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Chapter 13

“What did you discover?” Raystin asked as Malfon stepped into the car.

“Our assassin is in an apartment complex called the Racer's Gambit. Room six hundred. The killer's name is End of Stars.”

“That's certainly a strange name.” Raystin started the vehicle and headed toward the location displayed on his holographic map. “No other information?”

“He said he hired the assassin because the Jedi was snooping around.”

Raystin looked at Malfon quizzically. “Snooping around? What do you suppose he meant by that?”

“I don't know. I had hoped you would,” Malfon muttered. “What did you discover?”

Raystin shook his head. “Not much. I learned that the senator hired his assassin through an intermediary, and the assassin once worked for the Hutts. Recently, though, he's been contracted to work only on Coruscant.”

“By Senator Fal'teye?”

“I cannot say. There was no indication either way.”

Malfon and Raystin were silent after that. While Raystin focused on driving, Malfon reflected on his time with the senator. He didn't even realize that, in getting the information he wanted, Malfon had called upon the Force and used it against him. He had influenced Kres Fal'teye's mind. The thought was both intriguing and terrifying. There was no way the Bothan would have convicted himself without the aid of the Force, and yet Malfon was disturbed in using it for that purpose. Only by digging deep into the Bothan's mind was it possible to glean that truth. Was it wrong, then, to use the Force that way? How could justice be done if the truth was not discovered? Malfon didn't know what to think, but he felt uncomfortable with the idea.

He realized sometime later that he also had not received an explicit confession of guilt. Without the Force, Senator Fal'teye would stick with his story, and there was no way to prove he tried to kill Malfon. He was still here, alive and well, and the wine had apparently been cleansed while Malfon was unconscious. Shaking his head, he hoped that the assassin would confess to the senator's involvement after they captured him.

“Malfon,” Raystin spoke up, ending his train of thought.

“Yes?”

“You remember earlier, when you asked about my brother and I?”

Malfon nodded. “Sure.”

“We've been friends for so long, I hardly remember you telling me about your family. In fact,” Raystin paused, chuckling, “forgive me, but I don't even remember your family name.”

“I… don't have one.”

“Oh?”

Malfon glanced at Raystin. He had never told anyone about his past, the time before he joined the Jedi Order. Not only was his early life a blur in his mind, but he always dreaded to think about such things for too long. There was something about those memories that terrified him, but he didn't know why. Nevertheless, if he was going to tell anyone, it would have been Raystin.

“My parents died when I was young,” Malfon explained. “Based on what Rell told me, I was found as an orphan, barely alive, on some distant planet in the frontier. I didn't even have a name when they rescued me; I was too young to remember. The Jedi never bothered with a surname, so I'm just… Malfon.”

“That's nonsense,” Raystin countered. “You have to have one. Everyone—well, at least, most Humans—do.

“Surnames were formed to help Humans identify others in their own clan,” Malfon noted, his tone taking a didactic turn. “The Jedi are my family. I don't need one.”

“That's a fair point, but other Jedi have surnames…” Raystin trailed off, apparently unsure how to finish the thought. He was silent for a moment before adding: “What about Benax?”

“Benax?”

“Sure. You could shrug it off as a formality, but I wouldn't. I wouldn't dare presume to know what you think of me, but I count on you as a brother and a friend. You've been here for me since the beginning, you've watched my back, and you've encouraged and supported me on this journey. Dandek and I are related by blood, but sometimes I think the bonds of the Jedi are stronger.”

Malfon's mouth dropped. “I… I… you can do that?”

“What? Adopt you into our house? Sure,” Raystin said, brushing off the difficulty with a wave of his hand. “That's the easy part. Dandek and I own the estate now, so we can do whatever we please, and that includes letting others join it. What do you think?”

“I-I-I… yes! Sure!”

Raystin laughed. Malfon was too excited to speak, or even laugh. All he could do was smile. Everything Raystin had told him was what Malfon always wished he could tell the older Jedi, but never had the courage to say. The fact that their feelings were so similar delighted him. He had always looked up to Raystin for his strength, spirit, and dedication to the Jedi Order. And now, he was going to share in that. They would be brothers! Very few things would have made him happier—in his current state of mind, only being named Head of the Order would be better. He could have hugged Raystin, but restrained himself lest he embarrass himself.

Malfon Benax.

He smiled again. Not just because he was a Benax. Not just because he was related to the strongest Jedi Knight he knew. No, he smiled because now, after all these years, he had received something he had lost. Since his parents had died. Since Rell had died. Now, in the most unexpected of ways, he had a family again.

*** ***

The apartment complex known as the Racer's Gambit was in one of the seediest areas of the government district. Practically touching the Old City, it was commonly known as the best temporary dwelling for all forms of impoverished or criminally-inclined travelers: smugglers, thieves, swoop racers, conmen, and the like. Malfon noted how fancy the apartment was despite its lowlife tenants as Raystin's hovercar came to rest in the garage adjacent to the building. With an elegant crystalline spire and whitewashed walls, it could have passed as a government building in a different location.

The two Jedi were greeted by a damaged droid in the lobby. There were no other sentient beings or droids wandering the ground floor, so Raystin and Malfon headed up on their own accord. However, as they ascended the stairs and passed through the halls, they realized that there seemed to be no one else in the apartment complex at all. Granted, it was quite late and Malfon suspected most sentients were fast asleep, but that did not explain the lack of cleaning droids and the damaged holographic kiosks. He reached into the Force instinctively, but sensed no one. In silent agreement, the two Jedi withdrew their lightsabers but kept them deactivated.

The eeriness of the Racer's Gambit became more apparent the higher they traveled. Various metal doors had been bashed in, no doubt by heavy machinery or very large sentients, leaving entire rooms exposed and available for ransacking. Windows were stained with dark substances that Raystin quickly identified as blood from several different species, and a few panes were broken entirely. Droid parts were scattered across the carpeting of the near-dark hallways, and Malfon could have sworn he saw organic appendages among them.

Something in the place was very wrong. This apartment, even so late, should have been bustling with droid activity. It was just the opposite. This entire place was silent. Even the aerial traffic from outside seemed to be hushed, and a sense of foreboding rushed over Malfon. The Force was confirming that this place was dangerous, as if he needed it, and he was grateful that Raystin was with him.

“Here it is,” Raystin whispered. “Room six hundred.”

“We need to be careful,” Malfon whispered back. “There's something going on.”

“Agreed. Keep your wits about you.”

Raystin called upon the Force, using it to slide the metallic door to the room open. To Malfon's surprise, a reptilian humanoid was standing just inside the room, facing the door as if he had been expecting them. The figure was well beyond two meters, draped in a cloak that shrouded most of his face and some of his body. However, Malfon could plainly see just how massive his clawed hands and hulking legs were, and his glowing red eyes were plainly visible just beneath his cloak. He seemed to be carrying something on his back, perhaps a travel pack and rifle of some sorts, but it was impossible to tell in the low lighting.

“You must be End of Stars,” Malfon said.

“Jedi,” the other growled. “I've been waiting.”

Their target reached for a device on his belt, causing the two Jedi to activate their lightsabers in an instant. However, he was not going for a blaster; instead, he pressed some sort of switch, causing something to chirp loudly just behind Malfon and Raystin. The Force immediately alerted Malfon that, if they did not move, they would die. Grabbing hold of Raystin, Malfon tackled him away from the door, sending both of them to the ground and causing them to lose their lightsabers. No sooner had they hit the ground when several massive explosions burst forth from where they had been standing seconds before, sending pieces of the floor, chunks of the wall, and metal shrapnel flying through the air.

Once the explosions had died down and the ringing in Malfon's ears had stopped, the two Jedi heard what sounded like rockets flare up just inside the room. They heard the assassin cackling, and then the sound of a window shattering. The floor shook underneath them as he left, and Malfon suspected there were other explosives planted throughout the apartment just waiting to go off.

“Permacrete detonators!” Raystin muttered, coughing. “He's good.”

“Brilliant with demolitions, perhaps, but a poor assassin,” Malfon noted. “He didn't even come back to see if we were dead.”

“He expected us to survive. He wants us to chase him,” Raystin countered.

“Then that's what I'm going to do,” Malfon said, jumping to his feet and recovering his lightsaber in preparation for the chase.

“Malfon, wait! This place is coming down around our ears, and there's no way that this place is stable! Let's head back to the hovercar and follow him that way.”

“No time! He's going to get away by then!”

Malfon was gone before Raystin could protest. Jumping over the gaping hole in the floor that the explosives had left, the Jedi Padawan bounded into the assassin's old room. Sure enough, the window had been shattered, providing a way for the hulking assassin to make his escape. The floor was indeed unstable inside, and Malfon felt the metals and duracrete tremble underneath his weight. Malfon jumped inside the broken window—doing his best to avoid the shattered pane. He could still see the assassin in the distance, his rocket pack flying far away from the apartment, but it would not be long before he lost sight of their target.

Calling upon the Force to slow time and defy gravity, Malfon jumped from his position on the window's edge onto a passing hovercar. His sudden arrival no doubt startled the driver, and he quickly made his way from one car to the next, traveling across the lanes of traffic in the process. Once he had bypassed most of the aerial traffic flow, Malfon jumped up to the highest building he could reach and located the assassin—he was still rather far, but Malfon was closing in. Estimating a route by which he could intercept the fleeing killer, Malfon jumped from rooftop to rooftop, using the Force to ensure that he always had enough strength to reach his intended destination.

The assassin seemed entirely unaware that Malfon was following him. Although flying rather quickly, he was nowhere near as evasive as he could have been, nor did he try to hide his presence. This made pursuit easier than Malfon had hoped, and he always made sure to have the assassin in his line of sight. Following him became harder as buildings became taller and more spread out, but Malfon managed in spite of the difficulties. Whenever he could not reach towers, he aimed for the passing vehicles, or tried his luck with pedestrian walkways.

Jumping across two lanes of aerial traffic and reaching the top of a galactic news tower, Malfon found himself within ten meters or so of his reptilian target. Reactivating his lightsaber, Malfon threw his shimmering green weapon so it would intercept the assassin directly. To his chagrin, the blade missed its intended target and slashed across the rocket pack instead, disabling the device and sending the flying assassin straight into the roof of a towering shopping complex.

Malfon was quick to join the assassin on the nearby rooftop, calling his lightsaber back into his hand. End of Stars struggled to his feet, evidently dazed and injured in the sudden crash, but Malfon kept his distance anyway. He had no idea what this killer was capable of, and if he was dangerous enough to kill Jedi, he needed to be cautious. It would be best if he allowed the assassin to make the first move.

“Good,” End of Stars grumbled, wiping a bit of blood from his chin. “I expected such audacity from Jedi.”

Malfon pointed his lightsaber directly at the assassin. “Surrender now, and I will spare your life. If you do not, I cannot promise you will enter custody unharmed.”

“Custody?” End of Stars cackled at the thought. “You will not capture me, Jedi. I have killed many of your kind. I fought for Exar Kun during his war, and I will fight for him in the next. A student like you does not have the powers to defeat me.”

“Him? Who? Exar Kun?” Malfon asked.

“No.” the assassin replied. “Ignorant and weak. You have no chance.”

“We'll see about that.”

End of Stars nodded solemnly. Unstrapping the rest of his broken rocket pack, he let the damaged device fall to the roof. Withdrawing a golden vibro-ax from behind his back with an axehead larger than Malfon's entire head, End of Stars roared and charged straight for Malfon. The Jedi Padawan shook his head. He had never fought anyone with an ax before, but he figured that the weapon was ill-suited for fighting a Jedi. If he could strike the weapon's handle, it would shatter and he would be able to subdue the assassin afterward.

Shifting into a defensive acrobatic stance, Malfon waited for End of Stars to approach. Then, just before the vibro-ax made contact, Malfon jumped to the left and swung his lightsaber just underneath the axehead, striking the handle perfectly. The moment he did, his green blade disappeared and his lightsaber deactivated with a pained snap. Malfon fell over himself as he tried to recover his balance, and that gave End of Stars just enough time to backhand him and send him flying across the roof.

Malfon recovered from the hit quickly, but he stared at his lightsaber in alarm. What happened? Did his lightsaber's internal cell die? Did this killer control the Force and hit the button to switch off his weapon? Malfon couldn't discern an immediate solution, and he turned to face End of Stars just in time to dodge an incoming overhead swing. Performing several backward flips, Malfon placed several meters between him and the assassin, still holding his deactivated lightsaber.

Without a means to fight directly, Malfon knew he had to concentrate on the using the Force to subdue his target. Calling upon all the power he could muster, Malfon sent a telekinetic shockwave straight at the much larger assassin, but the effects of his attack seemed to bounce off End of Stars like blaster shots against a cruiser's shielding. End of Stars cackled and charged again, causing Malfon to send several more blasts of telekinesis toward him. Startlingly, none of them were effective. Only by jumping as far as he could to his right and sprinting away did Malfon avoid getting cleaved in two by the assassin's weapon.

“What are you?” Malfon shouted, placing his useless lightsaber on his belt. “Is this how you kill Jedi?”

“Only fools such as you,” End of Stars sneered. “Pure cortosis on my axe, on my blasters, and my bracers disable lightsabers. I am Dashade, and I am resistant to the Force itself. None of your ancient tricks work on me, Jedi. Whatever will you do without your vaunted weapon and your mystic powers?”

Malfon froze. Without a lightsaber and the Force, what could he do? If his opponent was unarmed, he could have tried to fight him that way, but End of Stars was so much taller than he was and much stronger; besides, Malfon knew he was a terrible unarmed combatant and couldn't do much against his vibro-ax anyway. Throwing pieces of the roof could work, but it would take some time and concentration to make appropriately sized projectiles, and he did not have either of those right now.

End of Stars rushed at the confused Padawan without so much as a whisper, and he kneed the Padawan's solar plexus before he could try and defend himself. The hit made an audible crack. Malfon gripped his chest and keeled over, but End of Stars scooped him up and tossed him—with one arm—across the roof, causing him to tumble over himself and smack his head several times.

He tried to stand up, but End of Stars was there before he had recovered. He was hit once in the face with the butt of the vibroweapon's handle, shattering his nose, and he received several more punches to the chest, shoulders, and face for his trouble. Then, grabbing his tousled hair, End of Stars dragged him over to the end of the roof and smashed his face into the side of the duracrete, eliciting a pained cry from Malfon and cutting open his forehead. Satisfied, End of Stars hurled him back toward the center of the rooftop.

A black eye and blood from his forehead hindered Malfon's vision. Breathing was difficult; even without a broken nose, every breath caused a burning pain in his chest. His ears were ringing, but he could still hear the Dashade's cackling in the distance. His entire body felt numb, especially his upper body. He let out a quiet groan. End of Stars stomped over to him and placed one of his massive legs squarely on Malfon's already bruised chest.

“Are you ready to die, Jedi? Are you scared?”

Malfon said nothing. Even if he wanted to, it probably would have been incoherent with all the blood in his mouth.

“I give you one chance, as I have been ordered. Summon all of your power and strike me down, or I will behead you here.”

Malfon stared, as weakly as he could, at the assassin standing over him. He was right. There was no way someone as weak as Malfon could kill him. He had been foolish. If he tapped into his emotions—all the pain, the rage, the desire for bringing this being to justice—without hesitation, perhaps he could have unleashed a power to defend himself. A manifestation of raw power. As a Dashade, it was possible that, no matter how powerful Malfon's attack was, the assassin would resist it. But the more he considered it, he realized he had no other choice.

And yet, he could not bring himself to do it. It was not the Jedi way. Sighing, Malfon was content with reaching out into the Force and hoping that Raystin would sense his presence and know that—despite his best efforts—he had failed. When Malfon did not move against him, End of Stars scoffed and rose to his full, imposing height.

“So be it, Jedi.”

Raising his vibro-ax above his head, End of Stars growled and brought the weapon down toward Malfon's neck.

*** ***

Raystin Benax had sensed Malfon's presence in the Force for some time, but he had not been able to pinpoint his location until Malfon purposely showed Raystin exactly where he was. Luckily, he had not been far at all. Turning his head and focusing, he could see End of Stars on a distant rooftop. The Force alerted him that Malfon was in danger and, if he did not act, he would be killed. Even at this distance, he could sense the Jedi Padawan, and he summoned all of his strength to defend him.

Raystin called upon the Force and ripped large chunks out of the roof to intercept End of Stars's ax and protect Malfon from death. Once he had steered his hovercar close enough, he leapt from the vehicle and used the Force to turn it into a spinning projectile. The resulting collision sent End of Stars to the rooftop and his gift into the depths of the city below.

End of Stars's ax had been damaged by Raystin's assault, so he took several shots at Raystin with his holdout blaster. Raystin deflected these shots right back at the assassin, burning deep holes into his hide. As Raystin closed the distance between them, the faster and more wildly End of Stars fired at him. This, in turn, caused more blaster bolts to ricochet right back into the Dashade. With a weary growl and something of a curse, End of Stars collapsed and died just as Raystin was close enough to disarm him.

Ignoring the dead assassin, Raystin rushed over to Malfon and immediately began using the Force to heal him. He called out to the younger Jedi several times, but he said nothing. The Jedi Knight felt a pulse and he was breathing, albeit laboriously, but he was in a lot of pain. Using all the bandages, kolto, and painkillers he had on his person, Raystin coupled them with as much Force power he could muster.

“R-Raystin?” Malfon wheezed. “Is that… you?”

“Yeah, it's me. How are you feeling?”

“Like someone dropped a moon on me,” Malfon said, laughing despite the pain.

“Well, it's not that bad. You're going to be okay,” Raystin assured him.

“I don't feel like it.” Malfon turned his head toward End of Stars. “You got him, huh?”

“Yeah. He was distracted by you, so I got a chance to take him down.”

“You're welcome.”

Raystin shook his head. “Go ahead and rest. I called for a police escort to take us back to the Jedi Sanctum and clean up here. Let me handle everything else, okay?”

“I look terrible, I bet,” Malfon moaned. “When they take my pictures, I'm going to look like a Bith after a shockboxing match.”

“Just sleep, Malfon.”

“Fine…”

*** ***

Despite how terrible Malfon's injuries looked, most of them weren't as bad as he suspected. Aside from his black eye and broken nose, most of his wounds were treated or healed with a few dozen stitches, kolto immersion, and procoagulants. Luckily, he was in no need of a hoverchair this time, although the Jedi healers did tell him that he was to stay in the Jedi Sanctum and turn down any missions for at least a month. As soon as he left the medical wards, he found Avaran Whell waiting for him. Malfon greeted him, but Avaran said nothing; with the same blank expression he always had, he bid Malfon follow him.

“Where are we going, Master?”

“You will see.” Avaran moved at a faster pace than he tended to. “Well done, Padawan. You did well in handling that assassin brute and the senator who hired him.”

Malfon smiled meekly. “Thank you, Master. But most of the credit should go to Raystin. He was the one who put together the mission, planned for me to interview the senator, and killed the assassin.”

“Perhaps. However, we also know that you did your part, and you did it well. You figured out that the Bothan senator was, in fact, the one who killed Cheryon Malth, and you dealt with him as a Jedi should. Furthermore, you did your best in fighting an unknown and very powerful enemy—one whom most Jedi would have found impossible to defeat conventionally.”

“Thank you. I did my best for the Order.”

“I recognize that, as has the Jedi Council. That is why…” Avaran paused.

“That is why?”

“I have acknowledged your growth as an individual, your knowledge as a student, and your skill as a Jedi. The Jedi Council agrees with me on all these matters. Therefore, we have agreed that it is time for you to become a Jedi Knight.”

Avaran Whell stopped short of the Jedi High Council chambers, and he pushed the doors open with a short telekinetic burst. Within, the members of the Jedi Council were standing, lightsabers at the ready, waiting for Malfon to enter. Malfon, stunned, didn't even move at first. Staring at the scene before him, surreal as it was, it took Avaran's impatient huff for him to even think of moving forward. Stepping into the Council chambers, he was instructed to kneel in the center of the room, facing away from the Pillar of Unity. Once he was in position and his lightsaber rested just in front of him, the current Head of the Order spoke, and the Jedi Council followed in unison.

“There is no emotion…”

“There is peace,” Malfon answered on cue.

“There is no ignorance…”

“There is knowledge.”

“There is no passion…”

“There is serenity…”

“There is no chaos…”

“There is harmony…”

“There is no death…”

“There is the Force.”

The room was silent for a moment, and then the Head of the Order spoke, reciting the ancient text of the Jedi Order that had been passed down for tens of thousands of years, that had been heard by millions upon millions of Jedi throughout the ages, that Malfon so keenly listened to now, his eyes closed.

“We are all Jedi…”


Chapter 14

Malfon Benax was a Jedi Knight. The thought seemed ludicrous. He knew the day had to come eventually, of course, but not this soon. Without a master, Malfon was free to do his own work for the Jedi Order and tend to his own studies, lessons, and missions. The newfound freedom was a bit discomforting at first. Encouragement from Raystin, Lythi, Olnara, and North quieted his fears somewhat, but he was still uneasy. Was this right? Did he deserve to be a Jedi Knight?

Malfon sat in his new chambers, away from the Padawan dormitories, pondering his self-worth. He had been like this for nearly a month, only leaving his meditations for meals, studies, or physical therapy. His wounds had healed a few weeks ago, and yesterday was his last session of that. Raystin and the others were starting to worry, but Malfon insisted that he just needed some time alone to clear his head.

His lightsaber rested on the small, one-person table at the center of the room. His robes, dark brown with a charcoal colored cloak, were thrown atop his bed, which was a bit more fanciful than the mat he had possessed as a Jedi Padawan. Pacing back and forth in his undershirt and shorts, Malfon's mind was caught up in ways of proving himself to the Jedi Council and the other Jedi Knights. Or, perhaps, he needed ways to prove to himself that he was ready for this.

The comlink by his lightsaber chirped. Malfon scooped it up and pulled it to his ear. “Malfon speaking.”

“Hey, Malfon. It's North. Could you swing by the library? I have a question for you.”

“Sure. Be there shortly.”

Malfon flicked off the comlink and quickly threw on his Jedi apparel. He grabbed his lightsaber and comlink, placed them on his belt, and then made sure his boots were on before scrambling out of his chambers. Walking by young Jedi Padawans trailing their masters, Jedi Knights talking about the state of the Galactic Republic, and Jedi Masters wandering by their lonesome, Malfon did his best to navigate the crowd without crashing into anyone. The eastern and westernmost sections of the Jedi Sanctum were being expanded and the Jedi High Council chambers were being moved to a nearby tower. As such, many Jedi were trying to avoid the areas under construction.

Malfon entered the library and greeted the chief librarian and her assistant, a Jedi Knight about his name named Atris, before heading up to the higher floors where North tended to frequent. Traveling around the second floor, he eventually found North in the section detailing the events of the Pius Dea Crusades. Much to his amusement, he realized that North was practically surrounded by female Padawans. They were not speaking with him, but they were watching him, giggling and talking about him, from a distance.

North eyed them occasionally. One of them squealed. The fact that he paid any attention to them was probably delightful to a bunch of young, hormone-raddled Padawans. Malfon couldn't help but laugh. However, before any of them could work up the courage to talk to him or something more audacious— like request an invitation into his chambers, they spied someone in the distance and scattered. Malfon intended to join North, but decided against it. Was he meeting someone else here? Leaning against a bookshelf and using the Force to enhance his hearing, Malfon listened in on the conversation in the distance.

“You've got quite the fan club, North,” Malfon heard Lythi's voice say.

“They're just bored and need an excuse to get away from their masters,” North insisted.

“Uh huh,” Lythi replied, disbelieving. “How was your mission in the frontier?”

“You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

North went on to describe the craziest mission Malfon had ever heard. He had been employed by a Hutt who, for whatever reason, did legitimate business with the Republic and respected the Jedi Order. However, during the course of the mission, North and his master had been duped; one of the Hutt's bodyguards was a double-agent for a party of smugglers. Without warning, their ship was boarded and the two Jedi were forced to surrender, lest the Hutt be executed by the party of smugglers. It was then that the Republic arrived, and a three-way battle between the Republic Marines and the Jedi, the Hutt and his soldiers who thought they were betrayed, and the smugglers broke out.

In the tumult, North's master was wounded and North had been incapacitated. When they awoke, they were prisoners of the Hutt, who vowed never to do business with the Republic again. The smugglers had escaped with several million credits of materiel and antiques, and the Republic had damaged the rest before retreating temporarily. By the time they returned, the ensuing diplomatic solution freed the Jedi, but only at a hefty price.

“I'm… I'm surprised you got out of that one,” Lythi said when he concluded.

North laughed. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“That's not quite what I meant, but you're welcome. Did the Council scold you?”

“Not at all. They recognized that we had no way of knowing we'd be betrayed by one of the Hutt's men.”

“You'd think it's the Hutts themselves that would be all slippery and double-crossing.”

“Exactly.”

There was a silence for a moment before Lythi said: “Anyway, I have to go down to the merchant's district to pick up a few things for my next mission. I wanted Olnara to go with me, but she's busy with duties for her master. Would you like to come?”

“Sure! Just let me stop by my chambers and grab my lightsaber.”

“Of course.”

The two Jedi were gone by the time Malfon revealed himself from behind the bookcase. A sense of mock indignation rose up within him. He had been called over here to talk with North, and he had been left behind because North wanted to spend time with Lythi. The gall! Malfon shook his head, but couldn't help but smile. North and Lythi… he had sometimes doubted whether North would be able to do it, and sure enough, he was proven wrong. Still smiling, Malfon left the upper floor and headed back to his chambers.

“Malfon!”

Malfon turned around to see Raystin approaching from one of the library's computer terminals.

“Hey, Raystin. What's going on?”

“Just preparing for my next mission,” Raystin replied. “The Council told me that if they saw you, I was to direct you to them. It sounded like they had a task for you.”

“Oh? Thanks for the message. I'll head right over.”

*** ***

Malfon steered his Star Saber XC-01 until it was practically in orbit around the planet. A sleek craft with two wings protruding horizontally from the craft's side, the ship was heavily armed and well-defended for a starfighter. However, its slender design concealed its flaws; the ship was incredibly ungainly, with delayed responses and lacking in maneuverability that was crucial during a dogfight. It was said that only the Jedi were capable of flying the craft without fear of falling prey to these flaws, and oftentimes Jedi preferred other, more well-rounded vessels.

However, the Jedi Order had opted to sell many of their personal starfighters to the Galactic Republic after the last war, leaving them with very few choices in available craft. Even if Malfon wanted a different ship, he had no choice in the matter. His partner for this mission, the Jedi Knight Volef Ashara'val'moosh, piloted a similar vessel nearby, doing his best in spite of his webbed hands and awkward height.

Malfon dipped his craft's nose toward the planet itself. Corbos was on the edge of what had long ago been hostile space. A world teeming with deserts, volcanoes, and harsh wastelands, it was sparsely populated by some four or five settlements, spread out across the only fertile region on the surface. Corbos was famous for only one thing, and that was the fact it was the site of the last battle of the Hundred-Year Darkness several thousand years ago, when the Dark Jedi were cast off from the Jedi Order and sent into permanent exile.

Since the end of the war, multiple attempts to settle the planet had gone awry. It was always the same issue. The settlers, their equipment, and their droids would touch down on the planet and begin making a living for several months. Then, after some time, all contact was lost. Even when these travelers were accompanied by Republic soldiers or Jedi, they lost contact. For nearly three thousand years sentient beings had tried to settle Corbos, and yet no one succeeded. Malfon was both disheartened by the stubbornness of each wave of settlers he read about but noted their dedication as well.

The Jedi Council had sent two Jedi Knights, Malfon and Volef—the same Jedi he had defeated during a practice bout as a Padawan, so very long ago—to Corbos to investigate the most recent disappearance. Settlers from the frontier, not part of the Galactic Republic, had decided to settle the world nearly three years prior. It was only several weeks ago that they did not make contact with their protectorate, and the Jedi were called upon to find out what happened to them. If the past was any indication, the colonists would be gone now, and only their equipment and ghost towns would be left behind. And yet, Malfon and Volef heeded their orders and did their duty.

The two Jedi Knights landed their starfighters about three kilometers from the first settlement they found. Although neither of the Jedi sensed anyone in the settlement, they decided it would be worth investigating anyway.

“Do you think we'll find anyone here?” Volef asked, taking a medical pack and his lightsaber from the rear compartment in his fighter.

“I don't know,” Malfon admitted, gathering his own gear. “The reports I read indicate that once the settlers here vanish, they don't return.”

“I hope some of them are still alive. I'd like to help the survivors off this planet,” Volef replied. “Maybe point them toward a better one.”

“Too dry for your tastes?”

“Precisely.”

Once the two Jedi had prepared their equipment and armed themselves, they left their starfighters behind and headed for the settlement. Malfon led the way, and Volef—standing so much taller that he nearly cast a shadow over him—followed him closely. Not entirely sure what to expect from this strange planet, deep in space that once belonged to the enemy, the two Jedi allowed their Force senses to travel far. Volef seemed uneasy, and Malfon sensed it, but he said nothing. Hopefully, finding a few surviving colonists—or at least clues of their whereabouts—would put him at ease.

“Malfon.”

“Yes?”

“I heard you were responsible for defeating the assassin who killed Cheryon Malth.”

Malfon turned back and shook his head. “I helped, but Raystin Benax is the one who did most of the work.”

“Is that so?” Volef looked surprised. “The Jedi Masters were saying you fought against a Force-resistant Dashade and nearly won. Quite a feat; it's very impressive.”

“I suppose.” Malfon shrugged. “But Raystin actually bested him, and that's more impressive still.”

“What you say is true. All the same, I wanted to thank you.”

“What for?”

“He- that is, Cheryon, was my master.” Volef's dark eyes glanced to the side, and Malfon thought he saw his eyes mist up. “I had only just become a Jedi Knight, and it was the first mission that he took on alone. I… I never got to thank him for everything he did for me.”

“I'm sorry. I heard many stories about Cheryon and his foresight. His wisdom will be missed. And…” Malfon stopped their steady march. “I, too, lost my master during a mission. I know how you feel.”

“You as well?” Volef asked, sniffling. “Ah, the Force is cruel to send two Jedi deprived of their teachers on a mission together.”

“Not cruel, no. This is a blessing. We have to learn from the losses—fight through them. You can learn from me; I'll learn from you. We'll become stronger and stronger for the ones who depended on us and are no longer with us. Right?”

“I don't know…”

“We'll do it together, okay?”

Volef smiled lightly. “Only if you lead, Malfon.”

“For now, anyway.”

The two Jedi Knights continued on, in silence now, until they reached the settlement itself. A small, self-sustaining community of about forty or fifty homes, dozens of gigantic moisture evaporators, and several swoop bikes, the very first thing that the two Jedi noticed was how empty it was. Walking through the sand-covered roads, with the harsh desert wind at their backs and the sun before them, they saw no other sentient beings alive in this place. Volef occasionally knocked on the door of a home, but no one answered. Malfon spied alleyways and swoop bikes for any indication of recent activity, but he found none.

In silent agreement, the two Jedi Knights split up, Volef traveling north while Malfon journeyed south. Much to his disappointment, there were no clues as to the whereabouts of the inhabitants of this place no matter where he went. In fact, the further he traveled from the center of town, the less swoop bikes he found and the more sand covered the roads, until the duracrete was all but gone. No one had traveled these routes in a very long time. Peering into the windows of buildings, Malfon hoped to find someone hiding away or trapped within, so they could at least receive some answers. Sadly, all these houses were empty as well.

Malfon could tell something was amiss. If these settlers had just decided to abandon this place and joined another settlement, that would have been one thing. However, it was evident that they had not left of their own will. Goods were abandoned too carelessly, some of the homes were left wide open, and their transportation was still here. Even worse, the Force seemed to be distant and clouded in this place; something—he could not say what—was keeping him from identifying the presence of other sentients and alerting him of danger. He had a very bad feeling about this.

The two Jedi Knights eventually met again in the center of town. The despair on Volef's face made it obvious that he fared no better, so Malfon didn't even ask. Volef said nothing either, so the two Jedi eyed the surrounding area for any last signs of the settlers in this part of the colony.

“Should we proceed to the next area?” Volef asked after some time.

“I suppose that's the only option we have,” Malfon muttered.

Just as the two Jedi were preparing to leave, a massive ship soared in and stopped directly overhead, blotting out the midday sun and casting a wide shadow around the settlement itself. Malfon looked up, startled, and realized that he had not even heard the ship approach. How was that possible? Volef was just as alarmed, and he activated his yellow lightsaber accordingly. The ship slowly descended and, once it was about a hundred meters from the ground, the dorsal section of the ship slid open. Even from that distance, Malfon could see hundreds of soldiers within, armored and carrying massive blaster weapons, most riding machines that resembled some sort of mechanized animal, complete with a snout—made mostly of laser cannons—and four leg-like appendages.

Malfon activated his lightsaber the instant the armored warriors and their machine-mounts started firing at them. He managed to block the first few shots, but their laser cannon fire was too powerful for his lightsaber to deflect, and he was forced to bound of the way lest his body be destroyed by the attack. Some of the warriors dove headlong toward the two Jedi, each firing nearly eight laser and pulse-wave cannons at them. Others, lacking the machines, dropped down on rocket packs, firing their heavy repeating blaster rifles all the way down.

Malfon and Volef used the Force to empower their legs and their response time, bounding between the laser fire headed in their direction and dodging other incoming projectiles. Malfon threw his green lightsaber into their midst, striking some of their assailant's flying mounts and destroying others' rocket packs. Volef's yellow lightsaber was just as effective, taking down rider and rocket packs with ease.

However, the longer they avoided the cannon fire, the heavier it became, until the entire area around the center of town had been decimated by the ensuing torrent of lasers. Malfon leapt onto a nearby roof and began calling upon the Force with impunity, using telekinesis to tear rocket packs from the enemies wearing them and hurling large chunks of debris into their midst. Volef created a sizable telekinetic whirlwind around himself, throwing anyone who tried to descend in his general area back into the sky.

The troopship started firing shortly thereafter. A concussion missile went off several meters from Malfon's position; it was far enough that he wasn't hit by the blast or the fragmentation that followed, but it caused his ears to ring painfully and threw him off-balance. Despite the fact that he was only dazed for a few seconds, that was all the time the descending warriors needed to fire upon him, and he was shot several times—in the chest, legs, and arms—before he could recover.

Much to his surprise, he did not die instantly. Collapsing on the rooftop he had tried to escape to, Malfon's lightsaber fell into the ruined streets below. Incapacitated and in no position to help or assure Volef of his safety, his companion glanced over at him and lost his focus. As he tried to sprint over to Malfon and aid him, Volef was atomized in a single volley of red turbolaser fire. Malfon tried to call out to his companion, but it was no use.

The last thing he remembered was several of the warriors disembarking their mounts and joining him on the rooftop. With methodical haste, they bound his injured body and injected him with something that sent him into a deep sleep.

*** ***

Malfon awoke several hours later. Again, to his surprise, he was not dead in spite of what he had just endured. His entire body felt worse than it ever had—which was quite an accomplishment, considering his record of injuries—and he had no idea where he was. Glancing around, he found himself bound to a pillar, with his arms secured quite firmly behind his back. The room he was in was humid and dark, and he figured it was underground somewhere. There were wicker baskets lining the wall and strange inscriptions on the ceiling, but Malfon could not make them out.

He looked around, hoping to see Volef, despite knowing that he had died in the firefight before. Grief welled up inside him as he considered just how terribly they had been beaten. Had this entire mission been a trap? Did those warriors expect someone to come and investigate the destruction on Corbos? Malfon did not even know if he was still on Corbos or if he had been taken away, to some distant planet, by those helmeted warriors.

Reaching out into the Force, Malfon tried to determine where he was and who was nearby, if anyone. However, calling on the Force caused physical pain within him, as though he walked into an open flame. He immediately stopped, but realized only after he did that a door had been opened in the distance.

There was someone else here.

“Who's there? Show yourself!” he asked, his voice hoarse and ragged.

“Ah, good. You're awake, Malfon.”

Malfon recognized the voice, but it was… different somehow. “Who…?”

Then, in an instant, Avaran Whell revealed himself from the shadows of the room. However, he had not been near the door, just opposite of where Malfon was facing; he had been standing next to Malfon the entire time, arms crossed, throwing his voice to fool his former apprentice. He looked as old as he ever did, his graying skin hinting that he was only minutes away from death. And yet, now, there was something else. Different. Something Malfon had never noticed before. Perhaps it was the yellow irises that glowered at him from underneath his white, bushy eyebrows. Perhaps it was the robes he wore, nearly black in the lighting around them. Or perhaps it was the lightsaber he now carried, different than his other, with bizarre ornaments and a tooth-like appearance.

Something was very, very wrong.

“Avaran Whell?” Malfon found his name hard to say. “What… what's going on here?”

“Ah, Malfon. You were never very observant, were you?” Avaran worked his way, slowly and steadily, in front of his former apprentice. “I have taken you captive.”

Malfon wrinkled his nose and frowned. “To what end? Where are we?”

“We are beneath the governor's home on Corbos. Ever since the leviathans devoured the populace, I have taken up residence here when I am not on Coruscant, attending to my Jedi duties.”

“Why?”

Avaran slapped Malfon with the back of his hand, sending spittle flying through the air. “Patience, boy. You have asked that, and I intend to answer. But on my time.”

Malfon glared at him. “What… are you doing?”

“Amuse me, Malfon. You always were the joker,” Avaran began, pacing away from his captive. “How old do you think I am?”

“I don't know. Ninety? One hundred?”

Avaran turned to him with a vicious smile, revealing all of his teeth as he sneered. “Try again. Older.”

“I don't know. One hundred twenty. One hundred thirty. What does this have to do with anything?”

“It has to do with everything.” Avaran shook his head. “One thousand, one hundred thirty-eight.”

Malfon's eyes widened. “Impossible. That's impossible. You cannot be that old.”

“Can't I? What about Jedi Master Shayoto? He died nearly twenty years ago, and he was more than eight hundred years old then. Why is it so impossible?”

“Master Shayoto was bedridden for the last ten years of his life, and he could hardly even lift a lightsaber anymore. You don't even carry a walking stick,” Malfon countered.

“Indeed. It is a pity his power paled in comparison to my own, or else I would succumb to the same weaknesses he did.”

“If you're so old, how come the Jedi Order does not recognize your age? Surely one as old as you would have a position on the Jedi High Council?”

“Every hundred years or so, I vanish from the known galaxy, disappearing to places like these—empty, abandoned, distant. Then, in about a hundred years, I reemerge. Older Jedi may recognize me, but they are always the first to die when wars come. I simply come and go as I please, and I do not draw attention to myself.”

“But why?” Malfon pressed. “What's the point of it all?”

“You have heard so much yet you understand… nothing.”

“Wha-?”

Holding his lightsaber in a ready stance, Avaran Whell activated the weapon, revealing the blood red blade to Malfon and held it close to his old Padawan's face, so he could smell the ozone and hear its hum in his ears.

“I am Sith.”

Sith?

No, that was impossible. The Sith were no more. The dark side and its followers had been defeated, at last, by the Jedi Order. Nomi Sunrider and the others had defeated Exar Kun and his allies; even now, the last vestiges of their forces were being hunted down and defeated by the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic. The last true heir of the Sith was dead; the ancient Sith had appointed Exar Kun their new Dark Lord, and he was gone. Avaran Whell may have been ancient, even beyond Malfon's belief, but there was no way he was a Sith.

A Sith could not simply pose as a Jedi. Not for as long as Avaran Whell claimed to live. Eventually, someone with the power of the dark side would be uncovered, and they would be defeated. So why? If he wasn't lying, why was Avaran Whell still alive? If time had not bested him, surely the wisest and mightiest of the Jedi, especially those from before the war, would have realized his true nature.

“You're lying.”

“Am I?” Avaran laughed. “What makes you say that?”

“The Jedi would know. The Masters would be able to sense you-”

“Sense me? Tell me, lad, can you sense me?”

Malfon growled. He could not deny that he sensed nothing from Avaran Whell. He had never really been able to, for the years they had known each other. However, this entire planet was distorting his senses and control over the Force, and he knew he was not as powerful as some other Jedi. They had to have sensed him. They had to…

And then, without a word, Avaran Whell unleashed all of his power. Releasing whatever restraint he used to contain his incredible strength, Avaran Whell's aura emerged with a sickening power that Malfon had never felt before. It was abominable, something grotesque and evil, all-encompassing and perverse. Thoughts of rage, hate, fear, anguish, deception, and greed rose up within that darkness, giving fuel to the immense power already there. It was so strong, in fact, that it made Malfon physically ill. A great chill came over his body and, without warning, he vomited everywhere. With a bitter taste on his tongue and crying eyes, Malfon stared up at the man he had once called Master.

“You… what are you?”

“I am something so ancient, you cannot begin to comprehend. You saw only what I wished for you to see, nothing more. And even now, you catch a glimpse at my unfathomable power. I am the monster all Jedi fear most. I am the monster you fear most.”

“I'm not afraid. I'm a Jedi Knight. You cannot do anything to me.”

“Bravado at its finest. Do you think your words will protect you from me? I have powers beyond anything the Jedi Order could create or summon.”

“And to think, I thought you were wise,” Malfon lamented. “You're insane. You may have hidden from the Jedi before now, but I will stop you.”

“I am wise still, you simply reject what I have learned.” Avaran returned his lightsaber to his side. “What do you think you can do against me, Malfon? You have killed no one in your life, and your skills are satisfactory at best. I have had ten of your lifetimes to perfect my skill.”

“Then I will find other Jedi, convince them of your evil, and they will join me and kill you.”

“Now who is the fool? The Jedi High Council has not found me during my hidden retreats. What makes you think you can track me down? I will conceal myself in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, and I will return when you have died and your knowledge vanished.”

“You're a coward,” Malfon snapped.

“No, I am patient. Even as a Jedi, you lack this crucial skill. Many times have my plans been set back, and yet I wait. Jedi attempt to foil my work no matter what I do, and I outwit them all. Slaves like you try to fight back, but you are truly powerless.”

“As long as we can fight, we are never truly powerless.”

“More foolish idealism. Do you not even heed my lessons?” Avaran sighed. “No matter. What will it be, slave? Surrender to me—become my apprentice—and I will spare your pathetic life. The life I created for you.”

Malfon stared at him. What did he mean by that? He was so confused by these turn of events, and he was not thinking clearly. However, one thing was certain: Malfon could not kill Avaran Whell. Not here, not without his lightsaber, not when Avaran expected a fight. He had never beaten him in a duel, and he could not defeat him now. However, if he could catch him off-guard, perhaps he would have a chance.

If what Avaran said was true, he had the resources and cunning to evade detection by the Jedi Council. He could resurface as a new Jedi every hundred years or so. For what end, Malfon knew not, but he realized that if the Council could not recognize that deception, Malfon stood little chance at convincing them.

Perhaps he could not defeat Avaran Whell as a Jedi. The Sith would always lose to the Jedi, this was true. However, Sith were weaker than Jedi by their nature; only Sith could kill Jedi, but anyone could kill a Sith. If he could fool Avaran long enough to gain his favor and trust, then he could get close enough to kill him.

Yes.

It was perfect. He would stay dedicated to the light, and he would learn Avaran's tricks so he could better fight against him. Once he had learned how Avaran exploited the darkness, Malfon would turn his own power against him. Redirect it like blaster fire against a lightsaber. He would gain the upper hand and kill him, ending this madness. And then, he would return to the Jedi Order and continue serving them as a Jedi Knight.

“I… I will.”

“Hmm? What was that?” Avaran asked.

“I will dedicate myself to the Sith cause. I see now that there is no point is resisting you,” Malfon explained. “Please, take me as your Sith apprentice.”

Avaran turned his head to the side, and then called upon the Force to release Malfon's bonds. The moment Malfon felt his wrists and ankles free, he wanted to jump forth and strangle Avaran Whell with all the strength he could muster, but he realized that such a thing would have been foolish. He took a deep breath and waited. He would survive this, but he would have to endure. When Avaran surmised that Malfon was not going to attack him, he waved Malfon to follow him.

“Words are all well and good,” Avaran said, leading him out of the sublevel, “but such things can be deceptive. Let us test your resolve.”

Malfon wordlessly followed Avaran out of the governor’s old home. The old Sith said nothing as he led the younger through the abandoned town, carefully avoiding dead warriors, broken buildings, and damaged machines from the battle Malfon and his companion had earlier. Malfon wanted to ask where they were going, what the leviathans did to the settlers, or who the raiders were, but he said nothing. Avaran provided very few answers as a Jedi Master; something told Malfon he would provide even less as a Sith.

“Do you see that?” Avaran asked, coming to a halt.

Malfon eyed the area in front of Avaran. At first, he saw nothing. However, in a few seconds, a Duros sprinted out from behind a building several meters away and ran across the street into an alleyway. The Duros seemed not to have noticed the two Force-sensitives, and he was burdened by some sort of heavy bag. After several minutes, the Duros emerged from the alley and approached a swoop bike, only to begin taking it apart with an arc wrench and microhammer.

“Who is he?”

“I do not know. All I know is, he arrived here several hours ago and has been scavenging the things left behind by the dead settlers. He is thorough, and if we allow him to continue, he will eventually find our hideout,” Avaran answered.

“And?”

“I want you to kill him.”

“K-kill him?”

“Yes. You are a Sith now. While we do not kill needlessly or out of bloodlust, there is no reason to restrain ourselves from exacting death upon another. If the Force sees it fit that they live, they will survive and kill us. Such is the way of the Sith. This is my first lesson to you: the strong survive, the weak will die.”

“I have no weapon. How am I to kill him?”

Malfon looked at his new master for further instruction, but he said nothing. He didn't want to do this, but if he didn't, he couldn't stop Avaran. Forcing himself to ignore his internal protests, Malfon moved forward. The Duros didn't see him—he was still too far away, and the scavenger was too distracted by his work. Why was he here? Couldn't he search for goods on some other planet? Malfon didn't know a single thing about this scavenger. Was he gathering parts and goods to trade for food? Credits? Spice? Did his job require it? What did his family think? Were they starving? Or perhaps he was a criminal, and this was the only chance he had.

Perhaps he was a criminal. Perhaps he deserved this fate. Perhaps he had done something so cruel that he had been forced to wander the stars like this. Now, Malfon was doing the galaxy a service by killing him. He was eliminating a dangerous criminal who looted the dead. Yes, that would suffice. Convincing himself that this was absolutely necessary for Avaran to die and absolving himeslf of guilt, he made those last few steps.

The Duros shouted as he was grabbed from behind and brought to the ground. Malfon and his target scuffled for a moment, but the Duros was unarmed and could do very little against the Force-sensitive. A few swift punches to the chest and face left the scavenger dazed; standing, Malfon snatched the arc wrench and jabbed the tool into the Duros's throat. The unarmed scavenger spasmed for a few moments, choking on blood and bile. After a few seconds, his confused red eyes blinked shut and he died.

Avaran Whell walked up to Malfon in silence. Malfon stared at the dead scavenger first, then at his own hands, as though in disbelief. What had he done? The Duros hadn't even been armed. He was a civilian—defenseless and harmless, in every sense of the word. He was shivering when Avaran walked up to him, smiling with relief.

“And so your journey begins. Come, let us not linger. We have more work to do still, and very little of it can be accomplished here.”

Malfon shook his head softly. No. He would journey no further down the dark side. That was the first and last time he would kill any more innocents. Even if it meant failing Avaran's tests and losing his favor, this would be the last time. He would find another way. No matter what it took, Malfon would kill Avaran Whell.

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