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Chapter 12

Raen struggled out of his sleep as a tingling pain crawled up his back. Propping himself upright, Raen glanced about, happy to see the hovercraft approaching Javyar’s Cantina. Sighing, he glanced at Selias and Tsata to ensure they were okay before returning his attention to himself. He had picked up both of his lightsabers before he fled Phofol Bridge, so he did not have to worry about leaving something behind. The minor burns he had acquired from scalding blaster fire and his own flame-based attack had subsided now–they were only dark mementos on his skin–and they were almost painless. Ranval allowed the vehicle to ease toward the front door of Javyar’s Cantina, where the Rodian bouncer still sat, alert as ever, watching the Beks unload their precious cargo.

Tsata stepped out of the vehicle first, although she needed help from Selias. Once the Togruta had ensured the Sullustan’s safety and left Ranval’s hovercar herself, Raen slid across the back seats and pulled himself out of the vehicle before Donnel slammed the door closed behind him. Ranval waved a brief, if tragic, goodbye to the young Sullustan, who meekly waved back at him before following Selias inside. Raen followed the pair of females inside while Ranval and Donnel went to park the hoverspeeder elsewhere.

Raen gagged yet again when they entered the cantina, but it was Tsata who shot him a puzzled glance this time. How embarrassing. Even the juvenile Sullustan was more reserved in her demeanor than Raen. Selias kept the trio going, walking by drunken aliens and impoverished Humans, heading toward the table where they had met Sir Neebs. Sure enough, the depraved Sullustan was still sitting there alone while he sobbed into the collar of his suit.

“Sir Neebs?” Selias whispered as they approached.

“Yes…?” the Sullustan questioned, a worried expression upon his face.

“We found your daughter, sir.”

Neebs’s face lit up like a star when he saw Tsata emerge from behind Selias. Laughing heartily, the tears departed from his face as he lifted her and embraced his daughter in a protective cradle. The young girl squealed with delight while she fluttered in her father’s arms, giggling with glee as her father’s tears disappeared and the two were reunited. Neebs muttered several praises–probably to some divinity–as he continued to caress his daughter’s forehead, relieved that his daughter was safe once again. Selias smiled with the Sullustan merchant, congratulating the once-forlorn father. Even Raen, with his normally somber attitude, managed to grin slightly, wishing the best upon the pair.

Neebs stroked his daughter’s face gently before allowing her to escape his grasp, standing by the table where he was seated before her return. “I cannot thank you enough,” Neebs said, turning his attention to his daughter’s saviors. “You saved my daughter. I am in your debt now and evermore.”

“That will not be necessary,” Selias responded kindly. “You’ve provided for the Beks and given me more than enough medication; you’ve done enough.”

“If you insist,” Neebs said. “Here, take my business card. Call me if you ever need anything–anything at all. I’ll be happy to assist.”

“We’ll stay in touch, Sir Neebs. Don’t worry about that,” Selias replied in a cordial manner.

“Thank you both so much,” Sir Neebs repeated. “I must be off now. I’ve spent too much time here sulking already. Say goodbye, Tsata.”

“Buh-bye, Selia! Buh-bye, Rayne!” Tsata bubbled with delight.

Selias sighed at the adorable expression on the young Sullustan’s face while Raen gave the two foreigners a last farewell. Once they had left the bar, Selias staggered to the table that Neebs had sat at, and the exiled Sith joined her, sitting across from the Togruta.

“Why didn’t you take the reward? It could have helped your gang,” Raen noted.

“Nah,” Selias muttered, lighting another cigarra in the meantime. “He helps me enough as is. I don’t need any more of his charity.”

Raen returned his gaze to the Togruta, who was now covered in the thickness of tobacco smoke. “The medication?”

Selias diverted her clouded eyes from Raen. She appeared deep in thought–almost hesitant–and tried to ignore the question. “Yeah… he’s helped me a lot. You see, my brother-”

Raen heard a small explosion from the atrium, cutting off Selias’s comment. Glancing over, the Force-sensitive saw several armed combatants–clad in green armor–storm by the pazaak players in the entryway and assemble near the doorway between the main bar and the lobby. “This is a raid! Everyone get your hands where I can see ‘em!” their leader bellowed; he fired his slugthrowing rifle to ensure the customers and patrons he wasn’t kidding.

The entire cantina was thrown into an uproar, and the invading agents erected riot shields to protect themselves from any projectiles or blaster fire. One of the agents began to yell at the pazaak players and gamblers behind them to get up against the wall, and Raen noticed that a few of the less-compliant ones were injured for their disobedience. Another agent left the safety of the shield-wall and started to demand the barkeep, a burly Feeorin with short head-tresses, to stop dispensing drinks. Needless to say, his demands did not please the bartender and after a heated discussion, the Feeorin pulled out the blaster rifle he kept behind his counter and shot the agent through the chest, killing him instantly. This caused the leader of the raiding party to place a slug through the barkeep’s skull, allowing him to share the fate of the bickering agent he killed.

This sparked the rage of the entire cantina, and even those who were peaceful before now pulled out their weapons and began to open fire at the green-armored agents. Blaster fire flew over the heads of Raen and Selias, and the Togruta leapt under the table while Raen used the Force–it had since returned to him after his battle at the bridge–to toss drinking glasses at the raiding party shields, layering them with a light coat of alcohol from the liquor that the barkeep had been pouring. In some unlucky groups, fires erupted where cigarra smoke reacted with the blaster fire. In others, lights went out and rioters fought the enforcers in the dark.

Soon the agents began to disperse from behind their shield-wall, charging toward crowds of rioting patrons and beginning to assault them with their riot-batons. The patrons responded in kind, tackling the vastly outnumbered agents and using anything they could find–glass shards, furniture legs, and occasionally a stolen baton–to smash at their opponents’ armor. Even so, the raiding agents were better armored and armed than the mob they were facing, and one of the leader’s agents deployed coma gas into the air of the cantina to tip the balance of the battle in their favor.

The gas began to flood the farther corners of the cantina, enveloping the entire bar with its paralyzing tendrils. The agents were protected due to their gas masks, but most patrons were not so lucky. Raen and Selias fled further from the agents, heading–along with the majority of the survivors–into the lounge where Twi’lek dancers had been swaying to the music of a Bith band before the fight broke out. Creating a makeshift barricade constructed of tables and crates, the remaining patrons used the ventilation systems to expel most of the coma gas from the room, although traces of it still lingered in the air with the remnants of the cigarra smoke and alcoholic odor.

“Here they come,” muttered one of the patrons, an armored Nikto.

“Selias,” Raen whispered. “You have to get out of here. These guys aren’t planning on arresting these people–they’re out to kill them. I’ll ensure that they don’t head after you and the Beks, but you have to flee.”

“What about you?” Selias dodged a blaster shot from the advancing raiding party while she responded.

“I’ll be fine. Where are Ranval and Donnel?”

“In the back lots. Why?” Selias asked.

Raen ducked to avoid another blaster bolt. “You need to get there. Once the agents break this barricade, I’ll serve as a distraction while you flee through the rear exit.”

“I’m not leaving you here,” Selias retorted.

“No, you’re not. I’m being stubborn and you’re going to be safe,” Raen shot back.

Selias groaned. No point in arguing with the Jedi. He was going to be insistent about this–whether she wanted to run or not.

The green-armored invaders breached the fragile wall constructed by the patrons and stormed the lounge two-by-two. Their advance was assisted by their riot shields, which blocked most of their enemies’ blaster fire, although the occasional slug did puncture their defenses and killed some of their agents. They engaged their opponents immediately, breaking feeble defenses against their batons and short vibroswords.

Blaster fire from the agents had just started to overwhelm the pinned-down cantina-goers when Raen took action. Leaping over the barricade defending the last of the patrons, Raen sent a streaming blast of fire into the invading force. The attack’s potency was nearly double that of Raen’s previous attempts. The flames grew wildly due to the trace amounts of the flammable coma gas in the air and the alcohol Raen had applied to their shields earlier. While Selias escaped through the back exit, the towering inferno forced the combatants to break away from each other; the patrons ran toward the lounge’s stage while the agents retreated back to the bar proper.

Once he was sure that Selias was safely outside, Raen emerged from the dying fire, both lightsabers active, and advanced on the remaining raiders.

”Look,” one of the patrons mumbled. ”Is that a Jedi?”

”A Jedi here? What’s he doing?”

”Who cares? He’s helping us, and he can’t fight them alone!”

Raen smiled. It was time for a distraction.

*** ***

Celsus Djan had been lingering in the atrium of Javyar’s Cantina. Unlike the rest of the Taris Paramilitary agents, he was not eager to apprehend or kill any of the bar’s clients, even if they were criminals. Since he was in the rear, Celsus had been in charge of defending Bramhon–who was serving as his commanding officer–during the earliest stages of the mission. Once the coma gas had been launched and their targets had retreated, Celsus followed his commander to the lounge room and orchestrated several volleys of laser fire inside, killing several surviving rebellious rioters. Celsus almost thought his eyes were playing tricks on him when he saw a boy launch a pyrotechnic burst from his hands. Intrigued, Celsus had intended to reach him before they killed the remainder of the rebels, but the apparent Force-sensitive had been kind enough to come to him. He and the rest of the patrons were heading straight for the Taris Paramilitary agents, after a single Togruta had run toward the unprotected back exit of the cantina.

“What the hell?” Bramhon shouted, his anger mounting with the casualties he endured. “Why didn’t we shoot down that Togruta? Fire, you incompetent-”

“With all due respect, sir,” Celsus stressed the last word for dramatic effect, “that boy with the lightsabers seems much more dangerous than a single Togruta. Especially with all those soldiers behind him.”

“The assistant director said to ensure no one escaped. And besides, those aren’t soldiers, Celsus,” Bramhon spat. “That’s a mob! What’s worse, it’s a Lower City mob. They don’t stand a chance against us. Open fire!” he redirected his command to his other agents.

“Wait,” Celsus urged. “If you’re that keen on risking our men’s lives to kill that lone alien, at least let me do it. Alone.”

Bramhon paused for a moment, dwelling on the decision. Then, he handed his slugthrowing pistol to his former commander. “Good luck, Celsus. Make the director proud.”

Celsus muttered something under his breath as he slipped the weapon into his belt. Placing one hand near the lightsaber concealed inside his breastplate, the Jedi Master sprinted by Raen’s forces and headed toward where the Togruta had gone–still not using his Force speed. Celsus knew that this alien would be his ticket to escape this twisted ride and return to his former mission, his real mission.

*** ***

Raen was about to leap into the mindless crowd of Taris Paramilitary agents when he spotted Celsus running toward the back lots, threatening to catch up with Selias and the others before they managed to escape. The Force informed the exiled Sith that if he did not act now, Selias would die. In mid-jump, Raen allowed himself to land amidst the agents, dropping low to avoid their initial blaster fire. The exiled Sith kicked one of his foes off of his feet with a swift hooking kick to the ankle, and then he severed another’s torso with his blue lightsaber. Deflecting a vibrosword swing with his other lightsaber, Raen spun around and severed the head of his attacker. Before anyone else could attempt to attack him, the Force-sensitive leapt out of the crowd of agents, using his red and blue lightsabers as a whirling vortex to reflect their blaster fire. His Force-empowered leap allowed him to land in the final hall leading to the exit, behind Selias and Celsus. Using a weak telekinetic strike–his connection with the Force had not restored enough to use his pyromancy–Raen managed to topple the agent who was planning to pursue Selias.

Once the Force told him that she and the other Beks had fled, Raen spun both of his lightsabers provocatively, goading his opponent to rise and challenge him. Surprisingly enough, Raen felt the Force within this man and was ready to combat him to prove his mettle. Suddenly, Raen felt the Force work against his legs, causing him to land amidst a pile of refuse and spilled pazaak cards. His opponent stood up, picked up Raen with the power of the Force, and threw the helpless Force-sensitive into the nearest wall. The collision warranted a cry of pain from the young Sith exile.

Raen stood up as quickly as his feet could manage and, despite their protesting pain, charged toward Celsus, both of his lightsabers ignited. Celsus responded in kind, activating his single violet lightsaber and setting himself up in a basic Jedi defensive stance–similar to the one Tor’chal had used. Raen struck first, slashing at Celsus’s right side with his blue lightsaber while his red lightsaber attacked the violet lightsaber before him. The Jedi Master spun backwards, protecting his right flank with a single swipe and avoiding Raen’s second attack altogether. Raen tried again, sending several waves of two-part attacks at the Force-sensitive agent, who managed to parry or dodge them with ease. Raen blocked the Jedi’s first counterattack, using both of his lightsabers to deflect Celsus’s initial horizontal swing. The attack nearly shattered Raen’s defense–even with two lightsabers–and the young duelist almost lost his footing. Celsus used Raen’s inexperience to his advantage, sending several quick strikes in Raen’s direction, forcing the young Sith exile to parry them and waste his valuable stamina.

Raen battered away the Jedi Master’s frequent strikes, sending them back to their master without forgoing his position or defenses. However, he admitted that he was getting tired–Celsus was quite forceful in his lightsaber technique–and he did not know how long he could maintain a serious defense. The Jedi Master surprised his youthful opponent by striking at his legs in a vicious kick to the knees, sending Raen sprawling to the floor. Turning so his back faced the floor, Raen quickly used the Force to obtain his red lightsaber and parried Celsus’s latest blow, barely avoiding decapitation. Sighing with relief as the lightsaber backed away from his face, Raen used his returning connection to the Force to push Celsus away and give himself some breathing room before leaping to his feet in a fluid motion. Calling on the Force, he recovered his second lightsaber. Now reequipped with the weapons of the Jedi and Sith, Raen charged at his opponent, intent on putting him on the defensive. A clothesline shot to Raen’s unguarded neck halted his plans and sent him back to the floor.

“Nice try, Dark Jedi,” Celsus mused. “I’m afraid you’ve just about lost.”

Raen held up his two blades to prevent Celsus from taking an open shot at his face or chest. “Who do you think you are? You cannot beat me. I won’t die here until I meet Dandek.”

Celsus’s eyes widened, and he pulled his purple blade away from Raen’s body. “Did you say Dandek? Dandek Benax? How are you related to Dandek?”

“My name is Raen; I’m his nephew,” Raen began. “I was helping some Hidden Beks free a hostage from the Legion of Zhell, but since you’re the law enforcement agent, I’m sure you know all about that situation.” Raen was still panting due to the combat he had been engaged in, but his nerves were calmer now.

“Yes, of course,” Celsus muttered, saving face. “But your uncle… we don’t know where he is. No one has seen or heard from him since last night.”

“Are you trying to find him too?” Raen asked.

“I must speak with him before I leave this planet.”

“Don’t you have to help out your agent-buddies over there?” Raen motioned toward the remaining agents, flushing out or subduing the last of the cantina frequenters who were still resisting capture.

Celsus shook his head. “Truth be told, I’m done with Taris Paramilitary. It’s nonsensical and weak. Dandek never wanted this. During its pursuit of justice, it has become twisted and corrupt… the very thing it seeks to oppose.”

“Why should I trust you?” Raen shot back. “I don’t even know who you are. You could be leading me into some trap.”

“I am Celsus Djan, a Jedi Master of the Galactic Republic. You know how trustworthy the Jedi are, do you not?”

“Celsus… why?” Bramhon’s familiar voice asked.

Turning from the collapsed Sith exile, Celsus diverted his attention to Bramhon, who was standing in the doorway between them and the rest of the cantina. He had his weapon in his arm, but it was prostrate in his hands; if he was attacked, he would not be able to defend himself. Celsus sensed a terrible emotion pain inside of Bramhon, and he was worried that the younger operative would become violent.

“B.,” Celsus said, slowly, “listen to me-”

“No! You shut up and listen for once!” Bramhon snapped. “What the hell were you thinking, Commander? Why did you lie to us?”

“B., you have to calm down.”

“My name is Bramhon! Show me the respect I deserve, Commander. That’s not too hard for you, is it? To treat me as an equal?”

“B… Bramhon," Celsus began. "I didn’t lie to you. I didn’t lie to anyone. The truth-”

“Oh, you didn’t lie? The fact that you told everyone you were born on Taris, raised in the family of a Republic soldier, and had been an agent in Taris Paramilitary nearly your whole life… those things aren’t lies? What the hell do you call it, then?”

Raen interrupted him. "This changes nothing. He’s still Celsus, isn’t he? Just because he’s a Jedi-"

“Damn you, it changes everything! The Jedi killed my parents!” Bramhon shouted. Turning toward Celsus, he continued: “Remember when the Jedi saved us from the Mandalorians during the wars? Well, my family owned a medical clinic in the Lower City. They were providing aid for the wounded—Mandalorians, soldiers, civilians. The Jedi demanded that they turn over the Mandalorians to them. They said they were prisoners of war.”

“Bramhon,” Celsus replied, softly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. But you can’t-”

Bramhon pulled the trigger on his weapon, firing a blaster shot that narrowly missed Celsus’s head. “Let me finish! Y-your Jedi tried to kill their patients. My father and mother tried to stop them. They were slaughtered. All of them. They left me there. Is that your Order… is that what you fight for, too?”

“A Jedi,” Celsus began, slowly and calmly, “is someone who strives to serve others. That was war, Bramhon. In war, people make mistakes. Even the Jedi. The Jedi who killed your parents were not true Jedi, and you cannot hold the entire Order with contempt for their mistakes.”

“I damn well can!” Bramhon replied. “Besides, you are no better! What about Elene and the others? Why… didn’t you save them, Celsus? You’re a Jedi, after all.”

“You’re right. I could have saved my squadmates. But I did not–I chose not to. I let them die to maintain my disguise. I failed them, and I failed you. I’m still failing you. The Jedi Order is a righteous organization that is only trying to help this galaxy. If you have to be angry with anyone, be angry at me.”

Bramhon shook his head. His foot tapped the ground, and his hands were clenching his blaster rifle. “Good intentions are just that, Celsus. I don’t care what your Order says it wants to do. Actions speak louder than words. You and your kind are no better than the Mandalorians you sought to kill.”

Celsus deactivated his lightsaber. “Kill me, then. Avenge their deaths–your parents, Elene, and the others–if you can.”

Bramhon acknowledged Celsus’s instructions, and he took aim at the Jedi Master. Raen jumped to his feet and tugged at Celsus’s sleeve, thinking this entire event some sort of charade, but the Jedi didn't move. Bramhon reached for the trigger, but he couldn’t bring himself to fire. Every time he tried to exert pressure on the trigger, his hands fought him. Bramhon began to sob, and he threw his weapon to the floor.

Celsus walked toward Bramhon, hoping to console him. “Bramhon. Are you all right?”

“Monsters! All of you monsters!" Bramhon shouted, pushing the Jedi Master’s hands away. "But if I kill you, don’t I become a monster? Leave! Don’t make me regret it!”

Celsus turned to leave. The young Force-sensitive attempted to stop the Jedi–after all, he was worried that Bramhon would follow him–but Celsus trudged by him. Raen halfheartedly followed the resolute Jedi Master out of the cantina, leaving Bramhon to his sorrows and the rest of the patrons to their fate. Once the two Force-users had left the cantina, Raen was somewhat pleased and somewhat surprised to see that Selias and the rest of the Beks were still lingering in the lots behind the cantina.

Celsus began to approach the vehicle, but Donnel growled at him and threatened to shoot at him.

“Wait. I’m Celsus Djan, a Jedi Master.” He waved his hand in a mesmerizing motion. ”You want to trust me.”

“This is ridiculous,” Donnel muttered. “Why would we leave with you? You’ll just arrest us later.”

“I’m not Taris Paramilitary anymore,” Celsus pointed out, with a hint of disappointment in his voice. “I must insist on leaving. If we do not leave now, the lucky ones will be dead corpses while the rest of us will be atomized particles.”

“Fine,” Selias muttered. “But we’re only taking you to the Upper City. Then we’re parting ways.”

“As you wish,” Celsus murmured under his breath.

The Jedi Master and Raen piled into the vehicle, sitting in the seats behind Ranval and Donnel while Selias sat in between them. Ranval wasted no time fleeing the scene, and Raen watched as Javyar’s Cantina slowly became smaller and smaller–fading into the distance–before it was gone, engulfed by the encompassing darkness of the Lower City.

“We shouldn’t have agreed to this,” Donnel whispered to Ranval. “Now there are two of them!”

“I don’t particularly like it either,” Ranval whispered back. “But if they can save Sanar, I’m not complaining. Selias would be devastated if he-”

“Pay attention to the road!” Celsus shouted. “We’re going to crash!”

“Road? What road?” Ranval joked. “Oh, that road! Right, don’t worry. I’ve got both my flesh-sockets on it; I cannot have eyes on the road, because, you see… I don’t have any!”

“Why the hell is the Miraluka driving?” Celsus stammered in disbelief.

“The same reason we’ve got a Chistori riding shotgun and two Jedi in our back seat,” Selias lamented. “Because we’re Hidden Beks. We like to mix things up a little.”

Chapter 13

Ranval steered the hoverspeeder out of the Lower City and into the safety of the Upper City, reaching the Upper City Bargain Apartments at dawn. During their drive, Celsus had applied his Force healing technique to all of their wounds. Raen watched as Selias’s eyes glazed over upon seeing the small cut upon her arm disappear as though it had never existed. She was enamored with Celsus’s healing power, and she asked him numerous questions about it during the drive to the apartment. Once the battered vehicle was in the confines of the apartment’s parking lot, the Hidden Beks and their Jedi companions silently made their way back up to Selias’s apartment. The scenic view of the Tarisian skyline outside of the window was still as beautiful as Raen remembered–perhaps even more so because the morning light was beginning to pierce the veil of night–and the rest of the room was similarly familiar.

“So, why are we back here?” Ranval asked. “Donnel and I have to report to Gadon for reassignment.”

Selias placed her blaster pistol on one of the nearby chairs. “You two can leave if you want. I just thought you’d be able to assist the Jedi.”

“Assist?” Celsus asked. “What are we doing for you, again?”

“My brother, Sanar. He’s sick with the rakghoul plague,” Selias explained, sinking into the half-destroyed sofa in the corner of the room.

“What’s a rakghoul?” Raen asked, still focused on the view of the Tarisian skyline.

“A beast that prowls the Undercity of Taris. No one knows how they got there, but they’ve been there as long as anyone can remember. Their bite is infectious. It’s their saliva that infects sentients, and they hunt those who venture down there. Once you’re infected with the plague, you usually have between one and three days–although sometimes it’s faster–before you become a rakghoul yourself.” Selias explained in detail.

Celsus sat down in a chair nearby. “And your brother was bitten?”

Donnel, who was otherwise not paying attention, spoke up: “Two months ago. I was with him and a few other Beks in the Undercity. During the mission, he risked his life to save one of the other members from some slavers, but he was bitten in the process.”

“Shouldn’t he be a rakghoul already?” Raen asked. “He was bitten quite some time ago.”

Selias cupped her hands over her head, despairing at the thought. “Yes, he should be. But we’ve been using antitoxins and remedies to keep the virus at bay.”

“The medications from Sir Neebs…” Raen pointed out.

Selias nodded. “But at this point, those medicines are useless. The only thing that could cure him now is the actual antidote, but no one has been able to concoct one. But-”

“You think we can cure him,” Celsus interrupted.

The Togruta’s eyes glistened with hope. “Your healing powers are amazing. I have never seen anything like them. Surely, your powers can hold ba- no, destroy the plague.”

“I don’t have any healing abilities,” Raen admitted, somewhat sheepish. “Celsus can help you, though. His powers are amazing.”

The Jedi Master stood up, his body overflowing with the power of the light. “I can try my best.”

“Thank you,” Selias said, jumping to her feet. “You have to help him… my brother is worth more than the galaxy to me. Come on, he’s in the refresher.”

“I’ll come with you,” Donnel muttered. “If they can cure him, I want to be there to help.”

Ranval muttered. “Meh. I’m going to go get a snack or something down the hall. Tell me when he’s better.”

Selias leered at the smart-mouthed Miraluka, but Ranval ignored her and went along on his way. Once he had left, the Togruta led Donnel and the Force-sensitives into the refresher. She warned her guests that it would smell due to the effects of the disease, but her forewarning was not enough for Raen. As soon as she opened the door, the smell of fetid, rotting flesh, dried blood, and stale, regurgitated food hit Raen’s nostrils like a storm, and he heaved violently. Celsus and Donnel were a bit more reserved in their reaction, although they were both visibly disturbed as well. Selias remained stoic–she did not even react to the putrid smell–and kept her eyes forward and her head up. Passing by the damaged toilet and inactive sink, Selias moved over to the bath in the back of the room.

“Please don’t be alarmed,” Selias urged them. “He might look a little grotesque, but remember, he’s still my brother.”

Pulling away the curtain that shielded the bath from the rest of the refresher, Selias revealed her brother. Or, Raen assumed, what was left of him. He was lying inside the bath face-up, wallowing in a rancid brew of standing water, vomit, torn flesh, and blood. He was wearing clothes that had been stained by the mixture he was lingering inside, and their original color and texture were not even identifiable at this point. His skin, unlike his sister’s, was a peach-white color, and most of his skin had begun to peel away, revealing other layers of infected, rotting flesh or, in some cases, sagging remnants of fat or muscle. His eyes were blood-shot–with traces of yellow–and lacked any sort of natural color, while his teeth had begun to develop cavities and other plaque-like grime that did not appear natural. Donnel and Selias did not flinch at the sight, but Celsus was visibly alarmed and Raen threw up inside the toilet nearby.

“I’ll do what I can,” Celsus said, breaking the disturbed silence, “but he looks pretty bad. I’m unsure how much I can heal him.”

“Just do your best, Master Jedi,” Selias urged, hopeful.

Celsus hesitated as he took each step, carefully getting closer to the repulsive creature that was Selias’s brother. Getting close enough after about ten steps, Celsus laid his hands atop the Togruta’s forehead. A bright yellow-green aura emanated from his hands, representing the awesome healing power of the Living Force flowing from Celsus. The power seemed to have an awkward effect on the infected male, though. Instead of healing him, the healing power caused the Togruta to convulse violently and begin to vomit the remains of food he had been fed some time ago. Celsus used one of his hands to restrain the spasming Togruta while using his other hand to heal Sanar, but it seemed ineffective.

“It’s not working,” Donnel shouted angrily. “He’s succumbing to the plague’s effects without the medication. He could become a rakghoul any second now.”

“No!” Selias shouted back, already delirious. “That can’t happen! He’ll live through it! Help him, Master Jedi!”

“I’m trying,” Celsus muttered, still trying to restrain his struggling patient. “My powers don’t seem to have any effect on his disease.”

“It’s no use. He’s done,” Donnel muttered.

Celsus ceased his healing technique, backing away from the thrashing Togruta. He could hear Sanar begin to hiss and mutter something in a deep, unintelligible voice. The Jedi Master drew his lightsaber, allowing his violet weapon to activate with a graceful twirl. “He’s changing now. I can feel the virus overpowering his mind.”

Celsus went to swing his weapon and slay Sanar before he could completely transform, but Selias jumped in between the Jedi and her brother, screaming obscenities at him. “No!” she yelled. “You can’t kill him. He’s my brother! You can’t just kill him!”

“Selias, if we don’t kill it now, it will kill us all,” Donnel growled.

“He’s not an ‘it’!” snapped Selias. “He’s still my brother! He’s still Sanar!”

The Chistori moved toward Sanar’s body, brandishing his vibroblade. This time, it was Raen who halted the imposing Bek. Jumping in between the bath and Donnel, Raen stood his ground, preventing the Chistori from walking around him, lest he crash into Celsus and his lightsaber.

“Don’t kill him,” Raen commanded. “He still has a chance.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Donnel countered. “He ceased to be Sanar the moment he succumbed to the disease.” The Chistori attempted to use his strength–and his considerable bulk–to push Raen out of the way, but the ex-Sith grappled with the towering Chistori, grasping at both of his arms and preventing his advance.

“Let go, you fool!” Donnel cried. “It’s going to kill us all!”

During their bickering, Sanar’s body had lost all of its coloration and the remaining portions of his flesh were folding over into large flaps of decayed skin across his body. His noises were louder now, becoming screeching and gurgling cries that were plainly animalistic. Celsus tried to swing at him and strike him down, but Selias stood in the way; if Celsus attacked, he would be forced to kill Selias. The Jedi mentally pleaded with Selias to move out of the way, but she would not budge. Sanar appeared to begin to slither from the bath when a blaster shot echoed in the small apartment room. Selias turned to see her brother collapse, a blaster hole through his fragile skull. The transformation stopped immediately, and Sanar collapsed, keeling into a bloody heap of dead skin and bones near Selias’s feet. Raen turned to the entryway of the refresher just in time to see Ranval place Selias’s pistol in the sink nearby.

“How could you?” Selias screeched. “He was my brother! My only brother!”

Ranval ignored her indignant fury. “He was going to kill us, Selias. The rakghoul plague turns us into husks. Your brother had died along time ago. He, no, it was just a monster with Sanar’s visage.”

“No,” Selias murmured. Her voice was cracking and she was on the verge of tears. “You’re the monsters. You killed him in cold blood! He was my brother; he had a chance! He could have fought it!”

Screaming, Selias slapped Ranval across the face before running out of the apartment room, sobbing bitterly as she fled. Once she had left, slamming the door behind her, Celsus deactivated his violet lightsaber and followed Ranval into the main room. Celsus lingered by the door of the refresher while Ranval plopped down in the sofa in the corner, flicking on the subspace radio.

Donnel, still struggling with Raen, suddenly twisted the young Sith exile’s left arm and threw him to the ground in a single, powerful motion. “You ever get in between me and my hunt again, and you’ll pay,” Donnel spat. “Got that, Jedi?”

“We’ll see,” Raen countered.

Donnel did not grace him with a response; instead, he turned around and headed back into the main room and sat down with Ranval, turning his attention to the radio report. Once the Chistori had mellowed down and left the refresher, Celsus helped Raen to his feet.

“I’ll clean this mess up,” Celsus offered, motioning toward Sanar. “You go talk to Selias. She could use some encouragement, and you know her much better than I do.”

Raen nodded and left the apartment, much to the relief of the remaining Beks. Running down the spacious hallways and descending the stairs until he reached the parking lot, Raen cursed his luck when he discovered that Selias had left the building, taking the speeder with her. Using his Force-empowered speed to dash out of the parking area, Raen left the apartment suite entirely and used his Force senses to scan the Upper City for Selias. She could not have gone far, but she was in a vehicle, so the chances of catching up to her were slim. It was with some fortune that the Force blessed him with Selias’s location, and he used his Force-strengthened legs to run after her.

Making his way through throngs of idling nobles and crowds of rowdy drunkards, Raen finally reached Selias. She was sitting amongst a pile of wooden boards and shattered duracrete, staring at a destroyed house in front of her. The building had once been at least three stories tall–made of illustrious durasteel and shining gold ornaments–but now it was barely taller than Raen, an ignoble heap. As Raen approached Selias, he saw that the building she was so enraptured in had been burned down; the embers of the blaze were still visible, barely flickering in some areas.

“Selias…” Raen whispered, hoping she was not angry enough to ignore him.

“This house,” Selias noted, “was attacked by arsonists pretty recently. My house was burned down by pyros too, you know. My parents–they had been living in the Lower City–died in the resulting rush to get me and my brother out.”

Raen sat down next to the mourning Togruta, staring into the wreckage before them silently. He did not feel like saying anything, so Selias picked up a wood chip and threw it a nearby cinder, extinguishing it.

“My brother had protected me, Raen. He kept me safe. Before and after we joined the Beks. He clothed me, fed me, fought for me. He was always so gentle, even when I was hurt; he was quite a skilled medic. Ironic how that works, huh? He could heal others, but he couldn’t cure himself.”

“Selias. I’m sorry,” Raen muttered.

“No, it’s okay, it’s not your fault,” Selias whispered, throwing another wood bit into the remains of the house before them. “I should have been stronger, Raen. I should have been there. I could have saved him…”

“Selias, listen,” Raen begged. “There’s nothing you could have done. Your brother sounded like a great man; he risked his life to save others. Even when he was sick, I’m sure that he was thinking of you, hoping you would be okay. Selias, you’ve grown stronger. Meeting you, I know that you’re a powerful woman. Sanar did the best he could, now it’s time for you to finish what he could not.”

“And what’s that, Raen?” Selias asked, nonplussed.

“You have to keep fighting with the Beks. They fight for you and provide for you, and aren’t they your family too?” Raen asked. “He can’t be with you, but he knew you could keep helping them. You need to help the rest of your family now.”

Selias chuckled, and then burst out into tears of laughter. Puzzled, Raen waited until she had calmed down, and by the time she did, Selias had regained much of her former, healthy coloration.

“You’re so bad at this, Raen. Remind me never to allow you to console me again.”

Raen threw his hands up in defeat. “You must be kidding me. You’re hopeless, Selias Siital.”

“As are you… wait. What’s that?” Selias said, motioning toward something glistening in in the ruins of the destroyed house before them.

Raen peeked over the wood they were sitting on, but could not see anything. Signaling for Selias to stay put, Raen jumped off the wood boards, sliding down the rubble into the debris of the destroyed residence. Raen’s eyes shifted about, scanning the remains of the house until he saw something sparkle beneath a few durasteel slabs. Moving them with the Force, Raen knelt over and saw a small medallion lying on the ground. However, unlike the rest of the metal here, this medallion was not burnt. Picking up the medal, Raen struggled to pull it from the ground–it appeared to be lodged into the dirt–but he managed to excavate it and brush away the thin layer of residue that had ended up on it.

Staring at it closer, Raen’s eyes alit with fright. He stared at the medal for several minutes, making sure his weary eyes were not playing tricks with him. The golden emblem was engraved with two thrantas–avian, ray-like creatures that were native to Alderaan–and several short blades encompassing a wreath with an opal in the center. Raen discarded the attribute he had found, throwing it back into its resting place. Cursing, Raen noticed that the opposite-side of the medallion – which had a mirror image of the insignia–had burned the image into his palm. How did it manage to do that? It did not feel hot against my skin, Raen thought.

“Raen, are you all right?” Selias asked, walking up from behind the Sith exile.

“Yeah, don’t worry about it.”

Selias stared at the young Force-sensitive, perplexed. He was more confusing and prone to mood-swings than she was. “The Beks are here. They said they have something very important to tell us.”

“All right. Give me a minute. I need to collect my thoughts,” Raen mused. As she turned away, he found himself muttering, “I’m sorry, Selias. It seems Dandek will not be able to help you and the rest of your kind after all.”

Selias abandoned the wreckage in silent reverence, not quite understanding what Raen was talking about. She left Raen to his thoughts as she headed toward the speeder. This was Dandek Benax’s home. That was the emblem of the Benax family. He had come here from Alderaan, endured so much, and now there was nothing left here for him on Taris. Why? Raen thought. Why is the Force so bent on my suffering? With a soft sigh, Raen picked up the Benax family emblem he had temporarily discarded and placed it around his neck using the brittle chain it was attached to. As he was leaving, he bid a final, silent farewell to Dandek Benax and his family. Their deaths would not go unpunished; Raen would find their murderers, and then he would kill them.

Two speeders were waiting just beyond of the burned-down remnants of the Benax home on Taris. In the first speeder, Ranval was whispering to–or bickering with–Donnel, who was seated in the pasenger’s seat beside him. Selias entered that speeder without a word, not throwing a passing glance to either of them. Selias’s speeder was to be driven by Celsus, who had a somber expression on his face. Raen walked up and entered Celsus’s speeder, sitting down in the passenger’s seat.

“So what’s going on?” Raen questioned.

“Sith forces,” Donnel explained from the other car. “They’ve attacked the Upper City in force. Republic soldiers have enforced a quarantine that’s going to prevent travel to and from of the planet.”

“So what do we do now?” Raen asked Celsus. “I have no reason to stay here, and I don’t think you do either.”

“You never know,” Ranval mused. “I’m sure the Republic soldiers appreciate a good drink and a day without a lightsaber in their chest. You could promise them both.”

“Shut up, Ranval,” Selias snapped. “You’re not funny.”

“Sorry, m’darlin’,” Ranval responded.

“Ranval and Donnel contacted the Sullustan Neebs,” Celsus told Raen, ignoring the bickering Beks. “If what you are hinting at is true, and Dandek is dead, then you and I ought to leave together.”

Donnel grunted. “But if you Jedi want to get offworld, you have to leave for the hangar soon. He leaves in fifteen minutes.”

“How far away is Neebs’s hangar?” Raen asked.

“Nearly thirty minutes,” Selias replied halfheartedly. “Maybe worse with noonday traffic.”

“Well, why are we still twiddling our thumbs here?” Ranval asked, rhetorically. “Hold onto ‘ya seats!” Ranval switched on the acceleration of his speeder, and the hovercraft launched forward, plowing through obstacles and forcing pedestrians out of the way as it raced by.

Celsus rubbed his temples. “I’ll never understand how they allowed him to drive a vehicle,” he reflected.

“Celsus,” Raen began, “do you know who killed Dandek and his family?”

Celsus eyed the burning remains of the Benax home. “No. If I knew, I would surely avenge his death. He kept me safe and provided me with a job for many years. He was a good friend. I… lets make his death mean something, Raen. Let’s prevent any more needless deaths.”

“Of course, Celsus,” Raen replied.

Once their dialogue had concluded, Celsus too activated his vehicle, allowing it to chase after the maddened Ranval and his hapless passengers.

*** ***

Gheas was sitting on the rooftop of one of Taris’s many skyscrapers with a furious scowl on his face. He was still in his signature heavy armor, and he was still wearing the freakish mask from his interrogation of Oryan Tempaar. He had taken quite a liking to the silly thing. Nevertheless, he was still displeased because they had lost the trail of Raen Benax. Aiming his targeting reticule at a random passerby to alleviate his anger, Gheas’s haphazard murder was stopped by the buzz of his comlink.

“What is it?” Gheas growled into the receiver.

“Sir, we’ve got two hovercars, coming toward your location, fast!” his Rodian companion’s chirping voice said, panting in between every few syllables. “It is confirmed that Raen Benax is in the second car.”

Gheas’s frown vanished immediately. This was too good to be true. Even so, after a quick scan of the road around him with his specialized macrobinoculars, he confirmed the Rodian’s report. Even if Raen was not in this car, it would not matter. They had killed a number of civilians since they arrived on Taris, and they were not going to stop now.

Returning his blaster to its holster, Gheas grabbed the rocket launcher he had prepared for this occasion. Once the weapon had been secured to a shoulder strap, Gheas called the third operative–a Gen’Dai mercenary–who was waiting on the rooftop adjacent to his own. “Prepare the trap,” he ordered.

“As you command,” the Gen’Dai hissed.

Once the Gen’Dai had switched off her comlink, Gheas sighed drearily. He was not scared of anything in this galaxy–or so he liked to think–but that Gen’Dai woman that served under him came close. When he hired her, he realized she had no name, no past, but she could kill. And she could do it well. That was all that mattered. As long as she directed her anger toward her targets and not him, Gheas was a happy man.

With the trio of elite mercenaries tracking him, Raen Benax would not survive his encounter with the Nova Death Force.

*** ***

Raen sat uncomfortably in the hoverspeeder Celsus was driving. They were racing down the streets of Taris, nearing Sir Neebs’s hangar, but he could not rid himself of the nagging feeling that they were in danger. Glancing over at the Jedi pilot, he could tell that Celsus felt the same way, although he was too concentrated on keeping his vehicle from colliding into anything to take any precautions. Raen grasped at his blue lightsaber, withdrawing it from his belt but keeping the weapon deactivated. Raen’s eyes dotted back and forth from one side of the road to the other, scanning the alleys they passed by for danger and individuals for weapons.

Suddenly, his Force senses guided his eyes toward the rooftop of a small office building they were just about to pass. On the rooftop sat an alien mercenary–Raen thought he looked like a Rodian–with a long-barreled sniper rifle. Raen ignited his lightsaber, preparing to deflect any incoming fire from himself and Celsus, but he was alarmed when the Rodian took aim for the car in front of them.

Even against the howl of the wind, Raen could hear Selias cry out in pain as the sniper’s aim allowed him to score a hit. Cursing bitterly, Raen felt helpless as Selias slumped down in her seat and disappeared from his view–since they were behind Ranval’s speeder, they couldn't see what was going on. Donnel glanced in the back seat and barked into a comlink while Ranval tilted his head to ensure that she was safe. When he diverted his attention from the road, the wily Miraluka lost control of the craft and it crashed headlong into an empty roadside vendor, sending the three gang members flying from the car and into the street.

Celsus drove his vehicle beside the three injured Beks and allowed the speeder to slow to a stop. Igniting his lightsaber, Celsus leapt out of the vehicle, scouring the skies for additional attackers. While Celsus defended them, Raen cried Selias’s name in fear, turning her so that she was facing him and away from the road. She was breathing, but it was erratic. Donnel and Ranval struggled to their feet on their own accord; they looked shaken, but not too badly hurt.

“Damn… sorry guys,” Ranval muttered. “Next time I’ll invest in some eyes to keep on the road.”

Donnel punched the Miraluka in the arm, causing Ranval to flinch in pain, before the two gang members gathered around Raen, who was trying to revive Selias. He and Celsus switched places so the Jedi Master could apply his healing powers to the Togruta while Raen defended his injured allies. When Raen ignited both of his lightsabers, he saw a single, armored individual fly from a nearby rooftop–equipped with a powerful rocketpack–and he was aiming a large weapon at the two Force-sensitives.

“Celsus! You guys! Move! Missiles!” Raen shouted.

Gheas hovered in the sky as he launched a trio of rockets at the Beks and their Jedi allies. Ranval ran first, fleeing into the nearest alleyway he could find. Donnel scooped Selias into his arms, and then ran toward their damaged hovercraft while Celsus joined Raen in his flight toward the buildings on the other side of the road. The three rockets landed where Selias and the party had been only seconds before, scalding the ground with black residue and small flames. When Gheas missed, the bounty hunter descended, flying closer to the ground with his rocket launcher primed to attack the helpless Togruta and her Chistori ally. Launching two more rockets, he was prepared for the pair to be engulfed in a blissful explosion when his rockets were halted in midair–suspended on ethereal strings. Flying back up, Gheas stared in confusion at the frozen rockets. Only when the rockets flew toward him did he realize what was happening; the Jedi were using their telekinesis to direct his projectiles. Although he struggled to avoid his own rockets, they were faster than his rocketpack and he only barely managed to get out of the way before they exploded near him.

Raen and Celsus watched as their foe plummeted to the ground from several dozen meters, crashing into the concrete below with an ungraceful thud. Raen smiled darkly at the cracking noise from his foe’s delicate bones. Swaggering over to the bounty hunter–who was lucky to have additional shielding and auxiliary boosters to slow his fall–Raen grasped at his neck with the Force and lifted him until the Zabrak was eye-to-eye with him. The furious Sith exile ripped off his opponent’s mask, revealing the scarred, auburn skin of a panicked mercenary.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” Raen growled. The fact that Selias had almost died and was still in danger fueled his rage, and he was ready to destroy this pathetic gun-for-hire with the power of the dark side.

“I… I am Gheas,” the Zabrak whimpered. “I was hired by Preux to hunt you down, Raen Benax.”

“And it was you killed my uncle?” Raen shouted, spitting into the alien’s battle-hardened face.

“No… that was not us. That was Lubain, a Mandalorian commando from the War. He was here until two days ago, when Malak called him to serve elsewhere. I swear, we would not harm your family.”

“That’s where you are wrong,” Raen replied, his eyes glistening with wrath. “You hurt the Beks and put Celsus in danger as well. You see… these people are my family. And do you know what I do to the people who try to harm my family?”

Gheas shook his head violently, trying to keep himself safe. The Force warned Raen of a harmful presence approaching from behind, and he saw a small grin appear on Gheas’s face. Keeping the bounty hunter commander suspended in the air, Raen whipped around, throwing his red lightsaber at the foe–a Rodian mercenary in armor similar to Gheas’s–and impaling him through the chest. The Rodian squeaked in pain and died before Raen’s lightsaber returned to its master.

“Now where were we?” Raen smirked, returning his attention to the Zabrak.

The Zabrak spat at Raen. “I was about to tell you that your efforts are fruitless. You will fall against the Gen’Dai and her forces. And if you do survive that encounter with your magical powers, Preux will find you anyway.”

“We’ll see,” Raen mused. Using his blue lightsaber, Raen severed the Zabrak’s wriggling hands and then cut off his legs, allowing his limp body to collapse on the ground, writhing in pain and cursing vehemently at the Sith exile.

“Raen, we’ve got enemies,” Celsus called out, approaching Raen. “Lots of them. All Sith soldiers, except their commander. She appears to be Mandalorian.”

“She’s Gen’Dai; he just told me,” Raen said, motioning toward the incapacitated Zabrak commander.

Walking through the otherwise empty streets of the Taris Upper City, half a battalion of Sith troopers were marching toward the two Force-sensitives and their allies. They were led by a single Gen’Dai warrior, wearing heavy armor and equipped with a large chain-gun that was nearly as large as Gheas’s rocket launcher. Donnel had thrown Selias into the last remaining speeder–his old speeder had been smashed by Ranval–and prepared to drive away, but he found himself hindered by the Sith.

“We can’t fight this many at once,” muttered Celsus.

“We have to try,” Raen shot back. “For Donnel, Selias, and Ranval.”

Celsus sighed wearily. He knew Raen was right. Using his violet lightsaber, Celsus blocked the first blaster shots sent by the Sith soldiers, their shining red blaster fire deflecting off of his violet blade. As the storm of fire increased, Raen joined the fray, using his two lightsaber blades to ricochet the enemy’s attacks into their midst, forcing them to activate their personal energy shields.

“For Taris and her Beks!” Ranval’s voice called out from afar. Riding his personal swoop bike, he raced by the two Force-sensitives, headed straight toward the enemy Sith soldiers.

The bike was armed with a weak deflector shield and small dual laser cannons, and Ranval used the shields to defend himself while he gunned down the front lines of the Sith infantry. His bike tackled into the Gen’Dai commander, and Ranval drove forward while her body was lodged in between the two, protruding cannons on the front of his vehicle. He smashed his bike into the nearest wall, crushing the Gen’Dai in between his bike and the duracrete wall, although the attack dislodged his dual cannons.

Once Ranval had successfully incapacitated the leader of the Sith forces, several other swoop bike riding citizens emerged from the side-streets and alleyways of Taris, attacking the Sith infantrymen with their laser cannons and their bike-mounted vibroweapons. Even Gadon Thek, the leader of the Hidden Beks, was riding on his swoop bike, decapitating several Sith soldiers upon his arrival.

“Run!” Gadon called out to the two Force-users. “We’ll get Selias medical attention and distract the Sith while you head for the ship!”

“Thank you!” Raen called out amidst the battle that was beginning to encompass the entire city block. Celsus deactivated his weapon first, placing his lightsaber back on his belt and using a Force-strengthened sprint to run the last kilometer toward Neebs’s hangar. Raen followed after the Jedi Master, using one of his lightsabers to deflect any stray blaster fire that attempted to strike at them.

After several minutes of Force-imbued sprinting, the pair of Force-users reached the hangar–a large orange-colored building that was spacious enough to store a dreadnought comfortably–without further hindrance. Celsus entered first, walking into the dimly lit hangar and hit the light switches inside, filling the room with the subtle blue light of specialized glowpanels that slowed the oxidation process of the ship’s durasteel casing.

“Welcome. This is my humble vessel,” Sir Neebs said, his voice booming and deep due to the use of his ship’s sonic-amplifier. “I would advise you to hurry yourselves along. No time to diddle or dawdle. Come along. Chop, chop.”

“Why’s he so antsy?” Celsus whispered to Raen.

“I don’t know,” Raen muttered, exasperated and ready to leave this planet. “He’s either very depressed or extremely jovial. In either case, we should hurry. That’s the Gen’Dai behind us.”

Sure enough, Celsus turned around, noticing the Gen’Dai and several Sith soldiers had bypassed the Hidden Beks and pursued the Jedi here. The two Force-sensitives ran toward the ship while Neebs fired the vessel’s main weapon. The single laser cannon at the bow of the cruiser shot at the approaching enemies, tearing the Gen’Dai into several globs of nervous tissue while the Sith troopers behind her were disintegrated instantaneously. The two Force-users were escorted into the W-shaped heavy cruiser utilized by the Sullustans and the boarding ramp to the ship withdrew before the Gen’Dai reconstructed itself. Raen and Celsus were rapidly escorted to the bridge, while the Gen’Dai continued her lumbering saunter toward Neebs’s vessel.

“Hello, gentlemen,” Neebs greeted the two Force-users. “We seem to have a problem.”

“Not for long,” Raen stated. “Turn the ship around, power up your engines.”

“Are you insane?” one of the Sullustan pilots snapped. “Why would we expose our flanks to the enemy?”

“Just do it!” Neebs shot back. “I have heard of this boy’s feats. He is a bright one.”

“Sometimes,” Celsus muttered. Raen glared at him, and Celsus chuckled lightly.

As the ship took off, the whole strength of the capital ship’s six main engines burned down upon the Gen’Dai. Although the flames initially caused the nerves that made up the alien’s body to rip apart and scatter about, the continuous blaze began to destroy their opponent piece-by-piece, until every nerve cluster had been burnt and destroyed–scattered ashes on the floor of the empty hangar.

The ship took off and hovered over the Tarisian skyline, careful to avoid hovercars and other low-altitude vehicles it was sharing the skies with. During the ship’s graceful drift, Neebs turned to the two riled Force-users on his bridge. “Now then, tell me where you’re all going, so I can take you both away from here and-”

Celsus interrupted the jolly Sullustan. “That won’t be necessary. Just give me a starfighter and I’ll be on my way.”

“That might be a better idea, Sir Neebs,” Raen noted. “We’ll probably end up across the galaxy from each other, and we would not want to waste your time.”

“Very well. My starfighters are only prototypes, and we are currently testing their hyperdrive technology. I c-cannot be held responsible if it does not work,” the Sullustan muttered. Directing his attention toward one of the Sullustan guards on the deck, he instructed him to escort the pair of Jedi to their starfighters.

Raen and Celsus followed the single guard as the ship soared away from the Tarisian skyline and headed into its atmosphere. Eventually, Raen and Celsus reached a pair of SoroSuub starfighters–which resembled the Star Saber fighters used by the Republic during the Sith War–which looked barely flyable. Nevertheless, the two Jedi entered the cockpits of their respective starfighters and took off from the cruiser’s hangars. Entering the blackness of space, Raen glanced about the somewhat-cramped cockpit, admiring the subtle beauty of his surroundings. Since no Republic resistance arose to stop them, the ex-Sith figured that they had diverted all of their forces–naval or otherwise–to the planet’s surface.

Glancing at Celsus’s craft, which had taken off before his and was flying in front of him, Raen opened his comlink. “So, I take it you just said that we’d travel separately because you don't want to spend the trip with Sir Neebs?”

“No.” The comlink caused Celsus’s voice to become slightly garbled.

“Wait. You’re coming with me to Dantooine, right Celsus?”

“Weren’t you the one who said that we would end up across the galaxy from each other?”

Raen frowned worriedly. “I was kidding.”

“I’m headed to fulfill the last mission… I failed before. But I am going to succeed now,” Celsus replied. “Don’t worry, Raen, I’m sure you’ll be fine by your lonesome. I’m sure the Jedi Order will accept you as their own. You don't need my help.”

“I hope so,” Raen muttered. “For my sake.”

“May the Force be with you, Raen Benax,” Celsus said before closing his end of the channel. The Jedi Master engaged his vessel’s hyperdrive, and Raen got to obtain one final glimpse of the bulky starfighter before it surged into the confines of hyperspace.

Raen pulled T1-N7’s core out of his pocket–where it had been the entire time he had been on Taris–and inserted it into the AI socket of the starfighter’s control panel. The young Force-sensitive was pleased to see Teeone’s cylindrical figure appear as a hologram on his control board. It would not be much help in navigating the galaxy, but Raen needed someone to talk to for the duration of the journey.

“Welcome back, Teeone. Ready to finally head to Dantooine?”

Teeone chirped and whirred excitedly.

“That’s what I thought too,” Raen replied. “May the Force be with me.”

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