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Chapter 16

Dynatha stirred from a light sleep. Drifting between awareness and slumber, she didn’t know where she was or what she was doing. The last thing she remembered was being at the shores of Lake Natth before being attacked by a strange talking beast. Had she just imagined it? It seemed too fantastic to be real. Perhaps she had been crippled by the heat and rescued by one of her companions?

Still half-asleep, she turned on her side and felt a stinging pain in her leg; the pain told her that the encounter hadn’t been just heat-induced delirium. Pulling herself upright, Dynatha looked around and realized she was inside the master of Ambria’s home. The baubles she and the other Jedi had seen earlier were missing, and candles had been lit at the corners of the room and in the hanging lamp above her, bathing the room in a warm orange glow quite unlike the brilliance of glowpanels. Despite their light, there was a chilly air in the room and the stone floor she had been laying on was both uncomfortable and cold.

There was no one else in the room with her, leaving her to tend to her wounds. Pulling the left leg of her robe up, she intended to see just how badly she had been hurt by the hssiss, but the lower half of her leg had been covered by a tourniquet that had been tied quite tightly. Someone must have tended to her before leaving. Probing the area with her fingers and through the Force, she tried to determine exactly where her injuries were so she could heal them.

“Save your strength. Your leg got messed up pretty badly, and I don’t think you’ll be able to heal it.”

Dynatha craned her neck to see Celes Sunrider standing at the entrance to the room. The Jedi Master was carrying a footlocker over her shoulder and several bags in her other hand, and she looked and sounded exhausted. From the dark sky beyond the opened door, Dynatha realized it must have been several hours into nighttime, which meant she had been unconscious for several hours.

“Don’t worry. I can use the Force to heal myself. I just need to find the wounds,” Dynatha said.

Celes shrugged. “If you say so. Northeus had begun the healing process, but he was fatigued from the day’s work and decided to continue later after your body started to heal on its own.”

“Northeus?”

“The master of Ambria. This is his home.”

“I see. Where is he now?”

“He went off to investigate something. He should be back soon enough.”

Celes walked by Dynatha to store the things she was carrying in one of the back rooms of Northeus’s home. Dynatha herself was still quite shaken by her encounter with the hssiss at the lake, and the creature’s words bothered her. That beast had said it served the master of Ambria, but it had spoken contemptuously of Ranval and attacked him when he arrived. Either the creature was lying all along, or Ranval’s friend had lost himself to darkness since the last time they had met. And Dynatha seemed to recall meeting a Human named Northeus once, when she had traveled with a crew of smugglers to rescue a childhood friend from the Sith many years ago. Perhaps the man they had rescued then and this master of Ambria were one and the same?

“Decided not to heal yourself after all, then?” Celes inquired when she returned.

“You don’t think I can do it?” Dynatha asked, insulted that a Jedi Master thought so little of her.

“It’s not my place to judge the capabilities of healers like yourself,” Celes corrected her.

Dynatha repositioned herself so she was comfortable on the floor. Considering she couldn’t move her injured leg, that proved harder than she thought. “Are you saying you aren’t a healer?”

“Afraid not.” Celes sat down against the wall nearest to Dynatha. “I’m sure if I really tried I could come up with something, but I’ve never considered myself the type of Jedi who goes around tending to people and curing what ails them.”

“Isn’t it the responsible of a Jedi to help others?”

“I do. But I do it my own way.”

“And the Council is okay with that?”

Celes smiled. “Sometimes they are. Sometimes they aren’t. They know my strengths and my weaknesses, and they typically assign me to missions where they know my talents will be put to the best use. On the occasion where they misjudge the situation, I do the best I can, but I’m a warrior, not a nurturer.”

“But if the Council asked you to work as a healer, wouldn’t you have to?”

“The Council are just twelve Jedi Masters who were selected to represent us to the galaxy at large. If I agree with what they have to say, I’ll gladly do what they ask. If not, then I don’t. It’s simple.”

“But you’re a Jedi Master.”

Celes laughed. “So I have an impressive-sounding rank. What of it?”

“Even if you don’t agree with the Council, don’t you still have to set an example for younger Jedi?” Dynatha asked. “They appointed you with your rank for a reason; we may not always agree with the Council, but they have the best wishes of the Jedi Order in mind and operating contrary to that means operating contrary to the Jedi as a whole.”

“That’s quite a credo you have,” Celes mused. “It’s almost too perfect. I could see you getting appointed to Jedi Master and then the Council with that attitude.”

“But I’m right, no?”

“The Jedi Council is slow to react and slower to change. My mother was convinced that it was their inaction that contributed to the unchecked brutality in the Mandalorian Wars,” Celes explained.

“But when we entered the war, our inability to foresee the consequences of our actions led to the Jedi Civil War that followed,” Dynatha countered. “Suffering equal or greater to the last war followed because of our failings.”

“And now we’re back where we started. The Order has been reborn, but we’re no different than those Jedi from the last generation. My mother suspected that there is something evil biding its time and preparing for war in the farthest corners of space. But the Jedi Council—then and now—don’t care. Their champions left them behind; they want so desperately to believe that their heroes won’t fail them and they won’t have to face that threat. But what if the worst happens? Who will be ready if we’re all expecting a pair of Jedi to return in triumph and we’re greeted by an invasion force instead?”

Dynatha couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Ranval had nearly been purged from the Jedi Order for his defiance of the Council. The fact that he could have been a Dark Jedi working to sabotage them all was not lost upon Dynatha, and she was nervous just being around him. The whole ordeal with the hssiss made her question Northeus and his connection to the Jedi too, and it seemed even Celes—the only Jedi of this generation who could be called a hero—proved too stubborn to yield to their authority. She had heard about the unorthodox methods of the Sunrider family, but this was something else entirely. How could she place her trust in someone who didn’t even fight for the best interest of the Jedi Order?

Celes must have sensed her unease and rose to leave. “I don’t think any less of you for not seeing eye-to-eye with me on this. I just wanted you to know that the Council is not responsible for the continued well-being of the galaxy. That’s our job. You don’t have to let someone else dictate how you live.”

Dynatha didn’t say anything, so Celes took the opportunity to step out. The wounded Jedi was unsure of what to do, and she very much wanted to take Tserne and leave for Telos as quickly as possible and discuss the situation with the Jedi Council. How could Jedi of such doubtful loyalty be permitted to travel so freely? Why could Jedi like Celes, who hardly believed in the authority of the Council, be promoted to the rank of master? It was unfair. She was a few years older than Celes, but she was still a Jedi Knight. Dynatha might have lacked both her pedigree and her skill, but was nonetheless loyal, dedicated, and dependable; that could hardly be said for the current scion of the Sunrider family.

She laid back down on the floor. It was uncomfortable and she was still cold, but she was too tired to get up and try fix her situation. Tomorrow she would heal herself, see whatever Ranval and his former master had in store, and prepare herself to leave this dead world.

*** ***

Ranval pulled his coat closer to his body. The four moons of Ambria were all visible tonight, illuminating the desert around him in a dim amber color, but the light provided little warmth. A strong north wind had come in some time ago, and Ranval’s body hadn’t stopped shivering in protest. Situated on top of a rocky column that rose several meters and plateaued, Ranval felt the full force of the wind and struggled to keep his balance throughout his meditations. No matter how cold it was, he would stay here throughout the night, preparing his mind and body for the trials that were to come.

The events of today still puzzled him, even after thinking about them for some time. Dynatha had approached Lake Natth and endangered both herself and the rest of the Jedi with her; admittedly, she had not been warned about the dangers of the lake and was not prepared for its evil. Ranval had thought that Thon, the previous master of Ambria and the strongest Jedi he had ever known, had permanently sealed the evils of Ambria within the lake. It seemed his death had weakened the barrier somewhat, and Northeus hadn’t restored those defenses for whatever reason. Fortunately no one was permanently wounded, but next time they would not be so lucky.

Ranval chided himself for being so rash. His willingness to spring into action to save Dynatha had indeed fooled Northeus into thinking she was more important than he initially assumed, but it also nearly cost Ranval his life. If the other two Jedi and Selias had not arrived when they did, he most certainly would have died. There was so much left to do, and so much depended on him. No single individual, even Dynatha, was valuable enough for him to risk his life for. Not when the survival of the Galactic Republic and Jedi Order both depended on his plans for survival.

“I was wondering where you were hiding,” Ranval heard Selias say.

The Togruta was already on top of the spire with him, sitting precariously close to the edge, by the time he stirred from his meditative trance. Without the Force, she had climbed the rock face with pitons, rope, and a climbing hammer, now attached to her utility belt.

“Who would I be hiding from?” he asked her.

“Me,” Selias opined.

“You have been getting scary in your old age,” Ranval agreed.

“We’re on a spire six meters above the ground. I’d suggest taking that back.”

“You’re right. It has nothing to do with age; you’ve always been scary.”

“And you never learned to watch your mouth.” Selias nudged him just enough so they could sit back-to-back somewhat comfortably. “What did Northeus tell you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You leapt into battle pretty quickly back there. That’s not the Ranval I know.”

“If you were in danger, I’d do the same.”

“You’re making me blush.”

Ranval frowned. “What do you want me to say? Dynatha is important.”

“Important enough to risk getting eaten by a bunch of talking lizards?” Selias countered.

“Maybe.”

“Important enough to abandon the inhabitants of the Argazdan Redoubt?”

Selias was referring to something they had talked about months ago. Word had reached Ranval’s ears about the status of a region of space called the Argazdan Redoubt, a sector that had broken away from the Republic during the Mandalorian Wars. One of the species within the sector, the Argazdans, established a theocratic dictatorship and enslaved many other species within the eponymous region. Some of them had been freed by Revan many years ago, but the situation had not improved. Many species were still suffering, and neither the Republic nor the Jedi were willing to act to end the brutality.

It was upon witnessing the suffering of the Lorrdians under their Argazdan masters that Ranval had returned to Republic space and attempted to persuade the Jedi to aid them. The Council had claimed he exaggerated the scope of the problem and plainly refused to deal with something happening beyond Republic space, and other Jedi had refused to assist him without the permission of the Council. Ranval made his disgust with the Council quite clear after that incident; he didn’t blame them for treating him like an exile after that, but he did despise them for their inaction. With no one else to assist him, Selias had vowed to join him in a mission to liberate the Lorrdians from beneath the whips of their Argazdan masters, but only after the Republic was safe from the Sith threat.

“No. The beings in the redoubt are very important to me,” Ranval admitted, knowing that their success would depend on him leading Selias and her warriors, “but the Republic is in immediate danger. Should the Republic fall, so will the redoubt, and then the Lorrdians will wish they were still enslaved to Argazdans.”

“And you think Dynatha will become our savior, freeing us from the Sith at long last? Accomplishing something that Jedi have apparently been trying to do for two thousand years?” Selias grumbled.

“There are prophecies…”

“So she’s the fulfillment of prophecies now! She’s a regular goddess, isn’t she?”

“She is important. If the Force deems it must be so, I can’t just just ignore that. Maybe Celes will be the one to destroy the Sith and Dynatha will only be tangentially important. Maybe Northeus will unlock our hidden powers and we’ll all go defeat the Sith together with our new strengths. Maybe the Council is right and their champions defeated the True Sith years ago. Maybe I’m just the Force’s fool wasting my time with her. What would you have me do?”

Selias leaned against Ranval’s back and pushed him down. Stretching, she raised her hands and placed them behind her lethorns, effectively resting her fists against Ranval’s neck. “You’re the boss. You lead; I’ll follow. Anywhere you go, I’ll go. Your mission is my mission.”

“You’re a pain, you know that?” Ranval grumbled. In a more serious tone, he added, “I’m afraid the commandos won’t be very useful in the coming battles.”

Selias took the insinuation in stride. “I know. But I’m not here for the battles. I’m here for you. Even if I can’t fight like I used to and the enemies we face are beyond my strength, I won’t just leave you.”

“You paid back your debt long ago,” Ranval said, pushing back so that they were both sitting upright again. “You’ve proven yourself time and time again. You’ve done everything I’ve asked and more. You don’t have to stay any longer.”

“Where else would I go? Maybe you don’t think I owe you anymore, but saving my life back then… I’d be a stain on the Undercity walls right now if you hadn’t got me out of there,” Selias answered. “Let me stay because I want to.”

Ranval began drifting into a meditative trance again, knowing Selias would stay with him for the night. “And I will always be grateful to you,” he said under his breath. “Thank you.”

*** ***

Delvin entered the room where Tserne had been placed. Wendel was sitting in the corner of the room, sleeping after nearly fifteen standard hours of watching the comatose assassin. One of Ranval’s medical droids was floating nearby, but Northeus had forced it away so he could tend to the unresponsive killer himself. The Force illuminated the room in a radiant blue light as it streamed from Northeus’s hand into Tserne’s body, but there was no change in Tserne at all. Whatever Northeus was doing, it wasn’t effective.

“You are Northeus, master of Ambria?” Delvin asked upon approach.

“So I am. You are Delvin Cortes, yes?”

“Indeed. How is the wounded one?”

Northeus glanced up to regard Delvin as he sat down beside them. “The Sith spirits splintered his mind with their dark magic. It has been decades since I’ve seen an injury like this. It is strange, though… he seems to lack a connection to the Force, which paradoxically saved his life during their attack and yet makes it nearly impossible for me to heal him.”

“So even you may not be able to heal him,” Delvin muttered.

“I have done all I can,” Northeus explained. “If the Force is with him, he will recover. If not, then he will not wake up again.”

“Would you be so frank with Dynatha?”

“There is no reason to conceal the man’s fate from her.”

“She will be devastated,” Delvin pointed out.

“It will empower her for her fight against the Sith,” Northeus countered.

“Perhaps. Since you speak of her prowess, I take it you believe as Ranval does?”

“That she is the Chosen of whom the old sages speak? It is doubtful.”

“And why is that?”

“She lacks strength. You are a Jedi Master; you can sense us within the Force. Celes has no equal on this planet. If there is to be a savior in this generation, it will be her.”

“Surely strength alone does not guarantee the quality of a Jedi Knight.”

“There is no other quality that matters when facing a Sith Lord in combat,” Northeus said.

“But if you could teach Dynatha, then perhaps she could grow,” Delvin contested. “Though she was trained, you know how incomplete the new Jedi Order is. Their ways are of lost knowledge, relearned skills, and improvised technique. Only a true Jedi could possibly tap into the potential of a Jedi like Dynatha.”

“Then you ought to train her,” Northeus replied, knowing that Delvin had also survived the purge that nearly ended the Jedi Order. “I suspect your knowledge is sufficient for the task.”

“I could. But mine is a passing knowledge; you have mastered the techniques of that era. You have skills far greater than any I possess. Compared to you, my knowledge is infantile.”

“Perhaps.” Northeus rose to leave. “Ranval says you were in the Sith systems when the Jedi Order called upon you to rescue Dynatha?”

“Indeed.”

“And what were you doing there?”

“Investigating ruins left behind after the Great Hyperspace War,” Delvin explained. “There are still many dark artifacts that need to be hidden or destroyed.”

Northeus gave Delvin a suspicious look as he left the room. No doubt he was wary of all the Jedi here except Ranval; Delvin could hardly blame him, considering the circumstances and result of the former Jedi Councilor’s last mission. He understood the reasons for Northeus’s cynicism and bitterness, but the old Jedi knew much and he needed to impart his knowledge to the others. Overcoming his pain would prove a long process, but Delvin believed it could be done. If not, then there would be no hope for the future.

*** ***

Ambria was located in the midst of the unruly Stenness Node, a group of mining systems at the edge of Republic space. Decades ago, the crime lord known as Bogga the Hutt had controlled everything from mining rights to law enforcement across the region. Sometime during the Mandalorian Wars, the Exchange had muscled Bogga from his position to become masters of the Stenness Node. Ever since, the Hutts and the Exchange had vied for power across the region, using criminal enforcers, bribed smugglers or pirates, and confiscated warships in shows of force. The constant criminal element kept many legitimate businesses away from the Stenness Node. The only public terminal through the many asteroids at the edge of the region had descended into lawlessness long ago, making any effort to maintain order a lost cause.

Pirates scoured planets and the space near them for marks to plunder. Their ships were small—typically salvaged gunships or light cruisers—and designed to harass civilian and merchant transports. Some of the more clever ones managed to steal abandoned corvettes, but even then few could compete with a fully equipped and adequately funded fleet put together by the Exchange or the Hutts. These small-time criminals entered an unknowing symbiotic relationship with their betters: the large criminal syndicates would defend travelers from pirates for a rather hefty fee, and those who refused to pay were preyed upon by the countless rogues between them and their destination.

Coroq Lotte observed the smoldering remains of a pirate’s M5 light cruiser from the comfort of his command chair. The dentiform craft had been an intimidating adversary, equipped with several anti-starfighter guns, three medium turbolasers, and a light military-grade shield. Impressive though it was, it was still only a patrol craft. A single shot from both medium turbolasers equipped to Coroq’s comparatively ancient K16 Cinnagar-class transport ripped through the pirate vessel’s hull and put an end to whatever plans they had for him and his crew.

Once the wreckage had disappeared from his viewport, Coroq returned his attention to Ambria. The desert world seemed lifeless from orbit, but Coroq knew better. He knew his quarry was somewhere down there, and it wouldn’t be long now before the hunt could begin.

It had been a long journey. Coroq had been aboard the Fate and Luck with his crew celebrating the capture of a high-profile bounty when the commotion began. Scuttlebutt said that Sharzin, the crime lord of the station, had been assassinated by the Ghoul. Of all the assassins on all the space stations in the galaxy, it had been the Ghoul. He and his crew had left behind whatever they had been doing and scoured every hangar in the station until they found it—the Grimtaash, the Ghoul’s ship. Of course it had been under an alias and looked different than the last time he had seen it, but he would have recognized it no matter how much the Ghoul tried to change it.

The ship had been empty then. He could have planted a mine to go off when the boarding ramp was activated or else prepared some kind of trap, but that was beneath him. He would demand nothing else but single combat from the Ghoul, and that meant finding a better place to duel than a space station near a ship the Ghoul had full control over. Coroq planted a beacon and small holocam on the ship and waited.

He followed the ship to some world beyond Republic space. Coroq had never been there, but spacer lore said it was haunted, and that was enough for his crew to convince him to remain in orbit until they left. While they waited above the mysterious world, Coroq had nearly been spotted by another ship that reverted from hyperspace and sent a shuttle to the surface. The shuttle and the Ghoul’s ship both entered that yacht’s hangars some time later and left the system, leaving Coroq to pursue this unknown vessel all the way to Ambria. And here they waited while Coroq plotted.

His dark eyes, sunken beneath ridges in his leathery skin, flashed with rage at the thought of what the Ghoul had done to him and his clan. He had pursued the wily assassin across the galaxy and back; every time he had failed to corner his prey. Not this time. And to sweeten the deal, he had been hired by the Exchange to serve as the avenger of Sharzin’s death on their behalf. After all, the only thing better than resolving a personal feud was getting paid for it afterward.

“What do you think they’re doing there?” a younger Sanyassan standing near Coroq asked.

“I don’t know,” Coroq admitted. “Ambria’s an empty rock. There’s nowhere to hide, but that works to our advantage. It’s just a matter of consulting the grunts we hired and seeing what they found.”

“If we ever go down. Why are we still hiding in orbit, Uncle?” another Sanyassan grumbled. “Let’s start our descent! Let’s begin the fight!”

“Patience.” Coroq steepled his fingers and rested his chin on them. “We’ve waited a long time for this day, R'obel. Let us savor the hunt while we can.”

“There’s nothing to savor. We’re wasting fuel, time, and our own energy waiting up here,” R'obel grumbled.

Coroq sighed. He had once been as eager to jump into battle as his young nephew. The Ghoul had destroyed his youthful bravado and forced him to curtail his inclination for reckless violence. The Sanyassan way was destructive in more ways than one. He understood better than anyone the necessity of his plans, but he still fought with his own ingrained desire to go and bombard every square kilometer of the planet’s surface. His honor demanded more than that. His father deserved better.

“These preparations are not trivial. We wait so we don’t waste more time in the future. If they leave the planet soon, as they did on that last world, then we would lose him again. If I was not given time to plan, we would rush into battle and lose many of our fighters. And what if there are traps for us down there?”

“How would they know we were coming? They did not see us,” R'obel countered, ignoring the rest of his uncle’s points. “All of this talk of planning and strategy is tiresome. We outnumber the enemy twenty-to-one at least. Let us descend and wipe them out already!”

Coroq shrugged. His nephew was young, but he saw no harm in descending. If nothing else, they could land and meet the beings he had hired for the occasion. “Very well. Our sensors have located the rogues’ settlement, so bring us down there.”

*** ***

It was well into the night when Coroq’s ship, the Shadowchaser, landed in the open field that served as a landing zone for what appeared to be an encampment of pirates and smugglers. The vessel was fairly large as far as transports went, with three decks and a bulky central section that served as civilian dormitories in its typical usage. Surrounded by gunships and light freighters, the Shadowchaser was the largest vessel currently stationed in the camp.

Coroq had admired the landscape of Ambria during their descent. The barren world reminded him much of his own home, many light years away, that he had left with his father when he had still been a boy. It had been nearly thirty years since he had seen it, and he suspected that he would never get another chance. Memories would have to do for now, he reminisced.

Wearing a white mantle over heavy durasteel armor, Coroq disembarked from his ship with his nephew and their bodyguard, a Mantellian Savrip who stood quite a bit taller than Coroq’s two meters. Of course, the three of them were armed with blasters and vibroblades, but they wouldn’t need them here. They were among friends.

The three of them were immediately greeted by a large group of local rogues. Their leader, a red pachydermoid who stood about as tall as Coroq but with a stouter build, was at the front of the crowd. “It’s not every day we get travelers to this desolate rock, and in the middle of the night, no less. What brings you to Ambria, stranger?”

“I am Coroq, son of Charak. Are you the leader of the beings I requested?” the Sanyassan captain asked.

The hairy fibers at the end of the being’s trunk bristled in agitation. “So you are our employer. I expected… someone different.”

“But you are the leader?” Coroq growled. The Ghoul could be hiding anywhere; he couldn’t waste any time, especially not here in the open where he was vulnerable.

“I am. Forgive me; most of our fellows were not inclined to join us. They were worried about becoming Exchange lackeys.”

“I see. It is of no consequence. We still vastly outnumber our intended target.”

“Ah yes, the mysterious objective,” the spokesbeing mumbled. “Just who is it that we’re after? You spoke of the danger he posed, but beyond that you were vague… too vague, I think, for us to proceed without more information.”

“I can understand why that would be troublesome,” Coroq muttered. “Here’s what I know. He is a former smuggler, like yourself. He’s fairly competent in his trade and a good fighter, but he thought credits were more valuable than loyalty and abandoned the Exchange—serving as an informant to the Republic in the process.” Coroq couldn’t exactly tell them the truth; smugglers and pirates were of the cowardly sort and would not help him hunt an infamous assassin no matter how much he offered them. “He’s a threat, but he’s no match for all of us. I hired all of you because I suspect you know how he thinks, at least on some level.”

“That seems reasonable. And you presume he landed on Ambria?”

“He was in a Starscape-class yacht the last time I saw him, and he was definitely headed for this system. Did he land in this camp?”

“No. You are our first visitor in nearly a week.”

“What about the other camps?” Coroq’s nephew barked. “We saw others coming down.”

Coroq nodded. “Well? What have your scouts found?”

There were some harsh whispers in the crowd while Coroq spoke. An argument between two or three factions of the locals had broken out, but Coroq couldn’t tell what they were saying. His nephew stepped forward to break them up, but he held him back. No point in getting involved in local squabbles. As long as it didn’t involve them or the mission, Coroq didn’t care.

Finally, the pachydermoid regarded their employer. “We… have some idea where he could be. My scouts traveled to the other settlements and, based on what they told me, this target of yours has not landed in any of our transient camps. That leaves only one place…”

“Well?”

“There is an old hermit who lives out in the desert. We’ve heard rumors that he is some sort of… conjurer. We don’t know exactly what he does, but he possesses some sort of twisted power. It’s unnatural, you see. What’s more, he’s the only actual inhabitant of this place—we just linger here to trade goods or hide from authorities—and he doesn’t like it when we set down here. We’ve only actually seen him a few times, but we’re sure he’s insane.”

“But you know where he lives?” Coroq pressed.“Well, of course, but-”

“We’d rather not deal with him,” a stout pirate interrupted. “The others are… scared of him.”

Coroq smiled as much as his grizzled features permitted him. That was where the Ghoul was. He was sure of it. If he had not landed in the pirates’ camps, he was hiding with this ancient madman in the wastes. Where else could he have gone? He would confirm it by sending a shuttle to flyby, but until then this was the best lead they had to go on. They had to get ready.

Attacking the Ghoul would be tricky. He was clever, one of the best killers in the galaxy, with years of experience. Coroq had already been bested once, and it would take all of his cunning to avoid a similar fate. The Sanyassan captain knew that for all of his skill and ferocity, the Ghoul was not without a weakness: that female he had seen the Ghoul leave the Fate and Luck with could very well be one of them.

“Very well. I will investigate the matter thoroughly before committing to anything. I do not want to rile a crazy old fool any more than you. However, it may have to be done. If that does happen, I will send most of you elsewhere; I will deal with your wizard with my own soldiers.”

“Where exactly will we be, then?” the leader of the group asked.

“The smuggler was last seen with a female. While I can only surmise their relationship, I suspect that if they are still together, we can use her to force his hand. From what I have seen, she is far weaker than him—indeed, she is hardly a combatant. Capturing her should be no trouble for you and your associates.” Coroq signaled for his nephew to begin unloading their cargo from the ship while he stepped into the crowd of smugglers and pirates. “Now then, if you’ll direct me to the nearest holo-projector? I’d like to explain the plan to you all now while we still have time. It won’t be long now, my friends, it won’t be long at all…”


Chapter 17

Dynatha stared down into the depths of the canyon before her. The morning fog had since rolled away, leaving her free to gaze at the bottom, so far down that the river running through it seemed like a thin line. All of the Jedi on Ambria—or former Jedi—were with her, silently regarding the scene before them as she was. She had been asked to leave her lightsaber behind for whatever it was Northeus and Ranval were planning, so she assumed it would be a test of their physical endurance or connection to the Force.

Northeus stepped in front of the party of Jedi to speak. “The three of you will descend this cliff, bring proof of your arrival at the bottom, and return to the homestead before nightfall.”

“Three of us? Who’s not joining us?” Dynatha asked.

“Ranval. He will stay here and monitor your progress from above.”

“Why does he get to ditch this silly test?” Celes grumbled. “He’s just a Jedi Knight, after all.”

“I’ve also done this trial before,” Ranval pointed out. “I know all the easy ways down and the best proof to bring to Master Ulsan. It wouldn’t make sense for me to join you.”

“And if we don’t succeed?” Delvin asked.

“I won’t train you,” Northeus answered. “Be wary of the dust storms. They are far more frequent here.”

Celes rolled her eyes. “Let’s get started, then. No point wasting time up here if the chrono’s ticking.”

Dynatha knelt down to search the cliff face for anything resembling a path or a steady slope down. Celes scoffed at her attempt and simply jumped down, straight into the gorge. Dynatha flinched in alarm, nearly causing her to slip; she was saved by quick-thinking from Delvin, who grabbed her arm and steadied her. A few seconds later, they heard the resulting echo from Celes reaching the bottom—she had arrested her fall, it seemed, but it had been loud enough to disturb her surroundings.

“Perhaps we ought to do a bit more searching,” Delvin offered, casting a wary glance over the edge of the cliff. “Follow me, Dynatha. I’m sure there is a natural formation that would lend itself well to a slow descent.”

Ranval bobbed his head toward the canyon again and knew that Celes hadn’t been injured by her reckless descent. “How arrogant,” he muttered once Delvin and Dynatha were out of earshot. “That Sunrider blood runs fierce in her.”

“It is a recent trend,” Northeus offered. “Her grandmother wasn’t nearly as hot-headed.”

“And her mother?”

“She was considerably more so.” Northeus stroked his beard in thought. “I do not believe you are right about this Dynatha.”

“What makes you say that, Master?”

“There is a darkness in her.” Northeus motioned toward his stomach. “It is subtle, but it is unmistakable. The Sith are sadistic, leaving scars that cannot be healed by medicines or through the Force. You presume the prophecies are of her, and not of her descendants?”

“I don’t think I would be sensing her unborn children and their ability to fulfill our prophecies, no. Why do you ask?”

Northeus frowned. “After she dies, she will leave behind neither son nor daughter to carry on her work. The Sith have made sure of that.”

Ranval understood his meaning. “Just another reason for us to defeat them in this generation, once and for all.”

Northeus nodded and began walking away from the canyon. Ranval noticed immediately that he was not returning to Thon’s home—he was walking in the other direction.

“Where are you going?” he called after him.

“I have other business to attend to. Surely you can watch over the three learners here?”

“Of course, but-”

And then Northeus departed, disappearing as though he had been a ghost in the wastes. Ranval grumbled under his breath. Northeus had been sneaking around a lot since their arrival, but he knew inquiring about it wouldn’t help. The enigmatic watcher of Ambria kept to his own agenda, just as Ranval did his. Knowing how long the test would take, Ranval approached a nearby rock and perched atop of it, hoping to drift into meditation to see what more he could glean from the Force.

Surrendering himself to the Force, Ranval sensed the three Jedi learners within the canyon, Selias and her commandos back at the homestead, and Northeus off in the distance. He sensed the many droids he had left behind with his commandos, and Tserne’s droid back inside their yacht. More alarming, though, was the Force’s warning that there were others nearby—hostile life forms who were unfamiliar to him. They were not dark-siders, but they were dangerous and coming toward him. Did they know of his companions in the canyon? Had they been watching them? Ranval had no way of knowing, but he knew the only way of keeping the others safe was to lead the rapidly approaching danger away from here. Rising, Ranval began walking toward a small group of hills he had seen yesterday afternoon, hoping to draw his mysterious adversaries with him.

*** ***

Dynatha held back the tears that instinctively welled up in her eyes. Both of her palms had been cut up from the rocky descent, and her boots were beginning to show signs of wear as well. Delvin seemed used it, descending the cliff face as though he had been performing such feats for years. They were about half way down—still about five hundred meters from the bottom—but she could see the vast river flowing below much better now. Several waterfalls flowed into the depths from every face of the cliff, and caves pockmarked the walls no matter how far they descended. The wind brushed against her face and limbs, throwing her cloak all around her, but it was not strong enough to impede their progress.

“How are you feeling, radiant one?”

Dynatha carefully dropped to a lower crack in the wall, using the Force to arrest her fall just enough to get a good grip. “I think I’m all right. I’ll need to heal my hands, though.”

“Of course. Hold on, let me aid you.” Delvin closed his eyes and released a surge of Force power that healed the cuts along Dynatha’s hands in an instant. “We’re approaching a cave. Once we’re in, tear some strips from your cloak and tie them around your palms; it will keep your grip strong and the bleeding will be less severe.”

Dynatha followed Delvin as closely as she was able and entered the cave. It was barely five meters deep, but it was safe enough and provided her a moment to catch her breath. Delvin glanced down the cliff to scope out their intended path while she rested. While she prepared for her descent, she realized how impressive Delvin’s strength was. Although her cuts had been shallow and minor wounds, it would have taken her a minute or two to heal them; Delvin restored her hands in the blink of an eye. She hoped one day to match his talent, if such a thing was possible.

She was ripping the end of her cloak to make strips to tie around her hands when she and Delvin heard the loud roars of engines coming from above them. Seconds later, several swoop bikes past them like dive bombers preparing to drop their payload.

“Who could that be?” Dynatha shouted as the sounds of their bikes faded into the distance.

“Pirates!” Delvin replied. “They’re going after Celes!”

“What? Then we have to help her!” Dynatha sprinted toward the edge of the cave. “But it took us so long to get this far…”

Delvin frowned. He glanced once more down toward the river where the swoop bikes had headed, and then back at Dynatha. Something in his eyes told her he was debating internally, but his hesitation lasted less than a second. Without warning, he grabbed Dynatha’s shoulder and held it tightly.

“What are you doing?” Dynatha asked, moving to push him away.

“Close your eyes and relax. Remain still and let the Force take over…”

Dynatha grabbed Delvin’s hand to push him away only to have her vision stolen from her. Her body flailed about like it had been violently thrown out of the cave, and she tumbled about helplessly while her senses faded into uselessness. She felt physically ill, and her arms and legs almost seemed ready to rip out of their sockets. The immense pain would have caused her to scream had it not been so sudden and so brief; she had scarcely blinked when her vision returned. To her surprise, she was now at the bottom of the cliff—clouds of dust were sweeping in from overhead, casting a dark shadow over the entire canyon. It took her a moment to realize she had fallen on the ground. Delvin was a blotchy image in her blurry vision, and in her disoriented state she rebuffed his offer to help her stand.

“What in space? Where did you two come from?” she heard an unknown voice, hoarse and distant.

“They are my allies,” she heard Celes say, equally far away. “See? You’re even worse off than you were before.”

“Tough one, ain’t she? But she ain’t bad looking in the least. I bet she’d sell for a credit or two on the markets…”

Dynatha strained her neck and saw—distorted and unclear—Celes facing eight unknown beings at the banks of the river. The ruffians had disembarked from their swoop bikes and were practically surrounding her. Realizing that she was in trouble, Dynatha commanded the Force to restore her body’s health and her senses to her; she took Delvin’s hand and stood up once the strange effects had worn off.

“Last chance. Leave or die,” Celes threatened.

The pirate at her left flank quickly drew his blaster pistol and fired as furiously as he could. Delvin raised one of his hands and created a Force barrier between the incoming fire and Celes, absorbing the energy while she leapt forward and punched the nearest rogue in the face. His two companions moved in to attack her, but Dynatha was quicker; calling upon the Force, she lifted one of their swoops and threw it at them, crushing them beneath hundreds of kilograms of durasteel.

Blaster fire raced through the air from all directions, but Delvin’s shields sprung up to intercept the fire before it reached either woman. One of the pirates moved in to engage Delvin, but he unleashed a telekinetic burst that sent his adversary flying into the rushing river—pulling him downstream faster than he could swim. Defeating her first opponent, Celes confiscated his vibrosword and cleaved into one of the pirates Dynatha had missed with her second projectile. Another engaged her with a vibrosword of his own, but his skill was like a child’s compared to Celes. By the time Dynatha used the third swoop to crush the last shooters, Celes had sliced through her foe’s arms and one of his legs, leaving him to bleed out from his wounds.

“Took you two long enough to get down here,” Celes remarked after catching her breath.

“What happened? Why did they attack you?” Dynatha asked.

“They didn’t say. Didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me who they were. Just started making snide remarks and whistling like a bunch of drunks at a bar.”

“Let us remedy our ignorance, then.” Delvin approached the Nikto who was bleeding out near the river. “You are still alive, yes? I’m a healer: I can cure you of your wounds, but you must answer my questions.”

“W-what makes you think I’ll answer… you?” he croaked.

“I’m afraid if you disagree, you will die. You’ll go into shock soon. I would hope to save you before that.”

“You’re wasting time with your niceties,” Celes said. “They were stupid enough to attack us; they’re obviously too crazy to listen to reason.”

“No! I’ll… I’ll talk. No point dying here. What do you want to know?”

“Who are you? Why are you attacking us?” Dynatha asked.

“I’m a member of the Bloody Fang pirates. We were offered a job… attack the travelers who arrived in the Starscape yacht in exchange for a hefty sum of credits. We didn’t know… you are all like him…”

“Pardon?” Delvin asked.

“There’s an old Human who lives beyond the camps. He’s said to possess supernatural powers, roaming the wasteland and… destroying any settlement he finds. S-some say he’s a demon sent by the beings who have been killed across the sector. If we had known you all had the same magic he does, we would never have… agreed…”

Delvin used the Force to cauterize the dying alien’s wounds and stabilize his condition so he wouldn’t go into shock right away. “Be at peace. Life remains with you for now. Tell us: who sent you? Where are they now?”

“We were hired by a mercenary named Coroq. He wanted us to distract you while he killed some smuggler named the Ghoul…”

Dynatha gasped. “Tserne. They’re going after Tserne.”

“But how could they have known we would all be gone?” Celes wondered aloud.

“He’s been pursuing… watching you…” the pirate answered.

Celes ignored him. “Let’s get back to the home and save him. The swoop will get us back there quickly.”

“We’re going to leave him here?” Delvin inquired. “I did heal his wounds, but he’ll die of dehydration before long. The dust storm will make survival challenging, especially for someone in his condition.”

“Forget about him. There’s a river right there. He’ll be fine.”

Delvin turned to Dynatha, hoping she would be reasonable. “Surely it would be cruel to leave him like this.”

“Tserne’s in trouble. I have to go to him,” Dynatha said.

The older Jedi frowned and shook his head. “You two go on ahead; I will tend to this one and bring him back to his crew.”

“He’s a pirate,” Celes retorted. “You’re wasting your time.”

“That is not for you to decide.” Delvin hoisted the injured Nikto on his back. “Besides, that swoop will only fit two. You and Dynatha must go; you can save him without my help.”

Dynatha wanted to say something, but she was interrupted by Celes, “Fine. Let’s go, Dynatha. If we delay too long, Tserne won’t make it.”

*** ***

Northeus stood in front of the pirate camp, taking note of the vessels that were present—and those that were not. Many pirates and smugglers were absent, as were their swoops and skiffs, leaving only a few rogues behind to defend this place. It had been many years since they had first landed in this place. Northeus had watched the camp grow from a pair of pirate ships into its current state. They would come and go sporadically, but they would always return. After raiding civilians and miners elsewhere in the sector, the pirates would meet in this place to trade stories, make repairs, and hide their treasures before taking off again. He could have dealt with them on that basis alone, but he wanted something more damning. This attack on the Jedi was exactly what he needed.

The old Human walked into the camp, alerting the few brigands left inside of his presence and causing them to flee. Many of them knew of him, calling him a terror, a madman, and a crazy old hermit. It was a shame they did not heed his warnings, and understand the reason for the violent destruction of other camps not unlike their own.

All around him, pirates and smugglers primed their blaster weapons and withdrawing their blades. Even when he could not see them, he could sense their violent intent… their anger. It permeated this place just as the dark side permeated Lake Natth. Foolish. They should have fled from this place as soon as he arrived.

“And what does the old kook want from us?” a Twi’lek shouted from one of the nearby prefab buildings, pointing his blaster rifle down at him. “What brings you here, huh?”

“Does he seek to scare us away with his words of woe again?” a Gand chirped. “Perhaps to frighten us with dreadful omens? Damn us for our actions?”

Dozens of smugglers and twice as many pirates maneuvered their way through the transient buildings and smaller ships so that they could see Northeus, aim their weapons at him, and prepare to kill him. There were more here than he expected. He had stopped moving, regarding those around him with disdain. Even more foolish than before. There was nothing left for them but destruction, but instead of running they embraced it.

“You are responsible for the attack on my companions going on at this very moment,” Northeus accused them.

“Oh, come off it,” another Human growled. “We are the ones that weren’t exactly excited to battle by that Sanyassan and his promises; we stayed here because we didn’t want to fight.”

“That’s right! We’re just going about our business. Go back to your hut, hermit!”

Northeus raised his hands and closed his eyes. “You should have urged them to abandon their evil ways. You should have dissuaded that mercenary from disturbing the peace. You should have fled this place when you had the chance. Now you will all burn.”

Durasteel groaned behind them, making a cacophonous racket that was matched only by the discharge of their blasters. Their salvos were halted by a shielding dome Northeus had created around himself, dissipating their blaster fire in blue-gray ripples around him. The hulls of their ships were torn apart as though they had been struck by turbolasers, and then their engines ruptured, creating explosions that shook the ground and fireballs that leapt into the air. A few of the ruffians who were closer to the ships were caught in the blast, but most of them made it out of the chaos unscathed.

Once their ships were useless, Northeus began shattering the stone used in the walls of their temporary settlements. Roofs collapsed, walls imploded, and entire buildings were razed by the telekinetic maelstrom the master of Ambria created. Anyone unfortunate to be positioned on the top of a building was hurled below, falling several meters and becoming buried under mounds of stone. Groundquakes shook up the remains of the buildings and destroyed any still standing.

Fiery remains of their ships and rubble from their buildings littered the streets. Smoke rose up in vast plumes, mingling with black clouds that were beginning to fill the sky overhead. The pirates still alive dropped their weapons and began begging Northeus to show mercy, asking him to stop this mystical terror and leave them alone. He laughed at them. Only now, stripped of their pride and their vaunted possessions, were they willing to accept defeat. If it took helplessness for them to see their folly, they were not prudent enough to desire life.

With a loud voice, the old Human called lightning down from the sky. With his mastery of the Force, he could pinpoint his targets and strike them even as they fled from him. Their screams of pain and cries for clemency were silenced when the first bolt hit them, and third-degree burns eventually gave way to charred corpses. The burnt husks smelled foul, but Northeus inhaled it deeply, knowing it couldn’t have been any other way.

He continued to call down lightning even after all of the criminals were dead. The shimmering bolts of energy struck the ground all around him, lighting the remains of their belongings on fire and superheating the sand where they had stood. The lightning and the fire would purge them from memory, and this planet would again become the safe haven it had been. So it had to be. Was this not his duty as the master of Ambria?

*** ***

Ranval gasped for breath as he reached the hills he had been approaching. The armored skiff that followed him for the past hour or so had had done so lazily, almost mocking him as he sprinted forward with incredibly speed just to keep ahead of them. They were either uninterested in fighting or thought he would return to his base, revealing others for them to fight. Either way, they would regret their decision. Finding the cave he had visited in years past, Ranval quickly entered before the armored skiff could try and fire upon him.

“Where’d that cripple go?” a Sanyassan shouted from atop the skiff. He was armed to the teeth and currently manning the main gun on the floating barge, but he seemed to be the leader of their party. “Scurrying away like a rodent into his tunnels, huh?”

“Should we follow, Commander Lotte?” one of his allies inquired.

“Of course. Let’s flush him out.”

The young Sanyassan and his dozen associates disembarked from their skiff and headed into the cave in pursuit of Ranval. Traveling in pairs, the teams used collar lights or glowrods mounted on their blaster rifles to illuminate the pitch blackness of the cave. The cave itself appeared empty, quiet aside from the occasional drip of water from stalactites overhead, and the earth was damp as their boots clomped through it. The cave was quite wide, stretching nearly nine meters across, and seemed to go very far back; the marauders’ lights merely traveled into what seemed to be an endless darkness before them.

“Why have you come here?” Ranval’s voice echoed from somewhere unseen, causing several rogues to fire in alarm.

“Come out, you coward!” the Sanyassan hollered. “What sort of man are you? Come out and fight!”

“You speak boldly for someone who brings twelve other beings and an armored vehicle to fight for him,” Ranval replied. “Leave them outside and let’s talk like gentlebeings.”

“He’s back there! Behind the stalagmites!” a male Epicanthix shouted. The humanoid ran forward with rifle in hand, only to trip and fall into a murky pool of water that separated him from the stalagmites he sought.

The Sanyassan ordered his followers to fire into the stalagmites. Their orange fire shattered the rock formations into tiny pebbles. The report of their rifles echoed all around them, causing a mild shaking as small stones fell from the top of the cave. Once it was clear their shooting was just disturbing the cave and not actually hitting anything, Commander Lotte ordered them to stop.

“Surely you and your fighters have something better to do than disrupt the natural beauty of this place?” Ranval asked.

“Damn you! Face us!” a Feeorin mercenary screamed.

Ranval didn’t respond. However, there was a ripple in a deep and wide pool about a meter ahead of them—far too large to be caused by the rocks. On cue, several of the Sanyassan’s followers jumped into the freezing water with their vibroblades in hand, ready for combat. Thinking he was underwater, they dove into the chilly water without hesitation. The others waited for several long minutes, but their companions did not surface. The Sanyassan noticed that his fellow mercenaries were beginning to get agitated and ordered another to go into the water and see what happened.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Ranval warned. “The galaxy is not without its undiscovered terrors. Things that lurk in the darkness: unexplainable horrors that are better left unseen. Your fighters dove into the lair of such a monster. Throwing more warriors into the water will only lead to their demise.”

“You… you don’t frighten me! Your scary stories are just that!” the Sanyassan growled. He jabbed his finger at another marauder. “Get in the water and see what happened to our comrades.”

The stout marauder’s dread was evident on his face even in the dim light. “Please don’t make me go, sir. I… I can’t swim, sir.”

The Sanyassan growled. “You would defy an order from me? I’ll see you dead right here.” The shot from his blaster fired just before his warning, placing a single burnt hole in his ally’s chest. “Do you hear me, you invalid? You don’t scare me! I’ll blow up this whole damn cave to kill you if I have to! Come out or this place will be your tomb.”

“A tomb? Why, that’s almost novel.” The marauders jumped when they realized that Ranval’s voice was coming from behind them—near the entrance. “You know, with just the right amount of permacrete detonators from your armored skiff, I could cause a cave-in that would leave you all-”

The Sanyassan shouted a deranged profanity as loud as he was able and sprinted for the mouth of the cave, but it was too late. There was a fiery explosion from just beyond the entrance that caused the ground to rumble beneath them. Stalactites, very rarely disturbed on such a lifeless world, cracked and fell down upon the fleeing marauders, causing some to be crushed under rocks that were far larger than them. Countless boulders tumbled over the mouth of the cave, burying the few mercenaries who almost made it out and trapping the remaining three and their leader in total darkness.

“Damn you! You coward! You fiend! Let us out!” shrieked the Sanyassan. “My uncle will see you dead! He’s the strongest mercenary this side of Coruscant! Damn you, let us out!”

“Unfortunately, the rocks separating you and I are far too thick for that,” Ranval said, his voice grainy and distorted through the skiff’s comlink he was using to communicate. “Even if I wanted to, I simply don’t have the tools to extract you.”

“The skiff’s gun could get us out, Commander R'obel,” one of the surviving fighters offered.

“As your blasters probably could, in time,” Ranval agreed. “However, most blasters stop working optimally after being submerged in water, and… unfortunately for you, the cave-in caused the natural dam deeper inside to break.”

“We’re going to drown!” a Neimoidian mercenary cried.

“The water will probably fill the cave in two standard hours. I have to go save my friends from the trap you’ve no doubt set for them, but I’ll be back just before then to help you out,” Ranval explained. “Stay safe until then, and don’t blame your commander for everything. I’m sure he was just doing his job. Also, between you and me… avoid the teeth. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it.” Ranval switched off the comlink and activated the skiff’s engines. He had wasted enough time with these small-time enemies, but he still had a chance to make it back to the homestead, if he was quick.

*** ***

Selias swore aloud. Cannon fire lanced over her position and destroyed an energy shield emplacement between her and Thon’s home. She had been planning to retreat behind it; now that it was gone, she found her options increasingly limited. Turrets mounted on skiffs and heavy blasters rained down upon their defenses indiscriminately, leaving them with little room to maneuver. For someone who had practically lived for battle, even she had acknowledge just how terrible this situation was.

About an hour after the Jedi had left for their little nature walk, a trio of skiffs and many more swoops raced toward Northeus’s home from the south. With automated turrets and heavy weaponry to assist them, Selias and her commandos had kept them from getting too close to the Blind Guide. They had nearly defeated all their enemies when a second group appeared in the distance, approaching them from the southeast. This time, they were accompanied by a hulking K16 Cinnagar-class transport and several smaller vessels that proceeded to expel mercenaries, droids, and more armored vehicles all around them. They had gone from finishing the battle to being outnumbered and outgunned in a manner of seconds.

They found themselves cut off from their ship immediately; the nearest commando had been killed when the ships flying overhead bombed their perimeter defenses. Selias and her operatives had planned for hostile situations: their empty durasteel containers doubled as makeshift cover in a pinch, they had several stationary shields—either energy-based or constructed from a heavy metal alloy—to hide behind, and automated turrets positioned at chokepoints around the hut were major assets on her side. Using her defenses and a platoon of combat droids, Selias had organized her defense to force her enemies into single lanes and wade into blaster fire.

Unfortunately, there were more enemies than she and Ranval had counted on. The mercenaries were less skilled than Selias’s five operatives and their mechanical allies, but their enemies’ advance was covered by armored vehicles that were more than a match for her emplacements. After the perimeter had fallen, she had ordered all her commandos to fall behind the third line of defenses while the droids dealt and received most of the damage. This had gone on for some time before one of the skiffs performed a suicidal charge and created a breach in the defenses that had allowed the incoming mercenaries to approach the hut in droves.

She and her four surviving comrades were pinned down between their last line of defense and Northeus’s hut. They were running incredibly low on ammunition and shields, and two of them were already injured. The last of their droids were making a heroic last stand against the skiffs approaching from the east, but they wouldn’t last very long without heavy weapons or grenades. It was only a matter of time before their last few turrets went down and their shields failed. She and her lieutenant had discussed their options, and they realized that their only chance was to extract Tserne as quickly as possible, exploit the enemy’s weak right flank, and make a reckless charge for the Blind Guide. The ship was surrounded by three skiffs and ten times as many mercenaries, but Selias was certain it had been sealed this morning and that they could fight their way there before slicers got inside.

A skiff fired one of its cannons and destroyed the stack of durasteel cylinders she and another commando had been hiding behind, throwing them both back about a meter. Acting on instinct, Selias threw her last frag grenade in the direction of the shot. The grenade missed its intended target, but the resulting explosion tossed chunks of earth into the air and flipped the hovering vehicle onto its side. In the chaos that followed the grenade’s detonation, Selias grabbed her injured companion and dragged him behind a solid barricade; her shield took several direct hits in the process.

It was now or never. Selias switched from her rifle to her rocket launcher and fired at the skiff to her left. The armored vehicle had been facing the other direction, firing its port and starboard cannons at the only nearby turret, and she was rewarded for her efforts with a gratifying fireball that killed all of its passengers and scorched its hull. That was the chance they needed. The two companions opposite her position made a break for the smoldering wreckage while Selias and her injured companion provided covering fire. Once they were safe, Selias dragged her operative to join the other two behind the skiff. From their position, it was less than one hundred meters to the Blind Guide. They needed a distraction, or at least a two-pronged charge, to keep the enemy at bay. But with two injured, Selias didn’t know if they could make it quickly enough.

They were trapped. Despite the disastrous situation she was in, Selias had to admire the tactical mind behind this attack. A rapid three-pronged attack primarily composed of infantry but bolstered by steady mechanized support limited their options almost immediately. Aerial support devastated their established defensive lines. Even though her side was better trained, their opponent used sheer numbers to inflict damage through attrition. Retreating into Northeus’s hut was pointless—its simple design would have been bombarded and destroyed in seconds—and the enemy could quickly envelop them from all sides if they tried to run into the wastes.

One of the commandos near her expended the power pak in his blaster rifle and didn’t have any more on his bandoleer. Another took a shot to the arm and dropped his blaster pistol, leaving him unable to bring his rifle to bear. Selias felt her heart sank in despair. Wendel hadn’t returned with Tserne yet, so that probably meant he had died already. She hated the thought of losing this battle, but her greatest regret was failing Ranval at such a crucial time. Maybe she didn’t have to escape. As long as she could pull back and rescue Tserne, keep him alive until the Jedi returned, she could salvage this. But could she sacrifice her comrades for that?

Selias fired her last rocket at a team of mercenaries coming in from the north, killing more than half of them and sending the other half flying in all directions. With a few seconds of respite, Selias tossed an extra power pak to her comrade and then discarding her useless weapon. Peering out from behind cover, she switched her blaster rifle to full auto and began firing at the enemies approaching from the south. Just as she was about to jump out of cover and begin her final assault, she saw the K16 transport from earlier soar overhead and approach Northeus’s home. She couldn’t help but smile ruefully at the situation. Of course it had been a distraction. They wanted Tserne. This entire battle was just an elaborate ruse—and a disgusting waste of life—to capture him. Sith, perhaps? Selias had no idea who could want the assassin alive so badly, but she was determined to find out.

“Commandos! Back to the hut! Extract Wendel and objective two! Let’s move, people!”

*** ***

Visions. After what seemed like an eternity in darkness, he began to see visions. Much of his mind was locked away from him, shrouded by a curtain of shadow that would not be pulled back no matter what he tried. The dark powers that were threatening his mind, patiently peeling away the layers of his sanity and free will, had to contend with that same shadow. Ironically enough, it seemed as though the dark side that had hidden his past from him was also keeping him alive against this present evil.

An older Human male, who looked much like him but with a flowing white beard and dressed in elegant robes quite unlike anything he could possibly afford, appeared in his mind’s eye. “And where were you in the end? Killing others instead of defending your home. You’re a useless excuse of a man.”

Before he could answer in his defense, another figure appeared before him—this one recognizable. The man had a dark hair tied into a long ponytail, and he wore a suit a few shades darker than his hair. “Ernar Humbar is not happy, kiddo. I go out of my way to help you and this is what I get? You were off playing hero and left me to die at the hands of some cold-hearted assassins. After all I did to help you! And what’s more, you leave me there to rot while you go gallivanting with my killers. I thought you were better than that. Evidently I was wrong; once a coward, always a coward…”

“A useless coward, at that.” A middle-aged man in a white lab coat growled. “I died due to your negligence. Does failure haunt you everywhere you go?”

“That’s nothing.” A red-haired woman with a dark cloak replied. “I told him I’d give my life for him. I told him there was no one else. And what do I get in return? Abandonment. Grief. Loss. He tortured me just to make his own pain stop. A coward wouldn’t even stoop so low; he’s a monster.”

“Just like his namesake, eh?” a Givin cackled in the distance. “Ghoul! Ghoul! Where does the moniker end and his identity begin?”

“He has no identity.” Dynatha stepped into his field of vision. She was as beautiful as he had ever seen her, with elegantly braided blonde hair and haunting green eyes that sparkled in the darkness. A single-piece white robe clung to her slender shoulders, descending along her body and traveling in her wake. “He traded everything for what he has now. A broken man in a broken body. He left everything behind. Will you leave me again? He has run from danger all his life, abandoning everything the he holds dear… you who are nameless, will you find the peace you seek in your loneliness?”

Tserne tried to speak, but his voice, soft and weak, was lost amidst the condemnation of those around him. Their shouts became louder and louder as their bodies were caught up in a wreath of flame. Their eyes followed him as he tried to get away from the fire, watching him until the smoke separated him from their damning gaze. Just beyond the inferno, Tserne saw a masked colossus rise up, holding Dynatha’s limp form in one hand and a smaller, more grotesque mask in the other. He recognized it as the terrifying mask he had worn early in his assassin career, serving in the GenoHaradan as the Ghoul.

“You have endangered her already,” the masked giant bellowed. “She is no longer your responsibility. She is mine. Abandon this place, as you have abandoned others.”

Tserne screamed at Dynatha and the fearsome giant before him—or at least, he thought he did but heard no sound. The giant dropped Tserne’s mask and departed, heading deeper into the recesses of his mind with Dynatha in tow. Tserne raced after them, but he was quickly caught up in the fire. It blockaded his path and threatened to consume him. But he had to reach her. He had to…

Tserne… please… wait for me…

His consciousness returned like a ship pulled out of hyperspace too early. Tserne had no idea where he was or what was going on around him, but he realized immediately that he was being dragged away by someone. His first instinct was to resist, but as he did the wall he was facing exploded, launching fragments of stone and metal all over the room he was in. Orange blaster fire streaked in through the breach, soaring over him as whoever was carrying him doubled their pace. He was dropped against the left side of the nearest doorway, where there was just enough room to keep him from being pelted by enemy fire. His apparent savior, a young Twi’lek male with blue skin and green eyes, positioned himself on the opposite side of the door with blaster rifle in hand.

“What’s going on?” Tserne shouted over the incoming blaster fire.

“There’s no time to explain! Everyone’s in danger!” the Twi’lek snapped back, throwing a frag grenade into the room where they had been. “I need you to go down this hallway-” He motioned toward the hallway just behind them, leading toward the front of the house, “-and alert Selias that she’s about to be flanked. She’ll know what to do.”

Tserne eyed the hallway separating them from the front of this building. It was a straight line from here to there, but that would leave him at the mercy of the incoming blaster fire, flying in through the door and down the passage. Tserne heard footsteps that were nearly drowned out by the blaster fire, and he figured their enemy was fast approaching. They had to act, but there was very little they could do against such a ferocious cannonade.

“I wouldn’t make it,” Tserne admitted. “There’s no room to maneuver and that blaster fire isn’t letting up. It’s a kill zone.”

“Let me handle the blaster fire.” The Twi’lek undid the strap on his rifle and slid it on the ground toward Tserne. “I’ll provide some cover fire for you; stay low and don’t look back.”

“What about you?”

“No time to argue! Just go!”

Tserne shook his head. He wasn’t just going to leave him here, whoever he was. A blaster shot struck the wall near his shoulder and shattered the rock it was made of, destroying most of his cover. Now that he was exposed, his body acted on instinct. Sidling against the wall, Tserne ran as fast and low as he was able, blaster rifle in hand; mere centimeters separated him from the nearest blaster shots coming his way. Behind him, the Twi’lek withdrew a blaster pistol from his belt and fired into the breach, causing some of the enemy fire to lighten up. Tserne was grateful; without his assistance, he would have been hit for sure.

Entering a lobby of sorts, Tserne positioned himself so he was no longer in danger of the incoming fire. Resting his back against the wall, he fired a few shots with the blaster rifle he had been given to cover the Twi’lek’s retreat, but it was already too late. In the corner of his eye, he noticed the telltale burst of a plasma grenade near the doorway where he had been less than a minute before, and the Twi’lek’s body caught fire in the ensuing explosion. Several armored warriors stepped into the doorway and fired their blaster rifles at the now-dead Twi’lek, only noticing Tserne after he fired his own weapon at them in anger. However, nearly a dozen more warriors arrived after he had felled the first two, forcing him to retreat outside the hut least he be killed before delivering his message.

As soon as he escaped the hut, something exploded behind him, throwing chunks of rock and shrapnel into the air behind him and tossing him forward. Even now that he was outside, he didn’t recognize his surroundings, but whatever was going on, it didn’t look good for the defenders—presumably, his allies. There were four of them left, hiding behind two duracrete barricades while countless mercenaries were threatening to storm their position. Skiffs and armored swoops were flying around the incoming mercs, pinning down the four defenders.

Tserne crawled toward a Togruta a few years older than him and a Human male who had taken a blaster shot to the right leg. As soon as he got into a crouching position, the Togruta stopped firing her rifle and whipped it toward him, catching him in the jaw and knocking him over.

“Wait… Tserne?” he heard the Togruta from his place on the ground. “Damn it all, what are you doing? Sneaking around like that… you nearly killed me!”

“You?” Tserne felt blood flow down his chin and wiped away what he could with his sleeve. “What about me?”

The Togruta shrugged. “Not my fault. You shouldn’t be invisible, especially not right now.” Selias returned her attention to the battle and killed an incoming mercenary before he could throw his grenade, causing the explosive to detonate in the midst of their enemies. “Actually, I take that back. We could use you.”

Tserne glanced at his hands and realized that he was, in fact, invisible. The power had a mind of its own, but it was convenient that it had activated now.

“You’re about to be flanked,” he noted, recalling Wendel’s request.

“I figured as much. They crept in around the back to try and capture you. And since Wendel’s not with you, I guess he’s dead.” Selias hesitated for a moment; it was only due to quick thinking from Tserne that she wasn’t struck by an incoming blaster shot. “Listen! There’s only one way out of here, and that’s through this crowd,” she said as though nothing had happened, “if you can get to one of the skiffs, we can use its firepower to reach our ship and retreat.”

“I’m invisible, not invincible,” Tserne replied. “This blaster fire is heavy enough to bring down an armored transport. I wouldn’t even be able to reach…”

“Are you the best assassin in the galaxy or not?” Selias shouted. “Quit complaining and get out there!”

“This is suicide.”

“And if you don’t do anything they’ll kill us anyway. Move!”

Tserne didn’t like it, but he saw no other option at this point. Leaping over the barricade, Tserne circumnavigated the incoming mercenaries while Selias and her remaining allies began firing back in earnest. An armored swoop circled around to flank them, but Selias’s wounded comrade used one of his grenades to destroy it. After it was reduced to a burning wreck, infantry began encircling them as well. He didn’t want to leave them there, but they gave him a job to do and he was going to do it. Tserne approached the nearest skiff and jumped inside. Invisible as he was, neither the four passengers, two gunners, nor the pilot noticed his arrival. The assassin worked quickly, using his rifle and his hands to kill them one-by-one. By the time he had reached the pilot, he was no longer invisible, but he moved too quickly for the hapless driver to react.

Taking control of the armored vehicle proved more difficult than he imagined. Threecee had been created because he was so bad at working machinery, and he silently wished his droid was with him right now to assist him. With a few absent-minded button presses, Tserne managed to open the solar sails and lower the blast shields; it took him a few more tries to find the acceleration pedal and the hover throttle. Slowly, Tserne steered the armored hovercraft over to where Selias and her commandos were fighting—and losing, at this point—and positioned himself between the largest contingent of mercenaries and the wounded commandos.

“What now?” Tserne shouted, raising the blast shields just in time to block the incoming fire.

Selias threw her wounded companion into the skiff, and her only remaining healthy commando did the same to his wounded partner. Once the four of them were inside, Selias commandeered the controls from the bemused assassin, ordering him to man one of the gun turrets.

They heard a voice rise above the cacophony of battle. “How long will you flee from me, Ghoul? You, who dishonored my clan all those years ago, continue to wander freely and escape my justice. Let us end this slaughter. Surrender your weapons and join me at the front of the wizard’s home. We will do battle there.”

Tserne had hoped to never to hear that voice again. “Coroq…”

“Heading straight for the Blind Guide,” Selias growled. “Hang on: it’s going to be rough!”

Tserne and the other three commandos fired at the enemies trying to impede them while Selias raced forward as fast as the ungainly skiff could manage. Of course, their enemies’ light blaster fire was ineffective, but the armored vehicles were another matter. The remaining swoops and skiffs, realizing that the last few defenders could possibly reach their ship and escape—however small that chance was—moved to intercept them. Their medium laser cannons burned deep into the hull, but Selias ignored them and advanced.

Tserne turned from his gunner’s mount and saw Selias’s ship amidst the sea of enemies. It couldn’t have been more than ten meters away. Enemy fire was coming in from every direction now, pelting the blast shields and shattering the last of the transparisteel at the front of the vessel. The damage readings on their skiff quickly shifted into the critical range, and one of their engines burned out from overexertion. Tserne tried to pivot his turret to cut a clean swathe through the enemy lines, but the skiff was beginning to teeter about, throwing off his aim. Selias hollered a particularly profane remark just before a grenade exploded on their starboard side, capsizing the skiff and throwing them into the wastes.

The armored vehicle provided some cover to their flanks and rear, but they were still exposed to enemy fire in front of them. Selias took a hit upon landing that disabled her shields, and the next few shots scorched the right portion of her lekku and the middle of her abdomen. She managed to crawl behind one of the overturned turrets after that, but it was temporary cover at best—it would keep her safe for a minute at most. The injured ally who had been near her earlier took a blaster shot to his chest when he tried to right himself and fell on the ground, motionless. The other two lost their shields but managed to dive behind the overturned solar sails for a few seconds respite. Only Tserne, who had turned invisible as the skiff overturned, escaped unscathed.

“Hold fire!” Coroq’s voice boomed over an amplifier. Per his orders, the relentless assault ceased, but the mercenaries were uncomfortably close to Selias and the others. A few more seconds and they would be close enough to fight them hand-to-hand. “This is pointless,” Coroq continued, “you and your friends have fought well this day, but you never stood a chance. Understand that I do not intend to take their lives; their fighting spirit impresses me, and worthy rivals do not deserve such an ignoble death. Come to me, Ghoul, and I will spare their lives.”

“Like hell,” Selias grunted, her voice ragged and barely audible. “I’ll shoot you myself if you try to surrender to him now. Kick his ass.”

Tserne frowned. He didn’t know what Coroq wanted, but he suspected that it had something to do with their last encounter. Coroq would want Tserne to fight him in a one-on-one duel. A fight to the death. He had no issue accepting such a challenge, but the fates of any of his allies couldn’t be trusted to him. Accepting his invitation was indeed pointless.

Before he could reply one way or another, another swoop raced into the fray. Its lasers fired madly into the ruffians who were waiting for Coroq’s signal to continue their attack, causing them to panic. Once the swoop was close enough, two Human females—Dynatha and a slightly younger woman Tserne didn’t know—leapt from the swoop and allowed it to crash into a nearby skiff, creating a massive fireball that enveloped the mercenaries it had been protecting. Once they had landed, the two females created a shield between the enemies and their targets, preventing them from finishing off Selias, her commandos, or Tserne. Dynatha noticed the injuries that Selias and her allies had sustained and stepped forward to begin healing them, leaving the other Force-user to sustain the barrier against the incoming fire.

“Dynatha!” Tserne shouted.

“Tserne!” she replied, keeping her eyes on the wounded commando beside her. “Are you all right? I was…”

“Save the reunion talk for later!” the other female growled. “This barrier won’t hold forever, and we need them in fighting shape.”

Tserne rose to his feet and realized that he was no longer invisible. While Dynatha did her best to heal the wounded, Tserne brought his blaster rifle to bear and stood beside the other Force-user keeping the shield strong. Just from looking at her, Tserne could tell she was exhausted. This woman’s rust-colored hair was dripping with sweat, her breathing belabored, and she was trembling while she extended her arms to power the dome around them. Tserne was worried that she was going to pass out at any second, leaving them exposed to the torrent of blaster fire trying to destroy them.

“Are you going to be okay?” Tserne asked.

“Keep distracting me and I can’t promise anything,” she answered through gritted teeth.

Tserne grumbled to himself, but he understood her agitation. Priming his blaster rifle, he shot at any of the mercenaries who tried to bypass the shield and engage in close-range combat. Every few seconds he found himself glancing at the commandos’ ship. He considered trying to reach it, but he realized he had no way of unlocking the ship since it was sealed. He thought about stealing another skiff and throwing everyone aboard, but they were surrounded entirely at this point and the other armored vehicles would destroy their new skiff just as they had the last one. Was there really no way out of this place?

“This has gone on long enough,” Coroq’s voice shouted in the distance. “Kill them all. Leave the Ghoul to me, but everyone else must die.”

The mercenaries standing closest to the shield discarded their blasters for vibroweapons and charged, intending to swarm the inside of the Force-powered barrier. Tserne and the two healed commandos opened fire on them as they advanced, but there were far too many to repel that way. The trio of shooters prepared to fall back, and the Jedi fell to her knees while trying to keep the barrier going. Tserne planned on grabbing her and retreating to the other side of the wreckage, but in the corner of his vision, Tserne saw an armored skiff emerge from behind the commandos’ ship. This new vessel fired all of its on-board turrets at the charging horde. The volley devastated their rear lines, breaking their advance into two unorganized masses that allowed the skiff to drive between them and enter the shield without taking heavy fire.

Ranval reached out his hand to Tserne once the skiff he had commandeered was inside the barrier. “There’s no time to lose; we’ve only got one chance before they recover, and then there will be no way out.”

Tserne accepted his hand and allowed himself to be pulled into the skiff. The commandos followed him, then Dynatha—who used the Force to bring the wounded Selias aboard—and finally Celes jumped in, removing the shield just in time for Ranval to hit the accelerator. Their hovercraft pummeled any mercenaries unfortunate enough to stand between them and the Blind Guide, and its automated turrets—which must have been reprogrammed—fired with such reckless abandon that they were all obviously seconds from overheating. Celes used the Force to throw rubble and ruined defensive placements at the enemies around her, and Selias’s combatants assisted Tserne until they all expended their power paks. Using some sort of automated trigger, Ranval released the lock on the Blind Guide’s hangar compartment just in time for him to sail the skiff inside and batter any unfortunate enemies out of the way in the process.

Once they were safely within the hangar, the Blind Guide’s engines roared back to life. The hangar doors slammed shut behind them, keeping any of the brigands from following them and giving them relief at long last. Tserne felt the yacht tremble as its landing gear withdrew and the ship took off on its own, propelling itself away from the hut even as Coroq and his hired thugs tried vainly to take down the escaping ship with their anti-personnel weaponry.

“We’re going to pick up Northeus and Delvin and then we’ll be on our way,” Ranval said. He sighed deeply and released his white-knuckled grip on the throttle. “We’ll be outbound in one standard hour.”

“But where are we going?” Dynatha asked.

“That will be up to Northeus,” Ranval admitted. “I suspect now that he has seen you all in action, he will have a task for you to ensure the stability of the Jedi Order.”

The Jedi and Tserne glanced at each other in confusion. They had thought they had been brought here for training. Had the attack truly spurned them into emergency action? Ranval rebuffed all questions and began helping Dynatha tend to Selias while the commandos left the skiff and headed for the bridge. Celes, fatigued from the day’s events, returned to her quarters. Tserne had no idea what was going on, no knowledge of this ship, and was absolutely clueless about their plans. For the time being, he lingered with Ranval and Dynatha in the skiff. Perhaps, once they were done, he could finally get some answers.

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