62,295 Pages

Chapter 10

Raen and Selias had entered the elevator to the Lower City without much trouble. Although the Republic soldier stationed on guard duty was initially hesitant to let them by, a bribe and a few terse words from Selias had eventually forced him to yield to them. Now the pair was in the elevator car, as silent now as they were while walking the streets of Taris. Raen had already examined the rather commodious elevator, and he was disappointed. The car itself was old and rust covered its interior like a dull paint–it was unnerving to see so much damage–and every few meters the car descended, he could hear the car groan like a beast in pain. The exiled Sith was worried the old-fashioned steel cables might actually give way and kill the both of them. Luckily, the car survived their descent, and Raen and Selias left the elevator before a dozen other Tarisian citizens took their place inside the car.

“So where are we headed?” Raen asked.

“Javyar’s Cantina,” Selias explained. “It’s not too far from here. Let’s go.”

Despite Selias’s assurance, the walk through the Lower City was like a nightmare to the pampered Raen. The Lower City had a constant musty smell–a smell of death, embers, and motor fuel–and his vision was hindered because Taris’s lustrous sun did not reach this subterranean wasteland; the inhabitants of this place counted on artificial glowpanels to provide what little heat and light they could. What he could see, though, he didn’t like. The brick-laden walls were ruined with graffiti and other sorts of vandalism, while the streets were littered with garbage, animal refuse, and small pools of blood, oil, water, and other liquids that Raen dared not identify. Every so often, the pair passed by a group of sentients who were huddled around small drums of flame, hoping that the dangerous tongues of fire would keep them warm in the bitter darkness of the Tarisian Lower City.

It was with great relief that the Raen and his companion finally reached Javyar’s Cantina. As Raen approached the cantina, a homeless woman suddenly leapt out of the darkness, grasping at Raen’s left arm. She was screaming something in a language that the Sith exile could not understand, and he initially found himself too startled to react. Once his wits returned to him, Raen pushed the woman away from him, throwing her to the ground. The Rodian bouncer took notice of the event and ran towards the homeless individual, scaring her away with his stun baton. Once the bouncer had returned to his post at the door, Selias approached Raen and placed a single hand on his shoulder.

“You okay, Raen? You look rattled.”

Raen nodded. “I’m fine. I don’t think she intended to harm me.”

As he spoke, the female vagrant began to approach them again. Her brown knotted and greasy hair battered in the soft breeze that was emerging from Javyar’s Cantina, and Raen could see the confusion in her deep brown eyes. She hesitated as she took each step; Raen presumed that she did not want to get hurt by Raen or the bouncer again. Raen thought she looked familiar–he had seen many vagrants on Alderaan–but her scarred, pale face did not match anyone he knew. Once she had gotten face-to-face with the Sith exile, she bit her lip as she reached into her coat pocket. Selias urged Raen to follow her and ignore the woman, reaching for her vibroblade, just in case the homeless woman brandished her own weapon from her tattered jacket. Instead, the homeless woman took a piece of metallic circuitry, grasped Raen’s arm, and placed it into his hands, all in one swift motion. Before Selias could swing her weapon and scare her away, the other woman ran off into the darkness. Opening his hand, Raen realized what it was that she had given him. It was T1-N7’s core. Startled, Raen realized that he must have dropped it while walking through the Lower City–or perhaps it had been stolen–and the vagrant had gotten it back for him. Whatever the case, Raen turned to thank the young vagrant, only to find that she had fled.

“What is it, Raen?” Selias asked, curious.

“Nothing important,” Raen said quietly, slipping the core into his pocket. “Let’s head inside.”

Upon entering the cantina, Raen was surprised at how different it was to the Lower City itself. The smell of alcohol permeated the entire building, while cigarra smoke and the scent of illegal spices lingered and created a unique smell that caused Raen to gag violently. Selias threw him a hopeless glance before continuing on her way. Walking through the cantina’s lobby, which consisted of several individuals involving themselves in heated pazaak games, Raen and Selias entered bar proper. The dim lights cast a dark shadow over most of the bar, causing the light green coloration of the walls and ceiling to possess a peculiar brown tint. The upbeat tune of a Bith band in the distance and the shouting of various individuals watching some sporting event on the HoloNet prevented Raen from zoning in one any particular conversation. He followed Selias silently until she sat down at a round table, where two other individuals were already sitting.

The first individual was Human, like him. He had dark skin and was bald, but he did have a black mustache and goatee. He wore a yellow leather shirt covered up almost entirely by a combat jacket equipped with various weapons and gadgets. However, his most striking feature was the whiteness of his eyes. Raen figured the man was blind. Next to him sat a Sullustan male, complete with his tapered forehead and thick jowls. He was much more elegantly dressed–wearing a black and white suit underneath his brown, rugged overcoat–than his Human counterpart, although his face was agitated and mired with sweat.

“Raen Benax,” Selias said, still sitting, “this is Gadon Thek, the leader of the Hidden Beks. And this is Sir Neebs, a wealthy Sullustan businessman staying here on Taris.”

Raen shook hands with both of them before sitting down next to Selias and across from Sir Neebs. He noticed that the Sullustan still had a panicked expression on his face, and he was quite jittery; he was rapping his fingers against the table and his large black eyes were dotting back and forth.

“So why’s he here, Selias? You didn’t think I would provide you with some aid to complete this mission?” Gadon asked.

“No, not at all, sir. I simply figured that–as a Jedi–he would have some experience in these situations. Plus, he kept me safe while we were in the Upper City,” Selias explained.

“Hmm, indeed,” Gadon pondered. After a brief moment, he smiled, glancing at Raen. “Your bodyguard has quite the confused look on his face, Selias. Shouldn’t you have explained what he’s getting into?”

Selias sighed. “As a Jedi, I thought he’d be a bit more perceptive. I guess they aren’t as quick as I figured-”

“Excuse me,” Neebs interrupted. “My daughter?”

“Oh, right,” Selias said nonchalantly. “Well, Raen, Neebs here is a financial provider to the Hidden Beks. He pays us with weapons and tech; we offer him protection while he’s on Taris–it’s a mutual agreement. However, gang members raided his apartment in the Upper City and they stole several valuable blueprints and pieces of technology. That wasn’t all, though. They also took his daughter, Tsata.”

“Wait…” Raen asked. “You’re a gang member?”

“Surprised?” Selias asked, a smile sneaking across her face.

“Not really,” Raen muttered, trying to mask his shock. “Anyway, continue.”

“So, anyway, these thugs have demanded a huge ransom before they return any of Neebs’s material possessions, and they wanted an even larger ransom for his daughter. If he pays them, he and his company will go bankrupt,” Selias continued. “Gadon assigned me to carry out the exchange.”

“So that’s what your job was,” Raen mused.

“Yes,” Selias added. “That being said, I still did not know who kidnapped Neebs’s daughter or where the transaction will take place. That’s why we’re here now. I take it you discovered who’s behind this, Gadon?”

“Indeed,” Gadon said. “My sources tell me the Legion of Zhell is behind this.”

“Damn,” muttered Selias. “I was hoping that it wasn’t them.”

“Who are the Legion of Zhell?” asked Raen and Neebs simultaneously.

“A radical Humanocentric gang that pervades much of Taris due to its ideals,” Gadon explained. His voice had a trace of sadness in it. “They have been involved in terrorist attacks against aliens who live in the Upper City and assassinations of alien-supporters in the Middle and Lower Cities. They operate a number of slavery rings that they are quite proud of.”

“No!” Neebs shouted. “My daughter cannot be sold off like some slave! She’s barely old enough to read, much less be someone’s servant in the Core!”

“I’ve learned that they’re going to be conducting the trade for Tsata at the Phofol Bridge five kilometers southwest of here. Selias, you and your friend are going to go and recover Sir Neebs’s daughter,” Gadon said plainly.

“Permission to use deadly force, sir?” Selias asked slyly.

“Granted. Meet our speeder out front. Be careful, Selias.”

“Thank you, sir,” Selias managed to utter before Gadon got up and headed elsewhere. Raen noticed that Neebs was still rather traumatized; he was sitting in his chair–staring at nothing in particular–with his mouth hanging ajar. Nevertheless, he left the Sullustan alone at the table and followed the wily Togruta out of the bar.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were part of a gang?” Raen demanded as the two left the cantina.

“I didn’t think you’d care. In fact, I was almost sure you wouldn’t,” Selias replied curtly. “Don’t tell me you’re growing a heart in that hollow chest of yours, Raen Benax.”

Raen didn’t grace her insult with a reply. Instead, the two headed outside the bar, where they saw a spacious, red-and-green speeder waiting for them. Inside were two other individuals Raen presumed were more Hidden Beks. The pilot was a Miraluka–a race of blind Near-Humans who used the Force to see–wearing a brown, leather jacket over his tanned skin, and a hood covered most of his long white hair. In the passenger’s seat, a Chistori male was sitting, lurching over the side of the vehicle. His towering saurian appearance was frightening to behold, and as they approached, his green scales reflected the dim light of the Lower City almost as well as the fanged teeth he barred at Raen.

“Who is the boy, Selias?” the Chistori growled. Raen saw him reach for his weapon, and the Sith exile responded in kind.

“His name is Raen Benax; he’s going to be helping us on this mission,” Selias said quickly. Waving her hands, she motioned for both of them to put their weapons away.

“He’s a Jedi,” the Miraluka pointed out. “Where’d you dig him up?”

“He fell out of the sky,” Selias said with a slight chuckle. “Come on, we don’t have time for this interrogation, guys. Neebs’s daughter is in danger.”

“You’re right,” the Miraluka agreed.

Opening the back doors, the driver waited for Selias and Raen to step inside before starting the engine on their hovercraft. The vessel started quickly and without protest–although its leaking engine produced a bitter odor–and the pilot allowed the vessel to careen through the dim lit streets of the Lower City.

“I’m Ranval, by the way,” the pilot told Raen while he was driving. “The Trandoshan with the snout of a Shistavanen here is named Donnel.”

“Pleased to meet you both,” Raen said as politely as he could. “But shouldn’t you be paying attention to the road?”

“Eh, I’m blind,” Ranval stated. “The road can wait.”

Selias and Donnel glared at him ferociously. Ranval caught their cruel glances and threw up his arms in surrender, allowing the vehicle to drift as he took his hands off of the steering module. Raen gripped the side of the hovercraft as the other side of the vehicle smashed into a wall–almost sending Selias flying out of the hoverspeeder. A string of profanity from the enraged Togruta forced the hapless Miraluka to return his hands to steering.

“Fine, fine.” Ranval grinned mischievously. “I’ll focus on keeping you guys safe, if you feel so inclined. Hold onto ya’ spice, I’m going to see how fast this baby can go!”

*** ***

Celsus Djan sighed drearily. He had been sitting in the lobby of Taris Paramilitary Headquarters alone for nearly two hours now. The last time he saw someone else was when a receptionist, a charming female Twi’lek, took his report of the last mission and promised it would reach the director. She told him to take a seat before she left, and she had yet to return. Bramhon had already filed his report and returned to the barracks, but as commanding officer of the mission, Celsus was responsible for answering any questions the director might have. He did not enjoy the wait, but at least they allowed him to wait in casual wear–a light shirt and black slacks–instead of a stuffy military uniform or uncomfortable battle armor.

While he contemplated whether or not he should return later, the commander took note of one of the elevators descending toward the lobby. Wonderful, thought Celsus. I thought they would never come. The soft pings of the elevator passing by each floor were music to Celsus’s craving ears; he was relieved when the assistant director of Taris Paramilitary–an elderly man probably twenty years older than Celsus–walked in alongside the receptionist and several guards.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Celsus said, throwing his right hand into a quick salute and standing from the yellow stool he had been sitting on.

“Well, at least somebody’s having one,” growled the assistant director.

“Is there a problem, sir?”

“Yes, there’s a problem!” the assistant director shot back. “Multiple, in fact. Not only is Director Benax missing, but now we have Sith soldiers on our doorstep and we’ve lost three fine agents due to your ineptitude!”

“My ineptitude?” Celsus shot back, disgusted. “With all due respect, sir, we were ambushed by Sith troopers. Our armor and weapons were never meant to combat trained soldiers.”

“Don’t give me excuses, Celsus!” the old man bellowed. “You always give me excuses. Every time we couple you with a group, someone dies! But not you… no, you survive! You’ve survived too many battles on luck’s graces, Commander, and I for one don’t buy it!”

“Sir,” Celsus spat, “would you like me to tell you where you can shove your opinion?”

The assistant director walked toward Celsus, standing close enough to punch his face if he felt so inclined. “Watch yourself, Celsus. Just because Director Benax likes your work, doesn’t mean I will tolerate your insubordination. If you dare talk to me like that again, your days with Taris Paramiliary are over.” He took a few deep breaths, waited, and then spoke again, slowly, “Do we understand each other?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now, I have a job for you, if you can keep your mouth shut,” the assistant director replied. Reaching into his coat pocket, the assistant director withdrew a datapad from one of his many coat pockets. He handed it to Celsus and allowed him to quickly scan its contents.

Celsus browsed through the list of names that the datapad contained; there was a list of at least twenty-five criminals on it, and each of them inhabited Taris’s Lower City. The commander switched off the datapad before returning his attention to the assistant director.

“What is it, sir?” he finally asked.

“That is a list of all the Hidden Beks we suspect are involved in assisting the Sith in illegal weapon trafficking. Most of them frequent Javyar’s Cantina. I’m sure you’re familiar with the place. I am sending you and a squad of agents to flush the place clean, Celsus.”

Celsus’s eyebrows arched warily. “This is a large list of individuals, sir. Are you sure its legal for us to apprehend this many sentients at once?”

The old man laughed heartily. “Don’t be ridiculous. Who do you think will deny us the right to do so? The Republic? They are too busy protecting their precious research base. Taris PD? They couldn’t find their badges if they weren’t attached to their uniforms. No, Celsus, this is perfectly legal.”

“These orders come straight from the top?” Celsus asked.

“Of course, Celsus. Keep in mind: until Director Benax is found and returns here, I am the top,” the assistant director said. “So you’ll obey my orders the same you would do Commander Benax’s.”

“Yes, sir,” Celsus said, exhausted of questions.

“Good.” The assistant director smiled. “Don’t dally now; get down to the barracks and organize a squad. We’ve got speeders in the lot for you to use. I’d wish you luck, but you seem to have more than enough of that, Commander.” He chuckled to himself before turning his back to Celsus and leaving the lobby behind.

Once the assistant director and his guards had left, Celsus left Taris Parmilitary’s Headquarters. It felt good to finally leave the cramped and poorly ventilated headquarters and return to the brisk Upper City streets. Walking by a group of Human nobles, Celsus was startled when one of the aristocrats reached out and grasped him on the arm.

“Excuse me, sir,” the noble said. He had quite a worried expression upon his pale face–most nobles were usually quite pompous and genial–and Celsus was surprised to notice that his blond hair was quite unkempt for a noble. “I saw you leave the Taris Paramilitary building, and I wondered if you were, in fact, an agent there?”

“You are correct. Commander Celsus Djan, at your service.”

“Excellent. My name is Oryan Tempaar. I’d like to file a complaint against a pair of individuals. A Togruta female and a Human male,” the noble began.

“I’m sorry,” Celsus began, in the best monotone he could muster, “if you’re looking to file an official complaint, you’ll have to talk to one of our representatives. I’m not allowed to handle or comment on potential grievances-”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Oryan interrupted him. “Why on earth would I use my comlink to call some subhuman receptionist when I can talk to you?”

“Because, as I said, I can’t handle your case,” Celsus shot back. “I’m also busy. So if you’ll excuse me.”

Celsus left the noble and his friends, despite protests from Oryan. Even when one of them thought it would be a good idea to throw a chunk of scrap metal at Celsus–something the commander could have easily killed him for–he kept walking. He was close enough to being fired without starting a brawl in the Upper City right outside Taris Paramilitary Headquarters.

Once he was within the safety of the paramilitary barracks, Celsus lingered in its foyer for a brief moment before heading to the lounge. Walking by the sleeping agents on the various sofas and chairs in the room, Celsus grabbed a clean mug off the counter on the far end of the room and poured the remaining espcaf from a rotund metal pot into his cup. Heading back into the foyer, Celsus spotted Bramhon working vigorously, apparently trying to repair a datasphere. Taking one last sip of the steaming caffeinated beverage in his mug, Celsus set the cup down on a nearby desk before sitting across from the oblivious agent.

“How are those repairs going, Bramhon?” Celsus asked nonchalantly. He was glad that the sofas in the foyer were actually quite comfortable.

“Oh, hello, Commander,” Bramhon beamed, strands his brown hair standing on end. “I didn’t see you there. The repairs are going well; if I can just fix the processor, we might be able to use this thing again.”

Celsus smiled. “Well, don’t let me bother you. I’ll be in my quarters if you need anything.”

“Are you ready to head to Javyar’s?” Bramhon asked while Celsus was leaving.

Celsus shot him a puzzled glance as he picked up his espcaf mug. “You’re coming with me? But I thought this weekend was the start of your vacation.”

“It is.”

“Won’t Paelopia be angry if you don’t help her prepare for your trip?” Celsus noted.

“Hmm… you’re right,” Bramhon muttered. However, Celsus noticed the glistening in his blue eyes. “But this will be my last mission with you, Celsus, and I want it to be memorable.”

“What do you mean?” Celsus asked, taking another sip of his escaf.

“They’re giving me command of this mission, Celsus,” Bramhon explained.

Celsus nearly spit out the liquid he was drinking. “Wait… what?”

“You didn’t hear?” Bramhon asked, still somewhat focused on the datasphere he was repairing. “They’re giving me command of this mission. They want to see if I’m ‘command material’ or not. Apparently, they think I’ve done enough serving under you–keep in mind, there’s a shortage of new recruits–and want to promote some older members. Exciting, huh?”

Celsus forced a smile. He was somewhat confused that the assistant director had not explained this to him when he gave Celsus the mission, especially since he had been in charge of apprehending the data. At this point, the commander hated how the assistant director was handling this mission. There were dozens of potential criminals to arrest, he put Bramhon in charge of the whole ordeal, and they had not even investigated the Hidden Beks’s connection to the Sith thoroughly.

“Of course, B. Good work.” He forced himself to sound cheerful. “I knew you could do it.”

Bramhon smiled back. “Thanks, Commander. That means a lot coming from you,” he paused for a moment, tinkered with the stubborn datasphere, and returned his attention to Celsus. “Now, I’m not prideful or nothing, but I think I’m pretty damn awesome.”

Celsus turned to head out, tiring of this conversation and out of espcaf to hold him over. “I’ll be back later, B. I need to go wash up and throw some of my gear into my quarters.” The commander turned toward Bramhon, wondering if he was still paying attention. “Meet you out here later.”

“A’ight, Commander. See you then,” Bramhon replied.

Celsus headed out of the foyer of the barracks and down labyrinthine hallways painted in the same dull and boring colors as the foyer. Eventually, Celsus reached the comfort of his own room and locked the doors behind him. His room was primarily empty-containing a simple cot and a large bureau–and lacked any sort of interesting features. Once he was safely inside, the commander threw the datapad he received from his boss on his cot. Walking up to the old wooden bureau, the commander lit the three candles that were waiting for him, as they waited every day, with a nearby match. Taris Paramilitary was falling apart on itself, and Celsus could see it clearly. They could not even find their own director. It had been worthwhile, but at this point, Celsus knew that he had to stop running. This would be his last mission with the security organization.

The commander watched intently as the small candles illuminated the three small photos tacked against the wall behind them. “Never again,” Celsus muttered.

Opening the bureau, Celsus removed the top drawer from its location and allowed it to hit the floor with a crashing noise. Reaching behind the area where the drawer had been, Celsus removed a cylindrical, silver-colored object from a partially hidden compartment in the bureau. The commander awoke the hidden weapon with a vicious snap-hiss. A violet blade erupted from the hilt; its faint glow was bright enough to light up the entire room. Celsus whipped the weapon about in a small arc, allowing his hands to become comfortable using the exotic weapon again.

“I will never run from my destiny. Never again,” Celsus murmured, allowing the weapon to hover over the candles he had lit. He knew that this life was just a charade–vestiges of cowardice. He was not a Taris Paramilitary agent, he was not a machine, and he was not the commander of anyone. Celsus Djan was a Jedi Master of the Order, and a defender of the Galactic Republic. And he still had one last mission to accomplish.

Chapter 11

The Hidden Beks had driven through the empty streets of the Lower City and cautiously approached the Phofol Bridge. The bridge had been built over the Phofol Expanse–a great gorge that separated the northern and southern sections of the Lower City–during the Tarisian Civil War about one hundred years before. The bridge was an impressive architectural feat, extending some eight hundred meters across the gorge, held up by massive arches extending several hundred meters above the ground. Trusses were used for added support, extending from the bridge’s sides over the top like a crosshatched roof made of duracrete. During a meeting like this one, a particularly crafty criminal could position blaster-wielding agents in the trusses. Luckily for the Beks, Donnel had thought of this before they arrived and sent Raen to venture up the trusses and search for hidden snipers while they dealt with the Legion of Zhell.

Once Raen had gone, Ranval allowed the speeder to close in on the bridge, passing several artificial barricades set up by the Legion of Zhell. There were not very many enemy gang members, probably somewhere between twelve and eighteen, but they clearly outnumbered the trio of Beks, and they were equipped with rifles and stun batons. Once Ranval got within three meters of the bridge, he was stopped by armored thugs. Their leader–a particularly rude-looking Human male–beckoned them to shut off the hoverspeeder and leave their weapons in the vehicle before they got out. Selias and Donnel complied with their opponents’ demands, leaving most of their weapons behind with Ranval, who had refused to leave the vehicle in the hands of the Legion.

Selias and Donnel were led toward the center of the bridge, where a single Human male rose from his seat to greet them. He was about ten years older than Raen, bald with several scars that accentuated the scowl on his face. Selias found herself unable to stare into the man’s dark black eyes; they reflected a malice and hatred that Selias had not even seen in Raen or that nobleman, and they made her shiver with fear. Two colossal Wookiees flanked him, wearing shock collars and carrying bowcasters, serving as his slave-bodyguards. As soon as Selias and Donnel were close enough, a vast spotlight from one of the overhanging beams illuminated the darkened area around the center of the bridge. The light blinded the Beks for a moment; once their eyes adjusted, they saw Tsata behind the Wookiees where Selias and Donnel could not reach her.

“Welcome, beasts,” the bald Human sneered. His loose clothing flapped in the breeze that came from the chasm below. “I assume you are the garbage that Neebs dragged up to secure his whimpering daughter?”

“Yes,” Selias spoke up first, “we came to give you the money you requested in your ransom note. My name is Selias Siital, and this is my associate, Donnel Ioca.”

“Beasts do not deserve names, other than what their master gives them,” the Human spat. “As such, you are not fit to know my name. Each of us is known simply as Legion, for we are many, but at the same time, we are one. Each of us is united under a common cause–a righteous cause. We yearn for the complete destruction of all subhuman freaks like yourselves and that idiot Neebs, who dared to defy the Upper City with his filthy presence.”

Donnel growled softly, but Selias motioned for him to remain calm. She did not like this bigot anymore than Donnel did, but she knew that they had to wait. If they did not, Tsata would die. Selias raised her hands innocently–hoping that the emissary of the Legion would not react violently–and allowed Donnel to reach into her coat pocket, pulling out a datapad. The lumbering, irate Chistori sauntered over to the Legion’s diplomat, carefully placed the device about a meter in front of him, and returned to his place by Selias.

The Legion’s officer smirked as Donnel left the datapad on the ground. Sending one of his Wookiee slaves to fetch the device for him, he waited patiently for the slave to grab the storage device and hand it to him. Upon skimming its contents, the Legionnaire’s crooked smile turned into a fiendish scowl, creating a lump in Selias’s throat.

He threw the datapad on the ground in a furious rage. “What’s this trash?” he demanded. “It’s just a bunch of useless digits!”

“That,” Donnel shot back, “is the password that opens up vault thirty-eight at the Central Bank in the Upper City. The instructions and passcode are all contained inside, including the exact amount of credits inside the vault.”

The Legion’s emissary shook his head and scooped up the datapad again. “I see. Your offer intrigues me, but I’m afraid you are not the only one bidding on tonight’s prize.” The emissary whistled sharply, causing Selias to flinch and Donnel to reach for his concealed weapon. “Come on out, boys. We’re ready for the Exchange’s counteroffer.”

At his calling, a small group of ironclad hovercraft pulled up behind Tsata and the Wookiees guarding her. Each of the speeders held three individuals, armed with light combat armor and a blaster rifle, who disembarked and assembled behind the captured Sullustan. Their leader was an imposing man wearing a small brown coat over a black undershirt. He had a large tattoo on his left shoulder, marking his place in the Mandalorian clans, short, kempt graying hair, and steel-colored eyes. The Beks were particularly worried about him not because he was a Mandalorian, but because he was equipped with a heavy repeater–a massive blaster rifle capable of firing several hundred rounds at a time and shredding through everyone on this bridge without wasting its energy cell.

It was this same leader who spoke for the entire group. “You called, Legionnaire?” he growled.

“Hello, Canderous, Tetrys,” the Legion’s voice welcomed the leader and his bodyguard, a younger Mandalorian. “These fine individuals offered me twenty-five thousand credits for my prisoner here. It is a fine offer, to be sure. How much does Davik Kang offer for her?”

“Ten percent more,” Canderous replied. “That’s his final offer.”

The Legionnaire cackled with delight. “Well, I suppose that means you lost the auction, alien scum. But don’t get me wrong; the Legion appreciates your donation to its coffers. We’ll put these credits to good use–buying more explosives and technology for killing subhumans like you!”

Selias, who had been stunned to silence after the appearance of the Exchange, shouted at the Legionnaire now, “You can’t do this! We had a deal.”

“Deal’s off,” the auctioneer sneered. “You can’t do anything to stop me!”

“But I can,” Raen’s voice shouted from the trusses. The Sith exile dropped from his lofty position in a single Force-empowered jump, dropping so he was face-to-face with the Legion’s emissary. Igniting his blood red lightsaber in a single, fluid motion, Raen drove his weapon through the Legionnaire’s chest, causing him to spasm uncontrollably before finally keeling over at Raen’s feet.

The Wookiees realized that their master was dead and–instead of attacking the Beks and their Force-sensitive ally–turned around and assaulted Canderous’s forces. The Mandalorian and his officers were still shocked at Raen’s appearance, and they lost several Exchange mercenaries before Tetrys, Canderous’s lieutenant, commanded his forces to attack the Wookiee thralls. During the panic caused by the Wookiees’ freedom, Donnel had rushed over to Tsata, freed her mouth and limbs, and threw her over his shoulder. Selias used her concealed knife to slit the throat of one of the Legion’s guards who had escorted them here, and then threw her weapon at the other. Once the Beks had acquired their precious cargo, Selias and Donnel fled the battlefield, leaving Raen and his Wookiee allies to finish off their foes.

Raen ignited both of his lightsabers and performed a powerful jump, catapulting him into the midst of the Exchange soldiers. He punched a single soldier in the face upon landing, and that soldier had his arms ripped off by one of the Wookiee combatants. Turning around, Raen used a telekinetic wave of energy to throw several Exchange thugs off of the bridge and into the deep chasm below. Tetrys noticed Raen’s assault and approached him from behind, but his attack was blocked by a Wookiee warrior, who allowed the young Mandalorian to stab him before he reached Raen. Although the Wookiee perished, Raen’s Force senses alerted him of Tetrys approach and blocked the Mandalorian’s vibrosword with his two lightsabers.

“I’ll bury you on this bridge, Jedi,” Tetrys spat. “Just like you buried my father and others on Malachor.”

Raen said nothing; he was too focused on keeping the Mandalorian’s blade at bay. The crimson lightsaber in his right hand kept Tetrys’s weapon in place, and the exiled Sith used his other hand–and his azure lightsaber–to strike at the young warrior’s throat. The Mandalorian predicted the attack and ducked, avoiding the initial strike and then thrust his weapon forward in a horizontal strike, preventing the Force-sensitive from striking back immediately. Now that he was on the defensive, Raen blocked several quick overhead blocks from Tetrys, who was intent on slicing him in half. Raen parried his attacks and then returned to the offensive, striking at him in a series of powerful and wide swings that threatened to sever the Mandalorian’s lower limbs. Jumping, Tetrys performed a quick backflip and avoided both lightsabers before kicking the exiled Sith in the face with his boots in a follow-up strike. Raen grunted and fell backwards, accidentally losing his blue-bladed lightsaber in the process.

Tetrys stood over Raen and used his boot to clamp down on the Force-sensitive’s arm, preventing him from grasping at his lost weapon. Raen swung at the Mandalorian with his remaining weapon, but Tetrys parried his lightsaber with ease. Tetrys thrust his weapon at Raen’s skull, intending to drive his blade right through. However, Raen called upon the Force and recovered his lost lightsaber, prompting the Mandalorian to step away from Raen and end his offensive early.

Raen heaved a sigh of relief as the blood flowed back to his arm. The Mandalorian rushed at Raen in a blind fury, but the Force-sensitive was stronger now. Bloodlust and fury were driving Raen on, and he was empowered by all the strength of the dark side. With a quick sidestep, Raen avoided Tetrys’s attack and thrust his own weapon into the young Mandalorian’s back, killing him instantly. Once Tetrys had fallen, Raen used his body as a projectile, throwing the corpse at his other opponents.

As soon as Raen had killed Tetrys, several rounds of blaster fire flew by him. Apparently, the Exchange agents had been waiting for him to kill Tetrys so they could get a clear shot at the Force-sensitive. Raen spun both of his weapons in wide circles–creating a beauteous figure eight with his two intermingling lightsabers–and began to deflect their blaster fire.

While Raen fended off their opponents, the two Beks had returned to the bridge’s entryway with Tsata; to their dismay, Ranval and his speeder were absent. The young Sullustan was sobbing quietly and shivering. Whether she was simply cold or terrified out of her wits, Selias and her companion could not tell. They waited in the darkness for several disparaging minutes, until Ranval finally guided his speeder toward the Beks. The Miraluka had been sweating–his face was still as red as a Devaronian–and the speeder had received several wounds from blaster fire.

“Anyone call for a taxi?” the Miraluka mewed.

“Oh, shut up and open the doors,” Donnel grunted drearily. “We don’t need your idiocy right now.”

“Watch the s’s and i’s around our guest, you giant Kowakian monkey lizard! She’s five years old, for Thek’s sake!” the Miraluka pilot snapped. Turning his attention to Tsata, Ranval smiled pleasantly and his former demeanor clearly returned. “Don’t worry, ma’darling. He’s not nearly as mean as he looks. Please, come inside.”

“Please do,” Donnel said, more frustrated at Ranval than worried about the Legion. “Your father is expecting you; we should get you home.”

“Okay,” Tsata muttered–although she was still confused–and stepped into the speeder.

Once all the Beks had piled into Ranval’s speeder, Donnel encouraged the young Miraluaka pilot to head toward Javyar’s as fast as he could. The vehicle took off madly, smashing through the barricades set up by the Legion. Tsata sat by herself, crying due to the fact that she did not comprehend what was going on around her. Suddenly, Selias realized that they had forgotten someone: Raen.

“Wait, turn back!” Selias shouted at Ranval as the speeder continued to plow through obstacles. “What about Raen?”

“What about him?” Donnel asked. “Isn’t he just our scapegoat? I thought that’s what Gadon wanted.”

“But that’s not what I want! He could still be useful!” Selias countered.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ranval said. “He’s doomed. Donnel told me there were nearly two dozen soldiers back there. Even a Jedi can’t survive against that many soldiers by himself.”

“Please go back!” Selias asked again, growing increasingly impatient.

“No,” Donnel said. “It’s too dangerous. We’d be risking Tsata, as well as everyone else here.”

“I need him!” screeched Selias. “He can save my brother!”

“Oh, so that’s what this is about,” Ranval mused. “You think his Jedi powers can heal Sanar.”

Selias nodded, and Ranval threw up his hands in exasperation.

“Who am I to deny a lady in need? Keep safe, everyone; I’m going to go save the life of someone I hardly know while risking the life of everyone around me. Sounds like every other mission I've ever gone on.”

While Ranval performed a U-turn that almost threw Donnel out of the speeder and caused Tsata to vomit across the back of the pilot’s seat, Raen was still combating Davik’s men. At first, the dozen or so Exchange agents were not too difficult to defend against. They were not firing in unison and their marksmanship was shoddy. However, they were reinforced by Legionnaires–who had grenades–and they began to organize Raen’s foes into a unified, accurate firing squad. After a minute or so of deflecting the blaster fire of his multiplied opponents, Raen was not able to properly protect himself, and he was forced to retreat. Leaping back up to the rooftop trusses suspended over the bridge, Raen sprinted across the crosshatched metal, avoiding blaster fire and grenades as he ran. He was panting and wheezing as he continued to dodge their attacks; these thugs were competent with their firearms despite the fact they were small-time mercenaries.

Raen legs and chest cramped as he continued his run. He simply did not have enough energy to continue onward, and the blaster fire was getting ever closer. Seeing no other option, Raen decided to take a stand and kill as many mercenaries as he could until the Hidden Beks could escape. Performing one last telekinetic strike amidst a storm of laser fire, Raen was surprised when heat and chemical energy emerged as flames from his fingers, blazing through the stitched trusses and onto the bridge below. The exile tried to stop, but he quickly realized he could not control the flames he had created. The licking tongues of fire seeped from his palms and fingers, sending a hellish inferno toward his opponents.

His pyromancy provided more light than the spotlight had before Raen destroyed it, and he could see the flesh of his enemies burn away and their skeletons char amidst his growing conflagration. The cries of men burning to death weakened Raen’s morale, and Raen felt a powerful surge of light side energy strike him like a weapon; the dark side aura that had been empowering him during his time on Taris was suddenly gone. Whatever the dark side presence that he sensed was, it was gone now. He was almost glad when his connection to the Force exhausted, halting the attack and dissolving all the flames that he had created. Once he was sure that no one else was shooting at him, Raen leapt from the archway and landed in a pile of soot–once a number of living beings–that went up to his ankles.

Raen turned to leave when he heard footsteps behind him. Startled, the Sith exile spun around, reigniting both of his lightsabers, prepared to block an inevitable attack. The Jedi was not attacked. The leader of Davik’s men, Canderous–who was the only apparent survivor of Raen’s attack–emerged from the shadows of the bridge. His clothes were littered with burn marks and the ashes of his former associates, but he appeared otherwise unscathed. Without a word, he approached where Tetrys had been, stooped over and performed a sort of ritualistic gesture, and picked up Tetrys’s vibrosword.

“You the Jedi that killed Tetrys?” Canderous asked.

“Maybe,” Raen responded, not phased by the Mandalorian. “I consider myself the harbinger of death. It’s not my fault if he died while getting in my way.”

Canderous smirked. “Good work,” he said bluntly. “I knew a Jedi wouldn’t disappoint me. I’ve seen your kind before. I wonder if your skills match your boasts.”

“Then fight me,” Raen countered. “It’d be a pleasure to kill you.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” his opponent retorted. “My name is Canderous, of Clan Ordo. You’ll die here–for Mandalore!” the warrior roared as he charged through the soot toward the Sith exile. As he rushed toward the Force-sensitive, Raen heard the roar of a hoverspeeder’s engine fill his soot-clogged ears. Looking up, he saw Ranval’s hovercraft just narrowly fly by him and crash into the approaching Mandalorian. Canderous never stood a chance; he was thrown off his feet and hurled nearly five hundred meters away from the Force-sensitive.

Raen ran for the speeder, jumping inside without a word, and he thought he heard Donnel yell something about gunning the engines. Ranval happily complied, shifting gears and forcing the speeder into reverse–at an insane speed. Raen’s head smashed into the back of his seat, and he barely managed to throw a passing glance to ensure that Tsata was safe before he faded into fatigue-inspired unconsciousness.

*** ***

Oryan Tempaar shuffled through the streets of Taris’s Upper City as quickly as he could. Ever since the Sith had landed in the western district of the city, Republic forces had imposed martial law and quarantined the entire Upper City district, preventing anyone from entering or leaving the planet. Although the fighting had not yet reached the downtown area of the Upper City, Oryan knew they would come eventually. He had to get off this hellhole of a planet. Oryan was a member of one of the richest families on Taris–but he hated to associate with them–so he could receive numerous benefits that he could not get otherwise. One such benefit was vast underworld connections. Although not technically legal, the Republican government that had taken over Taris since Revan had recaptured the world from the Mandalorians did not exert their authority, allowing underworld agents like Davik Kang, the leader of the Exchange’s branch on Taris, to take over the city’s bureaucratic system.

Now dressed in a pauper’s robe and covering his face with a hood to conceal himself from Republic agents, Oryan made his way to a small streetside building that was still opened for business, unlike many other companies that had been forcibly closed during the Sith invasion. Knocking twice, Oryan received no reply. The night air was cold, and Oryan couldn’t wait. Finding the door unlocked, Oryan walked inside, hoping that his contact had not left for the night. The building was simple enough: its walls were dark yellow in coloration, lined with small models and dioramas of starships and space faring vessels, and it was carpeted with a black rug that sparkled like the backdrop of space.

“A’snora!” Oryan called out. “Are you here, A’snora? It’s me, Oryan!”

He frowned when he received no reply. Placing his bag on the nearest counter, Oryan stood around the front of the shop, idly. As his eyes glanced back and forth, he saw a figure moving around in the back room, where A’snora Bogdu, the Whiphid shop owner, often stored supplies and gear. Oryan crept toward the door, but the light creaking of the wood panels beneath the carpet betrayed his location. Oryan knocked on the door twice, but no reply came. He was about to turn around and leave when he heard footsteps beyond the door.

“A’snora?” Oryan repeated.

Twisting the door handle, Oryan pushed open the door, letting in a light draft from the other side. Taking a single step inside, the nobleman glanced around the room. The room’s windows were broken, allowing pieces of flimsy to hover around the desk in the middle of the room. A large chair situated behind the desk was facing away from Oryan, and it appeared to be littered with broken glass. Oryan swore he heard something, but the eerie atmosphere of the room was too much for him; he turned around but was halted when something touched his shoulder.

“Don’t move, Oryan Tempaar,” an unfamiliar voice called out to him. A chill ran down his spine as he suddenly realized that a blaster’s barrel was resting on his back. Who the hell were they? What’s going on? Oryan’s mind raced with questions. Panicking, Oryan’s hands raced toward the hold-out blaster that he kept on his belt. However, the blaster-touting individual behind him must have noticed, because a quick pistol-whip to the back of the head sent Oryan to the floor.

Small white dots littered his vision, and he was barely conscious. The nobleman was lifted by four hands; they carried his limp body out of the room and toward the exit. He tried to struggle, but he was hit on the head with another weapon, causing him to temporarily fade into unconsciousness. While he desperately tried to stay awake, the assailants dragged him into the alleyway behind A’snora’s shop–a dingy little alley with waste canisters and dim glowpanels–where they propped him upright against a wall.

The nobleman was shaking and sweating, and he had regained his vision. He struggled, trying to recover his footing, but two of the armored individuals held him in place while a third individual greeted him. Unlike his partners, this one was not wearing a helmet. Instead, he wore an eerie mask, complete with bulging green eyes and an uncanny smile. The horns atop his head allowed Oryan to identify the man as a Zabrak.

“Hello, Oryan,” the individual whispered playfully. “We need to ask you some questions, and you’re going to help us. Okay?”

“Where’s A’snora? What the hell did you do to A’snora?” shouted Oryan. He was surprised he was able to raise his voice. He was still sweating, and his arms were going numb as the two assailants held them down with all their might.

“Now, now, keep your voice down, Oryan. We don’t want people to know we’re here.” The Zabrak signaled for one of his aides, and they drove their armored fist into the back of Oryan’s skull. The punch sent Oryan’s head into his kneecap, and Oryan’s vision blurred as his nose was smashed.

But they weren’t done. Scooping up some dirt from the edge of the alleyway, the leader of the kidnappers poured the dirt before Oryan, and he motioned for his two followers to shove the noble’s face into it. Oryan screamed in terror. Why were they doing this? He pleaded with them, begging them not to continue, but they ignored his cries and shoved his face into the dirt. He gasped and wheezed as he struggled to inhale and avoid the air at the same time. But it was useless. Eventually, the beaten noble began to cry, turning the brown matter into a bitter muck that they forced him to devour. They kept his head down until he had finished, and they pulled his tongue of his mouth to ensure that it had all been swallowed.

“Are you going to answer our questions?” the leader continued.

“No,” Oryan murmured. He was retching and crying, and his face, especially his nose, was bruised and swollen.

“Wrong answer, Oryan,” the Zabrak sighed. “We don’t want to hurt you, Oryan. But you're making things difficult.”

Nodding again, the Zabrak waited as one of Oryan’s captors drove his foot into his back. The third captor, who had done nothing until this point, ripped open the back of Oryan’s shirt, exposing his bare back. The Zabrak withdrew his vibroblade, waving it in front of Oryan’s face, demonstrating the sheer villainy he was capable of.

”Please,” Oryan sobbed. ”Please stop.”

The Zabrak moved his blade toward Oryan’s back.

”No! Please!”

The blade ran across his back, and Oryan cried out in pain. As his screams got louder, one of his captors gagged Oryan with the tatters of his shirt, keeping him from shouting. Fat, muscle, and blood ran down Oryan’s back, and the pain around his body began to overwhelm him, causing him to tremble and sweat profusely.

“I’m growing impatient, Oryan. We just want to know where Raen Benax is,” the leader said plainly, bending down and lifting the aristocrat’s face so they could see eye-to-eye.

“I don’t even know who that is,” Oryan muttered. They were attacking him because of some fool he did not even know! Oryan tried to muster up his rage, but he couldn’t quell his terror long enough to do so.

“Now you’re just lying to us, Oryan,” the leader stepped away from Oryan and turned around. “Break his leg.”

“No! Not my legs! Please, I have never seen anyone named Raen Benax! I swear to you! I swear!”

His pleas fell on deaf ears and heartless attackers. One of the armored captors–the same individual who had ripped his shirt–moved forward and pulled Oryan’s leg out from under him, extending it as far as they could. The steel boots of the other individual came down upon the nobleman’s lower knee like a hammer against an anvil. A single, well-placed strike was enough to shatter Oryan’s vulnerable kneecap. The aristocrat let out a shrill gasp of pain and then followed up with a string of profanity, but the Zabrak spun about–intent on silencing him–and smacked him across the head with his pistol. When Oryan tried again, they returned the makeshift gag to his mouth.

By this time, the area around Oryan’s eyes were swollen and bruised, forming dark puffs of damaged skin around his eyelids. His nose had been shattered in the initial assault, and with each strike of the pistol, more blood flowed down his nostrils into his mouth and onto his cheeks. This last pistol strike had been particularly vicious, and–unlike the others–managed to tear skin from his face, leaving a bleeding cut extending from Oryan’s cheekbone to his forehead.

“No more games, Oryan. We don’t want to break your other leg,” the leader urged him. “Now tell us, where is Raen Benax?”

“I… I really don’t know,” Oryan stammered from beneath the gag, now exhausted of any courage he had. “I just know a Director Benax; he’s the leader of Taris Paramilitary.”

“We know; we’ve… visited him,” the masked commander said with a devious smile. Pulling out a picture of Raen Benax as a Sith student, the leader showed the image to Oryan. “Recognize him?”

Even in the dim light, Oryan recognized him. That man had injured him elsewhere in the Upper City. But how had they known? He did not even know the name of the boy who had been walking with that Togruta harlot. Oryan’s startled look had not gone unnoticed, and he knew that he could not lie to them. “I saw him in town today,” Oryan said. “He was with a Togruta. I didn’t know who he was, and he didn’t seem that important.”

“Oh, he’s very important, Oryan,” the leader mused. “Is it unusual for him to be walking with a Togruta?”

“Well, there aren’t too many of them on Taris,” Oryan replied. “Taris is known for its anti-alien laws, and the fact that one was walking around the Upper City would cause a bit of an uproar.”

“So where would aliens go to avoid persecution?”

“Probably the lower levels of Taris,” Oryan said, as though speaking with an acquiantance. “Although the southwestern district of Taris’s Upper City has a few apartments that turn a blind eye to aliens and allow them to live there.”

The leader glanced at his companions. Oryan figured that that was the information they had needed. “Thank you, Oryan. You’ve been most helpful. Don’t worry; you’ll be rewarded for your assistance…” turning to his allies, he motioned toward their captive. “Tear off his legs, bind him, knock him out, and stuff him in the back of this alley. Make sure that he can’t move.”

“Dear Force, no… I have told you… everything! Mercy, mer- please! No!”

The leader of Oryan’s captors left the alleyway–and his companions–behind. The henchman on the aristocrat’s left side moved first, smashing his blaster rifle against Oryan’s face. Although the helpless captive struggled to stay awake, he had already taken extensive damage to his head, and the trauma of this strike gave him a temporary lapse into unconsciousness. When he awoke a few seconds later, he saw the other kidnapper’s vibroax approach his legs. His body just couldn’t take it, and it forcibly sent the miserable noble into a comatose state.

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