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Prologue

The Praetorian-class frigate Commencement soared through space, eclipsing stars in the distance as it made its way through the blackness. Its torpedo-like hull was beginning to show signs of age with sections where durasteel plating had crumpled in on itself and burnt pockmarks where turbolaser fire had penetrated its shields and left mementos long ago. The old vessel had proven its mettle in those battles, armed with enough powerful turbolasers and shielding enough to dissuade would-be assailants even now.

Formidable though she was, the Commencement’s glory days were long behind it, and it had been retired from active duty after the last major war. For the past twenty years, the Praetorian frigate had been tasked with scouting missions and simple patrols in the frontier. Carrying only a single starfighter squadron, about a dozen marines, and a crew just large enough to keep everything operational, the vessel soared through the farthest reaches of the galaxy alone. It was rare that such ships were unaccompanied by an escort of sorts, but these routes were well-established and this particular ship had been traveling them for over five years now. Besides, there was no criminal syndicate or smuggling faction that could direct engage a Republic frigate.

The routes they navigated had been pioneered centuries before, and the crew of the Commencement had never encountered a threat that their old vessel was unable to handle. The majority of pirates became a chore to deal with; the captain knew his crew could have ably handled such situations, and he hated every wasted moment on the bridge. Even aboard a frontier scouting ship, proper protocol had to be observed.

However, it was with some surprise that Commander Karlem was roused from his meditations by a report from his chief navigator requesting his presence on the bridge at once. Although his species did not need sleep like most sentients did, the Bith officer was displeased by this interruption. His habits had become so routine that any disturbance at all was most jarring. The aging Bith removed his meditation gown and replaced it with his red and yellow officer’s uniform and black boots before making his way toward the front of the ship.

He walked through the corridors of the ship alone; normally, an aide would come to meet him and fill him in on the ship’s equivalent of the day’s activities. For whatever reason, his assistant did not appear. Upon his arrival on the bridge, the dialogue of the crew became quiet, drowned out entirely by the occasional blip of a computer terminal or sensor board. His heels clicked as he approached the forward viewport, occasionally casting a glance at his crew. Anxiety was evident on their faces. What could have gotten them so worried? Pirates could be easily dealt with, and an accident would have caused more alarm. With no way of knowing what was going on with everyone in a quiet dread, he approached the navigator who had spoken to him earlier, a normally affable Bothan who was many years his junior.

“What seems to be the trouble, Lieutenant?” Commander Karlem asked, careful to avoid sounding annoyed at this strange incident.

“There, sir.”

Commander Karlem’s eyes followed the Bothan’s finger and gazed beyond the viewport. Directly in front of them, perhaps no less than fifty kilometers, was an expansive asteroid field. They had passed it many times before, but they had never gotten quite so close to it. It was quite impressive to behold, with asteroids nearly half the size of their frigate drifting in space alongside tiny asteroids that could have been dwarfed by one of the starfighters in their hangar. His black, bulbous eyes, keen even though he was nearing seventy standard years of age, noticed some sparkling fragments in the larger asteroids and figured that there must have been some rare metals contained within. No doubt such a discovery was noteworthy to a miner or a tradesbeing, but there was nothing there for them here—at least, not to warrant such a concerned response from his crew.

He was about to question his lieutenant on the importance of stopping along their route to observe this rather mundane discovery when he saw it. His reaction was delayed for a moment, taking a second glance before turning to the lieutenant to be sure that he was not imagining things. The grim look on the chief navigator’s face assured him he was not.

There, in the depths of the asteroid field, was an angular vessel nearly four times the size of their own. Its three massive engines appeared to be offline, causing the warship to float aimlessly through its dangerous position. If the ship had been operational, it could have fought three ships as large as the Commencement at once. Fortunately for them, the derelict vessel seemed to have taken extensive damage and its shields had failed long ago. However, it was the affiliation of the ship that caused both the commander and his crew the most concern. The most terrifying thing about this ship was that it very likely belonged to the Sith.

He didn’t even look at his navigational officer, keeping his eyes locked on the warship before them. “Scramble our starfighters and prepare the marines. Get me a comm to the Admiralty.”

*** ***

“… Houjix Twelve, standing by.”

And that was the last of them. Captain Belsio Molir allowed his Aurek-class tactical strikefighter to linger near the Commencement’s hangar bay, surrounded by eleven similar craft. They were safe from wayward asteroids here, but they would eventually have to plunge into the field itself to investigate that ship. It was only a matter of time now.

“So what’s going on here, Captain?” Houjix Six asked through their comm channel. “Hopefully this isn’t the navy’s idea of shore leave.”

“I don’t have that much information,” Captain Molir admitted. “Just the launch orders and recent ship logs.”

“So what do they say?” the youngest in their squadron, Houjix Ten, piped up. “What are we up against?”

“There’s apparently a Sith ship hiding in there, so we’re going to figure out the best path to it and search for any external dangers. Any questions?”

“Spooky,” Six quipped. “I have about twelve other questions, but they can wait.”

“Good. I just got clearance: here we go.”

A cacophony of cheers and assuring cries replied through the comlink. He admired their enthusiasm, but this was something that was easier said than done. He had been flying starfighters in the Republic Navy for nearly thirty-five years, and he would sooner fly around an asteroid field than through it. His skills were waning ever so slightly with age, to the point it was a miracle he was still flying at all, but he was more concerned for his pilots. Most of his squadron had clocked in less than twenty hours in the cockpit over the last few months—there was simply no need on a scouting vessel in peaceful territory. He only hoped his team was up to the responsibilities they had been given.

The captain jerked the controls on his Aurek strikefighter, sending the tiny craft into a dive that made his stomach lurch inside him before flying away from the Commencement at top speed, avoiding most of the larger asteroids that were directly in front of the hangar. The eleven fighters behind him followed suit, but their ability to imitate and shadow his craft’s movement was clumsy at best.

Weaving around the largest obstacles with controlled turns, Belsio led his squadron into the thick of the asteroid field, where smaller, quicker debris floated on all sides. The tiny Aureks soared through the chaos around them, performing quick loops and nightmare dives to avoid any last minute collisions. Belsio, in the lead as always, had no trouble keeping control of his craft, but he realized that his squadron was having issues. He hadn’t realized how fast he was going or just how much trouble they were having, so he performed a spiral that sent him flying back the way he came to go to their aid.

A few of his more inexperienced pilots used their laser cannons on asteroids that got too close to avoid. Their green fire lanced through the incoming asteroids easily enough, and most of time their target was atomized entirely, but a few of the larger asteroids merely splintered into smaller chunks and flew off in even more unpredictable directions. The resulting debris nearly collided with several of his other pilots who were farther off.

“No more of that,” Belsio ordered. “If we were in a gunship or corvette, that might be acceptable. Let’s not push our luck in fighters.”

The shooters provided monosyllabic acquiescence and continued following him. Again Captain Molir led the way, but this time he did his best to remember his squadron’s skill relative to his own and flew slow enough for them to tail him. Even at his six, they had difficulty keeping in line with him and avoiding the variable scenery around them. More than a few of his wingmates swore under their breath from near-misses and dangers that crept in from their peripheral vision.

Beads of sweat came to rest just above his brown and around his ears. There may not have been any enemy starfighters here, no warships with pinpoint laser turrets, and no deadly battlestations that would mean the destruction of the Galactic Republic if allowed to survive, but asteroids were quite a challenge on their own. He had been on the wrong end of a budget cut or two, so he could hardly complain about the nature of his mission; being allowed to fly for the Republic he loved was a blessing he could never have decried.

“-jix Leader!” A voice interrupted his introspection. “We just lost Houjix Four! He didn’t make that last turn fast enough.”

Belsio growled. “Understood, Six. The rest of you, keep the formation tight. We’re almost there!”

A few more close calls and an asteroid that was nearly as large as the Commencement later, the squadron managed to escape the most dangerous section of the asteroid field and enter an area of relative calm. Fortunately, the area around the Interdictor-class cruiser was free of any threatening obstacles, although it was obvious from the warship’s damaged hull that many stony projectiles had smashed into its hull before. Belsio’s eyes scanned for any signs of why the ship was abandoned, but no such evidence existed—at least, not on the outside.

His squadron formed up around him a few minutes after he arrived and updated their status. Houjix Five, Nine, and Eleven were scratched up but not badly, and everyone else escaped unharmed. He regretted losing even one to a nonsentient foe, though, and he promised himself that he would make sure his pilots clocked in more training in their fighters if they survived this mission.

“Are we going in, sir?” Ten asked.

“No. The marine contingent is going to handle the investigation itself. Let’s go ahead and search its exterior. We can do that much.”

Their starfighters zoomed toward the derelict cruiser and quickly repositioned their craft so they were flying parallel to its hull. From behind his visor, Belsio’s gray eyes scanned the ship for any signs of life within. He didn’t see any lights, online weapons, or shielding, but there did seem to be quite a few damaged bulkheads and vacuum-exposed corridors. It was difficult from him to tell with his minimal sensors, but the ship was either shut down or barely active. From across the ship, his squadron reported similar results.

While it was reassuring to know that the ship was offline, it still bothered him that there were no signs of battle. This was an Interdictor cruiser; the ship had the best tractor beam in the galaxy, enough cargo space for a year’s worth of materiel, and was bristling with weapons. If they had not been forced to do so, Belsio couldn’t see why such an impressive warship would be abandoned here in the middle of nowhere.

His musings were interrupted by the appearance of another ship. This one was quite a bit larger than his little snubfighter, armed with two rotating laser turrets and appropriate shielding. Vectoring toward their position, the ship was lean, boxish, and not at all graceful like the Aureks in his squadron. Then again, the Republic Marines hardly needed grace in their line of work, especially when superior firepower was an alternative. At Belsio’s command, his starfighters gathered together and provided a screen for the incoming assault shuttle.

“Much obliged, Houjix Squadron. Thanks for the route through that field, too. What’s the situation?” a female’s voice asked from the marine’s comm.

“Hello to you too, Master Sergeant Nos,” Belsio said curtly. “Sith Interdictor, by the looks of it. Nearly all powered down and no immediate signs of danger.”

“No fighters, no guns?”

“Nothing at all. I’d say it was hastily abandoned, but it just doesn’t make sense.”

“Well, the hangar seems unshielded. We'll settle on in and let you fly-boys know what we find. Nos out.”

The starfighters broke away from their intended trajectory, allowing the landing craft to proceed without them into the hangars. The pilots of Houjix Squadron completed a few more flybys of the Interdictor, and again their search turned up nothing important. Belsio appreciated the lack of danger, and he only hoped the marines wouldn’t encounter anything too much for them aboard the ship.

“I thought we were going to engage someone today,” Nine muttered.

“You'll get your chance, don’t worry,” Belsio replied. “Dogfighting is less fun than you think it is.”

“Everything must seem less exciting since you fought at the Star Forge, huh, Captain?” Five pointed out wryly.

Belsio frowned. “Noted. Either way, there will be another time. Just wait: battle will find you.”

“I hope so,” Nine said with a sigh. “I don’t want to spend my career fixing merchants' computers and chasing ghosts…”

“Speaking of computers,” Sergeant Nos’s voice chimed in. “We've hit a bit of a snag.”

“What do you mean?” the captain asked, a hint of worry in his voice.

“Nothing dangerous. We got the artificial gravity and auxiliary power working in the hangar, but the rest of the ship is sealed off. The terminal controlling the door uses old Sith encryption, but none of mine have the expertise to get around it,” the sergeant explained.

“I'll send a few of my pilots in to assist you,” Belsio replied. “We've got quite a few tech specialists up here.”

“There could be more security throughout the ship. Mind if I hold on to them for a little while?”

“Not at all.”

“You should be working in engineering instead of flying those fragile ships everywhere,” the sergeant commented. “But thanks. We'll see 'em back to you safely.”

Once he had closed the comm, Belsio selected a handful of his pilots—Two, Three, Six, Seven, Nine, and Twelve—to send down the hangar with the marine contingent. Only Nine’s dossier described an ability to sabotage and hack enemy computers, but his squadron’s previous work with old merchant vessels that once belonged to the Sith Empire meant that all of them had some experience in the art.

“Don’t miss us too much, Captain,” Six said as the boarding party entered the hangar.

“Just come back alive,” Five answered before Belsio could.

The pilots under Belsio’s command entered the hangar and aided the marines in their preliminary difficulties with haste; with their work complete, Sergeant Nos announced that they would be moving further inside the ship and would maintain limited communication with Belsio’s squadron unless they encountered danger. The captain didn’t like it, but he took it in stride. After all, the sergeant needed the frequency to communicate with her marines, and the threat of their communications being monitored was always looming. In the silence that followed the marines' departure from the hangar, Belsio led his squadron on another pass of the abandoned warship.

The remainder of his pilots had very little to say, leaving the captain to his own thoughts. Despite the fact that the ship before them was abandoned and offline, there was something wrong. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was a nervous feeling in his gut that wouldn’t stop bothering him. The Commencement had surveyed this system countless times over the years, and this asteroid field was a regular landmark on their route. If this Interdictor had been abandoned so long ago that it could have been damaged like it was, the ship would have been noticed before. The fact that they hadn’t meant it was a recent derelict. And that meant it couldn’t have been a relic from the Jedi Civil War.

Did that mean the Sith had survived the war? Belsio wasn’t sure, but he was determined to get in contact with someone who did. He tried to reach Commander Karlem, but he received nothing but static because of the asteroids' interference. Belsio considered his options. He could return to the Commencement, but that would mean leaving his pilots and the marines by their lonesome without a contact; if something went wrong, it would take too long for reinforcements to move in to save them. Without the ships to form a cohesive relay between himself and the larger ship in the distance, he decided it would be a better idea if he sent a few of his pilots back to the cruiser to inform them what happened and ask what their next step should be. It wasn’t the most ideal solution, but it was the only in this case.

After sending Eight and Eleven back to the Commencement to establish some sort of communication and receive orders, Belsio and his two remaining pilots adjusted their starfighters' engines so they could remain in a comfortable hover just outside the Interdictor’s hangar. It was boring work, and there was very little any of them could do about it. As a ranking officer, he could have used operational discretion to alter their mission parameters to join the marines inside, but the idea made him uneasy. He had always disliked the idea that the chain-of-command got looser as one climbed it; it sounded like a good way for disorder and chaos to take over in a heated situation. He had been flying with the Republic too long to defy the orders he had been given. He had fought for her too long to do anything to endanger her in his bravado.

“C-contact!” an unfamiliar voice shouted on the comm. “We've got contacts!”

“Where are you and your unit, Lance Corporal?” Sergeant Nos growled, apparently from elsewhere on the ship.

The sound of blaster fire dominated his flight board’s comlink. Belsio listened intently for a few moments, trying to discern anything intelligible from the shouts and mangled orders that were just barely audible in the confusion. He heard Sergeant Nos barking orders to her unit, and then more blaster fire erupted, cutting her off as well. The two remaining members of his squadron tried to ask him questions, but he ignored them. What was going on in that ship?

And then, just as quickly as it had started, the blaster fire stopped. However, there were no voices on the other end; static filled his ears, and he couldn’t contact anyone on the frequency except the two pilots floating in space at his six. This was bad. He tried to reach someone inside the ship a few more times, and then the two pilots he had sent back, but each time proved as pointless as the last.

“Captain…?” Five asked, a bit shaken. “What do we do?”

“We’re going in,” Belsio replied.

“Going in?” Ten yelped. “Captain, we’re just fighter jockeys. How are we going to-?”

“I don’t know,” Belsio growled. “Just… we can’t just leave them in there.”

There was a moment of silence between the other two pilots. They all understood that anything strong enough to defeat a team of marines would easily kill a handful pilots with little combat training, but what other choice did they have? The Commencement had no more soldiers to provide, and help would arrive far too late for Sergeant Nos and Belsio’s remaining pilots.

“Yeah. You’re right, Captain,” Five said at last. “A few of ours are in there too. If I was in there, I’d hope you and the others at least came looking for me.”

Belsio nodded. “It will be dangerous. I don’t know if we’re going to make it back. Eight and Eleven should be coming back in a few minutes with direct orders from the commander. If either of you want to stay until they arrive with potential assistance, I will not deny you that.”

“Don’t be like that. We’re not letting you to go in alone, Captain,” Five replied.

“I'll leave an emergency beacon out here for them to find,” Ten noted. “You know, just in case.”

Belsio didn’t respond. Adjusting the controls on his fighter, he bypassed the magnetic shield and soared inside. Luckily, the Interdictor’s hangar was spacious enough to hold their three snubfighters in addition to the six already inside plus the marine transport. He imagined that at least two more squadrons could have fit in this hangar alone, and he wondered just how many Sith fighters had been lost before this vessel was abandoned.

The marines had been true to their word: the lighting, gravity, and life support were all active inside this hangar. Each of the pilots of Houjix Squadron had a full-body enviro-suit for freighter repairs and search and rescue missions just in case the rest of the ship didn’t have power, but they were cumbersome, unarmored, and suited more for civilian work than military operations. With a single blaster pistol each, Belsio knew that he and his pilots would have been laughably ineffective against anything strong enough to give marines trouble, but they had no other option here. They either advanced and met their allies, or they retreated and left them to their fate.

Once the three of them had traded their black and gray flightsuits for yellow extravehicular gear, Belsio scanned the hangar for any hidden dangers. Satisfied that they were alone, he led them from their starfighters to the very same security terminal that had given Sergeant Nos and her team trouble before. The captain’s squadmates had been kind enough to leave the terminal active and unlocked for them, allowing him to skim its contents. As expected, the rest of the ship’s power was offline, and there was more than one segment exposed to the vacuum of space. He had no way of monitoring life signs from this station, and he still couldn’t contact the others, which meant they had to press on.

“Captain Molir?”

The three pilots spun around in their EVA suits—rather clumsily—to face the mystery voice with blasters at the ready. Unlike his team, the Republic soldiers who approached them were wearing armored enviro-suits primarily of red and white that hardly looked as cumbersome as the standard military variation. They were heavily armed as well, replete with blaster rifles, slugthrowing rifles with underslug attachments, and carbines. The other two members of his squadron were relieved to see that a few members of Houjix Squadon in their midst; Belsio quickly took note of the fact that three of his pilots were missing and Nos did not have her entire squad of marines with her.

“Are you all right, Master Sergeant?” Belsio asked. “What happened?”

The sergeant peeled off her EVA suit’s combat helmet, revealing the pink skin and pale blue eyes of a female Zeltron a few years younger than him. “Yeah, we’re fine. Damn if I know what happened, though.”

“Where are the rest of my pilots?”

“I can’t say for sure. We split into two fireteams: one of us headed toward the upper decks, the other the lower. The other team engaged hostiles before we did.”

“There are enemies here?” Ten spoke up nervously. “That means there are Si-”

“Just droids,” the sergeant interrupted. “My unit managed to defeat them all, but I couldn’t get in contact with my other team. I think they’re jamming us.”

“Short range jammers?” Belsio wondered aloud. “This ship is powered down, and those things take up a lot of energy. Are you sure?”

“There’s no comm chatter at all,” the sergeant growled.

Belsio shook his head. He was about to point out that her other team could have been defeated by their opponents when a green blaster shot soared by his bulbous helmet, slamming into the durasteel floor at his feet. The marines reacted before he could, diving for cover and repositioning their blaster rifles to face the elevated platform where the blaster bolt had come from. Belsio and his squadron pivoted around to face their target a few seconds later, quite aware of the fact that their delayed reaction time would have gotten them killed in any other circumstance.

“C-commander? Is that you?” a voice called from the platform.

Belsio recognized the voice. “Six?”

“Yeah. I’m coming out; please don’t shoot me.”

Houjix Six hopped off the slightly raised platform he had been standing on, revealing himself to the Republic soldiers gathered around the hangar. There was a small breach in his yellow suit that seemed to have been patched up by emergency fibers, and he was shaking, but he otherwise looked okay. The marines were still nervous, and they kept their blaster rifles at the ready, but Belsio and Houjix Squadron had already relaxed their guard. The captain didn’t know where the rest of his squadron was, but he was glad to see that one of them, at least, had survived the confusion.

“You’re Houjix Six?” Sergeant Nos asked warily.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Where is the rest of my unit? And the other pilots who were with you?”

“They… didn’t make it.”

“What do you mean?”

“There were two hostiles waiting for us in the security room on the deck above this one. They appeared dead at first, but as we passed them by, they sprung up and started shooting at us,” Six explained. “The marines tried to protect us, but we couldn’t escape fast enough. Three and Twelve… didn’t make it either. I think I’m the only one who made it back.”

“Evidently,” the sergeant muttered. “This is a massive ship. If there were two troopers, I think it is safe to say that there could be more.”

“It’s too dangerous, Sergeant. You’re already down to half strength, and I've lost three of mine. I think it’s time to return home and request assistance,” Belsio said.

She didn’t look happy at the idea of retreating from this place, especially when several of her soldiers were still unaccounted for. The captain understood the feeling; he wanted to go and find out what happened to his own pilots as well. However, he realized that such a search was beyond their mission parameters. This place was far more dangerous than they initially suspected, and there was no point in them dying without at least telling Commander Karlem what they had discovered thus far.

An incoming transmission from Houjix Eleven assured him that he was right. The two had just returned from beyond the asteroids and had been in contact with Commander Karlem; he requested all of his pilots and marines to return to the Commencement as soon as possible. To Sergeant Nos’s chagrin, his tone left no room for negotiation. She bitterly ordered her team back into the transport while Belsio’s squadron returned to their ships.

Once Belsio had run a short preflight checklist and ensured that the rest of his squadron was fit to fly, he primed his starfighter’s engines and led his squadron back into the relative safety of space. From their position near the warship, he could just barely see the Praetorian frigate they had come from, but there also seemed to be another ship, a Hammerhead-class cruiser, floating nearby that was surrounded by squadrons of starfighters. Once the marines were out of the hangar, Belsio arranged for his ships to lead the larger one out of the asteroid field.

“Captain Molir?” a voice mired in static spoke up on the comm about halfway through the flight. “I… you and your team? Are you almost out?”

Belsio recognized the voice but couldn’t believe it. “Admiral Onasi?”

“It’s… a pleasure, Captain. Let me know when you… can hear your report.”

Belsio realized his mouth was ajar only after nearly colliding with an asteroid. Responding curtly to the admiral’s request, he switched off the comlink. The fact that Admiral Carth Onasi was here meant that this situation was far more important than he could have realized. Since the Sith had attacked Telos IV two decades ago, Admiral Onasi hardly left the galactic capital and had resigned himself to monitoring supplies, ship construction, and other behind the scenes work. To have him fly out here personally was both an honor and a bit terrifying. Could the situation be so bad that they needed the de facto leader of the Republic Navy to come all the way out here?

He only hoped the admirals would be able to figure out the dangers present in this warship before it was too late.

*** ***

The emerald skin of the Twi'lek who had been known as Houjix Six washed away as if by unseen water, leaving behind a pigment of deep red not unlike the color of the vessel he was flying. Safe from suspicious eyes in the Aurek strikefighter that had belonged to the real Houjix Six, the imposter let his illusion fade away now so that he could save his strength for later.

Only Master Sergeant Nos had seemed suspicious of him, but she did not move to question or detain him. How fortuitous for him. Now that he was safe from her, he could proceed with the plan as normal. Convincing the pilots of Houjix Squadron was easy enough; as the former wing commander of Nightmare Wing, one of the elite starfighter units in the Sith Empire, he had no trouble keeping up with the mediocre Republic pilots who flew alongside him. Captain Belsio Molir, the squadron leader, was skilled, but even he was unfit to face a Sith wing commander in combat. It was simply a matter of faking a lack of skill until they returned to the Commencement.

Despite the Sith admirals’ distaste for the plan, it had worked brilliantly. His master had prepared the ship for its eventual destruction, placing it along a hyperspace route that his master knew would be approached by Galactic Republic scouts. Once it was done, the Twi'lek had remained on the Interdictor cruiser for several months, meditating and awaiting the day when the ship would be discovered and searched. Sure enough, while droids distracted other soldiers elsewhere, he had killed his targets with a few grenades and a blaster rifle. He seized the suit of the one who had been least mangled by the attack, and that pilot just so happened to be a Twi'lek. While his dark powers enabled him to mimic the appearance of nearly any species in Republic space, the Force had provided him with one who was the same species as himself.

Now that he had successfully infiltrated the Galactic Republic’s military, as many of his brothers and sisters had done in the past five years, he was charged with assassinating key leaders. He believed that one of his predecessors had tried to attack Captain Molir years ago, when he was in charge of a regional outpost in the frontier. Unlike that fool, he would not fail. Now that he was in position, it was merely a matter of getting close enough to a key Republic admiral, general, or respected politician. In a moment of chaos that was to come, he would kill his chosen target by any means necessary. All of his hidden allies would act as one; with so many traitors striking at once, the Republic Army and Navy would be crippled enough for the Sith Empire to strike the death blow that would cause its collapse.

The Twi'lek smiled toothily, causing the dark tattoos along his jawline and at his temples to fluctuate. A spy’s work was difficult, but there were no words to describe how rewarding it was. Thumbing the accelerator, the Sith spy followed Captain Molir and the rest of his new squadron deeper into the asteroid field toward the Republic flagship. It would not be long now.

May the Sith Empire last forever.


Chapter 1

The Toydarian’s wings flapped rhythmically as he scratched the hairy chin beneath his short trunk. The stout figure was hardly imposing, but he was difficult to deal with all the same; all space traffic controllers seemed to be that way. If the expression on his faded holographic representation was any indication, he was not going to oblige their request.

“You’ll have to be more specific than that if you want me to consider not blasting your transport into galactic dust,” he growled after some thought.

The two pilots in the cockpit of the Horizon Bound shared a nervous glance. Realizing they were going to be shot at before they could even think of landing, the Human pulled the ship up and around so they were no longer approaching the space station. While his pilot made sure they were floating out of turbolaser range and their LB-series droid monitored their shields, the Devaronian male returned his attention to the comlink. The Toydarian was still there, but he didn’t look any happier. Then again, dock workers never were.

“Our clientele have business with Lord Sharzin,” the Devaronian answered.

“His excellency Lord Sharzin is not seeing anyone today,” came the reply. “If you leave the system now, I probably won’t activate the automated defenses.”

“There is no need for that.”

A cloaked figure with a heavy cowl walked onto the bridge of the transport. The figure’s hands were cupped in a meditative posture near her abdomen, and she gracefully walked forward and positioned herself between the two pilots so the Toydarian on the other end of the transmission could see her.

“You will understand that we are representatives of Supreme Chancellor D'et, and we would be in your debt if you would permit us to see your master,” the cloaked female said.

The Toydarian’s eyes bulged in surprise when he saw the new figure. In his fright, he completely forgot his place and left the holographic projector empty for a few seconds. There was a brief argument just beyond the view of the hologram, completely unintelligible to the ship’s passengers, before the Toydarian dockmaster returned. He tried to compose himself, but he was obviously still terrified about something.

“Ah… ah… ahem. The Republic’s ambassadors are always welcome here. I will contact Lord Sharzin immediately regarding your arrival. Please, bring your ship into docking bay Cresh-24 and remain in the casino until you are summoned. You are, of course, invited to enjoy the facilities… on the house, yes?”

The hologram flickered and dissipated, leaving the two pilots and their hooded passenger alone in the cockpit. Satisfied with the dockmaster’s cooperation, the passenger pivoted and returned to the rear compartments to wait for their landing. The two remaining crewers and their droid glanced back at their companion, making sure she had left the cockpit entirely before sighing—and in the droid’s case, chirping—in unison.

“Every time,” the Human muttered. “It’s almost unreal how she does that.”

“So she has a way with the weak-minded and cowardly,” the Devaronian muttered. “I've seen others do worse.”

“Yeah, but they shout or use complimentary firepower. It’s the threat that gives them the edge. She just… talks.”

The droid chirped some snide remark that made the Human redden with anger.

“Just be glad you’re on her side,” the Devaronian replied in a hushed tone, scratching one of his short, jagged horns. “I’d much rather know as little as possible and keep my mind intact. Let’s just get this mission over with and get our credits.”

The trio flew their Heraklon-class transport toward the Fate and Luck, a massive space station that orbited a lifeless terrestrial world with no natural satellites. The station was about five times the size of a Republic cruiser, and the plentiful rings encircling its rotund shape were in turn surrounded by space traffic that extended for kilometers in all directions. Under normal circumstances, the Horizon Bound would have had to wait for hours to dock; however, their special passengers allowed them to bypass this impediment and berth immediately.

Once the ship had been safely set down, the three crewers were approached by the three hooded guests they had taken aboard. Two of them were about the height of an average humanoid, but the third was much taller, at least two meters in height, but noticeably less bulky than the other two, possessing proportions that would have been terribly unhealthy in a Human. It was the shortest of the three who had spoken to the dockmaster earlier, and she was the one who stepped forward to address the pilots.

“You have done your part in this, and your actions are to be rewarded. Here are four thousand credits-”

“Hey now,” the Human interrupted. “You promised us eleven thousand. Are you trying to skimp out of your payment?”

The two other passengers eyed the Human pilot suspiciously. The disheveled man stepped forward, trying to appear as tough and boisterous as possible, but his machismo only further agitated the other two further. The Devaronian had been ferrying passengers for years, and he knew that these beings would not broker any argument. He sighed before pulling his companion back.

“I apologize. He means no harm,” the Devaronian grovelled. “However, we are in danger of running low on funds, and we may not be able to refuel our ship to return to our home port if we do not receive full compensation for our work. Surely you understand this.”

“Of course. The Republic is fair, and you will receive ample compensation. You will receive four thousand credits now, and seven thousand when we return. Is that adequate?”

“Very. But…” the Devaronian tapped his rust-colored palm with one of his pointed fingers. “What if you do not return, my good diplomats? What shall become of us?”

“We shall leave one of ours with you. That way, if our paths diverge before our business is concluded, you will be compensated in full.”

The Devaronian grumbled something to himself but smiled a typical Devaronian smile—wicked and conniving—despite his complaints. “That makes sense. Best of luck to you; we shall remain here until your work is done.”

Two of their passengers said goodbye to the other and left the Horizon Bound behind. The female leader and the tallest of the three were both escorted out of the hangar by a protocol droid assigned to them by the Toydarian—he did not dare greet them in person, it seemed. Although the droid attempted to make idle chatter with them on their way through the docks, neither of them was interested in talking. The dock workers and travelers around them occasionally cast wary glances at the pair of hooded travelers, but few stared for long.

They reached the Aurodium Rush, a rather famous casino situated in the heart of the station, without incident. Although the droid was eager to give them a tour of the establishment, the two guests ordered the droid to return to its master and inform him that it had done its job well. Not programmed to argue with important clients, the droid did as it was told, leaving the pair to themselves.

True to its name, the entire casino was bathed in a golden color, from the fake aurodium coins painted on the walls to the dim lighting overhead. Of course, it had a reason to show off an appearance of wealth; men in sharp suits and women in elaborate dresses dominated the establishment, mostly tending to their own business at well-furnished pazaak tables. Spice was forbidden here, but most patrons enjoyed cigarras, causing a strong, smoky smell to encumber the olfactory senses. The charming jingle of the holographic gambling machines and the shouts of rowdy, poorer gamblers made it hard to hear the live band playing in the north end of the building, and it was rather difficult to think clearly at all through all the noise. Such chaotic surroundings probably encouraged gamblers to keep going when their luck turned soured.

The patrons closest to the entrance went silent and glared at the two beings as they walked in. They were no doubt suspicious of them, just as the smugglers were initially and the Toydarian dockmaster had been. Prior to their disastrous civil war, the Jedi Order had served as the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, and they often policed criminal hideouts like this one for wrongdoing. No doubt there were a few older patrons here who remembered those days and recognized Jedi from their attire. They were just as eager to avoid any Jedi entanglements as the Jedi wanted to avoid causing a scene.

Despite the crowd’s unease, the Jedi sensed no immediate danger, so the female Jedi threw back her hood and edged into a crowd of patrons gathered around a gambling table. Nearly forty standard years of age, the woman still had youthfulness in her features, with less defined wrinkles and fairer skin than most. Her curled blond hair was cut to the nape of her neck, and there was not a strand of gray to be seen. With a distant expression, her mind appeared occupied by things that would have been lost upon others.

Her taller companion followed suit, revealing a small furred head with pointed ears that were nearly half its size. His gangly limbs would have appeared broken to the uninitiated, but Frozians had one more joint in their arms and legs than most humanoids, giving him a bit of an awkward gait that no doubt drew some attention. Like most Frozians who traveled offworld, he wore a belt that stabilized his movement and heightened his reflexes in gravity that was stronger than his species was used to.

“Do you think Sharzin will see us, Dynatha?” the Frozian Jedi asked.

“The issue is not whether he will see us, Ixi,” the Human noted, “but whether it will be an agreeable meeting.”

“I do not think criminals of his ilk can be agreeable.”

“Then we ought to be mindful of the Force. Head for the cantina and ask the patrons what they know of Sharzin. I will linger in this section and do the same. Perhaps there will be someone in this crowd who will aid us.”

“I get the drinks, and you win a few hands in pazaak.” Her companion chortled. “Got it.”

The Human Jedi merely shook her head and waved Ixi away. The Frozian trotted off, mindful of the crowd and careful not to crash into anyone. Once he had disappeared into the crowd, Dynatha adjusted her perceptions to focus on the power of the Force. It was difficult, considering the noise around her and the patrons who very nearly collided into her, but she managed to achieve the connection she sought.

The Force. Its aura permeated all life, tying her essence with every being, non-sentient, and inanimate object in the galaxy. The links that formed around her were vast, and they contained an indescribable energy that she could draw on to empower herself. She had been with the Jedi for many years now, and she had learned how to summon its power and request its aid almost instantaneously. Closing her eyes and concentrating on the moment, Dynatha could sense the presence of hundreds of thousands of beings around her. She sensed gamblers, bouncers, engineers, slaves, and criminals, she sensed Ixi and her allies back on the Horizon Bound, and she could sense the presence of Sharzin himself, waiting for them in a private room on a private level of the space station.

She relaxed her senses for a moment, sensing no immediate danger. Dynatha suspected that Sharzin himself would at least prepare for their arrival, and she also sensed that he would not be entirely open to their message. They would have to be careful. Just as she was about to pull all of her senses inward again, she sensed a peculiarity in the Force. Worried about danger, she extended her perception and tried to narrow down exactly where the strange occurrence came from. To her surprise, there was an entire segment of the space station that was blind to her Force senses. It was strange; she could not recall sensing something like it before, but it was too far away for her to investigate right now.

The Force alerted her to a quarrel on the western side of the casino. Near one of the many pazaak tables, a Paaerduag was being harassed by two larger patrons. The Gran to his right was snickering with delight as he shoved his smaller, beady-eyed victim around, and his Cha'a comrade was content with watching the action unfold, rubbing his scaled hands together and laughing at the Paaerduag’s misfortune. Dynatha tended to avoid bar brawls and drunken scuffles when she could, but she could tell there was something more to this entanglement. She waded through the sea of patrons, careful to avoid the watchful eyes of the bouncers, and worked her way toward the trio.

“We told you, we don’t have any credits! Leave us alone!” she heard the two-headed victim moan.

“Lying again,” the Cha'a hissed. “Perhaps my friend here can relieve you of one of your heads? Would you be truthful then? Probably not, you two-faced monstrosity, but we can certainly try.”

The three-eyed tormentor pushed the Paaerduag into the table behind them, causing him to fall over. The portion of the Paaerduag with the hunchbacked body and lumpy face was incapable of speaking Basic, and the smaller, four-eyed section on its back couldn’t see what was going on. However, it was terrified at the thought of having its body severed by the two thugs, and it pleaded maniacally with them for clemency.

“Excuse me, what seems to be the problem here?” Dynatha asked once she reached the scene.

The Cha'a’s irises turned to slits and he shook his scaly fist at the Jedi. “Were we speaking to you, Human? This is not your concern. Leave us!”

“Leave that Paaerduag alone, and I will leave you alone,” Dynatha responded in kind.

“Who do you think you are, making demands of us?” the Gran sneered.

“I won’t tell you again. Leave him alone.”

“This is ridiculous.” The stocky reptilian pointed a clawed finger at the Jedi. “Get rid of her, and then deal with him.”

The Cha'a removed a small holdout blaster from the wide sleeve of his auburn cloak, and his Gran companion turned his attention away from his victim, whom he had been dutifully kicking, toward the Jedi standing before them. The Force told Dynatha that she needed to act immediately before both she and the helpless Paaerduag were injured—or worse—by the thugs.

“You do not want to cause any trouble,” Dynatha suggested, waving her hand before her.

“I… I do not want to cause any trouble,” the Cha'a repeated absentmindedly.

“You’re satisfied with your work, and you will hurt no one else today.”

“We don’t need to hurt anyone else today.”

“There’s no reason to linger here any longer,” Dynatha concluded.

“There’s no reason for us to linger here. Let’s go!” the Cha'a growled at the Gran.

The Gran’s three eyes stared at his partner in confusion, but he received no explanation for the reptilian’s sudden change of heart. The two thugs left Dynatha and the Paaerduag behind before abandoning the casino altogether. They fled in such a hurry they didn’t even stop to cash in their winnings.

Dynatha smiled. Although she was not entirely comfortable with influencing another sentient being’s mind, she was even less comfortable with the idea of taking a life when she didn’t have to. Jedi mind tricks were quite effective on the weak-minded and very useful in situations such as these. Once she was sure they were gone, Dynatha approached the wounded two-headed being and helped him back to his feet.

“Are you okay?” Dynatha asked. “You took quite a beating. I have a medpac, if you need it.”

“No, no. We are quite all right now,” the Paaerduag insisted. The larger head nodded slowly, and the smaller one performed a sort of bow from its place on the larger one’s hunched back. “You have done us a great service today, Human. We were certain we would have died had you not interfered.”

“It was my pleasure. If you don’t mind, were they tormenting you for a reason, or were they simply being malicious?”

“We believe they confused us for another of our venerable kind—quite a common mistake in your simple one-headed societies. As we understand, there is a wealthier Paaerduag, as your kind knows them, who frequents this place. Unfortunately, we were visiting here on a day when those simpletons came searching for them, and they figured we were their target.”

Dynatha nodded. He spoke fast, mangled Basic, but she caught most of his story. “Shall I request the bouncers to look out for you?”

“We appreciate the offer, Human, but the bouncers would be as likely to mock us as to assist us. They would be of little aid in a fight like the one you just avoided.”

“I will be nearby just in case those thugs come back; don’t hesitate to call for my help if you need it. Be safe,” Dynatha said.

“We owe you a debt that cannot be repaid. We do not know why you are here, but we thank you for your kindness. Fair spacelanes, Human.”

Dynatha left the two-headed patron behind, returning the crowd of gamblers closer to the center of the establishment. Before she could get very far, Ixi contacted her on her comlink and informed her that Sharzin was expecting them. Dynatha redirected herself and traveled across the casino on her way to the cantina where her furry companion was waiting. Sure enough, his limber figure was standing near one of the stools around the bar, his large black eyes scanning the area for signs of trouble. Dynatha silently positioned herself nearby, searching for danger beyond his peripheral vision.

“Where did you run off to, Dynatha?” Ixi asked.

“A patron was being harassed. I stepped in to resolve the situation.”

“Will he be all right?”

“I hope so,” Dynatha replied. She turned her attention back to the Frozian. “Ready?”

Ixi nodded, and the two Jedi were escorted to Sharzin’s chambers by a nearby droid. On the way, Ixi shared what he had learned about Sharzin from his inquiries and eavesdropping. As expected, Sharzin was a figure who liked to keep his information private. He was a major contender for the most powerful criminal in the Exchange, a crime syndicate that stretched across the galaxy. According to reports from their Jedi Masters and common rumors, he had a hand in weapon smuggling, spice running, slave dealing, extortion, and bribery. However, he was most renowned and feared for several gruesome assassinations of politicians and peacekeepers who opposed him early in his career.

Criminals like Sharzin had been very difficult to keep in line during the years after the Jedi Civil War. There had been no leadership amongst the Coruscant elite, the military had been underfunded and lacked soldiers and ships, and there had been threats from within and without. Ever since then, the Republic and the Jedi had been struggling to recover. Public sentiment kept the Jedi from working directly with the Republic as it had before, but the supreme chancellor understood just how valuable the Jedi were. Against popular approval, he acknowledged the danger Sharzin and his criminal dealings posed to reconstruction efforts along the frontier and sent Dynatha’s team to deal with him.

Of course, a criminal of Sharzin’s connections, aptitude, and cunning could not simply be imprisoned—no matter how much Dynatha wished he could have been. If they apprehended a crime lord of his stature, the entire balance of power in this region would shift. The Republic was already losing control of important trade routes to Hutt merchants; killing off Exchange thugs would cause them to flee to the Hutts and give them even more power. For now, the Galactic Senate merely wanted the Jedi to arrange a settlement with Sharzin that would convince him to stop raiding Republic supply convoys and no longer encourage smuggling runs on Republic spacelanes. Until a time came when the Republic had regained its former glory, he would be appeased. Dynatha didn’t like it, but such was the way of the galaxy.

A Duros met them at the entrance to Lord Sharzin’s private chambers. He waved them forward and bid the droid to leave. As they approached, his red eyes watched the Jedi intently, as if searching for something on their persons. Like most of the others they encountered in this place, fear was etched upon his facial features. He had obviously never confronted Jedi Knights before, but he had no doubt heard the stories. Hopefully, that would make their job easier.

“Greetings, Jedi. I am Lord Sharzin’s majordomo,” he announced, his already soft voice cracking. “While he would be glad to have you in his presence, I must ask that you surrender your Jedi weapons to me.”

“And why is that? Does he not trust us?” Ixi snapped.

The Duros shook his bald head quickly. “No, no. It is for your safety as well as his own. His guards react instinctively to weapons, you see, and they may attempt to engage you if they see them. Please understand, he has a great respect for you Jedi and would not like to see you harmed.”

“Very well,” Dynatha answered for them. Unclasping a metal cylinder from her belt, she handed the seemingly innocuous device to the crime lord’s servant. “Do be careful with it. It can be quite dangerous to the uninitiated.”

“Dynatha…” Ixi groaned.

She understood his concern; she sensed that Sharzin had no intention of working out a peaceful solution with them, but they had no other option at present. Besides, it was the Force that gave a Jedi power. They would not be defenseless going forward.

“Just do it. We don’t want him to get the wrong idea, do we?”

Ixi grumbled to himself, but he did as he was told. The majordomo eyed Dynatha’s weapon curiously, as though he had expected something else from the Jedi weapons. Once the Duros had procured both of their weapons, he placed them inside a small metal box. Satisfied that he was safe and they were not hiding anything further, the majordomo urged them to follow him inside. The two Jedi placed their hoods over their heads before continuing on.

As expected, the personal chambers of Lord Sharzin were lavish indeed. The room lacked any glowpanels, receiving warm orange light from an unknown source that poured in through the transparisteel windows on all four walls. Delicate alabaster vases with fanciful blue and gold trim hid beneath the windows, some filled with flowering plants and others not. The aroma of charnin spice, with all the sweetness of Alderaanian honey wine, wafted through the air, causing Ixi to sneeze. The floor they walked on had been carpeted by many colorful pelts, a rare sight on a space station such as this.

Toward the center of the room, a Falleen was seated behind a desk covered in a plethora of oddities. Surrounded by nearly a dozen slaves, male and female, it was clear from his position that this was Lord Sharzin. Dynatha didn’t realize the species could grow as large as he did; with muscles rippling from his robed form, he must have weighed nearly 150 kilograms. Possessing a steely expression on a face that was quite gaunt compared to his body, the Falleen waved one of his gloved hands and bid his majordomo bring the Jedi closer. Dynatha noticed his skin become a dark shade of red as they approached, but it quickly reverted to its former coloration.

“So you are Jedi Knights,” the Falleen boomed, his deep voice twanging with a hint of vibrato. “I must say, the stories seem quite exaggerated. You are not quite like I envisioned.”

“Most are quite unprepared to meet a Jedi,” Ixi chirped.

“This may be,” the crime lord replied, “but do not misunderstand me: I am honored to meet your kind.”

“If you do not mind, Lord Sharzin, we would like to get right to business,” Dynatha said.

The Falleen let the hint of smile escape otherwise stolid expression, as though he had just discovered something of utmost importance. “Surely such trivialities can wait.”

At the crime lord’s behest, a male Cathar slave, wearing nothing but a tanned loincloth as a covering, approached the two Jedi with a tray of edibles. Two females, leaving just as little to the imagination, carried forth a spice pipe and goblets of wine. The Jedi did not move, but they saw the Duros who had met them earlier slip away from them. Surrounding them with slaves was evidently a distraction that enabled him to place the small container holding their lightsabers into a locked strongbox.

“Such things do not interest us,” Ixi announced, shoving his way past a Twi'lek slave. “We have come on behalf of the supreme chancellor.”

“Oh? And what does that old blowhard want?” the Falleen mused.

“The Senate has deemed that some of your actions are hindering the growth of Republic infrastructure and our influence along the frontier. That said, they do not want to seem unfair in stifling your business. They know what it takes to keep an enterprise like yours running, you understand, but they do want you to stop raiding Republic ships and encouraging others to do likewise,” Dynatha explained.

“And what do I gain in return?”

“Free reign to expand in territories that once belonged to the Mandalorians, leniency on non-weapons smuggling and spice runs, and the ability to operate with clandestine Republic support in Hutt markets.”

“How interesting. Tell me, what gives the Republic the right to give me orders?”

“What right do you have to steal on Republic shipping lanes?” Ixi countered. “You’re lucky the Republic Navy doesn’t blast you and your smuggling contacts into slag!”

“Ixi, don’t goad him,” Dynatha whispered.

Sharzin let out a booming laugh. “The navy couldn’t destroy my ships if they had targets painted onto their broadsides. If I listen to you and your chancellor, I would lose millions of credits every month. While such losses are trivial to me, today it is just smuggling; tomorrow you will ask me to stop trading slaves, and in a year you will have me in binders on some prison colony.”

“You'll be like that if you don’t listen to us, too,” Ixi replied.

Dynatha sighed. Her younger companion was hopeless. This was not their first diplomatic mission together, and he was usually a bit more reserved; something in this place must have been agitating him. Despite all of his teacher’s lessons and her own tact, it seemed she had yet to influence him enough to ensure his politeness in these missions. She was ashamed to think that she would probably have to seek a different partner for future missions, but this behavior was unacceptable.

“You are awfully noisy for such a simple creature.” The Falleen’s dark eyes turned from Ixi to Dynatha. “Tell me, primitive, do you think your companion agrees with you?”

“He and I are of one mind,” Dynatha replied in her ally’s stead.

“Oh?” Sharzin’s skin turned from its cold green shade into a warmer color. “Tell me, Jedi. Why do you hide your features under such unflattering robes?”

Dynatha was going to retort, but something held her tongue. It was a strange feeling, and her entire body suddenly felt very weak. Before she knew it, her brown-gold eyes locked with the Falleen’s, and eventually began to peruse his body. The red color of his skin looked quite attractive, and she admired how his muscles almost etched their figure into his diaphanous robe. Despite the fact that he was neither Human nor was she sure they were even biologically compatible, she was strangely attracted to him.

Something in his eyes seemed to hint that he understood her thoughts quite clearly, and her cheeks reddened under her hood when she realized that she had been staring. She averted her eyes as quickly as she could. Remembering that she had been asked a question, Dynatha stammered a sort of half-hearted response. Ixi shot her a puzzled look, but she hadn’t noticed.

“It is quite a shame, Jedi, that your kind do not admire the body as I am apt to. In my time… studying Human females, I have realized that identifying the contours and shapeliness of their figures is a simple task, even beneath loose clothes such as yours. But why leave it to the imagination?”

Before her mind could decide one way or another, she realized what was happening. The Force, which had been hazy and distant since they arrived in the criminal’s presence, suddenly became vibrant and powerful again when she sensed that the Paaerduag she had saved earlier was being accosted by someone. Worried for his safety, her strength in the Force was restored.

Now that her senses were clear, she could sense that the Falleen was toying with her using powerful pheromones. She felt a strange mixture of embarrassment, disgust, and indignation rise from within her. Whether he was simply trying to divide them to hinder their chances at reaching a settlement or he was simply an insufferably perverse criminal, Dynatha didn’t care. The idea of being subjected to such a sickening thing made her think of smashing his head into his desk—several times—for his actions.

“There is no emotion, there is peace…”

No. That was wrong. Now that she recognized what he was doing, she could resist it. It wasn’t easy, and it took all of her mental focus and willpower, but that was all she had to do for now. He seemed to notice her challenge his control, and he exuded even more pheromones as his skin turned a pigment of red so dark she thought a blood vessel would burst. The Force gave her the strength she needed to endure, but she could hardly speak lest she break her concentration.

“Dynatha, are you all right?” Ixi whispered.

“Yes, Jedi, are you quite all right? Do not fear; my kind is a long-lived species, and your age does not diminish true beauty. Come closer. I will take care of you.”

Dynatha’s fists curled so tight that she felt her nails tear into her palms. Sweat dripped above her eyes and down her cheeks, but she remained in place. Ixi tried to get her to say something, but she couldn’t even communicate with him mentally and ask him to continue the discussion. She was a Jedi Knight; she would resist this. She gave her companion a look that encouraged him to continue, but he hesitated.

The Falleen seemed to realize his efforts were in vain, but he did not stop tormenting her. Assured that Dynatha was totally distracted by his efforts, he turned his attention back to his slaves, groping several females and taking a long drink of wine.

“Well, we seemed to have reached an impasse, Jedi. I refuse to yield to the Republic’s demands on this matter. I protect every shipping magnate from here to Ithor, and if the Republic seeks to engage me militarily I will go out of my way to call upon the Hutts for aid. My criminal dealings make local politicians very rich, and your galactic senators reap the benefits of my spices and slaves. I refuse to lose that much power, and you have no way of convincing me otherwise.”

“You would refuse our terms? Even if it meant your destruction?” Ixi asked, turning from his companion.

“I do not explicitly refuse. I will just say that you proved unreasonable and tried to assassinate me. Perhaps you never gave me your terms and I was forced to… deal with you. The Republic knows that anyone capable of dealing with Jedi is someone to be feared. I’m afraid you will be the example that will cause them to reconsider their negotiations with me.”

“What?” Dynatha managed to say.

“Guards.”

Dozens of beings emerged from the shadows of the room. Two stocky Gamorreans with vibro-axes walked into Sharzin’s chambers from just outside, positioning themselves behind the two Jedi. Several Gank killers sealed in cybernetic armor revealed themselves from their hiding positions along the walls at their left and right, and a massive Houk stalked in from some unseen stairwell, guarding the majordomo. The most startling, though, were four Jilruan: these lanky humanoids wore dark, one-piece robes with heavy hoods that left only their glowing yellow eyes visible. They stood just behind Sharzin himself, each carrying a sheath in their hands. The two Jedi glanced around at these new adversaries, and Ixi reached for his lightsaber only to remember that he had been relieved of it already.

“Orders, my lord?” the Houk rumbled.

“Kill the furred mongrel. Try to capture the woman for my harem; if you cannot, I understand. Do not underestimate them.”

Everything moved in slow motion around Dynatha. She saw the Houk lift his repeating blaster to fire upon them. The Gank killers did likewise with their heavy blaster pistols. The Gamorreans, squealing with delight at the thought of combat, moved in to lop off their heads with their axes. Ixi glanced over at Dynatha for aid, but she was still so weakened by Sharzin’s pheromones that she hadn’t been able to sense the trap, much less engage them now.

Just before the fight began, there was a loud crack from somewhere nearby. The noise caused the guards to jump and hold their fire. Before anyone—even the Jedi—could react, the transparisteel window on the left side of the room erupted, sending tiny shards flying on top of Sharzin’s slaves and his desk. In time with the explosion, a humanoid figure wearing dark combat gear jumped through the gaping hole that remained, soaring over all of the slaves and guards so that he landed on the desk that Sharzin was lounging behind.

“Sharzin, boss of the Exchange?” the figure asked, his voice raspy from the gas mask concealed beneath his combat helmet.

“Who-?”

“The Hound of Baskarn sends his regards.”

There was a muted bang, and the Falleen’s mouth gaped in terror. The guards and the Jedi were stunned when they realized that the crime lord had been shot through the chest; charred tissue and chalky residue were all that remained of his ribcage and everything inside it. Satisfied, the figure performed a short backflip off the desk and threw two bladed disks while in the air, killing one of the Gamorreans and the Houk. With a pained gasp and a gurgled command, their Falleen master fell on top of his desk as the assassin landed on the floor in front of him.

The slaves realized what was happening first, and the entire crowd of them scrambled over themselves to escape the room. In the ensuing panic, Ixi grabbed the fallen Gamorrean’s arg'garok, swinging the ax at their only remaining porcine adversary. The weapon proved heavier than he had anticipated, however, and he missed the Gamorrean’s head and struck at his side instead. With Sharzin dead, Dynatha recovered entirely and moved to help Ixi. Before the guard could counter the Frozian’s swing, Dynatha planted her foot in the guard’s snout, causing him to fall backward. Now that he had a feel for the weapon, Ixi decapitated the guard with a single swing.

While the Jedi dealt with the Gamorrean, the assassin had been engaged by Falleen’s remaining guards. The four tall Jilruan unsheathed their swords in unison and struck at the killer as one—two attacked his head, one attacked his chest, and the last aimed at his leg. He jumped to the side to avoid the lowest strike and used the vambraces on his forearms to intercept the other three blades. Stepping inside their defenses, the assassin backhanded the closest Jilruan hard enough to send the guard to the floor. The other three began a series of rapid slices that threatened to cut the assassin’s arms off, forcing him to retreat.

Without their lightsabers, the two Jedi were exposed to blaster fire, but not defenseless. The armored combatants were trained warriors who were quite common amongst the criminal elite and renowned for their skills in Hutt circles. However, the Jedi had the Force, and that was far stronger than even the most hardened criminal enforcers. With a single thought, the two Jedi lifted the entire company of Gank killers into the air and hurled them into the wall directly behind them. Brandishing the Gamorreans' vibro-axes, the two Jedi moved in to ensure that they had all been incapacitated.

Just across the room, the assassin jumped off the back wall and kicked at the furthest of the three Jilruan pursing him, knocking him over. The assassin rolled into a landing and scooped up the sword the guard had dropped and repositioned himself to block his last two assailants. Again, they fought as a unit, one striking low and another high. The killer countered them both, blocking one with a vambrace and the other with a sword. Countering in a quick motion, he cut through one of his enemies with his sword and punched the other in the throat, causing him to wheeze as she struggled for breath. In that moment, the assassin stepped forward and snapped his opponent’s thin neck by pushing his target’s head down until it touched his shoulders.

The assassin nodded simply at his work and returned to the two Jilruan guardsmen he had merely incapacitated. He killed them both with a single cut to the neck. Before he could move on to ensure that the other guards were dead, the two Jedi intercepted and stopped him. He dropped his weapon and raised his hands at their command, assuring the two that he had no intention of fighting them.

Holding her vibro-axe close enough to his face that he could hear its hum, Dynatha had gotten a good look at the assassin himself. Quite a bit taller than she was, the assassin wore a black mesh combat suit with bandoleers of grenades and power paks. He was fairly muscular in spite of his earlier agility, and the way he held his vibrosword made it clear he was an expert combatant. However, despite his obvious lethality and her concerns, he was relaxed and not in a position to engage them.

She reached into the Force to learn more about him than what her simple senses could observe. She was alarmed when she discovered the assassin seemed almost invisible to the Force. He was alive, yes, and he could be sensed, but she could not just passively sense him as she did others. Whether he was Force-sensitive or not, she could not tell. Was he the strange feeling the Force had tried showing her earlier? She eyed the figure before them suspiciously, and she had a distinct feeling they had met before.

“What did you go and do that for?” Ixi asked. “You killed him! You went and killed him!”

“It was a job,” the assassin replied simply. “Do we have a problem, Jedi?”

“You bet we do!” Ixi sneered. “You ruined a chance for the Republic to resolve this issue peacefully! The Exchange will madly scramble to fight over Sharzin’s territory, the fleets will be forced to engage, and the Hutts may even get involved! The ramifications of your actions will be felt throughout this sector for decades!”

“Who hired you to carry this operation out?” Dynatha asked.

“I tend not to go around endangering my employers,” the assassin noted. “Bad for business.”

“And you've ruined our business. You’re in our custody now, murderer,” Ixi announced.

“You'll probably want to recover your lightsaber before you go making threats, friend.”

The assassin motioned toward the container the majordomo had placed their weapons in. It was still locked and, just by looking at it, seemed to be magnetically shielded. The majordomo who had deposited their weapons inside was nowhere to be found, and Dynatha suspected he had run away as soon as the fighting had started.

“Well, I guess we have to track him down,” she said to Ixi.

“Who?” the assassin asked.

“None of your business!” Ixi snapped.

“Sharzin’s majordomo,” Dynatha explained for her flustered companion. “I presume he has the controls to switch the shielding off that strongbox.”

“Oh.” The assassin slipped one of the vambraces off his forearm and handed it to Dynatha. “Hit the green button near the back and hold it near the magseal. A security spike will deal with the magnetic field.”

Dynatha glanced at the assassin and then at his gift. Pressing the green button and handing it to Ixi, she urged him to be careful. The other Jedi was as suspicious of the trinket as she was, and he eyed the strange device for any obvious traps. As soon as Ixi stepped toward the strongbox to disable the shield, the killer grabbed Dynatha by the sleeve and pulled her closer, forcing her arm into a painful lock behind her back.

“Don’t move,” he said. “I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

But she was already moving. With her free hand, Dynatha punched his side to weaken his grip and then shifted her body weight forward and down. She was in a low crouch before he could reposition his own body and reestablish his grip, and he flew past her and landed on his back. Ixi had returned in that moment, still holding the vambrace and vibro-ax in his hands and ready to defend Dynatha.

The assassin gasped softly as he tried to recover his breath. “Not bad, Dynatha. I didn’t think… you had it in you.”

“Do I know you?”

The assassin removed his helmet, revealing the face of a Human male about four years her senior. The silvery hair on his head was cut short, and he was sweating from the combat he had endured. One of his eyes was a shimmering blue, encircled in darkness as one who hadn’t slept in ages, and the other was an eerie white—obviously prosthetic—that was surrounded by a deep star-shaped gash where his natural left eye had once been. The scar ran down to the top of his sharp nose, where fine wrinkles made him appear more haggard. He had a thin smile on his face not unlike novice pazaak players trying to hide a winning hand. His face was mutilated compared to when she had seen him last, but she did in fact know this man.

Tserne.

She both thought and said his name.

“Dynatha,” he replied in kind.

“You two know each other?” Ixi asked.

“What are you- why are- where did you go?” Dynatha snapped, ignoring her companion.

The assassin shook his head. “Not now. Later, perhaps.”

“What do you mean, later? You owe me an explanation—a lot of explanations, actually!”

“None of which we have time for as long as we’re here,” Tserne replied. “Whatever you may think of me is irrelevant. The Exchange operatives on this station have no doubt been alerted to their boss’s death by now, and if we do not leave soon, we may not be able to. Do you have a ship?”

“We do. It’s berthed in the Cresh docks,” Dynatha said.

“Mine is nearby, Dorn level. You may not like it, but it would be more beneficial if we helped each other until our escape is complete.”

“Until the two of us escape and you are in custody. You interfered with Jedi business,” Ixi grumbled.

“Whatever you say. Get your lightsabers back and follow me.”


Chapter 2

Dynatha lingered near the back of the elevator with Ixi while Tserne stood by the elevator controls and watched for any strange activity. Whether he would have been able to control the elevator if it was rerouted by the technicians, he did not say. However, neither of the Jedi were in a mood to endure conversation, so they let him do as he pleased. Ixi was still sour about failing the mission on his account, and Dynatha fought against a tumult of emotions—none of them pleased or mirthful—trying to understand why the Force had brought Tserne’s back into her life after nearly twenty years.

“Next level and we'll be back in the Aurodium Rush,” Tserne announced to no one in particular.

“Why couldn’t we take the way you came in?” Ixi asked.

“I had to crawl through two kilometers of engineering tunnels to get to the generators just outside Sharzin’s room,” Tserne explained. “While I don’t doubt you two could keep up with me, three individuals inside those tunnels would make a lot of noise.”

“So will rushing into the casino blasters blazing,” Dynatha noted dryly.

“Sure. But at least this way, we'll have a chance to fight back. There’s not much we can do when technicians are firing toward the ceiling at us as we crawl overhead.”

Dynatha leaned back and nodded. She didn’t like it, but she knew Tserne was right. The easiest way back to their ship would be to take the most direct route. That route would take them through a firefight, sure, but it was quicker than sneaking around everywhere. Ixi seemed to agree, because he didn’t continue the argument with their enigmatic guest.

“So… you two were close?” Ixi whispered.

Dynatha’s brow furrowed. “I’d rather not talk about it, if you don’t mind.”

“Right. Sorry.”

The elevator came to a sudden halt and slid open, admitting its three passengers back into the casino. As Tserne expected, the entire level had been locked down by Exchange commandos; the criminals under Lord Sharzin must have been alerted to his death immediately, and they in turn mobilized all their underlings. Knowing that even specialized mercenaries would have difficulty stopping Jedi Knights, the criminals set up shield emplacements, combat droids, and stationary turrets at key chokepoints around the establishment. The patrons from earlier were present as well, but they had been hastily gathered in backrooms where they wouldn’t get in the way.

The two Jedi and their assassin compatriot ended up on both sides of the back entryway of the Aurodium Rush without being seen.

“What’s the plan?” Ixi whispered.

“I'll free the patrons,” Tserne replied. “That'll cause a panic. You two draw their attention until then.”

“If you do that, you'll be putting them in danger,” Dynatha noted.

“The Exchange depends on these beings for their credits. They wouldn’t shoot them.”

Before they could continue their discussion, Tserne had moved into the casino. Dynatha shouted after him, but it was no use. The criminals near a cluster of gambling machines to their left saw them first, and the group of thugs opened fire immediately. In time with their shots, Ixi flipped the switch on his lightsaber’s hilt and revealed a short yellow beam of light with a snap-hiss. Dynatha mimicked him and activated her lightsaber’s green blade. Their weapons traveled in winding paths around their torsos, crackling as orange blaster bolts screamed through the air and made contact only to be deflected and sent back toward the criminals who fired at them.

The small group of thugs proved unable to stop the advancing Jedi Knights, but the entire casino was also alerted to their presence. By the time the Jedi dealt with the Exchange’s vanguard, reinforcements approached with heavy repeating blasters. Although their lightsabers could have held out against even the hail of blaster fire from those weapons, the two Jedi were simultaneously flanked by a small team of rifle-wielding mercenaries, threatening to divide their attention. Quickly communicating through the Force, they agreed to separate for now and meet back at the hangar as soon as possible.

With a Force-enhanced speed, Ixi trotted away from the Exchange mercenaries threatening to surround them, forcing a few of them to pursue him. Left with only a handful of criminals to deal with, Dynatha intercepted a few of their blaster shots with her lightsaber before retreating in the opposite direction of the other Jedi. She managed to avoid the criminals following her easily enough, hiding behind an elaborate structure of pillars that seemed to support the second and third levels of the casino by their lonesome.

“Dynatha,” Tserne’s voice whispered from a nearby pillar.

She hadn’t sensed the assassin nearby. Then again, that was hardly surprising—he had always been masterful at hiding himself from her. “Are you going to answer me?” she asked evenly.

“Come with me!” he said, ignoring her question entirely.

“What?”

“I’m going to recover an artifact in Sith space, but I can’t do it alone. I need someone I can trust; I don’t know anyone more worthy of my trust than you.”

Dynatha shot him a bemused glance. They hadn’t spoken in nearly twenty years. He had abandoned her after the conclusion of their attacks against the GenoHaradan, and he hadn’t even told her where he was going. He knew she couldn’t sense him, so he must have done it on purpose. In twenty years, not only had he not met anyone he trusted more than her, he seemed to have no remorse about leaving her behind—wherever he had gone after leaving her. She felt something akin to pity for the man, but it was ultimately lost in the anger that swallowed up the rest of her emotions.

“Tserne, how do you expect me to go carousing around the galaxy with you?” she asked, deflecting a few incoming blaster shots in the process. “You abandoned me. You left me to fend for myself, and I found a home to call my own. I’m a Jedi now. You can’t just ask me to leave-”

“I’m not asking you to leave the Jedi. I’m just saying that this is a very important mission. I don’t know if I'll be able to come back or not. And honestly…” He grimaced, obviously unsure of his next words. “It would be a good time as any for us to start talking again. It’s a long journey to Sith space, after all.”

“You say that as if I want to talk with you at all,” she pointed out.

“Don’t you?”

The question gave her more pause than she initially thought possible. On one hand, she was furious at Tserne DeLarane and would have preferred to have nothing to do with him. He was a nefarious troublemaker, he was selfish, and he was very likely quite insane. On the other, the questions that kept her up at night as a Jedi Padawan all rushed to the forefront of her mind, begging for answers and resolution to the relationship—whatever that relationship was—they had once had.

“No,” she said firmly, but with not as much sincerity as she hoped. “I think you’re crazy. You just up and leave, and you want me to follow you blindly like I did before?”

“What’s stopping you?”

“You’re stopping me!” Orange fire smashed against the pillar she was using for cover, forcing her to duck toward Tserne’s. They were practically face-to-face, but she didn’t dare look up into his eyes. “How can I do that again, knowing you as I do? Knowing that you would just as soon abandon me to go on some fool’s mission than stay with me?”

“I promise I'll explain everything,” he said, gently touching her shoulder. “But you must come with me. It’s the only way.”

“How do you expect me to trust you again?”

Tserne had no answer this time. Perhaps Dynatha owed him some favor or another from the time they had spent together, but that was a long time ago. A lot had changed since those days. She had extended her vulnerable heart to him in a time of loneliness, and he had stomped upon her feelings with callous disregard and left her to fend for herself when she had ceased to be useful to him. No explanation, no goodbye. The many tears shed during her solitude in the Jedi Temple on Telos had steeled themselves into feelings of resentment now, and she could not find it in her heart to forgive him.

Dynatha stepped out from behind the pillar and allowed her lightsaber’s blade to send a few incoming shots back toward their masters. Tserne didn’t try to stop her, so she left him behind and found new cover behind a two meter tall gambling machine. The few criminals still following her from before broke away after a few of them received redirected blaster shots for their trouble, leaving her somewhat safe for the time being.

The criminals around her quickly became distracted by the civilians Tserne had released earlier. As he said, they were initially hesitant to fire into the crowd of terrified and confused patrons; one misplaced blaster shot or accidental punch meant that they would lose hundreds of thousands of credits. That gave the Jedi some respite, but the Exchange’s hesitation was too good to last. At the behest of their commanders, the mercenaries and thugs began firing into the crowds at random, hoping to slow down their adversaries.

Dynatha saw one of the rich patrons take a blaster shot to the chest and go down. They weren’t even using stun blasters. She silently cursed Tserne for his foolishness. Their escape was important, yes, but not if it mean putting all of these innocent lives in danger. Putting her weapon away and raising her hands to her head, she pictured a translucent shield of pure energy around each patron of the Aurodium Rush—from the richest Human in his tailored suit to the poor Paaerduag who was hardly aware of the situation—to fit their individual form. It had been some time since she called upon this much of the Force’s power, and she knew doing this would leave her exhausted and defenseless, but if she didn’t intervene too many innocents would die.

As she hoped, her imagination became reality through the whims of the Force. Shimmering blue shields formed around the civilians scrambling over each other to flee the panic around them, and blaster fire bounced off of them as easily as it would a lightsaber. However, that strength had to come from somewhere. Dynatha felt each blaster shot that was blocked as she would a punch to her gut—and there were many blaster bolts targeting those innocents. She had no idea how long her body could endure such pain.

The patrons were quick to flee from the danger around them, but not quick enough to spare Dynatha’s strength. Her shields continued to take punishment, and she suffered trying to maintain them. Sweat covered her face, running in rivulets across her cheeks and down her petite nose. Her vision faded between bright colors and splotchy blackness, and her entire body writhed in actual pain as she struggled to shield the many civilians still left inside.

A pair of Exchange thugs with several floating municipal patrol droids in tow circled around the gambling machine she was hiding behind. They reeled back when they saw her, each of them sure they would be cut down by an incoming lightsaber. Dynatha noticed their presence and sensed their fear; she tried to telekinetically throw something at the group to distract them or scare them off, but she lacked the power to do so. The criminals and droids seemed to realize their stroke after a few seconds of nervous silence, and they raised their blaster rifles to fire at her.

No! I still have to defend…

Ixi jumped in front of Dynatha from an unseen vantage point, moving so fast it was like he materialized out of thin air. His lightsaber swept before him, catching the incoming bursts of energy and sending them back toward their assailants. However, there were too many blaster shots even for a trained Jedi Knight to block with a shorter blade, and one of the droid’s limb-mounted blasters found their mark against his upper leg. He reeled back for half a second, giving an Exchange gunman time to shoot him in the side, but he refused to yield to his injuries. With a few telekinetic pushes and a lightsaber throw, he managed to subdue their opponents, leaving the two Jedi free from harm.

She had sensed Ixi’s pain, and she nearly lost her concentration in her worry, but he proved strong enough to last the battle. It was only once there was no one left to attack them that he collapsed over himself, forcing Dynatha to stop shielding the patrons and rush to his side.

“Ixi! Hold on, I'll heal you.”

“What… were you doing?” he asked, trying to brush her hands away from the wound.

“Defending the patrons. We have to get them out, Ixi.”

“I don’t even know if I'll get out,” Ixi muttered. “There are too many criminals and even more civilians. We cannot possibly guard them all.”

Dynatha nodded solemnly. His wounds seemed to have been from shots that barely made contact, and she suspected that he had nearly blocked them, but they were severe enough to hinder his movement, at least. Her hands hovered over his charred fur and the burnt tissue beneath it, and she tried to draw upon the Force to heal him. To her genuine surprise, she couldn’t summon it. She had underestimated just how tired she was and just how much strength it had taken to summon those energy shields.

“I don’t think… I can’t…” Dynatha couldn’t find the words. “Give me a second.”

Ixi was about to retort, but a cacophony of screams in the distance cut him off. Despite Dynatha’s mental protestations, Ixi pushed himself off the ground and held up his lightsaber to defend them. His caution was unwarranted. From the front of the Aurodium Rush, another Jedi revealed himself, a blue lightsaber blazing fiercely in his grip. He would have appeared Human if not for his oblong head—a natural feature of the Cerean species—that extended at least half a meter above where his forehead was. The Cerean was bald and yet far younger than the other Jedi, lacking any wrinkles or scars. He had a perennial frown just below a dark mustache, and his piercing jet black eyes seemed to be searching for any enemies he might have missed earlier.

“Ojon? We told you stay with the ship!” Ixi said, barely maintain his balance.

“I’m no longer a learner, Ixi. I can do as I want,” the Cerean replied coldly.

Dynatha extended her senses beyond her, and she realized that everyone else in the casino had been incapacitated, even the droids. Had Ojon done that? Ixi seemed to realize the sudden lack of enemies at the same time she did, but before he could respond one way or another he collapsed again. Dynatha grabbed him before he hit the ground and eased his fall, and Ojon was quick to join them.

“Are you all right, Ixi?” Ojon asked.

“We are senior to you, and you should heed our orders,” the Frozian Jedi replied, ignoring his question.

Ojon shrugged. “You were in danger.”

“What exactly did you do to the Exchange agents?” Dynatha asked, searching for any incoming dangers.

“Stasis field. I didn’t have time to distinguish friend from foe, so I just froze everyone who didn’t have a noticeable presence in the Force and disabled all the droids. I have a pretty good control over it, and they should be harmless for a few more minutes; we should retreat before they recover.”

“What about the civilians?” Dynatha asked, helping Ixi to his feet.

“They should be fine,” Ixi noted. “The criminals were after us, not them. Once we’re away, they’d have no reason to continue attacking them.”

“Then let’s go. I’m tired of waiting around,” Ojon said.

*** ***

“Sharzin’s death is unfortunate, but there is little we can do about it now. Is there anything else?”

The Jedi had received permission to use the Horizon Bound’s comm room in private, but they had not explained that they were, in fact, Jedi Knights. If any of them were listening in—and Dynatha suspected they were—then it would be obvious as to their true identity. She suspected that they were about to lose another ship to the inevitable fears and biases against the Jedi that most spacers had; it was a shame, she quite liked this crew.

Dynatha, Ixi, and Ojon were surrounded by life-size holographic images of the Jedi Council, twelve Jedi in all. The dozen blank stares were partially hidden beneath their cowls, and Dynatha could hardly sense their reaction to their report, but something told her that the Jedi Council was distracted by something else.

“Actually, yes,” Dynatha spoke up. “The assassin, Tserne DeLarane, said he was going to venture to Sith space. He’s searching for some sort of artifact, and he wanted me to go with him.”

The two Jedi Knights at her side cast surprised glances at her; this was the first time they heard this as well. The Jedi on the High Council did not betray emotion, but an uncomfortable majority stirred in their seats.

“Did he say why?” one of their members asked.

“And what it was he was searching for?” another chimed in.

“No, Masters. I imagine he trusts me because… we were friends during the Jedi Civil War. I haven’t communicated with him since, so I imagine he’s simply hoping to have a Jedi accompany him in case there is danger.”

“Which is likely the case, if he’s going to Sith territory,” yet another Jedi Councilor said.

“Yes, Master.”

There was a moment of silent deliberation, leaving the three Jedi Knights silently waiting for their next orders.

“Ixi, Ojon, make your way to Suurja. It’s close enough for us to send a shuttle to recover the two of you, and you can relieve the Horizon Bound and her crew of excess responsibility. Ixi can be healed in the medcenters there.”

“What about me, Masters?” Dynatha asked.

“You… will go with the assassin on his mission.”

Dynatha gritted her teeth. “What? By myself?”

“Ojon is needed elsewhere, and you cannot possibly expect Ixi to travel alone while he is injured, can you?”

“Masters, this isn’t fair.”

“Fair?” another member of the Council repeated. “He trusts no one except you, it seems. You may not like it, Dynatha, but you must realize that Jedi must sacrifice comfort for the greater good. We can use his trust to our advantage.”

“What do you mean?” Dynatha asked warily.

“We cannot risk losing such a valuable lead. Find out who sent him on this mission and what it is he seeks. Very few venture into Sith space anymore, and there are even fewer who would risk the dangers involved with procuring the dark treasures there. Perhaps he works for a naïve collector or an enthusiast of the dark side, like the Krath. Whoever it is, that individual must be tracked down and apprehended.”

“We need to know exactly he is looking for,” another continued, “and where it is he intends to look. If he refuses to divulge these things even to you, secure the artifact before he does, and then arrest him and bring him before us.”

“Masters, what if he’s stronger than me? This isn’t going to work. Please send someone else.”

“There is no one else,” the Head of the Jedi Order replied. “You alone are able to accomplish this. But do not fear, Dynatha. You are a Jedi. The Force will be with you.”

The Jedi Knight’s anger threatened to snap back at the Jedi Council, and she stormed off before she said something she would regret later. Ixi called after her, but she didn’t come back. The Jedi Council seemed oblivious to her disappearance and waited for the remaining two Jedi Knights to refocus on the task at hand.

“What if she’s right, Masters?” Ixi asked. “What if she’s not able to handle the mission?”

“What do you mean?” a Jedi Master at his peripheral vision asked.

“The two of them… well, she might have… lingering sentiments,” Ixi explained.

“And you think that her emotions would cloud her judgment when dealing with this assassin?” one closer to the center of the circle wondered.

Ixi realized that he could have caused the Jedi Council to doubt Dynatha’s sincerity and dedication, which had not been his intention. “Perhaps,” he said neutrally.

“We will track her position via her comlink’s return signal and send Jedi to assist her,” the leader of the Council said. “For now, though, you and Ojon need to return to Telos as soon as possible. I know you two are concerned for her, but there are other matters that require your attention.”

“As you wish, Masters,” the two remaining Jedi replied in unison before switching off the comm.

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