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Chapter 17

“There is no death; there is the Force.”

Malfon recited the last words of the funeral quietly to himself along with the rest of the Jedi Order. He and his master had been two out of hundreds of Jedi who traveled across the galaxy to pay their respects to Lythi'arane. Very few died in combat during times of peace, and such events were sobering experiences to every Jedi. No matter how peaceful the galaxy at large was, there was always a chance that the Jedi Knight would have to give up his or her life to ensure the continued safety and peace of the Galactic Republic.

Of course, Avaran had been right. Initial reports were mixed: some suspected that the pirates had attacked during a moment of weakness, others insisted that the Hutts had attacked in retaliation for encroachment upon their trading zones. But in the end, it was decided that Lythi and the Republic soldiers had been killed after fighting off a fleet—of unknown species and loyalty—to ensure the safety of the locals. Any specifics were left as vague as possible; there was no reason to indict any particular party for this loss.

Nothing had been recovered from the wreckage that was left behind by the battle; they had not even finished salvaging everything when the funeral was arranged. Instead, the Jedi Council opted to burn the extra robes she had left behind along with her few personal belongings. As the flames climbed toward the opening in the atrium's ceiling, Malfon's eyes began to mist. After her service to the Order and her renowned skill, and Lythi'arane's body could not even receive a proper burial. It made him sick.

At least, he thought he was angry at them. Had he been responsible for Lythi's death? Would she still be alive if he had only believed Avaran's words? Would he have killed her anyway, just to prove a point? If that was the case, Malfon was still at fault because he did not move quicker; he allowed Avaran to do as he pleased while he wasted time dealing with executors. He should have been going after the old man standing at his side, and now others were suffering for his mistakes.

Everything felt wrong as he stood amidst the crowd of Jedi watching Lythi's funeral pyre burn. He felt the presence of many Jedi as he waited for the ceremony to conclude in silence. However, unlike in years past, the feeling of the light was not comforting. Their power felt like hundreds of eyes staring into his mind, questioning his loyalty and threatening to reveal the deeds he had committed while enslaved by the Sith. What could he do? Avaran had assured his apprentice that he would conceal Malfon's dark presence from the other Jedi, but Malfon replied that there was nothing to hide. He had nothing to hide. He was a Jedi.

Doing his best to turn his attention away from himself, he tried to find familiar faces among the many Jedi gathered in this place. Olnara and Harada were in the crowd directly across from him, wearing their hoods over their heads as a sign of mourning. Elbrook and his companions were nearby, watching the immolation in silence much as he was. Surprisingly, Elbrook showed sign of injury—his arms were bruised and his cloak had several cuts in it. No doubt due to his angry lovers. He could not see Raystin or North in the crowd, and he could not use the Force to sense them without risking revealing his darkness to the other Jedi.

“Do you see those men and women?” Avaran asked, his voice low enough to be practically drowned by the crackling of the fire.

“The Jedi Council?”

“Yes. Do you recognize them?”

Malfon looked at the nine Jedi Masters sitting in the balcony overseeing the ceremony. Some of them were familiar faces. Others were mysterious to him. Five members of the Jedi Council had been granted their positions at the end of the war against Exar Kun, and they were still quite young; they would remain on the Council for many decades to come. The other four positions were in a constant state of flux, as older members became one with the Force or disappeared on missions. The Order was still reeling from the disappearance—and presumed death—of Master Nomi Sunrider, and her position as Head of the Order had not been formally replaced.

In times past, their faces had provided a measure of comfort to him, and their words were sage ideas that he tried to cling to. Now, abiding over this tragic event in a detached and lofty manner, Malfon was furious at their apparent apathy. None of them had spoken, nor did any of them do anything at all. Foreign and elusive, Malfon could feel their haughty power from where he stood, and he hated it.

“Some of them, Master. The others must be recent appointees,” Malfon admitted in a quiet voice.

“Indeed. Now watch: this should interest you.”

Just then, Raystin Benax emerged from the crowd, standing in the midst of the entire Jedi Order. He was disheveled and obviously distraught, but at the same time, his expression reflected the same resoluteness that he always had. Malfon stared in awe even as the other Jedi gasped and muttered amongst themselves. What was he doing? Did he dare mock this venerated moment? One of the other Jedi tried to call him back into the crowd, but he rebuked them.

“Jedi of the Order!” Raystin's voice boomed. “My brothers and sisters, please listen to me! Lythi'arane and her companions were given a just task by the Galactic Republic. Theirs was a mission that all Jedi should aspire to take part in; that is, defending the innocent from those who use their strength for evil. Based on the information they were given, they assumed their forces were enough to face the enemy they sought. But they were not prepared! They were killed by a deadly enemy that we did not know about!”

“What are you talking about, Raystin Benax?” a Jedi Councilor, this one a Caamsi, asked. “You dishonor Lythi'arane's memory by interrupting this ceremony. Know your place.”

“No, you dishonor her name by not investigating this matter further!” Raystin shouted back. “It should be obvious that mere pirates could not have done such damage to a Republic task force. So who was it? The Force gave me a vision! I know the ones responsible.”

Malfon stared at Avaran pointedly. Had Raystin found out? If anyone was going to stop Avaran, it was Raystin, and Malfon was glad for it. This chaos could finally end. The old Sith merely shook his head and motioned for him to listen further.

“The Mandalorians! It was their forces that destroyed the Republic task force!” Raystin declared.

The Jedi in the crowd began to talk to one another much more. The Jedi Council was on their feet now, some of them livid at the interruption and others intrigued by Raystin's assertion. However, there were many more who saw this as disrespect to the dead and were seconds away from dragging Raystin out of the atrium.

“Why do you accuse the Mandalorians of this act?” an elderly Human female Jedi Councilor asked. “What proof do you have?”

“Is my vision not enough to prove their involvement?” Raystin asked.

“Oh please,” a voice in the crowd spoke up. “Next you'll be telling me that your dreams ought to be evidence.”

Raystin wheeled around to face the Jedi. “Would you mock the Force so? You call yourself a Jedi?”

The Jedi who had spoken against Raystin emerged from the crowd. Malfon was not familiar with the man, but the look on several other Jedi's faces seemed to indicate he was quite well-known. Wearing his light blond hair short with a light stubble, he was well-built and stood quite tall for a Human. His blue eyes stared deep into Raystin, and he carried himself with an air of confidence that made even Raystin pause.

“I do not mock the Force,” the Jedi said. “I only question your discernment.”

“If that is not evidence enough, we found remnants of the ships used to attack the Republic force. Those are being investigated now—they will provide the empirical evidence you seek, Dorjander Kace,” Raystin replied coolly.

“Master Kace,” the other Jedi replied in kind. “You must understand that the Mandalorians have no functioning military. They are a nomadic people, traveling around their sector and living almost entirely as peaceful farmers. Since their defeat in the war against Exar Kun, they are leaderless and pose no threat to the Galactic Republic—or the Jedi.”

“He makes a fair point,” another Jedi in the crowd noted. “The Mandalorians have not left their home system since we defeated Exar Kun. And there was never any evidence to confirm that the vessels they used in that time were designed by them.”

“Who would you suggest produced them, then? Sith?” Raystin asked.

That word was like poison. The Jedi Order had produced barriers, both seen and unseen, to prevent the rise of the dark side and the return of the Sith after their last war. Even discussing the dark side or using the word Sith was taboo. When he said that word, every Jedi in the room went quiet, as though merely speaking their name was enough to summon them back from the dead—or call them forth. How amusing it was, then, that Sith stood before them and they did not even realize it.

“No,” Master Kace said, calmly, once the initial shock had passed. “I merely propose that it was not the Mandalorians, as you believe, who killed Lythi'arane. Her death was terrible loss for all of us, but we cannot let our personal feelings cloud our judgment. As the dissection of the destroyed ships will prove, it was certainly pirates who caused this.”

Raystin was speechless, but he realized that other Jedi in the crowd heard reason in Dorjander Kace's words. Malfon noticed their agreement as well. Whether it was because they knew more about the Mandalorian people than they let on or they were impressed by the Jedi Master's peerless record and notability, Malfon dared not judge. The Jedi Council ordered Raystin away from the pyre, and he silently complied. Hanging his head, Raystin wandered through the crowd and left the atrium entirely.

After the events formally ended and the crowd dispersed, Malfon followed Avaran Whell through the halls of the Jedi's sanctuary. Once he was sure they were far enough away from any Jedi to be heard or encountered, he walked side-by-side with his master, as he used to as a young Padawan.

“Does Dorjander Kace serve you, Master?” he asked.

“No. Dorjander Kace is a special type of fool. He is one who loses sight of his conviction for baser things and destroys himself. Instead of seeing Mandalorians as the lesser beings that they are, he believes they are equal to—no, perhaps greater than—the Jedi. You see, he once loved a Mandalorian woman, but she was killed during the war with Exar Kun. His love for his mongrel woman warped his views on life, and now he hates the entire Jedi Order for her death.”

“How do you know this, Master?”

“Can you not seen it?” Avaran asked, only somewhat shocked. “It is written on his face. It is plain in his body language. His mind is awash with loneliness and thoughts of revenge. And yet, he plays the role of a Jedi Master well. You saw how the others followed him—there are none who can dispute his achievements, both during the war and after. He will eventually be given a place on the Jedi High Council for his efforts.”

“What? How-?”

“I have foreseen it. I cannot say I blame the Jedi Order; he is clever—for a fool. However, that will be a dark day for the Jedi as a whole. He is maddened by his grief, and that will make him dangerous. How can one so enamored by animals like the Mandalorians become so strong? Only as a Jedi, and that is their weakness.”

“And what of Raystin? When the reports come back and they prove that Mandalorians made the vessels?” Malfon asked.

“Raystin Benax will not harm us, apprentice. Even if he acquired all the evidence he could, the Jedi Order will not go to war. There are too many who remember the scars of Sith, and they know the suffering that a war involving Jedi can bring. It kills young Jedi and old, corrupts others like Dorjander and Exar, and creates more destruction than the entirety of the Republic's war machine can bring to bear.”

“I see. I suppose that much is true.”

“Indeed. Now go attend to your duties,” Avaran ordered. “I'm sure your friends will be surprised to hear you are alive, and there are other things you must see and hear in this place before we depart.”

Malfon did not know what he meant by that, but he was eager to escape Avaran Whell's presence. Bowing quickly, he departed without a word.

*** ***

The home of the Jedi was a different place now. It was still quite crowded with Jedi, and he was forced to fight the crowd to navigate anywhere. Like every other day, these Jedi went about their business. However, today Malfon was more eager to listen to their discussions. Some Jedi Knights would discuss the charming maidens and adulterous wives they had met on the frontier and their eagerness to return just to get a chance to see them again. Others traded tales of excellent kills from their last missions—the more gruesome the better—and bragged about particularly risky saber or starfighter maneuvers that would earn them recognition from others. Others discussed the economic market, and how best to exploit it using the Force so they could earn credits. Still others discussed their dealings with the Senate, complaining about some members' craftiness while damning others.

Malfon had never paid attention to the words of the Jedi before; he had been so caught up in his own thoughts that he had no time for it. Now, as though the mufflers had been removed from his ears, he could hear clearly, and he hated what he heard. Weren't the Jedi supposed to be better than this? They were only sentient beings, yes, but they were supposed to be of a higher standard so they could serve others. How could they help the helpless without first proving themselves to be better than the common rabble? Now, listening to the other Jedi talk, he was ashamed of his status. If the Jedi Knights were as twisted and corrupt as any other beings, then he would rather be a Sith. At least they were honest about their evils.

“M-Malfon?”

He had wandered into the library. Whether he purposely walked there or the Force had guided him there, he did not know. However, this part of the Jedi's sanctuary was much less busy than the rest. Looking around, he searched for the source of the voice, to no avail. Then, all of a sudden, he realized that he had only heard the voice in his head. Reaching out into the Force—against Avaran's instructions—he sensed Northeus on the upper levels.

Sprinting as fast as he could, Malfon found Northeus sitting against a bookshelf on the upper levels, his head resting on his knees. He heard the younger Jedi say something, but he could not hear him. Moving closer, he realized that North was actually sobbing. To the right of the young Jedi, two lightsabers and a small cube-like apparatus were resting against the shelf. Malfon took notice of them as he sat down on the other side of his friend.

“Hey, North.”

“Malfon…?” North asked hoarsely. “I… I thought…”

“I was dead?” Malfon finished, hearing about the story from Avaran. “No. I was lucky. Master Whell saved my life before the pirates had a chance to execute me.”

“I'm glad.” North sniffed. “Malfon… I…”

“What is it, North?”

“She's gone.”

Malfon shook his head. “North… I…”

North looked up at him, and Malfon saw his face for the first time. His cheeks were stained with tears and sweat. Under and around his eyes were puffy, and his eyes themselves were veiny and red. He was still crying, almost silently now, and tears were racing down his cheeks even as he stared into Malfon's face.

“She's gone. She's gone. She's gone.”

Malfon didn't know what to say. What could he say? Grief welled up inside of him, and tiny pangs of guilt told him that he was responsible for this tragedy. No matter how much he tried to ignore it, he couldn't look North in the face very long. North seemed to crumple in on himself, and Malfon moved quickly to reach out and grab hold of him. With nowhere else to go, North buried his face in Malfon's shoulder and wept. Malfon started crying too, but he tried to hide it as best as he could while he tried to track down the words that escaped him.

After some time, North stopped crying. Wiping his eyes with his sleeve and sniffing quietly, he turned away from Malfon, as though only now embarrassed by his actions. Malfon cleared his throat and wiped away his own tears as well, hoping to appear far more composed than he actually was.

“She left these things to me.” North held up one of the lightsabers and the boxish device. “Her lightsaber. She told me that she wouldn't need it for this mission, and she wanted me to hold on to it until she got back.”

He activated the lightsaber, revealing its silver blade. The weapon's edge was close enough to him that Malfon recoiled upon its ignition. North seemed not to notice, and he swung the weapon around a bit before deactivating it again.

“It's funny… it's almost as though she knew that she wasn't going to come back…”

Malfon shook his head. “Don't talk like that. What's in the box?”

North smiled thinly. “It was a gift. She told me that if I loved history so much, I ought to be involved in making it. This holocron will store over twenty thousand records, should I choose to use them. She said that… I ought to know myself and act… I ought to recite my thoughts and leave them for posterity's sake. For her sake.”

“Will you use it?”

“Eventually,” North replied. “I can't… I don't want to use it now. It would just make things worse. However, when the time comes, I will begin recording the details of my life in here.”

“Only when you're ready.” Malfon nodded. Still lacking words, he managed to say, “There is no death, North.”

“There is the Force,” he replied quietly. “She would have said to avoid these dark and distressing thoughts. But I just can't get rid of them, Malfon. What can I do?”

“What do you mean, North?”

“Those pirates! I hate them!” North growled, but softened his tone when he realized how harsh he sounded, “Lythi's dead because of them. What am I supposed to do? It is their fault, but I am not supposed to feel this way. I'm a Jedi. Should I forgive them? Bring them to justice? Reject all such thoughts and go on with my life? What should I do, Malfon?”

“Just be a Jedi. Don't get caught up in revenge or mercy. That's not up to you. Let the Force lead you where it will.”

“So I should just leave them out there to hurt more people?”

“They will face justice, North,” Malfon said calmly, surprised at North's unusual determination.

“Then why shouldn't I help bring it to them?”

“Your feelings will betray you. While I don't doubt you know the difference between revenge and justice, you would not be able to separate your emotion from your reason if it came down to it. Just trust me on this.”

“Has it happened to you?” North asked pointedly.

“It happens to all of us,” Malfon mused. “She will be with you, North. Remember what she died for, and carry on her what started.”

North nodded. The two Jedi stood up, and North collected his things and returned the lightsabers to his belt. After they were certain that they did not appear as though they had been crying—at least, not as they had been—the two Jedi left the upper floor to leave the library. Before they left, North grabbed hold off Malfon's sleeve.

“What is it?” Malfon asked.

“Please… don't leave me too. Promise me you won't.”

Malfon stared back at him. North. If he could handle this affair with Avaran Whell and his Sith, then he could return and live out his life as a Jedi. He could reunite with the rest of his friends, and he could start that charity with North that they wanted to run. They would become Jedi Masters and gain seats on the Council and become the wise and venerable Jedi. But until then, this business with the dark side came first.

He clasped North's arm. “I'll be here, North.”

North nodded, on the verge of tears again, and the two Jedi left the library in silence. After a brief walk through the emptying halls of the Jedi's sanctuary, North said goodbye to Malfon and headed for his quarters. Again alone with his thoughts, Malfon wandered the halls with only the Force to guide him.

Malfon realized that now he was on Coruscant, he could flee the Jedi Order and the Sith to escape for good. But what would that gain? He had lost too much to stop here. He couldn't just turn around and run away; not now that Lythi was dead. So then, perhaps he could recruit Jedi while he was here to help in the fight against Avaran? No. That was too difficult. If the masses would side with a famed Jedi like Dorjander Kace, how much harder would it be to incriminate the sagacious Avaran Whell? Even his closest friends would only become burdens. Without the knowledge he had, they would be put in harm's way and hinder him. He had to do this alone. For now, he would have to stay with Avaran and fight the Sith on his terms.

Approaching his old quarters, he was surprised to see that one of the Jedi's utility droids was standing outside of his room. Evidently, it had been waiting there for quite some time, and it did not even wait for him to get close to his room to approach him.

“Are you Malfon Benax?” it asked.

“I am. What is it?”

“You received a single holocomm message while you were gone, approximately three weeks, four days, and twelve hours ago. It is from one Junara Astral. She requests that you respond as soon as you are able.”

With that, the droid slid away, satisfying its programming. The thought of the droid coming by his room for three whole weeks to relay the fact he had a message amused him, but he did not express that to the droid. Instead, he entered his room and used his private terminal to play the message. He was surprised to hear from Junara again. He thought she had said all those strange things to him to get away from an arranged marriage. There was no reason for this.

Her message was brief, and she simply told him about some local happenings on Alderaan and events in the court. She asked how he was doing, if he had been on any missions, if he intended to visit, and then asked for a response in no uncertain terms. How strange. As a Jedi Knight, he was not required nor expected to establish regular contact with anyone outside the Order. Indeed, communication with others was so rare it was practically frowned upon. Romantic interest was out of the question entirely. However, Junara's request for a response had been insistent, and he thought it was rude not to. In any case, he was not wholly a Jedi anyway; he walked a fine line, but that line permitted him to respond to her. Replaying the message to see if he missed anything, he sat down in his bed and considered how best to respond.

*** ***

Malfon left Coruscant as soon as he was able. Being near so many Jedi, especially those not his friends, was uncomfortable to him. Citing a mission with Avaran Whell, he departed to Korriban with the old Sith and returned to the tomb of Adas after an uneventful hyperspace journey. Fasin was waiting for him to return, and explained that the remaining executors were investigating the deaths of the others. Before Malfon could plan the next stage of his treachery, though, he was summoned into Avaran's presence almost as soon as he left it. Giving Fasin orders to collect Sith texts that he could study from, he followed the servant before fading into unconsciousness.

When he awoke, he was in another isolated chamber, like the one he had been in while fighting the prisoners and raiders. This one was at least twice the size of the other, and there were far more torches along the walls, providing light enough for the entire room. He and Avaran Whell were alone, and the older Force-user was staring into space as though lost in thought, much as he always was.

“Master. Are we to train?” Malfon asked.

“Indeed. Are you convinced of my influence yet?”

Malfon hesitated. “You control the Mandalorians and Iridorians. You lead the Sith here on Korriban and the Jedi Watchcircle on Coruscant. What is your goal? What do you hope to achieve with all of this?”

“Do you still not understand?” Avaran asked, sighing. “In my old age, I have seen much, Assassin. I was still a Jedi Knight when the Sith Empire collapsed over this planet over one thousand years ago. However, even I am not ageless. One day, I will die.”

Hopefully sooner than later, Malfon thought. Realizing a few seconds later that Avaran could potentially read his mind, he sealed away such thoughts and nodded simply.

“I recognized my mortality sometime after the Hyperspace War. I knew I had to take on an apprentice—one who could receive all of my power, and carry on my dark plans. I knew what I had to do. You see, there were two Jedi Masters who loved each other in secret, but the Order was in the stage of its cycle that prohibited romantic love. It was I who convinced them to confess their feelings to the other and flee the Jedi.”

“Master, what does this have to do with my question?” Malfon interrupted.

“Be silent! It has everything to do with your question,” Avaran growled. “They fled the Jedi Order on a civilian ship, which I arranged to be attacked and crash into a distant world, one not yet navigated by the Republic. The two of them survived that attack, and they had a daughter. She, like her parents, was extraordinarily powerful in the Force. Knowing this, I let her grow up and found a suitable Force-sensitive for her mate. With a bit of… manipulation, her mate crashed on that same planet and fell in love with her, and the two had a child. For seven generations I ensured that this line remained strong in the Force.”

“And then what?”

“And at that point, I deemed the son sired by that generation was strong enough to become my apprentice. I sent the Iridorians under my control to his homeplanet, and the settlement that I had indirectly founded burned. Per my orders, all were killed—except him. You see, I alerted the Jedi Order to a danger in the frontier, and they sent a team to investigate the reports of raiders at the coordinates I provided… thus, saving you.”

Malfon's eyes widened. “W-what? Speak sensibly! What are you talking about?”

“Don't tell me you don't grasp this? I have been breeding sentients for a thousand years, hoping that, eventually, they might create a child strong enough in the Force to be my equal; the Force travels as it deems fit, but it hardly ever leaves a bloodline entirely. Those two Jedi just happened to have such genetic stock that the Force potential actually increased with each child. You, Assassin, you are the result of this magnificent work. I have created you as my pupil, my perfect slave, my replacement.”

“Shut up! You're insane,” Malfon shouted. “Liar. That can't be true. It doesn't make any sense!”

“Search your feelings; you know it to be true,” Avaran replied. “All of your life, even before you were born, has been guided by my hand. I ensured you were trained by Rell Hernaster. I recommended missions for you to go on, and kept you away from others. I let you experience darkness by letting you fight against the Iridorians. All your accomplishments are my accomplishments. You have done nothing without me; you are meaningless and worthless, and I have made you into what you are today.”

Malfon couldn't even turn his thoughts into coherent words. Letting out a violent scream, he fell to his knees and clutched his head with his hands. No. It had to be a lie! He had done those things. He had saved innocents, worked with Rell Hernaster dutifully, defended the Republic. The old man before him was bluffing. There was no way anyone could possibly-

Malfon shook his head. This was it. He had denied it for too long. Avaran was incomprehensible to him. The more Malfon learned about him, the more indomitable he appeared. There was no hope for him. He had been exhausted, humiliated, and torn down. Whatever plans he had were for naught. The only way he could match Avaran Whell was by usurping his power by force, and the only way he could acquire that strength was by learning exactly how powerful he was. He needed Avaran Whell's darkness.

But first, he had to unleash his own.

Jumping to his feet in the blink of an eye, Malfon reached out toward the old man as though to strangle him. Electricity crackled around his fingertips, tracing his veins with shades of blue and white. Shouting at the top of his lungs, Malfon unleashed a barrage of dark energy at the man he hated. The lightning jumped through the air in wide tendrils, navigating toward his target in jagged paths. Much to his surprise, Avaran simply activated his red lightsaber and held it up to absorb the incoming attack, completely nullifying its lethality. The bursts of energy flowed into the crimson blade, and Malfon had to end his attack before his reserves of strength were exhausted.

“Good… show me your power. Do you think you can kill me? Take my weapon; cut me down.”

Malfon did as he was instructed, pulling the weapon from his master's hand with the Force—Avaran offered absolutely no resistance—and leaping forward. Avaran stepped out of the way, dodging the incoming swing entirely, and then he activated his silver lightsaber. Malfon was surprised that he still had the weapon he carried as a Jedi on his person, but he betrayed no emotion. Moving forward, he tried to lock blades with the old man, but every time Avaran jumped out of the way.

“What is the best offensive, slave?”

“One that takes one attack!”

Malfon bounded to Avaran's left side and stabbed forward, hoping to drive the blade through the old man's gut and out of the other side. Avaran bent his entire body away from the thrust, letting the lightsaber miss him by mere centimeters. His flexibility was shocking, and Malfon had no chance to reposition himself before Avaran smashed the butt of his weapon into Malfon's head.

“Wrong! The best offense is the unorthodox offense; if the enemy cannot predict the attack, how can he hope to defend?”

“I'll fight as I learned how!”

“What is the best defense, slave?”

“One that anticipates the enemy's attack and prepares for offense!”

Malfon backflipped twice to avoid Avaran's swings, but the old man was far quicker than Malfon could have imagined. Even when they sparred on Coruscant, Avaran Whell had never been this fast. He was lucky and intercepted Avaran's blade mere seconds before the silver pillar of energy could cut through his shoulder, redirecting the weapon into the space between his shoulder and his neck.

Of course, Avaran seemed to anticipate such a movement. Kicking forward, his armored greaves struck Malfon's thigh, causing him to crumple over. He blocked a few of Avaran's swings, but most of them made contact—luckily, the blades had been set to a lower power and merely left a deep gash. The pain was agonizing, and Malfon shouted as the energy weapon cut through his clothes and left burning wounds in his arms, chest, and legs.

“Wrong! The best defense is one that refuses to let the opponent make contact. If you can avoid all attacks that come to you, then you have the perfect defense and can frustrate the enemy with your superior skill.”

Malfon struggled to his feet, but Avaran punched him in the chest, sending him back to the ground. Extending one of his gnarled hands, the ancient Sith released a burst of shimmering energy that dazed Malfon. At first, the attack seemed only to temporarily confuse him; however, in a few moments, Malfon felt the Force leave him. The more he tried to reach out and reclaim it, the more it seemed to abandon him. His senses began to shut down and his body failed as though he had been deprived of oxygen, and his kneeling body fell to the floor in a crumpled heap.

“Wh-what is… h-a-appening?” he croaked.

“I have sealed you from the Force,” Avaran explained, his palms glowing a pale light. “The effects are only temporary, but while I am near you, your connection to it will be entirely severed. The Jedi Order claims that the Force flows through them, and their powers are only a result of its presence. Nonsense. The Force is your weapon. But you can fight without a weapon. Now stand, and show me you are not so weak as to die without your precious Force.”

For the first time in as long as he could remember, Malfon could not feel anything beyond him. The hushed sounds of distant sentients. The thoughts and feelings of beings nearby. There was no comfort, and yet there was no power either. His body had lost an eye, ear, hand, lung, and parts of his brain all at once. He thought for certain he would die, becoming a lifeless husk permanently separated from the Force. And for some time, he wanted to. However, his conviction bid him to rise, and he weakly stood back up, facing Avaran.

The old Sith said nothing, but he did reactivate his lightsaber. Without the Force, there was no way Malfon had the dexterity nor the skill to wield the lightsaber he had been using. There were no other weapons around, and Malfon was still disoriented anyway. With a quiet sigh, he raised his hands into feeble fists and prepared himself. Malfon stepped out of the way of Avaran's first swing, which had purposely been slower than normal, and countered with a quick punch to the arm. Avaran blocked, but did not counter.

Once the two were back in their starting position, the old Sith swung again. Malfon tried to dodge, but this time he failed to get out of the way due to his poor reflexes. The attack left a deep burn in his chest. Back and forth they went, Avaran attacking with his blade and Malfon attempting to dodge. For some time, Malfon proved incapable of avoiding the blows, and he suffered for it. However, the longer he continued to maneuver, the more comfortable he became; by the time their exercise was done, Malfon was jumping, rolling, and performing flips to avoid Avaran's complex attacks.

At Avaran's behest, Malfon picked up the red lightsaber and let the blade spring forth. His initial attacks were clumsy and awkward—more so than normal—and Avaran intercepted them as he would a youngling's swings. However, he soon managed to adjust his body so as to handle the essentially weightless blade and the locks that resulted from two of them meeting. Though the Force was gone, the feeling of carrying this weapon was not. Malfon's simple attacks became velocities in due time, and those velocities gave way to more nuanced forms of lightsaber combat that he had learned from Avaran himself after becoming a Jedi Knight. The two lightsaber duelists traded blows for some time; Malfon did not land a hit on his master, but he did not get hit either.

Avaran signaled for the end of the duel as the torches began to dim, and Malfon felt the Force return to him in all of its power. Unlike before, the power that flowed through him was more akin to the spirit of Korriban than the strength he had while on Coruscant. Foreboding and mysterious, some of its ethereal might was beyond his understanding, and he was surprised that the Force could be such a stranger to him.

“You have done well, my apprentice. I suspect that, given time, you will rise above your status as a slave and become something far greater. For now, though, you should rest. The wounds I inflicted will not heal without patience and the unnatural healing that the Force provides. Go and attend to your studies. I will call upon you again in due time.”

Malfon bowed and, discarding the lightsaber he had been using, faded into unconsciousness so he could be escorted out of the chamber.


Chapter 18

In the months that followed, Malfon dedicated himself to the Sith cause. Or, at least, his vision of it. From the moment he got up until the sun began to set behind the walls of the valley around them, Malfon joined Fasin in the library. Now that the aged Cathar was the unofficial master of the library and all of its contents, Malfon could come and go as he pleased. Stepping in where Avaran refused to, Fasin taught Malfon much of the ways of the dark side, the Sith traditions, and the powers that came with the title of Sith. Together, the two uncovered ancient secrets in the forbidden tomes and ancient scrolls contained in that place, sealed away for millennia.

It did not take long for Malfon to surpass Fasin's expectations. Indeed, Malfon became far more skilled in the Force than he had ever been as a Jedi, and he continued to grow the more he walked in the dark side. Even if Malfon had been suspicious of Fasin and his motives before, he was glad to call him an ally now. Fasin spent much of his time translating ancient works for further study, and he was quick to share whatever he learned with Malfon. Due to Fasin's knowledge, it was possible that he was hiding things from him; after all, Malfon could not speak, read, or write in the ancient language of the Sith, so he depended on Fasin for his learning. The old Cathar could have excluded or lied about information. Malfon rebuffed these suspicions as quickly as they came. He had been nothing but loyal for as long as they had worked together.

With most the executors dead, Malfon was free to go wherever he wished when he was not studying. Avaran restricted only his private hangar and his personal chambers, and Malfon had no reason to enter either. Every other area of the tomb was under the jurisdiction of a dead executor, and none of the others were in a position to inherit these places. Malfon occasionally traveled to the prisons to test his new powers on captured soldiers or to the communication room to send messages to Junara, but otherwise kept to the library and training facilities.

Nearly a year after Malfon had been following through this routine, he was intercepted by an older man on his way to the library. This Human's face was abnormally flat, with a compressed nose and beady eyes that seemed to sink into his face. His hair was graying around the temples, but otherwise his hair was rather dark. Wearing a lab coat stained in several places and packed to the brim with medical utensils, he looked out of place amongst all these Sith. Malfon had never seen him before.

“What do you want?” Malfon asked.

“My apologies. You are the Assassin, correct?” the man asked, his voice a few octaves higher than Malfon expected.

“I am. And you are?”

The other man chuckled despite himself. “I'm sorry. After all this time, I've forgotten how to interact with other sentients. Doctor Tserne DeLarane, neurosurgeon. I work for Master Whell in this science department.”

“I've never seen you before.”

“Too caught up in my work,” the doctor admitted. “And my work has kept me quite busy.”

“So why seek me out now?”

“I'd like to show you something, actually.” The doctor motioned toward the laboratories. “Would you mind?”

Malfon nodded. The doctor backpedaled and headed toward his destination with feverish pace, forcing Malfon to keep up. Passing through the chamber that once served as the headquarters of the executor of science, Malfon noticed the room had been untouched since his death. He couldn't help but wonder if Doctor DeLarane was mad at him for killing the executor. Had they known each other, or was the executor simply a bodyguard? The two walked by several darkened rooms while the question lingered in his mind. He certainly hoped this wasn't a trap.

The doctor led him to a brightly lit room at the end of a long series of blackened hallways. This chamber was a sterile white and quite spacious; it looked like it had been added to the tomb far later than most of the other rooms. On the ground floor, there were hundreds of bulbous containers large enough for him to lie down in, filled with translucent liquid and attached to a multitude of medical scanners. Several dozen droids roamed the room, silently monitoring whatever was inside the pods. There was an upper floor as well, although it seemed to comprise of a only a small room and a balcony. What was this place?

Unlike Malfon, Doctor DeLarane was hardly amazed by the contents of the chamber. Walking toward the back of the room, the doctor navigated through the maze of capsules until he reached a set of stairs. Malfon, recovering from his awed stupor, sprinted to catch up with the older man and ascended the stairs with him. Once he was at the top, he found himself on the balcony he had seen earlier, where two other doctors were observing the situation below. One was a well-built man with brown hair and ruddy facial features who wore his doctor's coat rather loosely and appeared quite disheveled in general. The other was far shorter, with light blond hair and a wizened expression not unlike Avaran Whell's.

Malfon hesitated at first, realizing he had no idea who they were or why he was here. Doctor DeLarane invited him forward.

“Assassin, this is Doctor Alrond Bancho, our biochemist,” Doctor DeLarane introduced the first, younger Human to him, “and this is Doctor Kenn Solis, virologist.”

The two Humans shook his hand and returned to their places at the end of the balcony. Doctor Bancho was busy entering information into the nearby terminal, and Doctor Solis was distracted by the droids' labors below. Malfon predicted that had he not been here, they would have worked for hours without moving from this place. From their height, the four of them could see the entire room, spacious as it was. Malfon stood near the railing to get a good look even though he did not really know what was going on. And then, much to his surprise, he thought he saw a Human in one of the pods.

“What… what is this place?” he asked Doctor DeLarane.

“It is a cloning facility, Assassin.”

“Cloning?”

The doctor nodded. “Avaran Whell ordered this place to be constructed not long after he appointed an executor of science. You see, the executor himself was quite well-versed in the technology and came from a species that excelled in such things. With his knowledge and Master Whell's judicious use of slave labor, we built this facility to house over eight hundred clones.”

Malfon stared down at the capsules below. “How did you- where did they come from?”

“I cannot say for sure. We were not introduced to the prime template; we only received his cells. Avaran Whell was most insistent that we were not to investigate the matter further,” Doctor DeLarane said. “Since that day, we have made over seventeen thousand clones.”

“Seventeen thousand?” Malfon gaped. “But there are so few clones here.”

“Once we have reached capacity, we freeze the stock in carbonite—impossible without Avaran Whell's assistance, actually—and send them to different bunkers across the galaxy for storage,” Doctor Bancho mentioned.

“Who else knows about this?”

“Only us, Master Whell, and you,” Doctor DeLarane answered.

Malfon shook his head. The more he learned, the less he understood. He thought he had learned enough of Avaran Whell's secrets. The old Sith had told him that he was to be his successor. Yet there were nearly eight hundred clones before him who could very well challenge him for that title. What use did a Sith have for clones? More importantly, why did Avaran hide this from him, and why was Doctor DeLarane even showing him this in the first place?

“Could I… could I see one?”

Doctor DeLarane nodded slowly. “It is only fitting. Follow me, Assassin.”

Malfon didn't know what he meant by that, but he didn't ask for an explanation. The other two doctors remained on the balcony to monitor the progress of the droids and their clones while Malfon and the neurosurgeon descended. Malfon waited at the edge of the sea of tanks while the doctor inspected a few of the capsules and their vital signs. After a few moments, he waved the young Sith over to a capsule on the west side of the room. Glancing inside the pod, Malfon could see a humanoid figure, a few centimeters taller than he was, floating inside the dark liquid. Wearing only undergarments, the clone's muscular physique was immediately apparent, and his pale skin glistened in the translucent mixture of nutrients and supplements he floated in. He had a rebreather covering his mouth and nose, and there were wires intermixed on his person that led to the displays just outside his transparent home.

Surprisingly, Malfon felt hints of the Force within this unconscious figure. He knew very little about clones, but as far as he knew, Force-sensitivity was not something that could be truly inherited—or cloned. Reaching into the Force, he realized that all of these clones had the same vestiges of Force power that this one did. Hardly strong enough to be called a Force-user, but enough where the power flowing through them could impact their existence in a tremendous way. Even so, the minds of these clones did not respond at all to his cursory scan, despite the fact that even the unconscious mind defended itself against foreign intrusion.

“This clone is alive?” Malfon asked.

“Indeed. It is both healthy and physically able to be freed at any time,” the doctor assured him.

Impossible. The Force did not flow through this man, and there were no external hints at life. Closing his eyes, Malfon immersed himself in the Force and touched the mind of the clone before him. At the moment their minds linked, the clone's vitality became apparent. As though he had released floodgates during a storm, the Force power stemming from the clone overpowered him, and Malfon felt strength drain from his body. He and the clone both opened their eyes at the same time, and Malfon saw the figure float to the edge of the tank. He was terrified at what he had done. Malfon quickly released his connection to the clone's thoughts, and at that moment, the figure inside the tank died. The Force left him almost as quickly as it had come, and the clone's eyes rolled backward as it bobbed into a dead man’s float.

“What… what happened?” Malfon asked, gasping for breath.

“The clone perished,” Doctor DeLarane stated matter-of-factly. “Brain aneurysm, I believe, but I will have the droids confirm it.”

“H-how? What…?”

“I cannot say for sure, but Master Whell wanted them to meet their general. I have done what he requested. Any further inquires you will have to direct to him.”

“General? This is an army?” Malfon wondered aloud. “What is Avaran going to do with it? Seventeen thousand is impressive, but the Republic-”

“I just monitor the clones, Assassin. I don't know the details. I'm quite sorry.”

“But they're going to be trained and outfitted for battle?”

“Both are already done,” the doctor explained. “Master Whell used some mythical wonder to implant them with battle-ready knowledge and skills. I was dubious myself, but he summoned one from the tank and had it fight against several well-trained combatants. It performed… admirably.”

“And the equipment?” Malfon pressed.

“Ah, yes. Summon one from the tank: I will show you.”

“Summon? I don't understand.”

Doctor DeLarane tapped his foot lightly, evidently perturbed by the question. “Well, you see, the clones themselves are alive with functioning immune, respiratory, and nervous systems. A plethora of tests and scans have been run to affirm this. However, when we remove them from their capsules, they perish within a few minutes. It is as though they have no will to live. It is quite puzzling to us, but Master Whell assures us that some 'dark side' gives them the vitality they need.”

Was Avaran controlling them with the dark side of the Force? That would make sense, but it did not explain why they died so quickly, nor why they were all Force-sensitive in the first place. Maybe it was vestiges of the old Sith's own powers that Malfon was sensing? He had no way of knowing for sure. However, if Avaran could control these clones with the dark side, then so could Malfon. Reaching out into the Force, Malfon seized control of the mind of a nearby clone. As before, he felt weak as he reached out to it, but he refused to let himself be defeated through such a simple mental connection. Dominating its mind, he only allowed it to take the strength from him that he offered.

Doctor DeLarane watched in awe as the clone's tank emptied, allowing the drenched clone to step out from his capsule and stand—albeit clumsily—on the floor before them. The vital monitors connected to his bare skin were quickly detached by a host of droids, and he stood before Malfon and the doctor with a blank expression on his face.

“What is your name, clone?” Malfon asked after he was confident that the mental link would not expire unexpectedly.

“I… I do not know what that is,” the clone stuttered. “I only know how to fight. Let me fight.”

“Shall I show you their armor and weapons?” Doctor DeLarane asked.

“Of course.”

The doctor led Malfon away from the tanks and toward a sort of back room that was hardly visible behind the flight of stairs leading to the balcony. The young Sith urged the clone to follow, and he did; however, he still had an awkward gait and stumbled behind the two with great difficulty. There was a determination to his efforts, though, and Malfon respected that too much to ask him to stop. Once they had arrived, Doctor DeLarane withdrew a black breastplate and a similarly colored helm and handed them to Malfon.

“The first of many pieces,” he said.

At Malfon's request, the clone donned every piece of armor he received, from head to toe, until he was wearing a full suit of dark armor that would probably have been classified as medium military-grade armor. With jagged plating and a featureless helmet, the clone was terrifying to behold. He was handed a vibroblade and a blaster rifle, and he demonstrated professional efficiency in cleaning and repairing the purposely damaged weapons. Due to his previous clumsiness, Malfon was surprised just how well he did. Once the clone had shouldered his equipment, Doctor DeLarane bid the two of them to follow him back to the main area.

“Quite impressive, no? He could hardly walk before, but he is marching alongside us now. Master Whell's methods of information transfer are nothing short of extraordinary.”

“I am certainly impressed,” Malfon agreed. “They will all operate like this?”

“Every one. Should you ever need them, they are at your complete disposal, Assassin.”

Malfon nodded in agreement, but he was reeling. While he had no idea what Avaran was planning, he knew that there was no way he could let these clones live. They were too dangerous. Once the old Sith was defeated, he would use the information stored on his computers to track down and eliminate this army of his and end the threat once and for all. However, for now, they could be useful to him. If they would follow orders, he could use them to do what he could not. Bidding a solemn farewell to Doctor DeLarane, Malfon ordered the clone to follow him, and the Force-sensitive soldier followed without question.

*** ***

The man following him could hardly be called a man. Malfon walked through the halls of the tomb with a steady pace, and the clone was always just outside his peripheral vision. He never bothered to pick up his pace to walk beside him, nor did he slow down to walk behind him; he was always just within his shadow, content to remain there. The clone's continued existence depended upon a permanent mental link to Malfon himself, and that was draining. Indeed, Malfon hated the fact that he could essentially read the thoughts and feelings of this creature as though they were his own. Its simplistic mental faculties made it seem less like another living being and more like a droid.

“Tell me,” Malfon said, not even turning to look at it, “what should I call you?”

“I do not understand,” the clone admitted.

“Your name. Your designation. I don't care. I'm not going to call you 'clone' the entire time you serve under me.”

“I am a clone. How else should I be called?”

“You are the first of your brethren to be extracted from the tanks, but not the last. What happens if we're in a battle and I must address you specifically?”

“I had not considered that. A formal designation would distinguish myself from any other units derived from the same template…”

“My thoughts exactly,” Malfon replied. “I have been thinking Aurek would be a fair name. What do you think?”

“I do not think one way or another. Is there some significance?” the clone queried.

“Aurek is the first letter in Galactic Basic. You are the first clone to follow me. I think it is simple and fitting, no?”

“Ah, yes. That would make sense.” The clone was silent for a moment, and then added: “What is my purpose?”

“Your purpose?” Malfon was flustered by the question, but only for a moment. “You are to defend myself and my allies, and obey all instructions I provide, no matter your objections.”

“I see. Thank you, Master.”

The two of them stopped in front of a closed door on the far eastern end of the tomb. Malfon himself had passed by this place many times but had never visited it. Whenever he used the comm center closer to the center of the tomb, he had wondered where the devices that controlled those devices were hidden. It was not until he did some investigating and got a conformation from Fasin that he learned the antennae and long-range scanners were hidden here. What's more, this was where the executor in charge of contacting the raiders maintained his vigil.

“Where are we, Master?” Aurek asked.

Malfon used the Force to slide the door open. A hooded individual—the executor himself—was standing over a few smaller terminals at the end of the room. Antennae, small computer hubs, and bulky wires snaked across the room, entrenching on the floor in a mess that made walking difficult. The lights within the room had been damaged, and only the harsh pale glow from the executor's monitors allowed the two of them to see inside.

“Kill him,” Malfon ordered.

Aurek stepped forward and withdrew his blaster rifle in a single motion, firing several quick bursts of red energy. The executor realized he had company only after the clone fired upon him, but he was still quick enough to block the fire with his shimmering lightsaber. Red blaster bolts bounced from one end of the room to the other, and the executor began to close the distance between himself and his target. Trying to get away, the clone stopped firing long enough for the Sith apprentice to throw his lightsaber toward him, but Aurek performed a backflip to dodge that impressed Malfon. He had never seen a fully-armored sentient maneuver as the clone did.

Once he landed, Aurek crouched low and threw his vibroblade at the executor. The weapon would have cut through his target's left leg, but the dark-sider revealed another red lightsaber—this one a shoto—and parried the incoming knife. The executor's other lightsaber soared back toward him, but its path was intercepted by a small Force push from Aurek, sending it flying in the other direction. In seconds, the executor rushed toward the clone, but Aurek reacted just fast enough to grapple the Sith apprentice's arms and hold his shoto at bay. The two wrestled for a brief moment, and the executor tried to use the Force to choke the clone, but his dark powers were rebuffed by the clone's Force defenses.

The executor was evidently unprepared to fight another Force-sensitive warrior. The surprise lasted long enough for Aurek to hurl him to the ground and lost his weapon. Without a lightsaber, the executor who served as an envoy to the raiders stood no chance against the clone. The armored warrior was on top of him in seconds, and the caestus on his armor bloodied most of apprentice's face and shattered his jaw. By the time Malfon walked in, the executor had stopped breathing.

“You did well, Aurek,” Malfon said, walking toward the terminals. “Search his body for anything useful and then dispose of it as you see fit.”

The clone nodded and moved to carry out his duty. Malfon himself was surprised that the executor who served as the tombkeeper had not appeared. In every other instance of a executor being attacked, the lumbering giant appeared and put an end to the disobedient Sith. Now he was nowhere to be seen. That clone should have died. Admittedly, Malfon was grateful that he could kill another executor and have access to his information, but he couldn't help but worry that there was something else going on.

Glancing at the late executor's terminals, Malfon was intrigued by what he saw. Apparently, Avaran Whell had been busy contacting Mandalorians and Iridorians to do his bidding, and now he was trying to gather them all in one place. A small Mandalorian fleet, led mostly by mercenaries and bounty hunters, were to gather around Corbos. Meanwhile, Iridorians were being herded to a hidden facility on Ulda Frav, a world near Hutt Space. Finally, a small team of pirates and smugglers were being told to meet with Sith contacts near Lannik. The executor had been busy. Malfon suspected that Avaran Whell was preparing for an attack, but he could not figure out where he sought to strike.

Malfon was about to turn to leave when a small flash of light appeared on the corner of the terminal. The Jedi Watchcircle was trying to contact this place. At first, the idea mortified him. Why would Jedi convinced that they were the strongest light-siders in the galaxy try and communicate with the Sith here on Korriban? The realization that Avaran Whell had the Jedi Order and the remnants of the Sith under his control was still something he struggled to understand. However, he also realized that he could use the old Sith's position of power against him. Avaran was playing too many sides at once. Even the greatest player would eventually leave themselves open, and this was Malfon's chance to take the lead. Everything fell into place for this moment. This was the beginning of the end.

Malfon opened the channel to Coruscant and the Jedi Watchcircle to reveal a confused Quarren on the other end. “This is Malfon Benax. Who am I speaking to?”

“Malfon… Master Whell's apprentice?” the Quarren asked. “This is the Jedi Knight Jram. Where is Master Whell?”

“He is unwell. I am afraid he is struggling to leave his chambers, and so I am handling his tasks until he recovers.”

“I see…” Jram hesitated for a moment, but shrugged and continued: “Watchcircle Dominus is ready to move at his- er, your orders.”

“So I have heard. Avaran Whell has informed me of your next mission. Assemble a team of Jedi Knights and go to the Corbos system. There are pirates amassing there that will attack a nearby Republic supply depot.”

“Pirates? Master Whell is sending us after mere pirates?”

“Do you doubt his instructions?” Malfon growled.

“I would not dare,” Jram answered quickly. “However, I do not know if we can convince the Jedi Council to let us travel so far into Sith space to engage…”

“These enemies are particularly dangerous because they have recovered and made use of Sith technology from the last war. Will you let their evil go unchecked?”

“I-I will call forth a group of Jedi and inform them of our task. Master Qual shall deal with the Jedi Council. Is that all?”

He nodded. “That is all Master Whell decided to tell me. I will let you know if the situation changes.”

“Thank you. The Force be with you, Malfon.”

The Quarren ended the transmission. Malfon could not help but chuckle to himself. The Jedi were so foolish. They would believe anything so long as they thought it would work in their favor. It was perfect. He would play Avaran Whell's raider forces and his Jedi servants against each other, rendering them both useless. With only two more executors remaining, the Sith under his control were too weak to be a threat, and the clones were a non-issue. With Fasin's assistance and Aurek providing support, Malfon could stop the old Sith's machinations now.

“Assassin, Master Whell has need of your services,” a slave announced.

Excellent. Malfon had a feeling that he would be summoned. He motioned for the slave to lead the way.

“Shall I follow you, Master?” Aurek asked.

“No. Attend to the Cathar named Fasin in the library. He may need your assistance… or protection,” Malfon added with a whisper.

The clone nodded and went on his way, leaving Malfon to meditate before following the slave to Avaran Whell and the location of his latest—and final—lesson. There was nothing else to be done, and the old Sith would have wait until Malfon was ready to see him.


Chapter 19

“So you've come, Assassin.”

“What do you require of me, Master?”

Avaran Whell stood at the center of a large circular room, lit not by the traditional torches but massive glowpanels that stretched from one side of the ceiling to the other. Arms crossed, he had an expression unlike Malfon had ever seen on him. Was that disappointment on his face? Resentment? Hate? It was difficult to tell. The old man, even now, refused to divulge his true self. Malfon stood across from him, hands close to the comlink at his waist. If he needed to call for help, it would have to arrive quickly.

“You have done well. However, your work ends here,” Avaran announced.

“I'm afraid I don't understand,” Malfon replied coolly.

“Spare me the foolishness,” Avaran hissed. “Do you think me blind? Do you assume I know nothing of what occurs in this place? I have watched your every move, considered every traitorous thought, dismissed your conspiring as harmless. But no longer. I cannot abide a coward.”

“I'm no coward; I'm merely patient.”

“Foolish words from a foolish slave.”

“You're mistaken. You're scared—scared of what I've become. I'm stronger than you, and that terrifies you. I've learned your lessons and adapted them; I've mastered your tricks and developed my own; I killed your servants and discovered your weaknesses. I am the master now.”

Avaran glared at him with a damning stare. “Do you seek to rile me as you did the Spy? Or perhaps you think your new power will impress me as it did Fasin? There is no one here to save you here, slave. No one to do what must be done in your place. But it seems I was wrong. You are not meant to become Sith.”

“I am a stronger Sith than you'll ever be,” Malfon snapped.

“No. You are no longer fit to become my apprentice. I have chosen another. You are wasted potential, boy. Now it is time for your final lesson. Die and join those other failures—your family, your teacher Rell Hernaster, and your dear friends.”

Avaran Whell stepped away from Malfon, allowing the tombkeeper to take his place. For the first time, the executor was uncloaked and unmasked: the hulking individual before him had pale skin, massive tusks, and a pointed head with a sort of bony plate. His arms were large enough to crush Malfon in an instant, and even his clawed feet seemed to cause the ground to tremble as he walked. In his left hand he carried a lightsaber, in his right a hooked blade obviously meant to rend flesh. He wore almost no clothes beyond a simple loincloth, revealing his terrifying muscular physique and the various tattoos across his body.

By the time Avaran had disappeared from view, the executor was flanked by at least two dozen Sith apprentices and Force-sensitive slaves. Each of them carried either a lightsaber or a force pike, and they—unlike their titanic leader—wore various forms of body armor and carried personal energy shields. Malfon was quickly surrounded, and he was surprised none of them attacked. He was unarmed, had no armor, and his shock gave them the advantage. But they seemed to be waiting for something.

“I have been chosen as Avaran Whell's new apprentice,” the executor responsible for guarding the tomb announced, his voice a gravelly bass. “As it should be. You were never meant to be a Sith.”

Malfon said nothing. They were, of course, wrong. Malfon was not a Jedi; he could not go back to being a Jedi. With so much power, it was only natural he was a Sith. This beast, intimidating though he was, would not stop him. All these dark-siders, crowding around him for the kill, would not deter him. He would go to Avaran Whell, and he would personally end that old man's life. He would take his place and destroy the Sith entirely before going into exile, where he could no longer harm the Jedi or the Galactic Republic. Such was the price for his power.

When it became clear Malfon would not respond, the tombkeeper nodded, sending dozens of Sith charging straight for him. Lightsabers hissed. Energy shields buzzed. Malfon stared around at the large circle around him. He had no weapon, and they thought him defenseless. But what greater power could he ask for than the very strength of Korriban itself? Calling upon the dark side of the Force, Malfon allowed himself to be conjoined with the planet's corrupting might. He levitated from the ground, closing himself off from the universe around him and immersing himself in raw energy. This was his strength. He was a weapon.

Tendrils of energy leapt from his fingers and found their way toward the closest Sith slave. The electricity crackled around the hapless being's body and caused him to scream in pain. Bursts of lightning jumped between that slave and others around him, forming powerful loops of energy. The burnt flesh and ozone filled Malfon's nostrils, and he relished the smell.

Using his mind, he ripped large chunks from the floor and threw them toward his enemies. Spines snapped, limbs shattered, and ribs were crushed underneath tons of earth and metal. Telekinesis enabled him to deal with enemies still further away. Bodies slammed into walls at blinding speeds, breaking their fragile bodies against meters of stone. Others were slammed into the floor until their necks gave way or their faces became bloodied mounds of flesh and cerebral fluids, while still others were thrown into comrades' bodies and lightsabers.

Rapidly condensing the air around him, Malfon forced the gases around him into deposition, creating freezing chunks of ice that he used as projectiles. Strengthened in the Force, these large needles of frost pierced armor and flesh alike, allowing his victims to bleed out while relatively harmless. The intercepted missiles also short-circuited lightsabers, making it easier for him to finish them off.

Seeing that his henchmen had not even laid a finger on their foe, the executor activated his lightsaber. With a challenging roar, he charged straight toward Malfon. How brutish. He was to be a Sith Lord? Malfon smirked. He had subconsciously allowed the Force to flow through him, foiling the advance of the Sith apprentices and slaves, but this tombkeeper would require a special touch. Allowing lightning to flow from only one hand, Malfon concentrated all of his power into a tangible representation of his anger. Sparks formed in his free hand, and flames licked the tips of his fingers. The executor moved quickly, but it was pointless. What could he hope to accomplish against the power of the Force?

Malfon lifted his hand and a smoldering ball of fire rushed forth, flying directly into the executor. The larger Sith had been moving so quickly he had no hope of getting out of the way in time. Brought to a standstill, there was a dark splotch where the executor's pectorals had been. He let out a weakened growl, and pain emanated from his body through the Force. Malfon wasn't done. Another wave of his hand created a towering inferno right underneath the tombkeeper. There was a agonized cry for a moment, but the sounds of the crackling fire quickly drowned it out.

Malfon laughed. The entire cacophony of screams was drowned out by the blazing fire mere meters from his position. None were strong enough to stop him. Dark ashes fluttered through the air as more pillars of fire rose up from the ground, engulfing the rest of his enemies. His eyes watched on with wicked fascination, reflecting the shimmering red light of the fires before him. This was the might of the dark side, and he was its master.

*** ***

Avaran Whell boarded his personal ship and sealed the ingress ramp behind him. Two guards were posted at the entryway, but they could not stop the Assassin. He knew that all of the Sith in this place were not strong enough to face the Assassin. Of course, Avaran was not trying to escape; he was testing the young man's resolve and his superiority over the others. He knew that the Assassin was better, but did he know that about himself?

In his age, Avaran Whell recognized his mortality. He was not afraid of death, but he knew that once he was beyond the mortal plane he would lose much of his power. The strength he had in his youth was gone; the dark side had ravaged his body like a virulent disease and crippled him in many ways. He was still strong, but the passing of time threatened to destroy him. He had studied the dark magic of the ancient Sith Lords for much of his long life, but there was no information regarding the power to escape death. It perturbed him; even now, the spirits of the long-dead haunted Korriban, waiting for those who would come and submit themselves to their evil power. He wanted such strength, but not if it meant being bounded to one planet for millennia.

The Assassin was his hope for a new beginning. Everything revolved around his rise. It did not matter that the executors died. He did not care for the lost apprentices or murdered prisoners. They were only slaves. Everything in the galaxy was expendable, but not the Assassin. For within him, or perhaps his progeny, there was the power to accomplish every goal Avaran Whell had, including the ability to transcend mortality. One could escape the boundaries of time itself only by creating a being so powerful, it became an avatar of the Force itself. But did the Assassin have that power, or would he have to wait even longer?

Energy crackled in the distance. There was a scream of anguish, and another, and then everything was silent again. The ancient Sith positioned himself at the fore of the bridge of his personal cruiser. Sure enough, the Assassin stormed his way across the halls and made his way toward him, the Force flowing in and around him like a tempest. Good. Such raw power was indicative of strength, but not control. He was surrendering his entirety to the dark side. In seconds, he and the Assassin were face-to-face, separated by a few paltry meters on the bridge.

“You ran,” the Assassin growled.

“I waited for you. I knew you could do it, apprentice,” Avaran replied, his voice somber and hushed.

“Coward. I killed your precious guards. Now it's your turn.”

“Indeed?” Avaran shook his head.

He did not get a chance to finish his thought. Malfon unleashed a wave of telekinesis at him that was meant to throw him into the transparisteel viewport. The torrent of energy shattered the transparisteel behind Avaran and broke apart the chairs and terminals around them, but passed over him like a simple breeze. The Assassin, dumbstruck, used both hands to unleash a powerful blast of Force lightning. Like before, the energy dissipated against Avaran Whell's body, dissipating into nothingness upon contact.

“Wh-what are you?” the Assassin shouted. “Why can't I sense you? Why can't I hurt you?”

“Foolish boy. Even now, you lack wisdom. How do you think I have lived for so long? The darkness destroys all that it touches, devouring flesh and bone. However, without the Force, time has no meaning to me. I exist as a specter, forgoing ultimate power for the sake of eternal life. Just as droids are immune to sickness due to their separation from biological faculties, so too have I rejected the Force to escape the passing of the ages.”

The Assassin paused for a moment, evidently thinking about these things. Good. The more he thought, the more he understood.

“Impossible. You've used the Force before—if rarely. You've carried a lightsaber. You cannot be totally disconnected from the Force.”

“You are perceptive. However, it is not my connection to the Force that I use in those instances. It is yours.”

“What?”

“By rejecting the very essence of life, I became a mockery of it. A parasite, if you will. All things must touch the Force or else they die. Therefore, since I cannot, I exist through those around me. I can only use the Force when others allow me to draw from their Force reserves while I am near. The executors served this purpose while I was on Korriban, and the Jedi Covenant while I was on Coruscant. They suspected nothing, for my presence is no more noticeable than a mite, silently seeping strength from its host.”

“I never gave you access to my strength,” the Assassin snapped.

“No, but the time we spent together as pupil and master allowed me to worm my way into your mind. I slowly encroached upon you and now we are linked, you and I. Besides, you did not grant Raystin the ability to join with your strength, and yet he does so anyway.”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” the Assassin growled. “Make sense.”

Avaran shook his head. “Raystin Benax is essentially my antithesis. I absorb the strength of others to ensure that I can exist on this plane because I have conquered the darkness. He, surrendering his entirety to the light, subconsciously provides strength to others so as not to fatigue his body from the terrifying strength contained within. That is why your friends are all so powerful while in his presence: their skills are bolstered by him in silence.”

“So… so what does this all have to do with me? Why do you want me, if he is so much more powerful?” the Assassin asked, the edge lost from his voice. “Surely he would be able to do what you need me to do and more.”

“No.” Avaran walked toward a broken terminal, almost absent-mindedly. “As I said, we are polar opposites, he and I. We would destroy ourselves if we tried to siphon off one another. You, Assassin, are my creation. I bred you from perfect stock so that I could one day have a perfect apprentice, general, and successor.”

“And what does that mean? How do I fit into your plans?”

Avaran smiled. “You are the key. The Galactic Republic will fall, and you and I will remain. Together, we shall rule the galaxy, and you will have unlimited power.”

“How?”

“The Jedi Covenant will strike at the Jedi's heart. Their members will kill the Council and begin a civil war amongst the Jedi. In the course of their infighting, I shall order my personal army to attack the Galactic Republic. Without the Jedi's aide, they are doomed to fail, for you shall be at its head. Once the Republic falls, the Tion Hegemony, Hapes Consortium, and the Hutts will follow. Then, once we have united the galaxy under our banner, we shall destroy the remaining Sith, still in hiding in the farthest reaches of the galaxy. In that moment, we will personally dissolve the army and we alone will be masters of the galaxy.”

“You're insane. No army can fight the Republic, much less the whole galaxy. Even your clones, impressive though they are, are too few in number.”

“The clones are not soldiers, but commanders. You are their general. The Mandalorians and their ilk will provide the fleet, vehicles of war, and serve as infantrymen. But we need only rely on them for so long,” Avaran mused.

The Assassin was quiet for a moment. Without the Force, Avaran could not sense his thoughts, and he dared not draw from the Assassin's power now. Now that the the Assassin knew that Avaran's strength depended on his own, he could rebuff any attempts to draw on the Force. While the older Sith could certainly defeat him in a mental duel, it would be too exhausting, and Avaran had very little strength left for such things. Standing still and waiting, he expected an affirmation of the Assassin's loyalty. He was genuinely surprised when the younger Sith called upon the Force and snatched Avaran's lightsaber from his belt.

“I've decided that if I am going to rule the galaxy, I refuse to do it with you,” the Assassin sneered.

“So what do you intend to do? Kill me?”

“Of course.”

“Foolish. A Sith never dies.”

“Then I will settle for incapacitation,” the Assassin growled, activating the weapon.

“You should know that, due to our link, harming me means that you will also be harmed. In fact, if you inflict enough pain onto me, the suffering I endure may be returned to you and end your life as well. Are you willing to risk that?” Avaran asked pointedly.

The Assassin hesitated. Very good. Where was his selfless determination now? Where was his desire for senseless sacrifice? As a Jedi Knight, had he not tried to get himself killed saving others? Now he was not even willing to end his own life to kill the great evil before him. Avaran Whell could not help but smile. His work was complete. The boy who called himself Malfon Benax was truly a Sith.

“I will kill you someday,” the Assassin muttered, deactivating the lightsaber.

“Of course. But there is one last thing you should see.”

Avaran guided the Assassin over to a rather bulky terminal located just across from the pilot's seat on the bridge. This device had long-range capabilities, unlike the other communication terminals on the ship, and Avaran often used it to contact his agents in the field. Now, though, it would serve a different purpose.

“You must learn to take responsibility for your actions. I thought Lythi'arane's death was a sufficient reminder, but clearly you have forgotten,” Avaran announced. “Observe.”

The terminal blinked to life, revealing an image of Corbos's wastelands from a suborbital camera. Coordinates were automatically punched in and the camera repositioned itself and zoomed in on a particular area, this one about six kilometers away from the nearest—now long abandoned—settlement. The Assassin muttered something to himself when he saw the lightsabers. Another camera, this one positioned somewhere on the ground, came to life and revealed members of the Jedi Covenant fighting against Mandalorian forces. There were at least four times as many Mandalorians as there were Jedi, and the Jedi seemed to be losing.

Of course the Assassin was infuriated by this turn of events, especially after all the sneaking he had done. He sincerely believed Avaran did not know of everything that happened in this place. Just because he did not move against the Assassin did not make him blind. Quite the opposite. All Malfon had to do was keep getting stronger; he did not care how that happened.

Even with the Force, the Jedi were doomed to failure. There was no explicit reaction from the young Sith until the camera panned along the battlefield, revealing a familiar face. Harada Maximorium, the squat rodent-like Jedi who had befriended the Assassin as a child, was fighting alongside the Jedi Covenant against the Mandalorian forces. The Assassin shouted when he saw him amongst the crowd; although Harada and his green shoto were doing quite well in deflecting blaster bolts and blocking vibroswords, he was practically surrounded on all sides and appeared quite fatigued.

“How did he get there?” the Assassin shouted.

“The Jedi Covenant works quickly, and assembled a strike force that landed an hour ago. However, the Jedi Council refused to let the members Master Qual recommended go alone, and they selected a few other Jedi to join them. Unfortunately, one of those Jedi was your friend Harada.”

“Damn you! Damn you!” The Assassin restrained himself from punching Avaran. “Why did you-”

“I did nothing,” Avaran countered. “You were the one who sent the Jedi to Corbos. You were the one who killed my envoy to the Mandalorians. You were the one who defied my orders and tried to outmaneuver me in my own base. This is what happens when you fail.”

The Assassin turned away before Harada took a blaster bolt to the shoulder. The first shot did not kill the diminutive Jedi Knight, but the fourth one did. Avaran smiled. A few Mandalorians kept shooting his corpse until they were positive that he was in no condition to stand up again. Of course, the other Jedi serving with him fared no better, and it was not long before the entire party of Jedi—about eighteen in all—were wiped out by the Mandalorian commandos. The marauders had taken losses, and they would be unfit for a while, but that didn't matter. Harada was dead, the Assassin had learned his lesson, and Avaran was again in control of all these things.

“I hate you,” the Assassin said after some time.

“Use that anger. It will make you powerful.”

“He did not deserve to die!” the Assassin shouted.

“And neither did my executors. And yet, look where we are. A life for a life, Assassin. Be glad I am merciful, or you would have no friends left at all.”

“He… I…”

“The news will come as quite a shock to the Jedi Order. However, I suspect that there will be more pressing news in the coming days. The loss of the Jedi Covenant members was regrettable, but not irreparable. There are still enough to begin a Jedi civil war.”

The Assassin stared at him as though Harada had died in his presence. There was so much emotion in his eyes. Avaran loved it. There was nothing he enjoyed more than the suffering of those beneath him. Anger, fear, hate, grief: all these things gave the dark side its power. The Assassin was strong, yes, but he was not yet strong enough. He still had to grow, and that meant that their training was not yet over.

“Come, Assassin. Fasin has taught you much, I'm sure, but not enough to compensate for my lessons.”

“… As you wish, Master.”

*** ***

Malfon elbowed Aurek in the chest. No matter how strong the clone was, he could not take a direct hit like that while unarmored, and he fell to the ground with a grunt of pain. Before Malfon could move in for a killing blow, Fasin declared the duel over. Sweat dripped from Malfon's limbs, back, and around his face, and his breathing was haggard. Although he had beaten the clone, he had taken several painful hits, including a blow to the solar plexus, which still hurt nearly five minutes later. With a sigh, he helped Aurek back to his feet and joined Fasin at the table across the library.

“You did well. How is your mental connection?” Fasin asked.

“I think it's improving. I'm hardly aware of his link,” Malfon replied. “I've been careful to ensure that that old man isn't using my strength as well.”

“Good,” Fasin muttered, but he seemed distracted.

“What is it?”

“He knows of all our work against him,” the Cathar said. “Why hasn't he tried to kill me or Aurek yet?”

Malfon shook his head. “Perhaps he needs you both in the future.”

“You say that as though he doesn't need you.”

“I know he needs me; I just wish he didn't.”

Fasin nodded. The two Sith watched Aurek clean up the area of the library where they had dueled earlier. Once he was finished, Aurek returned to his previous stretches and velocities. Whenever he was not called to duel or assigned to a mission, Aurek was tasked with individual exercises to ensure that he was always in fighting shape. Fasin went out of his way to teach him a few basic Force training techniques as well, although he was no match for Malfon nor any of the other true Sith in the tomb.

Malfon's mind constantly returned to the last discussion he had with Avaran. It seemed as though the old Sith finally revealed his ultimate plan to him, but it just didn't make sense. There was something missing. Avaran Whell had all the resources and all the strength to conquer the galaxy without him, especially when the executors were still alive. What did the old Sith need Malfon for? Even now that everything else made sense, that did not.

“Master, if you'll grant me a question,” Fasin said after some time.

“Of course.”

“Why didn't you kill him?”

Malfon eyed Fasin suspiciously. The Cathar did his best not to meet Malfon's gaze, although it proved difficult. He had told Fasin everything about his encounter with Avaran, and he knew what killing the old man entailed. Was he suggesting what Malfon thought he was suggesting? The younger Sith tried not to appear disgusted, but the question was more hurtful than Fasin knew.

“Are you suggesting I should have killed myself to stop him?”

“I don't mean it so bluntly. I just assumed that you were ready to endure any sacrifice to stop Avaran Whell. Was I wrong?”

“I've lost everything! What have you given up, Fasin? Don't lecture me!” Malfon snapped.

“I didn't mean that,” Fasin replied calmly. “Master, I've been here with you for this whole ordeal, and I will walk with you further still. I know what this power has cost you. I know the price you paid for knowledge. I have seen the changes, the suffering, the death. Believe me: I would be the last person to ask you to give up more.”

“Then why did you ask?”

“Do you want anyone else to die?”

“No…”

“Then what stopped you from ending Avaran Whell and his threat before?”

“I…” Malfon choked. How could he confess these things? How could he still have such weakness in his heart? “I'm scared.”

“Master?”

“I don't want to die. I've abandoned the Jedi; I've abandoned the light. If I do not make up for all these things, then what do I gain? I'm scared. If I die without ending not only Avaran, but all of his plans, how could I rest in peace?”

Fasin shook his head. “Oh, Master. You needn't worry about such things. We are not, nor have we ever been, destined for this realm. We are truly ethereal, and we only become our true selves after death. You must embrace such thoughts, not run from them. Remember why you did these things in the first place. Your actions will be absolved by the results you achieve.”

“I hope so, Fasin. I hope so.”

“Be strong. The Sith will always need a preux.”

“What?”

Fasin frowned. “You are not keeping up with your lessons. Preux is ancient Sith for assassin, although it has the connotations of a scapegoat. You see, in ancient times, cowardly Sith Lords would hire murderers to kill their rivals. If they succeeded, they would be killed by the Sith who hired them to make it seem as though they were not at fault. If they failed, they would be executed for their crime and paraded about as a warning.”

“Assassin and scapegoat. Fitting,” Malfon agreed.

“You are never alone, Malfon. Just remember that.”

The young Sith sighed softly. An ancient Cathar Sith and a naïve clone were hardly the companions he would have wished for, but he could not question their reliability. Fasin had done nothing but aid him, even when they hardly knew each other, and he had risked his life on several occasions. Now Malfon trusted him enough to share his true name with him. Aurek was practically a droid, lacking in both emotion and reason, but he did have some insight into the ways of the Sith. Malfon still missed his friends from the Jedi Order, and even Junara's messages to him would have been welcome.

“Master Benax,” Aurek intoned. “You have an incoming comm. Shall I take it for you?

“Please do,” he replied.

“No doubt Avaran expects you,” Fasin noted.

“We finished our training. What else could he want?”

“Perhaps a mission. Now that you are only remaining executor of any merit, you will be responsible for the majority of missions offworld. I suspect that he will uplift several slaves to take their place, and you will be their leader. I am a slave as well, and I suspect he will allow me to inherit the library—officially, anyway.”

“I hope so. You've earned that much.”

“Ah yes. I poisoned the executor he appointed and conspired against him while teaching his mortal foe. I can see why he would be delighted to acknowledge my authority,” Fasin mused.

“You control this place in everything but name anyway, Malfon said.

“We'll see.”

“Master, Avaran Whell intends to travel to Coruscant, and he has reason to believe you would want to join him,” Aurek called. “If you choose to follow him, he has a mission for you to attend to.”

Malfon smiled. Coruscant? Although they used to go to the galactic capital quite often, their trips had decreased of late. It had been nearly a year since he had seen anyone he knew from the Jedi Order, and he was delighted to have another chance. Rising from his seat, he waved for Aurek to confirm his intentions. Away from Korriban, Avaran was also significantly weaker; his influence in the Jedi Order was great, but not unlimited as it was over the Sith. He could use that to his advantage.

“Fasin, keep track of things here while I am gone.”

“Of course, Master. May the dark side guard you.”

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