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Chapter 3

One Year Prior

Storm clouds loomed on the horizon as Raen Benax lingered atop one of the great hills that towered over the eastern plains of Alderaan. Standing under a withered pine tree, the seventeen-year-old was protected from the rain by using the aged tree as cover. This protected his black and gray robes and brown overcoat from getting soaked by the torrential rainfall that encompassed the entire region. His dark brown hair was very neatly cut, and he had no facial hair covering his lightly tanned, emotionless face.

Despite the fact that he was in a meditative trance, his body was still rigid and uneasy. As small droplets of water escaped the canopy of leaves overhead and landed near him, his body would flinch and his muscles would tense. It was clear that something was worrying the young Force-sensitive, but even he could not figure out exactly what it was. Perhaps it was the rain. He had never quite liked the rain.

“Raen! Raen Benax!” a high-pitched voice called out to the young adult, freeing him from his trance.

“Here I am!” Raen’s own gruff voice called back.

Turning his head slightly to the left, Raen spotted the source of the voice. A Kajain’sa’Nikto–the red-skinned variant of the Nikto species–was quickly running toward him, his heavily modified armor and hairless, almost scale-like skin becoming drenched in the heavy rain. The Nikto’s leathery skin was accentuated in the rain, and his normally red-orange skin was now a dark crimson. He possessed a full suit of white Sith armor, sans the helmet itself. Regardless, Raen took little note of any of these things. He was more focused on the Nikto’s lightsaber–the weapon of the Sith–that was resting on the alien’s belt.

“Raen, what are you doing out here?” the Nikto asked once he had found his way under the tree where Raen was standing. “You’re supposed to be inside the academy. You have a lightsaber sparring exercise in fifteen minutes!”

“What makes you think I care about some stupid practice?” Raen shot back. His voice reveled in apathy.

The Nikto’s face twisted, and he began to fume. Such disrespect from a pupil was not something De'dlay appreciated, and it certainly was not proper. “You should care, Raen. Now go to the academy, or I shall report your attitude to your father!”

“And I should care about my father… why?” Raen questioned, his voice betraying no emotion.

“Don’t get smart, boy. Return to the academy, or you shall be permanently stripped of your rank. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want to disgrace your entire family, would you?” the rage in the Nikto’s voice had quickly shifted into a self-gratifying form of mockery.

Raen stood, not bothering to respond to the Nikto’s instructions. When the Nikto repeated his demands verbatim, the impudent teenaged boy finally responded: “Very well, Master De’dlay. I shall be sure to make my way to the academy.”

“Good,” De’dlay said, grinning. Turning his back to Raen, the Nikto left the shelter of the dying tree and entered the rain yet again.

Raen followed suit apathetically, walking behind the Nikto Sith Master back to the academy. Although De’dlay had no assurance that the Human was following him, Raen was always about twenty paces behind him, trailing the Sith Master like a scolded hound. Eventually, the pair reached the archaic temple that served as De’dlay’s home and Raen’s center of learning. The temple itself was at least two hundred years old; it had housed the Jedi and served as one of their institutions until very recently. Its design, replete with sturdy pillars and several stacked levels, mimicked the great castles that were still erected throughout the Mid Rim, although it was falling into disrepair as the golden-brown bronzium and the outdated concrete bricks began to give way to the elements.

Once De’dlay wandered off and went about his own business, Raen made his way to his quarters, mumbling to himself and cursing De’dlay the entire way. His master was far too pompous, too controlling, and Raen hated it. As he was about to enter his chambers, the Sith acolyte was stopped when he felt a tug on the left sleeve of his Sith robes. Stopping mid-stride, Raen turned and identified the source of the disturbance: a girl clothed in Sith acolyte robes, very similar to his own. However, her appearance was almost the exact opposite of his. The young girl, who was about two years Raen’s junior, had long, flowing golden hair, faint hazel eyes, and fair skin that lacked the scars that Raen had acquired from sparring with other Sith hopefuls.

“Who are you?” Raen asked.

“Dynatha,” the girl responded with a hint of pride in her voice. “Dynatha Aris.”

“And what do you want?” Raen questioned plainly.

“I… well… I am one of Mistress Calay’s students.” Her voice had lost any remnant of pride it might have had. “Perhaps you know her, no, you must know of her. I was recently given in training to my master. You’re admired by the teachers and the students, you know. They say you’re just like your brother…”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Raen interrupted.

The girl became flustered and her face reddened. “I… I’m sorry. What I meant to say, or what I meant to ask, was how you got so skilled. The teachers say you’re a prodigy. The students say you’re a legend in the making. Why?”

“I can’t help it if I’m more gifted than the other students,” Raen explained. “I can’t help it if the teachers are jealous of me. If they want to punish me and scold me because of their inferior abilities, it can’t be helped.”

He almost began to ramble, but then realized this wasn’t the time or the place to complain about his status in the academy.

“Yes. I suppose. What I really wanted to know, though, was if you could help me learn how to use a lightsaber?” Dynatha asked, her voice now sheepish and barely audible. “You’ve been here for so long; it would be… an honor… to learn from someone like you.”

Raen stared into Dynatha’s eyes, meeting hers in a ferocious glare. “I don’t think so; I’m not running a charity. Get lost.”

Dynatha bit her lip, and Raen could tell she was on the verge of an emotional breakdown. “I… I understand,” she uttered. “I’ll leave you alone then. Good bye, Raen.”

She had barely finished speaking when she turned around and sprinted away from the indifferent Sith acolyte. Although Raen thought he had heard her sob, he ignored it. Whining imbeciles, Raen thought. Ragnos forbid she ever become a Sith. Hopefully she’ll be struck down during training and that will be the end of it.

Although he had promised his master that he would attend his lightsaber class, Raen decided to go back on his word. He had no reason to stay here; in his opinion, his studies were done for the day. Entering his chambers and grabbing his knapsack, Raen gathered up his supplies. Raen threw a glowrod, several spare clothes–his uniform would obviously get drenched in the rain–and a vibroblade into his bag before leaving his cabin and locking the door behind him. The hallways that he was forced to traverse were adorned with midnight-black paint and the walls were inscribed with ancient Sith runes–incantations for ancient Sith spells. Although there were many Sith acolytes in the halls around the academy, each of the pupils moved out of the way when Raen passed them by, fearing the consequences of igniting his wrath.

It was not long before Raen reached the exit to the academy. Once he passed through the door and made his way to the rain-stricken outside, Raen headed for the nearest road, an old dirt pathway that was only navigated by tourists and commuter buses, and waited for the next tram. Heading onboard the elongated craft, Raen found that the exterior was misleading. The vehicle itself was cramped and not very spacious, and lacked any sort of air condition unit, causing the tram’s interior to be unusually humid. Taking a seat by a sleeping Gran, Raen waited for the tram to make its regularly scheduled stop at the eastern spaceport of Alderaan.

*** ***

“Now arriving at: Eastern Alderaanian Spaceport,” the commuter tram’s automated voice called out.

Raen departed from the uncomfortable tram and made his way through the sparsely populated courtyard that encompassed the spaceport. The roomy interior of the spaceport was a relief to Raen; he always hated the confined trams that he had to ride every day, so he came to the spaceport to escape his troubles. Raen passed by the small shops, hangars, and tourist attractions and made a beeline for the Dying Bantha cantina, a common hangout place for spacers, lowlifes, and social failures. Whether Raen actually fit into any of the aforementioned categories or not, he didn’t care. He just needed a place to relax after spending seven hours in the Sith academy.

Raen avoided making eye contact with the burly Trandoshan bouncer as he entered the cantina. Although Raen figured he could easily take down the muscular lizard-like bodyguard, he didn’t want to risk getting kicked out of the bar. Taking a seat by the counter, Raen sat quietly and waited for one of the bartender’s aides, a female Twi’lek several years older than Raen, to come to him.

“Hello, hun’. What will you be having?” she asked, stroking one of the green-pigmented lekkus that dangled from the back of her head.

Raen gave the most cordial smile he could muster. “The strongest local brew you’ve got. I’ve had a long day.”

The Twi’lek barmaid grabbed a glass from underneath the counter and set it before Raen before walking toward the storage room to fetch more Alderaanian ale. “Are you sure you’ll be wanting that? You look a bit young to be drinking.”

“I’ll be fine. Just do as your told and fetch my drink,” Raen called back, his tone harsh and his words terse.

“Right, right. Whatever you say, darlin’. No need to get so snappy,” the barmaid responded coolly.

While he waited for his drink, Raen passed the time by practicing with his Force powers. Removing a small, black pouch from his leather necklace, Raen poured out a plethora of minute clay ornaments adored with Sith writing. Calling upon the Force, Raen bent its power to his will and began to telepathically lift the small objects, fueling his invisible fingers with pure rage. While the objects performed a mesmerizing dance around the Sith acolyte, they began to glow an eerie blue-gray light; as they spun around Raen, the tiny clay objects could have easily been confused for looming spirits–dark specters that threatened to engulf the hopeless Sith student.

The Twi’lek barmaid took a large flask of Alderaanian ale and poured the golden liquid that lingered inside into Raen’s clear glass. She avoided speaking to Raen, fearing the spinning objects that had surrounded him, and made her way across the counter to assist other patrons. Raen slowly allowed himself to be pulled out of the trance, guiding each spinning ornament back to its position inside the cloth pouch with his mind. However, upon placing the last of these objects in their initial resting place, Raen scowled when he realized that his glass was empty.

“Why did you steal my drink, G’aull?” Raen asked upon sensing his friend’s presence.

Raen turned from the counter and faced the Iridorian, a being suited head-to-toe in heavy green-colored combat armor. The breathing apparatus that was attached from his gas tank on his back to his helmet–which contained a large, oblong visor that shrouded his face–caused the Sith acolyte to assume that he needed to breathe filtered gases to survive. G’aull was still holding his artificial digestion tube in his hand: it was a long, plastic tube attached to the side of his armor that the Iridorian could insert food or beverages into so he could receive nourishment in an oxygen-rich environment.

“It was a good drink, Raen-os. I needed something to calm my nerves; that ale did the job very well!” G’aull’s booming voice replied to Raen–complete with honorific–with a tone of joviality.

“You piece of trash,” Raen muttered.

“Now, now. Is that any way to talk to a friend? How about I make up for it with a quick pazaak match? If you win, you can keep all the credits and it will make up for your drink. How about it?” the Iridorian insisted.

“Not interested.”

G’aull sighed. Staggering toward the stool beside Raen, the Iridorian lumbered into the seat and allowed his arms to sprawl over the countertop. “You know that the Sith have hired my clan to serve on Sluis Van,” G’aull said suddenly.

“I didn’t,” Raen said plainly, although his voice was laced in shock.

“I came here because I wanted to chat with you before I set off. I depart in a week,” G’aull explained. “The Sith are finding themselves undermanned throughout the Frontier. They’ve been recruiting Iridorian mercenaries to assist in the war effort.”

“So, your whole clan will be there?”

“Yes.”

“I see,” Raen mused. “Well, don’t let me keep you, G’aull. You’re a good warrior. You’ll make it back. I know it.”

“Thanks, Raen-os. From you, that means a lot,” G’aull replied, albeit sarcastically. “I guess I’ll be heading out then; it’s obvious you don’t want to talk to me. I’ll be seeing you around, Raen Benax.”

G’aull stood up as quickly as he had sat down and made his way for the door. Raen meditated on G’aull’s journey to come as the Iridorian walked away. If he went to Sluis Van, Raen knew the Iridorian would be killed. There were Jedi on Sluis Van; Jedi had become famous for slaughtering entire squads of Iridorians in a single encounter. The Sith, too, weren’t known for their kindness toward the mercenary species. Raen knew that the Sith feared the Iridorian’s battle-inspired bloodlust and sent them into combat as expendable scapegoats.

Raen wanted to convince his friend that there was no way he would return from Sluis Van alive, but he couldn’t muster up the courage to do so. Instead, he meekly muttered ‘may the Force be with you’ as G’aull left the bar and passed by the bouncer. Kicking himself for not speaking up sooner, Raen unhappily stewed in his seat for several minutes before he decided there was no more point in sticking around. Raen gathered up his assortment of belongings and mimicked G’aull’s stride as he exited the Dying Bantha.

“Aren’t you going to pay for this drink?” the Anzati bartender shouted at Raen, clearly irate.

“Sorry,” Raen began, his edgy persona now clearly missing. “Put it on the tab of G’aull Iulis.”

Once he had passed the bouncer, Raen quietly made his way through the damp courtyard, contemplating the discussion he had just had with G’aull. The chilling rain had stopped–for now–and the beauteous, awe-inspiring setting Alderaanian sun was now visible amidst the cloudy skies. His stride was accompanied by the pitter-patter of his leather boots sloshing about in the muddy puddles that had gathered around the courtyard’s grassy floor; the little pools proved quite troublesome for Raen to wade through, and their murky substance quickly stained his boots and trousers.

About halfway across the courtyard, Raen spotted an aged vagrant curled up in a tight ball near the edge of a deep puddle off to the side of the road. His chestnut hair was scraggly and unkempt, and even at a distance Raen could tell that lice inhabited the furry nest atop his head. As the vagabond noticed Raen, he picked himself up from the heap of clothes he had gathered around himself to protect his cold, rough skin from the pelting rain and began to approach the Sith acolyte.

“Please sir,” the homeless man’s voice called out to Raen. “Can’t you spare a few credits? Or perhaps you could you loan your overcoat to me? I am so very cold, sir.”

“Crawl back to your hole, you dog,” Raen snapped. “I’m not here to support you. If you are looking for a free meal, I don’t have one.”

The Sith acolyte attempted to quicken his pace to avoid confrontation with the old beggar, but the vagrant was more desperate than Raen anticipated and forced himself into Raen’s path. Swatting him aside like he would a fly, Raen performed a backhand strike across the homeless man’s cheek, sending him flying out of Raen’s path. Stepping around the wounded vagabond, Raen made his way for the old road to catch another tram.

“Please sir! I need help!” the homeless man whimpered, seizing the Sith student’s left leg.

“Get off me, or you’ll regret it!” shouted Raen, reaching for his vibroblade.

“No! Please! I’m cold, wet, and hungry! Please sir, show some mercy on a poor old man!”

Not willing to stand any more of this foolishness, Raen brandished his vibroblade and brought it upon the old man. As the old man yelped in terror, Raen swung his weapon with precision and ferocity; the blade severed two fingers from the old man’s left hand, and the bloodied digits fell into a murky puddle that had been resting peacefully beside them. Howling in agony and rolling on the ground in despair, the poor man clenched his wounded hand and sobbed bitterly. As he licked his wounds and screamed unintelligible curses at Raen, the Sith acolyte, obviously pleased with himself, sheathed his weapon and made his way toward the dirt road. Hopping in the commuter tram that arrived shortly after he had left the courtyard, Raen did not return his gaze to the old man once.


Chapter 4

Raen didn’t arrive at his father’s exquisite manor until darkness had long since enveloped the sky. Overcast clouds prevented Raen from seeing the Alderaanian sunset, so he had lost track of time. Silently heading off of the commuter tram and into the duracrete courtyard around his father’s manor, Raen hastened his steps and made his way toward the mansion’s colossal doors.

As the Sith acolyte approached the entryway, he barely discerned an unfamiliar figure standing before the doorway. The unknown being stood alone, and Raen assumed he was a threat. Brandishing the vibroblade located at his side, Raen revealed the weapon and dropped his knapsack before rushing at the figure. Thrusting the weapon forward, Raen prepared to slice off the being’s left arm; Raen’s attack failed, however, and his vibroblade was shattered against his opponent’s newly revealed crimson lightsaber. The shady individual used his weaponless hand to grasp Raen’s right arm, preventing him from reaching for any other weapon.

With Raen’s primary arm caught in his opponent’s grip, he used his other hand to merciless jab into the opponent’s armored chest. The punch caused Raen’s enemy to lose his hold on the Sith acolyte’s arm, and Raen used his advantage to call upon the Force. His telekinetic fingers swiped his opponent’s lightsaber out of his hand and caused the weapon to float into Raen’s hands.

“Surrender,” Raen stated. “You’re no match for me.”

“You have much to learn, apprentice,” spat the specter; his voice was abnormally high, especially for an adult. “Know your place!”

“De’dlay?” Raen shouted as his opponent’s identity dawned on him.

But it was too late. No sooner had Raen realized he was fighting his Sith Master did the Nikto warrior launch his attack. De’dlay’s fingers crackled with energy as the Force pulsated through the Sith’s arms. Energy shot out from his digits and arced toward the ill-fated student. Although Raen attempted to defend himself, he simply wasn’t prepared for such an attack, and his body took the brunt of the shock. As the electrical current raced throughout his body, Raen felt his strength leave him, causing him to drop De’dlay’s lightsaber and fall to his knees. A few seconds later, Raen collapsed; his body had become fatigued and he was barely conscious. When De’dlay noticed his student’s situation, he stopped the attack and recovered his weapon.

Kneeling next to his fainting student, De’dlay spoke sternly: “Raen. Are you still with me?”

Raen found himself too tired to confirm his consciousness through words, so he grunted with a distinct lack of emotion.

“Excellent,” said De’dlay. “Do you know why I’m here? No. Of course you don’t. Raen, I have a mission for you and your brother. I could always find someone else to do it, but I thought you and he would enjoy the time to collaborate; you two don’t get to work together too often, do you?”

Raen shook his head to confirm the assumption.

De’dlay smiled toothily. “Raen, if you complete this mission successfully, you will be granted the title of Sith Marauder. You shall be one step closer to becoming a Sith Lord!”

Raen’s face lit up with surprise. The Sith student used his arms–despite how weak he was–to prop himself back on his knees. Although De’dlay offered to help him, Raen refused, unwilling to accept his pity, and forced himself to stand.

“Let’s go talk to Jaeln,” Raen whispered, his voice raspy and tired.

Nodding, De’dlay walked into the Benax mansion as Raen limped after him. While he had seen the vast foyer of his father’s home many times before, his eyes never got used to their beauty. White walls adorned with gold trim surrounded a brown staircase that led to the upper floors of the estate. The Sith acolyte hobbled over to a blue sofa situated in the center of the room, and he rested there while De'dlay went to fetch Jaeln.

Raen relaxed his tired legs and arms on the silken cushions of the large sofa. Something within him told him that it would have been best for him to pass out here, leaving all this talk about missions and promotions behind. However, he also knew that was nonsense. If he was ever going to surpass his brother and De’dlay, he would have to be vigilant. He would have to continue getting stronger. He would have to surpass them. The only way he could do that was by leaving the rank of acolyte behind.

“Raen,” a delicate voice called out from the top of the staircase, “is that you, dear?”

“Yes, mother,” Raen called back, exasperated.

Junara Benax gracefully made her way down the winding staircase–despite how difficult it was in a long dress and high-heeled shoes–and sat down beside her son. Junara dutifully flattened the ruffles that had formed around her dress and used her pale, nimble fingers to straighten the flower that she placed in her light blonde hair; once she thought she looked presentable, she placed a comforting arm around her son. The consolation appalled the young, tired Sith, and he attempted to escape his mother’s reach, to no avail. Every time he moved away, his mother would simply extend her arms or move closer to her disgruntled son.

“What’s the matter, dear? Why are you all fidgety?” Junara asked softly.

“Could you not put your arm around me?” Raen responded, reaching his wit’s end. “It’s annoying.”

Junara gasped, displaying a mock sense of agony. “Oh, Raen! I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean it. If it’s making you uncomfortable, I can stop.” Her voice was overflowing with sarcasm.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Raen replied frankly, ignoring his mother’s mockery.

“Raen, you need to learn to get along with people, like you used to. Your angst is driving us mad," Jaeln spoke from the top of the staircase. Arriving sometime after Junara, he had a bemused expression on his face as he scolded his brother.

Raen turned around in his seat, ignoring his mother for the time being. “I do get along with people! So shut up!” he snapped.

“That’s not what De’dlay told me,” Jaeln retorted.

“That’s enough, you two,” De’dlay growled. “Junara, if you’ll excuse us.”

“Of course, Sith business and all that,” responded Junara. “Don’t let me disturb you.”

Rising from her seat next to Raen, Junara passed De’dlay and Jaeln and walked back up the mahogany staircase. Once she had left, De’dlay pulled up a chair near the couch Raen was seated at, inviting Jaeln to sit down. Once Raen’s brother had taken his seat, De’dlay sat next to Raen on the sofa. The trio of Sith stared at each other in awkward silence for several moments; although each of them knew why they were here, meetings such as these were never easy to begin. After the three had traded puzzled glances for several minutes, De’dlay cleared his throat, forcing the siblings to focus on him.

“As I told you both, I called you here because of a potential mission for the two of you,” De’dlay began. “Sith intelligence has confirmed that the Jedi High Council has sent a Jedi Master to investigate the recent… problems occurring here on Alderaan.”

Of course, De’dlay was referring to the increased influence of the Sith on Alderaan, and Raen knew it. Alderaan was famed for being staunchly pro-Republic and strove to preserve the ideals of the galactic government. From what he had heard, the Sith now controlled the government, economy, and military of Alderaan–in secret, of course–despite opposition from the royal family. Apparently, only now that the Sith almost controlled the whole planet did the Jedi Council see it fit to act.

“So you want us to kill this Jedi Master?” Jaeln asked plainly.

“Yes,” De’dlay responded. “However, it isn’t so simple. Our agents have identified the Jedi Master in question as Master Tor’chal, an Ithorian Jedi who fought in the war against Exar Kun. He is considered a valiant warrior and a powerful sage. We have to trap him first. Fighting him in the open will only result in massive casualties for us.”

“What did you have in mind?” this time it was Raen who spoke up.

De’dlay smiled; he had been waiting for Raen to ask that question. “Well, I was hoping that we could draw him here. Once he is inside your manor, he will be subject to your whims and be forced to combat all the security forces stationed inside here. He won’t be a match for both of you, although I was planning on having Raen fight him alone.”

Jaeln was visible surprised, and he turned toward Raen to ensure that his shock was mutual. Raen was actually pleased by the revelation, but he could tell that his brother was furious.

“Why Raen, De’dlay? Surely an acolyte would never stand a chance against a Jedi Master!” Jaeln proclaimed angrily.

“Do not reject my judgment on the basis of petty jealousy, Jaeln,” De’dlay shot back. “I trust in Raen and his abilities. Besides, he is the one in need of the promotion, not you. This is only training for the both of you. You are both more powerful than you realize. You will become much stronger; I have foreseen it. Together, we will be able to fight against Preux and take what is his.”

Jaeln shot a passing glance at his younger brother. Jaeln’s blue eyes flickered with doubt and indignation. Raen knew that his brother assumed the idea was foolhardy. He couldn’t blame him. However, Raen was intrigued by his master’s mention of Preux. There had been rumors of a Preux figure among the Sith students and officers and even some of the patrons of the Dying Bantha had mentioned him in passing. From what the young acolyte had heard, Preux was a semi-mythical figure on Alderaan who served as the grand puppet-master of the Sith, guiding the movements toward the Dark Lord Malak’s ultimate design.

There was a period of silent contemplation reflecting on the information the two siblings had just received. Raen expected his brother to say something; however, Jaeln remained silent, still seething with anger.

“Master, you spoke of Preux. I have never heard of this individual,” Raen lied. “Who is he? Is he an agent of the Jedi?”

De’dlay cackled, his shrill laugh piercing the silence. “No, Raen, Preux is not a Jedi. Preux is a Sith higher in rank than I; he is the true master of this pitiful chessboard of a planet. I have never seen him; he has only spoken to me through envoys–that is how important and powerful he is. I do not claim to control the Sith on Alderaan, and neither do the other Sith Masters at the academy, for that position belongs to Preux alone.

“Even now, the final pieces of his plan are falling into place. Companies are being swallowed up, rebels are being silently executed, and his spies are everywhere. Always listening. There are rumors that he will soon make his greatest gambit: attacking the royal family itself,” De’dlay concluded, a wry grin forming on his face.

“That’s madness,” Jaeln insisted. “No one has ever breached the sanctuary gates that defend the castle. They are defended by Force-sensitive royal guardsmen.”

“That may be; nevertheless, that is not important now. For now, I have plans to do away with Preux entirely and establish our own dominance over the Sith. You two are both essential to ending his reign; together, we can defeat him," De’dlay explained. “However, I have kept you both here long enough. Rest yourselves, train consistently, and prepare for me to summon you. The Jedi will arrive in a matter of days. I shall take my leave.”

Rising from the sofa, De’dlay performed a standard Sith salute–not to signify respect, but rather to inform them of his departure–and then headed for the door. Once the Nikto Sith had left their estate, the two brothers rose from their seats and headed up the stairs toward the upper chambers of the manor.

While they walked, Raen knew his brother was eager to speak his mind; he could tell by his expression and habits. Whenever Jaeln was troubled, he would part his wavy brown hair down the middle and unbutton several buttons on his collared shirt. In addition to his peculiar habits, Raen noticed that his brother’s crystal-colored eyes darted back and forth and he licked his top teeth, both common signs that he was bottling something in.

“There’s something troubling you,” Raen said abruptly.

Jaeln sighed. “I can’t hide much from you, can I brother?”

“Nope.”

“Well, I’m concerned about what De’dlay’s saying,” Jaeln admitted. “Solely assigning us to this mission, allowing you to kill the Jedi target, this Preux character. It’s all too suspicious, if you ask me.”

“I think you’re just jealous,” Raen pointed out. “You’re upset that you don’t get to kill the Jedi.”

“Don’t be ridic-”

“Who’s killing Jedi?” a booming voice came from across the hall.

“No one’s killing Jedi, father!” Jaeln responded, despite being interrupted.

“Is Raen with you, Jaeln?” their father questioned from afar.

Raen groaned. “I’m here, father.”

“Excellent. Raen, come into my study, please.”

Jaeln sighed, as though he was displeased with either their father or Raen, but his younger brother knew that he was apathetic about the whole ordeal. Grumbling and moaning, Raen departed from his elder brother and made his way by several closed–and probably locked–steel-colored doors before reaching his father’s study.

For whatever reason, Raen’s father had engraved his name, ‘Raystin Benax’, into the door of his study with a knife. While a professional engraving would have looked more appropriate, Raystin’s father was insistent on doing it himself. If he could not do something himself, it would not be done at all. That was the way his father was. As Raen stumbled inside the cramped quarters his father was in, it was exactly how Raen remembered it. The room was musty, smelling of old clothes and sweat. Holobooks were stacked into uneven piles throughout the floor; some were open while others were shut. Various tools of measurement and drawing instruments were scattered across the floor, and several broken datapads reluctantly joined the chaos.

In the midst of all the disarray was a single desk. It was positioned to face the transparisteel sliding door on the opposite wall that led to the balcony. This transparent screen allowed for the Alderaanian starlight–now visible between the thick, lingering clouds–to bask the study in an ethereal radiance. And at the desk sat Raystin Benax, Raen’s father. In contrast to his surroundings, Raystin looked as organized as could be. Raystin’s short salt-and-pepper hair, well-maintained beard, and blue eyes were joined by his jet-black suit, made of the finest syntex fabric he could purchase. In his hand was a fresh datapad, and numerous legal documents written on flimsy were scattered about his desk. Although Raen’s eyes voraciously absorbed everything in the crowded room, his eyes were drawn toward a golden-hued vase at the corner of his father’s desk; the expensive and fragile ornament was decorated with images of the greatest Alderaanian war heroes, a true work of art.

“Hello, son,” Raystin finally said, turning from his work and focusing on Raen.

“Father,” Raen replied gruffly.

“I heard you were giving your mother a hard time when you got home,” his father said. “I hope her complaints are unfounded.”

Raen’s eyes flared with such viciousness that even his father could notice it. “I wasn’t giving her a hard time. She was bothering me.”

Raystin rolled his eyes, clearly mocking his son. “Come on, Raen. Can’t you and your mother get along, just for a few days? Just to give your old man some peace of mind?”

This is so stupid, Raen thought. Why am I here? Didn’t I already receive this lecture–twice?

The Sith acolyte turned around and prepared to walk out of the study, but his father called to him and requested he stay. Raen stood where he was, still facing the door and not looking at his father. Hearing the creaking noise and identifying his father rising from his chair, Raen waited impatiently for his father to approach him.

“Raen,” Raystin began, his voice taking a different tone. “I’m getting old. The business is starting to go under; those bloody Sith are drying out our company. I’m not as lively as I used to be, and I can’t be badgering you and your mother every twenty seconds, telling you both to behave. I thought that the Sith would do you some good, but clearly it has only made things worse.”

“Whatever,” Raen spat. “I have to go prepare for my mission.”

“You have a new mission?” Raystin didn’t miss a beat. “Can you tell me about it?”

“Why do you care?”

“I’m trying to be amicable, Raen,” his father snapped, exasperated at his son’s behavior.

“Fine. A Jedi’s coming to Alderaan to investigate the Sith presence. De’dlay has assigned Jaeln and I to the task of taking care of him. It’s supposed to be in preparation for taking down a Preux fellow,” Raen explained, still annoyed.

Raystin’s aged eyes sparkled as he took in the information. “Fascinating. Perhaps that Jedi can get rid of those bumbling Sith, always stealing my profits through that confounded Czerka… don’t tell De’dlay I said that.”

“Okay,” Raen muttered, making his way toward the door again.

“Raen,” Raystin called out.

“Yes, father?”

“Be careful mentioning Preux around certain people,” Raystin began, his voice now hushed to a pleading whisper. “I’ve heard about this fellow from people at my company. He sounds like a nasty fellow, and he’s supposed to have agents everywhere. I wouldn’t double-cross him if I were you. I’d give De’dlay that warning too; despite the fact he’s a Sith–and all they do is ruin my business–he’s an old family friend. Take note: there’s no reason for either of you to get hurt messing around with forces beyond your understanding.”

Raen’s voice suddenly became much more solemn, and he shook his head. “I'll keep your warning in mind, father.”

“That’s all I ask. Enjoy yourself, now; don’t go causing trouble.”

“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you,” Raen snapped back.

Raen rapidly made his way through the aged study door, walking over several holobooks and datapads on his way out. With a sigh, Raystin closed the door behind his son. Although Raen did not seem to care about Raystin’s warnings, the old father eagerly hoped his son would heed his advice. Despite how horrible a father he knew he was, Raystin was genuinely worried about his sons. The best he could do, for now, was hope that their involvement with the Sith wouldn’t lead them to early deaths.

*** ***

After Raen had left to visit their father, Jaeln had made his way out of the Benax manor and into the estate’s vast courtyard. He ran his left hand through his hair, parting it down the middle. Damn, I’m doing it again, thought Jaeln. Pulling his hand away from his hair, he stuffed both his hands deep inside his trouser pockets, hoping to keep them away from his head. He continued his frantic pacing, working up a sweat the entire time.

When he first headed outside, he had planned on chasing De’dlay and spying on him for a while. He didn’t trust the Nikto Sith, nor did he trust his story. Something about it–the Jedi arriving now, Preux, Raen being the hero–did not sit right with him. When he had got outside, though, he had quickly changed his mind. A cold wind had come in from the east and was bringing in more dark clouds; the darkness and chilled air was enough to hinder Jaeln’s tentative plans.

Jaeln heard a rustling noise in the brush in one of the courtyard gardens. Although he attempted to reach for his lightsaber, he decided against it. No point in starting a pointless battle; words could often be substituted for violence.

“Who’s there? Is that you, Calay?” Jaeln called out.

“Indeed,” a rugged voice responded. “I’ve got news.”

“Let’s hear it,” Jaeln answered gently.

A female a few years older than Raen made her way out of the bushes and toward Jaeln. She brushed the leaves out of her gray-colored Sith officer’s uniform and prim, short dark-blonde hair that was neatly brushed back into a small bun as she approached. Although Jaeln could barely see her tanned skin in the darkness of night, her eyes clearly stood out–the thin lime green-colored irises were almost feline. A single blaster pistol rested at her waist, and it was accompanied by two long knives with hilts that extended past her abdomen. The uniform was snug on her; Calay was more athletic than most women her age. Even though she was a Sith Master on par with De’dlay, she never carried a lightsaber because she feared it would give her away during her rather frequent espionage missions.

Slowly wrapping her arms around Jaeln, Calay stood silently, enraptured by Jaeln’s presence.

“I have broken her spirit. She has succumbed to the dark side. It was like you said. Her affection for Raen was her undoing,” Calay spoke softly now, but her voice was still quite masculine. “I should listen to you more often.”

“Indeed you should,” Jaeln replied jokingly. Pausing for a moment, he wrapped his muscular arms around the Sith Mistress. “I have some questions for you. I need some information on the relationship between De’dlay and Preux.”

“Master Yavalaaka and Preux? What about them?”

“De’dlay mentioned he had a plot to overthrow Preux. With our help,” Jaeln said. “What do you know of Preux?”

“Preux is the master of all the Sith here on Alderaan. Some say he is third in the Sith Empire–after the Dark Lords Revan and Malak. He is a shady character, but he is undoubtedly powerful and cunning. He demands complete submission from his agents or else they die,” Calay paused for a moment, reflecting on her words. “De’dlay’s ambitions are going to get him in trouble. Jaeln, if I report De’dlay’s actions to Preux, he will certainly be pleased; he will execute De’dlay and might even appoint you in his place.”

Jaeln grinned. “Is that so? Well, I give you permission to act on this information as you see fit, Calay. Remember: no one can know that we have seen each other.”

“Of course, Jaeln,” she replied, stroking Jaeln’s face with her gloved right hand. “I’m a spy. I specialize in this sort of work.”

“As if you’d let me forget.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she replied. The Sith spy pecked Jaeln on the lips, giving him a wordless and brief farewell before departing back into the shadows that she knew so well.

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