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Chapter 13

Dynatha had meditated for most of the flight through hyperspace. Master Cortes had offered to join her after some time, and the two of them had been together—in silence—for most of the trip. After he had left, a Togruta named Selias Siital had introduced herself to her and asked her countless questions. Some of them were related to the mission Dynatha undertook to Krayiss Two, and others were more personal. Dynatha managed to stave off any intrusive inquiries, but at the same time Selias hardly pressed any particular issue. She was a bit strange, and Dynatha was rather relieved when she left to attend to her own devices. Apparently, she was Ranval’s lieutenant and the leader of a group of commandos the two of them had assembled. It was the strangest thing Dynatha had ever heard, but it also explained a lot of the mysterious things about this ship.

She had yet to meet Celes Sunrider, but she was on the ship—that much was certain. A few hours after leaving Krayiss Two, Dynatha’s connection to the Force was restored entirely, allowing her to sense the presence of the Jedi around her. As expected, Celes’s aura was overwhelming to the point that she could hardly focus on it without being fatigued. Such power was nearly unimaginable. It only made Dynatha even more excited to meet the inheritor to the Sunrider legacy.

She had just pulled herself out of a meditative trance when their ship left hyperspace. Ranval announced over the intercomm that they would arrive on Ambria in about fifteen minutes. Although she had no real interest in visiting this place, she acknowledged the fact that whoever was here might have the power to heal Tserne. While she still wasn’t feeling particularly amicable toward the assassin, she was concerned for his wellbeing, mostly because she thought it was her fault that he ended up like this. If she had been stronger, she could have saved them both from the specters on Krayiss Two.

In her present state, she couldn’t help but hate herself for her weakness. Maybe the Sith ghosts were right: to achieve her full potential, perhaps she needed to tap into her emotions and embrace darkness. In her youth, the Sith had certainly convinced her of that, and they had been very strong. It had been a long time since she had been haunted by the nightmares of her time with the Sith and the torture that followed, but she had to acknowledge that—somewhere in the back of her mind—she was still terrified of the dark side and what it had done to her all those years ago. And maybe she was terrified because they were strong enough to do whatever they wanted, while she remained weak and helpless.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Master Cortes. “We have arrived. Are you coming, venerable one?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, I just had a… I was distracted. I’m better now.”

“Are you certain? I can sense the tumult within you.”

Dynatha forgot just how easily a Jedi Master of his caliber could detect the inner workings of an unprotected mind. “Can I ask you a question, Master?”

“Of course. Come, walk with me. We can talk while we meet with Ranval and his team as they disembark.”

The two Jedi left Dynatha’s temporary room near the starboard wing and headed for the egress ramp. A few small cleaning droids rolled about and beeped as they attended to their duties, but otherwise the white corridors of the ship were empty and quiet.

“What is it that troubles you?” Delvin asked.

“I… when Tserne and I were on Krayiss Two, we encountered very powerful spirits. I don’t even think the Jedi on the Council could have dealt with them. I’ve never felt anything as strong as those specters.”

“Krayiss Two is a world that holds ancient secrets that are too wicked for this era. Perhaps you are right. Such worlds are bound by a darkness so great that there is little that any servant of the light can do.”

“So the dark side is stronger,” Dynatha mused to herself, dejected.

“The dark side only appears to be more powerful,” Master Cortes assured her, “because it is so often used to enforce power. Ironically, the darkness is fueled by emotions defined by weakness.”

“How can you call that weakness? I was there, facing them, and I couldn’t even influence them with all of my strength.”

“Understand that, in life, those Sith were jealous of the dark knowledge of their kin. Their envy was so great that they killed each other for it, only to find that their hatred for each other was so powerful that they were bound to the very place where they had died. Now, wracked by the endless pain that undeath causes, their dark side power is nearly limitless. But it is not unstoppable.”

“How can any Jedi hope to fight an evil that withstands death itself?”

“By not fighting at all,” Delvin replied with a smile. “The light is antithetical to the darkness in every way. It is not through battle, but through compassion that the light finds itself strongest. Endure that evil and respond by showing your true strength.”

Dynatha didn’t know what to say. Master Cortes was assured in the strength of the light, but she had seen evidence to the contrary. From the Sith Masters who killed her parents, manipulated her mind to forget their dark deeds, and tortured her under false accusations to the dark ghosts who nearly killed Tserne and were invulnerable to everything she could muster, she had experienced the power of the dark side personally. What did he mean, true strength? What could possibly hope to compete with an evil that had power over life and death?

She was silent for the rest of their walk. The Blind Guide landed as they neared the exit, and she began to notice some of Ranval’s associates wandering the corridors. It didn’t take long for the two Jedi to reach Ranval at the boarding ramp. There were about eight commandos there, including Selias, busy removing large footlockers, storage cylinders, and loading pallets from their vessel. Ranval watched their work with arms crossed, only speaking to delegate tasks as necessary.

“You seem troubled, Master Messor,” Delvin called.

Ranval glanced up to acknowledge them, although he had probably sensed them in the Force some time ago. “It’s nothing. We’ve just got a lot of things to do and very little time.”

“So we’re not going to be here long?” Dynatha asked, still hoping to return to Telos and her friends as soon as possible.

“It depends on how long he wants us to stay,” Ranval admitted.

“Who is that, exactly?” Dynatha inquired.

“The master of Ambria,” Ranval replied. “We ought to go see him now.”

“Oh, sure, you Jedi go do that,” Selias grumbled in jest. “I’ll just stay here and make sure everything gets done. Whatever you say, boss. You’re welcome.”

Ranval ignored her and beckoned for the two Jedi to follow him. Dynatha and Delvin walked by the busy commandos and left the ship; Dynatha immediately regretted it. It was midday on Ambria, and the sun was high overhead, casting scalding rays down upon her. Aside from the Blind Guide, there was no shade at all, and she started sweating immediately. Arid winds blew around them, buffeting her face with burning winds and thick billows of dust. How could one world be so unbearable?

Traveling toward the front of the ship, Dynatha was surprised to see that the land in front of them was completely green: xerophytic flowering plants and herbs grew in large patches of earth for nearly a kilometer in all directions. As her eyes wandered toward the horizon, she saw a small lake barely visible beneath a towering mountain range that seemed to hem them in from all sides. There were a few sparse clouds near those distance peaks, but there were absolutely none where the three Jedi emerged.

Ranval directed her and Delvin’s attention to a small abode made of mud and stone not more than three meters from where he had set their ship down. The house looked big enough for perhaps one person and a few guests, and the rough exterior and faded color made it obvious to her that the building had weathered the desert heat for decades. There was a large pen off to one side of the home, where a herd of green-skinned herbivores with thick fur coats were grazing on the plants nearby. On the opposite side of the hut, a massive statue of a mysterious quadruped had been erected, standing nearly four meters tall and twice as long. The creature it was modeled after was strange indeed, possessing reptilian features with a beard and oddly sentient eyes. Beneath its forefeet was a plaque that Dynatha could not read and a large pyre with blue flames.

“This is the home of Ambria’s master,” Ranval explained. “He has lived here for many years, as his master before him did, tending to the land and preserving it for a future generation of Jedi Knights.”

“He’s lived here by himself?” Dynatha asked. “It must be lonely…”

“He sought solitude after the events of the last war,” Ranval said. “His pupil still visits him on occasion, but there are few alive who remember this place—and the master himself. He is a Jedi from another era, and he does things differently, as you will see.”

Ranval headed toward the house, leaving Dynatha and Delvin to follow at their leisure. While she had no idea what Master Cortes thought of this place, Dynatha had to admit that the hut and the area around it, at least, had its charm. The flora and fauna around the grand Jedi Master’s home made this world seem like it could bristle with life, given the chance. Dynatha almost wished she could see Ambria in a millennium and how the Jedi would change this world for the better.

“We are too late, then,” Delvin muttered to himself as he looked upon the statue.

“What do you mean, Master?” Dynatha asked. “Is the Jedi here in danger?”

He smiled kindly to her. “No. But we should not keep Ranval waiting. He becomes impatient too easily.”

The two Jedi joined their Miraluka companion in the small home’s foyer. The room was about as spartan as the hut’s exterior suggested, with a few small antique jars and wicker baskets scattered about and a few broken vases near them. Most of the containers had been pushed to the ends of the room to make room for a collection of trinkets: a long combat staff of primitive design, a thick coat of white fur, a headdress of golden feathers, and other such oddities. Dynatha had no idea what their purposes could have been or where they had all come from, and the confused looks on the faces of the two senior Jedi were rather discouraging.

“He seems to be out,” Ranval said after some time.

“Do you know when he’ll return?” Delvin asked.

“No. And that’s what bothers me. We don’t exactly have time to be idle.”

“I sense him,” a voice called from outside. “He is still on the planet, somewhere within the mountains at the horizon.”

Celes Sunrider stepped into the hut with them, standing between Delvin and Ranval. A few years younger than Dynatha, Celes carried herself with elegance and grace as befitting a Jedi Master of her lineage. She had prominent muscles that were visible beneath her tight-fitting brown robes, and her body hardly looked as old as Dynatha thought she was. Not only that, but the light side of the Force emanated from her like a star—she was so much stronger than Delvin and Ranval they were like Padawans before her. Dynatha couldn’t help but gape. How was she not the leader of all the Jedi?

“Interesting,” Ranval said after a moment of thought. “We’re in luck, then. I’ll go speak with him.”

“And what shall we do in the meantime, Ranval? Stay here and be idle?” Celes questioned him.

“My agents need assistance unloading the ship. If you wish, you can help them. If not, you can meditate. Either way, there is little we can do until we summon him.”

“Assigning us to physical labor while you venture and meet the Jedi Master?” Celes scoffed. “Let us accompany you, at least. There’s no reason for us all to wait here while your soldiers work.”

“No. I will go to him and discuss what must be done. It is better this way.” When Celes tried to counter, Ranval ignored her and left the hut without another word.

“How strange.” If she was angry, Celes didn’t show it. “What do you suppose he’s hiding?”

“What do you mean?” Dynatha asked.

“He’s far too suspicious,” Delvin agreed. “We agreed to travel to Ambria with him, but he did not tell us what he had planned upon arrival. Why would he not want us to meet with the Jedi Master as soon as possible, especially if we’re as rushed as he says?”

“There must be something worth discussing with the Jedi Master that he doesn’t want us to know,” Celes reasoned.

“Should we follow him, then?” Dynatha asked.

Celes shook her head, letting her red-brown locks bob back and forth behind her. “There’s no point. He would sense us—or at least, our intentions—before we gleaned anything of use. For now, let’s be content with meditation. I believe the Force has much to tell us about this place.”

*** ***

Ranval left the old abode behind and headed for the mountain range with as much haste as he could muster in the midday heat. Sweat already covered the back and sleeves of his robes, but he had to be quick. Time was not on their side. The forces of darkness were already on the move throughout the galaxy, and there would be no hope for anyone—not the Jedi, not the Republic, and not the billions upon billions of innocent life forms unaware of the danger—if they were allowed to amass with their full strength. If the Jedi wanted to have a chance to stop the Sith, they would have to fight against time itself.

The Jedi Order was still young, recovering from near-annihilation by a Sith triumvirate several years after Revan had officially defeated the Sith Empire. The new Jedi Masters who had been appointed as leaders were effective leaders and respectable, but they were not strong enough. Most had not been Jedi before the purges began, and they were not trained in the old ways. If open war began, Ranval was convinced that the Jedi Order would face extinction once more. For the sake of those who were threatened by the Sith, he refused to let that happen.

He couldn’t blame the Jedi, of course; he knew how powerful his enemies were. Selias and their commandos had been fighting them for years now, struggling to keep them from gaining a foothold in the shadows. But his covert operatives were nearing the end of their usefulness; the Sith were becoming more active now, more brazen. Mere soldiers could not repel the darkness, but Jedi could. And yet, he doubted that even the strongest Jedi—Celes Sunrider herself—could stop what was coming. They needed something more.

Ranval hiked up the rugged path that wound its way up the mountains that looked down upon the valley where the solitary home lay. The road strange because it was a natural formation, carved out of the range by flash floods, rock slides, and harsh winds. Reaching the top, he reminisced on his first journey through these mountains. Together with three other Jedi learners, he had been tasked by the master of Ambria to descend the nearby ravine in a test of physical strength and Force aptitude. Now, with his back turned to that perilous gorge, he joined the man he had been looking for since they arrived on Ambria.

It had been a long time since they had seen one another. Northeus Ulsan was far older than Ranval remembered, with a weathered face that had received a bronze hue from years in the harsh sun. His silver hair had turned to a pure white, and he had a flowing beard where he had once been clean-shaven. Notably, he did not wear the robes of a Jedi, trading the traditional garb for a dark poncho that was frayed and worn, a long white shirt, and plain trousers.

“Ranval,” Northeus said, his voice deep and hoarse. “It’s been too long, my friend.”

“It has, Master,” Ranval answered. “What brought you to this place?”

Northeus stretched his right hand until he was pointing beyond the hut and the lake near it. He directed Ranval’s gaze to minuscule dark specks in the distance. “Pirates. About one hundred of them, with their ships and their armaments, about twenty kilometers southwest of us.”

As a Miraluka, Ranval lacked any anatomical method of sight, depending entirely on the Force. Extending his perceptions across the valley, Ranval sensed many life forms exactly where Northeus was looking. The ships and droids in their possession—lacking a connection to the Force in the way living beings did—were harder for Ranval to sense at this distance, but he managed to do so after a moment of concentration.

“Is Thon’s home in danger?” Ranval asked, returning his senses to his immediate surroundings.

“No. With no major sources of heat and or technology, it’s practically undetectable amidst the wastes unless it is being sought out. The pirates need not concern you.”

“That’s fortunate for us,” Ranval agreed, “because I have brought visitors, Master.”

“Oh?” Northeus continued observing the pirates despite the fact that they were well beyond a normal Human’s field of vision. “What sort of visitors?”

“Jedi.”

“And why did you bring Jedi to this place?”

“I had hoped you would train them, Master.”

“Am I the worthiest teacher you could find? Have the Jedi abandoned teaching so you must turn to an old fool living in the desert?” Northeus scoffed. “Find yourself another.”

“You are the only Jedi Master worthy of teaching these pupils,” Ranval countered. “You are the only Jedi still in possession of the knowledge needed to defeat the Sith!”

“Do you honestly think they can be defeated by the Jedi you brought with you?” Northeus asked. “No Jedi can hope to stand against the ultimate darkness.”

“Why don’t you trust my judgment, Master?”

“It is not your judgment I doubt, but your insight,” Northeus explained, turning to descend the mountain. “You have not faced a Sith Lord in combat. You have not watched the Dark Lord of the Sith butcher the strongest Jedi Knights you have ever trained. The one who should have been the last hope against evil. You do not know the power of the dark side.”

“And you don’t know how powerful these Jedi are!” Ranval snapped. He knew that if he didn’t convince Northeus, then this entire journey—no, this mission—would be useless. But what could he say to make him listen? “I have found the one that will fulfill the prophecy!”

Northeus stopped. “Which prophecy is that, Ranval?”

“All of them! The prophecy of the kingmaker, the prophecy of seven lights, the prophecy of the chosen one, even your prophecy!”

“My prophecy failed the moment Raen was killed by his brother,” Northeus growled. “Don’t speak to me of such things.”

“You were the Jedi Seer! Your words were respected by all of us, even the Jedi Council. Was one failed interpretation enough to put an end to your prophesying?”

Northeus said nothing. Ranval concealed the intentions of his mind as much as he was able, hoping to keep the sagacious Jedi Master from reading his thoughts and realize that he was only bluffing. It was true that these were some of the strongest Jedi in the Order, but strong enough to fulfill prophecies? Even he couldn’t believe that. But Northeus possessed knowledge and arcane power that had since been lost to the Jedi Order, and those skills would be necessary to destroy the dark side. Ranval would do or say anything to ensure that Northeus joined them.

At last Northeus sighed and said, “Who is this Jedi you believe is the greatest of us all?”

Ranval smiled despite himself. “Follow me, Master. I will introduce you to her.”

*** ***

Dynatha had meditated for about an hour before she left the two Jedi Masters. She had been meditating ever since she had left the Fate and Luck with Tserne, searching for answers. She needed to know why the Force was sending her out of her way, away from the Jedi Order she served, to wander the galaxy with a few eccentric warriors and famous Jedi. She wanted to know why she was so weak, and how she could become stronger. She wanted to know if the light would always overcome the darkness, or if there would be times when evil would triumph. Despite her solemn meditations, the Force showed her nothing. Meditation was fruitless and only made her more frustrated with her circumstances and herself.

Leaving the hut behind, Dynatha watched Ranval’s commandos finish unloading their cargo from the Blind Guide. While one of their operatives accounted for their supplies, Selias and one of her compatriots walked down the ship’s ramp with a simple stretcher carrying Tserne’s unconscious body. She hadn’t seen him for some time, and she had to admit that she was worried about him. If he didn’t recover, she would consider herself at least partially responsible, even if the entire venture was his idea and his failing.

She approached Selias once they had safely carried him off their ship. “How is he?”

“His state hasn’t changed,” Selias replied. “He still doesn’t reply to any stimulus, and his body is barely keeping itself alive. If he doesn’t receive attention soon-”

“Do you think the master of Ambria will be able to help him?” Dynatha asked in alarm.

“I have no idea.” Selias appeared troubled. “I believe in Ranval, but this is serious. I don’t know if Jedi powers are enough to save him from this.”

That was what Dynatha was afraid of. “Why aren’t you going to leave him on the ship?”

“It’d be easier to look after him if he was with the rest of us. I intend to put him in the home, perhaps in one of the back rooms.”

“Let me help you take him there, then,” Dynatha said. “I’ll look after him while he’s there.”

“Are you sure? The Jedi might want you to participate in some sort of monastic training or something,” Selias reasoned.

“I don’t care. I’m not here for training. I’m here to ensure Tserne wakes up and then we’re going back to Telos.”

“Mistress Dynatha, I’m afraid I have to agree with Selias on this matter,” Delvin said, approaching the pair. “Your training is of the utmost importance. Surely one of Ranval’s soldiers can look after Tserne while he is comatose?”

“That’s ridiculous. I can receive training when we return to Telos,” Dynatha pointed out.

“I can spare one of ours,” Selias said, revealing a slight smile. “I’m sure he’ll be delighted. Wendel, get over here!”

Dynatha saw one of the commandos taking stock of their inventory jump from the crate he was sitting on and run over to the three of them. If the Force wasn’t deceiving her, this was the same commando she had met on the Blind Guide who had guided her to the bridge. He doffed his helmet to reveal that he was a Twi’lek with dark blue skin and eyes the same hue of green as his armor.

“Wendel, you’ll be in charge of guarding our comatose mark,” Selias said. “It shouldn’t be too complicated. Just make sure his drip is functioning, monitor his heart rate and brain activity, and report to us if it looks like his vitals are critical or if he recovers.”

“Are you serious?” Wendel appeared beside himself with delight. “I get to watch him? You’re not pulling my lekku, are you?”

Selias rolled her eyes. “Why would I waste my time joking with you? Help Omel carry him into the hut.”

Wendel gave a crisp salute and grabbed one end of the stretcher to assist the other commando. Together, the two armored warriors carried Tserne’s prone form into the desert abode. Dynatha was incensed at leaving Tserne in the care of a stranger, and she left the Jedi Master and Ranval’s lieutenant without explaining herself. Selias shrugged and returned to their stockpile.

“The operative you call Wendel seems terribly excited for the chance to undertake such a simple task,” Delvin said, keeping one eye on Dynatha as she left the area.

“Yeah.” Selias tossed some vac-rations from a footlocker into the dirt. “He’s weird like that.”

“Does he enjoy babysitting, or…?”

“No, he’s just…” Selias paused to decide the best way to explain. “He idolizes Tserne.”

“How is that possible?” Delvin wondered. “I know of few good beings who would idolize a killer.”

“Have you heard of Aquin of Ten Million Eyes?” Selias asked.

Delvin chuckled. “Isn’t he the folk hero of the poor in the frontier, who is said to kill those who hoard their wealth and make those beneath them suffer by gouging out their eyes?”

“The same. Tserne operates under the moniker of the Ghoul when he goes around killing. For whatever reason, he’s been targeting only the galactic elite—politicians, crime lords, nobles—for as long as we’ve been tracking him. The Ghoul was once a name of abject terror, but he’s turned it into something that the citizens of the Republic can cling to. As far as assassins go, I can’t think of any more respected. He’s essentially become Aquin himself.”

“So he’s the incarnation of some legendary figure,” Delvin realized. “I can see why your man would jump at a chance to defend his childhood hero.”

Selias nodded. “All the same, he’s a bit weird for it.”

“Naive would be a better word.”

“I suppose.”

Delvin looked like he was about to say something, but his words never passed his lips. Clenching his chest, the Jedi Master suddenly doubled-over in pain. Selias, acting purely on instinct, jumped in alarm and raised her blaster carbine to scan the area for danger. At the very same moment, Celes rushed out of the home with lightsaber in hand.

“What is it?” Selias asked.

“I sensed the dark side,” Celes explained. “It is very close.”

“Dynatha is in danger! We must rescue her!” Delvin shouted.

Selias was still scouring the surrounding wastes for signs of trouble. “Where?”

“The lake! She’s at the lake! We must hurry!” Delvin said, pulling himself to this feet. “We have no time to lose!”

*** ***

When she left Selias and the others behind, Dynatha had no idea where she was going. She had seen the lake in the corner of her vision and had found herself drawn to it; it hadn’t been long before her feet began to carry her in its direction.

Standing at the lake’s shores, Dynatha realized only now just how foreboding this place was. Rocky spires emerged out from the depths of the lake, and their jagged formations cast long shadows around her. The lake seemed perturbed as she approached it, bubbling vigorously as though there was something unnatural mixed with the water. The lake hissed as it sloshed against the earth at her feet, warning her to keep her distance, and she gladly obliged.

“What brings a Jedi to Lake Natth?” a gravelly voice inquired.

Spinning around, Dynatha’s eyes widened when she saw a massive quadrupedal lizard behind her. At least three meters long, the vicious reptile had sharp claws and fangs that appeared able to render flesh with ease and a tail with barbs that appeared to be coated with some sort of substance. Its beady red eyes regarded her with what could only be called curiosity, and she realized after a moment that it had been this creature that had spoken to her.

“You… what are you?”

“Hssiss,” the creature replied. “I speak for my master, the lord of Ambria.”

“You serve the lord of Ambria?” The hair on the nape of her neck and on her arms stood on end, and she backed away from the creature as it approached her. “Do you know Ranval as well?”

The hulking lizard roared. “We know of him. You have come to this place with the blinded one?”

“I have.”

“But why? There is nothing on Ambria for you, Jedi.”

“We came here because the master of Ambria can heal a friend of mine who became ill. Or so I was told.”

“Ah, yes. The master of Ambria is a masterful healer, capable of restoring the body and cleansing the mind. Did you know, daughter of light, that this lake is a place of immense power?”

Dynatha turned back and looked at the lake again. Focusing intently on the Force, she sensed something strange. There seemed to be immeasurable dark side power within the lake itself, but around it there was a sort of… wall of light. She had never sensed such a thing before, but the creature was right: this place was saturated with the Force.

“I sense the dark side here,” she explained to the creature.

“But there is light as well, yes?”

“Well, yes…”

“Do not fear the darkness, Jedi. There is light enough here to contain it, and it will not harm you. And if you want to experience true power, you must enter the lake. Only then will you be like the master of Ambria, having the power to save those whom you love.”

Dynatha returned to the water’s edge and bent down, scooping a bit of the water up with her hand. It didn’t sting or burn, so there was nothing wrong with it—physically, anyway. The Force itself was confirming the presence of the dark side, but it became harder for her to sense the light.

“This will make me stronger?”

The hssiss lumbered toward her, dragging itself with its legs until it stood beside her. “Enter the water, and you will know power.”

Ranval had not spoken about Lake Natth, and he hadn’t told her that the master of Ambria had enough power to make beasts speak for him. Despite the creature’s words, nothing about this place felt right. While it was true that there were traces of the light here, the dark side was far more prominent. Like before, she had to decide if she wanted to experience for herself whether the dark side was more powerful, but once she entered the darkness there was no going back. Would it be worth it? If it meant never again surrendering herself to the whims of another? If it meant seizing her own destiny? If it meant saving Tserne?

“I’ll come back,” Dynatha said at last. “I must consult with my companions. Forgive me.”

The hssiss roared angrily at Dynatha. Swinging its tail, the barbs at the end nearly struck her in the face and she managed to avoid the attack only by jumping back into the lake. However, it seemed that was exactly what the creature wanted. As soon as she stepped into the water, another hssiss revealed itself behind her. The Force warned her seconds too late; the ferocious lizard bit down on her left calf and pulled her back into the deeper regions of the lake. Before she could reach for her lightsaber, the beast began spinning, catching her in a death roll. She screamed in pain as the creature’s jaws threatened to tear off her lower leg. She could do very little besides flounder about helplessly as she drank in copious amounts of lake water.

Spots swam in her vision as she saw the other hssiss enter the water in front of her. She knew that, if she could just grab her lightsaber, she had a chance of escaping—although leaving with her leg intact was a slim prospect at best. Unfortunately, tumbling in and out of the water made her disoriented and weak, and she couldn’t even position herself in a way to keep her head above water. Gasping for air, she struggled in vain to maintain control of her body only to feel more racking pain as muscles in her leg tore against the strain they endured.

“Dynatha!”

The hssiss coming toward her roared angrily. “Blind One! Damn you and your master!”

In her dizzying vision, Dynatha thought she saw Ranval leap onto the hssiss in front of her and smash the lizard’s head with one of his cybernetic hands. There was a sudden bang, and the predator biting down on her leg released her. Dynatha felt her body float to the surface the lake, but her leg was spasming in pain like she was still caught in the creature’s vicegrip. The last thing she saw before fading into unconsciousness was Ranval being assailed by three more hssiss that had revealed themselves.

*** ***

Ranval grimaced when one of the hssiss clamped down on his durasteel forearm and tried to tear it off. While the rest of his body felt no pain from the attack, he realized that he would be severely outmaneuvered with just one prosthetic hand to fight with. He shot at the beast with the blaster pistol embedded in his other artificial hand, forcing it to release him. Another lashed out with its tail and struck him in the hip, and the Force promptly informed him he had been poisoned. Before he could move to heal it, a third lizard headbutted him from behind, knocking him off his feet and into the range of two others, where one bit at his left hand and the other sliced at his thigh with its barbed tail.

“What hope do you have, Blind One?” the hssiss who had spoken to Dynatha earlier gloated. “It took the strongest of your kind to imprison us in this lake. You can only cower in fear at our immense power.”

Ranval fired his left arm’s blaster again, destroying the throat of the hssiss who had clamped down on it. Reaching for his utility belt, he replaced his right arm’s metal club with a short vibroblade and slashed at the nearest lizard, cutting deep into its jaw. He moved to stab into another, but the dark side poison was beginning to debilitate him, and he acknowledged that it wouldn’t be long before he was too weak to continue fighting. He had to heal himself or retreat, but he couldn’t leave without Dynatha.

He swung his blade at a hssiss trying to sneak up behind him, but—in his weakened state—he missed his target and the strike only glanced off its thick hide. This gave the same creature the opportunity to tackle him, knocking him to the ground near the lake’s shores. Surrounded on all sides by nearly a dozen dark side lizards, Ranval was ready to admit defeat. He had been too hasty, and it had cost him. What was he thinking, rushing into battle without a plan?

One of the hssiss clawed at his chest, tearing through the medium plate armor he wore but not his flesh. As it reared back to try again, a blue lightsaber scythed through the air and made contact with the lizard’s face, severing its jaws from the rest of its head. The lightsaber kept going, cutting through three more hssiss before returning to Celes Sunrider, who had moved in during its flight and began striking at the lizards with Force-empowered blows. With lightsaber in hand, she managed to kill four more of her enemies before Delvin arrived. Delvin called upon the Force to simultaneously throw a dozen hssiss back into the lake and bring Dynatha’s limp body from the water and toward him. While the two Jedi fought, Selias and four commandos rushed onto the scene in time to pull Ranval away before an entire pack of hssiss rose from the lake in response to the arrival of new challengers.

“There are too many,” Delvin pointed out. “We must retreat.”

“Not yet! We can defeat them here and remove the dark side from this planet!” Celes replied.

“We have two wounded, and Selias’s operatives can’t fight these creatures—you know that. Retreat is our only option.”

Celes drove her lightsaber into the skull of the hssiss charging at her and then swung her blade in a loop that crossed in front of her body, cutting apart the three tails coming at her from all sides. “This could be our only chance! The dark side powers have amassed here in their total strength. I don’t know why they’ve done so, but they’re vulnerable now! This is our chance!”

Delvin created a Force whirlwind that caught three incoming hssiss and immobilized them, but several more arrived to take their place. With Dynatha on his back, maneuvering away from them was difficult, and he was forced to depend on Celes for defense. However, she had just as many of the lizards fighting her, and their hides were strong enough to resist a few lightsaber strikes. Selias and her commandos began a steady retreat with Ranval in tow, firing their grenade launchers and heavy repeaters to keep the steadily approaching of hssiss at bay.

“Back to the homefront!” Selias shouted. “There are too many!”

“We can do it,” Celes countered through gritted teeth. “Just give me a little more time…”

A hssiss tail caught Delvin in the foot, causing him to stumble and nearly drop Dynatha. Selias, noticing his precarious situation, ordered two of her operatives to assist while she and the others retreated with Ranval. By now, Celes was beginning to tire as well; after killing nearly two dozen of the creatures, she seemed to realize that they were too numerous and too strong for her to deal with by herself. However, when she moved to retreat, she realized that they had surrounded her to prevent her escape.

“And so you are finished, as are your friends,” one of the lizards growled.

“Enough! Return to your watery prison!”

A brilliant light surrounded the combatants and the lake itself. Blinded, it was difficult for the commandos and the Jedi to see what was going on around them, but the hssiss were equally incapacitated. The surge of light was followed by a sudden wave of heat and a trembling groundquake that did not harm any of Dynatha’s companions but threw the hssiss back into Lake Natth. By the time their vision returned, the Jedi realized that all of their opponents had been banished to the depths and the lake itself was still, as though nothing lived in it at all.

“Thank you, Master,” Ranval managed to say, gasping in pain.

Celes turned to face the old Human Ranval regarded. “And who are you?”

The old man’s dark eyes stared at Lake Natth, entirely ignoring the beings around him. Satisfied that the light had sent the dark lizards back to their resting place, he returned his arms to his sides. “My name is Northeus Ulsan, master of Ambria. Let us return to my home. I imagine we have much to discuss.”


Chapter 14

Nafyan stood silently at the farthest end of the bridge of the Phantasm, watching the space around them both with his eyes and the Force. His meditations had been interrupted earlier that day by a Sith neophyte, informing him that the forces he had requested were going to meet them in this sector, near the edge of charted space. Ever since, Nafyan had proved unable to meditate. How could he? Today was a fantastic day. This was the beginning of the end of the Galactic Republic, the Jedi Order, and all of their allies.

For nearly thirty years, Nafyan had sent messages to the Sith Empire, requesting the emperor to appoint Sith Lords to come and take over Darth Preux’s faction. His repeated requests had been met with silence. Darth Preux had assembled an impressive army, built a fleet that rivaled many within the Republic, and raised Sith warriors that were more than a match for any Jedi Knight. How could the Sith Emperor turn down such an opportunity? Darth Preux was strong, but he was no match for Nafyan, and he would cower before the might of a true Sith Lord. Combining Darth Preux’s military with the might of the emperor’s forces, the Sith would have enough strength to crush the Republic.

Nafyan had suffered in silence for too long, but his patience was finally being rewarded. No less than a week ago, he had received a single message that could not be misinterpreted: he was coming. The Sith Emperor himself was going to meet them in this very system, and Nafyan could finally cast off his role as a servant to the pitiful excuse for a Sith that Darth Preux had become. He could hardly contain his delight, and yet the crew on the bridge could hardly tell the difference between his attitude now and any other time.

“Multiple unidentified ships have just reverted from hyperspace!” one of the junior sensor officers shouted from the nearest crew pit.

“How close?” came the reply of the senior officer on deck.

“Less than forty thousand kilometers, and they’re headed right for us!”

“Get me Admiral Kvorkasir,” bellowed the senior sensor officer. “Send an emergency alert on all channels; battle stations-”

“You will do no such thing,” Nafyan growled. “These ships belong to the Sith Empire, and you will instruct your underlings to maintain our current course until we meet up with them. Do you understand?”

“I-I’m afraid interaction with unknown contacts must be approved with Darth Preux,” the sensor officer stammered.

“You dare question me?” Nafyan slammed his staff against the deck, and the reverberating echo seemed to trigger a choking response in the terrified officer. The other crewers on the bridge cowered in fear as they watched helplessly as their superior was strangled by Nafyan’s dark arts. “I speak for Preux. You will listen to me as unquestionably as you would him. Do you understand?”

The officer, gripping his throat in an attempt to remove a grip that wasn’t there, nodded quickly.

“Good. Order a wing of fighters to fly out and meet the incoming ships. Tell them to broadcast this IFF signal. They are to accompany any approaching shuttles as an honor guard. Order a Sith acolyte team to go to the hangars and await the arrival of those shuttles. Ensure all Sith troopers are ready to accept most important guests. And do not inform the other admirals of this. Understood?”

“Y-yes… please… don’t kill me…”

Nafyan tapped his staff against the deck and released his invisible grip on the man. “I wouldn’t give you orders just to kill you. Be quick: there isn’t much time left.”

The soldier breathed deeply as his strength was restored to him. With a quick salute, he scrambled away from Nafyan to carry out his orders. Efficient slaves were good slaves, Nafyan considered. While the pitiful officers did their duties, Nafyan would be responsible for ensuring that Darth Preux’s transition from leader of this Sith faction to imperial puppet was a smooth one. His soon-to-be-former master had been in the Iotran system subjugating clans for use in their war machine, but he was due back any time now. And when he returned, he would find himself without allies, and then he would either swear loyalty to their cause or he would die. The Sith Emperor and his servants—Nafyan included—would make sure of that.

*** ***

“I was right to suspect you of treachery, Nafyan,” Admiral Isinn snapped as soon as her hologram shimmered into view. Her voice barely contained the fury that was evident on her face, and Nafyan could tell she was shaking. “But I never expected you to be such a coward that you would begin your coup when your master was away, tending to affairs that would benefit us all.”

From their holograms, Nafyan could tell that the other admirals were as stunned as Admiral Isinn was. However, there was less anger in their features; indeed, Admiral Keth and the Neimoidian flag officer Acophy appeared more pensive than anything, as though they were eagerly awaiting to see what would happen in the next few minutes before settling on a course of action. Kvorkasir had yet to arrive, as he had been attending a meeting with the engineers near the aft of the ship and had yet to return the bridge; Nafyan intended to sway the other admirals to his way of thinking—by any means necessary—before he arrived.

“Is that what you think, Tasa? That this is some sort of pitiful attempt to seize power? Don’t be naive. These forces were sent by the Sith Emperor to bolster the ranks of our soldiers and ships,” Nafyan explained. “Why don’t you trust me? Surely you see how Preux trusts me. What keeps you from doing the same?”

Nafyan extended his ability to manipulate minds across the galaxy, touching Admiral Isinn’s consciousness ever-so-slightly. Unfortunately, her will proved quite strong—stronger than he remembered—and she was too stubborn to influence through the Force. It was still possible, but it would be too much effort for the time being. There were other ways to convince her. For now, he turned his attention to the other two admirals. Their minds, younger and less use to interaction with the dark side, were unguarded and unprepared for mental assault. He warily began his manipulations, urging them to abandon their cautions and join his side in this argument.

“He does have a point,” Admiral Keth sibilated. “You have always been suspicious of Nafyan. Perhaps we should listen to what he has to say before making our judgments.”

“You’re insane! What other reason could there be for sending an entire fleet of mysterious ships toward our flagship just before our master returns?” Admiral Isinn exclaimed. “I’m preparing my fleet for a jump to hyperspace. If you do not call for your friends to return to wherever they came from, Nafyan, I have no qualms about engaging you personally.”

“Listen to yourself, Tasa,” Admiral Acophy chided her. “What you’re saying is tantamount to treason. Trying to fight the flagship of Darth Preux is no different than striking him with your fist.”

“Not if he’s away and that conspiring worm has seized control of the Fleet of Peerless Honor,” she countered. “Admiral Kvorkasir will stand with me. Do you two intend to betray Darth Preux as well?”

“You speak of betrayal so openly, Tasa, but I think you have been so blinded by your own ambitions that you fail to see your own hypocrisy,” Nafyan said, laughing to himself as he watched her flounder about trying to explain herself to the two admirals who were drifting more and more under his control.

“I think Nafyan is right,” Acophy said. “You’ve been blinded by jealousy, Tasa.”

“Jealousy? Of Nafyan? Surely you jest.”

“You are jealous of his status with Darth Preux,” Admiral Keth mused. “You’ve always desired to be close to our master, and yet he rebuffs your efforts. Surely eliminating Nafyan would give you a better chance to ascend to Darth Preux’s side?”

Admiral Isinn’s eyes widened at the pinpoint identification of her hatred for Nafyan—one that the Sith Master had surmised long ago, using information he had gleaned when the two of them had been closer. She reddened, either from embarrassment or fury, and glared vibrodaggers at Nafyan. Somehow, she seemed to know that it was not the two admirals she was arguing with, but him alone. She had always been clever for someone who lacked Force-sensitivity, and that was what made her such an obnoxious opponent. Nafyan would be glad to be rid of her.

“I know your tricks, fiend, and don’t think that by fooling them you’ve dissuaded me. I don’t care how many ships you field against me. I don’t care how many traitors you’ve prepared. Even if I have to fly this ship myself, I will come to defend my lord. Beg your Force that I may find you before Darth Preux does.”

Her holographic image flickered into nothingness. The other two admirals, held under Nafyan’s mental sway, were silent and dumb-struck, unable to process anything that just happened. While he would have liked to spend more time with them so he could permanently convert them into his puppets, an officer on the bridge announced the arrival of his guests. Such foolishness would have to wait. Releasing the two flag officers from his control, he bid them to direct their view to the bridge of the Phantasm so they could watch the events that would mean the end of Darth Preux.

Nafyan left the comm room and returned to the bridge just in time to watch the last of a platoon of unknown soldiers position themselves near the viewports, practically encircling the deck. Their light brown armor and helmets that covered only the upper portion of their faces were quite at odds with the shimmering white armor and full-face helmet of Darth Preux’s forces, but Nafyan had little doubt as to the efficiency of either unit. Three red-armored guards entered next, wearing long flowing robes and crested helmets of fanciful designs foreign even to Nafyan. They carried force pikes and positioned themselves at the entrance of the bridge.

Once the warriors were in place, a single officer stepped forward. He was of the Sith species, with red skin that was darker than the armor of the warriors who had arrived before him and characteristically high cheekbones with a pair of tendrils that further differentiated them from Humans. He wore a gray uniform not unlike the senior officers in Darth Preux’s fleet, adorned with enough medals and commendations to rival Admiral Kvorkasir, and he carried himself with all the pride that his rank no doubt entailed him to. Walking with his hands behind his back, the officer took in the entirety of the bridge with darting glances of his yellow eyes.

“You are Darth Preux?” the Sith asked, his voice harsh and loud.

“I am Nafyan, humble servant of the emperor,” he corrected him. “Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“Admiral Glorbung Mauch, master of the Indefatigable and commander of the Emperor’s Expeditionary Fleet.”

“Excellent. I take it you are here to take command of the situation, Admiral?”

“I’m afraid not. I am here to escort my liege and advise on military matters. I would never claim to speak for the emperor. That honor is reserved for him.”

Following the admiral’s eyes, Nafyan noticed another being walk onto the bridge. Draped in black, the figure was taller than both of them and considerably more massive. Nafyan realized that his body became very cold and his lungs tired as this figure approached. The crewers of Darth Preux’s flagship and the soldiers under Admiral Mauch’s command trembled as the mysterious being stepped ever closer to Nafyan and the admiral; their weak legs forced them to kneel in the presence of such a powerful figure. It did not take long for him to realize that he was standing in the presence of one far more powerful than himself.

“This one speaks for our master. We call him the First Hand of the Emperor,” the admiral explained.

Nafyan approached the mysterious servant and bowed low in reverence. He had neither heard of such an office nor encountered anyone who dared to speak for the emperor, but he had no desire to disrespect the first to do so. “I am humbled by your presence. I will serve you as I would serve the emperor himself.”

The cowled sentient looked down upon him, and then turned away just as quickly. Without a word, the figure stalked past Nafyan and Admiral Mauch, continued out of the ring of troopers that were surrounding them all, and reached the forward command console just below the primary viewport. The bridge was oddly silent; even the maintenance droids that typically scurried or floated around scarcely made a beep in the presence of this figure.

“What would you have me do first?” Nafyan asked, pushing through the brown-armored troopers that attempted to dissuade him. “How may I serve you?”

“This ship will do.” The voice from the hooded being was distorted and haunting, like something from a nightmare. Thousands of voices spoke in unison: high and low, clear and hoarse, contemplative and authoritative. The voices came together in a surreal resonance, and it was difficult for Nafyan to focus on a single one. “Admiral Mauch?”

“I live to serve,” the Sith admiral announced on approach.

“This will be your new flagship. Its weapon systems and defensive capabilities more than match any of our ships, and its size will fashion it into an icon of terror as we return to the galaxy.”

“Understood,” Admiral Mauch replied.

“Now hold on,” a Human male, one of the Phantasm’s crew, interrupted. Nafyan recognized him as the flagship’s captain, and as such was the officer on deck. “I stayed quiet before, Nafyan, but this has gone too far!”

Nafyan sneered at him. He was Admiral Kvorkasir’s executive officer, the son of a Sith Marauder under his command who was not filled with the Force himself. He had been stationed about this ship since youth, where he served under Preux and Kvorkasir—when the two of them had actively involved themselves in military affairs. He was obedient, dutiful, and clever. There was no reason for this foolishness. Did he think misguided loyalty to a false Sith would serve him now?

“Is there division in the ranks?” Admiral Mauch inquired. “We can deal with him-”

“Allow me to handle this,” Nafyan said, careful to keep his rage in check before a hand of the emperor. “And what do you think you’re doing, Captain? Has Admiral Isinn put you up to this?”

“What? No. I speak on Admiral Kvorkasir’s behalf as well as my own. If he were here, he would surely side with me.”

“You don’t know that.”

“But I do!” The captain stepped forward and found himself in the midst of the imperial soldiers. “Admiral Kvorkasir is entirely loyal to Lord Preux. He would never conspire against him like this, and he would never turn his ship over to someone who does not have our best interests in mind. I don’t know who these people are, Nafyan, but they don’t belong here.”

“These soldiers are the servants of the Sith Emperor himself,” Nafyan growled. “Preux will follow them as surely as I am now. He knows the might of the emperor, and he will soon acknowledge that servitude is better than the alternative.”

“Even so. My crew and I will not turn this ship over to a stranger,” the captain said. “You would have to kill us all first.”

As soon as he said that, his entirely body was propelled into the air for the entire bridge to see. Asphyxiation set in almost immediately, and he gagged and wheezed as he struggled to continue breathing in spite of the dark power that was choking him. Then, without warning, there was the sound of splintering bone that could only have been his ribcage collapsing. The captain coughed up bright red blood and bits of flesh as his corpse dropped back to the deck. The officers and crew around him retched at the sight, and a few of them couldn’t help but cry out in terror.

“As you insist,” the Emperor’s First Hand said, his eyes still looking at the stars outside. “But you do not speak for all these. Are there any among you who think as he did? Who refuses to swear allegiance to the True Sith and their emperor?”

No one stepped forward or said anything in defiance. Even the Sith troopers, tempered by the grim realities of war, refused to step forward and defend Preux or their deceased captain. Nafyan was surprised; the crew was far more rational and servile than he expected. At long last, it was time for him to release the yoke the emperor had given him and take his place in the True Sith once again. It was a shame that such a promising officer had to die, but there was no one else in the way of progress now that he was gone.

“There is no one here, I think. It seems that the ship is yours,” Nafyan said.

“He does not speak for all of them. That right is reserved for Darth Preux alone,” he heard Admiral Kvorkasir’s voice. “And you are not welcome here.”

At that same moment, Admiral Kvorkasir walked onto the bridge surrounded by an entire contingent of black-armored Sith troopers. The whole host of soldiers the Hand brought with him raised their weapons at the newcomers, only to find that the white-armored troopers who were already on the bridge with them raised their weapons on instinct. The Sith flag officer betrayed a nervous expression, but the Hand and Nafyan simply stared at the old admiral as he approached.

“Admiral Kvorkasir. I was not expecting you,” Nafyan admitted. “What brings you here?”

“Silence. We will deal with you later,” the admiral replied.

“How dare you speak to me in that tone? Do you know who I am?”

Before either could continue, Thoronim walked in after the last of the admiral’s bodyguards, wearing his full suit of armor and carrying his weapon by his side. And there with him was Preux. The Dark Lord was seated in a hoverchair that had been hooked up to a great deal of medical equipment and life monitors that snaked to and from his frail and wizened body. He looked absolutely helpless, and it was a rare thing for him to be away from his chambers at all. Indeed, if he hadn’t just been out, he likely wouldn’t have been able to come to the bridge at all. Nafyan couldn’t help but sneer in disgust at the pitiful sight.

“Who dares challenge the Emperor’s Hand?” Mauch shouted.

“Kneel, for you stand before Preux, Lord of the Sith,” Thoronim informed him.

“So this is the one from Alderaan,” the Emperor’s First Hand said, more of a spoken thought than a question. “His potential is great, but his body will not last.”

“He has become a greater Sith than both you and your master,” Kvorkasir said.

“Is that so?” many of the Hand’s tones betrayed amusement. “Observe the power of your master then. See how he fares against the might of the one true Dark Lord of the Sith!”

The Hand lifted one of his arms, releasing a powerful telekinetic wave that threw Kvorkasir and his soldiers across the bridge. Undeterred, it continued on and slammed into Thoronim and his liege; the bodyguard was pushed back a few meters, but Preux found himself tossed from his chair and thrown backward until he practically collided with the door. The entire bridge seemed to shudder as its master hit the durasteel deck with a listless thud. Startled as they were, the bridge crew and Preux’s standing troopers didn’t realize that the crimson warriors that had come with the Hand had approached them with force pikes raised. A few of them moved to resist, but they stopped when they saw Preux telekinetically lifted from his place on the deck and tossed about helplessly. Seeing their master in such a state was too much to bear.

“And in the end you are nothing. Observe—all of you—the difference between weakness and true power.”

The Emperor’s First Hand raised both arms and released bolts of lightning from his fingertips. Standing over Preux like a terrible phantom, the arcs of lightning struck the Sith and crackled upon contact. The suffocating tang of ozone filled Nafyan’s nostrils even though he was across the bridge, and he relished in the smell. That was the smell of freedom, of the ability to serve a new master. He could hardly contain his excitement as he watched the Hand’s attack snake around Preux like a harmful net.

But something was wrong. Nafyan could feel it deep within him, like something terrifying was about to happen. Even amidst his tumultuous emotions, he could sense a power unlike anything he had ever experienced. Even the strength of the Emperor’s First Hand, impressive enough to force his old body to kneel on approach, seemed pathetic in comparison. But who could possess such might?

Darth Preux’s eyes had opened while he was being tortured by the Emperor’s Hand. The lightning was still snaking around him as he stood up, and in that single motion, the Dark Lord released a wave of darkness powerful enough to completely nullify any further attacks from his opponent. The dark side from his body was so powerful it had begun to materialize as a thick miasma around the bridge, and the air seemed to become cold in its presence. Nafyan could feel his stamina deplete even just standing where he was, and his connection to the Force was becoming weaker as well.

The Hand had no idea what was happening. He tried to unleash another burst of Force lightning, but nothing happened when he raised his hands to attack. It was as if he—and every other Force-user on the bridge—had lost their connection to the dark side. Darth Preux took one step forward, and the resulting shockwave knocked all of the brown-armored soldiers unconscious. His next step threw the crimson warriors into the ceiling; their spines, skulls, or legs shattered on impact. The terrifying strength pouring out from Darth Preux was endless, surging forth as though he was the very spring of dark side power. Admiral Mauch fainted in his presence, and the Hand feebly tried to defend himself before he too fell over.

“You have intruded on my domain.” Darth Preux said. “Your master has no power here.”

“When he comes, you will know pain. You will experience madness. You will wish you were dead,” the Hand spat.

“Is that what he has told you? What do you think, truly, without his influence?”

Darth Preux’s veins began to pump blood with renewed vigor, revitalizing muscles that had atrophied long ago. The dark side filled him up where his natural body was lacking until his formerly sickly and helpless appearance was no more, replaced by the domineering presence of a muscular giant more than a match for the Hand. With unprecedented strength, he gripped the Emperor’s Hand by the neck and hoisted him into the air until the intruding Sith was half a meter off the ground.

“No! I… I can’t hear him! I can’t hear his voice! Come back, Master! Come back! Speak to me!”

Darth Preux clenched down on his throat until he could no longer speak. “You killed one of my followers. You shall be judged: a life for a life. But to kill you would be a disservice to me; your life belonged to your emperor, and I have severed the link between you and him. Now your life is mine. You will serve me, you will fight for me, and you will die for me as comeuppance for the life you stole. Do you understand me, slave?”

The Hand’s cowl had been thrown back, revealing the face of a bald man with pale skin and dark tattoos. His eyes were gray and devoid of emotion, and his visage was equally blank. He might as well have been dead. For all of his impressive strength and pride before, he could not resist such power. All he could do was nod, slowly, as he realized he had been beaten. Satisfied, Darth Preux threw him across the bridge where he flew until he crashed until a terminal.

Nafyan realized only after witnessing that terrifying display that he was still standing. It seemed that all of Darth Preux’s soldiers, officers, and allies were unaffected by his immense power. But why? Before he could ruminate one way or another, Darth Preux approached him, filled with the dark side and far stronger than Nafyan could possibly imagine. He had taught the younger man the ways to unleash his full potential, but he had no idea that this would be the result. The realization of just how massive the difference was between Darth Preux’s power and his own caused him to cower before the Sith Lord for the first time in his life.

“What is the meaning of this, Nafyan? These are the Sith Emperor’s underlings, are they not?”

“They are,” Nafyan confirmed, trembling despite himself. He had to choose his next words carefully.

“And they came here on your orders?”

“Master, I did not think that they would attack you and your slaves!” Nafyan yelped, raising his hands to beg for clemency. “I called them here only to help you. I knew you were stronger than them, and I suspected that additional forces would serve us well in the coming war.”

“One of my own died.” Darth Preux grabbed Nafyan’s neck and clenched down, digging his nails deep into Nafyan’s throat. “The Hand was demonstrating his power, and he will be a useful slave without his emperor whispering in his ear. What should I do about you, Nafyan? I can silence the Force, but I cannot silence traitorous ambition. Is the Sith Emperor whispering in your ear as well?”

Nafyan couldn’t think of anything to say. If he and Mauch recovered from this, there was a chance that they could conspire against Darth Preux and overcome him with the Sith Emperor’s assistance. Surely no one could contend with the Sith Emperor and live. But seeking his aid meant that Nafyan would die for his failure. Although he feared Darth Preux, he feared the Emperor’s wrath even more. And, more importantly, he did not want to die. Death would mean the end of all he had worked for, and he refused to give all that up now. Not until he found a way to overcome Preux and serve the Emperor again.

“No, Master. I live to serve you and only you.”

“Liar!” Darth Preux clenched harder until Nafyan could scarcely breathe, much less speak. “But perhaps a broken slave will be more useful to me than a treacherous one. Do you want to know a secret, Nafyan?”

“P-please… have mercy…”

“Did you ever wonder how your body aged so quickly? How you became so decrepit and weak after we left Alderaan, despite being in the fullness of health barely a few years before? Or how about the fact that none of the Sith Emperor’s slaves seem to recognize you? If you’ve met the Emperor in person before, how could these beings not remember you and you not remember them? For someone as skilled as you claim to be, you lack a finesse in both combat and Force arts. You are more content to scheme and plot. Do you know why that is, Nafyan? Would you like me to tell you?”

Nafyan realized that his vision was fading from the lack of oxygen. If this lasted much longer, he would die. He would have said anything to end the suffering, to keep himself alive, but he couldn’t even speak. He was utterly helpless before Darth Preux, and that thought scared him almost as much as dying did.

“You are a clone, Nafyan,” Darth Preux whispered. “You are a disgusting, unnatural creature that was formed in a vial. Your mind is a pathetic recreation of man’s who died long ago. It’s so despicable even your body is rejecting you, killing you quicker than normal beings. Your entire past was a fabrication created to keep you from aspiring for too much; this cycle began when your predecessor rose up against the first Preux. But that traitor was not the template. You’re not even worthy enough to be the primary unaltered clone!”

Nafyan stared at Darth Preux like he had just seen a ghost. His only reaction was anger, but he refused to dignify such madness with a response. If this was the worst Darth Preux could muster, he would stave it off and strike back with all his might.

Darth Preux cackled. “I can feel your anger. Your confusion. What is there to doubt?” He pointed toward one of the dark-armored special forces troopers who had entered the bridge with Kvorkasir. “You there, clone. Come here and remove your helmet.”

Nafyan knew of these soldiers. They were special forces units created from a single Force-sensitive template long before the Jedi Civil War. Trained in the lightsaber arts and protected by a dark full body carapace, they were the most elite soldiers in their army and served directly under Sith Masters in battle. Strangely, he could not remember ever seeing one without its helmet. Either he had felt the compulsion to avoid them, or else Darth Preux had arranged it as such. Either way, in that instant, he knew why.

When the dark helmet was removed, he found himself staring at a younger version of his own face.

“Clone Besh-0075, meet Xesh-9305,” Darth Preux introduced Nafyan to the soldier. “Do you understand now, Nafyan? Every time you’ve risen up against me, I reveal your helplessness to you, discard you, and then create you anew, filling you with old memories so you’re none the wiser. Do you see? You’ve never been a threat to me. You are beyond my contempt; your usefulness is limited to the stock I can get out of your genetic template.”

“You are a liar. Damn you, damn your father, and damn all of your plans!” Nafyan roared. “One day I will have my revenge. I will call upon the Sith Emperor himself, and I will-”

Thoronim thrust his polearm into Nafyan’s chest, killing him instantly. Darth Preux tossed his corpse aside without a second glance and bid the living clone to return to his place with the others.

“He is right about one thing, Master,” Thoronim said. “He may yet call upon the Sith Emperor given enough time.”

“He has no way of contacting the Emperor directly, only his underlings. We can use that to our advantage, as we have today.”

“He is not so valuable that he cannot be replaced,” his bodyguard countered.

“No longer can I decipher the genetic manipulations that allow these clones to be Force-sensitive, sane, and open to mental rewriting, much less rework the template to allow other complex changes. If we only had more time, I could determine exactly what spawns his treachery and snuff it out. For now we must work with what we have.”

“Even so, abiding a traitor-”

“Are you concerned for me?” Darth Preux brushed off the idea. “At this point in time, there are some who call only him master. Would you rather face one traitor who is bound to my will or thousands yet unbound? To eliminate him entirely would begin a civil war we cannot deal with now.”

Thoronim saw his master would not be dissuaded. “This is foolishness. But I will continue to watch over you closely, Master.”

“I know.” Darth Preux turned his gaze to Kvorkasir. “Take your men and secure Admiral Mauch’s ships for our own use. When the good admiral awakens, inform him of his new position in our forces and ensure his cooperation. If he does not, call upon me immediately so I may begin the indoctrination process.”

“My lord,” Kvorkasir affirmed.

“Now then, Thoronim, I suppose it is time for another clone to be awakened for our war machine.”


Chapter 15

“You must be the Ghoul’s employer. My name is not important, but I have something very important to discuss with you. I know you are a being of principles. How I know this is not important, but I imagine you have no love for the wicked, and you would prefer the benevolent if stifling rule of the Republic to the durasteel fist of the Sith.

“With that in mind, I have a proposition for you. Your business has been suffering lately. Again, how I know this is unimportant. But you need a great deal of credits, or else you will find yourself in trouble. I have the solution you’ve been seeking. With the disaster at Peragus twenty years ago, the Hutts have maintained a deathgrip on premium-grade starship fuel. The Republic is entirely dependent on them for fueling everything from civilian transports to military vessels. The Hutts—I imagine you have little love for them either—do not have the Republic’s best interest at heart, and negotiations between them and the Republic could break down at any time. If that happens, you know what chaos would ensue.

“So I have come with a solution. The Republic will be saved, the Hutts will no longer have any leverage over them, and you will be very, very rich. All it requires is your assistance. You see…”

Fetcher switched off his comlink recording at that point. He had heard this message enough that he knew the suggested plan in and out, but he still couldn’t figure out the motive. He had received the strange message about two standard days ago, from the same frequency that Tserne typically used to send him the confirmation that he had finished his mission. The comlinks the two of them used were unique and used a single frequency that was unlisted on galactic registers. It should have been impossible for anyone but Tserne to reach him. When he had heard about Sharzin’s death from the subspace radio before Tserne, he knew then something was wrong, and he hoped nothing had happened to the stoic killer.

Unfortunately, there was no time for him to ponder the strange scenario and no time to mourn, either. Fetcher and his crew were scattered around the Celestial Cafetorium, the only somewhat upscale dining establishment on Taloraan. From where he was sitting in his booth, he could see Zalee sitting with Posh on the other side of the room, finishing a light meal and chatting about nothing in particular. Oryan—and by association, Jon—had situated himself on the roof; the owners of this establishment didn’t take kindly to droids, and cyborgs were unfortunately mixed in with that prejudice. Fetcher wasn’t hungry, so he was fine with sitting and waiting for his cue.

Taloraan itself had a checkered history that rivaled some of its current citizens’ suspect pasts. This gas giant had been discovered by smugglers trying to escape a Mandalorian patrol during the Sith War, and they had managed to set up a few small orbital structures during their short stay. Since then, smugglers, pirates, and fringers had continued to occupy the floating structures in the clouds, and Taloraan had become something of a safe haven for criminal types. A few had even tried to become legitimate here, using the floating cities to collect and sell gases from the atmosphere. Fetcher imagined that their scheme would last a few years before they returned to their criminal vices.

Fetcher had been to Taloraan many times before, and he hated every time he had to come. Since this place was so far from Republic space, there could only be safety in numbers and rule was enforced by whatever crew brought along the biggest ship or the most impressive haul—at least, that was how it should have been. Honor had not been totally lost amongst most smugglers, but there were more vile and dangerous beings here that would have liked nothing more than to catch someone unprepared in a dark alley. Respect and courtesy meant little anymore, so Fetcher had to remain in a constant state of vigilance to ensure all of his crew remained safe.

In the corner of his eye, Fetcher saw an Aqualish make a rather particular and unmistakably offensive gesture in his direction. Fortunately for the significantly shorter and lighter being, Fetcher knew he wasn’t trying to pick a fight. Such was the rather gauche way of smugglers. Fetcher had long since gotten used to it. Rising from his seat in a huff, Fetcher let out as fearsome of a snarl as he could muster and stomped over to the Aqualish. The other patrons of the establishment all turned from their meals to watch the hulking Shistavanen, no doubt hoping they would be able to join in the fight as soon as the first punch was thrown.

“Are we going to have a problem?” Fetcher snarled upon approach.

Although Fetcher didn’t think he was being particularly frightening, the Aqualish was shaking all over, obviously regretting his earlier audacity. “O-only if you’re a smuggler.”

“And what if I am?” Fetcher grabbed the Aqualish by his collar and pulled him up until the two of them were eye-to-eye. “Do you have a problem with smugglers, you grotesque son of a Quara?” he asked, knowing full-well the hatred the different subspecies of Aqualish had for each other.

“I… y-you smugglers are not e-even worthy to clean my ship,” the Aqualish countered, trying hard to sound intimidating even though Fetcher was certain he was close to relieving himself in fear. “Cowards and thieves who couldn’t outfly a Toydarian, much less a Republic ship.”

“You go too far, tusked-one,” Fetcher said with a low growl. “You’re coming with me.”

The whole establishment cheered as Fetcher dropped the Aqualish and then dragged him out of the restaurant by one of his arms. A few of the drunk patrons actually started fighting while Fetcher and his opponent left, allowing Zalee and Posh to quietly sneak out of the eatery with their captain without attracting attention. After they had left, Fetcher continued to drag the Aqualish—who complained about the ache in his shoulder—across the pedestrian walkway and into the shadow of a nearby building. He could hear the sounds of a brawl from within the restaurant, but no one had left to pursue them. Once he was content that they were not followed, Fetcher set down the Aqualish and allowed him to recover.

“That was quite nicely done, Captain Fetcher. A show for the ages. And may I say it’s an honor to finally meet you,” the Aqualish intoned in his guttural language. “But you didn’t have to be so enthusiastic about it. I didn’t know for certain if you were serious.”

“We could tell,” Posh chortled. “You shouldn’t have offended his mother by making that gesture.”

“It’s the way of things,” the Aqualish agreed with a sigh. “Nevertheless, the patrons inside are distracted and we are free to go to the smugglers’ meet. Is this your entire crew?”

“We have one more watching from the roof. Lead the way; he’ll join us soon,” Fetcher said.

The Aqualish nodded and led the three smugglers away from the restaurant into the center of the floating city. The smugglers’ meet had been held on Taloraan many times, and it was always located in a different area. To keep all of them safe and preserve the secrecy of the event, the host would give only one smuggler the meeting place and task him with bringing all the others. Fetcher had never met this Aqualish smuggler, but he had recognized him as the one beholden with the task of bringing him and his crew to the others once he had given that rather abrasive gesture. He had tried to explain their rather odd methods to Posh and Zalee years ago, but their traditions proved unexplainable. Fetcher admitted that they were rather obtuse. Such was the way of smugglers.

Oryan joined them as the four smugglers crossed from one alleyway to another; since he could not physically leave the ship, Jon operated a droid body for both of them reminiscent of construction droids produced by Calin Industries prior to the Jedi Civil War. It stood about two and a half meters tall, with wide shoulders and long arms, stubby legs, and armored chassis, and it was quite an upgrade from his previous body. They had bought this one about three years ago, and Jon and Fetcher had been upgrading it ever since. Unfortunately, the body was too large to fit into the doorway to the smugglers’ meeting place.

“It won’t be an issue if Jon remains here, will it?” Fetcher asked, motioning toward the gargantuan droid.

“No, no. As long as it’s out of sight, it shouldn’t be a problem,” the Aqualish replied.

“Could be difficult for such a big machine,” Posh said.

Jon’s droid head tilted in a manner that mimicked bemusement. “I can manage, Posh. There’s no need to worry.”

“We’re expected,” the Aqualish encouraged them. “Let’s not dally here.”

Saying goodbye to their droid companion, Fetcher and his smugglers followed their guide into an apparently abandoned home that was due for destruction in a standard month. Fetcher was surprised by the old building’s interior. The carpet at their feet was immaculately clean, the walls had been scrubbed down and purged of dirt and grime, and all the glowpanels on the ceiling were still working. There were no broken windows or damaged walls to be seen, and Fetcher could have sworn his nose—once very keen, now less so—smelled the aroma of perfume elsewhere. Compared to the worn-down and rugged exterior, the interior could have belonged in a castle.

The Aqualish ignored the strange scene, no doubt having traveled through many times before, and led the three smugglers into a back room where the meeting was already well underway. Fetcher heard the many smugglers before he saw them, raising their voices in a clamor of emotions and varying stages of drunkenness. A wing that had been ripped off an Arca-class shuttle lay in the center of the room, surrounded by nearly two hundred smugglers of all species, sexes, and allegiances, each joined by two to five cohorts. It was quite a scene, disorderly and leaderless, and smaller conversations were practically impossible amidst the shouting.

Fetcher found the nearest uncrowded section of the room and led his two companions there. It didn’t take long to figure out what the commotion was about. Smugglers from the Colonies were upset at smugglers who primarily operated along the frontier, blaming them for lost profits over the last standard year. Fetcher had heard the claim before. Essentially, other smugglers thought that frontier smugglers had been doubling as pirates too long, bleeding their local sectors dry and preventing them from trading with Coreward regions. Since trading with the frontier sectors was too risky, merchants in the Colonies suppressed smugglers to ensure that they could trade local goods safely. It was an interesting theory, but Fetcher wasn’t sure if he believed it.

“Not to mention Captain Quyen of the Horizon Bound has been operating in Lord Sharzin’s territory for nearly a month now,” a Bothan smuggler shouted to be heard over everyone else. “As we all know, Sharzin will not abide smugglers or pirates in his territory. He could very easily enlist Republic aid to begin forcing us further and further from the Core.”

The Devaronian captain whom the Bothan had addressed smiled in the unsettling way that only his species could. “This is true: I have been flying in Sharzin’s territory. But you don’t seem to be up-to-date, Captain. Sharzin is dead. We can do whatever we want in his systems.”

“Yes, and I heard you had something to do with that, Captain Quyen,” a Trandoshan noted. “I’d be careful if I were you. The Exchange is merciless and won’t just let the murderers of Sharzin escape without retribution.”

“Perhaps.” The Devaronian looked unperturbed. “But the Exchange is not what it once was, isn’t that right, Hound of Baskarn?”

Noticing the new arrivals for the first time, the smugglers turned their eyes to Fetcher and his crew and a reverential silence fell upon them all. Years ago, Fetcher had been utterly defeated by the Exchange. He had lost everything against them: his credits, his allies, his ship, and his love. Now, decades later, Fetcher had become the foremost smuggler in Republic space; he demanded respect from every fringer and pilot in the galaxy. There were few who traveled the spacelanes that did not know the Hound of Baskarn, who had returned from the dead to defend the poor folk of the galaxy and get his revenge against the Exchange. And his revenge would be slow, methodical, and painful. It would be a spectacle for the ages, worthy of his name and his skill, and it would be everything they had tried to do to him—but he would succeed.

Fetcher had hired many assassins—with a special interest in Tserne—to eliminate the key leaders of the criminal syndicate while he and his many ships ran Exchange blockades, stole from their ships, and bombarded facilities. His exploits were legendary and his actions unparalleled. Despite this, he did not see himself above any of the other smugglers here, fellow vagabonds and freelancers who had been neglected by society. He hoped they trusted him as much as he did.

“It won’t be long before the Exchange is nothing but a memory for all of us,” Fetcher agreed. “But there is a more pressing concern for all of us.”

“The Republic?” a Vuvrian smuggler asked, almost as a thought to one of her insectoid compatriots.

“No, the ones who would seek to supplant the Republic. They will control the galactic economy in less than a decade, defeat the Exchange in nearly the same time, and eventually move to force all smugglers under their grotesque thumbs. I am speaking, of course, about the Hutts.”

The other smugglers were silent again. There was a sort of unspoken agreement between the smugglers and the Hutt dynasties who lived beyond the Republic. Many smugglers were employed by them and harassed the Exchange on Hutt payrolls. It was difficult to police smugglers, so they also forced their hired smugglers to hunt their brethren whenever they began operating in Hutt territory. It was a cutthroat business. In any other situation, Fetcher would have worked with the Hutts to crush the Exchange without question. But if the mysterious voice was any indication—and it was quite persuasive—they had to act against these supposed benefactors.

“Obviously, stealing from friends is pointless,” Fetcher continued. “We’re eventually going to run out of each other’s credits. But if we could find a source of endless credits, then we wouldn’t have to suffer in poverty anymore, would we? We can finally stop badgering each other for credits, hounding one another for debts unpaid, and become as rich as we deserve to be.”

Fetcher removed the projector from his satchel and placed it on the section of the wing in front of him, revealing a massive holographic replica of more than forty floating hangars, cargo stations, and satellites orbiting a planet with no moons. Although it was difficult to tell what planet they were looking at from the view they were given, a few of them recognized the array of orbital stations and the starfighters patrolling it.

“That’s Sleheyron,” one of the horned Gotal in the crowd gasped.

“What are you planning, Hound?” an Umbaran shouted.

“Sleheyron is the second richest planet in Hutt space, and it manufactures more starship fuel than any other planet in the galaxy. Think of how much fuel they store in their warehouses on the surface and in the space stations situated in orbit. Even just one visit would give us enough to sell to the Republic for a standard year!” Fetcher explained. “We’d all be rich enough to buy two—no, three—star systems!”

“You speak of fantasy,” a long-eared Lannik countered. “Your proposition was interesting, but this idea is suicidal. Sleheyron is one of their treasure worlds. They have three fleets in-system specifically to defend it against Republic incursion. We’d never even reach their orbital fueling depots.”

“That’s exactly why we have a chance. They’re preparing for an invasion fleet, an armada of warships who will meet them head-on and give them enough time to hide or escape with their fuel. Hutt ships are well-armored, bulky, and ancient. Our ships can fly circles around them; we’ll be so fast their targeting computers won’t work, so they’ll be forced to fire manually. While they’re engaged to ships too quick for them to destroy, we’ll send even faster ships to skirt past whatever defenses they have left without any fighting at all.”

“Evading the fleet may be possible, that is true. But those space stations were created for inspection and containment. What makes you think we’d be able to just fly in and steal the fuel? We’d be vulnerable to assault during our pilfering,” Captain Quyen noted.

“That won’t be an issue. I have an inside source that will help us divert the stored fuel from its intended carriers and into our ships. Besides, they’ll be adequately distracted by the perceived attack over the opposite hemisphere.”

“We’ll need more details than that,” said a Human smuggler about ten years Fetcher’s junior. This would be trouble. He was the host of this event: Haphren Marhe, owner and captain of the Lost Oath and the only smuggler of this generation who could rival Fetcher in infamy and skill. Fetcher had figured that he would protest to some degree. There was some bad blood between them, and he only hoped that Haphren wasn’t determined to hinder his efforts.

“You’ll get all the details you need. But not yet.”

“This plan is insane. You would endanger us all? And for what?” Haphren asked. “If you intend to get rid of us, just shoot us now. You’d save yourself the trouble and preserve our ships for your kingdom, Hound.”

Fetcher barred his fangs at the younger Human. “Mind your tongue. If you don’t want to help me, be quiet.”

“I may be interested. Give me something to work with,” Haphren goaded him on, unaffected by Fetcher’s intimidating presence.

Fetcher hesitated. Revealing the full scope of the mysterious voice’s plan could prove dangerous, especially since many smugglers here had no doubt worked for the Hutts before and some could have been working for them now. And yet, if he admitted that he didn’t trust some of them or didn’t reveal enough, he wouldn’t get anyone to support him. Somehow, he needed to be cautious and yet candid at the same time. He sighed; in the back of his mind, he thought Ralina would have had an easier time with this. A blaster to the face typically made a better argument than sycophantic mewling, anyway.

Fetcher pointed at the holographic representation of Sleheyron. “We’ll need about fifty ships. A portion of our ships will arrive on this side of the planet at these coordinates, where they’ll have a clear shot at the fueling depots. Of course, the Hutts will immediately engage-”

“How do you know?”

“They wouldn’t risk losing more fuel to marauders. They’d send at least a portion of their fleet to investigate and subdue,” Fetcher snapped, and then continued, “More ships will continue to revert in to join the battle so the Hutts think a full-scale assault is happening. While that’s going on, I’ll need the fastest ships to bypass the fighting that’s going on from this vector. Once they’re in, they can steal all the fuel they can and retreat, and we’ll be right on their tails.”

“You’re making an awfully large gamble based on how slow you think their fleet is,” Captain Marhe replied. “They’ll be making their rounds per usual, but I’d like to think the Hutts are greedy, not stupid. What if they’re better defended than you think? What if they arrive quicker than expected?”

“The speed of every ship was accounted for, as were their defenses. This information is accurate.”

The Human smuggler rested his head on one of his fists. “Fine. Let’s say you’ve got the scenario all planned out and prepared. And let’s also assume it goes well—but I foresee issues. What’s the split?”

“Seven thousand credits per crew on departure, and each ship gets an equal share of the fuel. If losses are sustained, I’ll surrender some of my portion to the survivors.”

“That decoy group is going to be facing the brunt of the Hutt armada. I’d rather not risk my neck on the idea that the Hutts have shoddy marksmen in their ships,” a female Human muttered.

“You’re all cowards! Think of the credits. If we could pull this off, we’d be rich! I’m in, Hound!” Captain Quyen announced. “The Horizon Bound and her nine sisters are yours.”

“You’re flying to your death, Afe,” a Gotal nearby advised him.

“Better to fly into hell headfirst than stick around you cowards and die in ignominy,” the Devaronian countered.

“Is that so important to you? Fame? Credits? What if his plan fails?” an old Wookiee asked. “Those things won’t help you then.”

“As if I’d be among the dying! We’re going to be in and out before the Hutts can wipe the slime off their chins!” one of the youngest captains shouted.

“Aye! Captain Quyen is right! I’m with you, Fetcher!” another roared.

“And me!”

“My ships are yours, Hound!”

Fetcher could scarcely believe it. Voices continued to resound as he tried to mentally keep track of the ships available for their assault. About a fourth of the smugglers in the room dedicated themselves to his plan. Of those that said nothing, half stormed out of the room—no doubt to inform the Exchange or the Hutts of Fetcher’s plan—and the rest remained silent, worried for their friends’ safety or else scoffing at the foolishness of the youth. Indeed, the younger smugglers, who hardly knew of Fetcher and his accomplishments, were more eager to join him than the older scoundrels; it seemed that their desire for adventure was stronger than the bonds Fetcher had forged over the years. Or else they were truly crazy.

“Well, it seems you have yourself a task force, Hound,” Haphren noted dryly. “A veritable suicide fleet if I’ve ever seen one.”

“Is that interest I hear in your voice, Captain Marhe?” Zalee asked.

The older Cathar beside the Human captain shook her head to discourage him, but the captain ignored his adviser. “The '’lost Oath and the ships that fly with her will accompany you to Sleheyron,” Haphren declared, “We won’t involve ourselves in the festivities, but I fully expect you to put on a show worthy of your name, Hound of Baskarn.”

Fetcher smiled toothily. “You’ll regret not being involved in the heist of the century, Captain, but I’m glad to have you along for the ride.”

*** ***

Ralina shivered. The nights on Telos were colder than she remembered. How long ago had it been since she had seen the surface of her homeworld? Even now that she had stopped flying and returned home, Telos had been so marred by the Sith that she couldn’t even go down and touch the soil with her hands and plant her feet on solid ground. How long would the specter of the Sith haunt her? How long would the scars of their war remain on a galaxy that longed for peace?

She and Lucius were both from Telos. They had been childhood friends; it was their insatiable desire to escape the doldrums of their homeworld that led them both to enlisting in the Republic Starfighter Corps at the beginning of the Mandalorian Wars. Ralina couldn’t help but smile ruefully at the thought. She and Lucius had wanted so desperately to escape this place, and now that she had seen the galaxy for herself, she never wanted to leave it again. She was sure Lucius felt the same way, but how could she convince him to stay here? Republic space would never be safe for them; Ralina was a defector and Lucius was technically a traitor to the Republic and a wanted pirate. The Jedi Order had offered them a safe haven. As much as Ralina wanted to avoid them, it seemed her destiny was inexplicably tied to the Jedi.

Ralina shuddered. The Jedi who had snuck into her crew during the Jedi Civil War, Delvin Cortes, had told her about her Jedi brother. She hadn’t given it much thought since then, but now that Fetcher had confirmed his words, she had no choice but to confront her past. She flipped the holoprojector on so she could get another look at the young man’s face that stared back at her. Her emotions tossed around inside her until she wasn’t quite sure what she was feeling. She had never known him. He had lived in some forsaken enclave on some equally forsaken world, trained with strangers while separated from his family, and went off to die in some mission against the Sith. Were the ties of the Jedi’s Order stronger than those of blood?

“You didn’t even think to come back and see me?” Ralina whispered, fighting back the tears. “Didn’t I mean anything to you?”

Of course, holograms couldn’t answer her. Ralina’s foster mother had died six years ago, and there was no way for her to begin searching for her biological parents—if they were even alive after all this time. Perhaps it was for the best. Lucius, Manda, and Thertos were her family now. Her brother had become a memento of the past, like the Republic pilots she had trained with, like the smugglers she had met on the hyperlanes, like the Jedi she had worked with in her early years. And like the holoprojector of her deceased brother that she discarded toward Telos’s surface, she had no use for what-ifs.

Ralina returned to her room to find that Lucius wasn’t there. He didn’t typically wander around at night like she was prone to, and her heart skipped a beat when she thought of bounty hunters and Hutt assassins tracking them down. Her initial response was to scour the room for her blaster and wake up Manda so they could search for him together, but she fought off that concerned urge. There was no danger. There was no commotion, and she was sure Lucius would have made enough noise to alert her of danger. In a moment of clarity, Ralina slipped on a pair of slippers and headed to the Whirling Fire.

Sure enough, the boarding ramp to his old ship was down and a few of its interior lights were on. Ralina walked inside and found Lucius hard at work tinkering with the ship’s hyperdrive. She couldn’t suppress the smile when she heard him affectionately begging the ship to cooperate. Ralina knew of the capricious behavior of starships better than anyone.

Stealthily approaching her husband, Ralina ran her lithe fingers across his back and wrapped both of her arms around his torso until she held him in a tight embrace. Lucius jumped at her initial touch, but he relaxed as she rested her head against the center of his back.

“I didn’t realize there were any attractive mechanics left on Telos,” Ralina cooed.

“And I didn’t realize there was such a beautiful ship captain living here,” Lucius replied in a similar tone. “If I had known that before you hired me, I would have come sooner.”

“Now’s the perfect time.”

Lucius eyed her suspiciously. “Because your husband is gone?”

“He gets jealous so easily,” Ralina mused. “You know he once punched an Echani marine who started flirting with me?”

“Oh? What happened?”

“He broke his hand on the poor Echani’s nose.” Ralina laughed and squeezed Lucius tighter. “And then the marine’s three brothers held him down while the Echani punched him over and over. Belsio and I had to step in to preserve his pretty face.”

Lucius frowned. “As I recall, I gave one a black eye and broke another’s arm bef-”

Ralina tilted his head and interrupted him with a kiss. Although he initially responded with similar eagerness, Lucius pulled away before she could savor the moment.

“You’re no fun,” she grumbled.

“You have bad memory.”

Ralina shook her head. “What are you working on, handsome?”

“I’m repairing the hyperdrive. I’ve already finished upgrading the sublights and the control boards, so a few more parts should make it good as new.”

“You intend to fly us to the Jedi haven in style then?” Ralina asked, teasing. “You’re such a romantic.”

“Actually, I’m going to sell her.”

Ralina jolted upright. Come again?

“I’m going to sell the Whirling Fire. The Republic typically offers four hundred and fifty thousand for a used model, but I could probably find someone willing to pay more,” Lucius answered Ralina’s unspoken question. “We’ll join the Jedi in one of their transports.”

“Why? First you want to join the Jedi on their pilgrimage off into the void, and now you want to sell the only way we could possibly leave? Are you insane, Lucius?”

“Ralina, your injury isn’t getting any better. Nerve regeneration and spinal surgery is expensive, and the dangers involved increase with age. If we don’t let them operate now, your entire nervous system will be at risk. As much as I admire the Jedi, I don’t trust their sorcery and herbs to heal you; I’d feel better if we could go to the premier medical clinic here instead of searching for one outside the Republic.”

Ralina slapped him. “What’s the matter with you? I don’t need your damn pity. Trying to sell our ship just because I got a little beat up helping you at the shop… I won’t let you do it, Lucius! I’d rather turn to the Jedi for help than see you sell the Whirling Fire.”

“Our flying days are over,” Lucius replied, rubbing the reddened bruise on his cheek. “We both agreed on that after Thertos was born. What do we need a ship for?”

“How will we leave the Jedi world after we’re done?”

“Maybe we won’t!” Lucius snapped. “Maybe we’ll stay there and grow old with Manda and live in peace with the Jedi. Or we can catch a ride on a smugglers’ ship or cargo transport to go somewhere else. Who knows? This thing has outlived its usefulness. We don’t need it.”

It was just like him to think like that. Didn’t this ship mean anything to him? The memories, the adventures, the credits and work and love poured into this ship to keep it going well after it should have been scrapped. Ralina was conscious of all of that. She loved this ship more than any ship she had ever owned because it was their ship. Surely Lucius recognized that? He saw beyond the durasteel plating and carbon scoring, didn’t he?

Now that Thertos was grown, she wanted to go and see the stars again. She, Lucius, and Manda would travel the galaxy without a care, going from place to place and making memories like they had in their youth. Was her fantasy just that? She hated the idea of giving up the only real means of freedom she had. To be trapped on the ground was nightmarish for her; she had endured it long enough.

“You’re being selfish!” Ralina countered.

“Selfish? You’re the one who’s too stubborn to admit that you need help. You think you can outfight this injury, Ralina, but you’re wrong.”

“It’s nothing. If it was an issue, we could have treated it years ago. The therapy has been working fine and I’m nearly better. The point is, you don’t need to sell this ship for a few measly credi-”

“You’re going to get worse,” Lucius said, pulling her close to him. “You’re going to hurt more than you’re hurting now. I don’t want to see you suffer anymore.”

She wanted to argue with him. He was being a busybody, a worrier, paranoid even. He loved her, but he coddled her too much. She wanted to tell him how terrifying some of the Jedi could be, how much she hated them for splitting her family apart and diverting the course of her life from the path she wanted. She didn’t want to be involved with them anymore. In the end, all she did was fall headlong into his chest and begin to choke on tears. “I feel like the galaxy is crumbling around me. I don’t know anything about my past. I’m too worried to think about the future. I feel like I made a blind jump and am heading straight into a supernova. I don’t know what to do, Lucius. I just don’t…”

Lucius held her in his arms, letting her cry while he collected his own thoughts in silence. Admittedly, he was probably no more assured than she was about this whole ordeal, but there was something in his calm silence and stolid demeanor that comforted her. Lucius always kept a straight face in the midst of trouble. Even when she was grieving or furious, he was the foundation she depended on.

“Love, you may not know where you’ve come from, but that’s okay. You may not know what the future holds, but that’s okay. The past is gone, and you’re here with me now. We can work out our future together. We’ll make it through this.”

Ralina sniffled. “Are you going to sell the ship?”

“If you don’t want me to, I won’t sell the ship.”

“You better not sell this damn ship,” Ralina said while Lucius wiped away her tears. “After the Jedi heal me, I want to be able to escape from them faster than you can say ‘free medicine’.”

Lucius rolled his eyes. “If I’m not selling it, I’m not going to keep working on it right now.”

“Then come back to bed. It’s lonely without you.”

“As you wish, dear.”

Ralina grabbed one of his hands and led him out of the Whirling Fire. While she was very much attached to this ship, she knew that no matter what happened to it, where she went, and no matter how long she had to wait, she was happy. All that mattered was that she could be with her family.

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