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Chapter 4

Peace is a lie.

These were the first words of the Sith Code and the first words all Sith learned. Many dark-siders could recite these words, mocking defeated Jedi before striking the finishing blow. It was true that the Jedi were ignorant of that dark knowledge, but many self-proclaimed Sith knew no better. Few Sith knew what these words meant. These words were at the heart of the Sith Empire. To misunderstand the nature of the Sith Code was to misunderstand the Sith.

Peace was thought to bring in prosperity and contentment; it created everything but. Knowing this, foolish Sith believed that the opposite of peace was violence. They assumed the only way to counteract the ill effects of peace was to succumb to brutish instincts and base aggression. This chaotic violence destroyed the Sith and everything around them. There was no benefit to this.

A true Sith was enlightened. A true Sith realized that emotions were not something to be suppressed, but expressed. A true Sith was the embodiment of passion. Because passion was the prime mover of the galaxy, true Sith moved in harmony with the galaxy. Sith were masters of the true nature of the Force.

Nafyan knew this. Born in the true Sith Empire, not the ones constructed by the fallen Jedi over the past few hundred years, he had experienced the power of the Sith firsthand. The Dark Council of that empire had foreseen that he would become a powerful Sith and influence the deaths of the many; naturally, they trained him as soon as they were able to ensure they would be spared. Knowing nothing else, he served them. He was so foolish, enduring torture and humiliation without question.

Once the Dark Council deemed him old enough to learn, he was granted access to the great libraries of the Sith capital on Dromund Kaas. Learning the wisdom of the ancient Sith Lords, Nafyan trained and studied as often as he could, eventually becoming a Sith in all but name. The Dark Council refused to grant him the title he sought, fearing what he would eventually become. Lashing out in anger, Nafyan intended to seize his rites by force. He had escaped death only because the Sith Emperor had other plans for him.

Called to the Sith Emperor’s throne, Nafyan was tasked with leaving Dromund Kaas and seeing to the arrival of one who would be known as Preux. In a galaxy of pretenders, Preux would become an embodiment of the dark side of the Force. However, without guidance, he would succumb to the false doctrine and instability of the dark-siders around him. Nafyan was to teach him the ways of the ancient Sith. Obedient to his only master, Nafyan did as he was told, spurning the chance to become a Sith Lord.

Nafyan arrived on Alderaan with nothing more than a few ancient texts copied from the libraries of Dromund Kaas. He knew he had been exiled, but he also hoped that his success in the galaxy would allow him to return home one day. Until then, he would carry out the orders of the Sith Emperor without question.

Before long, he met the child who would become Preux. Under Nafyan’s watchful eye, the boy grew and learned. Exposing him to the same teachings he had been, any trace of idealism was obliterated in the young man and replaced with the steeled resolve of the Sith. If not for the Galactic Republic’s attack on the planet and the expulsion of its Sith presence, Preux would have consolidated power on the planet and risen to become a vicious warlord. He would have become an emperor.

Sadly, it was not to be. Alderaan was lost. The man who Nafyan knew died. But Preux remained.

Aboard the Interdictor-class cruiser Asylum, Nafyan meditated in his austere chambers. Many Sith shunned the art of meditation, content with acting on their own and calling upon the Force only when necessary. Nafyan rejected their pitiful ideology, finding solace and strength as he seized control of the Force in his subconscious.

His dark eyes remained opened as he meditated, staring into the space beyond the walls of the ship. Eerily he maintained his gaze; he looked like he could have been dead. Age had long since caught up with him, exposing itself in wrinkles under his eyes and at his cheeks. The lines on his forehead were also clearly visible, revealed by his receding gray hair.

Despite the fact he had once been a servant to House Benax, Preux’s family, Nafyan had no qualms dressing fancifully. In contrast to his sparsely decorated chambers, his robe was decorated with golden tassels and shimmering rings, particularly around his arms and legs. At his chest, a metal cuirass rested inside the gap in his robes. These particular garments had been acquired from an ancient Sith trove on Almas. Even the crimson color of his sleeves reminded him of a Sith’s lightsaber. How quaint.

“Master Nafyan,” one of the bridge crew hailed him from a nearby holocomm. “We’re approaching Obulette. Your presence on the bridge has been requested.”

Nafyan nodded and rose to his feet. “Prepare the crew for landing, Lieutenant. I will be there shortly.”

The garbled transmission cut out after Nafyan had given his orders. Unlike the officers in the destroyed empire of Revan and Malak, these servants were not required to adhere to military protocol. They were only told to do their jobs efficiently. These men were slaves, not soldiers. They were expendable, and they were subservient to their Force-sensitive masters. That was all that mattered.

Nafyan grabbed his staff and left his chambers. None of the crew was stationed on this level and there were very few other droids or passengers aboard. It was a silent trip; the last time a ship had been this quiet was his brief visit to the Phantom Rising. After Jaeln Benax, Nafyan’s protégé, had killed the crew, it became far too quiet on that ship. Nafyan and Jaeln had abandoned it once their work was done; it was a useful asset, but it was not necessary by any means. That ship was the last piece of the Benax’s Sith kingdom.

The elevator ride from his level to the bridge did not disturb his reflection. Stepping from the elevator, several Sith troopers waiting nearby escorted him to the bridge. Their heavy white armor contrasted with their black mesh underlay and opaque visors; Nafyan recognized traces of Mandalorian design in their armor. They said nothing to him, and he did not acknowledge their presence. It was a short trip, and once he had reached the bridge’s massive blast doors, the two guards saluted and returned to the elevator.

The bridge itself was as crowded as ever. Nafyan was still impressed by the sheer amount of sentients necessary to run a ship like the Asylum, but he also knew fewer Force-sensitives could run it better. Dim lighting coupled with the metallic walls caused the entire deck to appear lifeless and dull. The crew carried out their duties with hushed monotony beneath the elevated walkway at the center of the bridge. The only sounds that stood out were the soft clicks of terminals and the clatter of boots.

At the far end of the bridge, Captain Tasa Isinn watched her men work with her back leaned against the primary viewport. She wore her ink black hair long, spilling across one shoulder. Her purple prosthetic eyes stood out from her soft features and smooth complexion; her damaged eyes were her only visible scars from the Mandalorian War. She was very young in spite of her rank, and Nafyan held her in high esteem for it. She took his anti-military approach to an extreme, wearing her uniform unbuttoned and carrying weapons—a blaster rifle and vibrosword—on the bridge.

At her side, a large warrior—at least two heads taller than the captain—encased in armor darker than the captain’s hair kept a close eye on the crew’s doings, perhaps more so than the captain herself. This figure’s armor had been selected from the finest Sith armory available on Korriban, raided by Captain Isinn and Nafyan before the planet had fallen to the Republic and their Jedi allies. A crimson cape was draped across the warrior’s back, and the cylindrical hilt of a Sith’s lightsaber rested at his side.

“Captain Isinn, are we almost prepared to land?” Nafyan asked from across the walkway.

“Prepared as we can be, my lord,” the captain replied. “We’ve received permission to land from the planet’s orbital security.”

“So why have I been summoned?” Nafyan growled, trying to keep his anger in check. “Are you wasting my time, Captain?”

The captain sighed. “Someone on the ground wanted to confer with the commander of this vessel before we landed.”

“Why didn’t you do so?”

“I knew you would have punished me later, my lord. I would not dare do things behind your back.”

Nafyan huffed. The captain was as argumentative as she was lazy, but she always knew what to say to get herself out of trouble. “Very well. Let me take the message here.”

The captain stepped away from the viewport and directed Nafyan to a large terminal across from the main gun controls set to receive incoming transmissions. The armored-figure and the captain joined Nafyan, standing by his side while the engineer rerouted the ship’s comm system. Once it had been set had been set to pick up transmissions from Obulette, a blurry image of a humanoid appeared on the holographic projector.

“Are you the commanding officer of the incoming ship Asylum?” the holographic figure asked.

“I am,” Nafyan replied. “Who am I speaking to?”

“I am an aide to House Mecetti and High Lord Tadeus II. He would like to know the reasoning behind your incursion of Tapani space and what it is you seek on Obulette.”

“We seek shelter and aid from his lordship, Tadeus II,” Nafyan explained. “We desire an audience with him on behalf of House Benax of Alderaan.”

“House Benax was eliminated,” the hologram replied. “Destroyed by the Jedi at the end of the war against Darth Malak.”

“I am the caretaker of the family and major domo of their estate. I request an audience.”

“Your-”

“Your lordship would do well to remember Lord Benax’s benevolence when he accepted dozens of Mecrosa Assassins from your province during the Jedi’s purge.”

The other individual was silent for a moment. “High Lord Tadeus II will grant you an audience. Follow our orbital security officers’ instructions, and we shall escort you upon arrival. Out.”

Captain Isinn had left Nafyan’s side when the ship reverted from hyperspace, leaving him and his companion at the deactivated terminal. Surrounded by a half-circle of shipyards and several small orbital stations, Obulette looked like a barren rock from their viewport. A gray orb caught in perpetual twilight by a dim star several million kilometers away, Obulette’s cityscape could hardly been seen from this distance. Several reports came in about the orbital satellites and a few starfighters that were rather close to their ship, but the captain ignored them. Whether she was bemused by the strange sight of Obulette itself or simply too lazy to care, Nafyan could not tell.

The Mecrosa Order, a sect of assassins devoted to the dark side but not entirely Sith, were said to reside on Obulette. After being defeated in the Exar Kun War and purged during a cleansing of the nine Tapani Houses, they retreated from their various fortress worlds. Seeking shelter from House Mecetti, it was safe to presume that many fled to Obulette. Nafyan did not know if they still existed, but if they did, Nafyan would need them.

“Move us into drydock Jenth-22, gentlemen,” Captain Isinn bellowed. “And someone contact hangar control and tell them to prepare two Herald-class shuttles for our shore party.”

A meek chorus of replies rose up from below the walkway. A few rather concerned officers continued to ask the captain questions about the starfighters and tried to caution her against approaching the planet’s defenses, but she brushed them off. Nafyan had already given his orders, and she was simply carrying them out. She would hear none of their complaints.

“Two?” Nafyan asked as Captain Isinn returned to their side. “One of those shuttles could easily hold my master and me. There is no need for two of them.”

“I’m coming with you,” Captain Isinn explained, “and we’ll be accompanied by two squads of Sith troopers.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Those are my shuttles, and I say this is necessary.”

Nafyan glared at the young captain. He raised his hand to strike at her but restrained himself. It was not the time or the place for discipline. She would be summoned to his quarters later, and he would punish her then. For now, he nodded his agreement. “Come, we should reach the hangar.”

*** ***

The capital of Obulette was built with old megacities dedicated to industry in mind. Large towers and linked skyscrapers reached for the dark red skies. Few buildings had been built on the lowest level; in fact, most buildings started at the second or third level up from the ground. Massive generators inhabited those lower places, powering this and other cities on the planet’s surface by rerouting exajoules of energy per second. The nearest ocean, shallow and polluted even in comparison to the galactic capital’s, was not even touted as a tourist destination.

Despite the industrial design of the capital city itself, the capital building was based off fancier and more vaunted models. Towering colonnades separated each floor, and its flat roof housed a botanical garden of some fame. Several small walls separated the glimmering capital building from the rabble of the city, but they had been maintained for show. The guards were more than able to handle intruders, and the aged walls would not have stopped the most inexperienced vandal.

After several hours of pointless exposure to Tapani culture, Nafyan and his allies were permitted into the high lord’s chambers. Like the rest of the building, Nafyan saw this meeting place as unnecessarily extravagant. The Tapani were fond of relics, surrounding themselves with the statues of old regimes and the artifacts of their ancestors. This place embodied that fondness, and the throne itself seemed to be protected by two very decorative, towering statues of old Tapani emperors.

Several Herglic bodyguards stood at attention, watching over the high lord and his throne. Their hulking cetacean appearance did not inspire fear, although their armament of blaster rifles and vibroaxes compensated for their pacific appearance. They said nothing to the group of Sith as they approached the throne, letting them get within several meters before hindering their progress with a blockade of axes.

High Lord Tadeus II sat on his throne, watching his guests approach with great curiosity. He was decades Nafyan’s junior, trading the scars of age for a fair complexion. He had short blond hair and a trimmed goatee – the only actual sign of age on his face. A massive man, he seemed strong, but he was slightly overweight due to inactivity. His meaty fingers gripped the edge of his throne, as if he was prepared to leap from his perch into the midst of his guards.

“So, my guests finally arrive!” the high lord cried in a nasally voice. “I bid you welcome to Obulette, despite the fact I am surprised by your visit.”

One of the Herglic guards motioned for Nafyan and his associates to bow as the high lord stood up to approach them. Nafyan scoffed when some of the soldiers behind him—including Captain Isinn—did as they were instructed. Waving his left hand dismissively, Nafyan temporarily blinded the few hulking bodyguards around him, allowing him and his armored companion to step by without hindrance.

“Lord Tadeus, I come bearing ill news,” Nafyan spoke.

“I expect nothing else from you,” Tadeus mused, stepping closer to the group of Sith.

“The Sith Empire of Revan and Malak has fallen. The Sith are no more in this galaxy,” Nafyan announced plainly.

Tadeus was nearly face-to-face with Nafyan and his companion now. The hints of a smile appeared on his face when he replied: “So the Sith are no more. Why should this concern me? Tapani space belongs to the Galactic Republic now. The Sith have no authority here.”

“The Mecrosa Assassins under your protection would disagree,” Nafyan countered. “Or have they sworn loyalty to the Jedi and their Republic since Malak’s fall?”

Tadeus prepared a response, but someone in the distance interrupted him. Approaching the throne from a room beyond, a diminutive Human male stumbled into the room with several datapads resting in his hands. The old man was nearly bald, and his grotesque face was practically devoid of Human features; scars and burns across his plump cheeks and broad forehead told stories of battles long since won.

Despite his apparent confusion, it was clear that this man was a respected member of Obulette’s military. He wore the same uniform of black and gold as the high lord himself, but he had more medals than the high lord and all the officers Nafyan had seen so far. A vibrosword rested at his side, and each step he took caused every commendation on his person to jingle in unison.

“Vice Admiral Kvorkasir!” Captain Isinn saluted when she saw the newest arrival. “Is that really you, sir?”

The older man turned from Tadeus and glanced at Captain Isinn and the soldiers surrounding her. He seemed as surprised as she was. “Lieutenant Tasa Isinn of the Peerless?”

“Yes, yes sir!” she exclaimed. “Oh, but I am a captain now. Captain of the Asylum.”

“Ah, Commodore Essen’s old ship. Of course.” Kvorkasir stood at the high lord’s side, and it was apparent now just how short he actually was—barely half Nafyan’s height. “I hope she has been serving you well, Captain-”

“Admiral Kvorkasir, what do you want?” Tadeus interrupted with a hiss. “I am meeting with these… guests.”

The admiral bowed. “My apologies, High Lord Tadeus, but I have received initial reports from our… venture to Tallaan.”

“What of it?”

“We have been met by resistance, it seems. We need to construct more gunships or purchase them from Barong if we are to capture Tallaan soon,” Kvorkasir explained.

“Your fleet’s ineffectiveness is not important to me right now, Kvorkasir,” Tadeus replied. “Return to the war room and consult with your aides. I shall be with you soon.”

Kvorkasir nodded, saluted, and then left the high lord’s presence quicker than he had arrived. Captain Isinn and most of the other soldiers remained awestruck even after he left. Admiral Kvorkasir was a sixty-five year military veteran, and the fact that he survived Malak’s service and come here was unfathomable. Every other high-ranking member of the Sith military hierarchy had been killed defending the Star Forge. The admiral was a living legend.

Nafyan noticed Isinn’s respect for the aged admiral. He had not heard of the old man’s exploits, but he trusted the captain’s experience and knowledge. Nafyan suspected that Kvorkasir would make a fine commander for a new Sith armada. Until that time, though, he did not care about that old admiral. He had to convince Tadeus to side with him first.

“Lord Tadeus, you seem to have issues within your own territory.” Nafyan ensured his tone was blatantly insulting. “Would you require assistance?”

“I need no assistance from you!” Tadeus snapped, turning his back on the Sith.

Nafyan began to move closer to the young nobleman, but he was stopped by several Herglic guards. “How many Mecrosa Assassins remain?” he asked.

“No more than fifty,” Tadeus replied after a great deal of hesitation.

“You are sure?”

“Yes.”

Nafyan was pleased by this development. As long as there were some Mecrosa Assassins left, they could train more. These shadowy killers, once subservient to the Sith, could be made into obedient followers yet again. He simply needed to goad the high lord into offering his assistance.

“Where are they now?” Nafyan pressed.

The high lord hesitated. When he did not respond, Nafyan used the moment of silence to step around his hulking guardsmen and approach the young leader. Staff in hand, the Sith stood at Tadeus’s side in what seemed to be reverent silence.

“Where are you hiding your assassins, Tadeus?” he finally asked.

“They’re here.”

“On Obulette?” Nafyan said with a hint of excitement.

The high lord nodded. “In the capital. We keep them here to protect them from the Republic.”

“Lord Tadeus, you are bold, but you lack the means to accomplish your goals. This much is certain.” Nafyan knew that the Force had influenced Kvorkasir’s approach, and his report was crucial to Nafyan’s success. Using the knowledge he had acquired to his advantage, he added: “The other nobles and your emperor will not approve of your imperialist agenda.”

“They do not have to approve; they have live with it!” Tadeus growled.

“Lord Tadeus, your house will crumble if you do not heed my advice.” The old man waved his hand as he said: “You will heed my advice.”

Nafyan took a risk using the powers of the dark side on Tadeus. He knew that, if the young leader proved stronger-willed than he suspected, Tadeus would immediately reject anything else he had to say. However, manipulation—mental and otherwise—was one of Nafyan’s most finely tuned skills, and he counted on his own willpower to exceed the naïve young nobleman’s.

Tadeus bit his lip. He was nervous; that much was obvious. A bit of sweat collected on his brow. All common signs of mental resistance. “You’re right,” he said, whispering at first. “I should… I should definitely listen to what you have to say. So speak.”

“You must join with us. You have the shipyards and the assassins we need. We have the soldiers and resources you need,” Nafyan explained. “Together, we can work with one purpose—a single fleet and a strong army—and crush our enemies.”

Nafyan placed his hand upon Tadeus’s shoulder, but the young man brushed it away. Much to Nafyan’s surprise, the high lord was proving to be quite resilient to his mental attacks. Separating himself from Nafyan again, Tadeus paced back and forth for a moment before returning his attention to the Sith.

“Lady Brezwalt, one of my powerful and honored predecessors, sided with you Sith. She experienced success at first, but the Republic’s might and the Jedi’s cunning proved too much. You abandoned us and left the Mecrosa Order to die,” he said.

“No, the remnants of Exar Kun’s Sith left you to die,” Nafyan noted. “It’s understandable. They lacked the leadership and the resources to concentrate on anything.”

“We were still left for dead.”

“No. Lord Benax saved your people as they died. The Mecrosa Order lives on through him…” Nafyan hesitated. The longer he spoke with the high lord, the more open his mind became. Bits of information and knowledge escaped the high lord’s mind and entered Nafyan’s possession. “It lives on through you, Grandmaster Tadeus.”

The young man practically jumped. Eying Nafyan uncomfortably, he fled back to his throne. “I… I don’t use that title anymore!” he practically screeched. “I don’t lead them anymore.”

“Your mind betrays you, Lord Tadeus.” Nafyan chuckled. “For the leader of a group of dark assassins, your mind is particularly unprotected.”

Admittedly, Nafyan had not expected the High Lord Tadeus to also be the leader of the remaining Mecrosa assassins. The revelation, pried from the young nobleman’s open mind, only worked in Nafyan’s favor. Tadeus did not realize that his mind was already under Nafyan’s sway, as evident by the fact that he did not immediately expel the Sith from his presence.

“I told you, I rejected that title,” the high lord countered. “My father was killed on Korriban and the position was passed on to me.”

“So you are the rightful leader of your assassins—your people.”

“I want no part of my father’s or your Sith schemes! All I want is to strengthen the Mecetti.”

“Trust us, young Tadeus. We will make your house great, and you will learn to lead your assassins to become your own personal agents and killers. You will be exposed to powers beyond your comprehension.”

As if to illustrate his point, Nafyan pointed behind him without looking. Suddenly, one of his Sith troopers began to cough and wheeze. It was as though an unseen vice had clamped down on his throat. The sound of the trooper’s asphyxiation were unnecessarily amplified through his suit’s comm, and in a matter of seconds, he was dead. Despite his instant death, Isinn and her companions scrambled to resuscitate him in vain.

Nafyan’s eyes had remained fixed on Tadeus throughout his display. The high lord was horrified at first, wondering what drove the Sith to such insanity that they would kill their own companions. He pondered this, saying nothing to Nafyan for some time. The high lord was hesitant to trust Nafyan even though the Sith was worming his way into his mind with his words and his dark side power. Layers of doubts fell as Nafyan was allowed to speak, and Tadeus’s mind was practically visible to Nafyan now.

“Very well,” Tadeus said at last. “I will join you and your forces, Sith.”

“Excellent.” Nafyan easily concealed the fact he was unsurprised. “We should get to work right away. Time is of the essence. We’ll need a leader for our new combined fleet, and we’ll have to appropriate funds and resources.”

“Admiral Kvorkasir has decades of experience, and he is the man we need to lead our fleet,” Tadeus recommended. He said everything Nafyan wanted him to say. “We don’t have many ships now, but we will begin construction immediately. I will have a report for you by the end of the year.”

“Then we will begin assisting you with your expansionary plans at that time,” Nafyan said.

The Sith had no plans to aid the high lord in his expansionary campaign throughout his sector, but it did not matter. Tadeus was under his control, and eventually he would forget his own goals. As long as Tadeus assisted the Sith with his resources and by providing him with assassins, Nafyan would say nothing.

The high lord left his throne and drifted toward Nafyan as though he was dazed. His resolve had been unraveled by Nafyan’s persuasion, and the Sith’s words were present in his mind. He thought he understood now what drove the Sith to do what they did. He and the Sith shared a common aspiration for power. Whether he actually believed it or not did not matter to Nafyan. He was simply another pawn in a long game of chess.

“Long live the Sith-Mecrosa Alliance,” decreed the high lord.

Nafyan nodded and let the high lord bow to him. At this point, Nafyan was merely humbling—or stupefying—the young nobleman’s guards. He had done all he needed to do here. Walking away from the genuflect leader, Nafyan joined his armored ally near the far end of the throne room.

The soldiers were still shaken by the death of their comrade, but Captain Isinn forced herself to fall in line with the two Sith. The soldiers left the midst of the Herglic guards and followed suit without a word.

“Sir, I just got a transmission from the Asylum,” Isinn spoke up as she approached Nafyan. “They want to know if we’re prepared to leave.”

“We are, Captain. Let them know that we are headed home,” Nafyan said.

“Will do, sir.”

“Nafyan,” the voice of the armored figure echoed beneath his helmet. “Are we returning already? Should we not take the Mecrosa Assassins with us?”

“No need, Lord Preux,” Nafyan replied. “Tadeus will have them prepared for us when we need them, and we don’t want to risk losing them. Separating them from their master now could simply lead them to their deaths.”

“Very well.” Lord Preux ran his hand over his helmet. “Then that is all.”


Chapter 5

“Is that all you need, Captain Venli?”

Captain Ralina Venli eyed the cargo stacked in front of her for a third time. Comprised of some two dozen storage cylinders, vac-sealed crates, and other containers of varying shapes and sizes, the shipment she had been sent to pick up was larger than expected. She had been told that this would be a simple pick-up and drop-off mission; most of the time, her shipments were much smaller.

“Are you sure this is all mine, Commander?” she asked.

The Republic commander grimaced beneath his helmet. Tapping the datapad in his hand, he seemingly cycled through a few options before returning his attention to the captain. “I’m sure, Ralina. Just take my word for it, would you?”

Ralina smiled and playfully punched the solder in the arm. “I wish you wouldn’t make fun of me, Belsio. It was a perfectly legitimate question.”

“One you’ve asked three times now.” He put his datapad in a satchel at his side before tending to his wounded shoulder. “Is it really so hard to believe that once in a while you get a large shipment to deliver?”

Ralina again glanced at the shipment. “No, I guess not. I’ll have the crew begin putting all this into my ship, then.”

Commander Belsio Molir was an old friend of Ralina’s. The two had met in flight school, rising through the ranks together and joining the Galactic Republic’s Starfighter Corps near the end of the Mandalorian War. Unlike many ambitious pilots, they did not fight under Revan’s command; instead, they served Admiral Forn Dodonna in the Mid Rim’s space lanes.

After the death of her fiancé, Lucius Velle, in the earliest years of the Jedi Civil War, Lieutenant Ralina Venli abandoned her post in the military prematurely, eventually taking up work as a smuggler in the frontier. Over the course of several years, she formed a crew of some renown. Now-Captain Venli took up missions against the Sith who had deprived her of her beloved.

Belsio Molir, on the other hand, remained with the Republic Navy for his tenure, joining Green Wing under Admiral Dodonna and fighting against the Sith in the final battles of the Jedi Civil War. His actions at the Star Forge were lauded, and he was promoted to leader of Green Wing and received extensive subspace radio recognition.

Five years later, the Republic was forced to disband several dozen of its fighter wings in an effort to recuperate from its losses during its latest wars. Due to his recent fame, Republic High Command regrettably forced Belsio Molir from active duty in the Republic Navy.

Despite their old friendship, Belsio was always more eager to perform his duties than chatter with the wily freighter captain. In fact, he hardly interacted with her at all when she visited Ord Mantell, and she suspected he preferred sending his aides to assist her. This was evident when, as usual, Ralina contacted her crew to give them their instructions and Belsio crept away from her to continue his work.

Wandering from the storage chamber, Ralina pursued the diligent commander. Her short ebony hair bobbed up and down as she jogged through the vacated halls of Ord Mantell’s primary spaceport. Stims served as effective substitutes for sleep, and it showed in her features. She had already lost much of her youthful vigor despite still being very young by Human standards: her eyes had lost much of their luster, and her skin had lost its tan.

Out of breath, she found the commander performing a security check on a few crates stacked near a Dynamic-class freighter. He had not noticed her, focused intently on scanning the crates and inputting data to his datapad. It was only after she sat down atop one of the crates he was scanning that he realized she was with him.

Belsio sighed. “Ralina, please. You’re distracting me.”

“Don’t be like that, Belsio. I just want to talk. We don’t talk anymore.”

“I wonder why,” he muttered. Turning from her, he added, so she could hear: “Some other time.”

Ralina followed him this time, struggling to keep up with his unnaturally quick pace. “That’s not fair. You always say that.”

“I’m always busy.”

“Too busy for me?”

Belsio shot her a cold stare through his visor. “Especially for you.”

“What’s wrong, Belsio?”

“What’s wrong?” he repeated. “I’m a dockworker at some dead-end spaceport in the farthest reaches of Republic space, and you’re joyriding across the galaxy as a criminal! You’re asking me what’s wrong?”

“Belsio…”

The commander slowed to a halt, removing his helmet from his head and tossing it to the floor. Ralina remembered when his dark blond hair was kept at military length and his gray eyes reflected a cocksure attitude seen in many daring young pilots. Now, burns colored his face, no doubt results of malfunctions and near-death experiences in the cockpit of his Aurek strikefighter. He didn’t even look like an officer anymore. His red-and-yellow uniform was probably the most soldierly thing about him. His hair was long and knotted, and his eyes looked dead—just like hers.

“Belsio, why don’t you just quit?” Ralina continued. “You could-”

“Don’t you get it? I’m not like you!” Belsio growled. “I’m not like you. I won’t run away.”

Ralina flinched. “I didn’t run away.”

“Then where did you go? After he left, you just… you just disappeared!” Belsio gritted his teeth. “You left me behind and for what? To become a criminal? A petty thief? You’re destroying everything you were trained to fight for!”

“It’s not like that!”

“Yes it is! You left without so much as saying goodbye, and now you want to be all friendly again? That’s not how it works! You’re lucky I don’t have your ship impounded and your entire crew arrested.”

“Why do you care?” Ralina snapped back. “You hardly even talked to me when we were flying together! I could hardly get a word out of you. And now you’re upset because I didn’t wish you ‘fair spacelanes’ or something?”

The commander’s eyes drifted to the floor. He stood for a moment, silent, as though he had forgotten Ralina was still there. “I miss the engine’s growls. I miss the blaring klaxons. I miss the vertigo of it all.”

Ralina hesitated for a moment. His harsh tone was gone, and she didn’t want to be any more belligerent than he was. “You could come with me, you know. We have more than enough room in my ship, and my crew-”

Belsio’s eyes glistened for a moment. For a brief moment, it was like he had come back to life. It was as though it was exactly what he had wanted to hear. He wanted to fly again, and flying under Ralina wouldn’t have been so bad. No, it would not have been bad at all. His lips almost formed a hopeful smile, but it disappeared quicker than it had appeared.

“No… no. That won’t do. I’m needed here. I can’t abandon my post—I won’t run away.”

“Belsio, the Republic has plenty of soldiers. Forget about it. The Republic put you here because they don’t need you anymore,” Ralina explained, acknowledging she was being a bit harsh.

“The Republic is falling apart on itself,” Belsio replied, appalled at the suggestion. “Soldiers are retiring, fleeing their posts, or simply becoming mercenaries, working for the highest bidder.”

“There’s still an army and a navy,” Ralina countered. “Everything will be fine without you.”

“We don’t enough enlisted troops left to fight. Hell, the Senate’s hardly able to enforce law out here. We have enough soldiers to defend maybe a handful of key worlds, and a fleet large enough to defend three systems. That’s it.”

Ralina shook her head. “And you think that you will be able to stop that.”

Belsio scooped his helmet up and returned it to his head. Straightening his uniform’s collar, he stepped away from Ralina and headed off without a word. The confused freighter captain followed him in silence. He had to say something else.

Withdrawing his datapad, Belsio flipped a switch and turned it back on. “I’m a Republic officer, Ralina. My place is here, tending to the docks,” he replied offhandedly. “It was nice seeing you again. I hope the spacelanes treat you well.”

Ralina watched Belsio meander toward the next hangar to carry out the rest of his tasks. The smuggler captain watched him until he turned the corner, leaving her behind and escaping her view. She sighed. Admittedly, she missed all of her old friends and comrades from her days as a starfighter pilot. They reminded her of better times, fond lessons, and a carefree galaxy. She missed the loyalty that Belsio had, but more than that, she missed her love. She missed Lucius Velle.

Ralina Venli returned to hangar eighty-eight, her mind heavy with thoughts of her past. The Klatooinians and Nikto that comprised most of her crew had already loaded all their cargo into her newest ship, the Oorica-class heavy freighter Mercantile Gem. Its boxish appearance traded comfort and practicality for storage space; the ship had one of the largest cargo bays Ralina had seen outside of a Republic war ship. Painted green and yellow, Ralina hated the color scheme, but it was not her ship to modify or repaint.

Ralina wandered through the hangar itself, occasionally greeting some of her crew if they acknowledged her presence. She hated working with a large crew because it was too difficult to remember them all personally—and she could hardly ever connect faces with names. However, her current employer insisted on providing her with a crew, or else she would not be able to properly run the Mercantile Gem. Now she had one hundred and fifty sentients to keep track of.

Her handpicked crew did not intermingle much with the additional men under her command, and Ralina didn’t mind. The crew she had selected herself was her family, and they had stood by her far longer than the other laborers selected by her employer. She made an effort to remember most of her crew, and even the ones she hardly knew were important to her; she would gladly trade her life for any of theirs. But she knew her handpicked officers better than she knew herself, and they were unyielding in their loyalty to her.

Fetcher, her Shistavanen first mate and pilot, sat in the center of a circle of empty crates that were left behind from the hangar’s previous occupants. A burly figure with scraggly fur, his hulking lupine appearance was enough to frighten any of the more rebellious members of her secondary crew. Once a feared smuggler in his own right, Fetcher had retired after the Exchange had killed his lover. Now, the Hound of Baskarn worked only for Ralina, and he had become her most trusted confidant and friend.

At his side stood Manda Revv, a female Devaronian who served as Ralina’s communications officer and primary navigator. She had been a thief for most of her life before Ralina and Fetcher rescued her; since then, she had come to see the captain as the older sister she never had and treated Fetcher like she would a younger brother—much to his annoyance. The fur on her head and arms had long since returned to its natural white, and the piercings she had received as a slave had long since disappeared.

A Mark V sentinel droid armed with a sonic blaster stood across from Fetcher and Manda. Its rusted armor concealed the fact that it had a startlingly advanced artificial intelligence unit stored within, known to Ralina’s crew as Jon. The AI had monitored Ralina’s ships since Fetcher created it nearly eight years ago, but Ralina was forced to put its core into a droid body because the Mercantile Gem lacked the I/O components necessary to support even a simple AI unit.

The newest member of her crew was a Gran male named Posh Sees. The three eyes atop his head blinked in unison, constantly glancing about and looking for any signs of danger. Posh was an outcast, exiled from his people after killing the wife of a prominent senator in the Kinyen system. Normally, Ralina tried to stay away from beings like him, but his skills could not be ignored. In addition to his murderous streak, he was a daredevil pilot who possessed a knack for the latest weapons. His talents were too valuable to be wasted on the Exchange, so she set him free in a daring raid on one of their slaving compounds. He was hesitant to aid her at first, but he had since proved his loyalty to her cause. Posh, like the others, was invaluable to her inner circle.

“Are we ready to head out, crew?” Ralina asked on approach.

“I believe so, Captain,” Fetcher replied. “The cargo is set, and the crew has been told to return to the ship. We should be ready in ten minutes.”

“Very good.” Ralina turned her attention to Jon. “Did you scan the cargo?”

Something whirred inside Jon’s chassis. “I had not been instructed to do so, Captain Venli. I will begin at once, per your request.”

“Of course!” Ralina said, shocked. “You’re always supposed to scan things that we put into our ship—even if I don’t tell you.”

Jon chirped. “I apologize, Captain.”

“I blame your poor programming, doggie.” Manda sighed to Fetcher.

“Transferring his hardware into that body gave him a few bugs. It’s not my fault,” Fetcher growled back.

“As long as it’s scanned, we’re fine. Let’s go,” Captain Venli cut them off.

The Nikto and Klatooinians had already boarded the ship, leaving Ralina and her inner circle remaining in the hangar. Ralina silently joined the majority of her crew inside the Mercantile Gem, leading her bridge crew to the command deck. While they headed toward the front of the ship, Jon separated himself and ventured toward the ship’s stern to investigate the cargo they had acquired.

It took at least one hundred crewmembers to run an Oorica-class freighter properly. If Jon’s hardware had been compatible with the Hutt-designed Mercantile Gem, that number could have been decreased by at least two dozen. Most of the tasks were repetitive and performed by several individuals in unison, so artificial intelligence units handled them better. Luckily for Ralina, the crew selected for her was competent enough to aid her inner circle in running the ship. They were even better at listening to orders.

“All right. Let’s get this ship into space, boys. Right up. Let’s go! I want my navigators to keep me posted at all times; no surprises today,” Ralina announced. “Fetcher, get us moving.”

The Mercantile Gem eased out from the hangar and struggled to maintain altitude. Its engines groaned and the entire ship rocked as it raced into the atmosphere. Beeps and bloops from various terminals overtook the ambient humming of the aged machinery as the ship’s bridge began to bustle with life. A few crewmembers began talking amongst themselves, but most of them were focused on their work.

The ship escaped Ord Mantell’s atmosphere, leaving the small Republic outpost and its hangars behind. Ralina’s ship was a competent vessel in the emptiness of space, operating much smoother beyond atmospheres. The ship traveled forward on sublight engines while its navigators began plotting hyperspace coordinates. Fetcher prowled the bridge’s crew and monitored the crew’s work, so Posh was allowed to pilot the craft.

“We’re away, Captain,” Posh said. “We’ll have a hyperspace route back to base in the next five minutes.”

“Very good. Keep me posted, Posh.”

*** ***

Belsio Molir leaned against the wall. His datapad flickered on and off, and everything around him seemed blurry—like it was not actually happening. This entire day was playing out like some sort of holodrama. Distracted, he struggled to maintain his composure as a group of younger dockworkers walked by. He returned their salutes and let them pass by without realizing that anything was wrong with the commander.

The tolls of work weighed heavily on him. Seeing Ralina again stirred up a tumult inside of him, and he could hardly keep her out of his mind. The harder he worked, the more he tried to distract himself, the worse it became. Every time she left this place, fatigue set in quicker than it generally did, and he began to lack the resolve to carry out his job. He eventually became so distracted that he would start leaving early. There was no point in wandering around the spaceport aimlessly trying to accomplish his tasks.

Every time Ralina came by it was the same thing. It was as though she knew exactly how to captivate his thoughts. Dazed and confused, Belsio could not help but wonder if he was still infatuated with her, or if her visits merely reopened old wounds. It was time to forget. He needed to. He had begun to realize that those old wounds were even more ridiculous than his dreams of flying again. The more he pondered it, the more he realized that he was holding onto childish expectations and youthful obsessions.

He was a commander in the Republic Navy at a surprisingly young age. He was the chief of staff at a prestigious spaceport in the frontier. His career was respectable, admired even, and his pay was more than sufficient. He had friends, supporters, and fans. Belsio Molir did not need her. I can do more… I can do better than that, he told himself.

Commander Molir switched off his datapad and returned it to his satchel. Recovering his footing and composing himself, he refocused himself on his duties. Stepping into a march through the spaceport’s halls, he intended to get back to work without distractions. Captain Venli and her smugglers were already gone, of course. They would return, as they always did, but Commander Molir would not associate with them. He would let them land, sure, but he would allow one of his aides to handle their affairs.

“Commander Molir.” One of the younger officers approached him. “I’ve received reports that three ships have recently left the spaceport.”

“What about it, Sergeant?” the commander asked.

“As far as I know, only the Mercantile Gem, a private vessel owned by Ralina Venli, was given permission to launch.”

“I allowed it to depart, yes. What of the other two ships?”

The sergeant frowned. “Well, sir, I assumed that the other two ships—a corvette and a small fighter carrier—were not yet given permission to leave; however, it seems that their departure was filed and approved by hangar control just seconds ago.”

“After they left?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have you contacted the officers monitoring traffic?”

“Not yet, sir.”

“Find out if they left anything behind in the hangars they were staying in. I’ll meet with hangar control personally,” Commander Molir said.

The Human sergeant saluted and left to tend to his new task. Once he was gone, Commander Molir retraced his steps to a nearby turn and headed toward hangar control. Admittedly, the commander himself was not too curious about this ordeal. It was likely that the sergeant was overreacting, and it was simply a glitch in the system. Commands and updates in the system were known to be randomly delayed, and they would not appear on most consoles immediately.

After walking for several minutes by his lonesome, Commander Molir entered the hangar control room. To his surprise, the large room was practically empty. Dozens of computer servers and larger consoles were situated around the room, extending back several meters and taking up quite a bit of space. The idle computers hardly made any noise, making due with a few muted bleeps and hums from their processors.

This room was generally manned by at least a dozen security and technical personnel; the commander realized once he stepped inside that most of them had clocked out to lunch. Only a few droids monitored the vast array of systems, and—luckily for him—none of them were on alert. He pondered how to access the system’s data and struggled to muster up the will to tinker with one of the consoles when he heard someone further inside the room.

“Who’s there?” Commander Molir called out.

He received no response.

It sounded to him like someone had accessed one of the computers near the back of the room. Whether that individual had heard him or not, all of the workers should have been out to eat. Stepping around the large computer in front of him, Commander Molir followed the sound of footsteps and key inputs further inside.

Maneuvering around a rather cumbersome cleaning droid, Commander Molir found himself face-to-face with a younger Republic officer. This one was a Zeltron, from the looks of him, a bald male with bright red skin that matched his uniform. He had been working on one of the computers near the back, but the information he was processing disappeared as the commander arrived.

“What are you doing in here?” Commander Molir asked. “State your name and rank, soldier.”

“Warrant Officer Nenthos Hel.” The officer lazily saluted. “Sir.”

“And what are you doing back here, Hel? You’re supposed to be on break.”

“I was… finishing some last minute arrival confirmations. Lunch can wait until I’ve done my work, sir.”

“Oh? Were you also responsible for permitting the last three ships’ departure from the spaceport?” the commander questioned.

“No, sir. I was monitoring cargo data until the rest of the crew went on break,” Hel admitted. “But one of the consoles started blaring, so I felt inclined to step in and allow a few ships to land.”

“Whatever it was could have waited. Your desires to help are admirable, soldier, but you have your own tasks. Let the crew in charge of monitoring arrivals to do their job, and you can do yours.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Would you mind if I examined this console? I need to alleviate the concerns of one of my sergeants—he’s rather finicky about this whole ordeal.”

“Go ahead, sir.”

Warrant Officer Hel stepped aside with a brisk hop. He remained nearby, though, presumably in case the commander had any trouble. Commander Molir waved the Zeltron away and approached the console. The commander waited patiently as the screen lit up, returning to life in a few seconds.

Various folders were displayed on most of the pop-ups, logging data about the comings and goings of recent ships. However, in the corner of the screen he saw the most recently opened file. The commander presumed it was Hel’s work. A series of commands had been issued to two ships—the same ships that departed without the commander’s knowledge—that were clearly pirate vessels due to their obviously falsified transponder codes. It seemed as though Hel had transmitted the identification information and projected hyperspace routes of Ralina Venli’s ship to them.

“Hel, just what do you think this is? I hope you can explain why-”

The commander paused. Something pressed against the back of his helmet. Staring at the screen in front of him, he could see the reflection of Warrant Officer Hel placing a blaster pistol against his helmet. At first, the commander was too startled to move, and he realized that he could have died without another word. His heart must have skipped three beats as he struggled to force down the lump in his throat. The warrant officer didn’t shoot him, though, and Commander Molir took the silence to mean that he wasn’t going to be killed—yet.

“I did not want to have to do this, Commander Molir, but you are a rather nosy mailoc. I’m afraid that your rather prominent career will have to end after you unexpectedly kill yourself,” the red-skinned soldier hissed.

“It will be rather difficult,” Commander Molir said, still struggling to speak, “to convince criminal investigators that I killed myself by shooting the back of my own head with my blaster.”

“Cheeky.”

“How many of you are there?” the commander immediately continued. “Are you the only one?”

In the same moment he asked the question, Belsio flipped the switch on his left wrist that activated his personal energy shield. The motion had been so fluid and nonchalant, Hel either did not notice or otherwise said nothing.

“I’m afraid I cannot answer that. Farewell, sir. It was an honor pretending to serve you.”

Expecting the shot to come immediately after Hel stopped talking, the commander dropped to the floor in an instant, falling on his face to avoid the blaster shot. Whether Hel had hesitated or Commander Molir had been extraordinarily lucky, his feint worked. The red blaster shot hit the screen the commander had been examining, missing its intended target entirely. Sparks erupted from the console, and the computer was effectively destroyed.

Hel was not deterred in the slightest, firing another shot at his target. However, he was now far enough away that the commander’s personal shielding absorbed most of the blast, leaving him unscathed. Commander Molir performed a scissor kick at the red-skinned soldier’s ankles, sending him toppling to the ground nearby.

Emergency sirens went off around the base, apparently set to go off whenever a senior officer was under attack. The droids inside the hangar control room moved in to intercept Hel and defend Commander Molir. Hel struggled to his feet, but the commander was quicker. Withdrawing his own blaster pistol, he fired at the traitorous soldier several times. Without the protection of an energy shield, the red-skinned traitor was killed after the second shot.

The sergeant who had met Commander Molir earlier rushed inside hangar control with two fireteams, accompanied by most of the room’s droid security force. Their blasters were at the ready, and the commander was worried that they intended to shoot at him—it would not have surprised him, given his recent encounter. However, once the sergeant realized that it was only the commander, he motioned for his fireteam to stand down, and the droids to return to their predetermined patrols.

“We came as soon as we heard the alarms, Commander.” The sergeant wiped the sweat from his brow. What happened here, sir?”

“Mr. Hel here was a double-agent,” the commander replied. “For pirates, I think, but I cannot be certain. He attacked me, so I was forced to subdue him.”

“You did well,” the sergeant noted.

“Yes, but he also destroyed this console. Without it, I’m not sure we can track down the ships he allowed to leave.”

“Each console has an external memory unit stored in the main server complex,” one of the Twi’lek technicians spoke up. “This one is no exception. I can pinpoint the information you need, Commander.”

“Very good. The rest of you, I want you to scour the Republic databases for information on Nenthos Hel. Biography, previous employment, connections. Report anything of note.”

“We don’t know if there are any more… traitors,” the sergeant said, whispering the last word. “It may be best to request a transfer, sir.”

“Perhaps. For the time being, carry out your tasks. I will be in my office if anyone needs anything. Dismissed.”


Chapter 6

The bottle was still cold to touch. The barkeep, a stingy Twi’lek nearly old enough to be a collection of bones and museum memorabilia, did a good job keeping the drinks locked up until the doors were opened. However, once patrons started flooding into the Moonlight’s Jewel, the alcohol came out to meet their needs. It was in this initial rush for drinks and utter confusion that Jhosua Weros managed to sneak out of the club with a bottle of lum to keep him company.

His amber hair, grown out since he had left the Republic Army, fluttered in the light wind. Staring into the distance, he tried to focus on city lights that dotted the skyline. The capital of Derra IV was a small city; it had been settled in the past fifty years, but it was already becoming a bustling trading locale in the Expansion Region. It was a beautiful city, but it had its seedier elements—as all cities did.

Jhosua had settled down on Derra IV after spending a few years on Coruscant working as a gun-for-hire. The ex-soldier received extensive payment for his protection services, but he had squandered it all away on drinks. Leaving Coruscant and his bureaucratic clients behind, Jhosua ventured away from the Core and eventually found work packing and unloading cargo in Derra IV’s merchant district. It was only recently—about six months ago—that he accepted a job as a bouncer for the Moonlight’s Jewel nightclub.

The ex-soldier liked this type of work; it reminded him of his time in the military. The feel of a blaster in his hand could inspire nostalgia for the comrades he knew and the missions he undertook. Even on his most terrifying mission, an engagement at Sluis Van, Jhosua had learned invaluable lessons and grew—as a fighter and an individual. He had left the military rashly.

But he knew that these reminders were sometimes too much. Thinking about his time at war against the Sith and their allies tended to bring forth nightmarish visions of wounded friends, razed worlds, and unyielding foes. He had entered the Republic Army as a lazy, dour adolescent and emerged as a tired alcoholic. And a pessimist, he mused as he took a swig of lum.

He regretted leaving the military. But it was unavoidable. Since a mission to Wayland, he had changed. Jhosua started hearing the voice of his dead brother, Ibrays, in his head. Memories of his days in battle became far darker than they used to be, and some things even began to disappear from his mind entirely. Jhosua had killed the leader of the Mandalorians on Wayland without even deciding it was right. He had followed his orders, yes, but he felt sick every time he replayed those last minutes of the battle in his head.

After he had killed Mandalore, he searched her throne—at the behest of a dying Mandalorian soldier—and discovered a locked container. Breaking it open with his blaster, Jhosua had recovered the contents from the crate: a small pyramidal device, a datapad, and an ebony breastplate. He neglected to include his discovery in his report, and he began to fear that his commanding officers’ were conspiring against him. Donning the breastplate, he wore it under his clothes at all times while keeping the other two devices to himself. The paranoia eventually became too much, and he left the military.

The datapad explained that this breastplate and the pyramid, called a holocron, were gifts to ‘His Excellency, the Emperor of all Sith’. It included log reports of these items being discovered by Republic forces on Onderon before the Mandalorian War and being taken to Wayland for safekeeping. Eventually, the Republic hospital and storage facility fell into Mandalorian hands and the items with them. Jhosua did not know why these items were so special, but he valued them more than the rest of his possessions; after all, they were his rewards for fighting on Wayland and they reminded him of Ibrays.

He realized that his hand had crept under his shirt and rested on his chest. The breastplate was still there, as it nearly always was. Sturdy and made of some unknown substance, Jhosua was comforted by its presence and its constant protection. Republic smiths obviously had not created it; the breastplate was dark with a purple hue, outlined with a golden trim that appeared to be almost runic. He couldn’t pull his hand away, so he left it there, drinking with his free hand.

Jhosua had been sitting outside the nightclub so long, oblivious to the happenings around him, he did not notice a small hoverspeeder pull up practically in front of him. Its hideous blue and brown paint job made it obvious that it was a public transportation unit. Overused and in a pitiful state, the vehicle did not even bother parking in the lot behind the club specifically designated for patrons. Someone screamed inside the car, and then another person uttered a few coarse words. After a few seconds of silence, the passenger was practically thrown out of the still-active vehicle before it took off.

The former passenger stood motionless for a moment, and then she removed her hat from her head. The woman’s chestnut-colored hair fell into a disheveled mess, covering her petite ears and ending just above her gray eyes. She was young, lithe, and had comely features despite the shadows beneath her eyes. Wringing her hands nervously, she walked toward Jhosua and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Yes?” Jhosua asked, a tad inebriated.

“Is… is this…” The woman’s voice cracked, and she paused. “Is this the Moonlight’s Jewel?”

“You’re looking right at it, dear.” Jhosua smiled and raised his nearly empty bottle of lum. “Got a date?”

“You could say that,” she said, still nervous. “I can just walk right in?”

“Of course! Of course! Stay safe!” Jhosua rose to his feet, emboldened by the alcohol. “No, wait! Let me walk you inside!”

“Ah… I don’t think we’re that well acquainted. Some other time, sir, some other time.”

The woman performed a slight curtsy and then walked by the bumbling drunk on her way inside. Jhosua reached out to protest, but she was already gone by the time he realized his offer had been rejected. Stumbling on himself as he leaned forward to stop someone who was no longer there, the ex-soldier rolled onto the ground. Still somewhat conscious, his arms flailed about as he babbled on incoherently about something unintelligible and entirely nonsensical. He felt around the ground for his bottle of lum, but he couldn’t find it in spite of his best efforts.

Sighing at last, Jhosua settled down to rest. He had certainly received his fill, and he didn’t need to get anymore drunk than he already was. For now, he was oddly comfortable here, with the wind brushing against his face and his back atop the cool ground. It was a strange sight, and he was terribly drunk. However, it was just outside a nightclub; as the night dragged on, more raging drunks and defeated bar-fighters would find their way outside for a moment of respite.

It seemed as though Jhosua had not even closed his eyes when a haggard voice called out to him: “Jhosua! Jhosua! You drunk piece of Sithspit, get up!”

The aged Twi’lek barkeep stood over Jhosua, prodding him with a rugged walking stick. His blue skin was hardly visible in the dim light, thankfully glistening in the moonlight and the light of the club itself. His lekku looked like they were shriveled—matching his face’s winding creases—as they dangled just below his malformed jaw.

Jhosua lifted himself into a sitting position. “I’m… I’m up. What is it, boss?”

“You’re supposed to be inside! That’s what I’m paying you for,” the elderly Twi’lek growled. “You don’t get to wander off and drink yourself into a stupor. Back to work.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry about that,” Jhosua replied softly. He shook his head, as though he could quell the hangover that he was getting. “I’ll head right inside.”

*** ***

The inside of Moonlight’s Jewel was startlingly different than its exterior. Ambient lighting was everywhere, illuminating every corner of the establishment. Yellows and blues mixed with harsh reds along the walls to create a dizzying experience for most of the patrons; however, no one ever complained. Music played overhead, keeping conversation to a minimum to allow the club’s activities—drinking and dancing—a chance to flourish.

The entire club revolved around the large bar at the center of the room. Several bartenders worked under the owner, serving drinks to various species, while spice dealers dealt their wares for exorbitant fees. Around this nucleus, tables had been set up for drinking and gambling while dancing occurred entirely on the second floor. In the farthest reaches of the club, private rooms existed for slavers, extortionists, and other criminals to do business under the table and away from the watchful eyes of the bar’s security and undercover policing agents.

Navigating the bustling club was complicated, to say the least. With space for at least two hundred people, the club was the most famous nightlife locale in the capital and as such tended to be unnecessarily crowded, particularly around the bar and gambling tables. A few aisles had been specifically cleared to make way for patrons who had to find their way through the rowdy crowd, but it tended to be less space than necessary.

The woman Jhosua had met outside waded through the sea of bar-goers. Carrying her small bag and hat underneath her arm, she remained alert as she clumsily avoided the drunken gamblers and dizzied dancers who tended to frequent the outer reaches of the club. It was slow going, but she managed to avoid a confrontation. Finding her way beyond the busier section of Moonlight’s Jewel, the young woman navigated through the last row of tables and into the back of the club.

With a quiet murmur, she asked to enter a predetermined backroom. The guards looked at her with an almost pitying look, and then one of the two Gektl guards frisked her with casual swiftness. The other signaled to the Whiphid behind them to open the door to the room, and the woman stumbled inside. The two Gektl guards began to whisper to themselves while the Whiphid slid the door closed behind her.

The deafening music outside became subtle whispers when the woman stepped inside. The private room was created to conduct business without distractions, and this area seemed quite different than the rest of the establishment. Incredibly simplistic, the room had no windows and a single glowpanel in the center, keeping most of the room in shadows. Below the light source a table had been set up for meetings; it could fit four chairs, but two had been removed.

An Arcona sat in the seat opposite of the entrance. His anvil-shaped head and glowing green eyes were utterly foreign to the young woman. Waiting in the shadows of the room, the Arcona motioned for the woman to approach and take a seat. Clothed in a one-piece robe that was several shades lighter than his brownish-red skin, he did not seem to be particularly wealthy or powerful, but it was obvious that—with the guards and access to the private room—he was an influential figure on Derra IV.

The woman sat down. “Good evening, sir.”

“You are late, as expected.” The Arcona glanced once at his chrono and then at the datapad on his side of the desk. “Paelopia Atronis, was it?”

“I’m sorry, sir. There were really so many things that kept me from arriving on time. I meant to be here. I don’t mean to waste your time, sir,” she replied quickly.

“Of course. It says here that you owe one of our clients a large sum of credits,” the Arcona muttered, referring to himself as a collective.

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s admirable that you came to us. We generally have to… send our men after fleeing debtors. So, how do you intend to pay back the credits you borrowed, Ms. Atronis?”

“I… well, you see, I don’t have credits.”

The Arcona looked unsurprised. “Oh?”

“But I do have a large collection of goods that my husband had collected before he…” The young woman trailed off. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out a few small trinkets and the fractured skull of some creature. “My husband was an avid fan of collecting treasures. Keepsakes, he said. But now that he’s gone, I… well, I can give them to you, sir. To pay back the debt I owe you.”

The Arcona eyed the various items that the young woman had placed on the desk in front of her. A few antique power converters and some rare droid parts stood out, but even those things were not worth much at all. The rest of her collection was practically junk; they were hardly worth a credit to him. Grimacing, he brushed the air with his three-finger hand, as if to sweep them off the table.

“How much… how much would this cover?” Paelopia asked.

“Not even close to the several thousand credits you owe us,” the Arcona replied. “This is all useless to me. Where are the credits you promised?”

“I don’t have them anymore!” the woman stammered. “I spent it all to pay off the debts that my husband left behind. I needed to pay for shuttle costs and public transportation; I haven’t even found a place to settle down yet.”

“That’s not our problem, Ms. Atronis. This much is clear: you don’t have our money.”

“But I thought you could help me! Is it possible I could receive an extension on my debt?”

“An extension? Ms. Atronis, you have made it clear that you do not want to pay off the debt you owe us.” Turning to the two guards who had, until now, remained in the shadows behind him, he added: “Bind her, please. I don’t want to cause a scene.”

“No! No, please, wait!”

“Please do not make a fuss. We are simply forcing you to work for us until you can repay your debts.”

The Arcona’s two hulking Stereb guards revealed themselves. Wordlessly lumbering toward Paelopia, the two hairless giants grabbed her. The Arcona returned to his seat, unconcerned with how his guards intended to treat her once she was restrained.

Paelopia had no idea what was going on or why the Arcona had turned on her. She couldn’t even collect her things. Kicking and screaming, she tried to free herself, but it was a pointless effort. The two brutes were much stronger than she was and much larger too.

Tears raced down her cheeks as her struggle ended. At the Arcona’s behest, one of the Stereb threw her over his shoulder while the other looked for something to bind her with. They would escort her as quietly as they could from the building, and she would be shipped to the nearest spaceport to be sold. One way or another, she was paying her debts.

*** ***

Sitting at a vacated table within eyeshot of the young woman, Jhosua had watched her closely. After wandering the club with a confused expression on her face, the woman had been admitted into one of the backrooms. That’s never good, Jhosua thought. Meetings tended to go rather poorly behind the closed doors of the Moonlight’s Jewel. Unfortunately for Jhosua, he and the other bouncers were not allowed to venture into those rooms while the club was open, lest they risk their jobs—or their lives—interfering with criminal activity.

He rapped his knuckles against the table every few seconds. Where had she gone? No one spent that long in a meeting. Something must have gone wrong. Jhosua wanted to order another drink to curb his anxiety, but he decided against it. Not now. Totally unconcerned with his contract, he was planning to storm the backroom to save her and jumped to his feet. However, he stopped himself when he realized that his blaster was not resting in its holster.

“Missing something, Jhosua?”

The inebriated guard almost fell over spinning around to see the source of the voice. A woman in similar red button-down shirt and black slacks that Jhosua was wearing stood behind him, holding his blaster in her hand. She had fair skin with several faint scars on her cheeks and forehead from some nameless torture she had endured years ago. Her curled red hair had been cut short in accordance to the club’s employment policy, much to her dismay, but she was still smiling.

“Verita,” Jhosua stammered. “Give me my blaster.”

Her head tilted innocently. “Do you have another date tonight, Jhosua?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Now, now. You promised to play with me tonight.” The other bouncer winked at him. “You won’t save anyone like that anyway. You’re as drunk as a Yuzzem after work. That’s embarrassing.”

“Just give me my blaster.”

Verita pulled the weapon away when he reached for it. Stumbling forward, Jhosua fell into her ready embrace. He squirmed for a brief moment, not quite realizing what had happened. Verita let out a sigh, and Jhosua settled into her arms without further resistance. Wrapping his own arms clumsily around her waist, he hardly realized what he was doing; he was still drunk, after all.

“Now, now, Jhosua,” Verita whispered into his ear. “I’m not letting you lose your job. You may not care what happens to your paycheck, but I do. Stay here and let me talk to the boss. He’ll help us.”

“Yes, okay,” he replied groggily. “Can you use the Force to sober me up?”

Verita chuckled. “Hardly a responsible use of the Force, Jhosua. You know I can hardly sense you; every time you ask me to clean you up, it takes a lot out of me.”

“You do such a wonderful job,” Jhosua replied, “but you need to speak with our employer. Can you hurry?”

Verita kept herself in Jhosua’s embrace. Jhosua could hear her breathing in spite of the blaring music around them, and it comforted him even in his drunken state. Closing her eyes, she seemed to ignore Jhosua’s request and linger in his arms wordlessly. Jhosua enjoyed the pleasant fragrance of her perfume and even her presence, but he had work to do. Before he could protest, a subtle blue glow lit up her fingertips. After a few moments, Jhosua could feel the effects of the Force wash over him, draining his blood of its alcohol content.

He felt nauseous. The purification process was sudden and unexpected, like every other time. It felt like he had been cut, and he was losing blood everywhere. After a few moments, his blanched face returned to normal and the debilitating hints of his drunkenness vanished. He had the sudden urge to get another drink, but he knew that it would have to wait.

“Thank you, dear,” he managed to say.

“Your liver is probably more grateful than you are,” Verita scoffed, mock indignant. “I’ll be back.”

Verita whispered something into his ear and went to consult their boss. Heaving a sigh of relief, Jhosua watched the Force-sensitive leave. He loved her company, but she loved to cause him grief—even in dangerous situations. Rescuing her from a Sith attack on Dantooine, Jhosua had helped Verita recover her senses and identity; she proceeded to save his own life on several occasions, and the two became traveling partners. The ex-Republic soldier and former Jedi made an odd pairing, but he did not mind; he could not think of anyone else he would rather have with him in his wanderings.

Returning his attention to the backroom at last, Jhosua noticed two maladroit giants follow their Arcona master into the club proper. Once they had left their room, the Whiphid guard shut the door behind them and joined the two Gektl guards trailing the giants. The Arcona was careful to avoid large crowds, intent on keeping his actions as subtle as possible. The strange fellowship caused a few of the club’s patrons to stare at them, but very few took notice of the wriggling sack slung over one of the Stereb’s shoulders.

Jhosua figured that the young woman had been stashed in that bag, and he rushed to her aid. Fighting through the crowd to the other side of the club, Jhosua struggled to beat the procession to the nearest exit. If he was to catch them, he could not wait for Verita to return with help. Jumping over a gambling table, Jhosua managed to anger several patrons and reach the door before the Arcona and his men.

The Arcona noticed Jhosua in his way almost immediately. The two Stereb, not intelligent by any means, nearly kept walking and would have trampled Jhosua if the Arcona had not commanded them to halt. Once they stopped, the Whiphid and the two Gektl placed their hands on their concealed blaster rifles. Reaching for these weapons was enough to startle some nearby patrons, causing them to subtly abandon Jhosua’s side of the club.

“What do you want?” the Arcona growled. “You’re in our way, bouncer.”

“You and your thugs aren’t leaving with that girl.” Jhosua pointed toward the sack the Stereb to his left was holding. “Let her go.”

“We do not know what you are talking about, bouncer,” the Arcona sighed. “This is none of your concern. Leave, or we will be forced to call your manager.”

Jhosua noticed the Arcona’s guards actually withdraw their weapons. “You’re not leaving. However, if you hand over the girl to me now, I’ll be glad to buy you and your men some drinks. On me.”

“We must decline.” The Arcona shook his head. Motioning toward the Stereb without baggage, he added: “Crush him.”

The giant bellowed, pounding his chest with his fists. Working himself into a frenzied state, he seemed more like a beast than a sentient guardsman. The Stereb charged at Jhosua without a hint of hesitation, forcing the bouncer to fumble for his blaster. Reaching into his holster, Jhosua realized that Verita had taken his blaster pistol and hadn’t returned it. Cursing his foul luck, Jhosua threw his hands in front of his face to defend himself from the incoming giant. Undeterred by the paltry defense, the Stereb tackled into Jhosua, sending him flying at least a meter. Landing in a heap near the wall, Jhosua was momentarily stunned. The wind had been knocked out of him, and he had landed on his arm, twisting it enough to cause forks of pain in his forearm. He resisted at first, but the pain caused Jhosua to black out.

By the time Jhosua came to, the procession was already gone. Clenching his chest with his good arm, Jhosua steadied his breath. He eyed exit warily; the Arcona and his men had not even taken the time to close the door behind them. He had failed. They escaped him, taking the young woman with them. Jhosua recovered quickly, but he didn’t know how much time had passed since he had been confronted them. They were probably long gone.

Using the wall as a crutch, Jhosua was not even standing when the Arcona and his men returned to the club. Dashing inside, the divided thugs fired red blaster shots through the doorway behind them. In reply, several yellow streaks of energy fired back at them from the alleyway beyond. The club patrons noticed the sudden firefight immediately: some of the club-goers ran for the nearest safe exit while others grabbed their own concealed weapons to join the fight in earnest.

Jhosua’s recovery had not gone unnoticed. One of the gamblers, a lanky Human male with a vibroblade angered by Jhosua’s table-hopping antics, noticed his red uniform amidst the sea of combatants. In most other situations, attacking a bouncer would have resulted in immediate expulsion and probably a few broken bones. In this panic, it would have been easy to take one down. Taking advantage of the sudden commotion, the young man rushed toward Jhosua to exact disproportionate retribution.

The young Human had probably not fought a trained combatant before; he was probably just a kid looking to get revenge or impress someone. Jhosua saw him before he arrived and prepared accordingly. He was quick but unskilled. With an overhead swing, he tried to stab at Jhosua’s shoulder. The ex-soldier grappled his opponent’s weapon arm and twisted his wrist, causing the young man to yelp and drop his weapon. The young man’s free hand punched at Jhosua’s abdomen. Taking the hit, Jhosua stomped on the man’s foot with his sturdy boots. His opponent cried out again, swearing at him. Using his own body as leverage, Jhosua grabbed his target’s arm with both hands and threw him to the ground. Once he was sure that the young man was unconscious, Jhosua took his vibroblade to defend himself and returned his attention to finding the young woman.

The fight divided into several dozen smaller skirmishes. Every bouncer was competent enough to restrain unarmed individuals or stop a small firefight, but they didn’t have the personnel to stop this type of brawl. Most of the remaining patrons fought alongside the Arcona and his men, while a few joined the team of five mercenaries who entered the club. These new arrivals used heavy armor and repeaters that dwarfed their opponents’ weaponry, but they had many more targets to defeat. None of the patrons knew why either side was fighting; they just wanted to fight.

It was not hard for Jhosua to search the crowd from his position. Hiding behind overturned tables and elevated platforms, the combatants fought in small groups and otherwise ignored him. Jhosua desperately scanned the crowd of fighters in search of the Arcona, but he couldn’t find him. Unlike the others, he seemed content to hide away while his guards and new allies fought for him. Settling for one of the criminal’s guards, he found the burly Whiphid that seemed to be the Arcona’s lieutenant.

Following the wall, Jhosua avoided the other combatants and their blaster fire while he circled around the club. It took much longer than simply rushing at the Whiphid, but the fighting was heated between him and his target; without a shielding unit, he would have been killed in the crossfire.

The Whiphid was firing at a group of unruly patrons positioned behind two overturned gambling tables. Whenever he ducked behind cover, a Jeodu patron assisted him and opened fire on his targets. Jhosua recognized the cancerous growth on the tip of the patron’s dark, conical head. He had been frequenting the club for years, before Jhosua and Verita had even arrived on Derra IV. Sometimes even veteran customers were encouraged to fight, if only for the excitement violence brought.

Sneaking behind the two fighters, Jhosua was surprised that neither of them noticed him. He snatched the stun baton resting on the Jeodu’s belt and jabbed the bludgeon into the patron’s back. Struck with his own weapon, the Jeodu’s body flinched as the electrical current raced through it. His galvanized body couldn’t endure the pain, and he dropped to the ground, immobile.

Without the Jeodu to assist him, the Whiphid was at a disadvantage against his opponents. Before the criminal could realize his predicament, Jhosua leapt onto his back. Wrapping his legs around the Whiphid’s waist and strangling him with one hand, Jhosua struggled to hold on while the giant flailed about. With his free hand, he snatched the vibroblade he had acquired and stabbed it into the Whiphid’s shoulder.

Instead of weakening the Whiphid, the vibroblade burrowing into his flesh seemed to make the large criminal stronger and angrier. Bellowing in rage, the Whiphid guard grabbed the arm Jhosua wrapped around his neck and hurled Jhosua off him. He left the vibrating blade in his back, content with the infuriating pain it brought him.

Tumbling to the ground, Jhosua nearly smashed his head on a broken chair. The Whiphid lumbered over to him while he struggled to stand up. Kicking him to keep him down, the Whiphid began stomping on Jhosua’s chest. His breastplate protected him for the most part, but he swore he heard something crunch beneath the giant’s foot.

Picking up the dazed bouncer, the Whiphid hoisted him over his head and threw him into the wall behind them. Hitting the wall with a thud, Jhosua flopped to the ground like a limp fish. His vision faded between vibrant colors and empty darkness. Irregular breathing and aching limbs made him realize just how much pain he was in, and the Whiphid’s approach did not make him feel any better.

Turning to face the Whiphid, Jhosua realized that he was carrying an entire dining table to crush him. The bouncer couldn’t even move his arms—much less roll away—to defend himself, so he forced out a sigh and surrendered to his fate.

Raising the table over his head with a vicious growl, the Whiphid was about to drop it on Jhosua when the table was cut in half by an unseen force. Thrown off balance as the bisected table fell to the floor around him, the Whiphid was able to grunt in confusion before the bronze blade of a lightsaber lobbed off his head.

Verita recovered her thrown lightsaber and deactivated it. Rushing toward Jhosua, she called on her connection to the Force and made sure he was still alive. To her relief, he was only unconscious. His body was obstinate,—just like he was—but it couldn’t endure this much pain. Brushing hair away from his eyes, Verita cupped his head in her hands and poured as much energy as she could into him. She needed to stop the fight going on around them, or else she would have given him everything she had.

Jhosua’s body stirred lightly, but he was still unconscious. Smiling, Verita ran her hand across his chest and lightly kissed him. He never listened. If he had waited for her, they wouldn’t be in this mess.

Once she was sure he would be okay, she stood up and reactivated her lightsaber.

“Now I have to handle this alone,” she mumbled.

*** ***

Jhosua blinked a few times. The club’s normal lights had come back on, blinding him for a moment. Wiping the tears away from his eyes, he struggled to his feet. Something in his chest burned as he stood up; it felt like he had been thrown out of a patrol skiff. Taking a small step forward, Jhosua realized that he had a limp because the Whiphid had stomped on his leg. To make matters worse, tendrils of pain coursed through his head, making every moment unbearable.

The club was much quieter than it was before he passed out. Surprisingly, the fight seemed to have ended some time ago. A few bodies—most of them were simply unconscious—littered the floor, and the patrons had since been evacuated. Most of the bouncers were meeting with the club’s owner and the other bartenders near one of the backrooms. Jhosua grimaced when he realized his part in the fight. He suspected probation, if not outright expulsion, from his job.

While the other bouncers tried to sort out who was injured and how much damage had been done to the club, Verita had taken it upon herself to interrogate the mercenaries who stormed inside and started the brawl. She was pestering them with questions, but their leader was not interested in cooperating; instead, the mercenary deferred all Verita’s questions to her men.

Of the five mercenaries who entered the club, only three survived the battle. Two of them wore helmets to conceal their faces, but their leader had discarded her helmet. The extra protection was not worth the hassle; the Togruta’s helmet constricted her head-tails, and she could never get used to its visor. She wore it only to appease the fears of her subordinates.

Jhosua approached Verita, limping over to the group. It was slow and painful, but he managed to reach them. “Who are you? What’s going on?”

The blue armored combatant to the Togruta’s left spoke up. “I’m Kerre, and that’s Ranz.” He motioned toward the other helmeted mercenary. “Our leader is-”

“Selias.” The Togruta introduced herself as cigarra smoke escaped her mouth. “Selias Siital. We’re mercenaries.”

“Hired guns,” Jhosua scoffed. “You think you can just attack our club-”

The Togruta’s head-tails bobbed as she shook her head. “We didn’t attack your club. In fact, we’ve patronized here before. We’re on business.”

“Business?” Jhosua asked. “What business?”

“We were hired to take down Pavor Ulem,” Selias replied, returning the cigarra to her mouth. “He’s the Arcona who kidnapped that woman… Paelopia Atronis, I believe her name is.”

“We didn’t catch him,” Verita explained.

“And neither did we. But we managed to eliminate his guards,” Kerre answered. “And the two Stereb were defeated by Commander Siital. We’ve restrained them in the back of the club.”

“But you didn’t rescue to that woman? Paelopia?” Jhosua pressed.

Selias shook her head again. “We lost her and Pavor during the firefight. I swore the Stereb were handling her, but she wasn’t with them.”

“Why are you hunting Pavor? Who are you working for?” Verita spoke up.

“Our employer wishes to remain anonymous.” Selias raised her hands innocently. “But we’re hunting Pavor because he’s a threat to this system, and we suspect that he has a far more dangerous superior.”

“You think he’s just a frontman?” Jhosua wondered aloud.

“Exactly.” Selias exhaled a few puffs of smoke. “We have reason to believe that Pavor is not as crafty as he seems, and he shouldn’t have the connections that he does. We thought we were at a dead-end when he escaped from the club-”

“Those Stereb we captured are as useless as they are stupid,” Ranz growled. “They don’t even know where Pavor has gone. They probably don’t even know his name.”

“However, we think we can track him down with your help,” Selias finished.

“Why us?” Jhosua wondered aloud.

“Pavor has an obsession with tracking down Jedi,” she said, glancing at Verita.

“I’m not a Jedi.” Verita crossed her arms.

“They always say that,” Selias replied. “Even if that’s the case, he doesn’t know that. You use a lightsaber, you can control your powers, and you are dangerous. That’s enough for him.”

“Do you want to use us as bait, then?” Jhosua countered. “I won’t do it.”

“He already knows your friend is a Jedi,” Ranz noted. “He saw her in the club. It’s only a matter of time before he tries to capture her… or worse. Cashing in on a Jedi bounty isn’t particularly complicated; criminals will take them alive or dead.”

“With that in mind, it’s better for all of us if we work together. We can make sure the Jedi stays safe, and we will be able to rescue Ms. Atronis. We will use his limited knowledge to our advantage,” Selias explained.

“What do you suggest?” Verita asked.

Selias stood up. “Nothing, yet. We wait and see what his next move is, then we act. We have several pazaak cards in our favor.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” Jhosua asked. “What about Paelopia? She’s in danger. If we don’t go after her-”

“It wouldn’t matter,” Kerre interrupted. “We have no idea where she’s being held, or if she’s even alive. At this point, Commander Siital’s plan is the only appropriate one: we must wait.”

“We’ll try.” Verita smiled. “Give us a call when something comes up.”

“Stay safe. We don’t know what Pavor’s master is capable of. He could be more dangerous than you are capable of handling,” Selias warned.

“Nothing’s too dangerous for us,” Jhosua snapped.

“We’ll see.” Selias headed for the door. “Kerre, Ranz. We’re leaving.”

Jhosua sighed. “Hopefully we won’t have to see each other again.”

Apologize to your boss for the damages, would you?” Selias added on her way out.

*** ***

“Keep that sack over her head. It’s better that she doesn’t see anything.”

Paelopia could hear them talking from the back of the speeder. She had recognized the speaker as the Arcona—she had learned his name was Pavor—but didn’t know who else was in the vehicle with them. Her arms were bound behind her, and she had some sort of sack placed over her head so she couldn’t see anything. Disoriented and frightened, Paelopia said nothing; she spent most of the drive listening to her captors.

The firefight at the club forced the Arcona to abandon his plans entirely. He instructed the Stereb to leave their prisoner behind and aid in the fight while he took cover near the bar. Still stuck in the satchel they had thrown her in, Paelopia sat against the wall listening to the chaos and combat around her. A few times, she thought she heard some of the brawlers approach her, but she had not been freed.

To her dismay, Pavor eventually released her from her bondage. Leading her away from the fighting and out of the club, Pavor escorted her to an emergency speeder waiting in the parking lot. Once Paelopia was inside, a particularly unpleasant-looking Gamorrean tied her up and placed a blindfold and satchel over her entire face. Perhaps he was Pavor’s associate?

She had lost track of time after she was carelessly thrown into the back seat. They had been driving a long time, and most of the ride was silent. Even the engine wasn’t very loud; the stillness caused Paelopia to worry. Luckily, Pavor started talking to the other passengers, perhaps the driver, after they had been driving for some time, talking about criminal dealings and the events at the Moonlight’s Jewel.

She still didn’t know what they planned on doing with her. Pavor had said some things about ‘taking her to the market’ and ‘getting his payment back’, but she didn’t know exactly what he meant. She trembled at the thought of the next few hours. She didn’t know where they were taking her, why they hadn’t told her anything, or what their plans were.

The speeder bounced against a duracrete landing area. Settling down, the vessel seemed to be fine. Pavor certainly didn’t complain. At his behest, Paelopia was scooped up from her fetal position in the back seats and slung over someone’s shoulder. She tried her best not to struggle and didn’t make a sound; she could hardly force herself to squeak in terror.

“Master, it is good to see you,” Pavor said upon leaving the speeder.

“You return without your contingent. What happened?” asked a new voice, presumably belonging to the master. It was crisp and fleeting, as though this master was raised amongst Coruscant’s elite. “And who is this?”

“We were attacked by Selias and her band of rogues,” Pavor grumbled. “She followed us here from Baroli. She’s tenacious.”

“And the girl?” the master continued.

“She is Paelopia Atronis. She is one of our debtors. And we were unsurprised when she did not have the ability to pay us.”

“You should have just killed her. She is no use to us now.”

Paelopia shivered. They wouldn’t actually kill her. Would they? She wanted to struggle, but she didn’t want to be hurt. Choking on tears, Paelopia tried her best to make as little noise as she could.

“Actually, master, we think quite the opposite is true.”

“Oh? What did you have in mind, Pavor?”

“There was a Jedi in the club, apparently acting as an undercover agent. She tried to stop us, but we escaped before she could apprehend us,” Pavor explained.

“So you think the Jedi will try and track us down. Interesting…” the master mused. “We must prepare for her arrival.”

“Just what we were thinking, master.”

“Let’s not keep our Jedi friend waiting.”

Paelopia felt a pair of hands touch her shoulder. She yelped. She was crying now, and she thought for sure she was about to die.

“Who’s there?” she managed to say between breaths.

“Ah, she’s conscious.” The master withdrew his hands. “All the more reason to do this quickly. We still own the abandoned building near the western boundary of the city, correct?”

“Yes,” Pavor noted.

“Send word down the collective that Paelopia is being held hostage there, then. It will eventually reach the Jedi and her allies; of this, I have no doubt.”

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