma to him, a long-lived Hutt with much galactic wisdom.

He knew her as Traya.

Her title was lost upon him. Her minions addressed her in a word that Mercium did not recognize and his translator droid had no proper Huttese term for. Whatever she was, she lacked a traditional title. Traya was not normal. Innocuous in comparison to the crafty Hutt, she was an old woman with ghostly skin and white hair flowing across her shoulders. Wearing ornate robes and carrying herself with an air of pride, she might as well have been some sort of nobility.

Lady Traya had contacted Mercium the Hutt after he had traded several slaves from the Core to a Mid Rim buyer. She had expressed interest in meeting him, and he thought nothing of it. However, he quickly learned his folly. Her figure was not even large or strong enough to be considered imposing in any sense of the word, and she appeared harmless; however, Mercium knew she was anything but. Her eyes alone—atrophied and a haunting black color—were enough to cause the grandiose Hutt to shiver.

“So, merchant, have you defeated your foe?” Traya asked, although her question was plainly rhetorical. She knew the answer. “Have you fulfilled the task I assigned to you?”

“Lucius Velle himself evades me, but I have killed most of his allies. It will not be long before he too falls against my might,” Mercium boomed, trying to sound more bombastic than even he was.

“Indeed? Do you think, merchant, that you can fell the unifier?” she mused. “Your efforts may be naught against him; for all your might, you may be a strong gale trying to displace the mountains.”

“I have sent two assassins to defeat him. He will die. No mountain stands forever, and I will wear away at him.”

Traya pondered these things in silence. She had been the one to request Mercium’s aid in this matter; she offered to aid the Hutt in his expenditures if he killed the one she called the unifier. She wanted him dead because he was interfering in her plans. At least, that was what the Hutt was told.

“The two who lack the heart to kill have not aided you, merchant. They have betrayed you, and now I fear the fractures have changed dramatically… the unifier will survive your efforts,” Traya predicted.

“Impossible,” Mercium bellowed. “My men will not falter. They will crush him.”

“Not only will he survive, you will be killed very soon. Your wealth will be stolen away from you even in your splendor. From your throne, you will fall.”

“No!”

“It is of no concern to me. Do your best, merchant, and delay him with your armies. Your ventures may not be so useless, yet.”

Traya drifted from the camp as soon as she had arrived. She did not announce her visits and she did not prepare him for her departure. Worried about what the dark augury had predicted, Mercium’s heart faltered and he surrendered control of the armies to his generals. Remaining with the skiffs near his great court in the center of the camp, Mercium called upon his guards and ensured that his slaves would be ready to fight when the signal was given. Prediction or no, Lucius would die today.

The Gank warrior-killers returned to their master’s side when Traya departed. Even they feared Lady Traya’s presence.

*** ***

The planet’s twin suns were only beginning to rise over the western sea. The wreckage of the crashed ship glittered in the early morning light, lighting up Mercium’s target with stunning radiance. On the beach, all the turrets from the Hutt’s skiffs had been repurposed along the waterfront. These turrets were not automated, so gunners stood nearby, ready to fire upon the derelict in the distance once they received the order.

Behind the guns, hundreds of the Hutt’s slaves arranged themselves in battle columns. The great multitude of enemies scattered itself up and down the beach. These warriors were agitated because they had never been forced to wake up so early before; their anger would fuel their eagerness and battle spirit. Mercium ensured them that wealth would be awaiting the victors. The warriors were determined to become rich once they had defeated the pitiful amount of defenders left.

Bal’thuk the Weequay stood before this great host, his feet in the shallow seawater. He was not in charge of this attack; each small unit of slaves had a slavemaster to dictate their actions and lead them into battle. Mercium, in his mercy, had returned Bal’thuk’s mercenaries to the Weequay’s command. Several of Bal’thuk’s mercenaries had been captured and enslaved by the Hutt, and Bal’thuk agreed to join in this battle to secure their freedom. For this battle, all of his Weequay brothers would fight at his side, even those enslaved by Mercium. At first, Bal’thuk did not care for the massive Hutt or his vendetta against Lucius and his band of vigilantes, but events had changed. The assassins had made this personal. Not only had the one known as the Ghoul injured him, he and his companion had fled from Mercium after deceiving him. Now, they bunkered down together with the defenders in hope of making one last futile stand against the Hutt’s forces.

Each of Bal’thuk’s men had the fighting experience of fifteen slaves. Heavy blue armor covered their entire bodies, modeled after the venerable style of the Iridorian people. Their helmets, too, were modeled after the bloody Iridorians, and the helmets turned his mercenaries into faceless, elite combatants just as frightening as those insane warriors, if not more so.

Bal’thuk eyed his right hand. A prosthetic replacement jutted out from the stump just above his wrist, created to do little more than aim and pull the trigger of a blaster. The Ghoul had destroyed his wrist, and Mercium lacked the medical supplies to repair the damaged nerves and muscles; instead, the Hutt had his entire hand severed and replaced. Armed with a blaster rifle and a short dagger, Bal’thuk stared into the distance. It was quite personal now. Lucius and those with him would die, yes, but he would repay his injury to the Ghoul tenfold.

A skiff filled with slaves raced by him on a course to the derelict. They were the first wave that would begin the battle. The other skiffs, without any sort of weaponry, waited with their passengers alongside the slave infantry and mercenaries. They would be released later, when it was deemed necessary to break their defenses. Every skiff would attack, dropping off a dozen warriors at once while the rest of the slaves swam from here to their target.

“Bal’thuk, are you ready?” Mercium bellowed through an earpiece comlink. “We need Lucius and his allies dead by midday. Can you accomplish this?”

“Clearly, Lord Mercium,” Bal’thuk grunted.

“Then you may proceed,” Mercium replied. “Rashinodies will monitor the battle’s progress and update you when necessary.”

Bal’thuk switched off the comlink. He did not need aid from the Hutt’s reptilian thrall. This place would soon to become a battlefield. He scanned his mass of warriors, and he knew that victory was inevitable. He only needed to survive and secure his revenge.

“Charge!”

*** ***

Raxsus peered through the large hole in the port side of the ship and watched the first skiff hover over the water toward their position. Filled with at least twenty of Mercium’s slaves, the skiff was not armed and lightly armored. It was the first of many, of course, but Raxsus intended on delivering a message to the Hutt’s forces. He had assembled a pile of weapons at his feet, complete with ammo and power paks. Grabbing the rocket launcher resting against a broken table nearby and loading the cumbersome weapon, the Vultan pirate set his sights on the incoming skiff.

“Mind our ammo count,” Lucius called from the far end of the room. “We don’t have many rockets.”

“Oh, I’m minding it.” Raxsus pulled the trigger with a grin. “I hope they enjoy our morning greeting.”

The rocket left the tube with a groan and propelled itself right into the front of the skiff. The hovering vehicle exploded into a glowing ball of fire and molten metal almost instantly, marking the end of twenty enemy combatants. Raxsus cackled with delight as the remains of the transport fell into the ocean.

“Good shot,” Dynatha noted, viewing the carnage from a table behind the pirate. “Are you a heavy weapons specialist?”

“You don’t need to specialize in heavy weapons, my dear,” Raxsus drawled. “There is nothing special about it. You pull the trigger and your target explodes.”

“He was a pirate captain; he has no formal military training,” Lucius replied. “If that’s what you’re asking. However, he can use all sorts of weapons.”

“Be careful on that table. You’re exposed to their line of fire,” Raxsus informed Dynatha.

Dynatha repositioned herself while the Hutt’s warriors wasted no time beginning their attack. The slaves on the beach didn’t care about the destruction of the first skiff. They cheered and hollered, pleased that the battle was finally beginning. The Vultan’s rockets did not scare them at all. They had been promised glory and wealth, and they were prepared to earn it. Diving into the chilly seawater without reserve, the slaves began the lengthy swim from the beach to the derelict vessel.

The turrets positioned on the beach protected the advancing slaves. Swathes of laser fire pummeled the port side of the hull and kept the defenders bunkered inside the ship, unable to truly open fire on the incoming hordes. Dynatha and her allies avoided the gaping hole that exposed them to the turret fire, taking cover in the rubble and damaged portions of the ship’s interior. Some of the gunners proved more accurate than others, and their turret fire went into the ship itself instead of grazing the hull, superheating the walls and metal beams around Dynatha.

“The longer we cower in here, the more time Mercium’s men have to settle on the reef. We have to do something,” Lucius called out.

“What can we do? Those turrets can kill us in one shot!” Dynatha countered.

“We have to take careful shots,” Raxsus growled. “Mind the turrets, of course. Don’t take too long picking a target and just fire freely.”

Unlike the interior defenders, Syrook was comfortably positioned atop the ruined vessel. He took advantage of his height and cover, using his longbow and arrows—strange traditional Wookiee weapons—to remain safe from turret fire and attack the incoming enemies. His arrows proved startlingly fatal, much to the surprise of Dynatha and Syrook’s swimming targets. Their light armor—and in some cases, mere slave garments—could not stop the Wookiee’s barbed arrowheads, and many incoming slaves died by his hand.

Despite Syrook’s success, the first few swimmers reached the edge of the reef in a matter of minutes. Chilled to the bone and fatigued by the swim, they primed their weapons and began the trek to the ship itself. Walking was far easier than the swimming they had done, but the reef itself proved difficult to navigate. Many of the scrambling slaves cut open the soles of their feet and bloodied their ankles against the spikes and jagged stones scattered about.

Raxsus sidled against wall near the gaping hole and fired blindly toward the incoming enemies with his slugthrowing rifle. Dynatha and Lucius mimicked him, firing their own blaster rifles without checking their sights. As a result, they didn’t hit anything because their enemies were still too far out. However, they did not dare peek out from beyond the hole at the risk of being hit by turret fire.

The first slave to reach the massive hole in the ship was a bold Nikto wielding a blaster pistol. He was lightly armored, but his advance was unhindered because Raxsus and the others had given up trying to hit anyone; they realized it was foolish to waste their limited ammunition firing blindly. His allies were still some ways behind and would not be able to cover him until he got a foothold inside.

Raxsus had swapped his rifle for a slugthrowing shotgun and waited patiently by the entrance to the ship, listening to the footsteps of his opponents. The turrets’ inexplicable silence clued him in on their approach; the turret-gunners did not want to accidentally hit their own allies. Pivoting from the wall into the hole itself, Raxsus found himself face-to-face with the first of the slaves to arrive at the ship. A shotgun blast to the face ended the Nikto’s life instantly; the hapless slave had not even had a chance to raise his blaster pistol to defend himself. Three other slaves were approaching, apparently meant to support the first Nikto with their vibroswords. Raxsus fired several more times, hitting two of the incoming slaves in the chest. The third enemy fumbled for his blaster rifle, but a quick shot from Lucius’s blaster rifle ended any chance he had of defending himself.

“Good save,” Raxsus quipped.

“Just be more careful next time,” Lucius replied.

The first few slaves, now dead, were the only enemies that had separated themselves from the main force. In the distance, Raxsus and his allies saw the hordes of Mercium’s slaves climbing through the reef toward the ship. A few of them noticed their exposed targets and opened fire on Raxsus and Lucius. Ducking underneath the entrance, the two defenders scrambled for different weapons while Syrook continued to pepper the approaching force with arrows from above.

The slaves advanced slowly but persistently up the reef, firing on the ship to keep the defenders from firing upon them. Occasionally, Lucius and Raxsus would pop up and shoot at the incoming horde, ending the lives of a few unlucky slaves before returning to cover. The defenders were overly cautious in taking shots, and they were lucky that they could even keep the slaves at bay.

After passing the wide, spike-filled areas near the surf, the reef branched off into thinner passages amongst insurmountable jagged walls. These passages were the only way to the ship and created natural bottlenecks that turned into killing zones; the slaves had nowhere to go and could not maneuver around their own allies. The bodies of the dead piled up at these chokepoints, and the slaves that climbed over them merely exposed themselves to blaster fire from the defenders waiting for them. This brutal killing continued for several hours, until the planet’s suns were high in the sky.

“I’m running low on power paks.” Lucius discarded his rifle’s wasted pak and dug through the pile of slug cartridges and blaster paks at his feet. He swore to himself before slipping a pak with less than half power into his rifle. “I guess this will do.”

“Do you want mine?” Dynatha extended her blaster rifle to Lucius. “I haven’t fired it, so it should be fresh…”

“No, you keep it,” Lucius replied. “You might need it.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever used so many of these things,” Raxsus sighed as he slipped in another cartridge of slugs for his own rifle. “But it’s amazing just how stupid these slaves are. It’s as if they don’t think they can fire upon us until they’re at our doorstep.”

The single earpiece comlink resting in the center of the room, underneath the table Dynatha had been sitting on, began humming as a new transmission came in. Dynatha, who was still lingering nearby while Lucuis and Raxsus fired at their opponents, picked it up and put it on. However, the guttural roars and howls of Syrook on the other end were unintelligible to her so she passed it on to Lucius.

“Yes?” Lucius spoke into the comlink. “What do you mean, incoming skiffs?”

While Syrook tried to explain the situation, two of Mercium’s skiffs hovered over the water and arrived mere meters from the entrance to the ship. Floating over the reef itself, these skiffs had no trouble avoiding the bottlenecks that had hindered the warriors. Each of the skiffs had turrets placed on them—removed from the beachhead—to fire upon the defenders’ position while their passengers unloaded and helped the other warriors press forward.

“Turrets? Kriff!” Raxsus bellowed as he ducked underneath the hole itself. “Ask Syrook to kill those gunners from his position!”

“Which one?” Lucius asked.

“Right skiff’s gunner first. I’ll help.”

Syrook received the instructions and killed the unshielded turret gunner with a single, well-aimed arrow. Raxsus snatched the rocket launcher he had left unused and fired upon the now-undefended skiff. However, he had to pop up and then return to cover almost immediately. If he had taken time to aim, he would have been exposed to the other skiff’s turret. As a result, his rocket missed the mark and hit the reef instead of the skiff. The blast from the rocket and the ensuing debris managed to flip the skiff over, sending the rest of its passengers to the reef in an ungraceful mess.

Syrook bellowed into Lucius’s earpiece, and Dynatha heard what sounded like a chuckle.

“What? I missed?” Raxsus asked, shocked. “How could I miss?”

“Don’t worry; you still flipped it over. They can’t use it now,” Lucius reassured him.

“But I missed!”

“It doesn’t matter! We still have another turret to worry about.” He pulled the comlink receiver closer to him. “Syrook, can you hit the other turret gunner?”

Raxsus shook his head. “That turret’s firing at the roof right on his position. If not for all the slaves firing at us, we could take it out, but…”

Syrook’s growls confirmed Raxsus’s suspicions. The other skiff’s gunner, who had seen the Wookiee fire at his comrade, tilted his gun upward to fire at the archer’s position. For the first time, Syrook could not provide cover fire for the interior defenders. Without his aid and due to the fact that the defenders within the ship could not fire at their enemies without risking getting shot at themselves, the slaves that had been stuck on the reef were now rapidly approaching the entrance to the ship.

The enemy blaster fire became more subdued as the first group of enemies approached the entrance. Instead of taking the chance to kill these incoming slaves, Lucius ordered his allies to retreat. Leaving the entrance—and some of their extra weapons and ammunition—behind, they fell back to the far end of the room. Lingering near a weakened ladder and several pylons that were once firmly inside the ship’s walls, Dynatha was nearly hit by the shrapnel of a fragmentation grenade thrown by one of the slaves outside.

“We should fall back to the roof. It’s not safe here,” Lucius said.

“You’re right, but we don’t have any way to seal off the roof from our enemies. They will follow us,” Raxsus pointed out.

“Then we will make our stand there, where it is safer,” Lucius sighed. “We’re running low on ammunition: we’re nearly out of slugs and we only have a handful of power paks left. This is going to be the end of us.”

“So that’s it?” the Ghoul sneered. He had been chained near the ladder leading to the roof for the entire battle. “You are all just going to die? With the enemy at your feet and so close to you? Retreat, then. I will stay here and guard the entrance, if you’ll simply remove these binders.”

Raxsus eyed him suspiciously. “How do we know you won’t simply turn around and betray us once we let you free?”

“I’ll be down here with the enemy while you three retreat to the roof with the Wookiee. Either they’ll die, or I will.” The Ghoul glared at the wary Vultan. “Would you prefer I stay on the roof with you in binders where I’ll be useless?”

“We don’t have time to argue!” Lucius snapped. “Ghoul. We’ll free you, but you’re on your own. We won’t be coming back. Understand?”

The Ghoul nodded apathetically. He understood the situation. At Lucius’s request, Raxsus hesitantly released the Ghoul’s binders, freeing his arms at long last. He did not have his bladed gloves anymore, but Lucius was more than happy to give him the two vibroswords they were not using. The two fatigued survivors began the ascent from the damaged room to the top of the ship, but Dynatha stayed with the Ghoul.

“Go, Arcana.” The Ghoul activated the cells in his swords, causing them to hum melodically. “Help them finish this fight.”

“I don’t want to,” Dyantha admitted.

“Why?”

“You basically saved my life earlier. You didn’t have to, but you did anyway. I cannot possibly ask you to risk your life for me! After we’ve come this far!” Dynatha shouted. “I heard those terrible things about you, and I knew they weren’t true. Something told me those stories were wrong. You’re proving me right and helped me without question; don’t throw your life away just because-”

The Ghoul shook his head. “Go,” he said. “Lucius and the others need you. I’m the only one who can do this. I’m the only one with the skills necessary for this task.”

“Ghoul,” Dynatha began, but she hesitated. All the blaster fire outside suddenly ceased, even the turret firing upon Syrook’s location. The Force suddenly alerted her of the arrival of five Nikto slaves and their Klatooinian taskmaster. “Please don’t die.”

“I’ll try. Now go.”

And then he was gone.

*** ***

Bal’thuk’s armored boots hit the reef with a soft thud. His mercenary company began unloading weapons and ammunition from the skiff they had taken to the reef while the pilot, a slave, lingered. Checking his blaster rifle’s pak for the sixth time since they left the beach, Bal’thuk reassured himself that he was prepared. The Ghoul would die first, of course, but the rest of the defenders would follow.

Several more skiffs had carried warriors and turrets from the beach to the reef itself, bringing the total number of skiffs on the reef to six. The bottlenecks used by the defenders had been cleared of dead bodies, allowing the swimmers to proceed to the ship without further interference. Lucius Velle’s position was overrun. He could do nothing to stem the tide. Mercium’s horde was upon him.

Bal’thuk had arrived to ensure the final stages of the battle went smoothly. The defenders and their position had been softened up, and their ammo reserves had to be running low after several hours of combat today coupled with nearly two weeks of combat beforehand. The Weequay was impressed; he would never have thought five combatants would be able to hold off a force of hundreds by their lonesome, but the defenders had every advantage aside from numerical superiority.

“Sir,” one of his mercenaries approached and addressed him. “We’re having an issue on the frontlines.”

“What issue?” Bal’thuk spat. “We weaken their primary defenses already, no?”

“We have, but… well, I can’t explain it, sir. You’ll have to see for yourself.”

*** ***

The last thing they heard was the melodic hum of a vibrosword.

The five Nitko slaves who had entered the ship and their taskmaster had fallen. The first of many. None of the slaves had any idea what was going on. Three more were severed at the torso with a single spinning swipe. They deserved that for standing too close together. Fools. Their taskmaster was outside the ship, but it didn’t matter. The taskmaster’s head was lobbed off in a single merciless swing.

Outside the ship, the slaves were getting scared. Their allies were not being killed by blaster fire, slug shots, or even arrows. They were facing an enemy they could not see… an enemy they could not fight against. Slaves lost their nerve and began firing at random, screaming profanities in Huttese and garbled Basic. Their shots were easy to avoid. Killing them was even easier.

The slaves that were approaching the entrance began to fall back. They didn’t dare get closer to the ship. Was it haunted? Did the defenders put up some sort of quasi-mystical weapon to defend their base? The superstitious slaves had no idea what was going on. Six more slaves died. Then three. Two taskmasters fell. Chopping off limbs, severing heads, and bisecting bodies was so simple when the enemy was clueless. Their greater numbers only meant there were more targets that needed to die.

Using two vibroswords and liberally picking up knives from his targets, the Ghoul skirted about the battlefield like a force of nature. Cloaking himself with the Force, he was unseen. Swallowed up in the bloodlust that battle brought about, he forgot about everything except the necessity to kill. That is, almost everything. He still remembered why he was killing.

She amused him. He had never met someone so determined to be a pacifist, and he certainly never met an assassin who thought like one. She was an oddity. What’s more, she seemed to realize that he was not the terrifying bringer of death that the GenoHaradan painted him to be. This identity was merely a tool—a way of protecting himself from vengeful opponents. Just as she was not really Arcana, he was not really the Ghoul. But in the end, it didn’t matter. He was killing to keep her safe.

Rushing into the crowd of slaves without hesitation, the Ghoul began to play mind games with his targets. His vibroswords seemed like an extension of his limbs, and he danced about the great crowd of slaves as though this was an elaborate performance. Every so often, he would allow the Force to dissipate the shield that kept him hidden from their eyes, allowing them mere milliseconds to glance at him before he disappeared and maneuvered elsewhere.

The turrets were a far greater threat to him because they could fire into the slaves if they wanted to, and they could fire thousands of shots per minute. As he appeared and disappeared from view, these turrets could spray laser fire around his area, eventually endangering him and maybe even scoring a lucky hit. Foreseeing the issue, the Ghoul leapt from one skiff to another, cutting the turret into pieces with his double vibroswords and then killing the gunner with a knife or two. Once the turrets were no more, he returned to the grunts that gathered like a horde around him.

This was who he was. This was what he lived for.

*** ***

“What’s killing them, sir?”

Bal’thuk heard his companion, but he said nothing. Intent on watching the slaughter from afar, the two Weequay waited near their skiff and observed… something kill slaves at random. Dozens fell as Bal’thuk calmly inspected the situation; slaves lost their arms, legs, and heads to some unseen force. They couldn’t fight back. They couldn’t advance. They were simply too frightened. Any promise of wealth was useless when the slaves were forced to compete against an apparently supernatural foe.

However, Bal’thuk’s patience paid off. After several minutes of brutal carnage, he saw a glimpse of what appeared to be a humanoid figure with swords. It was there only for a second, but he had definitely seen it. Using his helmet’s built-in holocam, he replayed the image several times, confirming what he saw. The Ghoul. The Ghoul was here and he was killing Mercium’s men with some sort of mythical cloak of invisibility. His artificial joints twitched with anticipation. The time had come.

“Order mercenaries to start infrared. Follow me,” Bal’thuk ordered.

Shoving through the ever-shrinking mass of slaves that stood between him and his target, Bal’thuk hardly felt like waiting for his mercenaries to prepare. He wanted this kill for himself. However, his Weequay mercenaries were well prepared and able, and they joined him quicker than he anticipated. Lining up in small firing squads of three with a vibrosword-wielding fireteam leader, the mercenaries spread out in a wide circle, effectively surrounding the Ghoul.

Bal’thuk growled as he raised his blaster rifle and pointed it square at the Ghoul’s chest. He was hidden from those pitiful slaves, but not from their infrared sensors. The assassin was a wily combatant, jumping here-and-there to avoid being shot at for very long, but Bal’thuk was confident that he could hit him.

“This is your ghost!” he shouted.

He took a few shots, but they all missed. Before he could adjust his line of fire, Bal’thuk’s prosthetic hand suddenly gave way and his artificial finger released pressure on the trigger. Cursing to himself as he strained his finger and tried to continue firing, he didn’t notice the Ghoul’s approach. The Ghoul swung upward, using both of his vibroswords to cut off Bal’thuk’s limbs and giving him a swift kick to the chest to send him to the ground.

The shock was not immediate, and he did not even realize where he was at first, but he had failed. Lying on the ground, Bal’thuk gnashed his teeth as he realized that the Ghoul had been responsible for the loss of both of his limbs. Helpless on the ground, Bal’thuk felt the blood of the fallen slaves around him seep into the crevices of his armor and the chill air brush into the gaping holes left where his arms had been. Blood poured freely from the wounds because, unlike blaster shots, vibrosword cuts were not cauterized and very messy.

He watched the Ghoul cut down two squads of his mercenaries before being hit by a stray blaster shot. The Ghoul continued the bloodletting despite his injury, stabbing Bal’thuk’s companions with his knives and occasionally severing their limbs with his swords. One of the distant gunmen had the misfortune of receiving a vibrosword thrown by the Ghoul in the face, shattering his visor and killing him instantly.

With only a single vibrosword left, the Ghoul was obviously fatigued. He fought against a few of Bal’thuk’s remaining mercenaries before disappearing again, struggling to maintain his invisibility. The dying Weequay watched the Ghoul through his infrared sensors; the assassin picked up a blaster rifle and rolled near the dying Weequay. Crouching, he fired upon Bal’thuk’s men as the mercenary commander was forced to lie so close to his mortal enemy. Helpless, he could do nothing but groan and bleed. Bal’thuk silently cursed himself as the Ghoul stood so close to him. If he only had an arm…

The Ghoul’s invisibility wore off again, and one of the alarmed slaves threw a fragmentation grenade at his feet. The timer had been set incorrectly, and while it prepared for detonation, the Ghoul sprinted away from the lobbed projectile. Bal’thuk was not so fortunate, and he had lost far too much blood to stand, much less roll away from the grenade practically at his side. He muttered a few curses to himself before the grenade went off, and then he died.

*** ***

A rocket hit the reef mere centimeters from where a group of slaves gathered. The slaves themselves were vaporized immediately, while the reef crumbled around the area of contact and sent several more slaves to a watery death. Blaster fire erupted simultaneously with the rocket shot, scoring successful hits on the slaves scattered around the entrance to the ship. Another rocket soared into a group of slaves while arrows began flying through the air for the first time since the defenders had retreated onto the roof.

Raxsus, Lucius, and Syrook, respectively, opened fire on the slaves who survived the Ghoul’s rampage. Using the roof for cover, they were far safer from the slaves than they were while defending the entrance to the ship. However, they were not attacking to expose their position needlessly. While they provided suppressive fire from the roof, Dynatha rushed out of the ship from the gaping entryway and into the enemy host.

The first slave who tried to stop her met her fist. Coupled with the Force, a single punch was enough to send the hapless slave flying backwards, unconscious. Jumping about like an acrobat and running at speeds too quick for any of the slaves to observe, much less match, Dynatha easily avoided their few bouts of blaster fire. The three defenders on the roof did their job well, and most of the slaves were distracted by their offensive.

The reef beyond the ship looked like a war zone; Dynatha could not believe so much carnage had been caused by one man. The bodies of slaves were missing heads, legs, arms, and their blood was spilled around the reef. Some had been cut in half at the torso, revealing their innards, strewn about around them, in a gory mess. Weapons were scattered around the corpses and some grenades were among them. Only the few that had been shot had died quickly.

In what could have been called the center of this mess was the Ghoul. Dynatha had to use the Force to push away the last few mercenaries and slaves that seemed intent on finishing off what appeared to be a defeated combatant. Racing toward his body, she was stunned that the assassin had not received more wounds. That said, the wounds he had taken were deadly: several blaster shots to the torso, back, and one to the arm coupled with a vibroblade cut at his leg proved to incapacitate him at long last.

Dynatha assumed that his nose was bleeding again and perhaps broken. Rivulets of blood raced from his face down his neck, and it seemed as though his mask—already broken from his encounter with Lucius and his allies—had caved in on itself, making it all the more terrifying. He didn’t have any weapons in his hand; one of his vibroswords was still lodged in the face of one of Bal’thuk’s mercenaries, and the other had broken against the reef several meters away. His blaster rifle, the last weapon in his possession, rested in a crumpled heap on his chest.

“Ghoul…” Dynatha struggled to say his name amidst the choking feeling in her throat. “What happ… are you… can you talk?”

The Ghoul coughed once, and she heard him gasp for breath. His chest rose and fell violently. It seemed as though he was struggling to keep breathing. “Not for long, dear. Why are you out here? It’s dangerous.”

“No. Thanks to you, they’re falling back. They won’t be returning here anytime soon.”

“So… it worked. I’m glad.” the Ghoul coughed again. “Now get out of here. Forge a new life for yourself. You’ve earned that much.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“You… it is because of you that I’m free. I’m not leaving here without you.”

The Ghoul’s arm weakly lifted from its place on the ground, grasping Dynatha’s arm with a startling ferocity. “Don’t. Just go. The GenoHaradan won’t be able to track you anymore. Maybe you…” he paused, and Dynatha felt his grip weaken. “I’m surprised I can still… why am I still…”

“Ghoul!” Dynatha clasped his hand in hers and extended her other hand to his chest, brushing away the blaster rifle. Whispering to herself, Dynatha called upon the Force—all she could muster—and tried to heal the Ghoul.

Nothing.

She didn’t do anything to improve his condition, but she could now feel his life signs and how quickly they were fading. The Ghoul was right. She had no idea how he was still alive. The Ghoul had taken several near-fatal shots from a blaster. It seemed as though only his willpower coupled with the Force was keeping him conscious, barely alive so he might be able to speak with Dynatha.

“I hope this works,” Dynatha muttered.

Extending herself in the Force, Dynatha reached far beyond herself. Escaping the confines of her body, Dynatha could feel everything around her in the Force. She could hear the agony of the dying slaves and mercenaries the Ghoul had struck down. She could sense the fear—permeating like a foul odor—from the slaves who had retreated toward the beach. And she could feel the Ghoul. His heartbeat, his mind, his presence. Wrapping herself around his mind in the Force, Dynatha gently prodded it and tried to maintain a connection with him. She struggled to keep it awake, from fading off into the realm of the abyss where she could no longer sense him. He seemed to be resisting her, but it was a futile effort on his part; he was trying to force her away, but he was using all his strength just to fight back death.

With a burst of light, Dynatha transferred some of her own power to the Ghoul. She surrendered as much of her connection with the Force as she could to keep him from dying. She immediately felt fatigued and collapsed on top of him even as his body began to heal itself of its wounds. Thoughts rushed through her mind as she faded from consciousness, and she felt the Ghoul’s body stir.

Please don’t be angry with me, Ghoul.

To her surprise, his voice replied.

Call me Tserne, dear.

*** ***

“How is he?” Lucius asked, discarding an exhausted blaster rifle.

“He’ll be fine. He’s just a little tired,” Dynatha assured him.

“A little tired is an understatement,” the Ghoul muttered. “I feel like someone dropped a hoverspeeder on me.”

“You deserve it, I’m sure,” Raxsus noted dryly.

“We owe you our lives—both of you,” Lucius said. “If not for your assistance, we surely would not have made it out of this place. Thanks to you, the slaves have retreated back to the beach and the turrets have been abandoned.”

“I told you we would help you,” Dynatha replied. “It’s no problem.”

“We know,” Raxsus interrupted Lucius, “but all the same, we wanted to thank you. Syrook takes life debts very seriously, and I’d like to think I do as well.”

“Aren’t you a pirate?” the Ghoul asked pointedly.

Raxsus looked insulted. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have honor!”

The Ghoul bowed his head in defeat. Despite being unfamiliar, the face of Tserne DeLarane, assassin and associate of Dynatha, was far less intimidating than the face of the Ghoul, serial killer and cold-hearted butcher. Without his mask, Tserne at least appeared remotely amicable. Pale and gaunt, he looked very much like the monster he had used as his codename; however, his flowing blond, almost white hair and vibrant cyan eyes gave him a semblance of humanity that he had lacked before now.

He was not actually the Ghoul. The killer that had become famous for serial killings and wanton murders who had called himself the Ghoul had been captured by the Jedi years ago and kept in solitary confinement on Coruscant. Tserne had taken his name as a pseudonym while working with the GenoHaradan, and soon, the agents working with him began to think that the two killers were one and the same. He did nothing to alleviate these rumors.

“We would be glad to help you get off the planet,” Dynatha said. “Our ship is not too far from here, and I do not think Mercium and his men have sabotaged it.”

“Of course. But you have done so much for us, I hardly think that parting ways would be the proper course of action for either of us. Your skills and my companions could make a fine crew,” Lucius explained.

Dynatha looked at Lucius. “I don’t think so. However, we will consider it. After all, we still need to get off this reef, don’t we?”

Syrook growled, glancing up from the radar on one of the skiffs that had not been totally destroyed.

“Syrook says that the radar picked up several ships with Hutt identification codes leaving the planet’s atmosphere. It’s safe to assume that Mercium and his remaining forces have fled,” Raxsus translated.

“That’s odd,” Tserne noted. “They definitely could have held the beach, if they wanted to.”

“Perhaps they were scared of you, Ghoul, or perhaps they had another agenda,” Lucius mused. “We’re safe now, though. Let’s take this skiff to your vessel.”

“Very well,” Dynatha said. “I’ll direct you, then.”

*** ***

The Rebel Dawn was eerily quiet. Dynatha returned in the small ship that she had taken to kill Lucius Velle. After it had been docked safely, she had been directed to one of the smaller lobbies. Unlike last time, she didn’t have to wait to see the overseer. Apparently, her presence had been requested as soon as she returned. There would be time for filing reports and being interviewed by security officers later.

The overseer’s office was no different than the last time Dynatha had been inside—not long enough for her liking. The overseer sat upon his throne, quietly speaking with Morgue, Dynatha’s erstwhile companion and recruiter, who stood nearby. Several assassins lined the room near the expensive statues and chests; she had never seen them before, but she was sure they were always there.

“So… Dynatha Aris, you have arrived.” The hulking overseer’s lethorns twitched ever so slightly. “The Ghoul is not with you? Has he fallen in battle after so long?”

“I’m afraid not, Overseer. He is simply waiting with the ship,” Dynatha replied firmly.

The overseer nodded, seemingly uninterested, but Dynatha noticed his lethorns shift to reveal an earpiece comlink. After whispering something into it, the overseer returned his attention to Dynatha. “I trust you have the head of Lucius Velle? That was our agreement, after all.”

“I will give you the head of Lucius Velle,” Dynatha spoke up, “if you free the Ghoul from his service to the GenoHaradan.”

The overseer’s eyes widened. Rising to his feet, the overseer stood at his full, imposing height before his throne. In his fury, he was shaking, and his fists curled tightly, ready to strike. “How dare you? You still think you can demand anything from me, you gutless coward? You groveling animal? It seems I will have to teach you some respect!”

The overseer stomped over to Dynatha, ready to lash out at her as he had done before. Just before he had reached her, however, the sounds of combat forced him to a halt. Beyond the door to his chambers, he could hear blaster fire and the sound of vibroblades clashing.

Perplexed, he didn’t have time to react as Syrook, Lucius, and Raxsus stormed into his chambers behind Dynatha and opened fire on the assassins in the corners of the room. Morgue drew his concealed blaster pistol and aimed for Dynatha, but Raxsus was a quicker shot and Morgue received a chest full of slugs for his trouble. Morgue collapsed by the overseer’s throne while the other assassins fell against Lucius’s blaster rifle and Syrook’s shotgun. It was over almost as quickly as it had begun.

“You’re all alone now, Overseer.” Dynatha tossed her blaster rifle to Lucius and stepped toward the Chagrian, who had retraced a few of his steps at the arrival of Dynatha’s allies. “I’ll ask you again: will release the Ghoul?”

The overseer cackled with delight. “Do you think you scare me, little Dynatha? You and your pitiful little friends? You underestimate your opponent. Just because I am alone, you think I am no threat.”

“No, you don’t scare me. You’re powerless without your men, and I have all my friends here with me,” Dynatha said.

“I earned my rank as overseer of the GenoHaradan! I have killed more targets than you could count! I did not rise to my position without learning how to kill those stupid enough to attack me unprepared!”

The overseer pulled back the upper segment of his gauntlet, revealing a hidden vibroblade within. Dynatha had stepped toward the overseer in her defiance, and he had waited just long enough to strike that he could reach her with a single step. Lunging toward the defenseless girl, the overseer smiled as he saw the surprised looks on her allies’ faces. They had not expected him to strike back and were not prepared. How foolish.

But he had not seen Dynatha’s face. Even as the overseer moved in for the killing blow, she did not flinch. Her face was calm.

And then he felt the muzzle of a blaster pistol against his torso.

Gasping, the overseer realized too late that he had been fooled. Trapped. The blaster went off, tearing through his body and vaporizing several key organs within. He stumbled backward and groaned in pain. The mush that remained was not enough to keep him alive, but he wasn’t dead yet. The dagger in his hand fell to the floor, useless at his feet. His strength vanished with the wound.

Tserne DeLarane, known to the overseer as the Ghoul, faded into view. He had been standing between the overseer and Dynatha the entire time, ready to protect her in case the overseer struck at her. He had walked into Dynatha’s defenses, and now he was at her mercy in his final moments.

“Overseer Everos M’yoo.” Tserne slowly lowered the giant Chagrian to the ground. “In the GenoHaradan, names are power. You gave us codenames to keep others from knowing who we really are, and to ensure all power remained with you. To know another agent’s name is to know who they are. It implies companionship or control. To know another agent’s name is to know who they are and how to destroy them.”

The overseer’s body trembled. “Da… damn y… Ghou…”

Tserne shook his head. “You never knew my name. The agents who knew me as Tserne DeLarane are dead, and you knew me as the Ghoul. But I guess… I don’t know my own name, either.”

The overseer’s eyes glazed over, and Tserne closed them before turning to face Dynatha and her allies.

“Thank you, Tserne.” Dynatha smiled.

He nodded. “And yet… now that we’re free, I don’t know what to do.”

“He makes a good point,” Raxsus said. “We don’t have a ship—not really. We don’t have a wide assortment of skills, and we’re practically criminals and wanted men. What do we do?”

“We can always go to Sith space or beyond,” Tserne replied. “The Republic can’t find us there.”

Lucius shook his head. “I need to stay here. I was in Sith space before, and it’s no different than here. The fighting, the hunts… they don’t stop.”

“Well, what should we do?” Raxsus asked.

“We will fight,” Dynatha said. “It’s all we know how to do. It’s all we can do.”

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