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Chapter 18

The Jedi were seen off not by a grand procession, but by a few particularly amicable villagers. The village had taken nearly three weeks to repair; it would have taken much longer, but Northeus agreed to use the Force to hasten the process. The village looked as it had—if not better than—before the attack. Despite their efforts, the Jedi had not been totally redeemed in the eyes of the townsfolk.

Castan Herox, who had remained on good terms with the Jedi, offered to lead them from the village to the praxeum. Although Northeus did not seem excited about the idea, he accepted it anyway. Syme wanted them to take their cruiser there, arguing that they had wasted enough time already, but Castan refused to take them unless they trekked through the forest with him.

They had left the village as the sun rose. They had been walking for hours. Raen couldn’t be sure of the time, but the sun peeked through the trees from high in the sky. Sweat crept underneath the back of his shirt and along his arms, making the journey all the more uncomfortable. It didn’t take long for the entire procession to reek of body odor and damp cloth. Doreva complained about the stank of sweat at least once. The undergrowth was thick and covered in thistles, eliciting painful cries from every Jedi in the group sans Northeus.

“Are we almost there, Castan?” Khondine called toward the front of the line. “I’m exhausted.”

“If you are already tired, you should consider resting before entering the praxeum grounds,” Castan advised. “The fatigue may prove too great for further travel.”

“Should we stop here?” Doreva asked.

“No. We must not stop in the forest. Calamity and confusion would claim us. You will find rest in the shadow of the praxeum.”

Despite more protests from Syme and Raen, Castan pressed onward, forcing the Jedi to follow. Using their discomfort to his advantage, the Ghoul tried to escape their group once, but Northeus and Doreva managed to restrain him and force him to return before he ran too far. Castan warned the Ghoul that any further attempts to escape would likely result in his death, but the Givin did not seem to care.

The mysterious Force-user marched the Jedi through endless kilometers of forested land, passing through trees that were easily older than the villages themselves. Their roots twisted together in thick coils, covering the moist earth beneath them. Branches loomed down like a hundred eerie hands, eager to snatch up one of them and bring them aloft. The wild grasses became more plentiful and grew higher the further they walked, until they were practically wading in it. None of the Jedi were quite familiar with such natural settings, far more used to wandering cityscapes and urban centers, causing all of them to complain quietly to themselves.

“Here we are,” Castan said.

Suddenly looming over them as though it had materialized in an instant was the duracrete wall of the praxeum. It was four times taller than Raen, easily able to keep out even the largest and craftiest of the planet’s native predators. They could just barely see the uppermost floors of the praxeum building from behind the wall, but nothing more.

Northeus tried using the communication pad situated near the main gate, but his attempts were met with crackling static. He tried a few other combinations on the holographic keypad, but there was no response no matter what he tried. Raen could sense his comrades’ despair in the Force. He pitied them; after all, if there were no Jedi here, then the Sith had already come, and they were truly were the last of the Jedi.

“Do not fear. You will find your answers within,” Castan said, turning to leave.

“You’re not coming with us?” Doreva asked.

“I’m afraid I cannot. These answers are not mine to receive, but yours. I must return to the village to ensure their final successes, and then I go to the stars again.”

“We could use your help, Castan,” Northeus called out.

“No, Master Jedi. You need not my help. Act boldly and do not doubt yourself. You will triumph your darkness and be at peace.”

Although Doreva tried to persuade him against leaving, Castan had no plans on listening to him. He turned from them and disappeared into the trees without another word. As he left them, the dark side, which had been held at bay for some time, overwhelmed them. Its presence seemed to stem from the praxeum itself, draining their resolve and leaving them cold and weak.

The others hesitated, but Northeus proved resolute. Raen knew that he alone had the determination to continue. This was, sadly, his last goal as a Jedi Councilor. He had finally reached the praxeum, and there could be other Jedi waiting for them; he was not about to let their journey end here. The Jedi Master activated both of his lightsabers and cut a hole into the damaged gate.

“Come. Let us find our answers.”

*** ***

Even Northeus could not deny that the praxeum stank of death.

The courtyard they arrived in was reminiscent of the courtyard of Dantooine’s now destroyed enclave. Surrounded on all sides by buildings, the courtyard was almost completely covered in shadow. Raen was surprised that the low-hanging trees that dotted this inner sanctum could grow at all in this otherwise lifeless area. There were no bodies, but there didn’t have to be. Each Force-sensitive could sense the Jedi that had once lingered here, speaking with companions and learning from mentors, only to have suddenly perished. The fact that there were no traces of them at all was all the more unnerving.

“What… happened here?” Khondine whispered.

“Are all the Jedi dead?” Raen asked.

“We’ve received no welcome and no one answered our appeals to enter,” Syme replied. “There’s no one here.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Northeus growled. “We have lots of ground to cover.”

“Master, if there were Jedi here, we’d be able to sense them,” Syme noted.

“We’re going to search anyway!” the Jedi Master snapped.

The rest of the company stared at him. It took quite a bit to elicit such an emotional outburst from the reserved Jedi Master. Raen could sense the Jedi Master’s despair, and he was sure the others could as well, because none of them said anything. He knew that Northeus could not endure the thought of being the last of the Jedi. It was true: none of them could sense anyone in the Force. But that didn’t mean they should give up hope entirely. Right?

Northeus turned from his companions. “Syme, Doreva. Take the Ghoul and search the first building for survivors.”

Syme nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Khondine, Raen. Come with me; we’re going to investigate the second building.”

The Jedi and their companions dispersed from there. The first building was comprised of a library and several training centers. Northeus assumed that if there were any Jedi still here, they would be taking shelter in the first building. On the other hand, the second building was a small tower that had multiple purposes to the Jedi. Serving as an infirmary, storage center, and administrative facility, the Jedi Master hoped to find any clues about what happened here inside.

Raen followed Northeus and Khondine inside the tower. The interior was without power just like the rest of his once-hallowed place, shrouding the building in darkness. Northeus activated one of his lightsabers to serve as a light source, and Khondine followed suit. Inspecting a holographic map posted against the wall, Northeus determined the route to the infirmary and led his companions through the darkness.

The smell of rotten flesh and dried blood filled the infirmary, causing Khondine to gag. Raen’s stomach churned violently as he tried to keep himself from retching, and he had to lean against the wall to keep himself on his feet. This smell was the culmination of many weeks of decay and waste, and it was much stronger than anything he had smelled on M4-78 or in the village. Struggling, Raen reached into the Force but could not detect any life forms in this building. Northeus no doubt sensed the same, but he didn’t care. Walking around damaged medical equipment and misplaced machinery, Northeus scanned the cots by the glow of his lightsaber.

“Raen, Khodine, what do you think of this?” Northeus asked.

The two young Force-users carefully navigated their way to Northeus, using their weapons’ light to guide them. The Jedi Master waved his lightsaber over a body atop a stretcher. In the dim light, Raen saw the old woman he was looking at. Her hair was cut short; it had long since lost its color and faded into a shade of gray. Kindly wrinkles formed along her cheeks and near her lips, where she had a peaceful smile. Staring at the ceiling with lifeless eyes, she was oblivious to the IVs and cables attached to her life monitoring system.

“Who’s she?” Khondine asked.

“Vici Ramunee, Jedi Master and co-head of this praxeum,” Northeus explained. “She and her brother were appointed the leaders of this academy after the former head, Master Tannis, died nearly a decade ago.”

Raen looked at the various medical monitors. “She’s dead. What happened to her?”

“Lightsaber wound, it seems,” Northeus closed her eyes and then pointed toward the burn in her robes at the torso. “Whoever defeated her managed to kill her with one attack. She never stood a chance.”

“But Northeus, if that’s the case, why is she hooked up to these life support devices?” Khondine asked.

“Maybe she didn’t die immediately?” Raen reasoned.

“No, a cut that deep would have damaged one of her lungs, not to mention several other vital organs,” Northeus replied. “Even sustaining herself with the Force, she would have had seconds to live.”

Raen was examining the body when he noticed a datapad on the floor, where it would have fallen from the deceased Jedi Master’s hand. Picking it up, he activated it and skimmed its contents. The datapad seemed to be a personal journal, chronicling the events over the past year. The last entry was dated over six weeks ago; unlike the others, it was composed of a simple map of the praxeum and the outlying area.

“Northeus, look at this,” Raen said.

The Jedi Master took the datapad and read through it while Khondine read over his shoulder. He didn’t take long; once he was finished, he projected the map in the last entry onto a nearby table. Seeing as there was no entry relating to an attack or danger, the map was the closest they had to evidence.

“There’s a place called the Cave of Truth about a kilometer west of here,” Khondine noted. “It seems to be the farthest point on the map still considered part of the praxeum.”

“Do you think there could be survivors there?” Raen wondered.

“At the very least, we should investigate,” Northeus said. “Khondine, contact the others and tell them to meet you at the cave.”

“What about you?” Khondine asked, already activating her comlink.

“I’m going to search this place for more clues. Don’t wait for me; I’ll join you and the others very soon,” he replied.

*** ***

Raen was pleased to leave the academy behind. The lack of lighting coupled with the disturbances the emptiness caused did not sit well with him. Khondine led the way back into the forested lands beyond the praxeum, and the two met up with Syme, Doreva, and the Ghoul, who had already completed the investigation of the academy’s first building. As expected, there were no signs of survivors.

Unlike finding the praxeum itself, locating the cave was very easy. Using the datapad’s map as a guide, Khondine led the five of them through the sea of grass that separated the praxeum’s high walls from the mountain range in the west. The trip was silent and uninteresting; the Ghoul did not even try to escape this time. As they approached their destination, the number of trees dwindled rapidly, leaving the group to travel under the bright sun without shade.

By the time they reached the Cave of Truth, the healthy grass had also disappeared, leaving dry earth and yellow foliage in its place. A single mountain towered over them, its rust-colored rocks glistening in the setting sun. The rock face before them—too steep to climb any higher than four meters—was supposed to be the location of the Cave of Truth, but there was no entrance to be seen. Piles of rocks surrounded the base of the mountain; landslides were evidently plentiful here.

“Now what?” Syme asked. “There’s no cave.”

“Don’t tell me we came all this way for nothing,” Raen muttered.

“The map’s not wrong, is it?” Khondine glanced at the datapad again. “It says the Cave of Truth is right here…”

Doreva examined the mountain. “Maybe the entrance is hidden?”

“Then how would we be able to reach it?” Raen asked.

“If it is a Jedi cave, or even a Jedi sanctuary to hide from whatever happened at the praxeum, perhaps the Force?” Khondine mused.

“We could start by getting rid of some of these rocks,” Syme agreed.

Calling on the Force, the Jedi began lifting rocks from their resting place and using their telekinesis to move them away from the mountain. Raen struggled to lift some of the larger rocks—resembling starfighters in size—but his companions were quick to help him. Luckily, most of them were smaller stones. The Ghoul remained behind the other Force-sensitives, watching them work in silence.

To their surprise, the entrance to the cave was hidden behind a massive stone a meter off the ground. Doreva and Syme were still clearing away the rest of the rocks and repositioning them so they could enter the cave when the ground started to shake around them. The mountain seemed to tremble and pebbles bounced back and forth along the ground. It could have been a groundquake, but the timing was too coincidental. Raen shot a confused glance to the others, but they were just as startled as he was.

From inside the cave, a massive slithering dragon revealed itself to the Force-sensitives. Lifting itself into the air on thin wings, it hissed and screeched at them, obviously intending to attack. The Force-sensitives had no idea what was going on, but they had to defend themselves. Syme was the first to act, throwing his cyan lightsaber at the strange creature.

The dragon snaked through the air, dodging the attack with grace that belied its size. While Syme’s lightsaber returned to him, the dragon’s mouth glowed bright orange with a tinge of purple. It launched a narrow beam of energy from its mouth before the Jedi had a chance to counter. Syme had barely recovered his lightsaber before leaping out of the way of the attack. Raen pushed the Ghoul to keep him from getting hit, leaving Doreva and Khondine to roll out of the way.

The dragon’s attacked dissipated almost as quickly as it had started, allowing all the Jedi to activate their lightsabers. Khondine threw her violet blade at the dragon, forcing it to dodge both hers and Syme’s weapons as it looped around to get in a better position to attack. Noticing that the Ghoul was still knocked over after being saved from its first attack, the dragon launched another beam of energy at the defenseless Givin.

Stepping between the Ghoul and the incoming beam, Doreva positioned his green blade to defend them both. The Ghoul managed to scramble out of the beam’s path just before the superheated gases of the dragon’s breath collided with Doreva’s lightsaber. To Doreva’s and the other Jedi’s surprise, his lightsaber failed to defend him against the attack. The energy from the attack engulfed his entire body, burning away at him and the surrounding land.

When the smoke cleared, there was nothing left of Doreva but ashes and a melted lightsaber hilt.

The Ghoul had been immobilized by Doreva’s death, not quite sure if what he was seeing actually happened. Syme, all too sure that the Bothan was dead, was furious. Shouting at the dragon, he hurled large rocks at their foe alongside his lightsaber. Khondine’s violet blade again joined his, keeping the flying beast distracted while Raen dragged the Ghoul away from the fray. He pulled the Ghoul into the line of trees that marked the edge of the forest. Safe from the fighting, Raen took a moment to compose himself—or tried to. What had just happened? The dragon’s attack should have been deflected by Doreva’s lightsaber; there was no way such a small stream of energy should have bypassed his defenses. Had they not been paying attention? Had this been the thing that killed the other Jedi?

“Darkness! Servants of darkness!” the dragon bellowed, surprising everyone with his sentience.

“You can speak?” Khondine shouted, snatching her thrown lightsaber.

“That thing can’t be… intelligent?” Syme muttered, throwing his own blade again.

The dragon’s twisting body suddenly dove, heading toward the two Jedi without warning. Using its massive skull, he knocked Syme off his feet before he could recover his thrown lightsaber. The Jedi Knight flew toward Raen, tumbling over himself violently several times as though he had been struck by a shuttle. The dragon’s many hands snatched Khondine, keeping her weapon arm immobile while he lifted her high into the air. She struggled to get free, but it proved futile until the dragon released her and sent her plummeting to the ground.

Raen rushed to Syme’s side, helping the wounded Jedi stand up. Syme winced in pain, but he was more resilient than Raen expected. Once he was sure that he could stand on his own, Syme pushed Raen away and slowed Khondine’s descent with the Force. The Arkanian had been attempting to slow herself down, but her efforts were ineffective until Syme’s power had been coupled with hers. Rolling, she softened her fall and landed near the cave.

Syme emerged from the forested cover Raen and the Ghoul were hiding in and goaded the dragon into attacking again. Khondine reactivated her lightsaber as well, ready to fight the dragon as it descended. As expected, it was furious and prepared to destroy them both with its powerful breath attack. Before either of them could attack, Northeus raced forward, entering the area around the mountain with a burst of Force speed. One of his lightsabers was active in his hand, but he couldn’t use the other without dropping the conical holocron he was carrying.

“Master Lywin, stop this! What are you doing?” he called out.

The others looked at him like he was insane. Northeus waved at the dragon, bidding him to join them on the ground.

“Master Lywin,” Northeus said again, “do you remember me?”

“Nrgh… Master Ulsan? Are you… with this group of darkness?” the dragon asked.

“These Jedi are under my care, yes,” the Jedi Master said.

“J-Jedi? But they can’t be… one of them is dead! Nrghh!”

“Yes.” Northeus glanced at Doreva’s remains and clenched his fists. “You killed a Jedi Knight in your rage. A brave and noble warrior, who was dedicated to the light.”

“No! No! Nrghh! How? I was sure these were dark-siders…”

The dragon’s wings seemed to have failed him, and he fell toward the ground. Northeus used the Force to slow his descent like Syme had slowed Khondine’s, keeping the dragon from crashing into the ground. To the relief of the other Jedi, the dragon seemed to have faded into unconsciousness.

“Master Ulsan, who is that? What’s going on?” Syme asked.

“This is Jedi Master Willm Lywin, founder of this praxeum and defender of the Cave of Truth,” Northeus explained. “Our Duinuogwuin friend will awaken in due time. When he wakes, he may be a bit crazed. We should head into the cave for now.”

Raen could sense Syme’s rage and he knew the Jedi Knight hated to be brushed off like that. However, there was no point in arguing here. The other Jedi were completely in the dark, and they were all reeling from Doreva’s death. The Jedi and the Ghoul followed Northeus into the cave. The Ghoul seemed stunned by recent events, and he walked with them as though he was in a trance. None of them knew what to say, so they said nothing.

The cave was surprisingly well decorated and far more homely than any of the Jedi could have expected. Jedi memorials and artwork lined the walls as they proceeded deeper into the cave. Despite the fact that the cave itself seemed to contain hundreds of rooms, Northeus guided them through these tunnels and ignored most of them on the way to what appeared to be a spartan meditation room.

“I know you all have questions,” Northeus said suddenly, standing on the far end of the room. “Let’s get them out of the way now.”

“What is going on here?” Khondine asked, flatly. “What… is this place?”

“Jedi Master Lywin founded the Teyan Praxeum over six hundred years ago. Since that time, he has guarded the Cave of Truth, which functions as a test for upcoming Padawans seeking knighthood,” Northeus explained. “Jedi Masters since then have been appointed to lead the praxeum itself in his stead. In this case, the Ramunee siblings served as headmasters.”

“Why did he attack us?” Syme asked angrily. “Why did he kill Doreva?”

“I do not know. I have a feeling that his sorrow and confusion are tied with the tragedy at the village and the destruction of the praxeum. He may have mistaken you for assailants. It’s understandable, especially if he’s agitated or the dark side is clouding his vision.”

“That doesn’t excuse him,” Raen said.

“I know,” Master Lywin said as he slithered into the cave, startling the younger Jedi.

Syme reached for his lightsaber, but Northeus shook his head. The Jedi Knight stepped aside as the Duinuogwuin settled down in a rather large seat located near the exit of the room, watching his head for the rocky ceiling. Khondine and the others also gave the dragon an appropriate amount of space, still wary of him.

“I do not expect you to excuse my actions,” Master Lywin continued. “They are unforgivable. What I did in my madness will forever hang over me like death itself.”

Northeus shook his head. “There’s nothing we can do now, Master Lywin.”

“I know,” the Duinuogwuin lamented. “But I have done what I could for your friend that he may rest in peace and will do all I can for you.”

“Your madness is gone,” Raen noted. “That was certainly quick.”

“Great failures are often very sobering,” the ancient Jedi Master replied.

“Tell us, then, if you’re a Jedi,” Syme said, “why did you mistake us for attackers? Dark-siders?”

The dragon rested his wings. “Let me explain from the beginning. We lost contact with the Coruscant Temple nearly four months ago. We sent representatives to the Conclave at Katarr, but none returned to tell us the outcome. So we remained here, waiting for news to come to us from the Core. When none came, I decided to venture to Coruscant myself and learn what I could.”

“But there was no one there,” Khondine surmised.

“Correct. When I returned here, the praxeum was in disarray. Someone had attacked while I was away, and they killed Vici…” the Jedi Master paused for a moment. Shaking his head, he continued: “Her brother, Veni, tried to keep her alive, but she was beyond our help.”

“We saw her body in the praxeum. She was still attached to life support systems,” Raen said.

“That is not surprising. The attackers launched another raid on the praxeum, with the intention of purging it entirely. Veni fled with a small group of Jedi, but his companions never reached the Cave of Truth. He… he came here, dying, begging me to do something to save the praxeum. But it was already too late.”

“I’m sorry, Master Lywin,” Northeus interrupted softly. “We don’t want you to recount all this too soon.”

“No, I must. I must. He… he died a few days later. I buried him and his companions within this cave and returned to the praxeum—for the first time in many decades,” Lywin said. “Seeing my life’s work, the apex of my architectural achievement and the pride of my learning… destroyed… caused me to slip into the dark side, and madness.”

“Who attacked the praxeum?” Raen asked.

“According to Veni, they were men wearing white robes with black sashes over their shoulders. They carried lightsabers like the Jedi and the Sith, but they were stronger than all of my students. Something… unnatural empowered them to fight to the death.”

Khondine crossed her arms. “Did your students kill any of them? Can we see them?”

“As far as I know, none of them perished against my Jedi. If they had, their bodies were promptly removed from the scene. I attacked you because I sensed the dark side in some of you, thinking you were the assailants. I am greatly sorry.”

“And you have been contacted by no other Jedi?” Northeus asked.

“None.”

Northeus crossed his arms and stared at the stone floor. Then in the end, their greatest fear was realized. The Jedi Order was no more; there were none left. Looking around the room, Raen could see the last of the Jedi. Syme, who had lost one of his legs and had been broken since the death of his friend—who died for a prophecy Syme couldn’t believe in. Khondine, purposeless since her liege and the Jedi divided her loyalties. Master Lywin, a murderer whose entire academy collapsed before him, and Northeus, a Councilor with no one to counsel. He and the Ghoul stood amongst the remnants of the once vaunted Jedi Order like men before giants. The Ghoul had lived while Doreva had died. Even he, an amoral killer, seemed shaken by that fact. Raen was neither Jedi nor Sith. The darkness remained in him, but he tried his hardest to reject its power.

Had the Sith won?

“I have no words of wisdom to offer you. For six hundred years I have trained Jedi, yet I have experienced no disaster such as this,” Master Lywin said. “But if you wish to stay with me for the night, I will tend to any of your wounds and ensure you are cared for.”

“We might as well,” Northeus’s voice was hushed and wavering. “Our journey is over.”

“Very well. I will attend to your rooms; for now, remain outside of the cave.”

*** ***

Raen had watched the sun descent, fading away behind the line of trees. Leaving behind waves of amber, rose, and gold, the sunset’s array of colors gave way to shimmering stars in an otherwise black night sky. The wind picked up around him as he waited atop a broken log, not far from the cave, and he shivered without a source of warmth. He couldn’t hear any of his companions, but he suspected that they were nearby. Only the sounds of the local fauna interrupted the quiet around him.

He had been thinking here, alone and silent, for a long time. What were they going to do now? Raen was not sure if Northeus had even planned for this. The Jedi Order was defunct and they had nothing to fall back on. Millennia of gathered knowledge had been lost. The Republic could not support them. Their families were either dead or alienated. They had no home for their own; for now, Master Lywin’s cave was the safest place in the galaxy for them.

“Raen? Are you okay?”

Raen started, drawn from his introspection. He turned around and saw Khondine in the dim light. She was carrying two wooden bowls filled with steaming food, and she was hopelessly trying to keep any from spilling on the ground. Motioning for Raen to help her, he rose from his seat and took one of them from her.

“Thank you,” she said with a sigh, placing the bowl near the log Raen had been sitting on. “You can keep it. It’s yours, anyway.”

“Oh, okay. Thank you, Khondine.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Raen glanced into the bowl. The liquid inside was a slight green color, and there seemed to be chunks of meat and vegetables that he couldn’t recognize floating around in it. Without utensils, he figured he had to drink it. He glanced over at Khondine to see if she had forgotten his, but she did not have any either. He grimaced.

“What… is it?” he asked.

“Something Master Lywin cooked. I didn’t ask. I just took it and left.”

“Not up for talking to him?”

“I think he’s trying to poison us,” Khondine said, half-serious. “I wouldn’t talk with him if he was the last Jedi in the galaxy.”

Raen ignored the fact that that was practically the case and sipped some of the broth. It was edible, but just a little bitter. “It’s not too bad. True Jedi food.”

“So it’s pretty bad,” Khondine surmised, laughing.

“No! That’s not what I meant.”

Khondine shook her head. She was silent for a moment, caught up in her own thoughts. Acknowledging her pensiveness, Raen turned his attention back to his food. When he glanced at her, she returned his gaze for only a moment before withdrawing back into a visage of reflection.

It was some time before she spoke again. “What are you doing out here, Raen?”

“Watching the sky. Meditating. Making sure the Ghoul doesn’t wander off.”

“What have you been meditating about?” she asked.

Raen turned his attention back to her. “During our trip here, I thought a lot about the dark side. Now, I’ve mostly been trying to figure out what we’re supposed to do.”

“Sounds like Northeus’s job,” Khondine mused.

“I don’t think he knows what’s going to happen to us either,” Raen noted.

“No, I suppose not.” Khondine drank some of the stew. “But he and Master Lywin will think of something.”

“I hope so.”

Khondine was about to say something, but a voice called out to them from the distance. Neither of the two Jedi recognized the voice, and they sprung up in alarm. Raen expected something to charge out of the forest and attack. Before he could move into the line of trees to investigate, Khondine signaled for him to wait. Activating her violet lightsaber, she walked toward the forest, careful to avoid making too much noise. To their surprise, Yohan pulled himself out of the underbrush several meters away from her.

“Yohan!” Raen jumped to his feet. “What are you doing here?”

The villager’s legs had been cut deeply, exposing bits of bone and lines of muscle beneath layers of burnt flesh. One of his hulking arms had been cut off, and the other was bruised with splotches of dark blues and blacks. The rest of his skin was pale and he was barely conscious; Raen was surprised he had made it this far in his condition.

Without thinking, Khondine removed a medpac from her belt to treat his legs. Raen tore off the sleeves on his shirt and tried to stop the bleeding from the some smaller cuts around Yohan’s arm.

“It’s no use, Jedi. They already got me. They’re coming for you,” he wheezed.

“Don’t try and talk,” Khondine ordered. “You’ll just weak-”

“Wait,” Raen interrupted. “Who’s coming, Yohan? Who did this to you?”

“Those murderers… I found them. Followed ‘em from a distance. They said they wanted… Jedi. I tried to warn you, but they knew—sensed I was listening…”

Raen glanced at Khondine, who quickly finished applying the medpac. She noticed his worried expression and rose to her feet, lightsaber in hand. Raen reached out into the Force, but he didn’t sense anyone approaching. These murderous Jedi… where were they? Scanning the area around the cave, he saw no one.

“Thank you, Yohan,” Raen said. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry for nothin’. I’m going to see… her. Both of ’em. I couldn’t take them out, but there are only… three of them. Stole this from one of their dead.” Using his only remaining hand, he reached into his vest pocket and handed Raen a lightsaber. “Avenge…”

Yohan closed his eyes, succumbing to his wounds. Raen solemnly accepted the gift from the dead villager, and he did his best to restrain his tumultuous emotions. Khondine moved in to comfort him, but she was interrupted by three figures—a Human, Twi’lek, and Zabrak—in white robes who leapt from behind the trees. They appeared to be Jedi, but their robes were featureless and they lacked the cloaks that most Jedi wore. With yellow lightsabers blazing in the darkness, Raen could see each of their faces.

“Jedi who have surrendered to the darkness,” the Twi’lek said, “We, who have achieved peace, will end you!”

Khondine twirled her lightsaber. “Try it.”

“You will end up like that man.” The Zabrak pointed toward Yohan. “Are you prepared?”

“Khondine,” Raen whispered. “Go warn the others. I’ll hold them here.”

“What?” Khondine stared at him. “You can’t stop all three of them by yourself, Raen. Don’t be foolish!”

“Trust me,” Raen replied. “We cannot fight them alone. You have to warn the others.”

“I’m not going to leave you-”

“Khondine!”

Khondine spat. She muttered something about Raen’s pride as she left him. Once she was on her way to the Cave of Truth, Raen returned his attention to the pseudo-Jedi standing in front of him. They had yet to move, but they were ready for battle. The dark side taint from the praxeum was still quite strong, and Raen had trouble sensing these three hostiles. Activating the lightsaber he received from Yohan, he revealed its shimmering yellow blade to his opponents.

“I see you stole one of our companion’s weapons,” the Zabrak growled.

“You took the lives of many innocent people here,” Raen replied. “It’s only fair.”

“Innocence? Who is innocent? The people we killed are carriers of darkness. Their presence in the galaxy causes more and more to fall, spreading through the galaxy like a plague,” the Human said. “It will not know peace until the last darkness has been purged.”

Raen shook his head. “You killed a seven year old girl. You killed people who couldn’t even defend themselves. Whatever your goals are, that is too far.”

“Only one so evil would oppose us. Come dark-sider. Do your worst,” the Twi’lek said.

Raen reached into the Force, allowing its full power to wash over him. His fingers were drowned in tiny sheaths of flame, and they spread across his whole hand before climbing up his arm. In seconds, his entire limb was a blazing inferno, spewing flame and releasing smoke. His opponents seemed to realize that if they delayed, they would be attacked by this destructive fire, so they rushed him. Outstretching his hand, Raen released a stream of fire upon them.

The fire formed a burning wall between himself and his enemies. He could feel the heat from where he stood, keeping his enemies at bay. He wanted to launch another burst of flame, but he was tiring quickly. Was that all he could muster? Dissipating the flames on his arm, he saw the burnt flesh and charred hair the ability left behind. He had used this attack many times, and he had never been burnt by his own fire before. Something was wrong.

“Did you think such a simple trick would stop us?” one of the Jedi called to him.

Using the Force to create a telekinetic blast, the wind that followed swept through the flame and created a path for Raen’s enemies. The Zabrak rushed toward him, attacking him with several quick slashes. Raen deflected each attack and then backed away, dodging a sneak attack from the Twi’lek. The Human moved in to attack as well, forcing Raen to retreat so he could face all three of them at once.

Withdrawing one of his vibroswords to use in his offhand, Raen struck at the incoming Twi’lek with his lightsaber and then parried the Human’s attack with his vibroweapon. A quick spinning attack forced his two opponents to backpedal, allowing Raen to move in and attack the Zabrak—who had been waiting behind for a chance to strike. Performing a few heavy strikes against the Zabrak’s defenses, Raen jumped over him to avoid the other two opponents coming in behind him.

His enemies gave him no respite. Upon landing, Raen was forced to block several overhead attacks from the Twi’lek. Kicking him in the chest, Raen sent him backward in time to block attacks from the Zabrak and Human combatants. Surrounding him, the two white-robed Jedi alternated between quick and powerful attacks to throw Raen off-balance. Raen struck back with one-two combination attacks that aimed low, then high. His attacks were ineffective, but they did keep his opponents on the defensive.

The Twi’lek recovered faster than Raen anticipated, rushing back into battle. Raen saw him coming in the corner of his eye; jumping back, he avoided an overhead swing from the Human and positioned himself just out of the Zabrak’s reach. This gave him a split second to block the Twi’lek’s attack, but also invited both the Human and Zabrak to attack him at once. Redirecting his lightsaber blade, Raen barely managed to block the Twi’lek and the Zabrak with a single weapon while his vibrosword met the Human’s lightsaber.

“Not bad, dark-sider,” the Human seemed to compliment him. “But you will lose this day. The Force wills it.”

Raen saw the Zabrak’s blade maneuver away from his—which was still locked with the Human’s lightsaber—and plunge toward his chest. Surrounded by enemies, Raen couldn’t jump back or reposition himself, and moving one of his weapons meant he would invite another foe’s weapon into his body. Moments before the Zabrak’s lightsaber made contact, the pseudo-Jedi’s body split in half at the torso. His golden lightsaber just barely scathed Raen before it fell to the ground.

Syme had arrived first. His thrown lightsaber had cut the Zabrak in two, allowing Raen to escape the circle of enemy Jedi. The rest of Raen’s allies arrived seconds after Syme, and the pseudo-Jedi realized that they were now outnumbered. Jumping away from Raen, the Human and Twi’lek positioned themselves so Raen was in between them and the incoming Jedi, lightsabers extended.

“We’d love to stay and rid the galaxy of your filth,” the Human said. “But we’re leaving now.”

“You can’t escape us,” Northeus said. “Surrender.”

“I beg to differ,” the Twi’lek said, motioning toward the sky.

As if on cue, a Foray-class blockade runner appeared in the night sky. Flying above the forests to the south, the ship rapidly approached the Cave of Truth, kicking up foliage and scattering avians in its wake. As it got closer, it blocked out the night sky, hovering less than two hundred meters above the ground. Its engines roared overhead, and its six turbolasers began to rain fire around them all.

“What is that?” Why is a Republic vessel in system?” Syme shouted over the noise.

“Let us leave in the Sacrosanct,” the Twi’lek called to his companion.

The Human nodded. “Master Eston will not be happy that these unclean ones were not dealt with.”

“It does not matter. We’ve purged the praxeum. Come!”

Their two surviving enemies levitated off the ground, propelling themselves upward with the Force and leaving the crowd of Jedi behind. Their powers were impressive, and Raen realized that they were going to float all the way to the opened hangar bays of the Foray corvette overhead. They were nearly halfway there when Master Lywin took flight, heading toward the ship.

“Master Lywin!” Northeus shouted. “Where are you going?”

“To do what must be done, Master Ulsan!” he replied. “Forgive me. Your path diverges from mine here. Forgive my foolishness, if nothing else!”

The Duinuogwuin Jedi Master soared toward the defenseless underbelly of the Sacroscant as it waited for its two passengers to float into the hangar. Turbolaser fire went off around him, firing forth from the port and starboard sides of the ship, tearing up the forested growth and mountains around the ship. The ancient Jedi Master was safe from that assault, and he latched onto the body of the ship. From there, he could see his newfound allies and recognized the confusion on their faces, he could see the incoming Jedi, those evil ones who had killed villagers and his Jedi companions, and amidst the smoke, he could just barely see the praxeum—his life’s work—being annihilated in an inferno of laser fire.

With a loud roar, Master Lywin allowed his breath attack to charge inside his body. Instead of unleashing the energy blast on the unsuspecting ship, he held it in, causing his entire body to glow purple and red. Northeus was screaming at Master Lywin, begging him to stop from where he stood, but the Duinuogwuin could not hear him. This had to be done. This was not absolution for his crimes against the very Jedi that he should have aided, nor did it compensate for his weakness. However, there was nothing else he could do to express his regret—his failure.

Raen didn’t realize what was happening until Master Lywin exploded. In one final, self-destructive attack, Master Lywin critically damaged the Sacrosanct. It was like a nuclear missile had gone off above them. Raen heard a loud screech and then his eardrums popped loudly, deafening him. Disoriented, he doubled over in shock. Waves of heat splashed over them, and then a sonic boom shook the ground. Khondine and Syme managed to stand for a few more seconds, but they also fell over. Turning to face the sky, Raen saw the Sacrosanct practically torn in two by Master Lywin’s attack. The ship’s interior was exposed, and the ship fell apart on itself as a flash of light blinded him.

Flaming metal debris rained down around them, crashing into the side of the mountain and tearing up the forest floor. Rocks tumbled down from the mountain’s face, trees caught on fire, and Raen could feel the earth continue to shake beneath him. Struggling to maintain altitude, the blockade runner found itself in a losing battle with gravity, crashing into the forests just beyond the praxeum in the distance.

*** ***

Raen awoke with a start. Realizing that he must have faded into unconsciousness, he pulled himself off the ground. The other Jedi were already on their feet, and the white-robed Twi’lek he had been fighting was positioned against a nearby tree.

“What’s… what’s going on?” Raen asked, rubbing his side. “Why is he here?”

“He survived Master Lywin’s attack,” Syme, battered and bruised from the explosion, answered. “He never reached the ship. Fell to the ground, I guess.”

“He got lucky, too. The ship’s core self-destructed after it crashed, killing most of the survivors. There are fires everywhere; I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Khondine said.

“But why is he here?” Raen asked again.

“I am here,” the Twi’lek suddenly spoke up, “because your Master Ulsan requests it. He wants me to lead him to the true Jedi. He wants me to lead him to Watchcircle Dominus.”


Chapter 19

Eliorae Latona managed to leave the Senate building, making her through the crowd of local reporters and subpsace radio interviewers that lingered on its grand staircase. Eager for a story—especially from an upstart politician—to feed their audience, the media swarmed around the senator with floating cam-droids and comlink transceivers. Waving the droids away, the senator did her best to dodge the crowd, to little avail.

“Senator Latona! A word for our viewers, if you would!”

“Is it true that you are requesting over three million credits to turn the Jedi Temple into a protected historical site?”

“What do you think of Senator Nyvenek of Kuat?”

“Rumors have said that you intend to support the Colonial-Isolationist faction. Can you confirm these claims?”

Having to deal with reporters every time she left work irritated the already tired senator. With a brisk ‘no comment’ or ‘sorry, not today’, she tried to bypass the crowd. It was no good, of course, because they assumed she was merely playing hard to get with her information. There were so many of them that she couldn’t make her way toward her hovercraft in the distance.

While she struggled through the crowd, one of the reporters cried out in pain. Screaming something about a broken toe, he stepped out of the way and allowed Senator Calon D’et of Corellia to enter the crowd. With the same tenacity Eliorae had, he fought his way through the reporters, feet stomping and arms flailing.

The old senator’s flowing head of hair was beginning to recede, giving way to a broad forehead. With an aquiline nose and a dark moustache, he resembled the old Corellian nobles Eliorae had seen in paintings from her homeworld. Although she had never personally interacted with Senator D’et, she knew of his policies and his staunch pro-Republic stance. For that, she respected him greatly.

“Senator D’et?” Eliorae asked.

“A pleasure, Senator,” he said crisply, extending an arm to her. “I’m sorry we have to meet under such circumstances. Come. You seem to be having trouble; let me assist you.”

“Thank you, Senator D’et.”

The middle-aged Corellian seemed to part the crowd by his mere presence. Whether it was because he was heavier built than most of them or because the others could see the Bothan reporter nursing his crushed toe, they quickly moved to avoid him. He occasionally cast a glance at Eliorae to ensure that she was still accounted for, despite the fact she clung to his arm as though her life depended on it. To her relief, his mud-stained boots cleared the stairs, leaving the last of the potential interviewers behind them to bother other politicians.

“Where is your hovercar, Senator Latona? I don’t mean to waste your time, but I would like to speak to you in private,” the Corellian said. “It is important, I assure you.”

“That one.” She pointed toward a yellow-brown car at the edge of the district. “That’s mine.”

“Very good. I shall accompany you, then.”

The Corellian allowed her to separate herself from his arm, and he bid her to lead the way. Eliorae glanced back at the Senate chambers for a moment, wondering how the other senators dealt with the crowd of media enthusiasts, before heading toward her hovercraft. Senator D’et followed in silence, occasionally looking back at the Senate building himself.

Eliorae’s Lomin driver was lingering around the trunk of the hovercraft, absent-mindedly talking on his comlink. He was not aware of their approach, and the hovercar itself had been shut down.

“Hey, you!” the Corellian shouted at her chauffeur. “Are you paid to be lazy? Don’t you see your employer coming? Start the car!”

Eliorae’s face reddened. She had never considered yelling at her assistants; in fact, she had never bothered to chastise them. They did their jobs well, even if a few of them were oafish. She was embarrassed by the senator’s berating, but she said nothing. The Lomin had not heard Senator D’et’s initial request, still talking on his comlink. However, the continued shouting and Senator Latona’s approach goaded the driver into action. Jumping to his feet, he apologized profusely for his idleness and used his keycard to unlock the doors to her hovercar.

Her chauffer opened the rear doors first, when the senators were about ten meters away and quickly approaching. As the doors swung open, the car suddenly exploded. A tremendous fireball raced upward, throwing shattered duracrete and burning slag around the two senators. A loud roar followed the initial boom, and the blast sent Eliorae flying into Senator D’et’s arms. Her Lomin associate was vaporized instantly.

The explosion damaged several other parked hovercars around the Senate Plaza, sending terrified civilians and politicians alike into a screaming panic. From there, everything seemed to blur in Eliorae’s mind. Senate guardsmen on their regular patrols rushed to the scene, surrounding the two politicians from any further harm. Reporters, seeing the flames and chaos from the Senate building, flocked to the area like scavengers to carrion.

Eliorae felt one of the guardsman place an energy shield generator on her belt. She suddenly felt very hot, and her throat became parched. Something had come over her in all this chaos, and she felt very weak. She struggled to remain vigilant, but she ended up exhausted herself. The senator fainted in Senator D’et’s arms as Coruscant Security Forces encompassed the perimeter to barricade civilian access.

*** ***

Ranval had been sorting pieces of flimsy that accounted for system-wide finances when a division of Coruscant Security walked through the front door of Senator Latona’s apartment. Dressed in official brown-and-white uniforms, they were practically droidlike in their mannerisms. Each of them carried a blaster pistol and vibroblade on their belt in addition to a combat shield, giving them the ability to protect themselves and deter criminals from attacking.

His first instincts told him to reach for the nearest weapon and duck behind cover, but he resisted that reaction. Something about his criminal days made him nervous around law enforcement, even when he was doing nothing wrong. They did not react or move to engage him, so that eased his worry a bit. Steeling himself, he remained seated.

Following their procession, the senator of Corellia walked inside with Senator Latona in his arms. One of the officers motioned for him to put her down on a sofa in the main room. While the Corellian made sure that she was comfortable, the officers began tearing apart the room for potential bugs and dangers.

Ranval rushed over to Senator Latona, pushing by a few officers. “What’s going on? Is she all right?”

“She’s just fainted,” the Corellian replied. “There was an assassination attempt near the Senate building.”

“On her?” Ranval gritted his teeth. “When? How did it happen?”

“Settle down, sir,” an officer said. “We have everything under control.”

Ranval glared at the officer. If you had it under control, then you wouldn’t be here! he thought. It took all of his power to resist the urge to punch him. “And who are you?”

“Captain Talnor Nyre, Coruscant Security,” the officer replied curtly. “I think the better question would be, who are you, sir?”

“Ranval Messor. I’m her aide.”

“Well, Mr. Messor, you have nothing to worry about,” Captain Nyre said. “We have our finest detectives and senatorial agents working tirelessly to figure out who was trying to kill Senator Latona.”

“I’m sure,” Ranval scoffed. “And why are you here, Senator…?”

“D’et. Calon D’et of Corellia. I actually wanted to speak with Senator Latona in private, but these events have made things difficult. As a witness and potential victim, I’ve been forced to follow Coruscant Security.”

“Witness protection,” Captain Nyre noted.

“In all its glory,” Ranval quipped. He returned his attention to Senator D’et. “Whatever you wanted to speak to Senator Latona about can be passed onto me, I think.”

“I suppose so. If you don’t mind, I’d rather not be disturbed.”

“Of course. Come into the dining room. We can talk in private.”

Senator D’et followed Ranval from the living room, by now filled with senators, officers, and police barriers. All of this searching made Ranval nervous. While he had nothing to hide, he knew that Jedi were not seen very highly by politicians or law enforcement. If they discovered he was a Jedi, that could sour things quickly. The Corellian said nothing, but Ranval could sense that he and Captain Nyre were both suspicious of him. Whether it was because he was considered a suspect or his species’ natural Force-sensitivity made him disconcerting, he knew not.

“You understand that what you tell me will remain confidential, correct?” Ranval asked as they walked into the kitchen.

“Of course, Mr. Messor. I am just concerned your views may not express the opinions of Senator Latona,” he replied.

“Don’t worry about that. I don’t make any decisions without consulting her first,” Ranval said. “We agree before we decide on anything.”

“Very well.” The senator sat down at the dining suite at Ranval’s behest. “I’ll be frank with you. I heard about Senator Latona’s invitation to the Heritage faction.”

“Did you?” Ranval asked nonchalantly, peering through the window.

“Yes. And we know their primary goal is to acquire Alderaan Royal Shipwrights for their own, do we not?”

“It was suspected.”

“Do not suspect. Know.” The senator crossed his arms sagely. “That was all they could ever want out of a partnership with Alderaan.”

“What you say may be true-”

“Did you know that the Senate never intended for her to become queen?” Senator D’et asked.

“I did not,” Ranval said. “When was this decided?”

“During the civil strife there a few years ago. Sith, death of the royals… the whole problem. The Senate determined that the Latona monarchy was too independent for their liking, and they feared Eliorae would lead it further from Senatorial dependence. They opted instead for another noble to take the throne, this one with the Senate’s credits comfortably in his pockets.”

“Whose plan was this?” Ranval asked.

“It’s hard to say. It was suggested by a committee, and that committee had several Heritage factionalists on board. When the plan fell apart, they took a lot of fire in the Senate. After all…” he paused. “They had a lot of credits invested in shading dealings with the Sith and their organizations.”

“The Sith?” Ranval stared him down. “That’s a bold claim. How do you know that?”

“Corellia’s intelligence network has many connections,” Senator D’et responded. “Besides, I… was once a member of the Heritage faction.”

“I take it you left shortly after the Alderaan affair. Too much political backlash for you, Senator?” Ranval asked, sitting down across from him.

The Corellian shook his head. “It had nothing to do with my reputation. I could care less. No, what they’re doing to the Republic forced my hand. They don’t care about the wellbeing of their own people. Each of them is more worried about their sum of credits and reelection than fighting for the common man.”

“I hate to tell you, Senator, but this sounds like basic politics.”

“If they were not so brazenly corrupt, I would agree with you. They hardly support the cause of a strong Core anymore, for all that’s worth. They’ve received backing and have funneled credits into Czerka Corporation, Mr. Messor. Czerka!”

“Czerka is an infamous Sith supporter,” Ranval muttered.

“I got out of there as fast as I could. It was not without its penalties, of course, but they have yet to strike against me publicly. Not yet. You see, whether due to your acumen or her natural talent, Senator Latona is quite the orator. Respectable, in my opinion. I am determined to make up for any mistakes I made siding against her before. I want to help her.”

“Interesting. So you want to warn her not to make the deal.”

“Yes. And now, to ensure the Heritage assassins do not kill her.”

Ranval frowned. “You think the Heritage faction is actively trying to kill her?”

“It is well within their power. Believe me, Mr. Messor. I’ve… seen them do this type of thing before.”

Ranval rested his head on top of his hands. Although he had his suspicions about the Heritage faction, this was still hard to believe. If it was true that they were trying to kill her, she would not be safe as long as they could send assassins after her. Not even Coruscant Security officers would prove entirely effective. However, neither he nor Senator D’et had any proof.

He sighed. There was no way to protect Senator Latona legally. Ranval needed to know who was after Senator Latona, but the officers and detectives were bound by the law. If what the senator said was true, this was a job that needed to a clandestine touch. As a Jedi, he regretted it. As a former convict, he knew he would have to work around the police and their investigation. In the end, his concern for Senator Latona’s safety won him over.

“If you’re telling the truth,” Ranval said. “I have a request of you.”

“Ask it.”

“Could you stay here and watch over Senator Latona with Coruscant Security?”

Senator D’et nodded. “With my life.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you going elsewhere?” the senator asked.

“Indeed. I need to see if your accusations are true.” Ranval stood up. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”

*** ***

E. Bunker’s Cantina was a filthy place. Nestled in the heart of Coruscant’s lower districts, the establishment was the antithesis of the fancy clubs and ritzy establishments located at the city’s uppermost levels. The rank smell of alcohol mingled with the bitter aroma of spice, wafting around the room like the cigarra smoke.

Three separate bars for various species were situated in the farthest corner of the building. Unlike most cantinas, tables were strangely absent, replaced by barstools and benches that were positioned around the walls. This kept the amount of gambling and ruckus to a minimum, but it also kept some patrons out entirely.

But then, that was never a problem. E. Bunker’s Cantina was infamous for its underworld connections. Unlike many nightlife establishments, which publicly eschewed criminal dealings while overlooking them for business’s sake, E. Bunker’s was quite candid about the criminals that patronized there.

In this place, frequented by ugly lowlifes and freakish vagrants, Rajes was a strange sight indeed. From a different pedigree entirely, he did not even need his military dress or his formal attire to stand out. Even his disgustingly plain shirt and slacks drew attention to him. He hated being surrounded by these hideous folk and hated the fact this place was an affront to all things beautiful. Although no one said anything to him directly, the barmaids, dressed appropriately for a Hutt’s palace, seemed to know he was up to something, so he sent them away.

Luckily, interest in him had faded almost as quickly as it came, so he was left to his own devices. Removing a subspace transceiver from his pocket, Rajes slipped it behind his ear and adjusted the frequency until he heard the standard hum of Republic transponders. In a matter of minutes, he had been transferred to ex-Colonel Ducian Eto’s personal comm.

“Mallory, Regen,” the voice on the other side said.

“Altesius, Foel,” Rajes replied. Their personal code was a quick recitation of the four officers in Eto’s regiment at Sluis Van. “How are you, Colonel?”

Eto sighed. “You’re the only one who calls me that, Thonnel. Don’t you think you should let old titles die?”

Ducian Eto had been forcibly removed from his post and lost his rank several years ago. As far as official channels were concerned, he had gone AWOL. In actuality, he had been forced to flee the very people Rajes was now hunting. They had kept in touch since that time, and Rajes could not break the habit of referring to him as a superior officer. After all, Eto had been his first commanding officer, and he didn’t know what else to call him.

Senator Oro Malthesinores had offered many times to promote Eto to the rank of brigadier general. Whether Eto knew from others or had suspected foul play, he recognized the deals as damning. In retrospect, Rajes suspected that the colonel might have overreacted, but he never admitted that to him. Eto had told Rajes that every officer who worked with the senator ended up involved in some dark conspiracy, rife with underhanded dealings and evil plots. Of course, Eto could not prove these claims, nor would he specify what these plans were.

That was Rajes’s job, it seemed. Colonel Eto kept him in the dark, but he promised Rajes that everything would come together soon. For now, Rajes had to continue trusting the colonel with his life. This was dangerous work, and there was a lot on the line for Rajes to be doing this alone. Eto was enigmatic and brash, and Rajes hoped that he would quickly learn what he needed to and be done with this business.

“You’ll forgive me. Old habits die hard, sir,” he said at last.

“Fine,” Eto replied groggily. “What have you learned of our friend, Oro?”

“I just met with one of my contacts. I received a whole datapad of information on him, but I haven’t had time to read it all,” he said. “I also have a meeting with him later today.”

Eto was silent for a moment. “Did you extract any useful information from the datapad yet?”

“None yet. Just a few political allies, some old investments, and information on Rendili’s last senator.”

“I see. How did you convince him to meet with you?”

“I told him I was a disgruntled officer looking for a bit more pay,” Rajes explained with a chuckle. “He bought it well enough.”

“So you do have a plan?” Eto asked. “He won’t just confess his crimes to you to get you on his side.”

“I’ll think of something, sir.”

“How are your parents?”

Rajes smiled ruefully. “My father is fine. Old bird is still alive-”

“I mean, are they safe?”

“Of course. But why?”

“Oro Malthesinores is ruthless. Don’t underestimate him,” Eto warned.

“Yes, sir.”

“The moment you find out anything that can arrest him, you contact me,” Eto said. “I have a Hammerhead out here waiting to storm Coruscant.”

Rajes laughed. “I know, I know. I’ll be leading the marching bands for your triumphal return. Don’t worry, Colonel. You’ll get your chance. For now, leave everything to me.”

“Good luck, Thonnel. Be safe.”

“You too, Colonel. Thonnel out.”

*** ***

Ranval’s speeder soared through Coruscant traffic. At midday, traveling anywhere on Coruscant while not on foot was nearly impossible. However, the slew of drivers slowly diminished as the day dragged on; now, as the sun was descending beneath Coruscant’s skyline, traffic was at an all time low. Ranval was in a hurry, so the lack of cars was perfect.

The tattered cowl and black mask that covered the lower half of his face worked together to shield his entire head from view. His hooked cybernetic hand tapped against the passenger seat while his right steered the vehicle. Wrapping himself in dark rags that dangled loosely from his limbs, he left just enough space to see the Jedi robes underneath.

Even though it was hidden beneath vagrant clothes, knowing that he was wearing the attire of a Jedi again burned at him. The very idea was agonizing. After all that had happened, after he left the Order, he could hardly bear to see the green robes again. He endured by telling himself that he was using the robes to inspire fear, not promote any of the Jedi’s vaunted ideals.

He had sensed no deception from Corellia’s senator, so it was time to figure out why the Heritage faction was trying to kill Senator Latona. As with most political factions, hundred of member worlds and their senators were involved in its day-to-day workings, but very few had the authority to make decisions. It was these few decision-makers who Ranval had to meet with. They were the ones who were guilty.

Ranval smiled. He was fueled entirely by rage and instinct. Just like his days in the Hidden Beks gang on Taris, when someone he knew got hurt, he would abandon reason and dive headlong toward vengeance. There was plan behind this madness, of course, but it was not as methodical or thought-out as Ranval would have liked. This tranquil fury was terrifying, even to him. He remembered his life before the Jedi, when violence fueled his criminal dealings.

But then, the Jedi had changed everything about him. Suppressing that line of thought, Ranval broke away from the traffic and traveled toward a series of conjoined buildings in the distance. Rising high, these shimmering towers housed nearly eight thousand sentients each, providing luxurious housing to rich locals. Pulling up a holographic display from a datapad on the dashboard, Ranval scanned the layout of the building. Sidling up to the eastern building, Ranval placed himself just below one of the tower’s wall-spanning windows. Ranval set his speeder to hover and slid out of the passenger’s door. At this altitude, the wind whipped against him, tousling his clothes and chilling the few bits of his bare skin.

The Miraluka pulled himself onto the top of his speeder so he could just barely see inside the window before him. As he thought, this was Senator Ubens’s home. And just like the layout suggested, this was his son’s room.

In the middle of the room, the boy was playing with his model army figurines. His nanny, a dark-haired Devaronian female, watched him from her seat near the door. Toys were scattered around the room and a whole sketchpad’s worth of flimsy littered his bed by the window. The entire scene was something that Ranval had never experienced, so he watched for a bit longer than he would have liked. What would his childhood have been like living in the ecumenopolis of Coruscant instead of the slums of Taris?

Ranval shook his head. There was no room for hesitation. If he doubted himself now, he would never act. It was time to show them just how wrong they were. It was time to show them how terrifying he was.

His two hooked digits smashed into the glass before him. Reinforcing his prosthetic’s strength with the Force, Ranval made sure the entire window shattered at once. The glass rang out as its remains fell. Most of it fell onto the boy’s bed, covering his artwork, but the rest implanted itself in Ranval’s metal hand, fell to his boots, and scattered across the pane. Using the Force, Ranval whipped up the shards and shielded himself in a glistening vortex. The rags he wore fluttered around him as he descended. His dark clothes caused Ranval’s figure to blend in with the murky Coruscant twilight behind him. The nanny screeched as though she had seen death come into the room. The little boy turned to see Ranval floating over him, and his misty green eyes screamed because he could not.

“Specter! Demon! Stop!” the nanny cried.

Ranval let the glass shield fall around him, careful to avoid cutting the boy. The young child was immobilized by his fear, unable to move away from Ranval. Reaching out with his hooked hands, Ranval snatched the boy and carried him away as the senator’s guards scrambled into the boy’s room. Dropping a datapad behind him, Ranval leapt from the window just before the guards opened fire—not realizing that they could have hurt the boy.

Tumbling through the open top of his speeder with his captive in hand, Ranval could see the green blaster shots overhead. Their chance to stop him had come and gone. Placing the young boy into the back seat, the Miraluka closed the hatch on top of his hovercar and sped away.

Occasionally looking back at the tower, Ranval was relieved that they had not pursued him. No doubt Coruscant Security would start looking for him immediately, so he would have to lose the rented speeder. It would not take long for Senator Ubens to get his message; he would meet with Ranval before the police could capture him.

Rejoining traffic, Ranval’s thoughts were interrupted when the boy he kidnapped suddenly started crying. He knew that it was inevitable, but he had hoped that he would have had time to think of an explanation. There was no easy way to console a terrified child, and Ranval did not know how to comfort crying people.

“What is it?” Ranval asked, nonchalant. “Why are you crying?”

The boy sniffled. “Are you… are you going to hurt me?”

Ranval was silent. He felt his chest burn, and he probably would have started crying if he had tear ducts. On flimsy, capturing the senator’s son sounded easy enough, if monstrous. Actually doing it, and dealing with a traumatized child, was incredibly painful. Ranval had been a kid once—nowhere near as privileged, of course—and he remembered the haunting nights in Taris’s underworld. He knew how scared the senator’s son was, and he sympathized with him. He wanted to console him. He wanted to cheer him up. But he couldn’t do anything. He had to carry this through now. He needed to do this.

“No. But you must listen and cooperate with me. Can you do that?”

“Cooperate…?”

“You have to follow instructions,” Ranval explained.

“Oh…” the boy wiped his eyes with his hand. “Where are you taking me?”

“Not far.”

“Will I see mommy and daddy again?”

“Yes.” Ranval choked. “But first, I need to talk with your father.”

“Who are you?”

“… I am the Arbiter. By my armored hand, which protects the weak, I promise not to hurt you.”

“Why do you have a robot hand? Are you… a supervillain?”

Ranval smiled. “I was playing with weapons, and I hurt myself. But I assure you, I am no villain. Don’t play with sharp objects or blasters if you don’t know what you’re doing. People may think you’re a bad guy.”

The little boy said nothing, shaking his head in eager agreement.

*** ***

“Senator Malthesinores will see you now, Captain Thonnel.”

Rajes perked up. Standing from his chair in the lobby, he brushed off the military uniform he wore for the occasion. The senator’s receptionist, an amicable Duros, unlocked the door via controls on her desk. Heading inside, Rajes smiled. After nearly two hours of waiting in a dreary and not-at-all exciting lobby, he was meeting with Senator Oro Malthesinores.

The senator’s office was the opposite of his reception area. The angles where the walls and ceilings met were surrounded by exotic plants, held up on wooden shelves. The heads of beasts Rajes had never seen were mounted across the room as hunting trophies; their taxidermies were so well done he swore holographic eyes were following him. The senator’s desk was filled with models of Republic starfighters from the past century and seemed to have more memorabilia than work on it.

The senator, preoccupied by his work, did not notice Rajes’s arrival at first. When he did, he jumped to his feet to meet him. Walking by his desk—and adjusting the direction of a Star Saber XC-01 replica—in several large steps, he eagerly shook hands with his guest. Bidding him to sit down nearby, Senator Malthesinores returned to his own seat. Rajes noticed the senator deftly move a datapad he was reading to the side as Rajes settled in.

“Are you busy today, Senator?” Rajes asked. “Don’t let me take up your time if you are.”

“Not at all. I am always eager to hear from Captain Rajes Thonnel,” Senator Malthesinores replied with a smile.

“If you insist, sir.”

“I do. Now, then, what would you like to discuss?”

Rajes glanced at him suspiciously. The senator knew why he was here. “Well, sir, I was thinking about your offer earlier.”

“Indeed? And have you decided?”

“I’d like to hear your offer in its entirety, sir,” Rajes explained.

“Very well.” Senator Malthesinores sat back in his seat, relaxing. “I believe you are a capable soldier and possess skills that you have yet to demonstrate. I am willing to let you do so. I think you are well-suited for the rank of colonel.”

Rajes widened. “Colonel, sir?”

“Indeed. You’ve been doing deskwork and frontline duties for long enough. It’s time to move forward, Captain.”

“Thank you, sir.” Rajes did his best to seem grateful. “But how would you promote me? You are no longer in the Republic Army…”

“Nonsense. I am no longer an active general, but I have enough connections in the military to ensure that you get the attention you deserve. My former subordinates and colleagues would be glad to help someone like you. My word is almost like law among them,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Rajes smiled with him. This was perfect. If he could press the issue with Senator Malthesinores, he would have the proof he needed. He and Eto could capture him and get this mess over with. It was almost too easy, and he was silently praising himself for a job well done. Adjusting the collar of his uniform, Rajes did his best to appear uncertain.

“Is that legal, sir?”

“If you are thinking this is nepotism or tied in with some sort of spoils system, I assure you it is not,” the senator said. “I refuse to associate myself with such petty lawlessness. I run a respectable military.”

Petty lawlessness, perhaps. What about extreme crimes? Rajes thought.

“What do you think?” Senator Malthesinores continued.

“What would I have to do, sir?”

“You’ve already done everything you need to do, in my eyes,” the senator assured him. “However, I would like you to prove your loyalty to the military.”

“Sir?”

“You remember Colonel Eto, don’t you, Captain?”

Rajes’s eyes widened, but immediately recognized his mistake and recomposed himself. He nodded quickly but said nothing.

“Ducian Eto is a rogue agent. He has abandoned his oaths to the Galactic Republic and its army. He has a small force under his command—rebels who have sided with him in his desertion. It is not a major threat, but this force is able to attack, perhaps, a lightly defended colony world. He is dangerous, a threat to peace.” Senator Malthesinores stared at Rajes. “Before you are promoted to colonel, I want you to find and capture him.”

Rajes froze. He tried not to betray his surprise, but he knew that he failed. The request was so unexpected that Rajes did not have a reply. His mind was a blank. Of course, this was a perfectly reasonable request, given the nature of Eto’s doings and how dangerous he must have appeared. But it was too close for Rajes. Was Senator Malthesinores onto him, did he know that Eto was trying to take him down, or was this truly a random request? Rajes’s mind raced with variables, and he didn’t know how to respond.

“What do you say, Captain?”

Rajes cleared his throat, giving him a few seconds more to think. “I would not know where to find Colonel Eto,” he finally said.

“Is that so?” Senator Malthesinores asked musingly. “Do not worry. I have agents that know exactly where he is.”

Rajes did his best to conceal his surprise. He did better this time, but he knew he still jumped at the revelation. Oro knew where Colonel Eto was hiding. The colonel and his allies were all in danger. Knowing that the senator could kill them at any time, Rajes almost reached for his blaster pistol. But he knew this charade had to last. For now.

“When should I begin?” he asked.

“Immediately.”

Rajes gulped down the lump in his throat. “With my company?”

“No,” the senator replied. “Not alone. I will provide with you with a regiment of soldiers to use alongside your company.”

“Sir, I must admit, this is a very surprising thing to ask.”

“Perhaps, but it is also a very pressing issue.”

“Would you mind giving me a few days to consider it?”

The senator nodded solemnly. “You may take a few days. But I expect an answer as soon as you make up your mind. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Rajes stood up from his seat and escorted himself out. The entire time, he felt Senator Oro Malthesinores watching him, boring into the back of his head like the senator was reading his mind. He hoped that he had not given away anything in his shock, but he could only assume the worst.

The only hope Eto and the others had was that the senator would not attack them until Captain Thonnel agreed to the mission. That meant Rajes had to delay Senator Malthesinores for as long as he could, even if it meant angering him. In the meantime, he had to figure out how to defeat him without Eto’s help. He felt another lump rise up into his throat. Rajes was their last hope.

*** ***

Ranval stood on top of the abandoned Renel Tower, watching the midnight sky. His clothes were whipped about in the night wind, but he was surprisingly warm. He felt his breath condense against the inside of his mask, dampening his nose and the area around his mouth. There were fewer stars out than he was used to; Coruscant’s skies were empty, much to his ire.

Behind him, the rented car he had used in his kidnapping waited patiently. It was off, although the safety locks that prevented children from opening it from the inside remained active. His precautions to keep his captive from fleeing proved unnecessary, because the senator’s son was fast asleep. He heard the hum of a distant engine. Good. Let’s finish this, he thought.

A luxury speeder floated over the tower’s rooftop. The white car had a bit of gold decal on its sides, and Ranval could vaguely make out the symbol of the Galactic Republic on the hood of the speeder. Large enough to fit at least twelve passengers comfortably, it was certainly respectable enough to be a senator’s vehicle. To Ranval’s relief, no other vehicles followed it; the senator had come without the police.

Once it had parked, Senator Gesih Ubens exited the back of the car, followed by a small contingent of personal guards. He wore a combat suit underneath his jacket, and his guards were equipped with blaster rifles and energy shields. They were not heavily armored, but their presence would prove dangerous if they remained. There was no artificial lighting on this tower, forcing the others to see by the light of the few stars and the distant skyscrapers. However, Ranval’s Force sight enabled him to see them as though the sun was out. Senator Ubens’s face was pallor and his eyes were blood red, far cry from the last time Ranval had seen him. It was discouraging to see a strong man so weak, but Ranval reassured himself silently and stepped forward.

“Didn’t you read the datapad I gave you, Senator?” he hissed.

“I brought you your credits!” Senator Ubens motioned toward a small crate one of his guards was carrying. “There are your thirty thousand credits!”

“I also told you to come alone,” Ranval snapped. “So are you stupid or something? Do you want your son to die?”

“No! Please. Don’t kill my son,” Senator Ubens shouted. “I’ll send them back. Please. Just let me see him.”

“Not yet. Get rid of your guards.”

Ranval watched Senator Ubens’s guards file back into the speeder. The crate of credits was left outside in case the senator needed to bargain with the captor. Once they were inside, Ranval expected the speeder to leave; unfortunately, it remained on the roof in waiting. Shaking his head, the disguised Miraluka waved the senator forward.

“Let my son go, please.” Senator Ubens practically tripped over himself. “Please tell me where he is.”

“I won’t hurt your child if you cooperate. I am an agent of justice-”

“Justice?” the senator spat. He was almost close enough to see Ranval in the darkness. “You kidnap my son—my innocent, helpless son—and you claim to be just? You’re insane!”

“What’s the difference between the life of your son and the Corellian senator's, Gesih?” Ranval shot back. “Is one of them more valuable? Do you think you get to choose? What’s the difference between you sending an assassin after Eliorae Latona and me killing your son?”

“You basta-”

“What do you know about the assassination attempt, Gesih?” Ranval growled.

“Nothing!”

“I think you’re lying. Would you wager your son’s life on that answer?”

Senator Ubens’s quaking knees gave way, and he fell at Ranval’s feet. “No. Please… just leave him out of this. He’s done nothing at all to you. He’s innocent.”

“The senators you tried to kill were no different. They did nothing to you.”

“I…” Gesih paused. He composed himself and explained: “The Heritage faction’s leadership ordered the hit.”

“So you were responsible.”

“No! Senator Nyvenek, Senator Sonin… they were the masterminds. I told them we did not have to be so extreme. We could always force them out of office by rigging elections or tarnishing their reputations. They didn’t listen to me.”

“Do you expect me to believe that?” Ranval laughed. “You’re just protecting yourself. Don’t you care for your son?”

“Please! Stop torturing me! I swear to you, I disagreed with them, but-”

“But you didn’t say anything.”

“No. They sent out several assassins across Coruscant. I would tell you who they are after, but I don’t know. I swear I don’t.”

Ranval nodded. “You didn’t say anything beforehand. Senators, judges, civilians… there are countless victims dead because of you and will surely be many more to come.”

“I know. And that blood is on my hands for my inaction. For my weakness. But I swear to you on my life and the life of my son that I did not condone the hits.” The senator shivered. “My son… can I see him? Please don’t hurt him. May I see him?”

“Are Nina and Mer still on Coruscant?”

“Yes.”

“Are they going to keep killing?” Ranval asked.

“I don’t know. I’d tell you if I did.”

“I see. Very well.” A small trigger on Ranval’s right hand released an EMP burst to release the locks on his car. “Your son is in the speeder. He’s sleeping, but he is unharmed.”

Senator Ubens jumped to his feet and raced toward the open speeder. “Thank you! Thank you!”

“Don’t let your weakness endanger those you love,” Ranval replied.

Ranval watched the senator scoop his son out of the back seat of his speeder. Gesih started to cry as he looked at his son, peaceful and safe. Ranval smiled in spite of his feelings toward the senator, truly grateful no harm had to come to the younger Ubens. The senator took his child and made his way back to his own speeder. Relieved, Ranval started walking back to his own vehicle when a blaster bolt flew by his head.

“Fire!” Gesih said. “Kill the criminal!”

The Force gave Ranval an advanced warning, and he ducked just in time to avoid another blaster shot. All of Gesih’s guards had left the speeder while Ranval had been distracted by the senator; at Gesih’s signal, they had opened fire. A projectile from a grenade launcher oblitered his transport before he could reach it, turning it into a metal inferno. Dodging the emerald blaster fire to the best of his ability, Ranval leapt over the edge of the building.

The guards watching him assumed he had jumped to his death and stopped firing. However, Gesih and his guards could not see the hovercar waiting for Ranval just over the edge. Tumbling into the backseat, Ranval struggled to remain in the craft as the Togruta driver raced away from the scene.

“Selias! Slow down!” Ranval cried.

“Ah, boss, aren’t you enjoying the irony?” Selias asked with a wry grin. “I know I am. I’m just seeing how fast this poor baby can go. After all, you used to drive us around Taris with the same reckless abandon.”

“Are you just now getting back at me for that?” Ranval threw off his hood. “I said I was sorry for my careless driving! Many times!”

“Well, so you did. But now you can see why we complained about it. Hold on, boss! We’ll be home in a second.”


Chapter 20

Jhosua appreciated it when he could be ferried around for free. Before Selias and her mercenaries left for the Core, they gave Kerre the Quartermaster-class supply carrier Galnoc to use. Selias’s mysterious contact on Coruscant had access to several junk dealers and military shipyards. Bulky ships with no weapons for defense, it was the perfect civilian transport, especially for short missions. After the war against Exar Kun, most Quartermasters had been retired from active service; however, they were still reliable ships.

Because of his frequent hitchhiking, Jhosua had never learned how to pilot a ship. He had seen plenty while he worked under his father at his shipyard back home, but he had never needed to fly one himself. Staring at the massive dashboard in front of him, lined with buttons and controls of all sorts, he had no idea where anything was. Kerre made it seem simple enough, but Jhosua still could not tell where the steering mechanism was, nor did he know how to adjust the craft’s speed. To his shame, he was still absolutely useless in the cockpit.

“So, Jhosua,” Kerre spoke from the pilot’s seat. “How many pieces of that armor do you have left?”

“This is the last one,” he replied. “This should be our last stop.”

“Very well.” Kerre seemed to return his attention to guiding the ship over this unnamed world, but he turned back to Jhosua. “I have been wondering about something.”

“What is it?”

“Well, you are trying to get of that armor. However, as I understand it, the armor protects you against Jedi powers,” Kerre said. “If that is the case, this seems like a boon to you in combat rather than a hindrance.”

“It would seem that way,” Jhosua agreed.

“But you are still willing to part with it?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Jhosua smiled grimly. “It’s evil. Of course, that sounds crazy. But I’ve heard the armor speak to me. Whispering. It’s hard to explain, but it reaches into your mind and sometimes I think there’s more than one consciousness in my head.”

“That sounds like Jedi magic.”

“It does. And even when it’s not in my head, there’s something unnatural about it. It’s addictive. It’s eerie. It seems to attract trouble.”

“But surely it protects you from that trouble,” Kerre reasoned.

“It does. Verita would have killed me when we first met if I didn’t have my armor,” Jhosua said with a chuckle.

“See? The Lagartoz Dragon may bite you, but it is sturdy and dependable in a pinch,” Kerre pointed out.

“Except the bite’s poisonous, and it’s rather fond of flying you through enemy laser fire,” Jhosua countered. “It has a mind of its own, doesn’t it?”

“A small price to pay for the upper hand in battle.”

“Even if you’re dead and unable to use it?”

Kerre was silent for a moment. Letting the ship drift over the grassy knolls and sparkling lakes of an unnamed world, he had a moment to ponder Jhosua’s words. As a warrior, it was no doubt difficult for Kerre to consider a weapon capable of harming its owner. Mandalorians, in particular, eschewed many conventional military ideas. Even the deadliest weapon had its advantages.

“You said it is eerie. Evil, perhaps. Do you think its Jedi powers were given to it by the Darths?” Kerre wondered aloud. “The Sakiyan, Odren, seemed to have no trouble using it.”

“The effects weren’t immediate when I wore it. It’s possible Darth Odren may not have worn it long enough to induce its powers,” Jhosua replied. “Or he may have been immune. I don’t know. I can’t say for sure where the armor comes from.”

“Well, we ought to be rid of its manipulation. The hangar doors are now open. You should be able to discard the last piece into that ocean up ahead. Once you’re done, we’ll land on the beach on the next continent.”

Jhosua stood up and took the bag he had placed at his feet. Inside that leather bag was the last piece of his dark armor—the lower segment of the beautiful breastplate. Each step he took seemed to make the bag heavier and heavier until he was struggling to move at all. As he suspected, the armor was not ready to be discarded. Tough luck. It was time.

Jhosua navigated through the starboard section of the ship and found himself in the hangar. As Kerre had promised, the doors were already open. The saline air whirled about the empty room, and the waves tried to throw their whitewashed spray inside the low-flying ship. Perhaps it thought that it would manage to pull the ship into a watery grave. Walking inside, Jhosua headed to the edge of the room and grabbed hold of a durasteel bar hanging parallel to the ceiling. Standing mere centimeters from the exit to the ship, he could see the water lapping at the rocks below and fish swim near the surface of the sunlit water. With all his might, Jhosua dangled the armor over the edge of the water.

The armor whispered back to him. It urged him not to be rash. To consider the benefits of their mutual partnership. Didn’t Jhosua need protection from Force-sensitives? Didn’t Jhosua need the heightened reflexes his armor provided? He needed the security of the armor to keep him sane, didn’t he? What about Ibrays? Where would he go without Jhosua to look after him—to listen to him? Would he be abandoned to the mysteries of the afterlife? There was no way Jhosua could manage on his own. He needed this.

“No.” Jhosua’s resolve doubled. “I don’t need you anymore.”

Jhosua released his hold on the leather bag, letting it fall into the sea. The bag opened as it fell, releasing the fragment of the armor from its hold. Jhosua watched as the dark metal plunged into the sea, sinking beneath the foaming waves and rejoining the abyss. The ship kept moving from that place, and Jhosua could just barely see the leather bag flutter toward the surface of the water behind them.

He was about to turn away from the water and return to the cockpit when the ocean beneath him began to churn up. The peaceful waves and light spray became a twisted vortex, throwing water and bits of surface-dwelling coral into the air. Even as the Galnoc continued to move, it seemed as though the water’s newfound ferocity followed them, staying beneath them at all times.

Then, without warning, a spirit emerged from its watery dwelling. Rising up with an otherworldly howl, it was followed by a horde of other, smaller phantoms. The ghastly humanoid wore Jhosua’s armor underneath a tattered cloak, but any features that would have identified him had long since vanished. Reaching the hangar doors, the dark haze around him weakened Jhosua, sending him to his knees and threatened to pull him out of the ship.

You think you can kill me, boy? I have lived for three thousand years! I shall not die again! The ghost’s telepathy enveloped Jhosua’s mind. If I cannot live on through the armor created for me, I shall take your body!

The whole ship quaked as the specter drifted through the walls. The blood froze inside Jhosua’s body, causing his feet and senses to fail him. The spirit collapsed on itself, absorbing surrounding ghosts as it turned into a blue orb the size of Jhosua’s hand. With a victorious cry, the ancient ghost plunged into Jhosua’s chest.

“Get out! Get out!” Jhosua screamed.

Your corpse is mine!

Jhosua’s body was thrown into one of the walls. He could feel a terrifying strength overcome him, and he screamed in pain as his body seemed to try and evict his being from it. Cackling filled his ears, and a cold miasma threatened to choke him in darkness. Warmth escaped from his body, and for a moment he thought he had been thrown into the sea beneath them.

He spasmed in pain as the spirit struggled against him. This was too much. Whatever it was that was fighting him here, he could not fight against it. He was just a man; he was not a Jedi, he was not an invincible soldier, and he was not particularly strong—mentally or otherwise. He knew he was going to die. Every fiber of his being begged him to surrender to this mighty darkness, to become a slave and surrender his body to whatever unknown nightmare had emerged from the armor.

There was only one voice within him that encouraged him, yearned him to keep fighting.

Verita.

There was something about Verita that gave him strength. It had been the same way, so very long ago, when they had first met and the armor’s maddening voices were silenced in her presence. It had been the same way when they served as bouncers, when the phantom of his brother that loomed over him disappeared while they talked. And even now, separated though they were, her strange power bolstered his resolve and shielded his heart from the darkness that wanted to overcome him.

“I am not alone,” Jhosua found himself whispering.

The Galnoc trembled as it passed over the ocean and flew over the shores. A wave of dark side energy washed over the ship, causing the sturdy vessel to shudder violently. Jhosua’s vision drifted between cloudy and clear, but he could feel the ship plummet downward. He heard the specter haunting him cry out in the distance, and then Jhosua’s head hit something in the darkness.

*** ***

Jhosua blinked a few times. Warm sunlight was pouring in through the hangar, shining directly on his face. Warning klaxons were blaring elsewhere in the ship, and he could still hear waves in the distance. Kerre must have lost control of the ship when the dark side spirit fled, sending the craft crashing into the area just beyond the shore.

Jhosua was surprised he wasn’t injured from the fall, especially since the hangar doors had been wide open. However, as soon as he stood up, Jhosua realized that he wasn’t quite unharmed. The muscles in his legs burned as if he had just finished a harrowing military exercise, and what he thought was sweat on his face was actually blood. Wiping it away, he realized that the gash ran just above his right ear toward his forehead.

Jhosua was not entirely sure he had been freed from the supernatural spirit that wanted his body. Jhosua had not done anything to repel the supernatural invader, and Verita, the only Force-sensitive on their vessel, was unconscious and recovering from her own injuries. Had she helped him like he thought, or was he merely imagining things? Whether the spirit was bluffing and lost most of its power or it was confined to a certain area around the armor, Jhosua didn’t care. He was safe from its power now. He was free. At last, he was free.

Pulling himself out of the hangar, Jhosua saw Kerre and Verita near the front of their crashed vessel. Verita was resting on a mat set out for her by Kerre, brushing the grass around her with her fingers. The former Mandalorian had gathered a few crates and footlockers filled with rations and supplies, forming a protective circle out of the containers. Making sure his weapons were still on his person, Jhosua joined his companions.

“Damn, Jhosua. What happened? Are you all right?” Kerre asked.

“I think so. What the hell happened?”

“I asked you. After you left, I kept directing the ship toward the beach when there was a random explosion near the back of the ship. I couldn’t get any sensor readings, but the explosion seemed to have disabled the main engines. I guided us down as best as I could, but it wasn’t a pretty landing.”

“Is Verita okay?”

“Yes, but she is still not fully conscious. I injected her with a few painkillers, just in case.”

“Thank you,” Jhosua said. “The damage to the ship may not be permanent; we ought to try and take off later.”

“We’ll see. The ship took quite a bit of damage in the fall.” Kerre dug through one of the crates. “Did you get rid of the armor?”

“I did. That may be what caused the explosion.”

Kerre frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense-”

“Which one of you touched the unclean spirit?”

Kerre and Jhosua had not even realized they were being watched. Spinning around, they realized that a Selkath in white robes with a black sash had been listening to their conversation. Standing just outside of the circle of crates, his fishlike eyes stared at the two of them, examining them for some unseen quality. The lobes that hung on each side of his mouth moved ever so slightly in the breeze, and his webbed hands reached for something on his belt.

“Who are you?” Jhosua asked. “When did you get here?”

“I am Qual, messenger and servant of the holy light,” he croaked slowly. “One of you has touched a terrible darkness. “It is my responsibility to purge your defiled existence.”

“Jhosua,” Kerre whispered, “this could be the Jedi Paelopia’s husband was searching for.”

“Maybe.” Jhosua reached for his vibroblade. “Be careful.”

The Selkath seemed to realize that they were preparing to fight. Without another word, he removed the lightsaber from his belt. Twirling its golden blade in a defensive flourish, he blocked a few of Kerre’s initial blaster shots. Jhosua rolled forward and grabbed a blaster pistol from the ground, joining Kerre in the firefight. Despite the quantity of their blaster fire, Qual’s lightsaber became a shielding golden vortex around him; none of their shots could score a hit. Their fire was redirected in various directions, with some hitting the ship’s hull, some burning the grass, and some disappearing the sky.

Jumping over the blaster fire, Qual reached into the Force and threw Kerre backward. Hitting his back against the ship behind them, Kerre’s kinetic shielding flickered and died before he hit the ground. Jhosua adjusted his aim and sprayed dozens of bolts at the Selkath warrior, but it proved as useless as before. Throwing his lightsaber at Jhosua, Qual forced him to dodge before placing the Jedi placed him in a stasis field.

Jhosua tried his best to escape the captivating field, but he recognized the futility of it all when he couldn’t even grab the blaster pistol that was lying just centimeters away from him. His body failed to respond as he struggled against the Force power of the Selkath Jedi. All he could do was breathe and blink furiously. How ironic, Jhosua thought as Qual approached. I lose the armor, and I’m immediately beset by a Force-user whose trying to kill me.

“Pray to Ashla for forgiveness,” Qual stated. “May she have mercy on your dark soul, because I will not.”

Catching his gold lightsaber as it spiraled back to him, Qual’s lightsaber fell toward Jhosua’s neck. Jhosua didn’t dare look. He heard the lightsaber’s hum get dangerously close, but the actual blade never struck. Before the lightsaber could make contact, a telekinetic orb hit Qual, disrupting the Jedi’s concentration. It was this brief moment that broke the stasis field around Jhosua, and he scrambled out of the Jedi’s range.

The Selkath growled as his prey recovered. Verita had launched her attack in the Force to save Jhosua while she was lying down; pulling herself to her feet, she ignited her bronze lightsaber to face the white-robed Jedi. Qual had not noticed her before now, and he kept one eye on Jhosua while he turned to face this new threat.

“You dare stand against me?” Qual asked.

“To save him, yes,” Verita replied.

“Your strength is that of a lowly Jedi Knight! I was Jedi Councilor Qual. You think you can resist me?” the Selkath growled. “My mastery of the Force has far surpassed anything you could hope to achieve.”

“You had better kill me quickly, then.” Verita shook her head. “Or my friends will help me defeat you.”

*** ***

The bridge of the Hound’s Sapphire was silent. Sitting in her chair and observing the rest of the deck, Ralina relished the feeling of having her own ship back. It was a bittersweet accomplishment. She was glad to have her own ship back, of course, but everything seemed different. The monitors seemed less lively. Jon’s voice was absent. The bridge felt smaller and not homely at all. There was hardly a reason to celebrate. Fetcher and Jon were both still on Caillte with Mercium the Hutt and his slaves. Posh and Manda were both as reserved as their captain, making the entire trip hushed and tense. The few times Manda gave sensor readings, she did so as quickly and unenthusiastically as she could. Posh said nothing at all; he didn’t even quip.

Was this really her vessel?

The one thing Ralina hated more than not getting paid for her missions was when her employers tried to replace her crew. That made Mercium the Hutt the pinnacle of scum because not only had he failed to compensate her, he succeeded in sticking his lieutenant, Rashinodies, into her crew. Now, the Trandoshan acted like the liaison for some emperor and demanded respect he hadn’t earned. Loafing about the bridge, Rashinodies enjoyed the fact that the rest of them loathed his presence. With an occasional growl at Posh and a sneer at Manda, he proved himself a nuisance, and Ralina would be glad to get rid of him.

Posh guided the Hound’s Sapphire over the green landscape of this nameless planet. Ralina knew that finding a single Jedi on an empty world like this would be like trying to pinpoint one criminal on Nar Shaddaa. They had been at this for hours, and they had no luck finding anything. Their ship’s sensors had been designed to spot enemy ships, not life forms. After nearly a dozen false alarms, they had given up on a quick resolution to this mission.

Manda perked up in her seat. “Captain, I think we’ve got something.”

“More false alarms?” Rashiondies grumbled. “I thiiiink you’re wastiiiing time. You reeeealize that the longer you delay, the quicker Fetarollias-”

“Wait.” Ralina examined the tactical display on her seat’s armrest. “I think she’s right. I think we found our Jedi.”

Manda gave Posh some coordinates, sending the Hound’s Sapphire toward an otherwise unexciting shoreline on the largest continent of the world that would become known as Anobis. As the ship got closer to the ocean, they could vaguely make out the shape of a crashed ship amidst the grasslands around it. As they blazed closer and closer, Manda called out that she picked up a small group of sentients on their sensors. Blaster fire was visible from their viewport, and Ralina could see the shimmering images of lightsabers near the ship.

“There,” Ralina said. “Set us down, Posh. That’s our Jedi.”

“Are you sure, Captain?”

“This place isn’t settled. That Jedi has got to be the one,” she replied. “Let’s go.”

Posh reluctantly guided the Hound’s Sapphire to rest about sixty meters away from the Jedi. Ralina and her crew armed themselves as quickly as they could, forsaking their combat suits and any heavy weaponry for blaster rifles and basic energy shields. Once Rashinodies was assured they were ready, he led them from the ship to the Jedi in the distance. Rashinodies proved quicker than Ralina and her allies expected, reaching the Jedi at least fifteen seconds before them. As they approached, it became apparent that there was a fight going on already. To Ralina’s surprise, there was not one Jedi here, but two. A Selkath Jedi in colorless robes was dueling a red-haired woman, and it was apparent, even to Ralina, that the Selkath was winning.

The two duelists fought in the midst of shattered storage boxes and their contents, thrown about as though they had been projectiles earlier in the fight. The Selkath seemed to be fighting his way toward the crashed ship, where an armored warrior was recovering at the side of another fighter. However, the red-haired woman proved more resilient than her foe expected, and she blocked his path even as his golden weapon smashed into her bronze blade.

Ralina glanced at the armored figure and his ally again. Something looked familiar about the red-haired man waiting against the ship. She had never seen the armored warrior before, but she was sure she recognized the other. Why did he look so familiar? Looking back at the Selkath and his opponent, she remembered just how much she hated dealing with Jedi. Then, in a moment of recognition, the wounded man’s identity came rushing back to her. Ralina had seen him on Dantooine, during the Sith attack, nearly five years ago.

“Jhosua? Jhosua, is that you?”

None of those currently in the fray had noticed Ralina’s company before now. Realizing they were being watched, the two lightsaber duelists stopped fighting for a moment. The Selkath turned to face the new arrivals, causing Rashinodies to arm the underslung launcher on his blaster rifle, just in case. Verita leapt over Qual and placed herself between him and Ralina’s crew.

“Get back!” Verita said. “He’s too dangerous for you!”

The Selkath had no intention of fighting Ralina’s crew, content with renewing the attack on Verita and her tiring defenses. As their duel continued, Jhosua signaled for Ralina to approach. While Kerre struggled to stand up on his own, Jhosua took his blaster pistol and carefully navigated around the battling Force-users. Ralina met him halfway, watching the duel in the corner of her eye with blaster rifle in hand.

“Ralina?” Jhosua was shocked at his own words. “What are you doing here?”

“We’re here to capture a Jedi that’s been wandering around here,” she explained. “What are you doing here?”

“We’re here to kill that Jedi,” Jhosua said with a chuckle. “We just got here, too.”

“No.” Ralina frowned.

“What?”

“You can’t kill him. We have to take him back to our employer, or else one of my crew is going to die.”

Jhosua shook his head. “He’s too dangerous to be kept alive. There’s no way you’d be able to bring him back on your ship.”

“I have to, Jhosua.”

“Did you say your employer was after a Jedi here?” Kerre asked, limping toward them.

“I did,” Ralina repeated. “Who are you?”

“Not important,” Kerre insisted. “Does your employer know who that Jedi is?”

Ralina hesitated. “From the sound of his instructions, no.”

“Then help us,” Kerre offered. “If your employer doesn’t know the Jedi he’s looking for, any Jedi should do, in theory. Verita ought to do just fine and can fool your employer long enough to save your crewmate.”

“That sounds like a good idea, but how do we get rid of the Selkath?” Ralina asked.

Before Jhosua or Ralina could work out a plan, Verita cried out in pain. Qual had managed to disarm her, and he kicked her in the solar plexus before she could defend herself. Verita doubled over and clenched her chest in agony. She was still recovering from her duel with Darth Odren, and the effects of the drugs Kerre had given her earlier were keeping her from performing her best. Jhosua was amazed she had lasted this long. To protect Verita, Manda and Posh opened fire on Qual. Ralina and Jhosua shot at the Jedi as well, aiming for the Jedi’s side while the others shot at his front. Their efforts prevented the Jedi from maneuvering for a moment, allowing Kerre to maneuver under their fire and drag Verita away from the Selkath.

However, their blaster fire could not penetrate the Jedi’s whirling shield. No matter where they fired at him, he could block their attacks. Once he was certain of his defense, the Selkath started moving toward Manda and Posh, adjusting his guard so he could block all the blaster fire while moving. Ralina’s crew began to panic, and they were about to break away from the battle when Rashinodies leapt out from behind one of the crates. Qual saw his attack coming like the others, but he wasn’t expecting the burst of light from his launched projectile.

The ensuing flash of light from Rashinodies’s grenade blinded the Jedi, but only for a moment. Guided by the Force, he was able to block a few of the blaster shots, but without his eyes, he was vulnerable. Manda made contact first, and her shot piercing him in the leg. Several of Ralina’s shots hit his side, and one of Jhosua’s landed in the center of his back. The surmounting injuries took their toll on the Jedi Master, and Qual dropped his lightsaber before falling into the grass.

“We got him,” Ralina gasped.

Posh was the first to reach Qual’s body. Kneeling, he checked for a pulse from the wounded Jedi. His three eyes widened in terror. “Impossible! He’s alive!” Posh stammered.

“No way!” Kerre growled. “That volume of fire could have taken down a Basilisk war droid!”

“I suspected this.” Rashinodies approached Posh and the Selkath. “The Jedi was weeeeakened by my feint, but heeee was not without his skills. A sudden powerful energyyyy shieeeeld could have absorbed all your shots. I’ve seeeen Jedi do it beeeefore.”

“Impossible…” Manda muttered.

“Whatever the case, he’s incapacitated. We can kill him now,” Jhosua said.

Rashinodies pointed his blaster rifle at Jhosua’s head. “I don’t think so. My master reeeequested this Jedi, and this Jedi heeee will have. Venliiii… load him onto your ship.”

“No.”

“What?” Rashinodies hissed. “Do you and your crew want to die?”

“It’s not just her and her crew anymore,” Jhosua shot back. “We’ve decided to assist Captain Venli and her shipmates. If you have an issue with her, you have an issue with all of us.”

Rashinodies snarled. He fired at Jhosua, only for his blaster shot to dissipate against his energy shield. Glancing around, he realized he was surrounded. Ralina, her crew, and Jhosua’s companions encircled him with their own blasters.

“Give up, Rashinodies. You have no chance,” Ralina ordered.

“You don’t tell meeee what to do! I’m going to contact Merciiiium, and I swear heeee’ll kill you and all your-”

Verita, who had worked her way behind Rashinodies, hammered the back of his head with the hilt of her lightsaber. Keeling over, Rashinodies’s attempt to recover his footing failed when Jhosua rushed toward him and grappled the hulking Trandoshan. Caught in Jhosua’s blood choke, Rashinodies was conscious just long enough to see Kerre put a dozen blaster shots into Qual’s head. Seconds later, Mercium’s lieutenant had fainted in the grass.

Releasing his hold on Rashinodies, Jhosua stood up again. “Verita, are you all right?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said, rubbing her side.

“Should I kill him, too?” Kerre asked, glancing at Rashinodies. “All it would take is a round of fire.”

“Don’t waste your power pak,” Ralina said. “Jhosua, can you help get that overgrown lizard into my ship?”

“Of course,” he said.

“What are you planning, Captain?” Manda asked.

“All in due time, Manda. Leave the Jedi here, but take his lightsaber. It may prove useful,” Ralina said. “If you don’t mind, we should be getting back now.”

“I suppose we’re heading with you?” Verita asked.

“That’s the plan. Your vessel looks busted.” Ralina glanced at their ship. “I don’t suppose you have any sedatives with you, do you?”

“There were a few in the crates. I’ll grab some before we go,” Kerre noted.

Ralina smiled. “Excellent. Everyone, back into the Hound’s Sapphire. We need to pay a Hutt friend of ours a visit.”

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