Raen sighed. The Mendacious Architect was even quieter than he remembered. Where had everyone gone? Now that Raen’s strength in the Force had been restored, the lack of other passengers inside the ship made him feel uneasy. Their team of Jedi had been reduced to a trio of fatigued, aimless warriors. He, Khondine, and Northeus were the last of the Jedi to escape the destruction of the Jedi Temple on Coruscant and tell the tale. The surviving Jedi Watchcircle agents gave them hope—a twisted, cruel hope, but hope nonetheless—that more Jedi survived the Sith’s purge.
Even now, they had no idea how to find any surviving Jedi. For all they knew, they were the last of the Jedi, and they were about to accept an invitation of death from the Sith. Raen berated himself for forcing his friends to come along with him; this was his fight, and there was no reason for them to be here. He could not ask them to risk their lives for his sake. No, he had been stubborn and petulant before, on Besero. He had to ask them to leave.
Raen slipped a Jedi breastplate over his thin white undershirt. It was heavier than he expected, and it was not comfortable at all. Raen had no idea how the Jedi generals had fought in entire suits of armor until the war against Exar Kun. Slipping on the shoulder armor, the Force and his previous combat experience told him exactly how this additional protection would encumber his movements.
Despite protestations from within himself, Raen had to adapt. His brother was stronger than he was. Jaeln had bested Syme, the strongest duelist—besides Northeus—in their party, and that meant Raen had to take extra precautions fighting him. And he would fight him. Even if Northeus and Khondine refused to leave him behind, Raen would not let them fight his brother. He would not let themselves end up like the Po’benel, the Ghoul, or Syme.
And yet, Jaeln had beaten him in the majority of duels they had engaged in as children or young adults. The only time Raen had been victorious was when he had the element of surprise; obviously, Jaeln was the one in control of this duel. Raen tried his best not to give into despair. His musings were dark and hopeless at first, but he eventually reassured himself that he could do this. He could triumph against the Sith and their dark powers. He could master the darkness within himself.
He would be a true Jedi.
Deciding that armored greaves would be too imposing, he pulled his leather boots over his feet. Glancing around, he examined the few remaining pieces of Jedi combat gear. Nothing else quite suited his needs. Raen took his three vibroswords—one he had obtained from the armory—and his lightsaber and clipped them onto his belt. Throwing his amber cloak over his shoulders, he turned and left the armory behind.
Extending his thoughts through the Force, Raen could sense how close they were to Antared V. He could sense Northeus, and he could sense Khondine. He trusted Northeus with his life, but something about Khondine’s presence was comforting to him. He knew that as long as she fought with him, he had nothing to fear. He was not alone, and he would survive this trial. With all of his might, Raen reached out to his brother, from light years away, through hyperspace, and tried to speak through the Force. It was time.
I’m coming, Jaeln.
The Jedi Master slowly turned away from the ship’s primary control panel to face Khondine. Creases above cheeks and along his brow made him look so old, much older than he actually was. He was the only one left with the skill to pilot their ship, and he had not slept for days. A trip from the Core Worlds to the Outer Rim could take weeks or even months; nevertheless, Northeus pushed himself and the ship’s hyperdrive to the limit to get to Antared V as quickly as possible.
The Jedi Master forced himself to appear vigilant when he saw Khondine. “What is it, Khondine?”
“Do you have a minute?” she asked, standing in front of one of the control panels.
“What do you think of this plan? Honestly?”
“I don’t approve. I never approved, and I think this is a bad idea.”
“Then why are you coming along? Why did you not leave us behind when you had the chance?”
“And what good would that have done, Khondine? Two Jedi Knights against who knows how many Sith? I could never live with myself if you two walked into a trap.”
“You instructed me to protect Raen,” Khondine insisted. “This is my responsibility, not yours.”
Northeus paused for a moment. Why was she so defensive about this? When they had traveled from M4-78 to Teya IV, the young Jedi could hardly believe that she would be assigned the task of defending Raen. Now, she was practically begging to continue her task. Had something changed in her, or had she merely concealed her true feelings from him since the beginning?
“And it is my responsibility to defend both of you,” Northeus replied. “As long as Raen exists, the Jedi will have their light.”
“What…?” Khondine stammered. “What are you talking about?”
“I had a vision before we left Coruscant,” Northeus began, “a vision of a great darkness sweeping across the galaxy. It could only have been the Sith. It defeated star by star, engulfing sectors and swathing the whole Republic in terrible darkness. Then, when all hope seemed lost, a light sprung forth from the shadows. It drove back the Sith, Khondine.”
“What are you saying, Northeus?”
“I did not know how to identify that light at first, but now I am assured that it is Raen. He is the beacon of hope that the Jedi have been searching for. He will become infinitely stronger than all of us. He will become a living testament to the light side of the Force.”
“You sound like a member of the Jedi Covenant,” Khondine shook her head. “Raen is just a man.”
“I know it doesn’t make any sense, Khondine, but you must look deeper. The prophecies – you may not even know them – all line up. It makes sense. Consider how little training in the Jedi arts he has had, yet look how he excels in lightsaber combat and Force prowess! Look at how he has risen from the darkness that entrapped him his whole life. It only makes sense; the Sith won’t be able to stop him.”
“Northeus, have you ever considered that this vision is for a different time? What if you’re wrong? What if Raen isn’t the savior you’re looking for?”
“It’s a risk we have to take. What if I’m right?”
“If you're wrong, then I- we are going to lose him,” Khondine noted grimly. “I don’t know if I will be able to live with myself if that happens, Northeus.”
“You must ensure Raen survives this battle,” Northeus answered. “No matter what.”
“What about you, Northeus?”
“My life was forfeit the moment I abandoned Jedi under my care to death,” the Jedi Master said, keeping his gaze from Khondine’s. “I have proven an inadequate leader and a foolish Jedi. Khondine, if I die on Antared V, and the battle looks grim, I want you and Raen to escape. Go against his wishes if you have to; this cannot be the end of the Jedi.”
Khondine could not believe what she was hearing. Based on what Northeus was saying, it almost sounded like he wanted to die. There was no way she would allow that. She knew that he was taking the loss of his pupils very hard, but this was not a solution to his troubles. He had spoken like this before, when they were at Teya IV. At first, Khondine assumed he was just concerned about the prophesy; in reality, he seemed resigned to the idea of a redemptive death, Khondine doubted she could convince him otherwise, so she only nodded acquiescence. However, if there was a chance to help him escape with them, she would take it—against his wishes, if she had to.
“You are a trustworthy confidant and a noble warrior, Khondine Basilaron,” Northeus said. “I know you and Raen will lead the Jedi into a golden age.”
“Raen and I, Master?” Khondine asked sheepishly.
Northeus eyed her suspiciously. Had he mistaken her overprotective feelings for something else? “You mean…? Well, never mind. We’re about to reach Antared V. Are you prepared?”
“Then let us see the end of this.”
At Raen’s urging, Northeus guided the Mendacious Architect next to a towering mountain on the southern hemisphere of Antared V. Khondine had located two sentient life forms on their sensors; as they approached, another popped up without warning. Northeus reached out into the Force, not trusting the fallible machinery, but he too sensed only three dark-siders on the planet. Once they landed, Jaeln Benax and Tor’chal revealed themselves, standing about ten meters from their landing zone. They seemed to be alone, but that did not put any of the Jedi’s minds at ease.
“Let me handle them,” Raen said. “This is not your fight.”
“Forget it, Raen,” Khondine snapped. “You just want us to drop you off and head to safety? That’s not happening.”
“I don’t want anything to happen to either of you for my sake!” Raen shot back. “Go to Ambria and get help, or hide there, or do something!”
“Don’t you get it? We don’t want anything to happen to you, Raen,” Khondine insisted.
“She’s right. We’re in this together, whether you like it or not,” Northeus added.
Raen sighed. “Very well. I’m sorry for dragging you into this.”
“Just don’t die on me, okay?” Khondine said.
Raen smiled. “I’ll try.”
Raen was the first to leave the safety of the ship. Khondine and Northeus followed him cautiously, still expecting a trap. Once they had all disembarked, the ship’s autopilot system activated, and it flew away from the battlefield. Northeus had ensured that their ship would be a safe distance from the battlefield, and he had already told the other two Jedi where the ship would be waiting.
Turning from the ship, Raen glanced at their two enemies. Tor’chal looked like he had on Besero, but he—like Northeus—seemed fatigued and weary. It seemed as though it took the last of his strength to stand before them now, with lightsaber in hand and his aura brimming with the Force. To Raen’s surprise, there was little dark-side energy in him, and there was no malice at all. Either he had perfected the art of hiding his evil, or he was not a Sith at all.
Jaeln, on the other hand, dwarfed Tor’chal in mere Force presence alone. Those who were not Force-sensitive would have remarked that the air felt cold and thick, while there were prods in the back of their natural minds that something was not right. To the Jedi, his aura—which could be called a shadow as much as an aura—engulfed the surrounding area and immersed it in a thick darkness. Trading the armor he had donned earlier for gray robes, replete with a black sash around his waist and armored gloves that ran up his forearm, he seemed to take after the Dark Jedi Masters that were fielded by Darth Revan’s Empire during the war.
“Welcome, Jedi,” Jaeln said. “Let us not delay the festivities now that you’ve arrived.”
Raen activated his lightsaber, causing the golden blade to race for the night sky. “You’re right. There’s no sense putting this off, is there?”
“No. Tor’chal, deal with them.”
“With pleasure, Master.”
Jaeln turned around and fled toward the entrance of a cave at the foot of the mountain. The Jedi had not expected him to flee; Raen was the first to pursue him, but his allies quickly followed. Tor’chal’s blue lightsaber leapt into his hands with a snap-hiss, and he placed himself between the Jedi and their target.
“If you want to reach Master Benax, you must first face me,” he growled.
“Raen, Khondine, go. Let me handle him,” Northeus said.
“Northeus?” Tor’chal asked with a sigh. “You will regret that arrogance of yours. I am more than a match for y-”
The Ithorian was tossed backward by a Force push from Northeus. The Jedi Master shouted at the two younger Jedi to give chase to Jaeln, and they both obeyed. By the time Tor’chal was back on his feet, Raen and Khondine had already reached the cave entrance and were beyond his attempts to stop them.
“Well done, Master Ulsan,” Tor’chal said, repositioning his lightsaber in a defensive stance. “Your mastery of the Force is as impressive as ever.”
“They don’t just let anyone become a Jedi Master,” Northeus noted dryly.
“We are both Jedi Masters, Northeus, but you are a Councilor! You have achieved what select few in every generation can achieve. You are the pinnacle of Jedi strength, wisdom, and prowess.”
“So I am. I still don’t feel very special. I was never supposed to be on the Jedi Council, you know.”
Tor’chal closed his eyes. “I know, Northeus. I know.”
“Don’t you see what’s wrong with this, Tor’chal? The Sith are using you! No, not the Sith—the Benax family! Can’t you see through their lies, twisted as they are?”
“I suppose coming here was entirely your decision.”
Northeus hesitated. “Not entirely, no. But that’s not what I’m talking about!”
“I see everything clearly, Northeus.”
“You knew what happened to him! He was killed, along with everyone else! Not a single Jedi survived. The Benax family has been replete with sorrow, and we are only now seeing the results. How can you continue opposing the Jedi after what happened?”
“It is true that Avaran Whell and his guardian died because of our negligence. We should never have trusted him so,—even the strongest Jedi Knights are no match for the dark side—but that does not change what’s happening now. And we are enemies now, Northeus.”
The first of Northeus’s lightsabers floated into his left hand. Half a second later, his second blade elegantly took its place in his right hand. Pressing the activation buttons on their hilts, both weapons released a beam of faint silver light. “So we are, old friend.”
“To death,” Tor’chal muttered.
The cave lacked any semblance of order. The further Raen and Khondine traveled, the more they regretted rushing headlong inside without a plan. They had their lightsabers to light the way in the otherwise pitch darkness, but the light proved as much a hindrance as a help sometimes. The passages around them seemed to separate and conjoin, snaking around and around until they effectively created a natural maze. Their sight deceived them, causing them to retrace their steps and follow dead ends.
“Hold on, Raen,” Khondine said, taking a moment to catch her breath. “I’m exhausted, and I don’t think we’re going anywhere fast.”
“No. If we stop now, we’ll lose him!” Raen replied. “Come on!”
“Wait, Raen! We have no way of knowing where he went. Just calm down; let’s think this through for a moment,” Khondine urged.
Raen sighed. “Khondine, can’t you hear him? His footsteps, I mean. They’re faint, but I can just make them out.”
“I don’t hear anything, Raen. But if we keep running in circles, you won’t have enough strength to fight him. Just wait, okay?”
Raen knew she was right and halfheartedly stopped his advance. For a moment, he regretted allowing Khondine to come with him, but he quickly banished the idea from his mind. He was grateful for her presence. Returning to her side, he leaned against the rock wall while holding his lightsaber—still active—at his side. Khondine was relieved that Raen listened to her, even if he wasn’t happy about it. She stretched her sore muscles and allowed the Force to fill her with restorative energy.
“Khondine…” a voice whispered. “Khondine, can you hear me, my dearest?”
Khondine stared at Raen. He didn’t look like he had said anything; her mind must have been playing tricks on her. “What did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Raen replied brusquely. “Why?”
“I heard someone, and I thought it was you.” Khondine reddened at the thought. “It was ridiculous, but I thought you said-”
“Khondine. Come to me, love.”
The Arkanian sprung to her feet. Raen, alarmed by the sudden movement, stood upright as well. Khondine shouted into the darkness, but she received no response. There was only silence, but she knew that something was out there. She was not just hearing things. No, she couldn’t be. She could sense another presence, somewhere in the distance. She had felt this before. She had heard these whispers before. On Alderaan, these types of things flooded into her mind and drew her away from the battle. He was here, sending her these mental messages hoping to see her again. He was here.
That’s right. Come and face me.
In an instant, her Force senses clearly identified Danc A’damat within the shadows. She could not just sense him, she could practically see him standing, waiting for her, through the solid walls. She could feel him reaching out to her from across the cave, sending all of his dark power toward her. Overwhelmed his by presence, she fell to her knees.
Danc had been her master. He had betrayed her and the whole Alderaanian monarchy. He had spat on his vows and abandoned his friends. He had killed her brother, one of his finest pupils, whom he had raised like a son. She had defeated her at their last meeting, patronizing her in his strength. Now, here he was, hiding in this dark cave with Jaeln Benax.
Forgetting Raen’s presence entirely, Khondine ran into the darkness, following the Force toward the Zabrak traitor. Raen shouted after her, but she didn’t hear him. Her feelings for him were pushed aside, and only one thing mattered now: her revenge. It was time for Danc to pay for killing all those people on Alderaan. Twice had he escaped her. She could not let him escape again. Sprinting through the empty darkness, she had no idea where she was going. Then, without warning, she found herself standing face-to-face with Danc A’damat. There was no way he could have been so close—he had been at least ten minutes away, and she had only been running for about a minute. Yet here he was, standing before her in a dead end passage of the cave.
The only reason Khondine could see him at all, beyond the feelings the Force provided her, was due to the light her lightsaber provided. He looked different than the last time they had met; his horns curled over themselves, and his eyes darted back and forth as though he was searching for some unseen predator in the darkness. He had immersed himself in the dark side; the jaggedness of his skin and his feral appearance were his penalties for it.
“Danc!” Khondine shouted. “I’ve found you!”
“So you have, dear. So you have.” The Zabrak licked his lips. “I’ve been waiting.”
“I’m only going to give you one chance to surrender to me,” Khondine sneered, “and even then, I can’t promise I won’t hurt you.”
“Feisty. I like it. By the time we’re done, you’ll be begging to surrender to me,” Danc purred.
Khondine raised her lightsaber and leapt at Danc, aiming for his neck. The Zabrak stepped out of the way and kicked forward so his leg smashed into Khondine’s chest. Recoiling, Khondine saw Danc respond to her invitation to battle and withdrew his crimson blade. She recovered as quickly as she could, closing the distance between them and striking him with a five-pronged attack that was fueled by Force-empowered speed. Danc blocked each attack, following each successfully parry with quick jab at her own defenses.
“Good. You’ve forsaken the silver blade you used as a Royal Guardsman,” Khondine said. “I hoped you would embrace your treachery.”
“Can’t you do better?” Danc asked, ignoring her. “Your lightsaber skills are as dull as they were last time we met. Is this all the Jedi can do? What a waste of talent and-”
Khondine replied with a ferocious combination of blindingly quick strikes, meant to sever his arms and legs, that the Zabrak lazily blocked with a choppy defense that took each attack in stride. It was like he was not even trying, and Khondine knew he was toying with her. Her attacks became more and more powerful with each failed attempt to breach his defenses; she gritted her teeth and struck harder and harder at his lightsaber. She wanted to kill him. She knew she could. With a shout, she raised her lightsaber above her head and brought it down on him, but he stepped out of the way and her violet blade crashed into the damp earth at their feet.
“I love watching you dance,” he cooed. “But your skills are still so unrefined. Just like your brother…”
“Shut up! Don’t you dare…” Khondine spun around, lashing at him with several high vertical swings. “Don’t you dare speak about my brother!”
“Tsk, tsk. It’s not my fault he was so stubborn. If he had surrendered, I would have spared his life.”
“You murderer! Traitor!” Khondine’s grip tightened around her weapon’s hilt. She could feel her whole body seething in anger. “I won’t hear another word from you! I won’t!”
“As soon as I’m done with you, I will go and kill Jaeln’s little brother,” Danc said, swinging his lightsaber at Khondine to keep her at bay. “I won’t kill you, though. I may have to bruise you a bit, but your beauty will endure—I know. Normally, I would leave that to Jaeln, but do you know why I have to kill Raen?”
Khondine gave no answer. Jumping over him, she struck at his back. He was ready for her, and he spun around to meet each of her attacks. Blocking one after another, Khondine found herself entirely repulsed by Danc’s counters. Gaining the upper hand, the Zabrak slid closer to her, so close that he was within her defense, and punched her in the solar plexus. Khondine gasped as she took the hit; before she knew it, she was on the floor.
Staring toward the top of the cave, Khondine’s eyes stared into darkness. Even though her species could see in low-light conditions, she was blind in this place. Her lightsaber had slipped from her hands during her fall, and Danc must have deactivated his own weapon. Reaching out into the Force, Khondine could sense her Zabrak foe and feel his presence nearby. While she was searching the darkness, Danc breathed on her neck. He had been so close, Khondine recoiled and jumped to her feet to get away from him.
“Where are you going, Khondine? Come back,” Danc whispered. “I’m not done with you.”
“Stay away from me!”
“Oh, Khondine, your feelings betray you.” He had not reactivated his lightsaber, allowing him to prowl about in the darkness. “Your mind is like a holobook to me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I have to kill Raen because you care for him, Khondine,” Danc said, answering his earlier question. “I refuse to let your affections be divided. They belong to me alone.”
“Shut up! What are you… you’re insane!”
“You don’t have to hide anything from me, love. Everything I need to know about you, I can find. Everything you try to hide, I can discern. I taught you to sense me so I could sense you. And I love the feeling that your presence gives me.”
He was right. Khondine could feel him probing around in her mind, and she hated his presence. There was nothing she could do against him; as a child, Danc had taught her and her brother to sense their master’s presence in case of danger. Or perhaps he had malevolent intentions all along. Sickening intentions.
Khondine hated him. Reaching under her cloak, she pulled out her second lightsaber—one she vowed only to use if she found Danc again. Activating the elongated hilt, violet blades sprung out of both ends, revealing her true weapon to her Sith opponent. She still could not see him, but he would reveal herself soon enough. Her thoughts told her so.
“You remember this, don’t you?” she asked.
“I remember breaking your lightsaber in two and leaving you behind,” Danc noted. “So I will break it again. But this time, I won’t leave you. I’ll take you with me, and we’ll be together… forever.”
His red lightsaber activated, and he leapt forth from the darkness with a snarl.
Raen was alone.
He realized, only now, the true power of this cave. Engulfed in the power of the dark side, this twisting labyrinth hid its exit from those who refused to give in to the power of the Force. No doubt Jaeln could have used this place as a torture chamber, forcing wanderers to go mad and succumb to the dark side of the Force just to find a way out.
Everything within him pleaded with him to tap into the dark side, if only a little, to escape the encompassing darkness. It wanted him to fight darkness with darkness. His mind begged for solace from the terrifying emptiness and the silence it brought. His friends had gone, and anything at all would have comforted him.
But he refused. He refused, and even now, he recognized his strength. He was not a Jedi in name. The Jedi Order had fallen and there was no one to give him that distinction. However, he was a Jedi at heart. He was a servant to the light side and he refused to give in to the powerful allure of the dark side any longer. He would carve out his own destiny—one free from the influence of the Sith.
This was his destiny.
Determination seemed to be the way out, and Raen emerged from the darkness. He was standing in an alcove of the mountainside several hundred meters above the ground. The powerful winds of Antared V howled around him, chilling him even underneath his robes. Stepping through puddles of water dripping from the rocks above, Raen approached his older brother.
His brother faced away from him, standing at the very edge of the alcove as though he intended to jump to the ground below. As the wind whipped his dark cloak away from him, Jaeln stared into the night sky, watching the stars—entirely unaware Raen’s presence.
“Yes?” his brother did not turn to greet him.
“Why are we here?”
“Is something wrong, Raen?”
“Yes. I don’t know why we’re fighting.”
“We’re fighting because we’ve discovered ourselves.” Jaeln turned to face his brother. “You were abandoned by the Sith and found your way to the Jedi. They welcomed and cared for you like I will never know. They tended to your darkness and made you grow into a child of the light. I was embraced by the Sith, only to find my own plans hindered by them. They wanted to shape me into their slave; I wanted to become their master.”
“If your ideals are encumbered by the Sith, why did you challenge me? Why are you fighting the Jedi? Why don’t you abandon the dark side and join us? The Sith you are leading now are no different than the ones we served on Alderaan. They will try to bend you to their will just as much as the Alderaanian Sith did.”
“I know, Raen.”
“They why are you leading them? Why are you still a Sith?”
“There is more power in the dark side than in the light.”
“You want power?” Raen arched his brow. “That power will kill you, Jaeln!”
“No, the other Sith will kill me. If I do not remain stronger than them, they will overpower me and subdue me. I cannot be subjected to their rule again, Raen. I can’t! Serving them like a wounded child is not something I can do to myself again.”
“Then follow me,” Raen said. “The light can free you from the need to search for power.”
“I can’t do that either. My own skills stem from unnatural spells and dark rituals. I am incompatible with the light of the Jedi. It would destroy me from the inside out.”
“That’s not true. I was just as caught up in the dark side as you, Jaeln, and I managed to escape. If you enter to the light, it won’t harm you.”
Jaeln shook his head. “I won’t—I can’t—believe that. You have no idea how powerful the Sith are, Raen. No idea how powerful I am. Each being I kill only gives me more power; to remain in control, I have to continue killing.”
Raen extended his hand to his brother. “Jaeln, join me. There is no reason for us to fight. We don’t have to do this.”
“I don’t want to, Raen, but I have to.”
“No, you don’t! There’s nothing to fear in the light. Let me save you.”
“Raen, do you remember when we chased manka cats back on Alderaan?”
Raen nodded. “When we’d chase them around with sticks and try to tame them?”
“Yeah. Do you remember what happened when we cornered them?”
“They went crazy. They attacked us with everything they had: claws, fangs, everything. It was as though being trapped by us triggered a surviving instinct.”
“It is that same drive that keeps me from the light,” Jaeln explained. “As a servant of darkness, I am placed in a corner whenever I am confronted by a child of the light. Even you, Raen. Every part of my being struggles to talk with you now and not cut you down before you can defend.”
“I don’t want to fight you.”
Jaeln’s lightsaber jumped into his hand, activating with a quick, sinister hiss. He shifted the blood-red blade to defend the center of his body. “Raen, we are enemies. As much as you don’t want to accept that, there’s nothing that we can do. I am an enemy of the light, and you are one of its servants. Show me that your light is stronger than my power, and I will consider your words.”
Northeus brought his lightsabers down on Tor’chal. The Ithorian had successfully staved off his attack, but Northeus could sense that the erstwhile Jedi Master was tiring. Jumping around him, Northeus tried to attack Tor’chal’s unprotected left side, but his opponent pivoted to meet the attack—if only barely.
It was a testament to the old Jedi Master’s skill with a lightsaber that he could defend himself against Northeus. Although he had never been placed on the Jedi Council, Tor’chal was considered for the position many times. It was only because of his attachment to his family on Ithor that his candidacy fell through. Such attachments, even for Jedi Masters, was dangerous. A Jedi had to let go of all his belongings—including his identity—to truly serve others.
Northeus danced this way and that, alternating his strikes so he could strike at the weakest points of Tor’chal’s guard. The Ithorian Jedi Master had been trained in lightsaber combat since his youth, and his years of experience proved equal to Northeus’s rank. Even Tor’chal’s weakest point was safe from him as his blue blade floated around him. No matter where Northeus chose to strike, Tor’chal would not succumb to him.
“You have done well, Tor’chal,” Northeus praised him. “I was sure that I would be able to quickly defeat you. As you said, my arrogance has proven foolish.”
“No, don’t say that, Master Ulsan.”
Northeus hesitated when he heard the old Ithorian call him master. Tor’chal’s boldness seemed to fade away the longer they fought, and it almost sounded like he regretted fighting Northeus. Avoiding an incoming strike from the old Ithorian, Northeus placed his two lightsabers in an X-shape before him and drove the blades toward Tor’chal. The combined power of the two weapons threatened to push his opponent to the ground, and Tor’chal’s legs were quaking beneath him as he tried to remain standing.
“Master Ulsan!” Tor’chal interrupted. “Please. Kill me.”
Tor’chal jumped back, avoiding Northeus’s double attack. Using the opportunity he created, the Ithorian jumped forward and struck at Northeus’s cross-shaped defense. The Jedi Councilor blocked a few simple horizontal cuts from his foe. It was difficult for him to divide his attention between blocking Tor’chal and communicating with him.
“Master Tor’chal, what’s going on?”
“Jaeln Benax…” Tor’chal whispered. “He is threatening my family. He is forcing me to fight you and your friends. If I refuse him, or if I fight him, they will die. Please… I have thought this through. You must kill me.”
“Jaeln Benax? The man we’re fighting is Jaeln Benax?”
Tor’chal nodded. “He has called himself Preux for reasons unknown to me.”
His words made no sense. Jaeln was reported dead several years ago, aboard the Phantom Rising alongside an entire crew of dark-siders. One of the Jedi Councilors themselves had confirmed his death. He couldn’t be alive. If he was, then who was the man the Republic forces under Major Altesius had identified as Jaeln?
Northeus continued blocking the older Jedi’s attacks. He realized now that Tor’chal never intended to defeat him, and that explained his weak and basic attacks. The Ithorian wanted Northeus to kill him. He never intended to fight Raen or Khondine. He had been seeking Northeus’s blade.
“Where is your family?” Northeus whispered.
“Ithor. They’re all on Ithor,” Tor’chal replied.
“If we could defeat Jaeln, then perhaps-”
“No. He has an agent watching us, Master Ulsan. If I betray him, he has others in place to execute my family. Please, Master Ulsan. This is the only way to secure their safety.”
Northeus’s silver lightsabers locked against Tor’chal’s blue blade, holding it in place. To kill Tor’chal, who was not a Sith and never intended to be, was something he was unsure he could do. They were allies, and the thought of personally depriving the galaxy of another Jedi Master created a knot in his stomach. Freeing Tor’chal’s weapon from his, Northeus let their weapons meet in blinding flashes of light. Neither of them would take the offensive and strike a killing blow, locking them in a cycle of showy swordsmanship. Northeus just couldn’t kill him.
“Master Ulsan, please. You’re the only one I can count on…” Tor’chal said, whipping his lightsaber toward his opponent’s face. “This is the only way to secure my family’s future. If you do not strike me down here, I will go on and try to kill your friends. You know I must.”
Northeus’s eyes were misting over, and the bursts of light getting ever closer to his face made it hard to see. His head and face were covered with sweat, and he wasn’t sure how long he could continue fighting. He simply didn’t know what to do. He had no words. He wanted to condemn the Ithorian for asking a favor of him that depended on Northeus living, he wanted to beg him to try and fight against the Sith’s oppressive plans, and he wanted to drive his lightsaber through the both of them.
Catching Tor’chal’s lightsaber with one of his own, Northeus held the blue blade in place above their heads. Tor’chal couldn’t do anything to defend himself, and Northeus used his other blade to impale the Jedi Master. The Ithorian’s eyes widened when he realized he had been struck, but his surprise quickly faded into a content expression that Northeus found himself envious of. Dropping his lightsaber, Tor’chal let out a sigh and fell backward. Northeus reacted quickly, catching the dying Jedi Master’s body before it hit the ground.
“Thank you, Northeus. You… you have done me a great service this day.”
“No… no! I’ve killed you, Master. I’ve taken your life, and I’ve forsaken my vows as a Jedi. What am I supposed to do now?”
“I… I cannot say. Do not blame yourself… this was never your fault. Please, use the life you have left to defend my family. That is… that is my request… to you…”
With a content sigh, Tor’chal let his head fall back. His eyes closed at last, leaving Northeus alone in the darkness around the mountain. Northeus knew that the Jedi Master deserved a better fate than he received, but he also believed that Tor’chal was glad to be one with the Force at last. He had been a ghost for the longest time, and it was time he moved on. He stayed at Tor’chal’s side for some time; whether he hoped for a miracle or wanted to see his actual ghost, he did not know.
“Very good, Master Northeus of the Jedi.”
Northeus took his eyes off Tor’chal. An old man, even older than Tor’chal, stood before him with walking stick in hand. His robes were ornate, but they were also terrifying—colored like blood and decorated with complex runes. He had a sort of brand running up one of his arms, and his gnarled hands gripped the end of a staff to keep him steady. Northeus did not realize this man was a Sith until his presence in the Force swept over him like a wave of dark energy. Despite his age, he was much more powerful than he appeared.
“Who are you?” Northeus asked, blinking away the last few tears from his eyes.
“I am Nafyan, lord of the Sith and master of the arcane arts. I served as a tutor to Jaeln Benax and was his Sith Master during his travels. He assigned me here to keep you or the Jedi girl from interfering with his duel. So come, Master Jedi. Let us see who is the stronger of us.”
Northeus laid Tor’chal’s body on the ground as carefully as he could. Standing up, he reactivated both of his lightsabers. “I don’t care who you are. But as surely as I killed Tor’chal, I will kill you.”
“Pompous,” Nafyan said, laughing. “Your skill, or lack thereof, does not frighten me, Northeus of the Jedi. Come. Let us battle.”
Khondine’s two-pronged blade whipped around her in the darkness. Tracing curved lines and fanciful loops, her violet blades met Danc’s red blade as she spun about, sending bright white sparks to the ground. Her Zabrak foe was no longer lazily defending himself; he was finally taking her seriously, and he used all of his strength to repel her attacks. Even so, her hate still powered every attack.
She enjoyed the power that her anger brought.
“Are you afraid yet, Danc?”
“Be serious. Your lightsaber skills are nothing compared to mine.”
Khondine set out to prove him wrong. Kicking at his shin, Khondine managed to get a quick yelp of pain out of her opponent. Performing a frontflip so she was facing his side, Khondine performed a series of high attacks meant to get Danc to defend his upper body. As he moved to block, Khondine kneed him in the chest, causing him to keel over just enough for Khondine to batter him across the face with the hilt of her lightsaber. Going in for a killing blow, Khondine was surprised that Danc was able to recover. Danc just barely managed to block one of Khondine’s violet blades from cutting his head in two. Furious, Khondine tried again, but she met with no success. Danc let his lightsaber ricochet between both of her blades, trading off blocking one and then the other.
As her lightsaber tilted back and forth, she could easily send her respective blades toward his right or his left. Either way, no matter how complex her motions, no matter how fluidly she moved, she could not break his guard. Alternating the blades she used to strike at him, Khondine let him waste his energy defending while he struggled to come up with a plan.
“Dear, dear Khondine. Are you out of ideas already?” Danc said with a vicious smile. “Surely you can do better that this.”
Khondine leapt over his head and struck at his cranium with her lightsaber. No luck. Even as she landed behind him and released a swift combination of low aiming cuts and diagonally swings, he blocked them all. What’s more, he was not even striking back. He was still toying with her.
“Danc! Treat me like an enemy! Fight me!” she screamed.
“If you wish.”
Danc blocked the incoming violet blade on his left. Before Khondine could continue her attack, he pushed against her blade and sent her back. Leaping forward, Danc closed the distance between them, positioning himself so that they were practically face-to-face. Her lengthened lightsaber hilt made close-range blocking difficult, if not outright impossible, and he knew this. She had to contort her arms just to ensure that his red blade made contact with her own violet blades, and not her hilt.
Stepping backward, Khondine tried to give herself room to maneuver, but Danc stepped forward with her.
“Did you really think you could defeat me? I’m infinitely your better. I taught you everything you know about the Force, about a lightsaber, and about combat!” Danc’s strikes became progressively stronger. He reached a point where he was practically slamming his blade against Khondine’s. “Now surrender to me!”
Khondine jumped backward, propelled herself off the cave walls, and landed behind Danc. The Zabrak acted accordingly, spinning around on one foot and blocking her incoming blows. Their parries and ripostes became quicker and quicker, eventually becoming so fast that their blades became intangible blurs of light around them. Khondine sent her blade in wide arcs around Danc’s blade, and he responded with elegant, almost flowing defenses maneuvers that perfectly intercepted her weapon each time it plunged toward him.
Danc moved forward again. Stomping on Khondine’s foot, he caused her to flinch. Khondine didn’t have a chance to reposition herself as Danc brought his lightsaber down onto her weapon’s hilt. In a shower of sparks, Khondine’s lengthy hilt was severed in two equal pieces, deactivating both of her violet blades in a single motion.
“Looks like you’ve lost again,” Danc hissed. “All because you cannot adequately protect your weak spots.”
Khondine glared at him with a dark smile. “Think again.”
To Danc’s surprise, his own lightsaber deactivated in a flash of light, shrouding both of them in thick darkness. When Danc attacked her hilt—as she knew he would—and destroyed her lightsaber, the thin layer of cortosis ore she had placed around the handle disabled his weapon too. Embracing the darkness, Khondine scampered off and recovered the lightsaber that Danc had caused her to lose earlier in the duel. While her opponent had been tirelessly deflecting her attacks, she had located it on the floor.
“Where are you, love?” Danc called out. “Let me play with you some more!”
Khondine revealed her position by reactivating the single-bladed lightsaber she had scooped up. “I’m right here, Danc.”
“Where did you get that? What did you do to my lightsaber?”
She didn’t answer him. Racing forward, Khondine felt the Zabrak trying to repel her with telekinesis, but his efforts were too weak. He was too concerned with actually hurting her, and she was strengthened by the thought of finally killing him. She was upon him in an instant. Without a lightsaber to defend himself, Danc couldn’t do anything to stop her. He tried to move out of the way, but Khondine was quicker. With a single, cathartic cut, she lopped off Danc’s weapon arm.
“Khondine! No! I yield. Please… please stop!”
But she couldn’t. “Didn’t I tell you I wouldn’t be merciful, Danc?”
His other arm was cut off at the shoulder by her violet blade. Using her free hand, Khondine pushed her armless opponent against the wall behind them.
“Khondine… please. I… I love you. Don’t do this to me. I don’t want to die without you. I don’t want to-”
Calling on all of her anger, Khondine plunged her lightsaber right into his forehead. She smiled as she saw the look on his face. His eyes were caught in an eerie gaze that only the dead could master, and his mouth was contorted, reveling in fear and ectasy at once. She relished taking her lightsaber and driving it downward, effectively destroying his face before decapitating him entirely.
His body hit the ground. She had killed him. Her anger had been quelled—no, not quelled. Emboldened. Her fury gave her strength, and her newfound power made her feel like she could take on anyone. Without Danc in her head, she could actually sense Raen in the distance. Keeping her lightsaber active, she rushed back through the tunnels, allowing the Force to guide her to him.
“Raen… just hold on.”
Red and gold.
Their blades danced around their bodies like tongues of flame, slowly burning back the darkness of night around them. Each blow they traded caused their lightsabers to crackle with delight, releasing flashes of white light in honor of their blades meeting over and over again.
Inside the circle of energy, Raen did his best to stave off his brother. Like fighting his father, the Sith Master of Alderaan, years ago, Raen knew that he was outclassed by his opponent. However, he also knew that he had the power of the light on his side. There was nothing Jaeln feared more than the light, by his own testimony, and that meant that Raen had a significant edge over his enemy.
Even so, he would not kill Jaeln. He had not been able to bring himself to kill his father, and he would not strike the final blow against his older brother. Despite his fear, despite all of his objections, Raen knew that he could be saved. It was the only hope he clung to as he continued to block his brother’s red blade, each time coming closer and closer to shattering his defenses.
“Raen, do not hold back. Father deemed you important enough to become a Jedi. You must prove yourself to me and to him.”
“Didn’t you know? Father wanted you to become a Jedi. He knew that I would become far too powerful for even him, and he feared that I would one day rise up and destroy him. He hoped that, with the power of the light, you would gain the strength you needed to match me. One day, he hoped for us to be evenly matched, masterful knights to defend the home he was building.”
“But that’s impossible. Why wouldn’t he just send you to become a Jedi, so you would not try to kill him? How would he know I would become a Jedi?”
“Father knew everything, Raen. He had been planning this since he arrived on Alderaan. If I had gone to the Jedi, I would have become the most powerful Jedi ever, stronger than even the fabled Jedi Masters of old, and effectively destroyed him and you because of your allegiances to the dark side. Without his entire family, father did not see a point to living.”
Raen didn’t know what to think. This was too much for him to take in. It was too much to handle. Instead, he refocused his efforts on the duel. Withdrawing one of his vibroswords, Raen used both his lightsaber and the sword to repel his brother’s attacks. Jaeln smiled. He, too, focused on the duel in earnest.
As they clashed, Raen realized that he could sense his brother’s emotions with clarity for the first time. Every thought, every fear, every emotion found its way to Raen through the Force. No doubt the duel was taxing enough on his physical strength; it was doubtful that Jaeln had enough stamina to block his mind from attack while he dueled. In an effort to fight against him, Raen willingly opened his mind, enabling his brother’s thoughts to join his in the Force.
Jaeln sensed his brother immediately, but he had no intention of giving in so easily. His brother closed his mind and fled from Raen, launching himself into the air. Raen ran to the edge of the alcove and watched his brother fly through the air, landing on a higher point of the mountainside. Raen followed suit and leapt nearly twelve meters into the air to meet his brother on a boulder jutting out from the mountain.
As soon as Raen arrived, Jaeln revealed to him the other four lightsabers he had attached to his belt. Raen did not know what he was planning until Jaeln sent all four hilts into the air and allowed them to float around him in a wide ring with telekinesis. In unsion, all the floating lightsabers activated, revealing four red blades. Jaeln nodded his head, and all for lightsaber floated toward Raen to attack.
Raen was so shocked by the somewhat animate weapons that he nearly forgot to defend himself. Raen rushed forward to deflect the two lowest hovering blades and then turned his attention to the higher blades that tried to sneak around him. Using his golden lightsaber and vibrosword, Raen alternated between striking at the higher floating lightsabers and the lower ones. While his brother fought against the hovering lightsabers, Jaeln watched his brother in silent curiosity.
Realizing that this was some kind of test, Raen called upon the Force and used telekinesis to send all of Jaeln’s blades flying in random directions. Before Jaeln could reactivate them and renew his telekinetic attack, Raen moved to attack his brother directly. Jaeln blocked his first few attacks with a single lightsaber before calling one of the lightsabers on the ground into his hand, giving him a second lightsaber to match Raen’s vibrosword.
Jaeln and Raen traded blows, but there was hardly any room for either of them to maneuver on this rocky ledge. Establishing a steady defense, Jaeln called forth another of his thrown lightsabers and used it to telekinetically attack Raen. Now engaged against three lightsabers, Raen could hardly focus on any of them in particular.
The more his gold lightsaber and vibrosword fluttered between the three lightsabers encircling him, the more confused Raen became. Disoriented from fighting more weapons than he was used to, he called upon the Force and unleashed a burst of flames from his palm. Jaeln barely had time to backflip out of the fire’s path.
“Impressive, Raen,” Jaeln said. “You’ve mastered the Sith magic of pyrokinesis. Very good. I expected nothing less from you.”
“I didn’t realize that was what it was called,” Raen admitted. “But I’ve been slowly developing this attack since I left Alderaan.”
“I imagine. I’m envious. Your powers are impressive, and they are even based in the dark side.”
Raen smiled. “I guess I’ll have to stop using them, then.”
“You have to beat me first,” Jaeln noted.
Taking the cue from his brother, Raen extended his arm and launched a steady stream of fire at Jaeln. He had no intention of killing him, so when the small stream of flame—about the size of his arm—became large enough to engulf Jaeln entirely, Raen panicked. The fire poured out from his hands and became a raging inferno around him.
Jaeln disappeared behind the flames, and smoke rose up to cloud Raen’s vision. Once he was certain that Jaeln had been caught inside, Raen allowed the fire erupting from his hands to die down, eventually turning into a harmless bunch of embers. Burns pockmarked both his hands, blackening the skin on his palms. As a Sith, he had been unaffected by his own power; as a light-sider, his dark side attacks were beginning to harm him dramatically.
Returning his attention to the inferno before him, he realized that he could not sense Jaeln anymore. He was satisfied with himself for only a moment. Before he could suspect that he was dead, Jaeln stepped out of the wall of fire. Tongues of flame washed over him as though he had been walking through a mist. His robes and the flesh underneath had been burnt, melding together in dark splotches around his body. However, despite these injuries, he seemed able to continue fighting; it was like his wounds were nothing to him.
Raen found himself trembling. No one had ever survived the scorching fire of his Force power. Jaeln must have realized just how terrified Raen was because he said nothing. Extending his hand, Jaeln released crackling forks of electrical energy. Raen didn’t dodge it. He couldn’t have. They were so close to each other that he couldn’t have dodged a punch from Jaeln at that range. The energy coursed across his skin, electrifying his insides and burning his skin. He could smell his charring flesh in his nostrils, and he was entirely helpless to stop it. Jaeln applied just a bit more power, providing enough force to throw Raen from the ledge they were standing on.
Raen’s body tumbled down the mountain with a small collection of rocks he had managed to pick up along the way. Disoriented at first, Raen realized that if he did not do something quickly, he would be thrown off the mountain to his death. Catching sight of a rock protruding from the mountain, his hand grabbed hold of it as he rolled by it, causing him to dangle nearly half a kilometer above the ground. As the rest of the displaced rocks rolled by him, he saw his vibroswords fall along with them. The winds rocked him back and forth as he used all of his power to hold on to the tiny stone—hardly large enough to fit both of his hands—and not plunge to the ground below.
Jaeln landed atop the stone Raen was holding on to, balancing himself carefully to ensure he would not fall. “So this is the end, Raen,” he said. “I’m sorry. I at least wanted to give you a chance to die in battle, but this is what the Force wills.”
Raen tried to pull himself up before Jaeln activated his red lightsaber, but he wasn’t fast enough. Jaeln brought his weapon down at his younger brother, but his weapon never made contact. Thrown from his position on top of the small rock, Jaeln was hurled toward a large overhang some distance away. Raen didn’t realize what was going on—and why he wasn’t dead—until Khondine leapt to where Jaeln had been standing moments before.
“Khondine!” Raen smiled. “You came back!”
The Arkanian smiled back at him, but it was noticeably grimmer than his own. “I had some business to take care of. It’s settled now, though. Wait here, Raen. I’ll handle your brother for you.”
Khondine leapt from her perch toward the area where Jaeln had landed. The jump would have been easy to make if Raen had any sort of footing, but his first attempt to get on top of the rock failed, and now he was focusing all of his energy on keeping his grip intact. In the corner of his vision, he could see Jaeln’s crimson blade clash against Khondine’s violet lightsaber.
Mustering all of his upper body strength, Raen pulled himself atop the rock he had been dangling from. Raen heaved a sigh of relief and quickly used the Force to determine how far he would have to jump to reach Jaeln and Khondine. Once he was certain he could leap the distance, Raen activated his lightsaber and propelled himself through the air.
Raen had just landed on the ledge when Jaeln disarmed Khondine. His precise cut had taken off the top of her lightsaber’s hilt and cut away at the tips of her forefinger and thumb. With a cry of pain, Khondine tried to use the Force to protect herself with a small shield, to no avail. Jaeln navigated around her shield and plunged his lightsaber into her chest. Raen could see the crimson blade jutting out of her back even as he raced toward the two.
His older brother deactivated his lightsaber, as though he had no idea what he had done. Khondine stumbled back, as one caught in a trance, and then fell over with a thud. Raen could feel his emotions swell up inside him. Impatience, anger, passion. He leapt over Khondine’s body. Jaeln said something to him, but he didn’t hear it. Raen’s lightsaber smashed into his brother’s defense, and then he released a blindingly fast volley of strikes with every intention of cutting apart his upper body. Something inside of him seethed at the thought of Khondine being stabbed by Jaeln, and he knew he had to avenge her.
Jaeln proved more than capable of handling his little brother’s rage. Using the only lightsaber he had, Jaeln performed staccato, negligible parries that stopped Raen’s increasingly ferocious attacks. After giving Raen a moment to attack, he began trading blows again. Raen was so caught up in his anger that he had difficulty timing his own defense.
In a few short attacks, Jaeln had interrupted Raen’s momentum and forced him into a sloppy, uncoordinated defensive. Locking sabers with his brother, Raen tried to force him to make the mistake of leaping away from the lock—so he could throw his saber at him while he was undefended. Instead, Jaeln pushed into Raen so that he lost his balance and fell.
“Your anger weakens you, soldier of the light.” Jaeln held his lightsaber near Raen’s throat. “Surrender it. Your inner shadows are no match for my encompassing darkness. Or else you will receive no quarter from me.”
Raen stared at his brother, and then glanced back at Khondine. She was dying—or else she was already dead. He couldn’t sense Northeus, and there was no one else to help him. He did not know what to do. He tried to calm himself, but he could only feel anger mounting inside of him. He tried to convince himself to reason with his brother, but he could not muster the will. He had killed the Ghoul, Syme, so many of the Jedi Covenant, and Khondine. Would his murderous intentions never end?
Raen hobbled to his feet. Activating his lightsaber, Raen pointed the gold blade at Jaeln. “I am a Jedi, Sith. I cannot forgive you for what you’ve done. You will receive judgment for the suffering you’ve caused.”
“Then judge me.”
Their lightsabers met in an instant. Jaeln had no additional lightsabers at his disposal, and Raen’s vibroswords had been lost in his fall down the mountain. In the end, it was to be one-on-one. His golden blade clashed with Jaeln’s blood-red blade repeatedly as they creating two spinning columns of light. At times, they merged together to create a single blazing white burst of light. Other times, the lightsabers revolved around their owners like deathly spheres.
Raen could not decide what to do. This man, Jaeln Benax, was his brother. He had known him his entire life. Raen had never harbored any ill will toward him beyond what the Sith had told him to do. Now, the only thing he held him accountable for was the death of all his friends. He could even feel his older brother’s emotions now, flailing about like a tumult inside him. He knew Jaeln was struggling just as much as he was. And yet, even in that raging vortex of emotions, Raen could sense the only thing that his older brother was certain of.
Jaeln Benax would not lose.
It didn’t matter how much he doubted himself. His devotion to victory proved stronger than anything else. Like a cornered manka, he could only lash out at his opponents.
Raen had miscalculated. His lightsaber moved to block an incoming strike at his chest, but his brother never intended to carry it through. He managed to cut at Jaeln’s shoulder, giving him a gaping wound just beyond his collarbone. As Jaeln backed away, Raen managed to cut at Jaeln’s shoulder, giving him a gaping wound just beyond his collarbone. Then, Jaeln swept forward, following through with his feint and struck Raen in the torso.
The blow was clean, making a horizontal cut just above Raen’s waist. It was not a deep wound, but the sudden injury combined with the fact he was already off-balance caused Raen to fall forward. Jaeln took advantage of the opportunity and positioned his blade so Raen would fall on top of it, plunging the crimson blade straight through his sternum.
Raen coughed up blood. He dropped his weapon, and he heard it deactivate when it hit the ground. Jaeln had been so much stronger than him. He knew he never stood a chance. He had failed so much more than winning a duel. Khondine had died for him, Northeus was probably near death, and Jaeln had not been saved. He had failed.
“Jae… Jaeln…” Raen grabbed his brother’s arms for support. “I…”
“Don’t try to speak,” Jaeln said, staring at the sky. “You’re only increasing your own pain in your final moments.”
“I… I don’t care. Jaeln, I… I’m sorry… I di-didn’t mean…” Raen coughed up more blood. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. Please… don’t do this.”
“I have to, Raen. This is my fate. I will not rest until the last of those that fight for the light are destroyed, leaving this galaxy in peaceful, apathetic darkness.”
Raen’s grip weakened. His body fell backward, and he closed his eyes. Jaeln Benax stared blankly at the two dead Jedi before him, not quite sure what he wanted to do next. At first, he intended to reach Nafyan and leave. However, the Force had other ideas. His body swelled forth with the power of the dark side. After killing two powerful Jedi, his own connection to the Force was increasingly exponentially. His body struggled to cope with the power he had absorbed.
“Raen… I’m…” Jaeln shivered. “Forgive me…”
Flames spewed forth from his arms. He could feel the power that had once belonged to Raen coursing through him, and he would soon master it. But not yet. First, he had to endure the suffering that came with taking away the life force of other Force-sensitives. The cataclysmic destruction to his body and his spirit. With each new skill came more pain.
And if the darkness was nearly unbearable, how much more painful was the light?
Northeus had sensed Khondine die first. Gripping his chest, he stared into the distance, almost unaware that Nafyan intended to strike him down while he was distracted. It was only a last minute warning from the Force that returned the Jedi Master’s attention to the battle. He had failed another Jedi. His desire to win the duel against his opponent became weaker and weaker, and he nearly felt like joining Khondine in death.
Then Raen died.
There was no doubt that Nafyan had sensed his death as well. The old Sith cackled with glee and redoubled his efforts to break through Northeus’s defenses. Northeus lost his left arm in an instant, sending his severed limb and the lightsaber it was holding into the ground behind him.
He felt no pain. The sheer gravity of the failure and disappointment coursing through him sent him into a debilitated state. His prophecy had been wrong. Raen had not been the Jedi who would save the Jedi Order from the Sith threat. He had not been the one chosen by the Force to inherit all the strength of the Jedi and the light side of the Force. Now, in his error, Northeus realized that he was responsible for killing so many Jedi. Not just Khondine and Raen, but each Jedi who had traveled with him from Coruscant.
Their deaths weighed on his spirit until he couldn’t find the strength to hold up his other lightsaber anymore.
“Hah! Northeus of the Jedi! It seems your hopes have been stolen away from you,” Nafyan gloated. “The Sith have returned, and they have taken their total revenge on the Jedi who drove them away! Now watch, as your glorious Republic falls before our terrible might!”
Nafyan moved in for a killing blow against the distraught Jedi Master when the ground underneath them began to tremble. A Lethisk-class freighter pulled in from orbit, launching its laser cannons and turbolasers toward the ground around them. The ensuing chaos around them caused Nafyan to divert his focus from his target, giving the freighter just enough time to float toward the two duelists.
“We’ve got three life forms on our scanners,” Manda announced to the bridge crew of the Hound’s Sapphire.
“I sense… darkness. Pain. It’s so powerful. What could that be?” Verita muttered, trying her best to focus in the Force.
“One of those Sith, perhaps?” Kerre suggested.
“Our target is that one-armed man, wielding the silver lightsaber,” Dynatha announced.
“How do you know?” Ralina asked, spinning around in her chair.
“He emanates light side energy. He is the only Jedi among them,” Dynatha explained.
“Great. I guess I just have to accept the fact that I’m never going to escape you magical beings,” Ralina sighed.
“Captain,” Jon piped up. “There seems to be abnormal seismic activity coming from the mountain nearby.”
“It could be due to the fact we’re destroying the terrain,” Oryan suggested, pointing out that Dynatha had suggested they fire their weapons upon arrival.
“That’s not it,” Jon replied. “Negative… it seems… one of the life forms is causing it.”
“One of them?” Lucius asked. “That’s impossible!”
“Activating the boarding ramp,” Posh announced.
“Bringing her into a low hover,” Fetcher chimed in. “Coming in hot. We’ll be above our target in about forty-five seconds.”
“I’ll go grab our newest guest, then,” Verita said.
“Let me join you,” Jhosua said.
While the rest of the crew waited expectantly, Fetcher shouted their altitude above the commotion around them. Jon continued to post periodic updates on the seismic activity; from the sound of the reports, the entire planet was breaking apart beneath them. Dynatha watched Ralina’s tactical display expectantly, and Tserne stood nearby, silent as always. It was as if they knew exactly what was going on by just observing the blips on her map.
Ralina watched the man with the red lightsaber who fought the one-armed man as Verita and Jhosua scooped the Jedi onto the boarding ramp. He didn’t move to oppose them; in fact, as soon as the Jedi was safe, he deactivated his weapon and watched the Hound’s Sapphire depart. It was as though he wanted them to take the Jedi with them.
“Captain,” Jhosua’s voice rose up on the ship’s comm, pulling her from her internal musings. “We’ve got him.”
“Fetcher!” Ralina shouted. “Get us out of here before the whole planet implodes!”
“Don’t need to tell me twice.”
The Hound’s Sapphire raced over the rocky landscape, quickly gaining altitude until the dark blue sky of Antared V was replaced by the emptiness of space. Fetcher did not even wait for Ralina to give the signal to jump out of system. He and Posh plotted a random course and made an emergency jump, sending them into the relatively safety of hyperspace.
Nafyan stood near the door to the infirmary, silently watching Jaeln as his former pupil rested on top of one of the medical cots. There were two droids waiting outside the door; beyond the minor security detail, they were alone.
His master had faded into unconsciousness after the battle. It seemed that absorbing so much power at once had caused his body to momentarily lose control of itself. Nafyan had to save Jaeln from the planet’s destruction, calling on Captain Isinn for a pickup. As always, she proved a useful agent, and she rescued the two Force-sensitives moments before the planet collapsed. She would have to be rewarded for her actions.
“Ngh…” Jaeln stirred from his sleep. “Where are we, Nafyan?”
“On the Asylum. We are currently on our way back to Khar Delba.”
“And… and the Jedi?”
“As you may recall, you killed two of them. The third, their leader, escaped my grasp. I apologize, my lord.”
Jaeln stared into the pale yellow glowpanel situated just above his cot. “I see. Don’t worry, Nafyan. There are so few Jedi left now. He hardly poses any threat.”
“He… he’s dead, I am afraid.” Nafyan found some pleasure in saying those words.
“Master, may I make a suggestion?”
“I have an associate who may very well be able to aid you, my lord,” Nafyan began.
“An associate?” Jaeln sat up. “What kind of associate?”
“He is based on the planet known to the Sith as Dromund Kaas. He has immense power and unfathomable knowledge, even greater than my own. I suspect he may be able to make you even stronger.”
Jaeln hesitated for a moment. Nafyan knew he was suspicious of him. His suspicions were well founded. However, he also knew that Jaeln was quickly finding himself surrounded by enemies. With Danc defeated by the Jedi, that left Nafyan as his sole remaining adviser. Before long, Jaeln would need to appoint others; by then, Nafyan would corrupt any potential candidates so they only served the true Sith and their master, the Emperor who reigned from Dromund Kaas. Even if he refused Nafyan now, he would eventually fall under the sway of the Sith Emperor himself.
There was more than one way to make a slave out of Jaeln Benax.
“Very well. Once we arrive on Khar Delba, instruct Captain Isinn to prepare for a trip to Dromund Kaas,” Jaeln said.
Nafyan found himself smiling. “Of course… Lord Preux.”
The Hound’s Sapphire settled into one of the docking bays of an X7-class luxury station in the Colonies. They had no permit, and it was likely that the station’s hangar authorities would evict them as soon as possible, but Ralina didn’t care. They had been traveling through hyperspace for nearly two weeks, and she and her crew were exhausted. During the journey here, Ralina had spoken with some of her newer allies, and they decided to use their time here to depart.
Kerre had reported back to his boss, Selias Siital, during the trip through hyperspace, and announced his departure from her mercenary company. Although she expressed disappointment in his decision, she wished him well. Now a free man, Kerre declared that he would travel to Dxun, where it was rumored that the Mandalorians were gathering their strength under a new leader. To his surprise, Jhosua and Verita expressed their desire to go with him. Although he was hesitant of the idea at first, Kerre eventually agreed to let them come with him.
Raxsus and Syrook abandoned Ralina’s ship as soon as they landed, but they did not tell anyone, even Lucius, where they were going. They were technically fugitives, of course, so they had probably determined it was safer for them to tell no one where they were going. Lucius tried contacting them several times, to no avail. This luxury station was situated comfortably in the Corellian Run, and Ralina had no doubt they would eventually find—or steal—a ship to take them back into the frontier.
Like the pirate and his Wookiee ally, Dynatha and Tserne left Ralina’s crew as soon as they could. However, unlike the two scrupulous criminals, Dynatha informed Ralina that she was planning on returning to Alderaan, her homeworld, and spend some time away from the violence and chaos that mercenary life brought. Lucius and Ralina wished them the best, and they saw them off as they left on a cruiser to the Core.
She had seen her companions leave one-by-one, and now the remaining members of Ralina’s crew were off buying supplies. Alone on the bridge, Ralina was surprised that the dockmasters had let her ship remain in their hangar for nearly three days. She appreciated the fact she didn’t have to argue with any of them. All the running around the galaxy she had been doing had exhausted her.
While she pondered their next destination, their Jedi guest joined her on the bridge. Over the past few weeks, he had kept to himself, refusing to leave his quarters and spending most of the time in silent meditation. Any questions Ralina or her allies asked him were rebuffed. Now, finally, Ralina could ask him questions that had been on her mind since they picked him up on Antared V—which had been utterly destroyed since their departure. News of its cataclysmic end had spread quickly amongst the spacers throughout the Republic, and Ralina picked up a bit of this news in her spare time.
“So, who are you?” Ralina asked the old Jedi, remaining in her seat.
The Jedi sighed. “I could ask you the same thing.”
“We saved your life, Jedi. You could be a bit more grateful.”
“I didn’t ask you to save me,” he countered.
“Well, we did. So deal with it,” Ralina snapped.
“Very well. What do you want to know?”
“Who are you?”
“I am Northeus Ulsan, a Jedi Master of the Galactic Republic.”
“A Jedi Master?” Ralina repeated. “Weren’t you all killed?”
“What were you doing on that planet before it essentially imploded on itself?” Ralina asked.
“I’m… I’m not sure,” Northeus admitted.
“What do you mean, you’re not sure?” Ralina asked.
“I do not know why I decided to go there, yet I was there anyway.”
“How illogical,” Jon chirped.
“If you’ll excuse me, I would like to leave your ship,” Northeus said.
“And where will you go?” Ralina asked. “The Jedi Temple on Coruscant has been abandoned, as you no doubt have heard.”
“I… I am not sure. Not yet. For now, I will make due with thanking you for your hospitality and bidding you farewell. Is that appropriate?”
“I guess it will do for now,” Ralina grumbled. “Just get lost before I change my mind.”
Northeus bowed low. “Goodbye, then.”
The Jedi Master left the ship a few minutes before Lucius, Fetcher, and the rest of Ralina’s crew returned to the Hound’s Sapphire with a new batch of supplies. With a new supply of rations and their hyperdrive’s fuel cells restored, they could finally be off.
Ralina greeted her crew as they entered the bridge. “How was the trip? Anything out of the ordinary?”
“Beyond a particularly nasty Snivvian merchant who tried to rip us off?” Lucius asked. “Nothing.”
Ralina smiled. “Good. Shall we be off?”
Fetcher sat down in the pilot’s seat. “Where to, Captain?”
“I was thinking Telos,” Ralina said. “I haven’t see my homeworld in years, and we could all use a little break from spacefaring, I think.”
“You mean you’re already tired of being shot at?” Posh grinned as he manned a gun turret.
“Not quite, but I’ve seen quite enough for the next couple months,” Ralina countered. “How are the internal systems, Oryan?”
“Reporting at one hundred percent capacity.”
“Good. Any word from the dockmasters, Manda?”
“All right, then. Let’s just assume they don’t care. Fetcher, Jon, let’s get out of here.”
“Powering the hyperdrive,” Jon noted.
“At your ready, Captain,” Fetcher said.
“Very good, Fetcher. Take us home.”