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Chapter 16

As a young boy, Raen Benax had been exposed to the true power of the Sith. Under the care of a Sith Master, Raen spent most of his time training at the academy on Alderaan, forsaking his family. The masonry of the Sith became familiar to him, and the other pupils became his friends. The bonds of blood became weaker as his ties to the Sith grew. Every passing day, his devotion to the dark side increased.

Once he was appropriately obsessed with Sith teachings and their supposed benefits, Raen’s master taught him the most important lesson he could: no one was to be trusted, and self-preservation was more important than companionship. Even Jaeln, the only constant in his life as a Sith student and son of a wealthy entrepreneur, was dangerous. He was a threat. An obstacle in his pursuit of power.

That lesson took years to understand. His Sith Masters, once eager to assist him in his studies, turned against him as though he had betrayed each of them personally. They actively sought to hinder his progress and sent other pupils to challenge him for his position. Over time, Raen’s cynicism and paranoia extended to the other students. Everything was a challenge, and everyone became a threat.

What would have been his childhood became long days of studying tomes of Sith arts—dabbling in the Force and studying ancient combat forms—and long nights of exercises and struggles. Pitted against the wilderness and other students, Raen had fought to learn more about himself. His fears had been exposed, his dreams torn down, and his victories mocked. He was stronger for it. In the end, those that did not become stronger had been killed.

The Sith had slowly been preparing a grand scheme to oust him from the Sith Order. Their actions culminated in a single moment, when Raen’s Sith Master outright tried to kill him while he was carrying out a mission. It was then that Raen realized his masters did not oppose him because they wanted to teach him some deranged lesson about the dark side. They opposed him because they feared him. Not who he was—no, a young man was not a threat to the Sith Masters of Alderaan, no matter how prodigious—but for who he would become. The longer the Sith Masters taught him all of their secrets, aided him in his studies, and trained him in combat, the sooner he would no longer need them. It was that moment they feared. The inevitable conclusion to Raen’s training was their defeat. The learner would become the master and the power of the dark side would remain cyclic. However, the Sith Masters on Alderaan were not ready to give up their power. They wanted to keep it for themselves. Even if they could no longer become stronger, they wanted to ensure no one else would ever be able to challenge them.

The Sith’s greatest weakness was fear. To disguise that fear, they exercised absolute power over the weak, making it appear to be nothing but malice. Raen had freed himself from the Order of the Sith by force, not entirely of his own choosing, but he remained a slave to their teachings. A Sith Master’s greatest power was his control over the soul of his student. In a sense, Raen knew it was not their power at all; after all, he had chosen this route. In his desire for power, he had succumbed to the dark side. He could blame his father for surrendering him to the Sith, or he could blame his Sith Master for indoctrinating him, but the taint was his.

A perversion of the heart in all who tasted the darkness.

After the Mendacious Architect left M4-78, Raen had retreated to the cargo hold near the back of the M5 light cruiser and spent his time meditating on these things. Northeus had interrupted him only a few times to continue their lightsaber training, but no one else bothered him. The ship was large enough that no one had to interact with each other. During his meditations, the empty room and the hum of the ship’s hyperdrive core faded away. Only the essence of the ship’s crew, all Force-sensitives to some degree, remained etched in his mind.

He could bear this meditation for a few days, but pondering the dark side became taxing for him. His body soon weakened after being immobile for so long, and he craved food and combat. Leaving the cargo hold behind, Raen ventured through the ship’s vacuous corridors on his way to the bridge. The cruiser had been built to accommodate some two hundred soldiers and hold enough necessities for several months, meaning that its current passengers—five Jedi and a single prisoner—left the ship eerily empty.

After wandering through the ship’s labyrinthine halls for some time, Raen realized that he had no idea where he was going. Disoriented and lost, Raen was about to turn around and continue meditating when he sensed someone in the Force. It was faint, but he could vaguely figure out where the person was. Led by intuition and occasional flickers of Force energy, Raen worked his way to the starboard observation deck.

The room he arrived in was as empty as the halls he had left. A viewport on the opposite wall spanned its entire length, revealing the blurred lines of hyperspace just beyond the ship’s hull. There were generators in the room to power some unseen device, but the room was otherwise vacated and silent. Thinking that he had made a mistake, Raen turned to leave.

“What are you doing here?”

Raen had been so focused on the viewport that he had not noticed Syme just beyond his peripheral vision, sitting on a damaged generator. Raen eyed him curiously. Syme had hidden his presence just before Raen entered the room, as though to see who was walking in.

“I haven’t heard from anyone else lately, and I have a few things to discuss with Northeus,” Raen explained. “Where is everyone?”

“What’s it to you?” Syme asked.

Raen glared at him. “You can’t just answer the question?”

“You lonely down in the cargo hold, Sith?” Syme shook his head, disgusted at the thought. “Did you think we didn’t know you were down there? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I sensed you down there, wrapped up in the dark side.”

“I was not practicing the dark side,” Raen protested.

“It sure felt like it. Unless, perhaps, your very being emanates the dark side of the Force?”

“Just point me toward the others,” Raen said. “I’ll leave you alone.”

Syme was on his feet in an instant. Face-to-face with Raen, the Jedi towered over his visitor, and his muscular build was appropriately intimidating. “Let me make one thing clear. If Northeus had not specifically requested you to be kept safe, I would kill you right here.”

“Then it’s a good thing you’re smart enough to follow orders,” Raen snapped.

Without warning, Syme kicked forward with his knee and struck Raen in the stomach. Raen hadn’t expected the attack and reeled back, clenching his chest with both hands. Syme took the opportunity in stride, grappling Raen by the throat and pushing him against the wall near the door. Raen gasped a few times, struggling to keep breathing and searching for a chance to strike back.

“You’re an insult to the Jedi. I don’t know why Northeus insists you’re so special, but there’s something about you that I cannot stand. You’re pretentious, naïve, and your attitude is unbecoming of a servant of the light. Whether or not you actually intend to help us or not, I don’t care. I just want you to know that if you even think of betraying us, I will kill you.”

“That’s… that’s great.”

“Until then, you ought to count yourself lucky that Northeus considers you the savior of the Jedi or something,” Syme muttered, shaking his head. “Don’t forget, Sith.”

Syme released Raen, eliciting a few deep breaths and several coughing fits from the younger Force-sensitive. Raen nearly stumbled over himself as he recovered. What was Syme talking about? Northeus had never told him about saviors of the Jedi. He knew Syme was still upset about the destruction of the Jedi Temple, but he didn’t have to be mad at him. It was the Sith who were at fault.

“Savior…?” Raen watched Syme return to his seat on the broken generator. “What are you talking about?”

“You don’t know? Ask Northeus. He’ll explain it to you. Take the stairwell down the hall and head toward the port from there. He’s been on the bridge,” Syme said.

Rubbing his neck, Raen was sure he had recovered from his injuries. He didn’t think Syme would lash out at him again, but he couldn’t be sure. Without another word, Raen left Syme and the observation room behind, intent on finding his way to Northeus and the others without his help.

*** ***

Doreva knocked on the door again. He had already tried using the door panel and its comm unit, but there was no response. After knocking several times, the Bothan Jedi suspected that the Ghoul was not actually stationed in the otherwise empty forward armory. Northeus would not have told him the wrong place, so he assumed the Ghoul situated himself elsewhere before Doreva came down to check up on him.

“Ghoul! It’s me, Doreva. Are you in there?”

The Bothan scratched the fur on his wrists. No response. This wasn’t good. Doreva turned around to return to the bridge and ask Northeus where their criminal guest had gone when the door to the armory suddenly slid open. The Ghoul stood in the doorway, rubbing some gelatinous substance across his hands. He looked healthier and stronger—as far as Givins went than before—and the uncanny smile across his cadaverous face caused Doreva’s fur to stand on end.

“Evening, Doreva. Why are you here?” the Ghoul asked.

“I came to check up on you,” the Jedi explained. “What have you been up to?”

“Oh, exciting news! I remember twenty-two. Twenty-two was elderly associate to first officer killed. Twenty-three through twenty-six were officer team investigating murders. Twenty-seven was chief of police on world. I don’t remember beyond that.”

Doreva felt something churn up inside his chest. Listening to these stories made him feel sick. He could not bear to hear anymore of the Ghoul’s exploits, especially when he went on about them so freely. He didn’t even care. Doreva pitied him.

“Ghoul,” Doreva whispered, hesitating for a moment, “why did you kill those people?”

“Why?” The Ghoul said the word like he had never heard it.

“Yes, why. Did you have a reason?” Doreva pressed.

The Ghoul wrung his hands together. “Reason… no reason. Killed because I could.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Doreva countered. “Every one of those people was just like you-”

“If they were, I could not kill them. Weaker than me, so now they’re dead.”

“They were living beings, Ghoul! They had family. They had friends. They had a purpose, and you took them away from all those things. Don’t you feel bad? What about their friends and family? They’ll never see that person again.”

“You say that as though their purposes are greater than mine.”

“But you said you didn’t have one.”

“Said I had no reason,” the Ghoul corrected him. “My purpose was killing.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Doreva lamented. “Besides, now that they’re dead, what is your purpose?”

The Ghoul was silent. Licking the last bits of clear substance from his fingers, he turned back and headed into his makeshift room. Noticing that he left it open, Doreva followed him inside, checking to make sure his lightsaber was still with him. Their resident mass-murderer was unarmed, true, but there was no telling what the Ghoul was thinking.

The Ghoul brushed aside a few empty weapon canisters with his arms and sat atop the lone metal table against the wall. As expected, the room was in disarray since the Ghoul had taken up residency. Broken pieces of armor and empty blaster paks littered the floor while the various storage containers had been randomly rearranged. Doreva mirrored the Ghoul’s movements and removed a piece of durasteel from a nearby workbench so he could sit down.

“No friends. No family. Doesn’t make sense to me,” the Ghoul said at last.

Doreva stared at him for a moment. “How could you have no family? That makes no sense.”

“Orphaned. My colony was attacked during the wars—don’t remember which. Wandered streets. Witnessed… survival firsthand. Learned that self is the only good. Only hope.”

“I don’t understand,” Doreva admitted.

“You understand Jedi because they are good. Do not understand Sith because they are bad. True?”

“No, I understand the Sith perfectly,” Doreva countered. “They’re bad because their actions lead to the suffering of others. Their greed destroys others and themselves. But their evil does not make them beyond our knowledge.”

“What is their purpose? What drives Sith to greed?”

“Their pursuit of power or their craving for the dark side.”

“Why do they want that?”

Doreva was silent for a moment. “Different reasons, I suppose.”

“See? Don’t understand. Think you do. Your lack of knowing forces you to use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’. You don’t actually know their purpose.”

“If the end result of their actions leads to others being hurt, it is my job to stop them. My duty as a Jedi is to help those who cannot help themselves.”

“You say that as though your purpose is greater than theirs.”

Doreva smiled toothily. He knew where the Ghoul was going with this dialog. Despite the murderer’s best efforts, his rhetoric did not work on him. That said, Doreva was alarmed that the Ghoul could work through his thoughts so quickly. He had to correct him the best he could.

“Ghoul, you must understand: you killed others for selfish reasons. You killed others to give you a purpose. The Sith subjugate and harm others in their quest for power. But the Jedi have been tasked with defending the innocent, the weak, and the hopeless. We give them a chance they never had. We are willing to sacrifice ourselves to give them a purpose. You work against that. So do the Sith. That’s why I can say, with confidence, my purpose is greater than theirs; I want all beings to be happy, the Sith want happiness only to themselves.”

The Ghoul shook his head. “That is nonsense. The galaxy is not so forgiving.”

“Perhaps. Or you were wrong all along and didn’t know it,” Doreva said, rising to leave.

“Doreva.”

“Yes, Ghoul?”

“Twenty-eight was Aqualish architect.”

*** ***

Northeus had been sitting alone on the bridge for hours, monitoring the light cruiser’s various systems by his lonesome. Unlike standard Republic warships, the M5 light cruiser was designed to operate independently from a fleet. Equipped with anti-starfighter turrets and several medium turbolasers along its elongated, dentiform hull, it could hold its own in a firefight, but it was primarily a patrol craft.

Foreseeing crew shortages during missions, the engineers who designed these vessels structured the bridge so it could be operated by a skeleton crew. Forming ever-shrinking rings toward the center of the bridge, auxiliary stations surrounded a central terminal that could access nearly all the ship’s features. Although this could mean disaster if the central terminal was damaged or bugged, Northeus benefited from it and piloted the ship by his lonesome without incident.

“Master Ulsan,” Khondine called, her voice rising above the subdued bleeps of the other consoles. “Are you there?”

“I’m here, Khondine.” Northeus waved at her, revealing himself amidst the sea of machinery. “Do you need something?”

Khondine stepped around a few terminals. “Actually, yes. Are you busy?”

“Not particularly.”

“Where’s Doreva?”

“He was with me until a few moments ago; he went to check on the Ghoul. What do you need?” Northeus asked.

“May I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“It is… personal.”

Northeus glanced up at her. “If you think I will be able to help, I would be glad to do so.”

Khondine hesitated for a moment. “Until the liberation of Alderaan, I had no idea what the dark side was. Now, after learning from Master Vash and studying with the other Jedi, I can see just how terrible it is. But I’m afraid I may be more susceptible to it than other Jedi. Is that possible?”

“In very rare situations,” Northeus noted, stepping away from his console to focus on the Jedi Knight. “But it is unlikely, given your circumstances. Alderaan, although captured by the Sith, was not a dark side nexus. If you had been exposed to the dark side personally, then you may have reason to be concerned.”

Khondine almost said something, but she held back. “Master, all the same, what should I do if I’m confronted by the dark side?”

“Meditate to clear your mind. Spar in a safe setting to release your aggression. Find beauty in nature, in art, or in others, and concentrate on that,” Northeus replied. “Different Jedi have different ways of dealing with their darkness.”

“I shall try those things, Master.”

“Good. But that is not all.”

“Yes?”

Northeus could sense that Khondine was hesitating and not explaining everything. Something was amiss, but Northeus could not pinpoint what it was. There was lingering sentiments of doubt and anger in her, but Northeus did not know why. If she would not discuss it with him, he had no reason to pry. Her troubles were her own, and she would have to confront them.

“You must learn why your darkness is there, why you are prey to its wiles, and you need to find a way to defeat it. Fleeing from that darkness will do nothing but add to the problem. Face it and you will defeat it.”

Khondine nodded. “Thank you, Master.”

“Now I have something to request of you,” Northeus called to her as she turned to leave.

“What is it, Master?”

Northeus left his station, content with leaving the ship on autopilot for now. Meeting Khondine at the entrance to the bridge, the Jedi Master handed her a datapad. Curious, she glanced at it, but it was practically empty. All it had on it were a few meaningless notes Northeus had left on it and two hyperspace coordinates.

Before she could ask about it, Northeus explained: “You have seen the state of the Jedi. You know what we are capable of and what we are not. This foe we face may be too powerful for any of us here. If some great danger awaits us on Teya IV, I want you to leave me and the other Jedi to our fate.”

“No, Master!” Khondine stared at him, aghast. “I couldn’t leave you, or any of our companions. I would be a disgrace to the Jedi-”

“Listen to me, Khondine.” Northeus interrupted. “The Jedi are gone. If Teya IV is to become our grave, you must not join us.”

“Master-”

“On the datapad there is an index that will help you locate several holobooks on philosophies of the Force and lightsaber combat stored in our library on Coruscant. There are also two pairs of coordinates: one leads to Ambria, the other leads to a Jedi fortress world that has long since been abandoned in the farthest reaches of space. If Master Thon has fallen to the Sith, then Ambria will not be safe; you must take Raen and flee wherever you can until the time is right.”

“Raen? Ambria? Master Ulsan, I don’t understand. Why are you telling me this?”

“You protected Senator Latona with your life while she was under your care on Alderaan. You fought against the Sith, and you have skill in the Force and blade. The others are either preoccupied with their own issues or not strong enough. I can think of no one better to defend our last hope,” Northeus said.

“I don’t understand…” Khondine whispered. “I can’t do this. I cannot let all of you die while I’m still able to save you.”

“Swear to me, as a Jedi Knight of the Republic, that you will do as I ask.”

“I… I can’t! How am I supposed to protect him? Raen’s stronger than me, Master. I felt it on M4-78. I would be a burden. Let me stay with you; let me defend you and the others!”

“Khondine!”

She clenched the datapad with her clawed grip so hard it nearly shattered. Northeus refused to take no for an answer. He knew she could not understand, but this was of the utmost importance. She had to do it. There was no one else he could ask, and he trusted her in spite of her reservations.

“I swear,” she quavered, “as a Jedi Knight to carry out your wishes, Northeus.”

“Very good,” Northeus said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “Come and help me. We are almost at Teya IV, and I will need assistance landing the ship. Our final journey begins; you must be prepared to begin yours anew.”

*** ***

Teya IV was perhaps the furthest from Coruscant a Jedi praxeum could be and remain in Republic space. Kilometers upon kilometers of trees—their gnarled branches and star-shaped leaves reaching to the clouds above—remained unmolested, standing as ageless towers across the surface. Due to its location in the Expansion Region, visitors to this planet were few and the local population was not interested in clearing the terrain. In their living, they maintained the ecosystem and made landmarks hard to find.

Northeus scoured the planet’s surface for hours, finding nothing resembling a Jedi praxeum. However, the longer he searched, the more he noticed the hamlets and villages scattered across Teya IV. Seeing no other option, the Jedi Master decided to disembark and ask the locals for help. Finding the first of these small settlements with what seemed to be a spaceport, he landed inside a rather small hangar.

Upon exiting the craft, the group of Force-sensitives, led by Northeus, searched for the dockmaster to pay any fees necessary to keep their craft safe. However, the spaceport, small even by Rim world standards, was abandoned. There were no spacers, cargo was entirely absent, and there were no workers on duty. In fact, only one other ship was stationed in the hangars, and it was a small personal transport.

Giving up, the Jedi and their criminal companion entered the village proper. From the surface, the village looked like any other. Upon closer investigation, the village seemed to have been struck by a natural disaster. Some houses had roofs that caved in while others had no roofs at all. Mud and vegetation had been kicked up and into buildings, ruining interiors and soiling the walls. The smell of rotting flesh, strong enough to alarm Northeus, was quickly traced to several bodies lying in the streets, hastily covered by dirt or the remains of houses.

“What happened here?” Doreva gasped.

“’Ey! It’s more Jedi!” a balding villager called out from across the street, pointing directly at the new arrivals.

“We don’t want your kind here!” a woman screeched from a window overhead. “Haven’t you taken enough from us?”

Khondine and Doreva called back to them, asking them what was going on. In reply, a young man and his gang grabbed pieces of rotting fruit and threw them at the Ghoul. The Givin didn’t bother dodging, and Northeus urged the others to follow him, hoping to leave the village without incident. Syme noted that their ship would not be safe, but the Jedi Master countered that the villagers could do very little until they returned.

Despite their best efforts to avoid the crowd, the young men managed to rile up hecklers to intercept the Force-sensitives just before they reached the main gate. The Jedi formed a circle to confront the crowd that swept in around them while Northeus complained about this meaningless distraction. The sooner they found the praxeum, the sooner they could conclude their business here.

“Stop!” the young man leading the gang cried. “We’re going to stop you!”

“Where are you going so soon? Attacking other villages?” an old man shouted.

“What are you people talking about?” Khondine snapped. “We just got here; we haven’t done anything wrong!”

“Not yet, maybe, but you Jedi are all the same!” a stout woman called back. “Coming in and picking fights—you’re a bunch of monsters, is what you are!”

“Just let us through,” Northeus grumbled, evidently irate. “We need to reach the praxeum. We have no quarrel with any of you.”

“Just want to go recruit other marauders to your cause, then?” someone in the crowd reasoned.

“Oh, shut up, all of you,” Syme growled. “If you aren’t even going to tell us what happened here, then you’re better off getting out of our way.”

“What do you intend to do, inciting these Jedi to violence?” a middle-aged man spoke up, approaching the crowd. Evidently calmer than the rest, he added, “You saw what the others did here. None of you stood a chance then. What do you hope to accomplish now?”

“We’re together now!” a young man from the gang said. “There’s strength in numbers.”

“You’re like naaj beetles trying to defeat the sun,” the calmer man said. “There are many of you, and you are united in your purpose. You may blot out its light for a time, but it remains. And should you remain in that light for too long, the heat will overwhelm you.”

The other villagers were silent, and they seemed to realize their folly. At the middle-aged man’s behest, they let him approach the Jedi. With long dark locks and an unkempt patch of hair along his firm jaw, he looked like the other rugged villagers, but his armor betrayed his offworld origins. Khaki sleeves reached to his wrists from his broad shoulders, where the silvery armor began. His glittering eyes were as blue as the sky above them, betraying both the sadness that the villagers had and confidence that they lacked.

“My name is Castan Herox. I am here from offworld, as you may have presumed, to help these villagers,” the middle-aged man began. “Some Jedi arrived on this planet several weeks ago. Upon their arrival, they asked to be pointed to the Jedi praxeum.”

“We knew where it was, of course,” an older man spoke up. “But we never needed to go there. Everyone here is isolated from one another, Jedi included.”

“Yeah! But then Yohan’s daughter was killed!” a woman cried. “Killed by your kind!”

“The Jedi killed someone?” Raen asked. “Why?”

“That is correct,” Castan replied. “They killed Yohan’s daughter because they declared she was ‘tainted’, or some such Jedi nonsense. Fearing that her wickedness would spread to the rest of the village, they killed her-”

“A seven-year old girl!” a haggard old woman wheezed.

“And the villagers had no idea that they were under attack until the Jedi started striking down people in the streets. They tried to fight back, but those that did were declared followers of darkness and killed,” Castan explained.

“We couldn’t win. Most of us just fled,” a young woman noted.

“And now this.” Castan waved his hands, directing the Jedi’s eyes toward the ruined town. “Everything they had built, a community of peaceful settlers, has been torn apart by your kind. Losing so much. Losing so many… children, elderly, disabled.”

“Where are the attackers now?” Syme asked, skeptical.

“They went to the praxeum on their own,” a balding man replied.

“If you Jedi have come to conclude the work of your brothers, we understand,” Castan said, sparking angry comments from the other villagers. “My friends here deny it, but we can do nothing against your power. I would ask that you make our deaths as quick as possible. But if you are simply on your way to the praxeum, we will not stop you.”

Raen, even though he had only recently regained his full power in the Force, could sense that Castan Herox was lying to them. He was sure that he was not the only one who noticed the serrated sword the other offworlder carried on his back, and his presence in the Force was so powerful it almost overwhelmed the young Alderaanian. His power could only be compared to that of Northeus or the Sith Masters of Alderaan, and even then it seemed like an unfair comparison. Something was off; Castan had hidden this power before now but revealed it to the Jedi once he assumed the villagers were in danger. It was as though he was trying to dissuade the Jedi from attacking. Or perhaps tempt them.

Raen had not been the only one to sense this, and Northeus responded appropriately. “Good. Let’s go everyone.”

At Castan’s behest, the crowd reluctantly parted, giving the Jedi a way out of the village. Despite their distance from the Jedi, Raen could see each of their expressions. Their earlier boldness was gone. Some were furious at the Jedi being allowed to travel safely; others were overjoyed at their departure. Nonetheless, each of them was afraid. Their eyes whispered that, deep down, they all saw Raen and his companions as great evils.

Cosmic forces among insects.

Raen was just about to leave the village entirely when he realized that Doreva was not walking in front of him. Turning around at the same time as Northeus, Raen realized that Doreva had not moved from his spot amidst the crowd. With arms crossed and a furrowed brow, the Bothan stared at the departing Jedi.

“Doreva? What are you waiting for?” Khondine asked.

“I’m staying here to help them rebuild their village,” Doreva said, curtly.

The crowd gasped. Some of them whispered nasty comments, but most of them stayed silent.

“Doreva, you heard them. They don’t want us around, much less want help from us,” Northeus said. “We have more important tasks to attend to.”

“More important than helping people in need?” Raen asked.

“These people were harmed by other Jedi,” Syme noted. “Helping them is not our responsibility.”

“A Jedi must take responsibility, not cast blame,” Doreva said. “It’s our duty to help these people. Not just because other Jedi did this but because we would not be servants of the light if we did not.”

Raen stepped into the crowd and joined Doreva. “He’s right. We can’t just turn a blind eye to this, can we? Don’t we want to show them that not all Jedi are violent bandits?”

“It won’t matter what they think of us if we’re extinct,” Northeus pressed. “And we will be extinct unless we can figure out what’s going on and if there are any Jedi left.”

“And what if those violent Jedi at the praxeum are the only ones left?” Khondine asked. “Then it’s them and us. I don’t want to be associated with them. There’s trouble right in front of us, Northeus. Let’s do what we can.”

The Jedi Master sighed. “Fine. We’ll help them.” Turning to the crowd, he continued: “Point us to where your repairs are most needed. We hope to show you that the Jedi are not like the ones you encountered.”


Chapter 17

Northeus had not been eager to help these villagers. However, the longer he stayed to help, the more he felt convicted of his own folly. As Doreva had said, the Jedi were tasked with helping those in need. A Jedi Master, especially one serving as a leader to younger Jedi, should have known that. The plight of the innocent was their first priority.

Although he considered using Force powers in his tasks, he almost immediately decided against it. Showing off the powers of the Force, even for a good cause, was not the Jedi way. Lifting lumber, shoveling duracrete, and repaving walkways were all things that could be done without the aid of the Force. He advised the other Jedi to follow his example; such trivial uses of the Force were demeaning, both to its supernatural power and to the Jedi Order as a whole.

After they had introduced themselves and learned the names of a few prominent villagers, the Jedi had been divided into task groups. Northeus and the Ghoul were assigned to the western district, Raen and Doreva were sent to the east, and Syme and Khondine remained in the central district. Given a few tools and some bandages—just in case—in worker’s satchels, the Jedi were put to work.

Northeus was pleased to hear Castan Herox was also working in the western district. The Jedi Master had sensed immense power in the man, who was a few years older than he was. The armor and blade he possessed seemed to hint at his status as a warrior, but it was impossible for Northeus to be sure. More important, of course, was his Force-sensitivity, which was now hidden and nearly impossible for Northeus to perceive.

For several days, Northeus said nothing to him, instead focusing on the tasks he had been assigned. During his free time, however, he tried to confirm his suspicion that Castan was, perhaps, a Jedi or Sith. The Jedi Master had sensed no darkness in him when he revealed his Force-sensitivity to the Jedi at the town gate, but that was not encouraging one way or another. After all, if he could hide his strength, he could easily hide any darkness.

To the Jedi Master’s chagrin, nothing Castan did betrayed his repressed Force talents. He did not use the Force at all, nor did he reach out to it. His weapon remained in its sheath, and he depended entirely on his admittedly impressive physical strength to aid in the rebuilding process. He was crafty, and Northeus came to suspect that Castan knew the Jedi would be monitoring him.

Ultimately, the Jedi Master decided that he was getting nowhere with his investigation. Nearly a week into the rebuilding process, Northeus entered a half-completed house where Castan and a few other villagers were working.

“Good evening, Northeus,” Castan called out from his seat in the rafters. “How may I help you?”

Northeus smiled grimly. He suspected Castan already knew why he was here. “You look like you’re making progress here. May I talk with you for a minute?”

“Of course; go ahead.”

“In private, if you don’t mind,” Northeus added.

Castan climbed down from a nearby ladder. Brushing the ash and oily residue from his hands onto his brown pants, he joined Northeus in the doorway. Waving the others to keep up the good work, he followed Northeus through the reconstruction into the abandoned southern region of the town. A few of the villagers greeted them as they walked by, particularly Castan, but otherwise they were unencumbered. The other Force-user had given no protest, so Northeus assumed that he did not expect any sort of trap from the Jedi.

“I suppose you know why I requested to talk with you,” Northeus said once they were away from most of the villagers.

“I do,” Castan replied, allowing Northeus to sense him in the Force for the first time since their arrival. “Or at least, I think I do.”

“Are you a Jedi?”

Castan chuckled. “No. No, I’m not.”

“Are you a Sith?”

“If I was a Sith, what would you do?” Castan mused. “I would think Jedi Masters had a distinct sense of who is a dark-sider and who is-”

Northeus came to a halt. Spinning around, one of Northeus’s lightsabers leapt into his hand from his belt and burst forth, revealing its shimmering silver blade. Mere centimeters from Castan’s throat, the blade was close enough to both of them for its melodic hum to fill both their ears.

“If I was sure you were a Sith, you would be dead right now,” Northeus explained.

“Let me mollify your fears,” Castan said. “My blade has not left its sheath in the forty-five years since I received it.”

“A Sith does not need to use a blade to kill.”

“It was a metaphor. I have not killed anything the Force has seen fit to gift with life since I escaped my homeworld, forty-five years ago.”

Northeus wasn’t entirely convinced, but he returned his lightsaber to his belt. “So what are you?”

“I am neither Jedi nor Sith,” Castan answered flatly.

“I know. But what does that make you?”

“I am a servant of the true Force, the light side. Need I explain myself further?”

“I suppose not. But what brought you here?”

“The suffering of innocents. Too long have the Jedi neglected their cries, and too long have the Sith caused them. I have heard their cries, and I have made it my duty to wander the stars for the remainder of my short life and aid those in need.”

“Short life?” Northeus repeated. “Are you dying?”

Castan smiled ruefully. “We are all dying, Master Jedi. When I return to the Force, I want to know that I worked toward its will, not against it. That is why I left my home. That is why I forsook my vows in my own order. That is why I wander.”

“You speak in riddles. Can you speak plainly?” Northeus asked.

“Have hope, Master Jedi. Even in the darkest nights, when cold air and shadows surround you, you must believe that morning will return and the sun’s rays will kiss you again.”

Northeus realized he had been distracted by Castan and his strange analogies. He shook his head. “I have one more question for you.”

“Ask it.”

“How are you so powerful?”

“Power?” Castan appeared pensive. “I’m not powerful. I cannot save the dying—not for their sake, but for the sake of their lovers. I am not powerful enough to stop tragedies like what happened here. I am not powerful enough to dispel darkness, only combat it.”

“But you have such strength in the Force.”

“I would call myself weak, all things considered.”

“The fact that the limits of your power are resurrection and the total elimination of the dark side would hint otherwise,” Northeus replied, struggling for a straight answer.

Castan turned from Northeus. “The more I devoted myself to my studies, the more knowledge I gained. The more knowledge I gained, the more power. But I should have sought wisdom! You will see before the end, Master Jedi. Knowledge is powerful, but tragedy stalks it like a thief.”

“What are you?” Northeus asked. “How can you speak like that?”

“I was born on Prymes II, in the frontier. You Jedi attacked the planet prior to the Mandalorian Wars, and I was adopted into the Jal Shey. I bear their armor; I bear their faults. I have since left them, but I am not ready to end my journey.”

“What? If you were Jal Shey, couldn’t you have said that in the first place, Castan?”

“I could have. But then, would you have learned anything?”

Northeus was distraught and trying to figure out what Castan meant by all he said. Sensing that the Jedi Master was distracted by his own thoughts, Castan returned to the house he was working on without another word.

*** ***

Raen sat down on top of a stack of lumber, exhausted from his labors. For nearly two weeks straight, the Jedi had worked together with Castan and the villagers to rebuild the damaged community. Bodies had to be buried, buildings had to be restored, and hopes had to be lifted. Luckily, the Jedi’s presence proved beneficial to all these things.

Nevertheless, the Jedi were still advised against using their Force powers, lest they startle the villagers. That forced Raen to depend entirely on his own strength to rebuild. As a young noble on Alderaan, Raen had never done physical labor. His father’s servants, like Nafyan, performed all such duties with quiet subservience. His weakness quickly became apparent: for the first few days, the pain in Raen’s arms, legs, and back practically immobilized him. To add to his suffering, Northeus insisted that he and Raen continue sparring in the evenings, which proved near impossible while he was pained. However, he was young and his muscles quickly adapted to the strenuous work, enabling him to work more efficiently and with less pain.

Five years ago, Raen would never have imagined he had the strength—without the Force—to rebuild an entire house from the ground up. With help from Doreva and the other villagers, he was almost done rebuilding four.

Raen watched the villagers who had been helping him and Doreva in the reconstruction begin their own break. Identifying each of them by name in his head, Raen found himself smiling. They had been afraid of him and the other Jedi at first, but after working together day after day, the villagers began to appreciate their added strength.

“Hey, you’re a Jedi, aren’t you?”

Raen had been so distracted by his own thoughts that he didn’t notice the burly man who had approached him. With arms like tree trunks and a rounded body, he was nearly as tall as Raen as he sat on his perch. The villager was marked physically by the tragedy the village endured in the form of a diagonal scar across his left arm. His entire face, especially his wide forehead and jowls, was drenched in sweat. Wearing a worker’s belt between a simple white shirt and dark trousers, he looked like a villager, but Raen hadn’t seen him before.

Raen smiled at him. “Yes. Can I help you?”

“Go back to the hell you came from. We don’t want you here.”

“What are you talking about?” Raen’s smile immediately disappeared. “We’re here helping you.”

“We don’t want your help. None of us do. Haven’t you freaks done enough?” the other man growled.

“I’m sorry. Other Jedi caused this, so it’s our job to fix-”

“You can’t fix anything!” the man bellowed. “Your presence is insulting. Can’t you let the dead rest in peace?”

“I understand you don’t want us here,” Raen said, trying to remain neutral and calm, “but we’re doing our best to rebuild this village. To atone for the actions of our brethren. We’ll prove ourselves to you. Just wait.”

“I don’t want to wait! I have nothing to wait for. You killed my daughter. If you want to prove yourself to me, bring her back!”

“What? Who are you?”

“Yohan! You killed my daughter. You killed Jena!”

“Sir, I’m sorry for your loss, but-”

Raen’s composed demeanor did nothing to calm Yohan. While Raen was talking, the villager reached out and punched him in the face. The blow caused Raen to bite his tongue and sent him tumbling off the stack of lumber. He chided himself for not preparing for the attack in the Force, but he had become used to not using it around the villagers.

Raen recovered immediately, jumping to his feet, but Yohan seemed just as quick. Working his way around the barricade of lumber between them, Yohan found his way next to Raen and lifted him up by the collar of his shirt. Shaking his victim a few times, Yohan pinned him against the wall of a nearby house.

“I don’t want your apologies! I want my daughter! What did she do to you? What did she do to deserve this? Nothing! Now she’s gone… now she’s gone…” he cried. “I’ll never see her again…”

Raen grabbed his captor’s wrists. He knew that his peaceful tone would not quell Yohan’s anger, and he decided to try a different approach. He tried to wrestle out of the villager’s grip, but he proved much stronger than him.

“I didn’t kill your daughter!” Raen said. “Why are you doing this?”

“The longer you’re here, the more pain you add to the wound! I just want you to leave us alone.”

“The Jedi who killed your daughter are not the same as we are! We’ve done nothing but good things since we’ve come here. You must see that!”

“No! If you want to do something good, bring her back!”

Raen had enough. Yohan was beginning to strangle him with his hulking grip, so Raen fought back. Summoning the Force to bolster his physical strength, he wrenched himself free from Yohan’s grip. The older man was agape as Raen picked him up in the Force and hurled him back into the lumber. Careful not to actually hurt him, Raen put some distance between him and the grieving villager.

“Stop being so damn selfish,” Raen snapped.

“Selfish? You Jedi killed my daughter! You killed her… the only thing I had left in the galaxy… and you’re calling me selfish?”

“I didn’t kill her. Neither did my companions.”

“You don’t know anything! Has anyone ever attacked your family? Do you know what it’s like to cradle them in your arms? You say everything will be all right… but it won’t! They tell you how much it hurts and assure you that they love you. But their last words aren’t comforting! They’re weak, pained, terrified… and then, nothing. Nothing!” Yohan started to cry. “Everything you’ve lived for, wrenched from you.”

“And you can’t do anything…” Raen muttered.

Yohan’s sobs drowned out Raen’s response. The young Alderaanian’s frown disappeared. Seeing this giant of a man tremble and cry broke his heart, and he could not help but pity him. This man had no idea how to deal with loss. The villager’s face was buried in his hands and his moans of anguish became louder and louder. He was wholly lost in his sadness. Without a word, Raen took a seat next to him and waited for Yohan to notice him.

“I do know the feeling,” Raen said at last. “I am from Alderaan, in the Core. My family is dead. My father died… saving my life. My mother and brother were victims of a senseless evil. Anyone who I called a friend there is dead. I couldn’t do anything to save any of them, and there’s no way to bring them back.”

“But you don’t understand… she was my daughter,” Yohan replied, softly. “I loved her. What am I supposed to do now…?”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Raen asked, his tone firm. “You’re not the only one who lost someone precious to them, Yohan. This entire village is struggling. I didn’t mean to be so blunt, but that’s why I told you to stop being so selfish.”

“I can’t… I can’t do this anymore. She was…”

“Don’t let your sadness overwhelm you. We’re all here for you,” Raen assured him. “Your friends and neighbors here can help you. But you cannot dwell on your pain. It will destroy you from the inside out. Mourn, but only as long as you have to. Living is the best way to remember the dead.”

Yohan jumped to his feet faster than Raen anticipated, casting his face away from the young Force-user and fleeing from him. Taken aback, Raen struggled to stand and tried to pursue him, but his advance was stopped by Khondine. Like Yohan’s attack earlier, Raen had not noticed the Arkanian until she stood in his way.

“Khondine? What are you doing?” Raen asked.

“Northeus asked us all to stay in the village until our task is done. Let Yohan go.”

“But it’s my fault. He may leave the village and do something rash.”

“What you said was harsh—perhaps unnecessarily so—but true. He needed to hear that, I think.”

“I’m afraid I was not gentle enough,” Raen noted.

Khondine smiled. “Don’t worry, Raen. You tried. I’ll tell Northeus and the others about Yohan; they’ll search for him before anything happens.”

“Thank you, Khondine,” Raen said, relieved. “But why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be working with Syme?”

Khondine froze. She had no immediate response, and Raen was forced to repeat himself. She turned and walked away, only to add, “I’m on break. I saw what you did and thought I may need to step in. That’s all.”

Raen watched her as she left. Much to his amusement, she nearly tripped over herself, and then over a slab of duracrete, on her way out of sight. She glanced back in his direction but quickly composed herself and continued on her way. Raen chuckled softly. He didn’t remember her being so clumsy. Shaking his head, Raen picked up his tool belt and returned to the rest of his group.

*** ***

Khar Delba. During his time on Alderaan, Nafyan had read that the description for this world in the Republic’s military database implied it was a lifeless, icy rock with no points of interest. Spacers and smugglers had used it as a base of their own some time in the past, but beyond that, it was abandoned.

How foolish.

In actuality, Khar Delba was one of the five worlds sacred to the ancient Sith religion. The red-skinned ancestors of the Sith believed that this hallowed ground housed one of the gods’ thrones. These red-skinned people were all but extinct—except for those preserved by the Sith Emperor for his own nefarious purposes—but their ruins lived on. Across Khar Delba’s frozen landscape, the Dark Lord of the Sith Naga Sadow had constructed citadels and garrisons in honor of those divine thrones of legend.

Deep within Sith space, Khar Delba and its fortresses were rediscovered by Darth Revan and his comrades during his crusade against the Mandalorians. Since then, a few of his minions remained, manning their posts throughout the Jedi’s civil war. They fought over the holy world like it was theirs to be divided, but they were all defeated. By guile or by force, Preux and his forces overtook the world. Taking the greatest citadel as his main base, Preux reclaimed the whole world for the true Sith.

Nafyan’s chambers were located in the tallest tower of Sadow’s grand citadel. Snow fell lightly against the only window in his sparse chambers, and the breeze from the crack in the pane made his candle flicker between life and death. On clear days, Nafyan could see the armies stationed in the forts at the foot of the mountain. Today, like most days, the snowfall whipped up a blinding sheet of white that hindered any sort of view.

Some four thousand strong, the Sith army was constructed primarily of Force-sensitive clones. The earliest of these clones were created before the Mandalorians had even begun their war, but most had been born quite recently. Created across Darth Revan’s Empire—Polus, Sleheyron, Foless, and Alderaan—at Preux’s bidding, these forces were the pinnacle of scientific achievement and one of Preux’s most masterful plans. They were powerful warriors, utterly loyal to the Sith, and easily replicated.

However, even Preux’s best laid plans had flaws. He was not a true Sith, after all. Sleheyron’s stock of warriors had arrived in full, and most of Alderaan’s number had survived the battle there, but the soldiers on Foless had been lost and Polus’s clones were destroyed by Darth Malak’s forces. To compensate for these premature losses, Preux assembled Dark Jedi left over from Darth Malak’s army and Nafyan gathered his own supporters, swelling their ranks.

Since he could not inspect the army from his room, Nafyan stood up to grab another tome from his shelf. He always spent any extra time he had rereading ancient Sith texts for new spells or powers to add to his already impressive repertoire. Such knowledge would be useful in the coming days. As he perused his collection, one of his slaves walked into his chambers.

“Lord Nafyan, Master Danc is here to see you,” the slave announced.

Before Nafyan could permit him to enter, Danc A’damat walked in behind the slave. Wearing a purple and black mantle splattered with dried blood, Danc certainly had the flair of a former Alderaanian noble. Nafyan scoffed at his disregard for manners. The Zabrak had a strange smile on his dark face as he shoved his way around the slave, which made some scars near his chin and just above his lip stand out more than usual. The horns from his cranium curled inward, forming a twisted diadem above his head.

“You’ve returned. What do you have to report?” Nafyan huffed.

Danc shooed the slave out of Nafyan’s chambers. “The Sith attacked Onderon, like you suspected.”

“And?” Nafyan turned his attention to the window. “If you’re just here to tell me what I already know, I’ll kick you out.”

“Their methods seemed to have failed. They are heading toward Telos IV. In a last stand of sorts, they seem intent on destroying the world.”

“A waste of slaves and machinery,” Nafyan sighed, shaking his head. “And Malachor V?”

“The mistress Traya has made a base there. It would take many men to defeat her and her assassins.”

“That does not matter. We are true Sith, and we shall prevail. It does not matter how many assassins they have; the lives of our forces mean nothing.”

Danc shifted uneasily at that comment. “Should we inform Preux?”

“Indeed. He will have to lead the forces to Malachor V. Come.”

Nafyan marched by Danc out of his chambers, forcing the Zabrak to fall in step behind him. Passing Sith soldiers and Dark Jedi stationed throughout the citadel, the two dark-siders found themselves racing through its halls. Danc probably didn’t know why they were moving so quickly; it only made sense to Nafyan. This plan of his was of the utmost importance, and it depended entirely on secrecy. Wasting time would be their downfall.

The Sith Emperor demanded that Nafyan retake worlds important to the Sith prior to his ultimate return to the galaxy. Although he seemed loyal to Preux, his ultimate allegiance would always be to the Sith Emperor himself. Under normal circumstances, Nafyan would have avoided attacking other dark-siders at all cost; however, he could not refuse his master’s orders. Malachor V, an ancient praxuem world of the Sith, was under the control of the lady Traya, and Dxun, the burial world of a rather powerful fallen Jedi, was inhabited by Mandalorian warriors. Both these worlds would have to be retaken.

There was no doubt in Nafyan’s mind that their armies would take heavy losses capturing these worlds for the true Sith Empire. However, it was of little consequence. Preux’s armies would take losses fighting pretenders to the Sith legacy and the barbarians doomed to collapse with their masked leader. Preux’s fleet, in construction over Khar Delba, would be reinforced by a number of ships from the Sith Emperor. It was this fleet that would determine the destruction of the Republic, not Preux’s armies.

Upon reaching Preux’s chambers, Nafyan was informed by a guardsman that Lord Preux had ventured to the tunnels. Situated near the entrance to the fortress, these tunnels were often used for training purposes. Bemused, Nafyan ordered Danc to follow him; the younger Sith complied wordlessly. The citadel was as large on the inside as it was on the outside, winding through dozens of personal chambers and training circles on its way to the ground floor. No one acknowledged their presence as they navigated the Sith base.

The two dark-siders found Preux outside of the fortress, standing on the edge of a snowy bank that loomed over the entrance to the tunnels. His scarlet cape fluttered in the light breeze, revealing the lightsaber he was holding in his armored grip. Snowflakes came to rest on his armor and its helmet, but he didn’t notice. Perfectly still, he seemed more like a statue than a man.

Nafyan and Danc joined him, standing on either side of Preux as he stared into the open maw that led into the tunnels. It was only then that Nafyan heard it. The familiar sound of shrieking filled his ears as he stood alongside Preux. Something inside the tunnels was suffering. Dying. Terrible cries rose up from inside the darkness, followed by another, feral scream. Two creatures inside the tunnels hissed and screeched at each other, and then they were silenced just as quickly as they had come.

Once the confrontation was over, Preux used the Force to lift the body of a dead animal—now completely unidentifiable—from the cave. The chewing sounds stopped immediately, and a hideous cry rose up from the tunnel’s depths. Dropping the mangled corpse into the snow, Preux grimly returned his attention to the cave itself.

“How long has it been since that poor thing has been allowed to eat?” Danc muttered.

“Nine days,” Preux replied, his voice echoing in the helmet.

“This one might make it,” Nafyan said.

“Most of them don’t last a week without food,” Danc agreed. “It’s growing spectacularly.”

“We will see,” Preux muttered.

Nafyan stepped forward. “Master Preux.”

“What is it, Nafyan?”

“It seems that the Sith pretenders are weakening throughout the galaxy. This is our chance to move in and take what is rightfully ours,” Nafyan explained. “We need to retake Malachor V.”

“Malachor V?” Preux repeated, dryly. “What is so special about Malachor V?”

“It is a world rich in the dark side with a Sith academy containing many scrolls and tomes. It was once at the edge of the Sith Empire, and is crucial to reestablishing one now. It is of utmost importance to our goals-”

“We will not recapture Malachor V,” Preux said.

Nafyan’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What?”

“Malachor V is not important to our goals. We shall turn our attention to Besero,” Preux replied. “Besero is a haven for the light. It must be extinguished.”

“Besero?” Nafyan spat. “There is nothing there, Master Preux. It is a dead rock in the Deep Core! We must capture Malachor V before the Republic can capture it!”

“No. Malachor V is useless. I have no interest in doomed artifacts of a dead empire.”

Nafyan stared at Preux’s armored form. The heir apparent to the Sith did not understand Nafyan’s plans because he had kept them from Preux’s ears. Nafyan had not told Preux of his alliance with the Sith Emperor because he had no business knowing. As powerful as Preux was, and as skilled as he was, he was still a pawn. Just like all the other Sith of Revan’s failed empire, he was a warrior and figurehead for the true Sith. He had followed Nafyan’s commands to the letter, even though he did not quite understand them.

Preux’s sudden insistence on making decisions for himself made Nafyan’s blood boil. Never before had Preux denied Nafyan’s suggestions. He had listened to counsel since he was a young boy. Why would Preux deny his advice? Preux could not scheme without Nafyan knowing about it; as his most trusted confidant, Nafyan knew everything that took place on Khar Delba. His strength could not be increasing, either. Preux’s power grew as he killed others. Since he had not killed anyone since arriving on Khar Delba, Nafyan was still assuredly stronger than him.

It did not matter. It was Preux’s power that forced Revan’s Dark Jedi and troopers to submit to them, that was true. Nafyan was craftier than all the Sith on this icy world, and he was the arbiter of justice in this place. Slipping his own agents into their army and the guardsmen sect, Nafyan had long ago ensured that his own agents would be in a perfect position to assassinate Preux and any of his fanatical supporters should the need arise. Beyond that, Nafyan did not have to worry. All the other Sith were loyal to the cause, not a man. Danc would prove problematic, but he posed no threat. Nafyan was stronger than anyone on Khar Delba beyond Preux himself. They would conquer Malachor V and Dxun with or without Preux. He was not so useful that he could not be replaced.

“Danc,” Preux spoke.

“Yes, my lord?”

“Tell Captain Isinn to prepare a team to head for Besero.”

“Your will is done,” Danc said, leaving the two more experienced Sith.

Smiling at his assured, if delayed, victory, Nafyan bowed. “I will go and prepare for the trip, my lord.”

“You will not be coming with me,” Preux said. “You are to go to Antared V and prepare it for my arrival.”

“Antared V?” Nafyan grimaced. “Why are you going there?”

“Did you not hear? Prepare for my arrival. I will join you and Danc once I have ensured everything on Besero has gone according to plan.”

“Yes… my lord.”

Soon, Nafyan would not have to listen to these inconsequential orders. Soon, he would receive the title of Sith Lord. Soon, he could kill Preux and claim this army and the fleet for his own.

Soon.

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