Alderaan, twenty-three years ago.
“Honey, I’m home!”
Ducking under the doorpost as he was forced to do, Hart Aris lumbered into his home with an icebox under his arm. He threw his rawhide jacket onto a nearby sofa; the Alderaan sun beamed into the house from several wide windows, and it was far too warm for the jacket he had brought to work that morning. Scratching the dark beard resting beneath his chin, Hart walked into the kitchen to see his wife and young daughter.
“Daddy!” his daughter shouted.
“I didn’t even hear you come in, dear,” his wife admitted. “You’re home early.”
He and his wife were opposites in almost every way. His skin was tan and rugged, and his face was marked by weather and a pox that had inflicted him in his youth. Her face was petite, with shining eyes and a small nose that reflected a youthful vigor that Hart could hardly match. Muscles rippled from his form-fitting dark blue shirt and workman’s trousers, their hems torn from constant wear. She was lithe and graceful, with pale skin and lustrous blond hair that had to be tied back while she stirred a tall pot filled with boiling brown liquid on their thermal console.
Hart nodded. “My boss let me off early again. It happened again, Nalone.”
“Yeah. I can’t even explain it. We drop our nets into the lake, and something just… beckons them into our grasp. We get so many, the boss is worried there won’t be enough fish for the whole season.”
“Well, I’m thankful that the season is so good now,” Nalone said. “We’ve been struggling for so long, I was wondering when the fish were going to come back.”
“Indeed. I’m certainly not complaining.”
“Never.” Nalone gave him a quick kiss. “What’s in the icebox, dear?”
“A few small fish we caught,” Hart said, opening the top of the container just a bit. “The boss said I could keep a few, considering I was the one who caught most of them. I thought you could cook something up with them.”
“Throw them in the conservator. I’m putting some finishing touches on this grazer stew with tapa beans; there’s no sense in tossing them in now. I’ll cook them up for supper.”
“Sounds delicious. I can’t wait.”
Hart removed the fish—wrapped entirely in cooling film to preserve their freshness—and placed them in the conservator. As he tossed the fish inside, his daughter watched him from a distance, standing near the cabinet opposite of him. Dynatha was scared of fish, which was worrisome because her father was a fisherman. She had inherited more from her mother, it seemed. She had the same golden hair and alabaster skin that Nalone had, and her beauty was complimented by her brightness; she was very young and already reading and writing at an excellent rate.
“And how are you, my darling?” Hart asked, closing the conservator once the last fish was inside.
“I’m good,” his daughter replied, inspecting his hands for fish.
“Have you been a good girl helping your mother in the kitchen?”
She nodded. “Just a little. I helped her bake the bread.”
“Did you? And it will be delicious, I’m sure.” Hart smiled. “What else have you been up to?”
“I drew you a picture, daddy!”
“Can I see it?”
Dynatha’s face lit up. “Yes! Yes! I’ll go get it. Right now!”
Dynatha was out of the kitchen in a second, making a sharp left turn and scampering up the stairs toward her room. Hart couldn’t believe how energetic children could be. Grabbing a ceramic cup from the cupboard above their cabinet, he opened the conservator again and poured himself some water. Nalone had been so caught up in her cooking that she didn’t realize Hart was standing beside her. Standing near the thermal console, Hart placed one hand on his wife’s back and glanced out the window.
“Do you need any help, love?” he asked.
“I’m done. Thank you, though.”
“How was your day?”
“It was fine. I made a trip to the spaceport and sent those parcels I had been meaning to send to my family,” Nalone said. “I thought I’d never get a chance, but I found someone to watch Dynatha for a few hours.”
Hart sipped some of the water. “Oh? Who was that? One of her friend’s mothers?”
“No. One of her friend’s maids, actually. Do you remember Eliorae?”
Nalone thought for a moment. “Goodness, I don’t remember her surname. She’s about Dynatha’s age, and she has an older brother. Geryon, I think.”
“Eliorae? Geryon?” Hart nearly choked on his drink. “Love, those are the names of the crown prince and princess! I don’t think our daughter is rich enough to know royalty!”
“Hart, don’t make fun of me! I’m certain those are their names.”
“Are you sure you just haven’t been listening to the subspace radio lately?” Hart chuckled heartily.
“I’m only teasing you,” Hart said, kissing her cheek. “You can ask Dynatha while we eat.”
“I suppose that will have to do. But they must be from the city, at least.”
“They do have a maid. That would make sense.”
“I think the food is ready,” Nalone said, sipping the stew. “Why don’t you sit down, dear? I’ll get the bowls and cups.”
“Nonsense. You’ve done enough. Let me do it,” Hart said.
Nalone smiled. “Fine, dear. Have your way.”
Hart kissed his wife again and turned around, collecting a few metal bowls and cups for his wife and daughter from their cupboard. Nalone took the loaf of bread she and Dynatha had been cooking in the oven and placed it on the table in their dining room alongside a small assortment of fruits. Hart followed her, setting the table with utensils, cups, and bowls.
“Dynatha! Come down: it’s time to eat!” Nalone called.
“I’m trying to find the pictures I drew for daddy!” she called back.
“You can find them after you eat,” Hart said.
Nalone slipped on some heat-resistant gloves and brought the pot to the table. She filled the bowls with the steaming brown broth, replete with vegetables and small chunks of meat, while Hart poured drinks for the three of them. Dynatha hadn’t come down, but Hart was certain she was coming. Once each of them was served, Nalone took the pot back into the kitchen. Hart placed the pitchers of juice and water onto the table and was about to sit down when there was a knock at the door.
“It’s open,” Hart said.
Their home’s old wooden door swung open, admitting a red-skinned Nikto. There were not very many Niktos on Alderaan, so Hart took a moment to realize what species he was. He was not nearly as tall as Hart, being much closer to Nalone’s height, but he was about as muscular as the Human fisherman. The Nikto wore heavy white armor over his breast, thighs, and shoulders, with a black mesh underlay covering the rest of his body. His leathery skin made him appear much older than he was; the alien could not have been older than Hart.
Hart rose to meet their guest, who was already stomping toward the table in his armored boots. Most visitors tended to wait at the door, even when invited in, and Hart had never seen this individual before. He noticed the scowl etched into the Nikto’s haggard face, and he smiled in an attempt to alleviate the guest’s grim expression. He had no reason to suspect criminality or danger from this visitor, but as much as he tried to ignore the feeling, the Nikto’s presence made him sick to the stomach. He didn’t know what was going on, but he was determined to be cordial.
“Greetings. And who might you be?” Hart asked. “We don’t get much visitors this far away from the city.”
“I suspected as much,” the Nikto replied curtly, his voice a few octaves higher than Hart expected. “Tell me, is your wife home? And your child?”
“Hello, sir. Do we know you?” Nalone asked, stepping out from the kitchen.
“You do not. But we know you, Hart and Nalone Aris. Is your daughter here?”
Hart glanced at his wife. Her face had blanched. No doubt she was having the same queasy feeling he had. He and his wife were often of one mind about these things, and there was no reason to suspect this time was different. They never received visitors they did not know; they were so secluded—in the farthest reaches of the hill country—that tourists, lost travelers, and even criminals could not find them.
Hart had never had to worry about a strange situation like this. This man seemed to mean them harm, but Hart did not know whether he could just force him out. He could have been armed with a knife or slugthrower, and Hart did not want to endanger his family. Something about this man suggested that he was incredibly more powerful than he appeared, but Hart couldn’t explain it. Some sort of intuition or mental prodding told him it would be a mistake to try and fight him.
That meant they had to take him out of their home.
“I’m afraid our daughter is not here, sir,” Hart said. “She’s gone to meet with friends.”
“Why do you ask?” Nalone continued, not missing a beat. “How do you know who we are? We only have a small circle of acquaintances. I think we’d know of you…”
The Nikto bit back a smile. “My master has known you for some time. He has been… most concerned about your child. He has requested that I fetch her for him.”
“You are a monk, then?” Hart asked, making conversation. “Or a soldier, perhaps?”
Never taking his eyes off the Nikto, he positioned himself between their guest and the stairway that led to Dynatha’s room. His movements—much to his relief—were natural and did not betray his desire to impede the intruder. Taking a sip of water, he glanced over at his wife, who had moved away from him and stood near the table, either for support or for cover in case of danger.
“Something of both,” the Nikto answered.
“Would you like to sit down, sir? We’re about to eat. We could discuss this more over a meal, I think,” Nalone said.
The Nikto shook his head. “No. Where is your daughter?”
Hart was relieved that his daughter had ignored them and remained in her room, but he had no idea how long she would stay up there. If he had chosen to stay, he would have calmly went upstairs and told Dynatha to stay out of sight. As long as she remained hidden, they would have no trouble, but they had to get the Nikto out of their house. Now.
Hart glanced at his wife, and he realized that she was trying to sneak into the kitchen. If she could get in without drawing attention to herself, she could call for help on the only comlink in their home. However, he suspected that the Nikto wanted both of them to remain in the main room, where he could watch both of them. Taking a few bold steps forward, Hart practically marched toward the Nikto, forcing the smaller figure back.
“Who are you? If you have such an interest in us, we would be happy to meet with your master personally,” Hart offered.
“That would be impossible,” the Nikto replied. “You do not need to meet with him. I simply need you to hand over your child to me. If she is not here, tell me where she is staying. Now.”
Hart glared at the Nikto, and the suspicious character returned his gaze. Their brief conversation had allowed his wife to slip into the kitchen without drawing attention to herself. Hart figured that, if it was necessary, he could restrain the Nikto until help arrived. There was no doubt their guest was dangerous, but he was physically no match for the powerful fisherman. Any sidearm he carried was useless at such close range, and Hart was convinced he could avoid any concealed melee weapon.
At the very least, he could distract the Nikto until his wife and daughter had fled their home. He summoned all of his courage and stared down the intruder.
“I’m afraid I cannot help you. As I said, my daughter is not here, and I do not know you. You have yet to introduce yourself, and you demand me to simply give my daughter to you? I cannot do that. If your master wants to meet my daughter, ask him to come himself. Until then, it’s not going to happen, sir.” Hart took a few more steps toward the Nikto. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
The Nikto snarled at Hart, and the fisherman reeled back, expecting him to strike. However, the armored visitor did not move, and Hart dared not approach him anymore. Neither of them said anything for quite a while, and Nalone reentered the room during the stillness. He could sense her unease, but he did his best to appear unrelenting in face of their mysterious adversary.
Much to Hart’s surprise, something stayed the Nikto’s hand. Bowing his head slightly, the Nikto took a few steps away from the giant Human before him. Without a word, he averted his gaze and headed for the door. Nalone sighed deeply, and Hart almost mimicked her. He was leaving. He didn’t understand it, but it seemed as though the Nikto was done here. They were safe.
“I will be back,” the Nikto said. “Expect me-”
“I don’t think so,” Hart interrupted, feeling bolder. “If I see you around my house again…”
“Daddy! I found the pictures!”
He had never thought it would be possible to dread hearing his daughter’s voice. His blood curdled, as though every bit of warmth had been drained from his body. Dynatha’s tiny footsteps started to clamber down the stairs; Hart turned around, slowly, and saw his daughter. She had a big smile on her face, and her hands were filled with styli and flimsy. His heart pummeled the inside of his chest until it nearly jumped from his throat.
“Dynatha! Go upstairs!” he shouted.
But it was too late. The Nikto had heard Dynatha, just as her parents had. Spinning around, the Nikto bounded away from the door and approached the stairs to seize Dynatha. Hart met the Nikto halfway, and he swung his arm with all his might, hoping to strike the predator’s jaw with his elbow. His target rolled under the attack with blinding speed, faster than Hart even suspected was possible. Dynatha was screaming behind them, distracting and worrying him at the same time.
In a single motion, the Nikto had snatched a cylindrical device from his sash and activated it, causing a blood-red beam of energy to spring forth, entering Hart’s abdomen at an angle. He felt the burning blade cut through his clothes and his skin as though they were just pieces of his daughter’s flimsy. His eyesight faded into blackness and his hearing disappeared in an instant; when his senses returned, he was on the floor and his wife and daughter were both screaming.
As soon as the Nikto entered, they had lost their chance. He had had no idea what his opponent was capable of, and he realized his error only now, as he lay prone on the floor. From the corner of his vision, he could see his daughter, pallid and in tears, stumble off the last few steps toward his body. He tried to reach out to her, to stroke her hair away from her eyes and hold her hand, but he realized that he couldn’t feel his arms.
Dynatha shook his body, stiff and practically lifeless, as tears dripped onto the side of his neck. He was quickly losing feeling in the rest of his body, and his vision was blurring, making it harder and harder to see her. Just as he and Nalone had felt ill will stemming from the Nikto earlier, there was an ache in his chest when Dynatha turned from him and screamed something he couldn’t hear. Nalone must have been hit.
Hart trembled. He just wanted to tell his daughter that everything would be all right. He just wanted to wipe her tears away and tell her that he loved her. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t even speak. His blurry vision faded into whiteness.
Dynatha… I’m… so sorry…
Nalone… my love…
“De’dlay? What are you doing?”
A cloaked figure hovered into the room. His tattered brown garment covered his entire body, and his head was concealed beneath its hood. From his place at the entrance to the Aris home, he could see everything. He didn’t even have to speak to De’dlay. He knew everything that had happened.
Nalone Aris’s body was sprawled out atop the family’s table. Thrown backward by De’dlay’s Force lightning, she had knocked over most of what had been there before. She had died instantly; De’dlay killed her with a single electrical strike. Her face had been charred beyond recognition, and her burned flesh had practically fused together with her blackened clothes. Her husband had died just as quickly. De’dlay had stabbed Hart Aris through the abdomen, cutting several vital organs until the blade came out his back, cutting his spine in the process.
Dynatha Aris was sitting near her father’s corpse, cradling his head and crying into it as she whispered pleads for him to open his eyes. De’dlay snapped to attention as soon as he floated inside, evidently pleased with himself. He didn’t even deactivate his lightsaber. But this… this butchery was not what Preux had desired.
“Master Preux,” De’dlay said, clearing his throat. “I didn’t expect you-”
Without warning, Preux rushed forth and grabbed De’dlay’s neck with one hand. Clenching as hard as he could, he threatened to strangle his helpless subordinate and kill him in the same place he had killed Dynatha’s parents. It was a fitting end, and it was one that Preux knew had to come soon; De’dlay could not follow orders. This was only the latest in a long list of De’dlay’s crimes committed in his name. He had grown bold; Preux had trained him from boyhood, and now the Nikto thought he grew powerful enough to subtly alter his orders. This was essentially rebellion, but Preux could not deny his apprentice’s skill either. He did have his uses, after all.
“What part of ‘kill no one’ can you not understand, De’dlay?” Preux hissed.
“They resisted… me. They… lied to me,” the Nikto countered. “They tried to keep me from the girl!”
“There are many ways to avoid conflict, and yet you seem to always seek that path first! Your mastery of battle does not mean you should always turn to it to resolve your tasks.”
“Master… peace is a lie. If I am not to use my skill, why did I achieve it?”
Preux shook his head. De’dlay was a true Sith. He embodied everything in the Sith Code, living it out in pure devotion to the dark side. If not for the authority Preux had achieved through his immense power, De’dlay would easily have been the Sith Master of Alderaan. And, of course, there was no doubt that De’dlay would one day try to challenge him—openly—for his position. It was only natural for the Sith. For now, though, Preux held the power, and there was nothing De’dlay could do to usurp it from him. That meant he had to bend to Preux’s will.
He released De’dlay, albeit hesitantly. “This is not the time nor the place to discuss your failings. We are pressed for time. Do you know if Nalone contacted anyone?”
“No, master,” De’dlay replied, still gasping for air. “I prepared comm interference before I entered.”
“Remain outside. Ensure we are not discovered here. I will recover the girl myself,” Preux stated.
De’dlay bowed his head, shamed. “As you wish, my master.”
Once De’dlay had departed, Preux watched Dynatha from his place near the table. The young girl was almost lifeless, staring at her father and hoping to elicit some sort of response with her stuttering, terrified voice. She had seen everything. Preux had planned to keep both of her parents alive, but he also knew that De’dlay would do whatever it took to seize the girl. He was personally responsible for her parent’s deaths; he had killed them. He recognized that.
Long ago, Preux had watched his own parents die before his eyes. He was no older than Dynatha. He knew exactly what she was feeling; her own terror brought a renewed surge of pain through him. Long had he repressed the anguish within him, or else used the dark side to increase his own power. He would not let her experience the emotional burden he had been forced to endure. He could do nothing to atone, but he could help her forget.
Preux dipped his foot toward the ground and cut off his levitation. Kneeling so that he and Dynatha could see each other face-to-face, Preux tossed back his hood. Raystin Benax, the Sith Master of Alderaan, was not nearly as imposing as the Sith Lords of old. His skin was not marred by the dark side, and his hair was only beginning to gray—much to his chagrin—and in no way corrupted or unnaturally aged. He was neither imposing nor particularly terrifying; in fact, his sparkling blue eyes seemed to belong to a man who had once done much good before his untimely fall.
He watched her for some time with remorse; it was something that could only be comprehended through silence, because neither of them had words to express the pain they felt. The silence spoke volumes for him, of both understanding and regret.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Preux said at last. “I did not want your parents dead. They were… good people. I suppose it could not have been helped. De’dlay acts according to his instincts. I… I need you for my plans. I killed your family.”
Dynatha said nothing. In fact, she still wasn’t looking at him. Staring at her father’s body, tears still fell from her eyes and she was sniffing violently.
“You are the sword I saw in my dreams. You will grow into a woman with the bold spirit of her father and the peaceful spirit of her mother. If I were to leave you alone, you would ruin everything for me, because on the day I make Alderaan mine, you will stand up to me. And you will defeat me.”
“Daddy… Mommy…” Dynatha whispered.
“I require injustice to create justice. I need chaos to bring about peace. I must have death to shape life. But you would oppose me because you are… a warrior. I must defeat you while you are still helpless. As long as you are within my hand, you cannot rise against me.”
Dynatha glanced up at him for the first time. “Can you… save… them?”
“I cannot. All I can do is erase your memories of this moment. And even that, I cannot do permanently. One day, perhaps, when my research into the realms of the mind are complete, the powers of the dark side can assist me. Until then, I can only shield you for a short time. I’m sorry.”
Preux placed his hand on Dynatha’s forehead, causing her to shiver. She made no effort to flee from him; she probably would have lingered in this place for days with her dead family had he not been there. Calling upon the dark side in all its power, Preux reached into the young girl’s mind and twisted it to his will. Fragile and pliant as it was, it was easy for him to make her forget that this day had ever occurred, and her memories would not return until some time after he died.
“Forgive me, Dynatha…” Preux said, removing his hand. “I am a coward. Even if you wanted to, you would not be able to seek revenge against me. Forgive this selfish man and his foolish ambitions…”
Dynatha! Go upstairs…!
Dynatha’s eyes opened. She had been dreaming. No. It had not only been a dream. It was a vision. She had received a vision from her life before she became a Sith acolyte. She had seen the things that Lord Preux had blotted from her memory. Her thoughts had been restored to her, and she remembered the entirety of her childhood and how she had come into the Sith’s service.
She was shaking. Tears had welled up in her eyes, and her cheeks were flushed red from crying during the dream itself. Twelve years ago… twelve years ago she had seen De’dlay kill her father and her mother. Preux had manipulated her, forcing her to become a Sith against her will. Her entire time serving them had been an experience of slavery. Her family was dead, and she had no surrogate family, even among the Sith she thought were her allies, long ago.
Dynatha hoped the crying she had done in her sleep would have taken care of most of the tears, but she underestimated her own heartache. Losing her whole childhood to the Sith was not something she could grasp in a single moment. She would never be able to speak with her parents again. She would never again know the taste of her mother’s cooking, her father’s embrace, or the sound of their voices. Trembling, Dynatha continued to cry for nearly ten minutes.
It was only when the Alderaanian sun began to shine through her diaphanous curtains that she realized she couldn’t linger in bed crying all day. Rising from her bed, Dynatha dried her tears and opened the wicker basket beneath the window to trade her pajamas for a long-sleeved shirt, trousers, and hiking boots. Besides her bed and her clothing basket, there was very little in the room—perfect for a meditating Force-sensitive. Once she had grabbed her equipment, Dynatha left her room on the first floor of the small cottage and went to see Tserne in his room on the second floor.
It had only been a few weeks since she and Tserne DeLarane had left Ralina and her crew. Finding their way to Alderaan, Dynatha and Tserne had spent time together like they had not a chance to before, training, meditating, and getting to know each other through casual conversation and silence. Tserne was still an enigma to her, just as he was to himself, but she thought she knew him a little better than she had when they first met.
Dynatha reached his room and knocked twice on Tserne’s door. There was no response. It was still early, but he was usually awake before the sun came up. She waited a few seconds, realizing just how eager she was to see him, and knocked again. Still no response.
“Tserne? Are you in there?” she called.
Extending her perceptions through the Force, Dynatha peered beyond the solid matter of the door and searched for Tserne in his room. To her surprise, he was absent. She could sense the presence of his bed, his wicker basket, and a few small things he seemed to have left, but he was not there.
Checking the wall-mounted chrono, Dynatha tried not to panic. It was still fairly early, and it was possible that Tserne had gone up to Mount Karfara to meditate. Although they would generally go together, Dynatha saw no reason for him to not spend some time alone, trying to relieve stress or prepare for the day there.
Dynatha left their rented abode as quickly as she could and began the hike toward Mount Karfara. Everything within her was screaming for her to hurry, but she did her best to pace herself. He has to be there, she kept thinking to herself. Tserne still had not recovered all of his memories from his time before meeting Ralina and the others. The depression that stemmed from his lack of knowledge led to long periods of somber musings and longings to be alone. She understood that, but she also didn’t want to worry about him.
The ten minute hike from their lodging to the foot of the mountain did not mollify her. The smell of wet grass was lost to her, and the fluttering tune of morning songbirds made her feel worse. The sun climbed higher in the sky as she pulled herself up the mountain, using her physical strength and the power imbued by the Force to get to the top. Her heart pounded within her ribs as she ascended higher, threatening to fly away from her and find Tserne itself. About halfway through her climb, pain raced through her arms and legs because she had neglected to stretch before the climb. Ignoring her body’s protests, she fought her way to the top.
Dynatha reached the summit, which was almost flattened enough so a pilot could park a medium-sized frigate on it comfortably. Gasping for breath, Dynatha had no idea how quickly she had climbed the mountain, but her entire body seemed to hate her for it. She rested her hands on her knees at first, but quickly repositioned her hands so they rested on her forehead when bending forward invited new pains around her lower back.
It was only after she had taken a minute to catch her breath that Dynatha realized that her fears were realized. Tserne was nowhere to be seen.
“Tserne! Tserne! Where are you?” Dynatha shouted. “Tserne?”
There was, of course, no response. Falling to her knees, Dynatha’s eyes scoured the top of the mountain for any signs of her love, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was gone. She should have expected this moment to come. She should have known that Tserne was not going to be with her forever. Even so, any such solace would not have kept the tears from falling, and it would not have comforted her in the slightest.
Dynatha had thought she had a family in the Sith; the tragic irony of that assumption was unbearable. Although Northeus had not said anything when Ralina and the others rescued him, she knew Raen was dead. Her childhood infatuation was dead, and her last ties with the Sith were violently cut away.
The assassins who had worked with her in the GenoHaradan were all dead. Only she and Tserne remained. The bounty hunters who pursued her were long gone. Anyone who had taken her in before had died for assisting her. Only Tserne was left. She had been with him for so long, she had forgotten that they had hardly known each other, and that he had never really wanted to know her anyway. His first and only actual mission with her would have ended with him killing her.
Tserne… where are you?
She had no family. Her friends were separated by borders and fleets, and there was no way to contact them easily. She loved them all, but she had only really trusted Tserne with everything. He had saved her, he had risked everything for her, and he had been loyal to her when everything else was pitted against her. And now he was gone. Her last connection to the GenoHaradan was no more, but she had never wanted to be without it.
What can I do now?
As if to answer her question directly, her Force senses told her that there were several powerful Force-users approaching her location. At first, she suspected that Tserne was among them, but quickly discarded that hope. He would have come alone. No, these Force-sensitives were beings she did not know, but she suspected that they knew her. Opening her eyes and wiping the tears away, she glanced into the sky and saw a Dynamic-class freighter hover overhead, descending toward the mountain’s summit.
Dynatha rose to her feet and watched the freighter land about five meters from her. The egress ramp hissed as it slid out from the ship, providing several individuals in flowing brown cloaks a path off the ship. Dynatha was wary of them; they were all powerful Force-sensitives, and she noticed the lightsabers they were carrying immediately.
“You are… Dynatha Aris?” the lead figure asked, evidently female.
“Who are you?” Dynatha reached for her vibroblade. “How do you know my name?”
“Be still, child,” another cloaked figure, this one an older man, said. “We mean you no harm.”
“Answer my question,” Dynatha replied.
“I am Bastila Shan,” the first speaker replied. “As of now, I am the head of the Jedi Order. We have heard many things about you, Dynatha.”
“I’ve… I’ve never heard of you. I’m sorry,” Dynatha said. “What do you want?”
“Straight to the point. I like this girl,” a third figure said.
“Hush, Atton,” another Jedi snapped.
“My companions and I have heard of your dealings in whispers. You are a redeemed Sith who fled from bounty hunters and criminals. You defeated rogue Jedi and flew with smugglers. You’ve fought for survival, endured much hardship, and have seen much evil, and yet you have stayed true to the light,” Bastila explained.
“I don’t understand,” Dynatha shook her head. “You…”
“What she means, child, is that she wants you to come with us,” the second figure spoke. “You have the potential to be a Jedi, and the Jedi Order needs all the help it can get.”
“A Jedi?” Dynatha mumbled. “I’m no Jedi. I don’t even have a lightsaber, and my skill with the Force is rudimentary at best. I would only be a burden to you and your Order.”
“I sense there is another in her life that she is missing,” yet another Jedi said. “Do you not think you could find this man with us?”
Dynatha froze. Were they in her head? Or did they just know so much about her? She had no way of knowing, and she was terrified. The Jedi Order was known for its dedication to justice and peace; Jedi would not crawl into her mind without her knowing. These people were certainly not servants of the dark side. She could trust their words, but she did not know if she wanted to.
“Come with us for now,” Bastila offered, “and if you are unhappy or cannot find your friend, we will return you here. Until then, consider staying with us. There is strength in numbers, and all Jedi are in danger of late.”
Dynatha looked at the hooded figures before her, and then at her hands. She had been searching for Tserne in the Force, but she had no found him. He was always difficult to detect, but he would not willingly hide himself from her either. He was not here. He had left Alderaan. Without any resources and with no chance of finding him on her own, Dynatha decided that her best chance would be to join the Jedi and enlist their help.
“Very well,” she said. “I will join you.”
“And so… she is now a Jedi Knight.”
Northeus sat in the bar with an empty glass in his remaining hand. From Transel, where he was waiting now, to the farthest reaches of known space, every cantina, dingy nightclub, and drinking establishment looked the same to him. Sentients lingered at their tables, never quite venturing around to meet others, and droids scurried between them to disperse drinks and bland food to patrons. The rank smell of spice wafted around the bar, and in a few choice places, the stench of vomit – from drunkards or sick visitors—intermingled into what could only be called a terrifying smell.
He had left the public transport as soon as they had landed. Northeus paid the necessary fees with the last of his credits and immediately headed to the cantina located not far from the docks. It seemed there was always one available for spacers; there was no doubt that it was efficient, both for travelers and the barkeeps. Dressed in standard Jedi robes, Northeus knew that he would attract attention to himself, but he didn’t care. A quick sweep of the area in the Force told him there was no one here strong enough to defeat him.
The shuttle Northeus had procured for his personal use had long since fallen into disrepair, and he had been taking civilian transport vessels when he needed to travel the galaxy. His sojourn had been idle and unfulfilling, and it was time for him to settle down in one place. Northeus needed to get away from the Core. There was nothing left for him in the Jedi Order, the Republic, or any of the people he still knew. An old contact of his, Srakkos Marhe, was known to frequent some old haunts in the Colonies, and he was Northeus’s best bet of escaping into exile unnoticed.
“You the Jedi everyone’s been whispering about, yes?”
Northeus turned his head. A Cathar female leaned against the bar, less than a meter away from him. She was eying him suspiciously with her narrow eyes, their golden hue evident even in the flashing lighting of the cantina. The fur along her shoulders, neck, and her hair was turning from a rich brown to white, leading Northeus to believe that she was about as old as he was. Dressed in a rugged combat suit and armed with a blaster rifle, Northeus knew before he recognized her that she was a veteran spacer.
“Is that you, Lespar?” Northeus asked, just loud enough to be heard above the bar’s ambient music.
The Cathar nodded. “I have not seen you in very long time. You look well.”
“Do I?” Northeus chuckled, glancing at the place where his left arm used to be. “Looks can be deceiving.”
“Wise words, Jedi.”
“Will your captain meet with me?”
“He will. He has ordered me to take you to him.”
Northeus stood up, grateful to be off the durasteel barstool he had been sitting on. “Lead the way, Lespar.”
Lespar traveled away from the bar, bypassing rowdy patrons and hulking droids with catlike agility. Northeus was neither as fortunate nor used to crowds, so he gave the unruly spacers and lowlifes a wide birth. Keeping his eyes on his Cathar guide from afar, the Jedi made a careful beeline through the cantina and reunited with Lespar once she had passed by the dance floor.
“You are a tracker, Jedi?” the Cathar asked.
“Not quite. I just know when it’s better to avoid trouble.”
“I see. I do not always have that luxury.”
Northeus nodded. “How’s Srakkos been? Still stealing from the Hutts and living a hedonist’s lifestyle in the frontier worlds?”
“Srakkos is dead.”
“Srakkos was killed during a raid on a Sith ship… ten years ago, yes.” Lespar continued her way across the establishment, never taking her eyes away from the path she intended to travel. “His son has inherited his ship and his crew.”
Northeus frowned. He had not expected this. Srakkos had owed him a favor from years ago. He was counting on requesting that favor from Srakkos to begin his time of solitude. Without him, there was no guarantee that the Jedi would be able to get off this world. Nevertheless, he said nothing as he followed Lespar into the only lounge in the cantina, pondering his remaining options.
To the old Jedi’s relief, Haphren Marhe was very much like his father. His room had been modified according to his tastes and to his tastes alone. A holoracket table was situated in the center of the room, surrounded by pazaak tables. Gambling paraphernalia was abundant, but women were more so. Haphren was surrounded by nearly a dozen females of various species, fawning over him and tending to his needs like a Hutt warlord. Dressed in a business suite and flanked by two Trandoshan bodyguards, Northeus would never have suspected Haphren to be a simple smuggler.
“Captain,” Lespar spoke first, “this is Northeus Ulsan, an associate of your father’s.”
Haphren’s beautiful smile flashed when he saw his first mate and his newest guest. Tossing a few strands of hair away from his cybernetic red-brown eyes, he made sure to make his motions as dramatic as possible. While his harem whispered sweet nonsense into his ears and tried to talk him into sending this new man away, Haphren bid Northeus forward with a wave of his hand.
“So, you are the Jedi. Forgive me, but I expected you to be more… terrifying,” Haphren said with a laugh.
“I’m sorry I do not live up to your expectations,” Northeus replied, stepping around the holoracket table. “Tell me, are you the new owner of the Lost Oath?”
“I am. How did you know my father, Master Jedi?”
“I saved your father during the Mandalorian War,” Northeus explained. “He and his crew were attacked by mercenaries during a routine smuggling run, and I stepped in and saved him. He vowed to repay the debt someday. Your first mate, Lespar, can vouch for me.”
Haphren sighed. “I’m sure she can. So you expect me to fulfill this debt, Master Jedi?”
“If you see it fit.”
“What do I owe my father’s friends? What will my son’s debtors owe me? I don’t see any reason to help you, Master Jedi.”
Northeus shook his head. “Your words are sound. Believe me, I do not intend to tell you what to do with your ship. Good day, sir. May the Force be with you.”
Northeus had turned to leave when Haphren whistled at him. Turning around, he realized that the smuggling captain had signaled for his two Trandoshan guards to point their blaster rifles at him. Lespar looked uneasy, but she said nothing. The other girls, for their part, were giggling with excitement.
“I have heard what Jedi are capable of,” Haphren said, his voice grandiose as though he were a master of ceremonies. “Put on a show for me, Master Jedi.”
“My abilities are not for your amusement. Do not try and goad me,” Northeus replied, brushing him off.
“Captain, do not do this thing. This is foolishness, yes,” Lespar urged. “The Jedi are very powerful, and-”
“Silence!” Haphren boomed. “Guards: open fire on the Jedi. He shall dance for us, or he shall die.”
The Trandoshans fired as he willed. Northeus recognized Haphren’s naivety, but it was no excuse for trying to manipulate a Jedi Master. As the orange blaster bolts flew toward him, Northeus called upon the Force as subtly as he could and scooped up a racquet from the game board between them and made it float in front of him. Imbuing the object with the Force, Northeus gave it the power of his lightsaber that had been damaged some time ago.
Counting on the Force and moving according to its time, Northeus guided his makeshift shield so that it deflected the blaster bolts back toward Haphren and his crowd. The women around him screamed and fled from the blaster fire being sent toward them, racing for the rear exit. When Haphren turned away and tried to call them back, Northeus called upon the Force and forcibly ejected the blaster cells from the Trandoshans’ rifles, rendering the weapons useless.
Haphren reached for his own blaster pistol, but by the time he had it in his hands, Northeus had used the Force to sprint forward and engage him directly. Twisting the young captain’s wrist, the Jedi Master disarmed him and then pushed him out of his seat and to the ground. Seeing her captain in danger, Lespar pointed her blaster rifle at Northeus, but she was nervous and did not want to fire at him. Northeus reloaded Haphren’s blaster pistol and pointed it at him, causing her more alarm.
“No, Jedi! Please do not do this thing,” Lespar said.
“She’s… yes! Please. I’m sorry for upsetting you, Master Jedi,” Haphren agreed. “I will never underestimate a Jedi again. Just… please let me live.”
Northeus threw the blaster pistol to the ground. “I have no intention of taking your life, Haphren. Your father was too kind to me for me to kill his son. If you’ll excuse me.”
Lespar helped her captain to his feet while Northeus headed for the door. Before he left, the Force told him that he ought to linger for a moment. Although he was worried about the Trandoshans—who had rearmed themselves—and Haphren himself, Northeus waited in the doorway longer than he intended.
“Master Jedi, wait.”
“Yes?” Northeus turned around. “Captain?”
“Where do you need to go?”
Haphren’s eyes widened. “Ambria…? Pirates are swarming that place. The Exchange essentially controls the entire sector. What could you want to do at Ambria?”
“That’s none of your business,” Northeus replied curtly. “However, you have the fastest ship in Republic space, don’t you?”
“Damn right. The Lost Oath will outrun any Republic cruiser in the fleet.”
“Then you don’t have to worry, do you?”
“What’s… how much are you willing to pay me?” Haphren asked.
“Are you a gambling man, Haphren?”
The captain smiled. “I never lose.”
Northeus knew what that meant. Smugglers only said that when they picked battles that they could not lose or when they cheated. Something told Northeus that Haphren was equally capable of both. Nodding, the Jedi Master approached a pazaak table and motioned toward an overturned deck.
“We will play one round of pazaak. If I win, I will pay you the nine hundred credits now, two thousand when we get there.”
“And if I win?”
“I will pay you either fifteen thousand credits, or else you don’t have to go at all and can send me on my way.”
Haphren smiled again. Northeus motioned toward the other seat. He knew that the smuggler couldn’t pass up such a challenge. Sure enough, Haprhan handed Lespar his blaster and took a seat opposite of where Northeus was standing. Unfortunately for him, Northeus had no intention of losing. The smuggler captain had already underestimated the Jedi, and he only continued to do so. Once Northeus won the game, he would travel to Ambria, where he would live out the rest of his days in exile.
It was only a matter of the Force giving him the power to win this simple game.
“Ready, Master Jedi?”
Northeus took a seat. “Ready, Captain.”
“Would you like to shuffle the deck?”
“That won’t be necessary.”
Haphren looked shocked, but it was only for a second. “Very well. My first card is a three…”
“And mine a four…”
And just like that, his victory was secure.
“Playback record four thousand, eight hundred twenty.”
Right away, Master Ulsan.
“The dark side is rising. Even as I wait here on Ambria, I can sense it. In the farthest reaches of the galaxy, something evil is coming. I can only suspect as to its source, but no matter what it is, it cannot be ignored. Something this powerful will only threaten the stability of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order. It must be stopped.
“And yet, I will not stop it. New warriors must rise to take the place of the older ones. Those that have fallen must be replaced by valorous newcomers. There is no place for one such as I in this new order. I am the Northeus Ulsan, and I am the last master of the old order. Some day soon, I will join my kin. I will join… you. Until that day, I must watch and wait, see to it that new bearers of light stand against the darkness so that, one day, the shadows will be swept away entirely.”
End message. Is this satisfactory, Master Ulsan?
“It is, computer. Thank you.”
Very well. Signing off…