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Chapter 14

One Year Later

Gaiel Remus slowly began to regain consciousness. He did not know how long he had been lingering about in the kolto tank he found himself in, but he was surprised–and grateful–that he was still alive. The memories were rough and splintered in his mind; it took several minutes for him to remember why he was swimming in this vat of healing liquid. He had been on the Renegade with his strike team, fighting a Dark Jedi, who Gaiel thought he had known from somewhere, when Betror died. The shock of the young Quermian’s death rippled through his subconscious again, evoking the painful sensation that had washed over Gaiel when he’d first sensed the young Jedi die. But what had happened after that? He had engaged the Dark Jedi dueling Syme, but he was bested and injured. Everything thereafter was still hazy in his mind.

Nautolan bodies achieved a heightened sense of alacrity and vigor when submerged–particularly in water–and Gaiel was no exception. The bitter-tasting liquid he had been swimming in pricked at Gaiel’s sensitive skin as it finished healing the last of the Jedi Knight’s heavier wounds. Due to his heightened sense of sight, he could see the Kel Dor Jedi medic, a Jedi Master named Kalthar, talking with a medical droid outside of the tank he was in. The Kel Dor were a peculiar species; they could not breath oxygen because it was deadly to them, so they wore special goggles in conjunction with gas masks that covered their gnarled and scrunched hazel-colored faces. Gaiel knew this one quite well because of his frequent trips to the medical bays at the Dantooine Jedi Enclave. Admittedly, Gaiel ended up in these kolto tanks a lot more than he would have liked; the Nautolan knew he had a streak of recklessness.

Using one of his fingers to tap on the clari-crystalline surface of the tank and inform the Jedi Master that he had regained consciousness, Gaiel waited patiently as the Kel Dor drained the kolto from the tank, flipping a switch that opened the duct at the bottom. The droid assisted Gaiel by removing the intravenous tubes in his arm before he was allowed to exit the tank altogether.

“How are you feeling, Knight Remus?” Kalthar asked. He seemed distant, and his voice was raspy and monotonous.

“Fine,” Gaiel responded, his own voice still getting used to atmosphere outside the liquid he had been resting in. “How long was I out?”

“You have been fading in and out of consciousness for nearly one hundred and forty-four hours,” Kalthar explained. “Ever since you were recovered from the Renegade.”

One hundred and forty-four hours. Quite a long time. Gaiel would have to remember to be more careful in the future, or else he would not wake up. “Where’s everyone else? Where’s Syme?” Gaiel asked, stretching out his limbs.

The Kel Dor went to a nearby computer terminal, scanning its contents. “According to our logs, Knight Devor recovered in exactly thirty-six hours. He was diverted to Coruscant by the Dantooine Council for further instruction. Lieutenant Nyalla Danters is in dangerously critical condition. She’s currently being treated for major injuries in the next room. The majority of the Republic operatives are either reported as MIA or KIA.”

“What?” Gaiel asked. “That’s impossible! What about Danters? And Jacque? They were safe when I contacted them.”

“Captain Danters was escorted to our enclave in critical condition,” Kalthar continued. “Initial reports speculated that Nyalla Danters had perished on the Renegade. These reports were given to Captain Danters during post-recovery debriefing–against the will of the Council–and he experienced a relapse. He perished shortly thereafter from cardiac arrest.”

“And Jacque?”

“Warrant Officer Jacque was found dead on the scene by Councilor Northeus and Councilor Lonna,” Kalthar explained solemnly.

Gaiel did not believe what he was hearing. Jacque and Nyalla had remained elsewhere in the ship while the three Jedi advanced toward the bridge. Nyalla, the adopted Twi’lek daughter of Captain Danters, had received a minor ankle injury when Gaiel had last seen her. Jacque volunteered to stay with her, and the area where they left the pair was safe enough. Gaiel simply could not comprehend how Kalthar could be right. Nyalla was critically injured? Jacque was dead? The Force began to nag in the back of Gaiel’s mind, and the Nautolan Jedi Knight could tell something was not right.

“Can I speak with Master Ulsan or Master Vash?” Gaiel finally asked.

“I’m afraid that would not be possible,” Kalthar replied dryly. “Councilor Northeus has traveled with Councilor Kavar to deal with Sith forces in the Mid Rim. Councilor Lonna has returned to Coruscant.”

Gaiel grimaced. “Can I speak with the Dantooine Council, then?”

“Of course, Knight Remus. In fact, they asked that you speak with them as soon as you were able.” Kalthar directed the medical droid to head to the next kolto tank and monitor the status of the patient inside. “Your equipment is on cot forty-three. May the Force be with you, Knight Remus.”

Gaiel nodded, still a bit tired from his time in the kolto tank, and bowed as Kalthar left him alone. Walking over to the only cot in his room, Gaiel replaced his medical smock for the blue Knight robes that were waiting for him–his peach-colored robes must have been discarded due to the damage–and picked up his comlink and lightsaber that rested nearby. Clipping the devices to his utility belt, Gaiel left the medical chambers of the Jedi Enclave’s sublevels and headed for the courtyard located in the center of the academy.

Gaiel always enjoyed spending time in the enclave. The central plaza split into four directions, leading to the council chambers, dormitories, the business sector–this sector housed several Aratech merchants and could be used as a landing bay–and the eastern courtyard. In the center of this courtyard stood an aged tree that had been affectionately named Vodo, after the Jedi Master who had founded the enclave nearly forty years before, Vodo-Siosk Baas. The tree’s trunk was gnarled and its thick branches reached beyond the orange-tinted walls of the enclave for sunlight.

In the courtyard, Jedi wandered from place to place, eager to reach their next destination. They moved quickly and with purpose, none of them wasting minutes as they wandered by. No matter how many Jedi left the courtyard to meet with the Council or left the enclave, there were always Jedi here. Gaiel did not recognize any of them Jedi he saw by name except for the Human woman with short, cropped brown hair that was tied into a tight bun behind her with auburn eyes.

“Hello, Belaya,” Gaiel greeted her.

“Gaiel, what a surprise,” the female Jedi responded. “I heard you got beat up pretty bad over Polus.”

“Is that what you heard?” Gaiel asked, chuckling. “I assure you, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.”

“Obviously,” Belaya said, her voice distant.

Gaiel frowned. He could sense she was troubled. “How’s Juhani?”

Belaya’s face became downcast. “She’s still out there. In the grove…” she said, her voice betraying a sense of guilt and sadness.

Juhani was a Cathar Padawan who knew Gaiel and Belaya. Gaiel recalled that she had been apprenticed to the Jedi Master Quatra, a teacher of some renown, but the Padawan–who was admittedly quite fiery–struck down her master in training. Juhani had feared she had killed Quatra despite encouragement from Gaiel, Syme, and Belaya, fled the enclave, and supposedly embraced the dark side of the Force. It was discovered several days later that Quatra had only sustained minor injuries, and she had faked her death in order to test her Padawan. Juhani had failed Quatra’s test, and now the wild beasts under Juhani’s dark control were threatening to harm settlers and other travelers.

“They aren’t sending anyone to bring her back?” Gaiel finally asked.

“A young Jedi learner,” Belaya managed to say, “is headed out there now. But he’s inexperienced, and I don’t trust him.”

“It’s out of our hands now, Belaya. We simply have to trust the Force and hope that he knows what he’s doing,” Gaiel mused.

“Yes,” the forlorn Jedi murmured. “But I shouldn’t be talking about this. The Council will get angry at me if I start a scene.”

“Indeed. Excuse me, but I must speak with them. It’s good to see you again, Belaya,” Gaiel said, walking away from the Jedi Knight.

“And you, Gaiel. I’ll see you again soon?”

“Yeah,” the Nautolan replied before heading into the council chambers.

Gaiel’s pace was quicker than he would have liked, but he needed answers. Passing by several Jedi carrying supplies that would end up in the sublevels of the enclave, Gaiel hastily made his way toward the council chambers. The council was situated in a room that was circular and largely empty, although some potted plants and benches rested along the walls of the chambers. The room was well-lit but was not painted vibrantly, forgoing vivacious colors for a more natural feel. Unlike usual, the entire Dantooine Council was not present; instead, only the diminutive Jedi Master Vandar Tokare was present, meditating in the center of the room.

Master Vandar was a stout, diminutive being, with long ears and brown-green skin. He was far older and wiser than Gaiel, and many of the Jedi, Gaiel included, often turned to the Jedi Master for wisdom. He realized that the Council was not in session, and Gaiel turned to leave, not wanting to disturb the aged Jedi. However, Vandar sent him a telepathic message through the Force, acknowledging his presence and urging him to stay.

“Speak with me, Gaiel,” Vandar said, slipping out of his meditation and sitting in a small hover chair nearby. “Something troubles you.”

“Yes, Master,” Gaiel responded, his voice laced with confusion. “I am troubled about my last mission. Something is amiss.”

Vandar allowed his hover chair to float by Gaiel, heading toward the exit of the council chambers. “Walk with me, Gaiel. We should discuss this outside; this chamber permeates with the Force, but it does not do so with the same vigor as the natural world.”

“Yes, Master,” Gaiel repeated, although he felt that the aged, long-eared species was stalling.

Gaiel followed the smaller alien’s repulsor chair, walking into the courtyard where Belaya was still standing, now talking with a Jedi Padawan of some renown. Gaiel ignored the pair and quickened his steps so that he was walking side-by-side with Master Vandar. The pair of Jedi walked from the courtyard and headed east, making their way into the expansive courtyard that was located outside the enclave’s walls. Gaiel carefully avoided the occasional settler or busy Jedi that was scurrying about in the eastern courtyard while never slowing his pace, keeping up with the Jedi Master.

“Gaiel. What specifically is bothering you about your mission?” Vandar finally asked.

“I feel like there are more devious forces at work, Master Vandar,” Gaiel replied slowly. “Some things do not seem reasonable. People died that should not have. People disappeared that should not have.”

“The Dark Jedi you fought?” Vandar asked.

“How did you-?”

“Syme told me,” Vandar admitted with a grin. “Don’t worry, Gaiel. Both Northeus and Lonna confirmed that the Dark Jedi was dead on the scene.”

Gaiel frowned. “Who killed her, Master? Betror had died, I was unconscious, and she was practically toying with Syme when they fought.”

“Syme told me that he could not beat her, either.” Vandar closed his eyes, apparently deep in thought. “She managed to cut off his right leg and leave him for dead.”

“Then how, Master? If she was dead before the Jedi Councilors arrived, but after we were bested, then who killed her?” Gaiel questioned, intent on pressing the issue.

“I’m not sure, Gaiel,” Vandar sighed. “I’ll meditate on this and consult with the rest of the Dantooine Council. For now, head toward the Lesinna River. Your old master, Bolook, was solving a murder case around there. I imagine he could use some help.”

Gaiel’s crestfallen mood was remedied by hearing his old master’s name again. Bolook, a Twi’lek Jedi Master who had served under fellow Twi’lek Jedi Zhar Lestin, had taken Gaiel as a Padawan learner when the Nautolan was first introduced to the Jedi Order. Although Gaiel had achieved knighthood about a year ago, he and Bolook went on several missions in the meantime, and Gaiel knew that the Twi’lek was a skilled investigator and detective in addition to his abilities as a Jedi. If he was attending to a case by the Lesinna River, that meant settlers were involved.

“Of course, Master, I’d be happy to,” Gaiel beamed.

Vandar bid Gaiel farewell as the Jedi Knight left the petite Councilor behind. The Nautolan returned to the interior of the academy, entering a garage in the sublevels that was designated for the Order’s use. Lined along the walls of the darkened garage were dozens of personal swoop bikes, meant to hold no more than two individuals at a time. In front of them were half a dozen hovercars, meant to ferry four or five Jedi during emergencies. Picking a random swoop bike, Gaiel stepped into the vehicle and hit the ignition, allowing the repulsorcraft to come to life. The Jedi Knight left the spacious storage area and headed into the Dantooinian countryside, away from the enclave and its protective walls.

It was autumn on the agrarian world of Dantooine, and the beauty of the planet’s vast plains enthralled Gaiel. The majority of the flora had traded their green coloration for rich shades of deep crimson, vibrant yellow, and soft brown. Even the grass, which was often a lively green, was tinted with a darker hue, creating orange-red blades of knee-high grass. The brisk wind blew across Gaiel’s amphibious lime-green skin and caused his head-tresses to flutter about behind him, mimicking the hair of other species. It was still morning, so the bright star that served as Dantooine’s star–and shared its name–illuminated the majority of the shadows around the planet’s surface and allowed Gaiel to travel safely.

Upon reaching the Lesinna River, the Nautolan parked the vehicle near one of the many duracrete bridges that allowed settlers to carry goods and animals across the creek with ease, and then he followed his master’s presence in the Force. His master was quite skilled at hiding his presence in the Force–a skill Gaiel never acquired–and the Jedi Knight had to deeply immerse himself into the surging power of the Force to even attempt to locate Bolook. His search paid off, and Gaiel found Bolook enjoying a quick meal by the riverbed.

“Ah, hello,” Bolook greeted his former pupil in fluent Huttese. Standing up, he brushed the crumbs of his meal off of his blue Jedi robes and orange skin. “You caught me at a bad time, Gaiel. I was just grabbing a bite to eat after my latest mission.”

Gaiel moved closer to his master, taking a seat by the riverbed. He replied in Huttese, “Your latest mission? The murder investigation?”

“Yes, the very one,” Bolook said. Gaiel was disappointed he could not help Bolook, and his old master must have felt it, because his lekku twitched ever so slightly. “Sorry, Gaiel. I know you wanted to help, but Revan got here just before you did; he helped me figure out the case.”

Gaiel’s already bulbous eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets when he heard Revan’s name. The Dark Lord Revan, who was once a charismatic and well-known Jedi of the Order, had died in combat when his flagship was attacked during a Jedi ambush. However, the Jedi had not killed him. His own apprentice and old friend, Darth Malak, betrayed his master and killed him, usurping his title and empire.

“That’s impossible,” Gaiel began, his voice racked with nervousness. “Revan is dead. Isn’t he, Master Bolook?”

“Ah, maybe I shouldn’t have said that,” Bolook pondered. “Listen, Gaiel, the Jedi Council and some of the other masters have not been completely honest to the remainder of the Jedi–to you. Revan is alive.”

“What? Why? How?” Gaiel nearly shouted each word.

“Revan’s mind was shattered when he was attacked by his apprentice. He was near death, but the Padawan Bastila Shan managed to preserve him through a Force bond constructed between the two,” Bolook explained. “He was taken to the Jedi Council, where they repaired his mind. But at the same time, we reprogrammed him. He was not and will never be the same person.”

Gaiel scowled at the revelation. “Master, with all due respect, why did the Jedi Council not inform the remainder of the Jedi about this? H-he could be dangerous. He could unlock his repressed memories at anytime. He should be tried for his crimes.”

“Gaiel, you must understand. The Council acts upon the will of the Force. Whether they choose to inform the rest of the Jedi of their plans is their prerogative alone,” Bolook explained with a hint of defensiveness in his voice. “As for Revan: he will never obtain the memories that were lost to him. The Council made sure his old thoughts will never return to him. Of this, you have our assurance.”

“What else has the Council hidden from us, Bolook?” Gaiel was nearly furious and refused to use honorifics until he received answers.

If the Jedi Council was taking part in dark actions like manipulation of the mind, then Gaiel knew that Revan could be only the beginning. Revan’s revival was dangerous and quite startling to Gaiel, but he realized that the Jedi Order could have hidden other things from him–things relating to his mission to Polus.

“Gaiel, keep your anger in check. Such feelings and demands lead to the dark side. Do not stay on this course, lest you stray from the light,” Bolook reprimanded him. “I cannot speak for the Council, I can only say what I know. I have said too much already.”

The Nautolan sighed when Bolook refused to answer his question. Gaiel stormed away from the Twi’lek, not bothering to return Bolook’s halfhearted farewell. The Jedi Knight followed the river north several meters until he returned to the swoop he had parked. Gaiel was determined to find out what all this was about–Revan, Betror, the Dark Jedi, and the Council. Perhaps it was related. Boarding the swoop bike, Gaiel let the engine roar loudly before he hit the ignition and allowed the vehicle to careen away from the Lesinna River, leaving his old master behind.

During his drive across the plains of Dantooine, Gaiel’s mind continued to return to a single thought: Revan. He simply could not accept the fact that the Jedi Knight who had betrayed the Order–when so many had looked up to him and admired him–had not only survived his fateful betrayal, but that the Jedi Council had been involved in his return. This very same Jedi Council that he had served for the majority of his life was keeping secrets from him, keeping knowledge from him. He could not believe it. Bolook had never lied to him, yet at the same time, he had only just told him about Revan’s apparent rebirth.

Gaiel would not have minded so much if he had admired the once-famous Jedi known as the Revanchist. Gaiel remained behind during the Mandalorian Wars not because he thought the prospect of warring Jedi violated their tenants, or that they were fighting for the wrong reasons. No, he did not join Revan’s crusade because none of his friends had gone, and he would have felt alone amidst the sea of Republic soldiers and higher-ranking Jedi. A Padawan at the time, Gaiel found himself revering the man who was Revan, even more so than Syme and his own master. Ever since Revan and his armies had fallen to the dark side, Gaiel had not been the same. He hated the fact that he was terse and could not abide Betror’s obliviousness or Nyalla’s optimistic attitude; he just did not know how to deal with his emotions. Revan had been his hero, and when he had supposedly died, perhaps something died inside of Gaiel as well.

As he approached the Jedi Enclave’s eastern courtyard, the Nautolan Jedi felt the subtle pangs of the dark side to the north. Suddenly alert, Gaiel diverted his bike’s path, skidding north and heading toward the disturbance. As he traveled toward the unusual occurrence, he took note of the fact that there was nothing to the northeast of the enclave besides uninhabitable hills and an archaic burial mound used to house the natives of Dantooine long before the arrival of the Jedi. Whatever was causing the dark side energy was obviously taking up residence in or around the burial mounds. Pulling his vehicle to a halt as he bypassed several erect pillars strewn in seemingly random patterns around the mausoleum, Gaiel reached out into the interconnecting, far-reaching web of the Force, trying to pinpoint where the dark side taint was coming from. However, a dark aura from the inside of the mounds prevented him from tracking the taint’s location.

As the Jedi Knight was about to give up and return to the enclave, he noticed a young Human male–probably eighteen years of age–descend from the top of the burial mound, falling in the grass near the entryway of the mound itself. Once the individual regained his footing, Gaiel got a better glimpse at the individual. He had long, tousled, dark brown hair atop his head and a scraggly beard across his chin; he looked like a wild man. He even wore tattered, mud-stained clothing to compliment his already savage appearance.

However, it was obvious to Gaiel that he was not a feral individual. Once the individual had picked himself from the ground, he ignited two lightsabers–red and blue–to protect himself from some unseen force. It took several seconds for Gaiel’s sable eyes to notice several individuals standing at the top of the burial mound, hunting the lightsaber duelist who had been thrown to the ground.

Three robed and hooded individuals who were clothed like Jedi jumped from the mound’s summit, intent on subduing their cornered prey. Gaiel took notice of the lightsabers on their belt and presumed that they were, in fact, Jedi, but their hoods prevented the Nautolan from recognizing them from where he stood. Of the three, one of them had the elongated hilt of a double-bladed lightsaber and the other two possessed standard lightsabers.

There was an eerie but reverent silence for several, drawn-out seconds. None of the combatants moved, scanning each other and their surroundings for inherent advantages or disadvantages that could be used in combat. Suddenly, a single Jedi, the one on the farthest right of their unkempt enemy, ignited his olive-green blade. Rushing at his foe, the Jedi performed a wide, vertical strike, aiming to slice off his opponent’s right arm. His dual-wielding target blocked the attack with his blue blade and used his momentum to perform a fluid counterattack; ensuring that his weapon was locked with the Jedi’s only lightsaber, the dual-wielder swung his other lightsaber in a vicious arc. The resulting strike bypassed the Jedi’s defenses and then came back around to cut off his neck.

The headless Jedi’s limp body collapsed before its opponent. The winner of the duel gave the body a swift kick to send the corpse backwards, crashing into the brown blades of grass. Throwing his weapons into what Gaiel recognized as a very poor imitation of a basic Jedi opening stance, the dual-wielder appeared to be silently challenging his opponents to try again. The two Jedi seemed to prepare for their attack when one of them noticed Gaiel standing in the distance. The Jedi with the double-bladed lightsaber whispered something to the other–who was apparently the leader of this force. The leader pulled back his hood, revealing the scarred and pale face of a bald Human male with green eyes and a crooked nose.

“Gaiel? Is that you?” the Human called out to the Nautolan, waving a single arm.

Gaiel hesitated for a moment, but then he recognized the face. “Knosar? Is that you?”

“I’m afraid it is,” Knosar said dryly. He pulled off the rest of his cloak, revealing his tan-colored robes underneath and the lightsaber he had attached to his belt. “How are you, Gaiel? I heard you were confined to a kolto tank. Sorry I couldn’t send you a card or something.”

Gaiel rolled his eyes. “Yeah, of course. Anyway, I got better. What are you doing out here?”

“This punk is the same kid who killed Master Tor’chal a while back. Remember his funeral?” Knosar asked.

“Yeah. Master Sunrider gave quite a stirring eulogy, if I recall,” Gaiel mused. He recalled that the majority of the Jedi Order–including those stationed on Coruscant–had traveled to Dantooine to pay their respects to the fallen Jedi. Pulling himself away from the memories, Gaiel glanced at Tor’chal’s murderer, examining him intently. “There’s no way this kid killed Tor’chal. He’s a mess.”

The dual-wielder turned to Gaiel, but the corner of one of his eyes remained on the other two Jedi. “My name is Raen Benax. These men are not Jedi!”

“You hear him, Gaiel? He’s a bit delirious. You know, with the savage living and such,” Knosar noted. “So, Gaiel, how long have we known each other?”

“Nearly eight years. Why?” the Nautolan Jedi asked, somewhat confused.

“Am I a Jedi or not? Did I become a Knight with you, Belaya, Syme, and them, or what?”

“Of course you did.”

“Then help us take out this Dark Jedi,” Knosar urged. “He’s a madman, a murder, and a liar, as you’ve witnessed. We’ll rush him. He’s pretty good for an untrained Force-user, but he can’t go against three trained Jedi Knights at once!”

Gaiel nodded and grasped at his lightsaber, snatching it off his belt and activating it in a single, streamlined motion. Raen, realizing he was outnumbered, became desperate and moved first. As the two other Jedi activated their lightsabers, Raen outstretched his hand–forcing a pulsating wave of Force energy through his veins–and sent a telekinetic blast of energy at Gaiel. The Nautolan was surprised by his foe’s strength in the Force. The resulting shockwave hit Gaiel, despite his attempts to shield himself, and the force of Raen’s attack threw the Jedi Knight into his swoop bike, nearly knocking him unconscious. Once Gaiel was out of the way, Raen returned his focus to the two Jedi who remained. The Alderaanian deflected the first few blows from of the saberstaff-wielding Jedi’s green blades, parrying the two edges of the weapon with his own lightsabers. The Jedi fighting Raen moved in close, enabling him to perform swift, dazzling twirls with his double-bladed weapon and forcing Raen into a desperate defensive.

The Force alerted Raen of his second opponent’s approach. Knosar leapt through the air behind Raen–silent enough that the exiled Sith did not hear him–and slashed at Raen’s upper body during his descent. Shifting his weight onto one foot, Raen managed to narrowly dodge Knosar’s overhead attack while deflecting two more strikes from the double-bladed lightsaber. Admittedly, Raen had never fought a saberstaff before, so he was having some difficulty adjusting to fighting two blades at once. The fact that he had three opponents combating him did not help matters. Raen blocked the first Jedi’s double-blades before backflipping to avoid a swift strike at his knees from Knosar. Landing behind Gaiel’s old friend, Raen attempted to strike at his undefended back, but a quick Force push from Gaiel–who had already recovered from his incapacitation–sent Raen flying away, saving Knosar.

Knosar charged toward Raen head-on while Gaiel swiftly made his way toward Raen’s right side. The Alderaanian was forced to parry Knosar’s strikes first, and then use his other blade to repel Gaiel’s eager green blade. Spinning in quick circles, Raen alternated the lightsaber he was using to defend himself from each combatant. The exiled Sith used a powerful Force push to send both Jedi Knights away before the double-bladed enemy returned, swinging his weapon overhead in a gaping motion. Raen was becoming increasingly worried due to the amount of enemies he was fighting alone. He barely managed to continue his shaky defense; he would block Gaiel’s attacks, then Knosar’s, and then jump out of the way or duck to avoid a follow-up saberstaff swing. Using the Force, Raen managed to repel Knosar again, sending him away from the battle for a moment to give Raen a brief respite.

Gaiel moved in quick to secure an advantage. While Raen was reigniting his offhand weapon–he had used that hand to push Knosar away–Gaiel attacked his exposed left side, utilizing a precise, vertical strike in an attempt to cut at his hips. Raen managed to block the attack with both of his lightsabers, defending himself with an X-shaped shield, and then butted the unprotected Jedi’s head with his own, sending Gaiel sprawling into the grass below.

Once the Nautolan was rendered defenseless, Raen ran by him with ease and attacked the saberstaff-wielding Jedi, who was now fighting alone. Using his red and blue lightsabers to match the two green blades of his foe’s double-blade, Raen struck at his opponent’s defenses on both sides until the Jedi was forced to spin the weapon in a large circle, protecting both of his limbs at once. Once the Jedi had done so, Raen severed the weapon at the handle, splitting it in two and deactivating the weapon immediately. Startled, the Jedi had no time to react before Raen thrust both of his weapons into the Jedi’s chest, skewering his body and killing him. The Jedi vomited blood on Raen’s already-ruined tunic as he died, but the Alderaanian ignored it; he removed his lightsabers just in time to block a counterattack from Knosar’s cobalt-colored blade.

Deflecting the remaining Jedi’s persistent and flowing stream of attacks, Raen felt his defenses and reflexes begin to tire. Turning toward Gaiel–who was recovering his footing again–Raen called out to him during his duel with Knosar. “You! I meant it when I said it earlier. This man and his friends are not Jedi. Does a Jedi kill innocent settlers?” Raen asked, barely able to draw his focus away from the duel.

“Silence! You’re mad,” Knosar demanded.

Knosar was still attacking with consistent strength and speed, and he managed to slice Raen’s blue lightsaber in half, disabling it and forcing Raen to fight with a single weapon. Raen ducked underneath Knosar’s next attack and used a quick scissor-kick to the Jedi’s legs to cause him to topple over. Once Knosar was disabled, Raen tried to snatch at the dead Jedi’s–now deactivated–green lightsaber. However, his attempt was hindered by Gaiel, who performed a quick unarmed chop at Raen’s combat arm, crippling him and forcing him to drop his red lightsaber. Once Raen had lost both of his weapons, Knosar stood back up and made sure that Raen could not reach any more lightsabers by procuring them from the battlefield and taking them for himself while Gaiel kept Raen at the edge of his lightsaber.

“Good work, Knosar. Let’s bring him to the Council; he needs to answer for his crimes,” Gaiel lauded the other Jedi Knight.

“The Council? I don’t think so, Gaiel. The Council is a bunch of decrepit, ignorant liars. I’ve learned this, and I’m sure you know it as well. What are they going to do with this Dark Jedi? They’ll blindly offer him their forgiveness and put him right back to work–killing our own behind their backs!” Knosar snapped.

Gaiel bit his lip. Knosar’s words, however dark, possessed a ring of truth. The Council had taken the Dark Lord of the Sith, Revan, and had transformed him into little more than a puppet, albeit a very dangerous one. Although Gaiel could not dare accuse the Council for being responsible for Betror’s death or the Republic’s failure over Polus, he could suspect their involvement. The Nautolan was divided. Knosar was an old friend of his, and he was saying what Gaiel wanted to hear. And he knew that the Council worked exactly how Knosar described. Their mercy was too much, even for the Jedi. Even so, Gaiel was a Jedi Knight. He still had a devotion to the Jedi Order, and until the Jedi Council officially announced their dissolution, he knew he had to serve them.

“They may lie,” Gaiel agreed, trying to stay as calm as possible, “but the Council is only looking out for our own well-being. They choose to tell us only what is necessary.”

“You really are a drone of the Council, aren’t you, Gaiel?” Knosar muttered. “I’m sorry; I really am. I thought you could see the light, like us. But I guess I have to kill you too.”

Igniting his lightsaber, Knosar charged toward Gaiel, who had diverted his viridian lightsaber from Raen toward his own body, intent on defending himself. Gaiel deflected Knosar’s first blow, but the Human Knight had more upper body strength than the Nautolan, and he utilized it to his advantage. Knosar continued his attack, raining vicious combinations of vertical swings and unrelenting strikes at Gaiel’s midsection. Reflecting blow after blow, Gaiel kept up his defensive perimeter just long enough for him to notice a flaw in his enemy’s offensive; during the time that Knosar began swinging at the Nautolan’s ankles, his back was exposed and vulnerable. When the Human Knight tried to attack Gaiel’s lower legs again, Gaiel jumped over the attack and pushed Knosar to the ground with the Force, sending him face-first into the grass below.

Although Knosar had been knocked to the ground, he still managed to block several of Gaiel’s attacks from his position until the Nautolan severed the Jedi Knight’s weapon hand, sending his enemy’s right hand and cobalt lightsaber flying into the air. Gaiel held his own weapon at Knosar’s head, his viridian lightsaber humming gently mere centimeters from his face.

“I’m sorry I had to do that, Knosar,” Gaiel said. “But you need to stop resisting. I will take you both to the Council, and you two will explain yourselves there.”

Knosar cackled with delight. “I shall never succumb to the will of the Council! I shall not become their hounds, their agents, or their pawns–not again. I have failed in my mission. The Force wills that I receive my reward.” The defeated Jedi Knight quickly extracted a small bag out of his coat and swallowed two pills that were waiting inside. Almost immediately, he began to retch and pant violently, taking shorter and shorter breaths until Gaiel sensed his life fade away.

The Nautolan knelt over and checked the now immobile Jedi’s pulse, but there was none. All the color had disappeared from Knosar’s skin and his eyes–hauntingly staring into the sun–eventually rolled back inside his head. Gaiel closed his old ally’s eyes with a quick motion of his hand, showing his fallen opponent one last act of respect. Whispering a quick Jedi benediction, Gaiel felt broken inside. How could Knosar have been so caught up in the dark side, and how could Gaiel not have known of his friend’s corruption sooner? Why did more Jedi have to die? This was supposed to be a sanctuary for the Jedi, not a grave world.

Raen Benax had since scooped up Knosar’s cobalt lightsaber and recovered his own red lightsaber, placing both of the deactivated weapons on his belt. He attempted to approach Gaiel, but thought it would be better if he had some time alone. Raen stood silently, watching Gaiel for nearly ten minutes. In the meantime, Gaiel had buried the bodies of the three Jedi near the burial mound–he thought it was vaguely appropriate–and said his final goodbyes to the three Jedi. The Nautolan Knight would have cremated them, but he lacked tinder, flint, or a lighter of some sort.

“Would you like me to leave you?” Raen asked, breaking the established stillness. “I can head into the countryside, and you would never see me again.”

“I don’t think so. You better have a damn good explanation for this, Raen Benax,” Gaiel snapped. His face contorted slightly, revealing just how furious he was.

“What? The fact that three agents were masquerading as Jedi in your organization, and you were forced to kill them before they killed you?” Raen questioned, not fully comprehending the situation. “I suppose I’m sorry? If you mean an explanation for Tor’chal and why I am here, yes, I have one. However, I will not speak here. I will only talk to your Jedi Council.”

Gaiel sighed heavily before placing his lightsaber back on his belt. “Very well. As promised, I shall take you before them. Follow me.” Gaiel walked toward his swoop bike and waited for Raen to hop in the passenger’s seat before heading toward the enclave in dutiful silence.

Chapter 15

The bridge of the Hound’s Sapphire was eerily silent. None of the crew was in their assigned locations, and the tall, grandiose captain’s chair–towering over the rest of the bridge on its small roost–was vacated. The lights of the command deck were malfunctioning, shining off and on in varying, unpredictable intervals, causing the deck to be swept away by harrowing shadows every so often. Only the viewport, with its mosaic of darkness, littered with the flickering lights of distant stars and glowing nebulae, provided a constant light source for the Lethisk-class freighter’s abandoned bridge.

The silence on the deck was pierced by a single, automated door. Its unusual unlocking sequence produced a shrill whine before sliding open, allowing the burly Shistavanen, Fetcher, to stride into the otherwise-empty bridge. The remainder of the crew–the very same crew that had served onboard the Cerulean Wolf–had retired to their respective quarters for the night. This gave Fetcher the benefit of working alone without being disturbed or distracted by others, surrounded by the stillness of the bridge and the emptiness of space. It was very relaxing for the Shistavanen, who had been born, raised, and eventually made a living in space.

The hulking pilot had carried a cumbersome box of tools in his left hand and a dirty, mechanic’s rag in his other. The Shistavanen slinked carefully by the varying computer consoles and desks that had been set up around the deck, hoping to keep everything intact and undisturbed. Eventually, Fetcher walked up to Manda’s station–containing the communication monitors, logs, and primary sensors–and set down his supplies. Bypassing her desk, Fetcher reached a single computer terminal that was erected on the right side of the Devaronian’s workspace. Fetcher knew that this terminal controlled the cooling systems from the bridge. It was a convenient tool; this terminal could effectively adjust the temperature of the entire ship with a few buttons presses. It greatly aided the smuggling crew, and it allowed them to work in comfort while not having to head to the back of the ship to adjust the ship’s internal cooling unit.

Fetcher had been asked by Manda, being the whiny Devaronian that she was, to repair the console, which had not worked since they purchased the new ship. Although Fetcher thought the Hound’s Sapphire had been their best investment, even he admitted that replacing it for the old Cerulean Wolf had its problems. For one, their old ship was familiar to them. It took the crew nearly a month to adjust to the controls and feel of the new ship, and even now–six months later–it still felt peculiar at times. The crew had also bought the Hound’s Sapphire used; Fetcher had fixed most of its initial problems, although some minor kinks and bugs remained. This temperature-adjusting console was one of the more annoying pratfalls that this ship contained.

Ever since Halendot, the ship’s youthful–if somewhat antisocial–mechanic, had died during their mission on the Luminous Daybreak, Fetcher’s duties around the ship had increased. He had taken over most of Halendot’s old jobs, although Ralina and the rest of the crew had forced him to focus on repairing the ship’s internal systems. The middle-aged Shistavanen did not mind; he had once been the mechanic of his own ship, long ago, when his mate was still alive.

Fetcher reluctantly pried the console’s base away with his power wrench. Starting at the bottom of the computer system, the smuggler began scanning the internal wiring, making sure that each coil and plug was properly used and laid out. When everything appeared normal on first glance, he armed himself with a small, pinpoint laser light to peruse the electrical organs more tediously.

During his monotonous overview of every wire, memory cartridge, and conduit, Fetcher heard the soft hum of the ship’s overhead speakers. After a few moments, the Shistavanen could hear the faint sound of a song’s introduction. The song was playing on the bridge’s speakers: the melody started with a dreary, slow legato before the tempo and volume picked up, accompanied by a deep bass and an assortment of wind instrumentalists. The smooth, clearly connected notes rang through Fetcher’s lupine ears; he had practically forgotten about his job repairing the console. The song drifted in and out, fading between hushed whispers and powerful hums. Suddenly, the song stopped, disappearing as quickly as it had begun. The Shistavanen’s eyes glistened, stuck in memories long since gone, and he lingered there for several minutes alone in the dark.

“Jon,” Fetcher finally spoke up. “I know that you’re there. And I’m just going to say that your antics are not amusing. You know that was her song.”

“If I upset you, Fetarollias, I apologize. I did not want to bring up old memories of her; I just wanted you to have a suitable work environment,” Jon explained.

The Shistavanen scoffed. “You were trying to anger me.”

“It is not in my programming to anger. Remember, Fetarollias. You made me, and I am instructed to do anything my emotional unit dictates to assist you.”

“Sometimes I regret giving you such a wide array of skills,” muttered Fetcher. “And my name is Fetcher, now. Fetarollias died with her.”

“Sir. With all due respect, that would be like a young girl naming her pup. You’re not Ralina’s puppy, are you?” Jon said, teasing.

“What’s this about a little girl?” a silvery–if infuriated–voice shouted from across the bridge.

Fetcher snorted as Ralina Venli made her way across the bridge toward the Shistavanen. Whenever she was off duty, Ralina gratefully did away with uniforms or armor and donned casual attire. Fetcher would have gladly sympathized with anyone who saw her in such clothing and could not understand how she was a seasoned smuggler–or even a starship captain–at all. Her tenebrous, satin-like hair was neatly combed back from her bronzy face, racing down her neck and halting near her supple shoulders. She wore a rough, roguish leather jacket over her upper body; coupled with red shorts and green slippers, she was neither imposing nor respectable.

Ralina stormed across the bridge and hammered her clenched fist into Fetcher’s right arm, causing him to yelp in pain and drop his wrench. “Don't you dare call me a little girl!” she snapped.

“That was me, Captain,” Jon admitted, albeit sheepishly. “I apologize in advance.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ralina said, saving face. “The fact of the matter is, Fetcher created you, and he’s responsible for your commentary.”

Fetcher hissed in pain, still massaging his wounded arm. “That’s hardly fair, Captain. That AI just won’t let me work in peace. It’s almost like he does it for attention.”

“You’re just upset with Jon because he resembles you when you were younger,” Ralina retorted. “It’s one of those psychoanalytical things.”

Fetcher stared at his captain, dumbfounded. “Somehow, I doubt you received your doctorate in psychology when you were on Anaxes,” he said, somewhat joking.

“Oh, come on, Fetcher,” Ralina said. “How many sentients–let alone females–have you met with since Irinna’s death?”

Irinna. There was her name again. Fetcher missed his mate, who had been dead seven years now, deeply. It scarred him every waking moment, and sometimes, he even had nightmares about it. His one failure as a smuggling kingpin had become his greatest regret. She had died when the Exchange sold her into slavery to a Coruscanti noble during the Mandalorian War. Although he had tried to save her, it had not succeeded, and he had never been the same. In fact, he would not even be here, had he not been forced from self-imposed retirement by Ralina.

“Not too many, I’m afraid,” Fetcher murmured, with a hint of loathing on his tongue. To prevent Ralina from seeing him in his confused and angry state, he had returned to work on the radiator’s controls.

Ralina nodded. “Exactly. And you built Jon before you met the rest of the crew and I. So who else could you have modeled Jon after? You built him based on yourself–your younger self.

“No offense, Fetcher, but that is truly a disturbing and gruesome thought,” Jon thought aloud. “If that is true, I would request you tear out my circuitry and convert me into a text processor or something useful of that nature.

Fetcher’s anger reached a boiling point. “Of course it’s not true! Would you space off, you annoying piece of machinery?” Fetcher barked ferociously.

Jon did as was requested of him, and Fetcher had figured he had retired for the evening, shutting himself down or moving elsewhere–somewhere he could not be yelled at–to restore his energy reserves. Fetcher ignored the fact that his captain was present and continued to work on fixing the broken console. In a few minutes, Fetcher took notice of a damaged and slightly misplaced wire. The Shistavanen carefully replaced the wiring and made sure it was not too damaged to use. Peeking his head out of the computer console’s internal area, Fetcher hit a few buttons on the console’s monitor. The Shistavanen beamed with delight when the temperature of the bridge began to rise and he heard the heating unit working down below. Ralina, too, was enamored with the fact that it was so much warmer on the bridge than before.

“Why did you base Jon on yourself, Fetcher?” Ralina asked, carefully lacing her words to keep his anger in check.

The Shistavanen kept his eyes on the monitor as he answered her question. “I guess… I guess he’s a testament to what I was. Who I was. Before she died, I was someone. I had a name, a crew, wealth, fame, power, and love. Now… now I’m just a washed-up hound fighting for a backwater smuggler’s crew and I’m probably poorer than a Telosian refugee.”

“That’s not funny, Fetcher,” Ralina said coldly. “You know my friends and family died on Telos.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t make remarks about my past!” Fetcher barked. “It’s bad enough that I have to serve you because of some damn gambling debt, but I don’t need you rubbing it into my face, either.”

“You can leave, you know,” Ralina offered, pointing toward the elevator door in the distance. “No one’s keeping you here.”

“No,” Fetcher said, growling. “I gave my word to serve you until I paid back my debt. So that is what I’ll do.”

Fetcher climbed to his feet and wiped off his hands and knees with the rag he had brought with him. The Shistavanen mechanic carefully reattached the last few casings that protected the console he had repaired before putting his supplies back in the toolbox by his feet. Once the console was fixed and returned to its former state, Fetcher picked up the box with a loud sigh and placed the rag over his shoulder. He passed by his captain and headed for the same elevator she had pointed at earlier.

“Captain,” Fetcher said. “I don’t have a problem with you or your crew–except Manda–but you need to be a bit less blunt. My past is my own business, as is yours. I would appreciate it if we did not go digging around and bringing back spectral memories.”

Ralina nodded quietly, not responding to her pilot’s request. She knew he was right, and she agreed with him, so for now, she would let him be. Once Fetcher had her reply, he headed into the ship’s elevator. Hitting the button to descend to the lower level, Fetcher watched the elevator door close with a groan and slam before the elevator actually started to move. The elevator ride itself was rather short, so Fetcher allowed the door to pull itself open and reveal the lower deck before he moved on. The exhausted repairman dropped the box of tools and the rag accompanying it into the janitorial closet across the halls from the barracks. Once his supplies were safely replaced, Fetcher struggled back into his room, where he collapsed into his cot and fell into a deep slumber.

*** ***

Ralina marched from her quarters to the mechanized door on the other side of the short hallway. The captain was already equipped in the crew’s newest set of armor, purchased and upgraded by Fetcher. Her helmet contained a single slit that served as a transparisteel visor, which covered her face and most of her hair. She had light durasteel combat armor over the skintight bodysuit her crew had primarily used before, darkly colored for reconnaissance. She had a vibroblade attached to the belt across her waist, and three blaster pistols calmly rocked back and forth alongside them. In addition to her smaller weapons, the captain was equipped with an upgraded, high-caliber combat rifle across her back that was designed to do significant damage to organic targets. Her armor contrasted with her normal garb, and she certainly appeared to be a veteran combatant now.

The captain ignored the rapping noise of her armored boots against the red-colored floorboards of the Hound’s Sapphire, despite the fact that she absolutely hated the noise. She would usually find herself infuriated with the click-clack of her feet, but her mind was elsewhere. Ever since Ralina had lost Halendot onboard the Luminous Daybreak, the captain of the smugglers had become preoccupied with finding ways to protect the rest of her crew. The upgrades to their armor were only the first of many precautions Ralina took to protect her crew. Updated shielding, new weapons, and new plans of attack were all involved in the captain’s overzealous preparation for each mission.

Finally reaching the room at the far end of the hall–the room that would have been Halendot’s–Ralina stopped before the door and removed her helmet. The captain hovered her face in front of the keypad, completing the retinal scan necessary to unlock the room. The door itself opened with a loud swishing noise on Ralina’s command, revealing the inside of the room. Stepping inside, Ralina placed her hand on one of the pistols on her belt. She cautiously took a few more steps inside the room itself before flipping the switch that powered the interior glowpanels. As soon as the pale, blue lights illuminated the room, she saw him.

He was sitting in the farthest corner of the room, as he did every time she had come to visit him for the past year. His blond hair was long–nearly as long as hers–and it could only be described as a disaster. He had the skin of a phantom; he was malnourished and his bones were visible in several places, including his sharp cheekbones, which almost pierced through the fine skin that pressed against it. His nose was small, almost compressed, and gave him a crafty appearance. He wore white clothes that had become sodden with sweat and tattered around the edges, contrasting his cyan eyes.

This man was Tserne DeLarane, the same assassin that they had seen on the Luminous Daybreak. Although he had once served as a mercenary for the Sith Empire, Ralina and her crew had captured the hapless sellsword and imprisoned him in their own ship. Her initial methods of interrogation proved useless against him, and he was unwilling to divulge any information to the captain. Assured that he was useless to them, Ralina contacted the Bounty Hunters’ Guild and tried to receive a ransom for him. However, the guild insisted they had never heard of him, and no such bounty hunter had ever worked for them.

After she had received that revelation, Ralina nearly killed him, but Tserne admitted that he knew of a treasure that could make the captain and her smuggling crew richer than kings. Intrigued, Ralina kept him alive, although the captain had found that his cooperation was severely lacking.

“Welcome back,” the individual whispered hoarsely. He noticed that Ralina had her hand by her blaster. “When will you learn that I’m not going to hurt you?”

“When I trust you. Show me your hands,” snapped the captain.

The captive did as he was told, extending his hands so that Ralina could see them both. Pulling out a pair of binders, the captain restrained the individual’s wrists, preventing him from lashing out or trying to attack without warning. Once he was securely shackled, the individual returned his hands to his lap, twiddling his thumbs absent-mindedly.

“Where did we finish last time, Tserne?” Ralina interrogated her prisoner.

“I had told you about my exploits on Zeltros. On the orders of a certain Preux character, I killed three politicians. It was quite fun, too,” Tserne noted dryly.

“I recall,” Ralina said gruffly. “You also mentioned a ship…?”

“Did I? My memory is a bit foggy,” Tserne said in a fey manner. “Perhaps you should help me remember.”

Ralina frowned as a devious smile spread across the former assassin’s face. She whipped out the pistol from her belt and slammed it against the captive’s face. She managed to give him a slight cut on the cheek, although the impact of the weapon should have been enough to knock him unconscious. Sadly for her, Tserne remained vigiliant–if slightly dazed–even though the weapon had almost shattered his comparatively fragile cheekbone. The wounded prisoner wiped the blood away from his lips onto his already-stained sleeve.

“Did that jog your memory, Tserne DeLarane?” Ralina asked. “Just tell me what’s onboard the Convict’s Dawn,” Ralina snapped.

“My darling, I’m afraid I just don’t know. You and I both know that my memories prior to my assassination mission on Zeltros are foggy–and that’s putting it lightly. You mentioned that someone told you of the Convict’s Dawn; I said I recognized the name. That’s it,” Tserne explained in a dry voice.

Ralina scowled. She did not believe that Tserne was being truthful, and he seemed too manipulative for his own good. Since he had met–and been captured by–the crew of the Hound’s Sapphire a year before, he had slowly revealed his past to her, claiming that he had amnesia. The captain scoffed at the idea and assumed he was just being unnecessary difficult. Even so, Ralina decided that they were not going to wait forever to strike it rich. The smugglers had been working for the same quasi-Jedi employer that had sent them to the Luminous Daybreak, and he had gotten them into increasingly dangerous run-ins with the Sith Empire. Ralina realized that these missions were becoming too threatening for her crew. She decided that after her next mission, she would politely stop working for the current employer.

Their next mission would involve raiding a ship known as the Convict’s Dawn, a rather outdated transport vessel that was apparently headed toward Korriban. She did not know what the ship was doing on its way to the Sith capital, but she knew that the vessel had dropped off the scanners several years ago. Contacting some underworld types and doing some background research yielded fruit; the Convict’s Dawn had disappeared in the Orus sector in the galaxy’s Mid Rim. When Ralina had off-handedly mentioned the ship to her captive, Tserne expressed a degree of familiarity with the vessel. However, when she pressed the issue, he would deny knowledge of his former claim.

“I don’t believe you,” Ralina finally said. “So you’re going to help me and my crew investigate the ship once we arrive.”

“But why me? Aren’t you worried that I’ll betray you or the rest of your crew?” Tserne asked. Ralina flinched slightly as his voice took an unexpected–and unprecedented–threatening tone. “I killed one of them already.”

The captain glowered. “That’s a chance I’ll have to take. Besides, you’re going to accompany me. Not my crew. So if you want to kill anyone, you’d have to kill me,” Ralina explained.

“Pity,” muttered Tserne.

Ralina’s comlink crackled and buzzed. Surprised, the captain withdrew her comlink from her helmet, still sitting near the wall, and activated it. “Hello? This is Captain Venli.”

“Captain, we’re approaching the Convict’s Dawn. Shouldn’t you be up here, giving us orders?” Manda’s perky voice asked.

“Copy. I’ll be up there momentarily. Ralina out,” she responded. Switching off her comlink and returning it to its resting place, Ralina put her helmet back on. She turned toward her captive and motioned for him to stand. When he refused, she gave him a swift kick to the shins. “Let’s go. It’s time for you to get some exercise.”

“You’ll regret this, I’m sure,” Tserne noted in a flat tone.

Ralina put her blaster pistol away for a brief moment and used both of her hands to undo Tserne’s cuffs. “If you do anything stupid, I’m sure I’ll kill you first,” she said, mocking his nonchalant voice.

Opening the door to Halendot’s room, Ralina directed the prisoner to go first. The prisoner complied drearily, walking by the captain with a trudge in his step. Once he had left the room and set foot in the halls of the Lethisk freighter, Tserne waited patiently for Ralina to lock up the room. The captain swiftly closed the door behind her and ordered the former assassin to march toward the bridge. During their slow struggle to their destination, Ralina kept her pistol pointed at Tserne’s back while the captive struggled to walk faster than his dutiful captor. After a brief walk, the two reached the bridge. The crew was visibly alarmed when Tserene emerged from the darkness of the halls, and they were even more surprised when Ralina walked out from behind him.

“Captain… is that… the prisoner?” Delvin asked, distracted from cleaning his combat rifle.

Ralina nodded. “Yeah. Everyone, this is Tserne DeLarane, the same individual we met on the Luminous Daybreak-”

“And killed Halendot. You know, before he tried to kill us,” Manda interjected. Her voice contained a confusing combination of fear and loathing.

The eyes of Ralina’s crew were focused on the assassin. They were right to be dubious of his loyalty. He had killed Halendot. He had threatened to kill them. If Ralina was not there, it was likely each of them would have tried to kill Tserne themselves. Their reaction, however much Ralina frowned upon it, was entirely logical and suspected.

“Listen. He’s going to help us steal goods from the Convict’s Dawn. That way, he can prove his loyalty to us, and you can see that he is not a threat,” Ralina remarked.

“To you,” Tserne corrected her.

“Captain! You must be joking,” Manda pleaded. “He will kill us all!”

“We don’t know that, Manda,” Ralina countered.

“He’s a killer and a heartless brute! Trusting him is a mistake!”

“Even so, that’s my decision and not yours.”

Fetcher spoke up this time, interrupting Manda. “Would you like to see our target’s layout, Captain?”

“Yes. Thank you,” Ralina said, turning her attention from Manda.

As the Shistavanen shifted from his seat at the pilot’s desk toward the overhead projector, Ralina’s heart panged against her chest. Halendot had once been responsible for minor jobs like target ship layout and preparation for their missions. Even thinking about Halendot brought old wounds crawling back to the surface, and Ralina was forced to repress the dark memories surrounding his death. Tserne’s treasure better be worth it, she thought.

Jon spoke up once Fetcher had placed a device inside the holographic overhead, revealing a massive cut-away of a freighter-sized vessel. “The Convict’s Dawn is a K16 Cinnagar-class armored transport. Our employer suggested that the items we are looking for are located in the crew’s quarters on the ship’s portside, near the vessel’s aft.

“We were told to destroy the ship after we acquire what we need,” Ralina noted. “Our boss said he can’t risk the Sith claiming the ship. Does the vessel have a self-destruct sequence, Jon?”

“I believe so, Captain,” Jon answered. “If the vessel is a standard K16 transport, then its core can be rigged to produce the necessary explosion.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Ralina said. She had already begun organizing the plan in her head, thinking of potential groupings and contingency plans. “Fetcher, you’ll head to the ship’s bridge and monitor traffic. We have to keep the Sith from catching us by surprise, should they arrive. Manda and Cortes, you will both go to the ship’s core. I’ll steal the supplies we need.”

“I hope that plan is confirmed, Captain,” Jon interrupted. “We’re closing in on the Convict’s Dawn. Note: it appears to be a derelict. No life signs are aboard, shielding is down, and the engines were leaking radiation for some time, only ceasing sometime after the fuel was exhausted. Please be careful.”

“Of course, Jon,” she said. She turned to Fetcher. “Bring the ship in close, Fetcher. Conjoin our hangar with theirs. Let’s get started.”

Chapter 16

Ralina and Tserne left the Hound’s Sapphire exactly five minutes after everyone else had departed. Fetcher had gone first, and he had confirmed that there were no hostiles–or other life signs–on board the derelict. Although Manda had spotted some droids upon arrival, Delvin had assured her that they were disabled and out of commission, quelling her fears. Manda had become paranoid and was reluctant to enter firefights since their mission on the Luminous Daybreak. Ralina noticed how her experience with Tserne had affected her. After this mission, Ralina would allow her to remain on the ship while she and the rest of the crew handled the dirty work.

The captain allowed Tserne to walk in front of her–she could not trust him to watch her back–and made sure he was unarmed. It was cruel, and he could have been killed, but Ralina still did not trust the whimsical assassin, and she was worried that he could be plotting against her crew. There was a good possibility he was in league with her employer, but at this point, Ralina had no evidence. Only her gut kept the idea in her mind.

After they had left the spacious, abandoned hangars, Ralina and Tserne began their silent trek through the equally vacated halls. The ship’s interior was damaged and scarred with damage, caused by firefights and other weapon-based damage. Much of the paint had long since faded away, leaving the dull, gray-black metal undercoating. The alarm system on the ship was malfunctioning, still trying to warn its dead crew of a long-absent danger, even though there was no sound. Instead, the alarms caused the walls and surrounding area of the ship’s interior to flash between varying shades of red and darker red.

The constant flashes of color began to drive Ralina insane, and she almost shouted for joy when the pair reached the barracks, where the alarms were not functioning at all. The barracks were simplistic and seemed to have taken less damage than the rest of the ship. A single, long hallway–lined with several locked doors on either side of the wall–stretched up and down the aft of the ship for several meters. At Ralina’s end of the hall, there was a garbage chute, and at the opposite end there was a metal grating large enough for Ralina to enter.

“Our employer mentioned that the goods we need are in room seven,” Ralina noted, glancing at her chrono and mission logs.

Tserne mumbled to himself before returning his attention to the captain and her comment. “Enlightening,” he said, clearly sarcastic. “Just get the stuff, wherever it is, so we can leave.”

Ralina ignored her captive’s commentary. She could not afford to reprimand him every time he said something idiotic or morose. Approaching the seventh door in the hall, she realized that this durasteel door seemed to have been locked by a thumbprint scanner instead of a traditional, keycard lock. The captain hit it with her fist, despite protests from Tserne, hoping that it–like everything else on the ship–was broken. Once she removed her hand, a clicking noise was heard from the ceiling above, and a low screech emerged from the grate across the hall. Tserne took action immediately, tackling the captain and sending them both to the floor as several blaster shots shot flew through the air where Ralina’s torso had been seconds before.

A massive tank-like droid emerged from the grating that had been destroyed by its blaster. It had six durasteel legs that looked like metal pillars attached to a large, missile-shaped chassis. Armed with a powerful primary cannon amidst several smaller rocket launchers, it was clearly meant to guard the barracks from unnecessary intrusion. The droid lumbered toward the pair while its main weapon recharged from its first set of attacks.

“I believe you owe me, Captain,” Tserne purred triumphantly.

“Get off me!” snapped the captain before shoving him off of her in a single throw. “Freak. Now deal with that droid!”

“Me?” Tserne mumbled, barely recovering his footing. “I think I enjoyed my cell better.”

The droid let out a low moan and charged at the pair; however, its attempt to plow through the two invaders was halted as it approached Tserne.

“Retinal scan: match. Facial recognition: identified,” its electronic voice stated.

“What’s going on, Tserne? Why isn’t it attacking you?” asked Ralina.

“I’m about as confused as you are, darling,” Tserne admitted. “Maybe it has me confused with someone else?”

“Whatever,” the captain sighed, annoyed. “Get that thing into the chute over here so we can get rid of it.”

“Fine. I’d like to keep it, though…” Tserne grumbled before returning his attention to the droid. “Droid… machine… thing. Follow me to the garbage chute by the corner.”

“Voice recognition: certified. Carrying out command,” the droid’s shrill voice whined.

The defense droid slowly stalked Tserne, following the former assassin to the shaft near Ralina. The captain waited for the machine to carelessly enter the garbage disposal room, and once it was inside, Ralina hammered the wall panel nearby. The airlock sealed shut, separating Tserne and the droid, before the room itself was jettisoned into the vacuum of space with the droid inside of it.

“I should have let you go inside with it,” Ralina spat. “You useless idiot.”

“Too bad.” Tserne shrugged. “Lost your chance to be rid of me, I suppose.”

Ralina sighed hopelessly, not knowing what to do with her difficult captive. While she was still contemplating their next action, Tserne approached the thumbprint lock–despite protests from Ralina–and was about to apply his thumb before he suddenly stopped.

“What’s wrong?” the captain asked, still irritated.

“There’s a hull breach beyond this door. It disabled the artificial gravity and life support. Can your suit survive in those conditions?” Tserne asked.

“Sure. But how did you know that?”

“Intuition,” Tserne said, avoiding the actual question.

Ralina attached the plastic tubes from her helmet to the oxygen canister on her back and closed off her helmet, keeping her entire body safe from being exposed to the inherent pressures of vacuum. At Ralina’s confirmation, Tserne opened the door with his thumbprint, and the first door opened, allowing Ralina to step inside without exposing Tserne to the vacuum. Once she was inside, the captive closed the door behind her, which automatically opened up the second door, allowing to captain to enter the room proper.

Floating a few centimeters above the ground, Ralina attempted to get a feeling for her surroundings. Room seven was silent–the emptiness of space tended to do that–but the captain enjoyed the absence of sound. It was actually relaxing for her. The room’s walls had been punctured in several places, and the protective shielding around the hull had long since faded, exposing the room to the harsh environment of deep space. Several dismembered skeletons floated about in the weightlessness of the room, unnerving the usually reserved captain. Glancing about, she finally spotted the footlocker where the goods she was supposed to steal were located.

The captain got to work, prying and picking at the storage device’s outdated lock with the pick she had brought with her. When her generic lock picking skills failed her, Ralina pulled a security spike from her belt and applied it to the lock. After several turns and failed attempts later, the crate opened, revealing its contents–a plethora of Jedi and Sith holocrons.

Ralina used the ornate cloth located at the base of the footlocker to collect all the holocrons before they floated off into space–a treasure trove of knowledge and power collected in a makeshift bag. Once all the storage devices had been acquired, Ralina floated back to the door that separated room seven from the rest of the ship. Rapping on it several times in the stillness of space, she waited for Tserne to feel the vibrations and open the door. As soon as Ralina left the cryptic room behind, the captain noticed that Tserne looked even paler than usual. Before she could ask him about it, she was interrupted by the crackling of static from her comlink.

“Captain? Captain? Ralina Venli, are you there?” Fetcher asked. Ralina could tell that the Shistavanen was agitated by something.

“I’m here, Fetcher, what’s wrong?”

“Where were you, Captain?” Fetcher asked. “We lost contact, and… well, forget it. Anyway, we have a Sith Interdictor coming in, alongside a small corvette and several waves of Sith fighters. They’re headed right for us.”

“Set the detonation of the core to five minutes!” Ralina shouted back. “We can’t let them steal anything from this ship. Tell everyone to fall back to the Hound’s Sapphire!”

A confirmatory bark from Fetcher allowed the captain to switch off her comlink. She returned her attention to Tserne, who had regained his previous coloration. He appeared as bored as ever as he leaned against the wall opposite of her, and he did not appear too interested in what was going on elsewhere in the ship.

“Well?” he asked.

“We’re leaving. Follow me,” Ralina ordered.

“Me? Follow you?” Tserne asked. “Are you sure I won’t stab you in the back and-?”

“Shut up and move!” Ralina snapped. She was tired of having to repeat herself. Turning away from the assassin, Ralina stormed away from him and ran back the way they had entered.

Tserne complied with an apathetic sigh. He chased after the sprinting captain to the best of his ability, but he was having trouble keeping up with the captain. Ralina remembered that he had not eaten much lately, surviving on the bread and water she had given him, and he was probably nowhere near as strong as she was. Ralina reluctantly slowed down for the weak compatriot, who was grateful for the concern–even though he did not show it.

The long hallways were as barren as they were when the captain and her guest first traveled through them, and the broken alarms were still flashing throughout the ship. Pulling her blaster rifle off of her back, Ralina prepared herself for any boarding parties the Sith decided to launch.

“Hull breached. Warning: deck three, room six… deck three, room fourteen… deck four, room nine… artificial atmosphere disabled,” the ship’s automated interface announced over the craft’s intercom.

Ralina ignored the warning and continued her advance. A shout from Tserne caused her to slow down, and she turned to see what the prisoner was screaming about. Tserne pointed toward the other end of the hall, where a Sith soldier emerged from one of the rooms further down. Unlike generic Sith troopers, this warrior was wearing coal-black armor, and it was significantly heavier and more imposing than the suit given to standard soldiers. A military-grade carbonite rifle was resting across his back, but that was not what Tserne or Ralina were worried about. They were more worried about the lightsaber in his hand. The two thieves ducked around the corner they had just walked by, escaping the soldier’s line-of-sight.

“That guy has a lightsaber,” Tserne noted.

Ralina almost slapped her head in frustration. “Your clairvoyance is almost matched by your usefulness,” she whispered.

“Thank you. I try,” Tserne retorted.

“Listen. I can’t fight a lightsaber-wielding combatant,” Ralina lamented. “So we’ll have to find another way around.”

“Isn’t this ship going to blow up?” Tserne reminded her. “I think it’d be better for me to handle our new friend. It would save us some time.”

“You? You don’t even have any weapons. You’re incompetent, you’re lazy, and you’re incapable of saying anything remotely optimistic. I could count on a nerf to get more done than you,” Ralina shouted.

“Ah, but like a nerf, I’ve got horns,” Tserne countered.

Ralina stared at him incredulously. “That doesn't even make any sense!”

Tserne sighed loudly. “Do you have a combat knife I could borrow?” he asked, ignoring her comment.

“Yeah,” Ralina said. Pulling the vibroblade from her belt, she handed the weapon to Tserne.

“It’s cortosis-standard grade, right?” Tserne asked, tossing the knife in the air and catching it repeatedly.

“Yeah,” Ralina whispered. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

“Get to the ship,” Tserne said, ignoring her. “I’ll handle the manka over there.”

Before Ralina could respond, Tserne vanished, disappearing into the shadows. Ralina was visibly alarmed; she had not expected her ally to disappear. Cursing loudly, Ralina realized that the Sith trooper had probably heard her; he had started to approach her position with a wide gait. Scanning the hallways leading up to hers, the soldier searched for the source of the noise he had heard. Worried that the soldier would attack before Tserne acted–if he acted at all–Ralina jumped out from behind the wall she was hiding behind and opened fire on the dark-clad Sith soldier with her blaster rifle. Although the first few shots managed to hit her opponent’s armor directly, the powerful shielding on his suit negated any damage that her attack might have done. The Sith trooper charged forward, deflecting any further attempts to shoot him down with his ignited lightsaber, and approached the captain at an alarming speed. She subconsciously reached for her vibroblade in self-defense, only to realize that she had given into to Tserne.

Cursing her ill fate, Ralina tried to use her blaster rifle as a melee weapon to block her foe’s lightsaber. The soldier’s red-bladed weapon easily broke the rifle in two, but before he could strike at Ralina, the captain noticed that a small piece of vibrating metal had torn through his left arm, hindering his attack. Once the Sith soldier’s weapon arm was disabled, Tsrene grappled him from behind, clasping his neck with one arm and his weapon arm with the other. Now that the Sith trooper was immobile and helpless, Ralina took advantage of her ally’s assistance and shattered the soldier’s visor–and crushing his nostrils–with the remains of her blaster rifle. The soldier cried out in pain and toppled over between the two smugglers.

“Told you I could help,” Tserne said proudly.

“Thank you,” Ralina said. She was still surprised that he had helped, so it was not totally sincere. “This ship’s going to explode. Let’s go.”

The two ran from the corpse of the Sith vanguard and continued in their trek toward Ralina’s ship. After bypassing three more short hallways, the pair reached the empty hangar; metallic casings and fusion coils that were dangling from the roof were already falling to the floor, causing extensive damage. Ralina entered the Hound’s Sapphire first, and her squadmate followed suit right behind her. Once the two were safely inside, Tserne sat against the wall–exhausted and unwilling to move–while the captain ran toward the bridge. The crew was already waiting for her, and they were surprised to see that Tserne was not with her.

“Did the assassin survive?” Manda asked, with a hint of optimism and hope in her voice.

“I’m afraid so,” Ralina said. She almost felt bad confirming Manda’s fears, and the Devaronian’s face became crestfallen and dark when she received the news. The captain would talk with her later. For now, they needed to get away from this ship. “Fetcher! The Convict’s Dawn is going to cause more damage than that Corellian senator’s affair. Get us out of here.”

Fetcher complied with silent obedience. He and Jon activated the ship’s engines and pulled the freighter’s hangar away from the Convict’s Dawn. By the time Fetcher had pulled their vessel away, the Convict’s Dawn was already quaking and falling apart on itself in preparation for its inevitable, silent destruction. The Hound’s Sapphire glided away from the doomed derelict seconds before the vessel was engulfed in a raging plume of smoke and multicolored flames. The shields of Ralina’s vessel took the brunt of the impact, although some of the flames managed to puncture the primary shielding and scar their hull.

After the ship had exploded, Ralina glanced at the tactical readout on the arm of her chair. She swore quietly as she noticed that the Sith Interdictor, screened by several dozen starfighters, was rapidly gaining speed and approaching their position. The Sith vessel was close enough to fire its forward turbolasers, but for whatever reason, it did not.

“Captain,” Jon said. “The Sith Interdictor, which my ship library has identified as the Leviathan itself, is employing its gravity well generators to prevent us from leaving the system via hyperspace.

The Sith Interdictor cruisers were well known for their gravity wells, capable of pulling ships out of hyperspace or preventing them from fleeing by utilizing vast fields of gravity to hinder hyperspace flight. Although it was fairly new technology and the devices currently in use had a range that left much to be desired, Ralina sadly acknowledged that the Sith were already putting it to good use.

“If the Leviathan is here,” Tserne said, walking onto the bridge, “that’s the least of our problems. The Behemoth will be here soon. And then none of us will survive.”

“The Behemoth?” Delvin asked. “You mean Darth Revan’s flagship? I had presumed that his vessel was destroyed when Darth Malak killed his master.”

“Yeah,” Manda snapped. “Keep up with galactic events, please, reverend apocalypse.”

Ralina ignored the bickering that was taking place between her crew. They were always arguing about something. She turned her attention to the ship’s AI. “Jon, how far from the Leviathan do we have to be to escape its hyperspace-interception range?”

“Several hundred kilometers,” Jon surmised. “I doubt they will let us get that far. The ship itself is faster than our own, and it would appear that they are interested in capturing–as opposed to destroying–us, considering they have not fired upon us yet.”

“Why do you think that is?” Fetcher asked.

“Unknown,” Jon said plainly. “However, that seems to be irrelevant and trivial information at this point. They have sent a wing of starfighters to pursue us. They will be making their first run in 5… 4… 3…”

Ralina’s eyes widened. “Divert all power to rear shields! Brace for impact.”

The crew steeled themselves for the Sith wing’s first strike, but they were surprised when no attack occurred. No laser shots were registered on Manda’s scanners, and no approaching starfighters were seen on Ralina’s readouts. Instead, the ship shook very slightly, and a single Sith starfighter was seen racing across the primary viewport–it appeared to be fleeing from something–before it was struck by a blast of green energy, ripping through the rear engines of the starfighter and destroying it entirely.

“Hostile wing… destroyed?” Manda announced, much to her confusion. “We’ve got multiple unknown contacts. They appeared to have destroyed the Sith fighters that were approaching us and are now engaging the Sith forces. Four more vessels of unknown allegiance just jumped out of hyperspace. They are situating themselves between us and the Sith dreadnought.”

“Who are they?” Ralina asked, finally recovering her bearings.

“I’m unsure. Visuals point toward Republic ships, but Jon’s database doesn’t have any records on their identification codes,” Manda explained. She paused for a moment and reached for her earpiece. Turning her chair, she faced the captain before continuing, “They’re hailing us. Should I patch them through, Captain?”

“Go ahead,” Ralina said.

The transmission–which was audio only–crackled and hummed momentarily. Eventually, the pseudo-static cleared and a male’s voice was heard on the other side, giving orders to the crew on his bridge. Ralina waited for a moment until their contact realized his comlink was on, and acknowledged them. “This is the cruiser Sagacity. We’re the head of the Jedi strike force here. Are you Captain Ralina Venli?”

“I am.”

“Let us distract the Sith. During the meantime, you must escape and flee to Dantooine. Our master will meet you there,” the voice commanded.

Ralina considered on the voice’s instructions. Even though the Jedi had brought several wings of starfighters and four cruisers, Ralina knew they were no match against the power of a Sith Interdictor. The Sith dreadnoughts could match Republic Hammerheads head-to-head in most cases, and best them in others. She was eager to accept the Jedi’s invitation to retreat–their deaths were meaningless to her–even though she knew that they were sacrificing their lives to save five smugglers.

You do realize that you are dealing with the Sith’s flagship; you won’t survive,” she finally said.

“That may be,” the commander of the Sagacity replied. “But the Force wills it. I go to die for a noble cause, one that transcends my personal welfare and that of my crew. We cannot allow your cargo to fall into the hands of the Sith. Now go!”

“Very well. Hound’s Sapphire out,” the captain said and motioned for Manda to cut off the signal. Pulling off her helmet, Ralina allowed her hair to spill out across her tan face and armored shoulders before cupping her sweaty head in her gloved hands. “Get us out of here,” she added.

“Will do,” Fetcher said. “We’re almost out of the Sith’s interdiction range. Any particular target?”

“Dantooine,” Ralina responded wearily. “We’re going to Dantooine.”

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