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Chapter 18

The holographic figure shimmered in and out of view. Although he was difficult to see because of the poor connection, Verita knew he had the biggest, stupidest grin on his face. Ruminating on the nature of their relationship, she silently wondered what she had ever seen in him.

“Well, you know I’m a busy man, Verita. The university doesn’t run itself, you know,” he said.

“Listen, this is important. I know you were just on Coruscant. It wouldn’t kill you to send one of your aides back,” Verita replied, not even bothering to conceal her agitation.

“I suppose not.” The man raised his hands innocently and smiled again. “But there is the issue of thanking me for this service…”

“I should have known you’d try and blackmail me at a time like this.”

“Blackmail? Such an ugly word,” the figure replied. “We don’t ever see each other anymore, Verita. I get so lonely without you.”

“It was a temporary thing, Norvos,” Verita snapped back in an angry whisper. “We agreed that if you scratched my back, and I scratched yours-”

“One of us more than the other,” he pointed out.

Verita reddened in anger and embarrassment. “Just do it. I’ll make it up to you.”

“Oh, I know you will.”

“Verita?” Jhosua called. “Verita, where are you?”

“Poor fool,” muttered Norvos. “Doesn’t even know-”

Verita cut off the connection and stuffed the long-range comlink in her knapsack as quickly as she could. Jhosua appeared from behind the landing gear of the Shaadlar-type troopship that was being reconverted into a civilian transport. He wasn’t wearing his armor and appeared rather tired; Verita had heard that Mandalore had been keeping his generals late into the night to discuss contingency plans should the Republic arrive before they had secured their homeworld. Verita no doubt looked terrible as well, working long shifts to make sure that all the civilians who would be leaving Ordo would be able to do safely. Neither of them had had a lot of time to spend together, which suited Verita just fine but riled Jhosua to no end.

She wasn’t sure how to talk with him anymore. Ever since they had moved from Dxun and Mandalore had begun his campaign to retake their ancestral system, Jhosua felt like a different person. He had always been a warrior, that was true, but there was something more. It was like his battles had taken precedence over everything else, including his family. He was never home, he couldn’t even spend a day with them, and there were times when he rarely spoke to her.

And there were the horror stories. Mandalorians were not kind to their prisoners, and they did not look favorably upon those who surrendered or begged for mercy. He wanted so badly to become Mandalorian and didn’t care about embracing the good and the bad of their culture. But Verita couldn’t change. She wouldn’t.

“Verita,” Jhosua said, his voice quieter. “Where have you been?”

“I’ve been monitoring the mechanics’ work on the ship,” Verita lied. There wasn’t a hint of hesitation in her voice. “They get lazy if no one supervises them, and we need these ships ready before Mandalore gives the word to leave.”

Jhosua nodded, but he wasn’t satisfied. “You didn’t meet with me,” he said. “You promised to meet with me. What happened?”

“I know. I’m sorry. I wanted to talk, but I’m just so busy all the time-”

“Too busy for us?”

“Don’t give me that,” Verita snapped. “You just got back from a month-long expedition. I couldn’t even speak to you during that time because you were off playing hero. Or butcher,” she added under her breath.

“What did you say?” Jhosua growled.

“You heard me,” Verita replied icily.

“You know damn well that everything I do I do for us,” Jhosua said. “Whatever I do out there I do to keep us safe. I do to make sure we have a place to live.”

“We had a place to live, Jhosua!” Verita replied. “We were just fine on Dxun… on Derra IV… hell, we were better anywhere than here!”

“No we weren’t. We didn’t have one hundred credits to our name. We were doing odd jobs, dangerous jobs. Did you expect us to do bounty hunting and offer protection services after Fier and Glacis were born?”

“It certainly wouldn’t make much difference, would it?” she shot back. “You’re out there every day risking your life on the battlefield, you drag Glacis right along with you, and I’ve heard you even want to get Fier involved as well!”

“Glacis is there because she wants to be there, and Fier would be in no danger-”

“She’s there because she doesn’t have a choice! What else could she possibly do? If you’re a Mandalorian, you fight or you become irrelevant.”

Jhosua nodded grimly. “I’ve wished that wasn’t the case—for Mandalorians and for myself.”

“I won’t stand for it anymore, Jhosua. I’ve tried to help you. I don’t want to see you or my children in harm’s way. I don’t want you or them to be accessories to travesties that you’ll regret later.”

“What are you saying, Verita?”

She noticed that his face had paled and the fire had disappeared from his brown eyes. He seemed to recognize what she was saying, and it had taken all the fight from him. She didn’t want to hurt him. But she saw no other option at this point.

“Jhosua, I… I love you. And I want you to know that no matter what happens, I’ve never loved anyone else…”

Jhosua opened his mouth to speak, but he stopped and shifted his gaze to the troopship they were standing under. Knowing he didn’t have the strength to brace himself for her next words, Verita began her explanation, but he wasn’t listening.

Verita’s passive Force senses, weak after years of neglect, barely caught hint of the danger, but by then it was too late for her to react. Jhosua grabbed her arm and pulled her as far from the ship as he could. He threw her to the ground and covered her with his own body less than a second before the troopship exploded into a terrifying fireball. The wave of heat was followed by shards of metal flying through the air, but they had fled far enough that only tiny shards cut into Jhosua’s back and arms.

Verita was dumbstruck. Lying there, her husband’s frame engulfed her field of vision. Jhosua’s breathing was haggard, and sweat dripped down toward his lip and across his cheeks as he struggled to suspend himself over Verita’s prone body despite his injuries. He tried to comfort her with a smile, but she was too terrified to accept his reassurance or offer her own. It had been a long time since she had been in such a dangerous situation, and memories of battle flooded back to her like she was recalling a nightmare. It was comforting to know that Jhosua was with her.

Someone shouted Jhosua’s name. Verita’s hearing was ringing from the explosion, but she recognized the worried cries, distant as they seemed. Jhosua struggled to his feet and faced the warrior that approached them. Her husband and the warrior spoke for a moment, and she saw the younger man—wearing the typical full blue armor of a Mandalorian officer—point toward the distance. Jhosua’s and Verita’s eyes followed his hand to the plumes of smoke in the distance. He and Jhosua exchanged a few words, and the younger warrior acknowledged Verita after Jhosua pointed at her.

Jhosua returned to his wife and helped her to her feet. Her ears were still ringing, but she could hear again.

“Are you all right?” he asked, a familiar question tempered with an edge she hadn’t heard before.

She nodded clumsily.

“Go with Briggs.” He motioned toward the soldier standing nearby. “He’s returning to the camp. I want you to go and make sure our girls are all right.”

“What about you?” she asked.

“I’m going to make sure Mandalore is safe,” he replied.

“Not like that you’re not!” Verita said, regaining some of her strength. “You’re in no condition-”

“I wasn’t asking your permission,” Jhosua said, withdrawing his blaster pistol from his utility belt.

“Jhosua-”

But he was already gone. As he ran toward the grove that separated their airfields from Mandalore’s compound, Verita noticed the back of his shirt was stained with blood. He would kill himself trying to fight in his condition. Verita moved to stop him, but Briggs grabbed hold of her before she could pursue.

“Let me go!” Verita shouted.

“Ma’am, please. Jhosua ordered me to keep you from following him.”

“He’s going to die!”

“He needs you to protect your daughters,” Briggs responded. “He made this most clear to me. You’re the only one who can get there in time if they’re in danger. If Mandalore dies, the Mandalorians may live on… though it will be difficult. But if harm should come upon any of you, I don’t think Jhosua…”

“Fine!” Verita pulled herself free from his grip. “You have a speeder?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Follow me back to camp. Hurry, soldier, hurry!”

*** ***

Jhosua gritted his teeth. His entire back burned from the cuts he had sustained protecting Verita, and every time he tried to lift his left shoulder a sharp jolt of pain shot through his deltoid. His vision was watery and he could feel his heart pound in his chest as he tried to advance through the lightly forested region that separated him from Mandalore’s headquarters. The brush was hardly a problem, but the trees were ancient and hearty, with thick branches and long roots, making navigation difficult.

He tried his comlink for the third time and received no response. The fact that Briggs was nearby after that explosion was a stroke of luck, but it didn’t seem anyone else would be coming to his assistance anytime soon. Communications were down and bombs were going off around the camp. They were under attack, and the entire settlement was in danger. Jhosua was worried about his daughters, but they were so much farther than Mandalore’s settlement that he would never get there in time to protect them. He had absolute faith in Verita. He knew she would never fail to defend their children, and that thought gave him the strength to push forward and do his duty.

He estimated that he had made it halfway through the grove when he saw another Mandalorian in a small clearing about twenty meters away. In full armor, it was impossible to tell who it was, but Jhosua noticed that the warrior was visually scanning the area as though looking for someone.

“Soldier!” Jhosua called to him and waved. “What’s going on here?”

Jhosua hadn’t expected the warrior to bring his blaster rifle to bear. Jhosua’s mind didn’t understand what was happening and would have taken the incoming blaster shot, but his body instinctively rolled behind the nearest tree to defend himself. In twenty years of fighting alongside his brothers and sisters, he had never been shot at by his own allies. Had they been betrayed? Jhosua knew just how much damage traitors would be able to do, especially those who had access to military-grade weapons and explosives. No, Mandalorians would not betray their leader like this. Some other force was at work here.

Blaster fire shattered the trunk he had taken cover behind and forced him to scramble behind a nearby boulder. There was a momentarily lull in the enemy fire, allowing Jhosua to peek around his cover and fire a few shots with his blaster pistol. As expected, his opponent had a personal energy shield. Jhosua fired a few more times before he was forced back behind cover.

Blaster fire shattered away at the half meter of rock separating them. Jhosua blindly fired his pistol from behind cover, but he knew the effort was pointless. He had to get to Mandalore; this was just a distraction. Jhosua rolled out from behind cover and sprinted as fast as he could toward a dead tree on the far corner of the clearing where his assailant had been. Lances of energy followed him every step of the way, striking the earth and the branches around him. He dove the last meter, but the enemy had suspected his move and scored a grazing hit on his side. Jhosua staggered in pain and barely pulled himself upright in time to avoid an incoming shot at his leg. He winced when he saw the injury. It wasn’t deep, but it had burnt his clothes and flesh into a dark splotch just below one of his kidneys.

Before he had time to reorient himself, he saw something fly through the air and land just in front of the tree he was using as cover—a grenade. Jhosua pulled himself to his feet and jumped as far as he could to avoid it; the fragmentation grenade detonated while he was in the air, throwing him away from his enemy and causing him to land awkwardly on his right arm. Dazed and weak, Jhosua fired a few random shots with his blaster pistol in the direction he thought his opponent was. His armored foe lobbed another frag grenade in his direction, but this time it landed close enough for Jhosua to throw it back. The explosion shattered the trunk of the tree standing between the two of them, causing it to collapse perpendicular to their positions.

Jhosua hated leaving his job half-done, but he was in no condition to engage this warrior. Pulling himself back to his feet, he forced himself into a light sprint away from the clearing. He would take the long way around, coming out on the east end of the forest and traveling along its perimeter to Mandalore’s compound. It would take longer, but Jhosua had no other options at this point. The warrior assailing him would no doubt pursue, but with his knowledge of the area, he was nearly certain of his ability to lose him in the brush.

*** ***

Verita ducked behind a forklift vehicle as a rocket soared by where she had been seconds ago. While she had Force-sprinted her way to the camp, Briggs had followed her in his swoop; it had been destroyed by a similar shooter, and he barely survived the attack. She was gasping for breath now that they were both safely behind cover, and she wiped blood away from her cheek as it dribbled down toward her neck. Verita didn’t want to admit it to herself, but she was exhausted from the effort it took to get here. She cursed her inability to call upon the Force as she once could and the fact she had left her lightsaber in their home.

An explosion had destroyed the main barracks to the west of here, and a second leveled the meeting hall used by civilian leadership. The bombings caused pandemonium among the untrained populace, leaving them at the mercy of armored soldiers who looked like any other Mandalorian warrior. For a moment, Verita suspected treachery, but a probe of their minds showed pure malice with no hint of traitorous thoughts. They were simply hired guns, then, albeit very well-trained, properly funded, and no doubt intended to look like Mandalorians.

Verita moved away from her cover before the heavy weapons operator in the distance fired again. She wanted to aid the civilians and herd them into a place where they would be safe, but she needed to ensure the safety of Glacis and Fier first. Running through the plaza, Verita kept low to the ground while blaster fire zoomed back and forth overhead.

The chaos died down as she approached her home. She heaved a sigh of relief when she saw her home undamaged. The fighting hadn’t reached this area of the camp, and the streets around her were eerily quiet. The Force nagged at her mind, warning her that not all was as it seemed, but she couldn’t pinpoint any dangers. Nothing tried to impede her, and she finally reached the clanless compound and raced up to their suite on the highest floor.

She pulled her keycard out of her satchel and slid it into the lock, permitting her entrance. As the door slid open, she was greeted by a flash of light that could have been the floodlights on a capital ship for all she knew. The intense light completely blinded her and she stumbled back out the door. Verita heard Fier’s voice, but she was quickly silenced by demanding shouts from several unknown male voices. Who were these people?

Something struck her in the face as she tried to get back onto her feet—she thought it was an armored glove. Blind as she was, she couldn’t fight back; she had never been good at controlling her own body with the Force, and now that she was out of practice she was effectively helpless. Whoever was attacking her seemed fully aware of this fact. He punched her in the gut and forced her to double-over before grabbing her by her hair and dragging her into her suite. Fier shouted for her again, and this time she heard something metal hit something soft. Her daughter whimpered in pain while one of the mysterious voices growled at her to keep quiet. Verita’s assailant threw her onto one of the sofas in the center of their main room and twisted her arm behind her back.

“This one’s the Jedi we’re looking for, yes?” one of the intruders asked.

“I expected someone a little more… terrifying. She’s just a woman,” another said.

“No kidding,” another muttered. “I can see where the girlie gets her looks…”

“Hey, no funny business,” a baritone voice snapped. “The boss was very clear on execution and extraction. We don’t have time to play around, anyway.”

“Hell, no one knows we’re here and we got what we came for. Give me five minutes,” another responded.

While they argued, Verita searched the room with the Force. She was still blind, so she didn’t know where her adversaries were or how her daughter fared, but she could sense them through the invisible field of energy that bound them together. On a better day—or if she was ten years younger—she would have lashed out at them and attack them based on where their life forces were coming from. Tracing the room with her mind, Verita mentally navigated from the common room to the master bedroom, into her dressing table, and found her lightsaber. Her eyes had still not recovered from the burst of light from before, but she could tell they were getting better. She had been a masterful healer once, long ago, and she could still treat her own body.

“Fine. Whatever you say, Captain,” one of the voices said at last. “Let’s just shoot her and take the girl. I’m tired of this place.”

Verita allowed the Force to wash over her, and after a few quick blinks, her eyesight was restored to her. Calling upon all of her strength, she pushed herself upward and tossed the mercenary holding her onto his back. Now that she could see, she spotted five mercenaries standing around her—all quite terrified that she had recovered so quickly—and Fier on the floor in their midst. Blood trickled down from her forehead, and her shirt was ripped at the sleeve. The sight of her daughter’s injuries sparked an anger within Verita that she had long forgotten—emotions that she had quelled since she had been redeemed from the dark side so many years ago.

“What did you do to her?” Verita shouted.

“Kriff… fire, fire!” the leader, a humanoid in red Mandalorian armor shouted. “Kill the Jedi woman!”

The warriors primed their weapons to fire at Verita, but she had bounded over them and landed beside Fier. Her lightsaber had been summoned while she had recovered her strength, and it spun through the air on its trajectory into her hands. The bronze blade fountained from the simple hilt as it entered the room and cut a swathe through the mercenaries around her. One was beheaded and two lost arms before the weapon’s hilt landed in her hand. Kneeling over her daughter, she intercepted the incoming fire with her shimmering blade, sending the bolts back to their sources. Two others died from reflected blaster fire. The last one primed a plasma grenade, but Verita used the Force to open the door to their suite and push him outside. The resulting explosion shook the building but did not reach her or her daughter.

Verita deactivated her weapon and cast it aside. “Fier! Fier, are you all right?”

“Mom…” Fier whispered. “Why…?”

Verita cradled her daughter in her arms. “It’s okay. I’m here now. You’re safe. You’re safe now, love.”

“I was so scared, Mom…” Fier began to cry. “They hurt me…”

“Shhh…” Verita fought back the urge to cry as well. “No one can hurt you anymore. I’m going to protect you.”

Fier nodded and pulled herself closer to her mother’s bosom. Verita stroked her daughter’s hair with one hand while she allowed the Force’s healing power to flow from the other into Fier’s body. Her external injuries were not severe; she would no doubt be traumatized, but at least she would not bear any permanent scars like her mother.

“Damn everything. These grunts just don’t have what it takes, I guess. We’ll have to deal with these targets personally.”

Verita and Fier turned to face the window and saw another armored figure standing atop the broken window sill. He wore a bulky combat pack and his armor was only vaguely Mandalorian, as though it had been extensively modified over the years into something unique. However, his rifle was slung across his shoulder and it would take him a few seconds to prepare if he wanted to fight.

Verita was still in a blind rage from her last encounter and didn’t care who this being was. Calling her lightsaber into her hand, Verita activated the weapon and threw it at the new arrival. The armored figure seemed to expect the attack and jumped out the window as the blade approached. Seconds after she had called her blade back, the figure’s rocket pack activated and he soared away. Worried that he would return, Verita urged her daughter to follow her to her bedroom. Fier nodded dully and did as she was told.

“Where is your sister?” Verita asked as she led Fier along. “Where’s Glacis?”

“She said she had to speak with Dad about something and went to speak with him…” Fier muttered. “Is Dad okay?”

Verita looked in the direction of Mandalore’s compound. Her first instinct was to sprint over there and make sure Glacis was safe. But that would require leading Fier through the battle going on outside. She was not willing to risk that. Defending her youngest daughter was her utmost priority, but she was still scared for the rest of her family. Would the Force tell her if her husband had died? Once, perhaps, their bond had been strong enough to permit that. Now…

“I don’t know, love,” she muttered. “I don’t know.”

*** ***

Jhosua slid behind a warrior in Mandalorian armor standing at the northern end of the grove. In a single motion, he swiped the knife from his enemy’s belt and thrust it into the back of the neck where their helmets were weakest. The warrior’s body crumpled over immediately, and Jhosua wasted no time confiscating his armor. His own body was still weak from the injuries he had sustained earlier, and it hurt to move his legs and arms into the metal suit. He took the warrior’s rifle and a few extra power paks before moving on.

He had long since gotten used to the weight of Mandalorian armor, but it slowed him down considerably in his injured state. Limping along, he could now clearly see Mandalore’s compound and the smoke that rose from the roof. Pushing himself to the limit, Jhosua moved as quickly as he was able. Dead bodies were scattered around the courtyard between the outlying gate and the building itself. The groans of the dying were still audible, and blood and gore was spilled across the grass no matter where Jhosua looked. Darkened craters marked the locations where grenades had detonated or rockets landed, and the grass was still singed from stray blaster shots.

Jhosua reached Mandalore’s compound and sidled against the opening where the main door had been, now a crumpled heap at his feet. He doubled-checked his weapon’s energy reading before stepping inside, rifle at the ready and scanning for hostiles. Jhosua called out to see if Mandalore was inside. He received no answer, so he warily advanced.

A single blaster shot soared over him—not expecting him to be so low to the ground, no doubt—prompting him to fire back. Of course, that was exactly what his adversary wanted. They had noted where his fire had come from and fired at its source. The first few shots missed, but the last few caught Jhosua in the leg. He hit the ground and knew he was defeated. His heavy armor had absorbed the first and second hit, but the third managed to burn through the plating and its inner mesh and scorched his left thigh.

“Wait! Hold fire! Was that Jhosua?”

“Dad!”

Tilting his head up, Jhosua saw Glacis jump down a nearby ladder and approach him. Her mesh shirt and trousers were drenched in sweat, and there was a cut on her right cheek that was bleeding onto her neck and her upper lip. Nevertheless, she sprinted as though she had just finished her morning warmups on her way to her father’s side.

“Dad! I’m… I’m so sorry! I didn’t hear you… I was perched up on the third floor. I didn’t mean to shoot you, honest!”

“That… was you?” he croaked.

She nodded.

Jhosua couldn’t help but smile. “Good plan. I should have expected you to pinpoint my location like that. Good hit, too. Is Mandalore okay?”

“What are you saying? I didn’t mean to hurt you!” Glacis tried to examine the wound herself. “A plasma mine went off in his office,” she added after Jhosua repeated his question. “He’s been fading in and out of consciousness, but between his implants and the medics on hand, he should be okay.”

“Your daughter doesn’t give herself enough credit,” Mandalore’s voice boomed. Jhosua glanced from where he was lying and saw Mandalore crawl out from behind some rubble, flanked by several medics who were urging him to stay still. “Just like a certain general of mine.”

“It’s good to… see you well, sir,” Jhosua replied.

“Quit badgering me and make sure he doesn’t go into shock!” Mandalore roared at the medics. They sprang into action, and Mandalore continued, “When that explosion went off, Glacis was waiting outside my office. She dragged me out of there and applied some field medicine to keep me from bleeding out. I don’t know where she found a blaster rifle, but she went and held off attackers for several minutes before reinforcements showed up. You taught her well, Jhosua.”

Jhosua smiled at his daughter while the medics peeled off his armor and began applying sanitizing gauze and kolto patches. “She’s got her mother’s skill, I think.”

“And your tenacity,” Mandalore rumbled.

“Is he going to be okay?” Glacis asked one of the medics.

“His wounds are extensive but treatable. We’ll need to get him to a proper medical center to ensure he makes a full recovery, but I think we can stabilize him here.”

“Do it,” Mandalore ordered. “Jhosua, what do you know about this attack?”

“Not much, I’m afraid. Our enemies wore Mandalorian armor, carried Mandalorian weapons, and from the way they fought, their tactics were just like ours.”

“Traitors?”

“Doubtful,” Jhosua muttered. “Perhaps they’re Mandalorians who’ve yet to join us. I wouldn’t… wouldn’t know where they got the resources or the bravado to pull off an operation like this, but…”

Mandalore nodded grimly. “We have to accelerate our plans. If we wait too long, this enemy might strike again, and we might not be so lucky next time. I’m rescheduling our planned conquest of Mandalore to take place in five days.”

“Understood…”

“Applying analgesics and sedatives now, sir,” the medic informed Jhosua. “If everything goes well, you’ll wake up in about seven hours.”

“Wait! I haven’t… finish… Ver-”

Glacis smiled at her father’s determination. He tried his best to fight off the drugs pumped into his system, but after a few seconds he faded into unconsciousness. The medics and two other Mandalorian guardsmen carefully lifted Jhosua from his position at the door and moved him further back, where he would be safe from intruders.

“Communications back online, Mandalore,” a warrior nearby called. “We’re getting the damage reports now, sir. It… doesn’t look good.”

“Never mind the damage report,” Mandalore growled, limping to a pile of rubble. While he tried to conceal his injuries, Glacis knew he should have been taken to a medical center with her father. “How many hostiles?”

The comm officer adjusted his display. “None reported, sir. Our scouts are sweeping the areas outside the camp, but according to our commanders all contacts have been eliminated.”

Mandalore grumbled and returned to the inner room where they had mounted their defense earlier. Glacis wasn’t sure what he was upset about, but it was obvious he was perturbed by something. They had been attacked, but the enemies were dead. Wasn’t that a good thing? The comm officer followed Mandalore deeper into the complex, leaving her alone at the front of the base.

Relieved that the situation outside was calming down, she placed her rifle in the holster on her back and sprinted toward her home. She had been scared for her mother and sister the entire time, and she had been so nervously she nearly broke down several times. Glacis knew defending Mandalore was an important job, but she silently wondered if she had made the right decision. If her family had been hurt during the attack, she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself. The fear and anger within her made her more determined than ever to become stronger so she could defend everyone she cared for.


Chapter 19

Ojon pulled his cloak tighter around his body. He had been on this nameless world at the edge of known space—somewhere beyond Sluis Van—for nearly two days now, and he despised every minute of it. The nights were cold, the days were wet and miserable, and the winds buffeted them no matter where they went. If this was what it meant to be a Jedi Shadow, Ojon would finish this mission and kindly find another specialization.

After landing, he and the other eight Jedi Shadows had divided themselves into groups to search for their quarry. His group consisted of a Kel Dor Jedi Master who led the expedition and an older Human Jedi Knight he had known as a Padawan. Together, the three of them had ventured from their landing site and traveled north until they had escaped the rainforests ubiquitous to the equator. They had entered a region of flat grasslands that lacked any sort of elevation; Ojon presumed the horizon stretched out all around them as far as they would have been able to see. As it was, he couldn’t see much because the rains brought in a thick fog that hindered their vision.

They had wandered aimlessly for several hours before the Kel Dor directed them toward a deep gulch less than twenty meters away from the location they had set down to eat. As far as Ojon could surmise, it had been a random guess, but to his surprise, there seemed to be a military outpost situated at the end opposite of their position. It was the only sign of civilization they had seen since arriving on this frontier world, and Ojon suspected they had found what they were looking for.

Over the past month, Republic officials had been assassinated on Coruscant by a group of mysterious hunters. During the latest attacks, a Jedi agent had managed to plant a tracking device on their getaway vessel. The signal had brought the Jedi Shadows here. The Jedi Council suspected the nefarious influence of the dark side, but Ojon knew that the Sith were not the only enemies of the Republic. Indeed, if it was the Sith or one of their allies, it would have made more sense for them to attack the Jedi instead.

The three Jedi had monitored the base for nine time parts, cycling their surveillance so each of them could sleep. While it was very likely that this was the assassins’ base, there was no way for them to be sure without entering, and they were not going to enter unless they were at full strength. After the Kel Dor had communicated with the other two groups, he had informed his companions that the remaining six Jedi would arrive by tomorrow morning. That was fine with Ojon, but he wished it didn’t involve him waiting around for so long with nothing to do.

“Shift’s up, Ojon,” the Human Jedi spoke up in the darkness. “You’ll want to recover your strength for the trials ahead.”

“Yeah.” Ojon stretched his limbs from his seat on top of a particularly flat rock. “Do you think they know we’re here, Elni?”

“The assassins?” the Human asked. “Probably not. They’d have responded in some way if they had detected us, no?”

“I suppose.” Ojon kept his eye on the complex situated before them. “But it feels weird, being so close to them, and think they have no idea we’re right here.”

Elni took a bite from the kerik bread they had brought and sat down beside him. “I guess. Can’t blame yourself for their surveillance failures, though. Is something troubling you?”

“There’s… something. I can’t describe it. It’s a new sensation. It waxes and wanes through the Force like a wave on the shore. It’s bothersome.”

Ojon sensed the Human extended his perception in the Force. If Ojon remembered correctly, Elni was far more skilled extending his senses than he was. That being said, the Cerean was worried that such sudden use of the Force would alert the assassins to his presence, but he left his concerns unsaid.

Ojon’s companion grimaced. “I sense it too. What is that? It’s not natural.”

“Should we wake up Master Joerbos?”

“I think we ought to-”

The roar of sublight engines interrupted them. A gunship burst forth from the dark clouds to the northeast on an approach vector toward the gulch. The incoming ship didn’t resemble any ship Ojon had ever seen, with a matte black paint scheme and twin laser cannons mounted on the underside of its piscine frame. It roared past them, kicking up detritus and chaff as it approached the assassins’ base. The ship opened its ventral doors and—without even slowing down—allowed a single individual to perform an unassisted low-altitude drop and land between the Jedi and the base.

In the cloudy darkness, neither of the two Jedi Knights could make out who this new arrival was. As soon as he landed, turrets mounted on the base’s perimeter began bracketing him with fire. This individual was too fast to be hit by the incoming laser fire, almost impossibly so. War droids from the Mandalorian campaigns were activated to intercept him, but he cut through nearly ten of them at once before bypassing the rest of them and reaching the front door of the base. An explosion toppled the heavy durasteel door separating him from the interior, and then he was inside.

The commotion had stirred Master Joerbos from his sleep, and he approached his two Jedi Knights with lightsaber in hand. “What’s going on?” he rasped through his breath mask.

“I can’t say for sure, Master,” Ojon replied. “A ship swooped in and dropped off someone who attacked the base before they had a chance to set up a defense.”

“A Republic commando, perhaps?” Elni added.

“I would have been notified,” Master Joerbos mumbled. “Regardless, perhaps we should-”

Another explosion cut him off. This one, however, enveloped the entire compound in a conflagration bright enough to illuminate the plains around them. Durasteel slabs shot through the air and fire licked at the sky as the Jedi braced themselves against the force of the blast, felt all the way from their position at the lip of the gulch. Thick black smoke rose up from the fiery ruins of the base, and nothing escaped from it.

The Jedi had no idea what was going on. Had that single individual destroyed the entire assassins’ base in only a matter of seconds? It seemed impossible, especially since whoever it was had not escaped the ensuing explosion. While suicidal operations were not unheard of, even the Republic shied away from asking agents for their lives in such a manner.

Then, much to their surprise, a single figure emerged from the flaming wreckage. Ojon realized that this was the same individual who had attacked the base, but the blazing fire gave the Jedi Knight a better look at the man. Wearing a fibrous suit of black combat armor with a tattered brown cape that had been singed by the flames, the Human male stepped over the shattered droid chasses surrounding the base and surveyed his handiwork.

When they saw him, the Jedi realized that the strange feeling that was welling up within them was the power of the dark side intending to cripple them, and that power was emanating from that man. The armored warrior performed a superhuman jump that propelled him from his position at the former entrance of the assassins’ base to the edge of the crater where the Jedi were standing. The Jedi jumped back in alarm and Master Joerbos activated his yellow lightsaber.

“Well, this is quite interesting,” the armored figure who stood before them said, “I thought I had planted a tracking beacon on the commandos who were protecting Alderaan’s senator, when in fact I marked a Jedi ship. But you marked the ship that I was hunting, no doubt intending to thank them or searching for allies, and you led me right to my intended prey anyway. Certainly the will of the Force, don’t you think?”

“What are you talking about?” Ojon snapped at him. “These are the assassins who were going to kill Senator Latona!”

“Quite the opposite, in fact,” he replied. “These were the commandos who hindered my master’s operations. They have protected her for quite some time… quite the nuisance. I must thank you for aiding me in meting out the justice of the Sith.”

“So the Sith have returned,” Elni mumbled, reaching for the comlink attached to his belt. “I don’t know what you’re doing here, but we will stop-”

The armored figure’s right arm sprung up for the back of his right shoulder and then shot out in a smooth motion, flinging a vibroblade at the Human Jedi. The weapon caught Elni in the forehead, boring straight into his skull and killing him instantly. Ojon reacted immediately, shouting at the top of his lungs and charging toward their opponent. The Sith withdrew a vibrating sword that looked strangely anachronistic but nonetheless strong enough to repel his blue lightsaber. After a few quick strikes, Ojon reeled back and swung with all his might, but his enemy merely stepped out of the way and let him fly forward and trip over himself. Once he was behind Ojon, his enemy planted a Force-imbued kick at the base of Ojon’s spine; the immense pain toppled the Jedi Knight and incapacitated his lower body.

Master Joerbos was already attacking as Ojon went down, swinging wildly at the dark-sider. The armored figure intercepted each blow with smooth, interconnecting maneuvers that allowed him to expend very little energy while maintaining a strong guard. The Jedi Master, more suited for subterfuge than combat, found himself in a precarious position and realized he was in danger.

“Master Jedi, don’t you believe it’s dishonorable to for two warriors to fight and not know each other’s names? Surely you would want to curse the man who defeats you before your spirit expires?”

Master Joerbos grabbed his enemy’s wrist with his free hand and chopped at his side with the other. “I have nothing to say to a slave of the dark side!”

With his own free hand, the armored warrior grabbed a shorter sword from his belt—about as long as a shoto—and caught Master Joerbos’s attack, deactivating the weapon’s shimmering blade with its pure cortosis edge. The Jedi Master flinched as his lightsaber’s blade disappeared, and his opponent took advantage of his confusion by giving him a kick to separate them from each other.

“Slave? Those commandos slave away to the whims of a blind madman. You Jedi are bound to your Council. The Republic ensnares the weak and the poor in perpetual servitude to the wealthy and powerful. It is you and your allies, Master Jedi, who are slaves.”

Master Joerbos lifted a chunk of earth out of the ground and threw it at his foe, but the dark-sider lazily stepped out of its trajectory. The Kel Dor didn’t stop, grabbing as much earthen projectiles as he was able in an effort to slow down the incoming Sith until his lightsaber could be used again.

“Are you afraid, Master Jedi? Do you know that your cause is doomed to failure? Do you know that I will find your companions on this world and kill them as I will kill you?”

“The Jedi Order will not be defeated by the likes of you! The Force is our power, and you cannot stop it!”

The armored warrior jumped over the next three incoming mounds of soil and rock headed in his direction and landed in front of the Jedi Master. He stabbed both of his swords into Master Joerbos’s chest, eliciting a pained wheeze from the old Jedi.

“My name is Tadeus Bulger, Masterblade of the Sith and Darth Preux’s chief assassin. Do not fear, for I will quickly send your brothers and sisters to join you, Master Jedi.”

Deactivating the vibrating blades, Tadeus allowed the Kel Dor’s body to slide off his swords and land in the pool of blood at his feet. While his gunship returned to the scene to ferry him back to the fleet, Tadeus stalked over to the wounded Cerean Jedi who was beginning to recover his strength. Tadeus’s swords cut into the hilts of the dead Human’s and the Cerean’s lightsabers, preventing them from being used against him.

He flipped the Cerean around, straddled him, and began raining down blows on his face. None of these Jedi could match him in martial prowess, but they possessed skills in the Force that far exceeded his own. He had to continue to interrupt his concentration so he couldn’t use his powers against him.

“Master Jedi, you see that your friends are dead and your cause is hopeless. You are at my mercy. Should I wish it, you could be dead in the next second. But my master has hope for your kind. He wishes to see you turn away from the foolish bondage you’ve subjected yourself to and join the throes of the Sith. Do you not sense it, Jedi? The power I possess? It can be yours, if you would join us.”

He stopped hammering blows down on the Cerean, whose face was now more of a bloodied mess than anything. One of his eyes had sealed itself shut as the skin around it turned blue and black, and his nose had been shattered and knocked out of place. Blood leaked from both nostrils, his lips, and from inside his mouth where his teeth had been shattered. But no matter how weak his body appeared, Tadeus recognized the pride that burned within his good eye, unwilling to yield to him. The Jedi spat blood and bits of tooth at the master assassin, and he muttered something—no doubt defying him—that ultimately came out unintelligible.

Another fist came down hard, propelled forward by the Force, that knocked Ojon’s head back down into the dirt. The Cerean’s elongated head bounced against the earth twice before his good eye rolled back into his head as he faded into unconsciousness. Even though he knew his opponent was incapacitated, Tadeus kept hitting him. The violence filled him with dark power and even after inflicting such pain, he hadn’t had enough. It had been so long since he had had a chance to fight Jedi, and these three had been sorely disappointing. He wanted more. He needed a greater challenge than this.

The roar of his gunship landing forced him to abandon his dark reverie. Tadeus threw the Jedi over his shoulders and headed toward his ship’s boarding ramp. If the Jedi would not surrender to him, he would find himself in the merciless clutches of his dark master. And then, he would wish that Tadeus would have finished him off here.

*** ***

Nafyan slowly opened his eyes. It took him a moment to realize that he was in his chambers, with the glowpanels’ lights diminished. He had been meditating, it seemed, but he did not remember sitting down to meditate. He searched his mind for the reason behind his perplexity, but in the end the Force told him nothing. Rising, he was immediately aware of how taut his muscles were and how his joints ached. How long had he been meditating?

“Master Nafyan,” a voice boomed through his room’s comm. “Your Jedi guest has arrived. Shall we escort her to your chambers?”

Nafyan rubbed his eyes with his hands, not quite sure what the other individual was talking about. “Yes. Send her in. And accompany her here. I want her watched at all times.”

He switched out of his dark jumpsuit and replaced it with a flowing brown robe with black markings. The clothes were a bit small on him, but he paid it no mind. Taking his staff in hand, he further called upon the dark side to invigorate him for his upcoming meeting. Truth be told, he did not remember hearing about a Jedi guest, and he had no idea who she was or where she had come from, but apparently she was expected. He would have to talk to his master, Darth Preux, to determine the source of his sudden amnesia.

“Entering your chambers now, my lord.”

The doors to his personal sanctum slid open to reveal an older woman flanked by two Force-sensitive commandos in heavy black armor. The woman’s dirty white hair stuck together in knots all around her head, and by her vacant expression, Nafyan figured she was as confused as he was. Her hands were manacled with durasteel bracers, and she wore a simple prisoner’s gown in lieu of whatever she had come here wearing.

Suddenly, knowledge came rushing to him like a burst reservoir. “You are the Jedi who surrendered herself to our forces on Sigil.”

She nodded.

“Give me your name, Jedi.”

“Atris,” she said after some time. “The Jedi once called me Atris.”

“A Jedi Councilor,” Nafyan realized aloud. “Tell me, why have you surrendered to the Sith?”

“I am no longer a Jedi. They saw fit to abandon me… imprison me for my deeds many years ago. So I abandon them now. I will have my revenge on the Jedi.”

“Why should I believe you?” Nafyan asked, pacing back and forth in front of her. “How do I know this isn’t a trap?”

“You mean you can’t sense my thoughts?” Atris sneered. “Have the Sith lost their powers of perception along with the galaxy?”

The dark side fueled his anger and gave him confidence. His former confusion did not matter; the present was what was important. Nafyan extended his hand and clenched his fist together, using the invisible strings of the Force to strangle the former Jedi. “Do not attempt to goad me, woman. I have more power than you know.”

“Mercy… I did not mean… to test you…”

Nafyan released his grip. He was loathe to admit it, but she was right. He could not sense her intent. He had never been a master at perceiving of others, instead mastering abilities that manipulated matter and the mind. He knew there were other ways to test loyalty, but was this woman worth the time? A Jedi Knight was dangerous no matter what side of the war they were on, and there was a chance that she was just here because the Jedi knew she had long since became a liability. He had no time to waste on weaklings.

“What could you hope to bring to our cause?” Nafyan asked.

“Though I am no longer a Jedi Councilor, I have not become weak in my age. The Jedi were right to imprison me, fearing what I could do to them. Besides, I am privy to information that one such as you would find… most valuable.”

“What kind of information?”

Atris took a step forward. “I know where the Jedi are hiding.”

“Where? Where are they hiding?”

Atris approached the Sith Master and stared into his baleful eyes. “I will tell you everything I know, but you must promise me that you will strike immediately.”

Nafyan grinned evilly in anticipation. At long last, he would know the location of the hidden Jedi base. For years, the Jedi Order had eluded him. They had captured other Jedi before, of course, but some hadn’t known where the others were hiding and others had refused to yield under torture. The hunt had driven Nafyan mad, and he had turned his attention to ways to draw them out instead. But this… this was his chance. He and Darth Preux would be able to strike right at the heart of the Jedi, slaughter them in their precious enclave before they knew what hit them. This was an opportunity he could not ignore.

“Tell me where they’re hiding,” Nafyan growled, not bothering to conceal his excitement.

“Telos IV, in the polar region on the surface. They have been living there for many years now, making an enclave for themselves in the halls I once called my own.”

Telos. Of course. Nafyan chided himself for not realizing that the Sith Lords who had survived the Jedi Civil War many years ago had not chosen to attack Telos because it was a military target, but because they had sensed Jedi on the planet and had intended to destroy them. It was so obvious in retrospect, and Nafyan felt like a fool for not at least confirming suspicions about Jedi there.

“Then Telos is where we shall go.” Nafyan bid Atris closer to a small terminal on the opposite side of the room. “Tell me what else you know about this compound.”

“Of course,” Atris said, moving to stand just beside him. “I would estimate there are about five hundred Jedi situated in the enclave at any given time, but I believe their total numbers are at least twice that. They keep quite a few combat droids on hand for security and training purposes.”

“How many?”

“Probably one for every two Jedi. Some of them probably go unused,” Atris explained. “They have no structural defenses to speak of, as their secrecy is their greatest asset. But they can erect shock fields around their enclave should the situation demand it, cutting off access to certain chambers and halls.”

“I see. I need you to illustrate the blueprint of the enclave and show me where those barriers could arise.”

“Master Nafyan, Darth Preux has requested your presence in the master observatory,” one of his apprentices squeaked over the comm. “It sounded urgent.”

Nafyan scowled. This was important, but he would deal with the Jedi later. “Tell him I will be there momentarily,” he said.

After the former Jedi Master had been escorted away by his guards, he traveled from his chambers to the observatory at the uppermost deck of the ship without escort. Once he had arrived, Thoronim let Nafyan in without delay. This room was rarely used because it could only be accessed from Darth Preux’s chambers and the bridge. Nafyan wasn’t quite sure what its intended use was. A transparisteel dome enshrouded the chamber, displaying the radiant nebulae and countless stars around them as they soared through the vast emptiness of space. It was at least fifteen meters in diameter—one of the largest rooms on the ship—and otherwise empty except for a single terminal at the center of the room.

Darth Preux stood beside the terminal, clutching it with such a terrifying grip that Nafyan thought he would have died if he released it. He had neglected his hoverchair for the time being, and his strange derriphan pet was nowhere to be seen. Upon approach, Nafyan couldn’t help but feel weak, like the dark side was working against him instead of fueling him as it was supposed to.

Ah… you are the one they call Nafyan.

Nafyan’s head echoed with a guttural voice. Suddenly, from within the deck of the ship, a ghostly figure arose out of nothingness. Darth Preux screamed aloud: it was a feral cry of pain unlike anything Nayfan had ever heard from his current dark master. The dark figure that overshadowed Darth Preux was a Human male like they were, standing at least three meters tall and encased in dark armor quite similar to that Darth Preux was wearing. He had a visible scar running along his right arm, and his stolid visage seemed carved from stone.

“Master? Darth Preux?” Nafyan croaked.

“I shall speak for this boy,” the dark apparition announced. “And he thought he could restrain my power with his little creature? Foolish! My kind created those monstrosities!”

“What… are you?”

“For you to not recognize me…” The ghost folded his arms across his spectral chest. “My name is Avaran Whell.”

Although the ancient spirit talked like he should have known the name, Nafyan had never heard of such a Sith. “What have you done with him? What happened to Lord Preux?”

“Ah… now that you fear for your life, you have discovered the meaning of loyalty. How amusing,” the ghost boomed with laughter.

“Answer me!”

“He is fine. The boy has traded his mind for a taste of my power. When he was wounded by his brother all those years ago, he was terrified of anyone coming so close to killing him again. He collected the fragments of this armor—this suit once belonged to an Onderonian cultist, you know—that contained an enchantment to call upon the dead. And I answered his call. He and I are linked in more ways than one… just as you and I are, Nafyan.”

“I don’t understand,” the Sith Master admitted.

“All will be made clear in time,” the spirit of Avaran Whell said. “Send your men to Telos. You will discover what you need to there. Also alert your Emperor to the fact that the Mandalorians are about to reconquer their homeworld. One of theirs holds something of great value that will be needed in the coming days.”

“You think just because you’re a failed Sith that I’ll listen to you?” Nafyan growled, more out of obstinate pride than courage or loyalty.

“Do as he says!” Darth Preux shouted. “Do as he says, and he will leave!”

“Do not tempt me. Just because you and I are bound together does not mean I will withhold my wrath,” Avaran Whell warned him.

Although he very much enjoyed seeing Darth Preux suffer, Nafyan knew there was no point resisting the spirit, especially if it meant that he would experience similar anguish for his refusal. “As you wish.”

“Very good. I will return when these things have been done. We are of one mind, Nafyan. Do not think of betraying me now.”

With that, the dark spirit dissipated into nothingness. Darth Preux trembled and collapsed as soon as the spirit had departed from them, and he appeared as weak as he did before his encounter with the Sith Emperor’s minion several days ago. Nafyan inquired as to the Sith Lord’s condition, but he said nothing. Despite his silence, Nafyan could sense the Force within him, so he was still alive at least. Turning around, Nafyan let himself out of the observatory.

Three of his Sith learners were waiting for him as soon as he left. The three of them were clothed in distinct robes of red, blue, and green to set them apart from his other pupils. Of all the Sith that had sworn allegiance to Nafyan alone, these three were the strongest. Their cunning was greater than Falmas, their strength unmatched by the Beast, and more dedicated than Sallos. Even if all the others chose to side with Darth Preux, these three would defend him to the death.

“Why have you come here?” Nafyan asked, still perplexed about recent events.

“They said they sensed your distress earlier, but were meditating,” Thoronim informed him. “By the time they arrived at your chambers, you had already come here. They only just arrived.”

Nafyan didn’t know what distress they were referring to, but it didn’t matter. “The three of you are to go to Telos and learn more of the nature of the Jedi Enclave hidden there. If nothing else, discover how many Jedi hide within its walls and report back to me.”

“Your will is law, Master Nafyan,” the red-robed Sith replied. “We will leave at once.”

The three Sith left with a quick blessing from Nafyan. The fatigued Sith Master turned to regard Thoronim, but didn’t say anything. The gargantuan warrior could have been a statue for how unresponsive he was. He had difficulty gauging the guardsman’s power, but he had no doubt that, when the time came for him to betray Darth Preux to the Sith Emperor, he and his three servants would be able to deal with him.

For the time being, Nafyan had much to learn from their new Jedi prisoner. With the knowledge she possessed and the double agents he already had in place, he could wipe out the Republic and Darth Preux’s Sith in a single fell swoop and destroy the Jedi not long thereafter. The last battle would not be long in coming.

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