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Chapter 15

Malfon followed Avaran to the two starfighters on the outskirts of the ghost town. Avaran stepped into Volef's fighter, as though it had been intended for his use all along. The thought made Malfon's blood boil. Wordlessly, Malfon boarded his own, and the two of them left the planet. While he was in orbit and preparing his hyperdrive, Malfon considered the repercussions of escaping. It was not too late. He could still leave this behind, return to Coruscant, and recruit his friends and mentors to help him stop this insanity. Despite knowing that whatever Avaran was planning would mean that he would have to suffer, something kept him from readjusting his hyperdrive computer. This was his burden. He would not bring others down with him.

Avaran sent him coordinates via their comlink. He did not recognize the planet it pointed to, but did not bother running a check. Personal hyperdrive technology was still new, and it was very likely the planet wasn't in his starfighter's basic navicomputer. The erstwhile Jedi before him would be expecting treachery, and escaping was out of the question, so Malfon had to follow Avaran wherever he went against his better judgment.

After passing through several jump beacons, Malfon found his ship floating above a desert world in the farthest reaches of space that had once belonged to the Sith Empire. There were no space stations in orbit and no other space traffic as far as he could see, and the world itself looked lifeless from above.

Malfon activated his ship's comlink for the first time since the journey began. “What is this planet?”

“Silence, slave. I am not here to answer your questions. Discover on your own.”

Avaran shut off his comlink, leaving Malfon to endure the harsh buzz of static. Avaran had never been particularly willing to share his knowledge; Malfon did not expect him to change now. Preparing his ship for atmospheric travel, he dipped his craft into a low dive and followed Avaran toward the surface.

As he expected, the vast majority of the planet was wasteland, with burnt red plains and perilous mountain peaks stretching as far as the eye could see. Avaran seemed to know where he was going, and he led Malfon through the expansive emptiness below to a great valley that snaked its way across the landscape for kilometers. Colossi of stone stood tall enough within the valley itself to be seen during his descent. Their makers must have long since moved on or died, because their weathered faces and eroded bodies seemed to reflect centuries of silent watching.

Avaran set his starfighter down within the valley with Malfon close behind. Powering down the ship and discarding his flight gear, Malfon stepped outside and felt the full power of the dark side bearing down on him. Its permeability was so great that it physically weakened him and brought him to his knees. A stronger Jedi, perhaps, could have walked this planet without harm and without being stunned, but not him. The entire planet seemed to teem with evil power; whispers rose up from the depths of the earth, and the Force—the comforting presence he was used to, not this perversion of it—felt so far away. For a long time, he was unsure if he could even get back up.

He glanced up at Avaran only once, and he noticed immediately that the power here had no effect on him. Was he so immersed in the dark side of the Force that even this place could not even cause him to flinch? The thought of the older man's overwhelming power actually strengthened Malfon's own resolve, and he was determined to overcome this weakness. Avaran nodded with an expressionless gaze as he stood, and he led Malfon away from their ships and deeper into the valley itself.

It was only after Malfon recovered that he gained a sense for his surroundings. In the mountains and cliffs at the sides of the valley, carved between the titanic stone guardians, were doors surrounded by rune-covered obelisks and smaller statue guardians. Most of these doors were sealed shut, although a few seemed to have been forced open. The further he traveled with Avaran, the more of these places he saw. No matter how far they went, though, he saw no other living things.

After some time, Avaran stopped walking and positioned himself directly in front of a cliff face with ornate markings etched into it. Malfon joined him silently.

“We have arrived at the tomb of Adas,” Avaran said after some time.

“Adas?” Malfon repeated.

“The first king of the Sith. Legend states that he ended the Great Foes' control over Korriban; with his ebon armor and great ax, he vanquished thousands and secured dominance over his people. However, his victories eventually cost him his life, and he was laid to rest here.”

Korriban. The birthplace of the Sith? Malfon glanced around. If they were on Korriban, the sickening feeling he had and his weakness before made more sense. Even standing where the Sith could have started their lessons in evil made him feel uneasy.

“Great Foes?” Malfon asked, hoping to conceal his discomfort. “Do you mean the Jedi?”

“No, the Jedi Order did not exist as we know it when Adas lived. These Sith were the red-skinned ancestors of our own path. True Sith in blood and tradition. The enemies they spoke of were another peoples, for whom we have no name. I have suspicions as to who these Great Foes were, but we shall discuss that some other time. Follow me into the tomb.”

And so he did. Avaran placed a crest into the keyhole on the ground nearby, and—after some hesitation—Malfon followed the older Human inside. Even as the massive door sealed behind him, he couldn't help but doubt himself. What was he doing? Would this stop Avaran and his madness? He did not know if he was prepared to do everything to stop him. Entering this tomb, engaging in Avaran's evil, following his commands, everything was wrong. And yet, he didn't know what else to do.

The tomb was pitch black for a moment, and then torchlight began to light their way. Even in their midst, the air around them was damp and cold, and Malfon found it difficult to breathe. The deeper they went, the more the stank of death seemed to creep up on them. The smell of fetid water and musty earth intermingled with the stench of ancient corpses, until it became so powerful that Malfon found himself retching. After he had composed himself, Malfon continued the trek in silence. Avaran said nothing the entire time, again apparently used to the rancid odor and chilling atmosphere. Their brief silence was interrupted by the sound of whispers and footsteps near the bottom of the stairs. Ghosts? Malfon shook his head. Ghosts did not exist. Nevertheless, the thought of ten thousand evil wraiths of dead Sith Lords inhabiting this place gave him pause.

Malfon was grateful when they finished descending. The stairwell itself led directly into a vast chamber, fitted together with masonry that proved sturdy but lost most of its splendor, that branched out into dozens of other rooms. At the center of the dimly lit room was a grotesque obelisk that reached up toward the ceiling, where several dozen sentient beings stood at attention in its shadow.

“Dark Master, we have been expecting you,” one of them said.

“Perceptive slaves are useful slaves,” Avaran noted, almost to himself.

“Who are these people?” Malfon whispered.

“Sith,” Avaran replied. “Each of them raised up by my hand, taught according to my knowledge, and trained under my eyes. You may ignore most of them—slaves ought to be addressed only when necessary—but take note of those seven.”

Avaran regarded seven beings, standing relatively close to one another on one side of the obelisk. Each draped a long cloak over their person and wore a featureless mask over their face, effectively hiding their entire body from view. Even their figures were hard to decipher due to their choice of clothes and the lighting of the room, making it hard for Malfon to tell their species and genders.

“These seven are my personal executors,” Avaran continued, “slaves who have proven themselves worthy of the title of neophyte and worthy of a lightsaber.”

“Is this the one you promised, Master?” one executor, this one with a female voice, asked.

“He doesn't look so damn special,” said another.

“He is. He has no name, like all of you; he was given a name by the Jedi Order, but it is not his own,” Avaran explained. “One day, his strength will match all of yours; until then, he is a slave with the rest of you.”

“A Jedi?” the last one to speak growled. “We don't need no damn Jedi. We can do this on our own, old man.”

“Silence! I will have no words from you.” Avaran turned to Malfon. “These seven have no names, but you shall know them by their deeds. There is a spy, a seductress, my envoy to the raiding peoples, my mechanist, master of science and accounts, the lorekeeper, and the tomb's sentry. You will be my assassin.”

Malfon frowned. “Nonsense. I'm no-”

“There are very few rules here, for such things are necessary only for the weak. Know that breaking any of them means death. Fighting is strictly forbidden within this place, the library is off-limits to slaves without permission from the lorekeeper, the scientists may not be disturbed while the master of science is on watch, and you are not to appear within my presence without my permission. Do you understand, Assassin?”

Malfon nodded.

“Good. I will call upon you soon. Be ready.”

Avaran turned and left the main hall without a word, leaving the executors and their slaves alone with Malfon. Most of them scattered into the other rooms, slowly at first, going back to their scheduled tasks. The executors only left after all the others did, but one remained behind. He, like the others, wore a mask and thick cloak to conceal his features, but Malfon noticed that he was not very tall, rather stout, and vaguely humanoid.

“So, Assassin, huh? What a bunch of farking nonsense,” he sneered. “You're just some weak Jedi who got scooped up by the old man because he needed a new pupil to replace all the slaves I kill.

“Who are you supposed to be?” Malfon asked. “Sorry. I'm not doing autoprints today.”

“Cocky, eh?” he growled, giving Malfon a threatening gesture. “I'm the Spy. And you'd best not forget it. Be afraid; I'll feed you to the tuk'ata the moment you leave the tomb.”

“I'm sure. Quit bothering me.”

“For now, Jedi. But we'll see each other again soon. I promise you that.”

The Spy moved past him, slamming his shoulder into Malfon's. Normally, Malfon would have taken it in stride, but the Spy strengthened himself in the Force and sent Malfon to the floor. He should have been able to defend himself; was the dark side that much stronger here? The shock on his face gave the Spy a good laugh, and he left Malfon on the floor to go about his business. Malfon tried to recover and go after him, but the dark side's pervasive effect on his body caused him to give up. He had been resisting its power until now, fighting in spite of the fact it was like an ever-increasing weight on his shoulders, and he just couldn't take anymore.

He had no idea what to do. Alone in this tomb, he was so far away from anything or anyone that could have helped him. No friend, no teacher, and not even the Force could save him now. His powers were useless, his knowledge trumped, and his strength not enough. What he intended to do, practically lying down in the center of the main hall, he had no idea. Maybe he wanted to let his body recover. Perhaps he wanted to give up and lie there until he perished. Whatever the reason, Malfon refused to move.

“Pathetic. You call yourself a Jedi?”

Malfon turned his body to see the source of the voice. An old Cathar, with braided fur that surrounded his face like a scraggly mane, was gazing down at him with dark eyes. Unlike the Cathar Jedi Malfon had seen, this one's fur was mangled, short, and the coloring had long since faded. He stood with a slight hunch, but he carried no cane. The old feline was wizened, to be sure, but there was something dignified about him.

“Who are you?” Malfon managed to utter.

“Answer my question first.”

“I… I don't know who I am.”

“Nonsense. You only doubt now because you have been exposed to a galaxy beyond your own. Revelations that threaten your beliefs. Power that makes you insignificant.”

“You're wrong. I'm here because…” Malfon paused. He knew why he was here, he just wasn't sure he believed it. “Because I am the only one who can do what must be done. Everything depends on me.”

The Cathar scratched his scarred chin pensively. “Such resolve. But is that spoken out of a desire to defend others or fear of your own weakness?”

“What are you talking about?” Malfon asked, but then shook his head. “Never mind. Who are you?”

“Fasin.” He extended one gnarled hand to the younger Force-user, helping him to his feet. “I have studied in what was once the Sith Empire for many years. When Master Whell found me, he told me that I was to serve his lorekeeper.”

Malfon's Force senses, still weak due to the dark miasma that choked this place, began to return to him. Reaching out, he sensed that Fasin was both incredibly old and quite powerful. He had not been one of the executors Avaran had mentioned, which meant he was a slave. That worried him. As he was now, he reasoned that Fasin would be able to defeat him, which meant that even the slaves here were more than a match for him.

“You did that without question?” Malfon asked after some time.

“The current lorekeeper is one of Master Whell's personal servants. He is a greater duelist than I, and his youth gives him vitality which I lack. The Dark Master rules this place, and he appoints whomever he pleases to whatever post pleases him. Beyond his will, I can do nothing.”

“Are the executors that important?”

“They were appointed by Master Whell himself to carry out his work across the galaxy.”

Malfon eyed Fasin suspiciously. Why was he telling him these things? Had he been appointed by Avaran to keep an eye on him? Was he going to share information about Malfon to the other executors? Of all the things he expected from the Sith, cordiality was not one of them. Malfon had no way of garnering his motives or reasons; despite the fact the old Cathar's presence in the Force was unguarded for all to see, his mind was a whirling tumult that the young Jedi could not focus on.

“So why come to me?” Malfon asked, hoping to goad him into revealing himself. “I'm just a weak Jedi. I will never be Sith.”

“A Sith learns not to deal in absolutes,” Fasin commented dryly. “As a Jedi, I presumed your motives were different than the other executors. Am I wrong?”

“What do you mean, exactly?”

“The other executors exist to please Avaran Whell. Without his words, their lives lack meaning. However, I believe you are not so blasé. No, I believe he took you on for another reason. You want something more.”

“And if I did?”

Fasin smiled. “Then our goals intertwine.”

“I don't think so.” Malfon turned to leave. “What makes you think I need your help? I can do just fine on my own.”

“Can you?” Fasin called to him. “Tell me: how do you intend to defeat his executors? You know nothing about them. I have spent years watching, toiling, and training under them. I know everything there is to know about them. I could provide you with intelligence you sorely lack.”

Malfon frowned. No matter how he tried to reason against it, he knew he needed Fasin's help. Any slave here would know far more about the beings who served under Avaran than he would. Further, a slave would know Sith teachings, his way around the tomb, and any weakness that their Dark Master had—if he had any at all. Malfon knew he didn't need to befriend Fasin, but he would have to work with him if he wanted to defeat Avaran Whell.

“Let's say I believe you,” Malfon began, turning to face Fasin. “What's in it for you?”

Fasin walked toward Malfon until he was side-by-side with him, and then he kept walking. “Avaran Whell has sealed some of the library's contents so only executors can view them. In the years before he arrived, I could read and practice the Sith arts as I pleased. Now, he has forbidden me from their greatest secrets; yet, it is those secrets I crave the most.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“If you could defeat Avaran Whell, Jedi, then I could read without interruption, and your galaxy would be safe from the Sith. We both accomplish what we wish.”

“Really? That's all you want? A safe place to read your books?”

“Once I have exhausted the libraries of the Sith, I would achieve true power. I could ask for no more.”

“You'll excuse me if I don't believe you.”

“Is it an unfair trade?”

“No, but with all that information, I have a hard time believing you'd be content with just reading and thinking about it.”

“And I have a hard time believing a Jedi who carries the Force so weakly could hope to challenge Avaran Whell,” Fasin countered. “You do not know me, and I do not know you. Let us refrain from such petty assumptions.”

Malfon conceded that much. He still did not trust Fasin, but he saw no reason to reject his help if he was going to offer it—for now. He knew better than to trust the Sith, but he saw no other path to take and the Force was not forthcoming with options.

“Very well. Tell me about the other executors.”

“There are seven others, as I'm sure you knew. Each of them has the drive, skill, and potential to become a Sith Lord, given time. Some have been training for decades. Other have been working for a few years at most. I suspect that they are of varied species and ages, but I cannot confirm that. Each has a different role to play in Avaran Whell's grand plan… as do you.”

Malfon frowned. That was disconcerting; he did not want to think about what other plans Avaran had for him beyond corruption and Sith training. The old man's treachery and planning no doubt ran deep, but Malfon dared not jump to conclusions. Then again, this revelation also provided good news: he did not have to confront Avaran directly. At least, not yet. If each of the executors was tasked with carrying out the Sith's will throughout the galaxy, then killing them would slow that evil progress.

“And how do I defeat them?”

“Standard combat will not work. Most of them are too intelligent to engage you directly; even if they are stronger than you, they know how foolish it would be to kill one Avaran has chosen. However, there are a few who lack restraint. Their emotions prevent them from reaching their potential. Those who lack self-control can be baited, but only if you… manipulate the rules to your liking.”

Malfon nodded, and then stopped walking. He knew next to nothing about the executors, and it seemed as though Fasin knew just as little. However, if he could deal with even one now, it would make him stronger in the long run. There was one potential enemy he could deal with, and he could test Avaran's reach and Fasin's integrity in a single moment. Waving an absent-minded farewell to the old Cathar, he noted that they would meet again later before going back toward the main hall. The Cathar merely grunted in reply, not even bothering to turn around to watch the young Human leave.

*** ***

The interior of the tomb was as mysterious as Avaran Whell himself. At times, it seemed to defy geometric and physical sensibilities, bordering on the impossible. Winding tunnels traveled back and forth in infinite loops, stairs continued without end, and rooms were disconnected at times and connected at others. Malfon admitted to himself that navigating this place with the Force would have been easier, but he dared not reach out to it in this place where the dark side was so powerful.

After a long trek, Malfon approached the Spy, who was assembling a combat rifle while sitting atop a wicker basket in one of the countless corridors in the tomb. Like before, the Spy's visage and appearance were hidden from him, but that was fine. Malfon did not need to see him to rile him. If his first interaction with the Spy was enough, he figured that the executor was short-tempered, rebellious, and eager to establish his strength. Having grown up around so many Jedi with these very traits, Malfon knew it would be easy to manipulate the Spy.

“Huh. It seems the Spy is wasting time,” Malfon called out. “Some good you're doing for Master Whell. Are you always so useless?”

The Spy tilted his head upward, just barely revealing the details of his mask beneath his hood. “Get lost, Jedi. I don't have time to entertain a weakling like you.”

“Weak? You think I'm weak? You only wish I was.” Malfon laughed. “What's wrong? Can't pierce this illusion of helplessness I've projected? Entertaining me is all you're good for.”

“There's no illusion, farking Jedi,” the Spy sneered. However, Malfon felt the executor trying to probe his mind and ascertain whether his initial suspicions were, in fact, wrong. “You're bluffing. You're just a pathetic Jedi.”

“Oh? I trained under Avaran Whell himself. He personally selected me, trained me from boyhood, and kept me under his tutelage to ensure I learned all of his powers. Can you say the same?”

“So what? Old man's weak too.”

“If he's so weak, why are you scared of him?”

That struck a nerve. “I ain't scared of nothing. Not the old man and certainly not you.”

“Then why are you too scared to attack me? Why wait until you were away from the scary old man to make your move? Is this tomb too intimidating for you?”

“You Jedi don't know anything-”

“That's cute. He has you on such a tight leash that you couldn't even use the refresher unless he told you to. I'd be scared too if I were you.”

“I killed the last man who talked to me like that,” the Spy traded his rifle for the knife at his side. “What makes you think you deserve better?”

“You wouldn't do it. Like I said, Master Whell has you all tied up; you wouldn't dare do anything to upset him. I'd be more scared of a Padawan than you—at least they have the freedom to do what they please,” Malfon noted.

“I'd like to see you chortle when I cut off your nose. Or maybe your ears. Tongue, perhaps?” the Spy babbled angrily, letting his knife flash in the torchlight around them. “I bet your tone would change then.”

Malfon shook his head and turned to walk off. “Threats? Is that all you can do, threaten me? And to think, I was actually worried about dealing with you; you're not even worth my time.”

“Don't turn your back on me! Damn you! Face me, kriffing Jedi coward!”

Malfon's heard the Spy running toward him, no doubt intending to stab him in the back. In any other situation, Malfon would have spun around and intercepted the attack; this time, he wanted to see how absolute Avaran's rules actually were. It was a dangerous risk. After all, the Spy had told him that many slaves had died at his hand. If he was right, and Avaran's rules were unenforced, then Malfon would have a knife in his ribcage in moments.

His enemy's weapon never got that far. Malfon heard a loud thud behind him, followed by the hissing of a lightsaber. Spinning around, Malfon saw a hulking sentient—practically three meters tall—standing between the Spy and himself, lightsaber in hand. He was in standard executor apparel, but the suit of armor he wore was visible because the cloak was shorter on him than the others.

“Fighting is strictly forbidden in the tomb,” the figure's voice boomed deeper than any Human's. “The penalty for disobedience is death.”

And in an instant, he was gone, vanishing almost as quickly as he appeared. Malfon gasped when he saw the Spy, standing about a meter from him, with a smoldering hole in his chest. The wounded executor muttered a few nonsensical profanities, and then he fell to the ground. Once he was quite certain the Spy would not get back up, Malfon approached the body. He almost laughed in spite of himself. Was this the best Avaran could do? It was almost too easy. At this rate, the other executors would all be dead and Malfon could deal with the old man himself.

Curiosity began to creep up on him the longer he eyed the dead executor. Who exactly was this man, and how did he relate to Avaran Whell? How old was he, what was his species? Kneeling, he began undoing the latches on the mask. However, before he could get the mask off, an apprentice approached him from behind and got his attention.

“Your presence is requested by Master Whell. Immediately.”

Malfon grumbled. “Where should I go?”

“Follow me, if you please.”

*** ***

Malfon had no idea how long he walked, or where he had gone, but after a time his sight flooded with darkness and he faded into an unconscious state. When he came to his senses, he was inside a chamber that did not seem to be connected with the rest of the tomb. The apprentice was gone, and he was alone in this place. Only one or two torches lit the area, and there was a foreboding chill in the air. Everything around him reeked of decay and the dripping of water could be heard somewhere in the distance.


Avaran Whell's body materialized out of thin air, appearing just across the chamber from him. He looked as he always did, but he wore a thick tunic with ornate patterns and runes that Malfon had never seen—no doubt in the style of the Sith—instead of his usual Jedi robes. Malfon tried to hide his surprise, but he had never witnessed someone teleport—if that was what he had done.

“What is it?” Malfon asked.

“Such disrespect in your voice.” Avaran paced. “Are you prepared for your lesson?”

“You say that as though I have a choice.”

“Don't you?”

Malfon smiled thinly. “I'm ready to begin.”

“Then embrace the power of the dark side.”

Avaran extended one arm toward Malfon. Before the young Human could react, he was thrown to the ground by a powerful blast. Then, in an instant, his whole universe went dark. His eyes dimmed until they no longer worked, the sounds and smells of the tomb vanished into a nothingness, and as he tried to stand, he found his balance precarious. He panicked, and he tried to grope for the nearest wall to no avail.

I have disrupted your major senses. If you wish to survive this exercise, you will depend on the Force for guidance.

Malfon fumbled about in his debility. He tried to make a sound—scream, growl, cry—but he heard nothing. The inability to feel, recognize, or interpret information was maddening. His mind could not comprehend what was going on. It felt as though he had been thrown into deep space, and the lack of stimuli caused his body to be even less effective than he wanted. Despite his opposition to using the Force on Korriban, it began to take over where his senses were no more, but it was hardly comforting. Like before, the power that flowed through him was foreign, stifling, and unfamiliar, and he tried to reject it almost as much as he realized its necessity. Soon, his body adapted to the Force's dark control, and he could see, hear, smell, achieve balance, and feel through it, but he was still unsure of himself and found motion difficult.

Good. You are prepared for your test. Before you, I have released an imprisoned Echani warrior. You will fight him in your current state to increase your connection to the Force.

Avaran was not lying. Within the Force, Malfon could see an Echani male, perhaps seven to ten years older than he, standing before him. He wore a simple shirt and tattered pair of trousers, and grime caked his face and limbs. In spite of his disheveled appearance, though, he was well-fed and muscular; he did not look like a prisoner of the Sith. Oddly, as Malfon extended his perception, he realized that Avaran was practically invisible to him. Was he so masterful at hiding his presence that even those who saw through the Force could not detect him?

Realizing that he could use the prisoner's appearance to his advantage, Malfon tried sending mental messages to the Echani. With a bit of convincing, the two of them could work together to overcome Avaran and both of them could escape unscathed; however, his efforts were rebuffed by an external force—no doubt Avaran's doing.

Do you think you can dissuade him? Peace is a lie, there is only passion. I promised this man freedom if he could kill you. Fight or you will die.

Sure enough, the Echani rushed forward. Malfon called upon the Force to increase control over his body, and he dodged the first few jabs from his opponent. However, the Echani was not so easily defeated. A low kick to the right leg knocked Malfon off-balance, and his opponent followed up with several painful strikes to the solar plexus. Gasping for air, Malfon did his best to block the incoming blows, but his efforts were ineffective. After a few more punches to the chest and upper arm, the Echani tackled Malfon and sent them both to the ground. On top of him, the Echani snaked his arms around Malfon's body, using both of them to put the crippled Force-sensitive in a chokehold.

As tears welled up in his eyes and his concentration in the Force became weaker, Malfon noticed that his senses were beginning to darken. If he did not recover now, he would not get another chance. Using the Force to ensure his aim, Malfon punched the Echani in the right kidney as hard as he was able, causing his opponent's hold to falter immediately. Gritting his teeth, the Echani did his best to conceal his pain, but Malfon could sense it in the Force. Malfon kicked upward and forced his opponent off of him so he could stand up.

The Echani wobbled a bit as he straightened up, but he was wounded—without the Force for quick rejuvenation, he would be slowed by the pain. Malfon moved in once he was back on his feet, and he punched the Echani several times in the sternum and kneed him in the groin. The Echani screamed from the hits, and Malfon hurled his opponent to the ground before he could think of countering.

Through passion, you gain strength.

Avaran Whell healed the Echani's wounds with the power of the dark side, imparting some of his own strength into the unarmed warrior. The fight continued in earnest, and the two combatants traded punches, grapples, and kicks. The Echani's skills were far beyond Malfon's league, and the Force-user took several blows that nearly crippled him. However, the Echani was also injured, and even the Force could not completely restore his body if Avaran did not wish it. The compounded injuries began to add up, and Malfon's simple combinations of low kicks and elbow-strikes eventually took their toll. Malfon watched as his opponent stumbled and fell to the floor, and it did not look he was going to be able to stand up. Avaran, for his part, did not heal him this time.

Now kill him.

Malfon looked at his weakened foe. The Force lit his body up like a heat map, revealing the lasting bruises and vicious injuries Malfon had inflicted. He was in terrible pain, and Malfon had no intention of letting him suffer while in prison. Kneeling, Malfon sent a mental apology—he suspected it would be blocked—to the crippled Echani. Twisting the Echani's head, Malfon pushed down until his chin went past his shoulders and his neck snapped.

Very good… in strength, you gain power. Now then, you face Mandalorians in combat. They presume to be the third force that disrupts the duality of nature—a blade that fights both Jedi and Sith. Show them how wrong they are. Show them that even a crippled Jedi can defeat four of theirs with a single vibroblade.

Malfon sensed the arrival of the armored warriors, each carrying a vibrosword and a blaster rifle on their person. No doubt these combatants were of the same stock as those who attacked Volef and him on Corbos. Avaran spoke to them for a moment, but whatever he said was lost to his Force senses. Taking a dagger from one of them, Avaran tossed the weapon in front of Malfon and signaled for the beginning of the fight.

Two Mandalorians opened fire with their rifles, forcing Malfon to jump toward the corner of the room and out of the way. They readjusted their aim accordingly, spraying the walls with bursts of energy where he had been just seconds before. Pivoting away from their line of fire, Malfon worked his way around the room and toward the team of warriors. Charging toward the warrior furthest on the right, Malfon's soaring kick caught him square in the neck, sending him to the ground. Before the others could aid him, Malfon threw his knife toward the nearest Mandalorian with a rifle. The vibrating blade cut through his helmet, causing blood and visceral fluids to splatter against the broken T-shaped visor.

The other Mandalorian with a sword switched out to his blaster rifle, forcing Malfon to outmaneuver the two remaining warriors' blaster fire. Running around the room, Malfon managed to get behind one of the survivors, and he stole his sheathed vibrosword and cut him in half. As the bisected body gave way, the last Mandalorian opened fire in all directions. Malfon worked his way through the tendrils of blaster fire and wrestled the blaster rifle away from the warrior. Before the Mandalorian could withdraw his sword, Malfon shot him in the chest and killed the Mandalorian he had only wounded earlier.

They were all dead, but Avaran was not satisfied. Several more Mandalorians were sent into the training chambers, and Malfon was ordered to dispose of them—with any tool he had except the Force. Bounding in between blaster fire at superhuman speed, Malfon used blaster rifles, vibroswords, and his knife to kill these newcomers. After six waves of Mandalorians had fallen, Malfon was exhausted and blood stained his clothes.

And now you have victory. Your final test shall relieve you of all your weapons except the Force. These Iridorians have come to put an end to your life—as they did your parents, your community, and your home. You have one chance and one chance only to eliminate them. Do so, or I will eliminate you.

Malfon watched in abject horror as eight Iridorian raiders entered the chamber, armed with blaster rifles, axes, knucklers, and jagged swords. The sight of them made him sick. When he had met them before, serving as Avaran's Jedi Padawan, he held back; it was not his place to exact vengeance upon them. After all, the ones he had met then were probably not the ones who had attacked his home, so long ago. This was different. He was free from his obligations as a Jedi Knight. He was still a Jedi, yes, and he had to act like one, but he could circumvent some of their tenants as long as he ultimately defeated the Sith. And that meant he was free to dispose of these Iridorians like the disgusting creatures they were.

The Iridorians were instructed by Avaran in some manner, and they moved in to attack. Malfon was ready for them. His anger had been growing since he started fighting in this place, and his emotions were beyond his control. The longer he fought, the more vicious he became while his body weakened. His connection to the Force compensated for his weakness; in fact, he had become so powerful that he was confident he could kill all of them with one attack.

One attack.

Malfon reached into the Force and tuned into the emotions boiling within him—hate, rage, fear, pride—and made them his strength. His telekinetic abilities received raw power like he never knew, and he realized that it was not worth it to target their bodies in their entirety, but to attack their bodies as the complex organisms they were. Organs, blood vessels, nerve endings, and tissue were vulnerable to his power. He reached out and suspended the incoming raiders in midair while tossing others into the ground. Then, in the blink of an eye, he crushed tracheae, ripped apart lungs, shattered spinal columns, and burst arteries. Some of them died immediately. Others spasmed only for a moment. Either way, Malfon managed to end all of their lives.

Once they had perished, Malfon's senses returned in a flash of light, revealing Avaran Whell and the slaughter he had caused. The broken Echani, the bloodied Mandalorians, the murdered Iridorians were visible now—these deaths were not his fault, but Avaran's. Malfon fought for survival, and he would not even be here if not for the old man's guile. With each death Malfon inflicted, Avaran would suffer all the more when his end ultimately came. Shaking his head, he faced the ancient Sith.

“Have I passed your test?”

“Indeed you have. Your skills are to be commended. You have proven yourself against some of the strongest Force-blind warriors in the galaxy while weakened. You have experienced the Sith Code firsthand.”

Malfon hardly acknowledged his words. He could not ignore the lingering question he had on his mind. “I saw Mandalorians on Corbos.”

“Of course you did. I am a master of the Mandalorians and Iridorians both.”

“W-what?” Malfon clenched his fists. “How is that possible?”

“Did you think the raiders act on their own? Did you think you fought the Iridorians under my watchful eye by chance? Did you think the Mandalorians defeated you and I rescued you from them?” Avaran shook his head. “I control several clans of Mandalorians; I promised them a grand battle in which they could fight the mightiest enemies they would ever know. And the Iridorians themselves have been under my command for some time. I took control of their chieftains' minds, and all of them serve me and me alone.”

“How long have the Iridorians served you?” Malfon growled.

“Since before they destroyed the settlement where you were born,” Avaran replied. “But I have already said too much. Go, I will summon you again when it is time for your next training session.”

Malfon tried to protest, not satisfied with so little explanation, but he lost control of his body and faded into a comatose state that allowed him to be removed from the training chamber.

Chapter 16

Malfon stood just outside of Adas's tomb, listening to the winds howl around him as they passed through the valley. The night air brushed against his face and limbs, and he wrapped himself tightly in his cloak to stay warm. It was dangerous to be here, beyond the protective boundary of the tomb, but he didn't care. Staying inside that place, surrounded by Sith learners and immersed in the dark side, was beginning to wear him down. Now that he was above ground he felt better, but the insidious presence of the dark side was still strong. For now, he would just endure it.

His mind, cleared of all thoughts and meditating, eventually settled on the discussion that ended his training. Based on what Avaran had told him, it seemed as though he had control over the Mandalorian warriors and the Iridorian raiders. The old man was reticent to share information, so he had to have a reason to tell Malfon these things—and not just to unnerve him. If Avaran Whell led the Iridorians, that meant he had been responsible for the attacks throughout the frontier. The deaths of countless innocents were on his hands. More importantly, though, Malfon's homeworld had been destroyed and his family massacred due to Avaran's orders.

He had been led to the Jedi as a boy by those raiders, and the Mandalorians captured him and took him to Avaran to become a Sith. Everything led back to Avaran Whell. What else was he manipulating?

Avaran had mentioned that one of the executors spoke to the raiders in his place. Before, he figured that the old Sith had criminal contacts. Now he was certain that one was his emissary to the Iridorians and the others. He didn't get a chance to meet that executor, but that would change soon enough. Fasin's information had proven reliable, if sparse; with his assistance, he could eliminate the other executors and return to his old life as a Jedi.

Fasin emerged from the darkness of the tomb behind him. He was almost silent, but Malfon detected him in the Force before he arrived. The old Cathar's nervousness was almost strong enough to be palpable, and he occasionally glanced behind him to ensure he wasn't followed.

“I have news,” Fasin grunted.

“What is it?” Malfon asked curtly, interrupted from his musings.

“Do you recall that the executor of science and accounts is responsible for mission debriefings and documentation?”

“I don't think you mentioned that, but go on.”

“His terminal stores information on every executor, every mission, and classified data related to Avaran Whell's dealings.”

“So, essentially, all of his secrets,” Malfon acknowledged. “How do I get in?”

“I do not think you could access that terminal. Even if you could, the executor would stop you—and I do not know just how strong he is. It would be too risky. However, there is another computer just like it elsewhere in the tomb.”


“In Avaran Whell's chambers,” Fasin replied.

Malfon frowned. “You think it would be easier to get into Avaran's personal quarters than deal with the executor of science?”

“The executors are immune to Force skills that alter perception and mental acuity. You would be unable to convince him to help you, and combat could mean immediate death. However, only Avaran Whell's most powerful slaves have received mental defense training—it is one of the final lessons—which means that the guard posted at his chamber should prove easier to deal with. Further, Avaran Whell himself is rarely inside.”

“This sounds too risky.”

“All the more reason to go through with it,” Fasin noted. “He would never suspect such audacity.”

“What if it doesn't work?” Malfon asked.

“Do you not trust me? My knowledge was sound on the Spy.”

“This is different. I think you're underestimating Avaran. I could wind up dead just as easily as he did if I try this.”

“Consider this. If you try to get in and find damning information about some of his executors, I will do my part to kill the executor in charge of the library. This works to both of our advantages and furthers both of our goals. Additionally, I will be putting myself at risk and may very well distract Avaran Whell's guardians from your work.”

“And if I fail?”

“We both perish, it seems.”

Malfon shook his head. If he was captured during this intended raid, his entire plan would be unraveled. All of this evil would be unjustified. He would lose. The fact that Fasin was willing to make a personal sacrifice for his sake did not go unnoticed, but he was still nervous. The dark side was self-serving by nature; either Fasin desperately wanted Malfon to succeed for his own ends, or this was a very elaborate trap. Then again, no matter the reason for his aid, Malfon had no other options at this point, and he was already outweighing the risks in his mind.

This was a good plan. This was what he needed to get the upper hand on Avaran Whell.

*** ***

“What are you doing here, Assassin?” the guard at the door growled. “Avaran Whell is not in his chambers, and you have not been summoned.”

“You want let me into the master's chambers,” Malfon ordered, his voice an eerie monotone.

“I… I want to let you inside,” the guard replied, his tone matching Malfon's.

“Go on ahead.”

“Please, go on ahead.”

Malfon slipped by the confused guard without another word. For now, the hold on his mind would keep the guard from alerting anyone to his actions. He was surprised to find the door unlocked and lacking any sort of security. However, the Force did not alert him to any danger, so he stepped inside. Shutting the door behind him, he glanced around. There were no personal belongings or trinkets to be seen; after several thousand years, he doubted Avaran could appreciate sentimental value. A strange looking computer terminal—rotund, lacking holographic technology, and made with parts that looked ancient—rested on one side of the room, and a long-range communicator was on the other. There was a small bed and several empty footlockers around the center of the room, but nothing out of the ordinary for a Force-sensitive.

Taking only a cursory second-glance for surveillance, Malfon went straight for the computer terminal. He expected to need a passcard or security code to get in; when he was brought straight to the device's main screen, he gaped. Upon gathering his wits, he skimmed the information presented to him. At this terminal, the recent transmissions were unavailable, the archives of the Sith library were blocked, and Avaran's personal information password-protected. Instead of wasting his time trying to guess Avaran's codes, Malfon searched through the information that was available. The first thing that caught his eye was information on the executors.

Opening up the information, he scanned the files that came up as quickly as he was able. Six of the executors, excluding himself and the tomb's sentry, had a file on record. Date of birth, actual name, species, homeworld, relative skill, preferred style of combat, recent studies, and their current mission were all available to him. There was far too much information to peruse. He did not have perfect memory, but he did not dare place a datapad inside the machine to copy the data. Leaving any trace behind, no matter how minimal, would be a disaster for him.

During his search, he realized that one of the executors looked familiar to him. Thinking about it for a few moments, he wondered where he had seen her: dark hair, unusually blanched skin, sharp features, shimmering black eyes. Opening her file, he realized that the executor known as the Seductress was Rehy Merrey, the Nagai woman Elbrook introduced him to several months ago.

His mind raced with explanations for this revelation. Did Elbrook know about her? How could she wander the halls of the Jedi Sanctum without alerting the others? While he wrestled with these thoughts, he realized that his worry was weakening his hold on the guard outside, and he steeled himself. Skimming her file, he found out that she was offworld at the moment; she was back in the galactic capital, attending to the personal needs of a prominent Core World senator who promised to donate credits to some sort of Sith front.

During his search, he did not find any indication of how long she would be gone. That did not bode well for him. If even one executor was still alive when he fought Avaran, then the old Sith could potentially summon reinforcements. She was too far to deal with personally, Malfon knew that. However, there was always a chance that the Jedi could take care of her. Without proof, they could do nothing. However, a plot had been forming in Malfon's mind. If he could convince some of Elbrook's many fixations that he and the Seductress were a couple, then there was a chance—however small—that one would act irrationally and try to win back Elbrook's affections.

Elbrook entertained many women, but very few were aware of just how much of a philanderer he was. He promised many women anything they wanted, and even vowed to wed them in secret; once he had his fun, he would avoid them or spend months on lengthy missions. Their scorn would give them the ability to do what Malfon was not in a position to do.

Shutting down the console, Malfon traveled across the room to the comm unit and activated it. Using its long-range capabilities, he was surprised just how advanced the device was in comparison to the computer terminal. Once it was on, he sent one message to Elbrook himself, and another to his prominent lovers. Using the console's myriad scrambling and falsifying features, he made it seem as though these messages—detailing lascivious behavior between the Seductress and Elbrook—had been correspondence sent to the wrong women by mistake. Most Jedi would have ignored the messages, but many of these women were already upset at Elbrook for one reason or another; they simply needed a reason to let the sparks of doubt within their minds become conflagrations of jealous rage.

Realizing that he could no longer keep the guard under his control, Malfon switched off the comm unit and left. The guard stammered out gibberish as Malfon's hold broke, and the two were facing each other yet again.

“You will forget about this encounter,” Malfon commanded the guard as he walked away.

“I will… forgot about this encounter…”

Malfon left Avaran's room behind as the guards changed shifts for the evening. He had learned a little, but not enough to consider the mission a success. He simply did not have enough time. Disappointed in himself, he returned to the winding maze of corridors that made up the tomb, passing trainees and servants as he headed toward the main hall. When he was nearing the center chamber, Fasin walked up to Malfon and cut him off, directing down a different corrdior.

“The deed, it is done,” Fasin whispered.

“You actually killed the loremaster and you're still alive?” Malfon asked, eyes wide in shock. “How is that possible?”

“I… I am unsure. I did not engage him directly, opting for a more subtle approach,” Fasin explained. “Poisonous herbs in a savory meal are almost as effective as direct engagement—perhaps more so.”

“So Avaran's words are quite literal. As long as we do not fight, we do not break any rules,” Malfon reasoned.

“It would seem so. I never encountered resistance, and the lorekeeper died quietly amidst the scrolls in the back of the library some time later. You now have access to that place.”

“What do you mean?”

“The executor of the library is dead. Without an executor to guard it, any restrictions about that place no longer apply. I am next in line to maintain it, and I certainly will not prevent you for browsing its contents.”

“That's good. I will need to learn all I can to defeat Avaran.”

Fasin nodded. “And what did you discover?”

“Not enough,” Malfon grumbled. “Just bits and pieces of information about a few executors. However, I did put the Seductress in a position to be killed by several Jedi.”

“The Jedi?” Fasin stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Interesting. I would not have thought to bring them into this. It will be most informative to see how the other executors respond to these deaths.”

Malfon nodded, but he did not clarify to his ally that it was Avaran and his response that worried him.

*** ***

The Seductress stormed into the tomb some twelve standard hours later, well into the afternoon. The black cloak and the armor she wore underneath it were burned and scarred, and there were hints of lacerations around her body. Her mask was shattered, leaving only small fragments to conceal her pale face, and the Nagai's ebony hair and bloodshot eyes were plainly visible now. She walked with a slight limp, and dark blood caked her arm. She may have been a temptress before, but there was very little attractive about her now.

Fuming, she pushed her way past several slaves on her way to the science center. The lanky executor in charge of operations and guarding the area did not notice her until she was practically inside the chamber. With a wide gait, he moved to intercept her and held out a single hand to stop her in her tracks.

“Peace, Seductress. What's wrong?” he asked, his voice mellow and soothing.

“Don't ask me what's wrong!” she shouted back. “You betrayed me.”

“I am unsure what you are alluding to. Would you mind explaining yourself?”

“Explain myself? That's rich. Why don't you start?” she sneered. “I nearly got myself killed out there. You sent information about my work to some Jedi, and they cornered me while I was working with a senator. I hardly got out of there alive, no thanks to you!”

“I can assure you I did no such thing. Besides-”

“Don't lie to me!” the Seductress was screeching now. “You're the only one with access to our information. No one else could have known what my mission was. No one else knew I had met with that Jedi before and wooed him. No one else could possibly know my real name—and yet they found me!”

The executor of science wrung his hands nervously. “Perhaps Master Whell-”

“You're blaming our master? I can't believe this. I've had enough of you, traitor!”

The Seductress called upon the Force, using telekinesis to grab the executor of science's lightsaber and twist it while it was still on its holster, angling it perpendicular to his waist. Then, pushing the button on its hilt with her mind, she let the red blade tear through him, completely bisecting his lanky frame. By the time the two parts of his body had fallen, the tomb's sentry had appeared out of the shadows and stabbed the Seductress in the chest. Weakened from earlier and delirious, she did not even anticipate his arrival. She died immediately. Once the deed was done, the sentry vanished without a word.

Malfon and Fasin watched the incident play out from a distance. He hardly expected the Seductress to attack the keeper of science and accounts, much less successfully kill him. Malfon had seen how quickly the Spy had died after disobeying the rules; she should have failed just as he had. And yet, now two more executors were dead. He could hardly complain. Whatever the reason for her success, she had only aided him in the long run.

Four executors were dead now, leaving three more. Together with Fasin, he was sure that they would fall in the next few days and he could face Avaran himself soon thereafter. Pleased with his success, Malfon approached the two corpses and removed the mask from the late executor of science. He had never seen the species that stared back at him. With a small face atop a long, slender neck, the species resembled Quermians, but only superficially. The dead executor's skin was white, and almost glistened in the lights of the fire around them. His almond-shaped eyes were quite large compared to the rest of his head, and there was a sort of crest on top of his head that kept it from being bare. Awed by the unknown species, Malfon said nothing while Fasin approached.

“Avaran Whell is far-traveled, and it does not surprise me that some in his servants are from worlds that we have never heard of,” Fasin mused. “He seems to pride himself in finding Force-sensitives around the galaxy and using them to achieve his goals.”

“But how can he go where the Republic cannot reach? It's dangerous to travel beyond explored routes, and for those who haven't been introduced to galactic society…”

“Assassin,” a servant announced. “Master Whell requests your presence immediately.”

Malfon turned around to face him. He had a bad feeling about this.

*** ***

“Assassin. I've been expecting you.”

Malfon walked into Avaran's chambers for the second time in a standard day. This time, though, he was not alone. Standing in the center of the room, the ancient Sith's arms were crossed, staring straight ahead at Malfon as though he was unaware that his learner had arrived. Malfon stepped forward, cautiously at first, until he was practically within melee range.

“What is it?” Malfon asked.

“I've heard that some of my executors have met their end in the past few days,” Avaran began, remaining otherwise stolid. “You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?”

“I'm afraid not. From what I understand, they were violating the rules and engaging in violence within this tomb.”

“Indeed…” Avaran seemed as though he wanted to bring up a counterpoint, but did not. “Did you consider what I told you about the raiders last time we spoke?”

“Yes, I have. I've realized that you're a liar; you have no control over the Mandalorians or the Iridorians. Maybe you paid for a few mercenaries or have a clan who owes you for keeping them from justice, but your reach is limited to that. No one could do what you have claimed.”

Avaran shook his head. “Is that so? Have you learned so little?”

The old Sith approached the computer console Malfon had activated earlier. At first, the younger Force-user thought that Avaran was going to reveal to him some security device he had overlooked earlier, but Avaran did no such thing. After turning the machine on and cycling through some actions, a slight buzz rang in Malfon's ears. He practically jumped when a blurry holographic image appeared in the center of the room, detailing the exterior of a capital ship sailing through the darkness of space, followed by several smaller ships.

“What is that?” Malfon asked.

“That is the Battlemaster, a Republic Hammerhead-class cruiser. It was sent into the frontier to investigate increasing pirate activity. Locals in-system reported that marauders were going to amass a fleet to enslave the populace and sell them to the Hutts. Initial skirmishes were so dangerous that they decided to send a Jedi to aid in the defense. Observe.”

Another holographic image appeared, this one showing the bridge of a Hammerhead cruiser. Men and women wearing the red-and-yellow uniforms of Republic naval officers walked back and forth across the feed, monitoring the ship's systems and updating other members of the crew. At the center of the screen, a Twi'lek female in Jedi robes was standing toward the front of the bridge, staring out the viewport with her arms behind her back. Occasionally, a Republic officer would present her a datapad or inquire about something, but she tended to ignore them.

“Jedi Knight Lythi'arane was assigned to lead the search. However, she—and you—are about to discover that there are far more dangerous forces than pirates far away from the safety of your Republic.”

Malfon stared at Avaran for a moment, appalled and doubtful. There was not a single entity in the galaxy that had the strength to challenge a Republic task force in a fair fight. The Sith and their fleets were no more, the Hutts used their ships solely to enforce their control of shipping lanes, and pirates would need an armada to even match the firepower of a Hammerhead, let alone a small group of ships.

Of course, Avaran said nothing but directed Malfon to the holographic display. As soon as he did, several ships reverted from hyperspace around the Republic ships: most were medium-sized frigates and small gunships, but there were quite a few starfighters as well. On the other screen, Malfon saw every Republic soldier on the bridge of the cruiser jump in alarm, and a few of them started scrambling for the posts they had abandoned. Lythi herself appeared alarmed, but she recovered quickly and started giving orders to the startled naval officers around her.

Malfon watched as the Republic crew tried to bring their shields to full power, but before they could, one of the frigates in the enemy fleet put themselves on a vector toward the Hammerhead's bridge. At first, Lythi seemed to try and use the Force to divert the incoming ship's direction. That didn't work, and she created a small shield to protect as many soldiers as she possibly could from the inevitable attack, hoping the shields would come online before the collision. Her efforts proved futile. The frigate smashed into the Hammerhead at several thousand kilometers per hour; pieces of the hull were superheated, ordinances from both ships erupted, and fuels mixed to create a blazing inferno that enveloped the entire bridge. The feed was cut, but not before Malfon saw the body of every single being on that bridge disintegrate from the impact and resulting explosion.

He stared at the blank holographic image in stunned silence. The other screen showed the damage clearly. The bridge section had been destroyed utterly, sending metallic debris into space nearby and causing smaller explosions as the ship fell apart at the neck. Without the benefit of its larger turbolasers, the Battlemaster was picked apart by the attacking fleet, using their larger ships to disable the point-defense turrets so the starfighters could finish the job. In the background, the Battlemaster's escort ships met similar fates, outgunned without support from their lead vessel. Only a few starfighters launched from the hangars of the Republic ships, and very few escape pods were jettisoned. None managed to escape the battle.

“The Mandalorians may not be as powerful as Jedi or Sith, but I cannot question their resolve,” Avaran mused. “They will do their work, and they will do it with brutal efficiency. There is nothing more I can ask for from slaves.”

Malfon had no words. Lythi was… gone. He tried to reach out into the Force and detect her presence, but it was a waste of time. Even if he wasn't surrounded by the dark side, she would have been too far away. He watched the whole thing, but there wasn't a thing he could have done to stop it. His entire body was trembling. Avaran had lured the Republic into this trap—and Lythi with them. The Mandalorian forces did not leave a single survivor, and Avaran had no doubt ordered that the bridge crew of the Battlemaster be eliminated first. The helplessness he felt made him sick to the stomach, and he would have reached out to strangle Avaran Whell if he could have killed him then. Lythi was gone.

“Well then, we ought to return to Coruscant as quickly as possible.”

“Coruscant?” The word hurt. “Why?”

“We would not want to miss Lythi'arane's funeral,” Avaran replied. “I'm sure the Jedi will string together a tragic tale of her noble sacrifice—risking her life for the sake of dozens of Republic soldiers, disabling a bomb by her lonesome, stepping into blaster fire to defend a village of innocents. Something pompous and appropriately noteworthy.”

Malfon gritted his teeth. “You would… go there now? You would show your face at a ceremony honoring her life?”

“Why not? I didn't kill her. The Mandalorians did. My hands are bloodless.” Avaran shook his head. “Or are you saying you will not go? Did she really mean so little to you?”

“I'll go.”

“Excellent. Follow me: I will lead you to my shuttle.”

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