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Chapter 20

Tserne had situated himself in the starboard observation deck of the Blind Guide after the Jedi and their warrior friends had fled Ambria. It was apparently meant to be the primary lounge, but its viewport—extending from one end of the outer wall to the other—had its shutters permanently sealed and most of the crew was too busy to just loiter about. Their busyness gave Tserne a certain degree of solitude to sort through his thoughts. After having been haunted by nightmares and dark power in his comatose state, he was glad to be awake, but wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself.

His journey to Krayiss Two had been the culmination of nearly ten years of studies and work. He had heard of the terrifying powers of the Sith before, of course, but he had only heard of their ability to manipulate the mind comparatively recently. The ancient Sith were rumored to have possessed far more knowledge than Jedi in this era, and he had hoped they would liberate his mind with their esoteric arts and unlock the mysteries of his past at long last. After all, if the Sith were responsible for his condition as he believed, then surely the Sith would be able to undo the damage as well.

And they had betrayed him. Or, more accurately, they had used their powers against him in ways he had not intended. All the effort he had taken to discover the location of that ancient library, discover researchers who could piece together a way inside that library, and a way to communicate with the spirits was useless now.

Perhaps more terrifyingly, he had put Dynatha in danger deliberately, for selfish reasons that he had not divulged to her before hand. She was still shaken by the ordeal, as he was, but trust between the two of them had long since disappeared, and this situation had only made it worse. He had been so caught up on what could have been, on reconciling his past, that he endangered the one he cared for the most. He hadn’t even been able to look her in the eyes after that.

“Hey, Aquin.”

Tserne turned his gaze from the sealed viewport and noticed Selias standing in the doorway of the lounge. She was holding two quarterstaves with her along with canteens of water and some ration packs. He noticed the bandages around her waist and her lekku immediately, but she didn’t appear to be in pain at all—whether she was hiding it well or she was in good health, it was hard for him to say.

“Selias, correct?” Tserne asked. “We met earlier I know, but-”

“Yeah. It was rather chaotic,” Selias mused. “I’m grateful for what you did back there. I don’t think we would have made it as far as we did without your help.”

“I didn’t do much. I should have done more; I couldn’t even save your comrade… Wendel,” Tserne admitted.

Selias nodded slowly. She approached the damaged viewport and stared into the minutia of the durasteel curtain. “It’s fine. We joined this fight knowing exactly what was on the line. Wendel did his duty, and it’s time to do ours.”

She tossed him a quarterstaff, and he snatched it with one hand and extended it with the other. Selias deposited the rations on a torn-up sofa at the far corner of the room and crouched into a combat-ready stance. Tserne backed up a few meters and mirrored her position.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” Tserne asked, keeping an eye on her feet as she followed the edges of the room. “I don’t doubt the healing arts of the Jedi, but you took quite a beating back there.”

“It’s the only chance I’ll get to fight someone as renowned as you. Let me test my skills. I can manage,” Selias assured him.

Tserne nodded and prepared himself for the duel’s beginning. He didn’t have to wait long. Selias sprinted forward with quarterstaff in hand, reaching his corner of the room in seconds. Her initial strike was a by-the-book opening used by Echani warriors to disarm a staff-wielding opponent. Tserne had fought—and killed—Echani duelists before, and he countered the maneuver by swatting her staff away. She fell into a traditional Echani velocity immediately thereafter, with lightning-fast strikes at his middle and upper body that flowed one after another. Her reflexes kept Tserne on the defensive, but he moved around the room just enough to keep her from boxing him in.

Midway through the famous Yalens lunge, Selias switched her style and nearly struck Tserne in the face with a Mandalorian maneuver that, if she had a real blade, would have cut him from the right hip to his throat. Tserne switched his tactics appropriately, performing blocks away from his body and striking during breaks in her attacks. Echani fighters expended little energy while performing rapid consecutive blows in an effort to catch their enemy’s guard at its weakest. Mandalorian combat was all about power. In this style, though, Selias was at a noticeable disadvantage; as a female Togruta, her musculature was no match for Tserne’s and she would have to contend with his greater upper body strength.

“Aquin. Tserne DeLarane. Ghoul. The Noble Assassin. You’re a killer with so many aliases, but no name. Do you know what an honor it would be to defeat you?”

She performed a triple-strike against his staff and then hooked her left leg behind one of his, spilling him to the ground. He recovered in an instant, but when he was halfway up Selias took advantage of his awkward positioning and began raining powerful overhead blows on him, forcing him to repel her with less strength than he would normally have available to him.

“You wouldn’t be the first one,” Tserne countered.

“Ah yes, your prosthetics,” Selias mused aloud. “Someone got you good, Aquin.”

Selias backed up as Tserne lashed out at her chest with a wide swing. Once she was out of striking distance, Tserne moved in and began a rapid offensive of his own. While rather unsporting, he didn’t think twice about aiming for her bandaged wounds. She had challenged him, and he saw no reason to hold back if she wasn’t going to. His opponent kept up a good defense, and Selias actually smiled when she realized what he was doing. Tserne bit down a curse when Selias moved into his guard and kneed him in the groin, causing him to double-over.

“Striking at my injuries… that’s no way to treat a lady,” Selias mocked him. “Would you do that to Dynatha?”

“Dynatha wouldn’t challenge me to a duel with no rules!” Tserne countered, still grimacing in pain.

“Perhaps not.” Selias swatted Tserne’s head with her quarterstaff. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Tserne recovered after a few seconds and moved in again, using his advantage in size and strength to force Selias against the wall. Selias had defended herself well, parrying each of Tserne’s heavy blows as he struck at her limbs and head, but Tserne could tell she was getting tired. As much as she tried to hide it, her injuries were exhausting her and she would have to stop soon.

Suddenly, her style shifted again. It was unrecognizable to him—quite a surprise considering how many sentients he had fought before—but it was a complex amalgamation of rapid one-handed weapon strikes coupled with powerful kicks and punches aimed at the center of mass. Tserne took a few hits from her fist as he retreated, backing into a low defensive stance while she viciously advanced.

Despite her ferocity, Tserne noticed something amiss. The attacks themselves were fluid and her defense was unyielding, but her footwork was not as disciplined as it had been earlier, and she was overreaching during her attacks. Catching her staff with his, Tserne pulled her forward and caused her to lose her balance. Diving after her, a quick grapple ended the duel.

“Not bad,” Selias muttered as she wiped her face with one of the towels she had brought. “I wondered if you were as good as they say you are.”

“And?”

She nodded. “I got nothing. You’re too patient and your style too practiced. There’s not enough to exploit.”

“You’re a pretty good fighter yourself,” Tserne said as he helped himself to some of the water she had brought. “You would have beaten me if you weren’t injured.”

“I don’t think so.” Selias crossed her arms and frowned. “Actually, your style is reminiscent of Jedi fighting techniques.”

Tserne eyed her suspiciously. “How can you tell?”

“Well, I’m not saying you fight like Ranval or anything, but there’s some hints in there,” Selias explained. “It’s the little things. The close guard coupled with the lithe weapon-handling, the almost-breathless transition between high and low attacks. You only really notice after you see a bunch of Jedi fight.”

Tserne said nothing. He had been able to sense the Force before, if only on a rudimentary level, but now the skill was lost to him. He had even successfully used a lightsaber once, and he had handled himself fairly well. While it wasn’t something he thought about often, Selias’s comment caused him to mull on his past life. To think, he could have been a Jedi of some sort. He almost laughed at the idea; his pre-amnesiac self would have been sickened at everything Tserne had done with his life.

He had to admit that he was sick of it too.

“How are your injuries?” he asked, his thoughts returning to the present.

“I’ll survive.”

He sat down next to her on the sofa as she scarfed down one of the ration packs she had brought. “You wanted to beat me that badly, huh?”

“It’s not that. Although it scares me to think what kind of opponent could defeat you.”

“It wasn’t a fair fight, if that matters,” Tserne pointed out.

“Figured.” Selias stared off into the distance again. “I don’t think I’ll have what it takes in the coming battles,” she admitted after a moment of silence. “The opponents we’re up against… I may not be good enough to keep fighting. What can a warrior like me doing against such evil, you know?”

“So you wanted to know if someone like me would be able to help fight those evils?”

“Yeah.”

“And? What do you think?”

Selias shook her head. “I don’t know, Aquin. I just don’t know.”

*** ***

Celes was sitting by herself in the mess hall when Dynatha saw her. She was distracted and didn’t even notice the older woman’s approach. Despite their last conversation, Dynatha still believed that Celes was worthy of all the praise she had received and all the expectations heaped upon her, but she had lost sight of her duty along the way. Dynatha didn’t necessarily think she could just change her mind in an instant, but she did want to ensure that the two of them were on good terms and Celes was on good terms with the rest of the Jedi as well.

“Pardon me, Master Sunrider,” Dynatha spoke up. “I was wondering if we could talk?”

She hadn’t even realized that Celes had been looking at a hologram until she stepped up to talk to her. The freckled boy in the recording must have been no older than eighteen, and yet he fought off three other young Jedi by himself as though he had been using his lightsaber for twice that time. Celes deactivated the shimmering image as soon as she saw Dynatha standing over her, as though it was an embarrassing thing for the other woman to observe.

“Dynatha… I didn’t even notice your approach…” Celes said matter-of-factly.

Dynatha cocked her head in confusion. “You know that young man?”

Celes sighed and nodded as she faced the Jedi Knight. “He’s… my son. Harin.”

“Your son?” Dynatha was quite surprised at that confession. She had heard rumors that Celes had been involved with a man in her earlier years, but no one had identified her lover. “I thought it was just a rumor.”

“He is with his father right now,” Celes explained. “I suspect that he’s doing well, but… I haven’t heard from him in a long time.”

“The Jedi don’t let you talk with him?”

“Perhaps through dreams,” Celes scoffed. “The Jedi of our generation are forbidden from forming attachments out of fear that we will prioritize our love for individuals over the love for some ideals. As though attachments could lead to the dark side…”

“The Jedi Council knows what they’re doing,” Dynatha assured her. “Their collective wisdom has established these rules to protect us from ourselves.”

“You’re just a mouthpiece for the Council, do you know that?” Celes grumbled.

“But I’m right.”

“To be honest, the Jedi Order will never be a greater priority to me than the ones I love,” Celes ruminated. “I want nothing more than to flee the Jedi with my son and his father and escape for parts unknown, where we’ll be free from this bickering.”

“You’re talking like a Dark Jedi,” Dynatha warned her.

“A Dark Jedi? Hah! As if Dark Jedi valued anything more than themselves. Their selfishness would never altruistically extend to another like my love for my family does.”

“But you owe the Jedi so much. Even now, they’re taking care of your son.”

“Because they won’t let me do it,” Celes snapped. “Don’t tell me you’ve never thought of abandoning the Jedi and retreating with your brooding paramour to some idyllic world to live out the rest of your lives happily?”

Dynatha immediately knew whom it was she was referring to. “I wouldn’t say Tserne and I are lovers…”

“No?” Celes smiled thinly. “Your thoughts betray you. I think you care for our brooding murder-for-hire more than you’d like to admit.”

Dynatha sealed her emotions behind a mental barrier and reddened. Honestly, she couldn’t decide how she felt about the man. There were lingering sentiments in the back of her mind, reminding her that her journeys with him hadn’t been horrible by any means, and just before they departed they had become noticeably more intimate—quite the accomplishment for someone as cold-hearted as Tserne. Despite those feelings, his selfishness, amorality, and his disregard for her and her emotions were just as evident, and she wasn’t sure she was ready to be betrayed again.

“He must have been very special to you,” Celes surmised.

“He was.”

“But no more?”

“I-” Dynatha fumbled with her words. “He… was my first friend. Or at least, the first I remember. He and I had gone on a mission together, and I was so scared of him.” Dynatha laughed despite herself. “I was too frightened to even speak with him. But he… he wasn’t like that. It was an act. He showed me what I knew he possessed all along when he sacrificed himself for me during that mission.”

“And what was that?”

“Courage. He may not think so, and maybe I’m so hopelessly smitten by him that I am fooling myself, but I believe Tserne is the bravest man I’ve ever known. No Jedi I’ve met during my years of training compares with him. He defended me without asking for anything in return. He risked death keeping me safe. And he never left my side. He was the only one who remained with me through it all, until…”

“Say no more,” Celes interrupted. “I shouldn’t have said anything. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have said anything, but I’m worried about you.”

“Why?”

“You don’t see how they’re using you, Dynatha?” Celes asked, rather shocked at the idea. “They’re trying to pull you along and convert you into a pawn for some damn crusade.”

“I don’t understand,” Dynatha admitted. “What do you mean?”

“Ranval’s been eying you for a while. Not like Tserne’s been looking at you, mind, but with that greedy, power-hungry look of his. He wants your power. He knows what you’re capable of and he thinks he can use that to his own devices. Northeus is the same way, but I think he has a different agenda altogether—not that he would ever tell that to Ranval. Delvin’s up to something too, but I can’t quite figure out what it is. And Tserne…”

Dynatha’s mind returned to Krayiss Two. She remembered how Tserne had brought her there under false pretenses and made her read that Sith incantation. They had nearly died, and it was all because he had been dishonest and clandestine. Anger welled up inside her, but she restrained herself in front of Celes; she didn’t want to embarrass herself in front of her.

“He may not be any better,” Dynatha murmured.

“Precisely,” Celes said. “You see why I’m worried?”

Dynatha didn’t exactly believe everything Celes was telling her, but there could have been some element of truth to it all the same. She had sensed no dark motives from any of the Jedi they had traveled with, including Ranval, and she was inclined to believe they had good intentions. Celes was too cynical, but Dynatha admitted that she herself was too optimistic. There was a chance she had misjudged those she had called her allies.

“What can I do?” she asked Celes.

Celes thought for a moment and then urged Dynatha to stand. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the lower decks. I’m going to teach you how to grow in the Force more than any of those stuffy Jedi on Telos and these idiots around us ever could.”

“But why?”

“Why not?” Celes began to lead her out of the mess. “You’ll learn from me and I’ll learn from you. By the time we’re done, we won’t have to depend on anyone else. We’ll be able to forge our own path in the galaxy.”

Although Dynatha wasn’t exactly thrilled by the idea, Celes brokered no argument. She seemed caught up in her own thoughts, and Dynatha was just along for the journey. Nevertheless, she knew that Celes had much to teach her and she figured this would be a good experience for the both of them.

*** ***

“Ranval.”

“Northeus,” Ranval sensed the aged Jedi Master approach, but he didn’t turn his chair to acknowledge him. He was too busy flying the ship anyway. “What can I do for you?”

“Our next destination. I’ve narrowed it down.”

Ranval slid over to the navicomputer. “Very well. Which jump beacon do we need, and what coordinates is our planet at?”

Northeus handed him a datapad with a long list of numbers. Ranval’s mechanical limbs deftly entered the relevant data into the navicomputer. Their navicomputers could only hold about a dozen predetermined coordinates before needing to venture to hyperspace beacons to key in new ones. But with years of experience traveling the hyperlanes and an unparalleled connection to the Force, Jedi were able to determine exactly where they needed to go without the need for these jump beacons. Such mastery was beyond Ranval’s ken, but Northeus was apparently well-versed in such things.

“Which planet is this, then?” Ranval asked as he finished entering the coordinates.

“It is called Truuine,” Northeus explained. “The world once housed a Jedi Praxeum at its north pole, but it was rendered defunct in the wake of the Mandalorian Wars. We are going to prepare it for the return of the Jedi.”

“What does that entail, exactly?” Ranval asked.

“Be prepared for battle,” Northeus said as he left. “The forces who have made their home there will not surrender the compound without a fight.”

Ranval shook his head. Northeus had no right to be so enigmatic, especially now that they were working together. And why were they going to this place anyway? If the Jedi Order needed to resettle this world, they would do so in time. The Sith were out there, and if they could be defeated before they initiated their plans, the Jedi would be safe for generations to come. At this point they were only wasting time. But Northeus alone could teach Dynatha the ultimate power she needed to end the Sith once and for all. While it was possible the Sith could be overcome by strength of arms, Ranval feared that without every advantage possible, they would not be able to win.

The doldrums of hyperspace made his mind wander. His focus escaped from his current mission, his devotion to the cause, and even to the dangers that were ahead of them. He thought back to those days on Coruscant, when he had assumed the Jedi Order had been obliterated by the last of the Sith. He thought back to the woman whom he had loved, the senator he had served with all of his mind and all of his heart. They had become more than master and servant, bound by duty and love into something greater. And then… well, that was a long time ago. They weren’t anything now.

And yet how he could just forget about Eliorae Latona? The woman had held his heart in her hands, and hers in his. They were of one mind, one heart, one body. And then she had crushed it. Deep down, Ranval knew that she had made the right decision; his duties as a Jedi Knight and her tasks as a senator were greater than both of them, but he still had some resentment festering within him. It gnawed at him in the quiet moments like these, when he reflected on why he did what he did. Time meant little when such emotional forces were involved.

“Still thinking about her, boss?”

Selias pulled Ranval out of his introspection. The injured Togruta jabbed at him playfully and sat down in the co-pilot’s seat. Damn her and her perception, Ranval thought. It had been a long time; Selias knew him better than anyone. He had never discussed the matter with her, yet she seemed to read him like a holobook. Perhaps it was the fact that they dedicated teams of commandos to watch over Eliorae and ensure she remained safe. Maybe it was the distant look he got on his face when he thought of her. Whatever it was, Selias knew exactly what occupied his private thoughts.

“I don’t know who you’re referring to, Selias.”

“She’s gone, you know.”

“I know,” Ranval snapped, returning his attention to the nav board. “You should be sleeping.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“You’re not fully healed. Your body will not heal if you don’t rest.”

“Why don’t you just call her or something, damn it? Stop being all weird about it.”

“Selias, if I don’t think you’re in fighting shape when we arrive, I’m having Ranz take over. You’re staying in the ship.”

“Like hell. Try and stop me.”

That got her off the subject. “I’m serious. I won’t let you endanger the mission by becoming a liabi-”

Selias slugged him—for real this time—in the arm. “You shut your kriffin’ mouth. I didn’t come here to be belittled by you.”

“I’m not doing this to be mean.” Ranval gave her a look to let her know she was acting like a child. “I don’t want you to get hurt, and I don’t want anyone to get hurt on your account.”

“You think just because I got a little injury that it’s going to slow me down? You think because I lost a few good fighters I’m going to cry and beg for protection like your precious Eliorae or Dynatha?”

“That was uncall-”

“I’m not done.” Selias jumped to her feet and got in his face. “I’m a fighter just like you, Ranval, and I’m not going to sit on the sidelines while you’re in danger. We’re partners, damn you, and if you got hurt out there while I was convalescing I’d never forgive myself. If the mission failed when I could have done something I might just shoot myself.”

“And if you go out there and someone dies defending you because you’re not at your best, what then?” Ranval stood up and glared down at her with all the fury he could muster. “What if I have to turn around to defend you from a Sith warrior facing you and I take a lightsaber to the chest? What then, Selias?”

Selias didn’t break her gaze with him for a long time, but she eventually caved in. “Damn you.”

“What do you mean, ‘damn you’?” Ranval’s expression softened as hers did. “Is that you’re way of saying, ‘I’m right, Ranval, and I’m sorry I’m such a stubborn idiot’?”

Selias shook her head. “Just don’t cry out there because I’m not around, okay?”

“Is that what this is all about? You know I’ll miss you, Selias,” he teased.

“But not as much as you miss Eliorae, right?” she riposted.

Ranval gave her a disproving look.

“I’m just saying, boss. You need to get over it.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Sure it is. You just cannot let things go. Couldn’t back when we were in the Hidden Beks, and you can’t now.”

“Maybe if I had some other woman in my life to distract me,” Ranval said as he returned to his seat.

“Ugh. Go woo Dynatha then, you nerf herder,” Selias grumbled. She headed back toward the halls, despite Ranval’s efforts to halt her. “No, no. I’m not playing your games, you rogue.”

Ranval would have rolled his eyes if he had them. Such a troublesome woman. He had no idea if she would listen to him about her injuries, but he hoped—for both their sakes—that she did. Because in his heart, he knew that he would take that lightsaber for her if he had to, and he also knew that their cause would be for naught if he did.

*** ***

“Tserne? Do you have a moment?”

Tserne was still sitting on the couch that he and Selias had been loitering on when Delvin walked into the room. They hadn’t actually met, but Dynatha had mentioned him after they had picked him up from Ambria before leaving. But as soon as Tserne saw him, he knew that they had met before. He was older now, sure, but Tserne remembered Delvin Cortes as one of beings on Ralina Venli’s smuggler crew. They hadn’t interacted much, but the two of them had traveled together for a few years during the Jedi Civil War, before Ralina had abandoned Tserne during a raid on a Sith base.

The assassin held no ill feelings for Ralina. It had been a pragmatic decision that he would have made had he been in her position. Nevertheless, he never forgot either her or her crew, and the fact that one of hers had been a Jedi all along didn’t quite sit well with him for some reason.

“Delvin Cortes.”

“The pleasure is mine,” Delvin gave him a slight bow. “To meet such a famous killer twice in one lifetime…”

Tserne hadn’t expressed his recognition, but the Jedi Master must have sensed his emotional outburst. “So we meet again. The Force has a funny way of doing business, it seems.”

“So it does.”

“How are Ralina and her crew? I haven’t heard from them since you left me to die on that chunk of ice,” Tserne said, partially lying. He had been working under Fetcher for some time, but Delvin didn’t need to know that.

“Both quite well. Fetcher has inherited the smuggling business and has made quite a name for himself,” Delvin explained. “And Ralina has been wed to her childhood sweetheart and had a child. She has lived amongst the Jedi for some time.”

Tserne smiled. He was glad to hear Ralina was doing well. She had been kind to him when he had been so amnesiac he could hardly recall the galactic alphabet. “She always hated Jedi,” he recalled.

“It’s not entirely her decision. Besides, it is easy to keep an eye on her there.”

“So she’s the one you were spying on,” Tserne said. “I wondered what a Jedi Master was doing snooping around as a common thug.”

Delvin gave him a warm smile. “Perhaps there is something to be said about the high making themselves low for the Force’s sake.”

“Perhaps. Why are you here, then? Come to spy on me now?”

“There’s more than enough time for that later,” Delvin admitted. “For now, I have to know… can we trust you?”

Tserne was slightly irked at the question, although realistically, he shouldn’t have been. If he had been assigned to work with a random mercenary, he would be suspicious as well. His occupation was even worse than a hired gun in the eyes of the Jedi—he had no doubt Delvin saw him as a glorified murderer. While he could have contested that he had no other skills and was only killing sentients that were criminals themselves, he decided not to debate the Jedi Master on those points.

“Why wouldn’t I be loyal to you?” Tserne finally asked.

“Your history is shady in that regard.”

“Hardly. Even when I had been weakest, mentally and physically, I stayed by Ralina’s side and didn’t betray her. I’ve served Fetcher dutifully these past few years. I protected Dynatha for as long as the Force allowed me-”

“You also killed one of Ralina’s crew before joining us. You betrayed the Sith, you betrayed the GenoHaradan, and you betrayed Dynatha’s trust in the end. You’ve wandered the galaxy without a master for so long, I’m not sure you can be counted on to serve anyone but yourself.”

“You know a lot about me,” Tserne replied calmly. “Tell me, Master Jedi. Have I ever neglected to complete a mission once it has been assigned to me? Surely you must know.”

Delvin shook his head. “No. You have carried out every mission you’ve been tasked to do—even at the cost of your allies, your reputation, and your health.”

“I’ll do what I have to to make sure Dynatha is safe. That’s all you need to concern yourself with,” Tserne growled.

“I’m concerned because I don’t think you’ll be able to.”

“And you can?”

“I did not say that, but I fear for her. Against such darkness, there are few who can resist and fight…”

“I will stand with her through whatever else she has to go through,” Tserne assured him. “I’ve failed her too many times for me to give up now.”

Delvin evaluated him in silence, his visage impossible to read. Even as he sighed and lifted his hands in what Tserne assumed was defeat, it was not clear if he was disappointed at something Tserne had said or else realized that the assassin was telling the truth.

“What do a few strong words mean? When the darkness finds you, we will see the depths of your loyalty, Tserne DeLarane.”


Chapter 21

The Blind Guide reverted back into realspace several light minutes outside of Truuine’s gravity well. The entire crew of Ranval’s ship, along with all of its passengers, had found their way to the bridge over the course of the last few minutes. Selias and two other commandos were seated in the crewer chairs, although Ranval could access most of the ship’s functions from his position at the pilot’s chair. The rest of the commandos and their allies were standing on the bridge, observing the forward viewport as the blue-green ball that was Truuine steadily increased in size.

“Truuine is peaceful, arboreal, and lacking in civilization. The only settlement is the Jedi Praxeum at its north pole,” one of the commandos summarized the planet’s description from the Republic Spacelane Bureau’s records. “No recommended outbound vectors. No major criminal activity. No major landmarks of note.”

“Sounds terribly boring if you ask me,” Selias muttered.

“I sense a terrible darkness on its surface,” Celes said, extending her perception toward the planet.

“As do I, near the pole where the Jedi sanctuary is said to be,” Delvin agreed.

“Then that is where we must go,” Northeus said. “Ranval, take us there.”

“Are we here to engage the dark forces at work?” Celes asked pointedly. “I thought this was a training exercise.”

“It is training,” Northeus said simply. “Ranval.”

Ranval did as he was told. As their commando had reported, the world was quite serene, with thousands of kilometers of grassy plains and untamed forests where tens of thousands of undocumented and mysterious life forms roamed the surface. The rest of the planet was covered in sweeping oceans that bubbled with white foam and teemed with aquatic life visible even from their position overhead. It was with some regret that Dynatha watched as they left those lands behind and headed for the polar region. The passive scanners reported no life forms anywhere across the icy wastes, and the rolling hills of the warmer regions gave way to harsh crags and colossal mountains that would have been impossible to circumnavigate on foot. Dynatha couldn’t imagine what kind of Jedi Master would build his Jedi Praxeum in such a desolate place during times of peace.

Then, after several minutes of steady flight, Selias identified their destination on the horizon. A series of buildings made of stone dotted the top of a plateau less than ninety kilometers away. The praxeum’s walls were taller than the rest of the architecture, extending at least ten meters high while the cuboid- and pyramidal frustum-shaped buildings within would have been hidden from passersby on foot. Despite being apparently abandoned for at least seventy years, the compound appeared fairly well-kept amidst the deserted wasteland.

“Should we expect company?” Tserne asked Northeus.

The eldest Jedi said nothing, keeping his eyes on the viewport.

“Incoming transmission from the compound,” a commando at the comm board piped up.

“Patch it through,” Selias ordered.

The transmission was audio only. “Unidentified vessel, this is Praxeum Control. Please identify yourselves.”

Ranval glanced at the other passengers. Evidently this place wasn’t as lifeless as they thought. “My name is Captain Donnel Ioca of Gadon’s Last Flight,” Ranval replied. “I presumed the Jedi Praxeum had been abandoned.”

“Your information’s out of date, Captain.”

“Got room for one more?”

“You’ll have to be a bit more specific about your business before I consider that request,” the traffic controller said.

“We’re a team of independent archaeologists looking to bring back some Jedi trinkets for the collection on Caamas,” Ranval said. “Thought this place would be a good place to start.”

The individual on the other end grunted dismissively. “Very well. We’re sending you directions into our hangar now. It’s fairly large, so you won’t miss it. We’ll send a party to meet you upon arrival.”

The transmission cut out before Ranval could thank him.

“That’s odd,” Delvin muttered.

“What’s that?” Dynatha asked.

“Well, if we were archaeologists working for the Republic in some capacity, he should have asked us to transmit our excavation and extraction licenses.”

“Maybe they aren’t Republic?” Celes noted.

“Not Republic, and certainly not Jedi,” Ranval agreed. “And with all the dark side energy here, I’m expecting the worst. Be on your guard, but keep your lightsabers out of sight and don’t let them know you can sense the Force.”

“Some of us might have a bit of trouble with that,” Celes said.

“Do your best,” Ranval replied.

“There’s the hangar he spoke of.” Northeus pointed toward a gaping hole in the side of the plateau that had been absent before.

Ranval changed their flight path so they would fly right into the hangar. The comm operator had said it was big, but the Jedi and operatives were surprised nonetheless; their hangar was wide enough to fit at least three of Ranval’s ships side-by-side and nearly long enough to house a Foray-class blockade runner. Durasteel scaffolding lined the ceiling and the walls, and there were crates, empty fuel cells, and damaged ship parts everywhere. Red landing lights blinked erratically across the floor—not necessarily all beneath them—as Ranval put the ship to rest. Looking out the viewport, Dynatha thought she saw some shorter humanoids with fuel lines running toward their ship.

“Selias, get out there and tell them we don’t need any fuel,” Ranval said as soon as the braking thrusters began outgassing. “Take one or two operatives with you, too. I don’t want this ship being filled up by untrustworthy characters.”

“It’s just a gesture of goodwill, I’m sure,” Dynatha spoke up.

“Or they’re sabotaging our engines to keep us here,” Tserne pointed out.

“Must you be so negative?” Dynatha asked.

While Selias and another commando rushed out of the ship to shoo their welcoming party away, Ranval led the rest of them back toward the storage compartments in the starboard wings. Fortunately, there was enough cold weather survival gear for all of them, including ice climbing tools and thermal wraps for warmth. Northeus eschewed their equipment; his apparent negligence irked Ranval.

“This place reminds me of Telos,” Dynatha muttered as she slipped on snow boots.

“The Jedi Order does seem to have a penchant for the inhospitable,” Celes agreed.

Tserne was pulling on a thick jacket that he suspected was military-grade gear when he heard a familiar dull whine. To his surprise, 3C-AD rolled out from around the corner and tweeted in surprise when it saw him.

“Threecee! Where have you been?” Tserne asked, kneeling over to establish what would have been eye contact with his droid companion. “What happened to the ship?”

The droid beeped and blooped excitedly as it explained to Tserne what had transpired since his master had been incapacitated on Krayiss Two. Apparently, Ranval’s commandos had latched the Grimtaash onto the Blind Guide’s starboard docking clamp without bothering to let Threecee out. Ever since, Threecee had been trying to override the automated docking procedure that kept the Grimtaash attached to Ranval’s ship, thinking Tserne had been kidnapped. It had only now just escaped and entered the Blind Guide.

Tserne smiled. “No, these are our friends. They really should have done a sweep of the ship to let you out and fill you in, though.”

Ranval bristled at the remark. “Apologies. We were a bit busy.”

“Anyway, we’re getting ready to explore this compound. It might be dangerous, but chances are it’s just a few fringers or ex-Jedi. Want to come?”

“I wish I was as confident as you are,” Celes butted in.

The droid beeped derisively.

“It’s not even that cold. Your joints will be fine,” Tserne argued.

Dynatha clipped her lightsaber to the front of her second layer of clothes and listened intently while Tserne and his droid bantered. It was with some displeasure that she realized that Tserne could talk with relaxed ease and cordiality to Threecee and threw barriers up when dealing with everyone else. Had he really becoming so disconnected from others that his best—perhaps only—friend was this machine?

“I think we’re prepared,” Delvin said.

“All right, Northeus. Don’t you think we deserve an explanation?” Ranval asked. “Why exactly are we here? What type of training is this?”

“It is your first test against the agents of the dark side. There is a power here that, left unchecked, will be used against us in the future. You and the others must guarantee it is not allowed to persist.”

“Could you be any more vague?” Celes moaned.

“If I speak of everything, you and the others will learn nothing,” Northeus countered. “This is a very important lesson, and if Dynatha succeeds, then I will consider teaching her all that I know.”

Ranval turned toward his remaining two commandos, who were in the process of recharging their weapons and shielding. “I want you to stay with the ship with Selias. Report in immediately if something happens. Let Ranz know where we are once he gets in-system.”

“Aye, sir,” his third-in-command replied.

The company of Jedi, plus Tserne and Threecee, headed for the debarkation ramp. Entering the hangar, they found the engineers and dock workers gone, leaving Selias and her partner at the fore of the ship.

“Selias, stay with the ship and the other operatives,” Ranval ordered. “No arguments, please.”

She gave him a curt nod. Before either of them could say anymore, the doors at the other end of the hangar opened up to reveal at least twenty individuals and several droids coming their way. As they approached, they saw that the beings were wearing elaborate robes and dresses dyed with vibrant reds, yellows, and greens, adorned with fine stones, rare gems, and aurodium rings, and the bitter tang of Core World perfumes. Unlike Threecee, their droids were humanoid, with rigid facial features and long joints that almost seemed suitable for sprinting. The droids carried prickly fruits, hearty tubers, fresh bread, and some sort of fermented, bottled drink on silver platters, evidently servants.

“Who led the Galactic Opera all the way out here?” Celes whispered derisively.

“Hail, visitors! We are all pleased to make your acquaintance!” a Human male about five years younger than Dynatha spoke. His accent was foreign to her, but it could have passed as Coruscanti. “We would never in our wildest dreams have imagined anyone flying into our hangars today, but here you are!”

“And who might you be?” Ranval asked pointedly.

“My manners! I forget my manners,” the man said. “My name is Boergo Alejis, and this is my sister Xatara Alejis.” He introduced a woman standing beside him with the same dark brown hair and eyes that he himself had. “The ones around you are my friends and courtiers. Together, we would like to extend our hospitality to you.”

“This is a lot of ceremony for a few wandering archaeologists,” Delvin said. “Surely you wouldn’t waste such efforts on us?”

“On the contrary, sir,” his sister spoke, “You are our first visitors in nearly five years. We would be loath to treat you with anything less than the hospitality you deserve.”

“We appreciate the gesture, but it is unnecessary,” Ranval explained. “We really only need to investigate the buildings here and then we’ll be on our way.”

“Work can wait! Today we must eat,” Boergo said. “A banquet is being prepared in your honor as we speak.”

Ranval looked back and Northeus for help, only to realize that he was already gone. Unease came over him as he double-checked the surrounding area in the Force. To his surprise, his vision was as clouded as it would have been if he had natural eyes and tried to look through thick fog; the dark side permeated this place utterly, from the slabs of stone in the buildings to the specks of snow on the ground. But none of the individuals before them were responsible for it. Although he wasn’t interested in searching the entire compound, either for Northeus or the source of the evil power, it appeared that was what they had to do.

“I’m afraid we’ll have to decline-” Ranval began.

“We’d love to join you,” Celes interrupted, much to her companions’ surprise. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good meal; these oafs can’t even cook a fenti bean soup to save their lives.”

“I assure you you will not be disappointed,” Boergo assured her, hooking his arm with hers and Dynatha’s.

“You won’t regret this,” Xatara told Tserne and Ranval. “Just relax. There will be time for work later.”

The Jedi, Tserne, and his droid were practically swarmed by the mob of fancifully dressed locals and pushed out of the hangar. Dynatha did her best to stay close to Tserne, but Boergo was insistent on dragging both the women along at a faster pace than the others. The other locals around her had no regard for personal space either. Everyone spoke at once, hindering Ranval’s efforts to glean some information from them. The locals weren’t forthcoming with answers, far too excited at the prospect of a feast.

Their hosts eventually succeeded in pushing the Jedi out of the hangar and into the praxeum itself. The paths were covered in thick snow and ice, causing Ranval and Dynatha to trip a few times. It was strange; the place seemed as though it was still uninhabited. The stone used to make the buildings around them had been worn down by the elements, making them appear smooth like a metal surface. The praxeum walls seemed in disrepair, and there were no lights inside any of the buildings. Dynatha had a bad feeling about this place, but she didn’t know whether to associate it with the dark side or the misplaced emptiness.

“So what led you here?” Xatara mewled into Ranval’s ear. “What brought you all this way, where the Republic and the Hutts do not travel, to search for ancient artifacts?”

“There are rumors in our circle that Jedi relics from before the Sith War remain undisturbed in this place. Very few of these troves are left in the galaxy, due to thieves and battles,” he explained.

“And archaeologists like yourselves, I’m sure,” she replied with a wink.

“We only take what we can carry,” Delvin noted from beside her. “The rest we leave for the larger groups from Coruscant.”

“How long have you been doing this?” Boergo asked Dynatha while Xatara spoke to the others. “This treasure hunting, I mean.”

“Oh, not very long. We’re both quite new to this whole business,” Celes spoke up while Dynatha searched for an answer. “We just came from the Sith worlds, you know.”

“Oh? I’ve always wanted to travel there. What did you find?”

“Things that were better left undisturbed,” Dynatha muttered.

“I’m sure the tales have some truth to them,” Boergo agreed.

“Have your people found any of the old Jedi trinkets?” Tserne asked.

“Afraid not,” Xatara answered. “We wouldn’t really know what to look for, to be honest. And some of these buildings are ancient; they’re hardly worth living in, much less searching through.”

“She’s right. Fortunately for us, some of the buildings are still in good shape.” Boergo waved his hands dramatically to direct his guests’ attention to the banquet hall. “It’s not much, but we converted it from some sort of meditation chamber. Do head right in; I need to attend to the chefs and will join you shortly.”

*** ***

Dynatha slipped away from the feast sometime after the entrees had been served. The locals prided themselves in their hospitality, and she could see why. They had served far more food than Dynatha would have suspected they could find in such a barren place, and their hosts showered her and the others with compliments and attention throughout the meal. Celes and Delvin seemed to be quite used to such showy displays, and Ranval managed in his own sour way, but Dynatha found herself overwhelmed by it all. She managed to escape into the night without drawing attention to herself, and she enjoyed a chance just to breathe in the frosty air and watch the snow fall around her.

“I thought I’d find you out here,” Tserne said. He approached her from behind and threw something warm over her. “You forgot your coat sneaking out.”

Dynatha smiled at him. “I wasn’t going to be out long. Besides, these vests are pretty insulating.”

“If you say so,” Tserne said, standing beside her and watching the snow fall. “But anyone walking by would see your lightsaber without your coat.”

Dynatha lingered quietly. She had so much on her mind. Ever since she had met Tserne again on the Fate and Luck, the galaxy seemed to have flipped upside down. A part of her longed to return to normality, to go on missions for the Council with her friends—her fellow Jedi Knights. However, there was something about this journey that kept her from abandoning them. Even during her quiet moments, she couldn’t decide if she was making the right choice being here.

Ranval had spoken to her during hyperspace about the returning darkness and how they all had to do their part to prepare for it. He hadn’t gone into specifics, but the way Celes talked about it made it seem like they all wanted her to be part of some complex scheme to destroy the Sith. She wasn’t a warrior like Celes was. She was a capable fighter, but she had a distaste for it. If they wanted her to lead the battle against the Sith, they would be in for a disappointment.

And then there was Tserne himself. She couldn’t deny that she was attracted to him and that her feelings from the past had welled up upon seeing him again. His attitude made her uneasy. She still wasn’t sure if he cared about anyone other than himself, and she didn’t know if he could find it in himself to respect and remain with her. She would not put herself in a place to be hurt like she had been before, not even for him.

“Do you remember the last time we did this?” Tserne asked.

“Hmm?”

“The night we looked at Lucius’s ship from the beach while working for Mercium the Hutt. I left his banquet early, and you followed me,” Tserne explained.

“I didn’t follow you. I just wanted to see the water,” Dynatha countered.

“That was all?”

Dynatha frowned. The memory wasn’t vivid, but she did remember much of what had happened there. “I may have been worried about you, too.”

“I figured,” Tserne said. “And I’m out here now because I’m worried about you.”

“You don’t have to worry about me, Tserne.”

“Yes I do. You may not believe me, but I care about you.”

“I thought you said what we had was a lie?”

“What I feel now doesn’t change the past. But what I said then was true. How could you be with a man who doesn’t even know who he is?”

“I didn’t love you for who you were before then, Tserne!” Dynatha snapped. “Maybe you were a pompous noble on some faraway world before you lost your memory. Maybe you were a petty thief. Maybe you were just an ordinary man trying to make his way in the Republic. It didn’t matter to me then, and it doesn’t matter now.”

“So it isn’t important to you, then.”

“Don’t you see? You’ve probably spent more years being Tserne DeLarane than whoever you were before. And all of these years you’ve wasted your time trying to find out who you were instead of defining who you are.”

“But my past is a part of me. I have so many questions. The mystery wears me down. You don’t know what it feels like to wake up each morning and know that your entire life is a lie.”

“You’re wrong.” Dynatha took his hands in hers. “You’re not the same man you were twenty-five years ago when I met you. And you’re certainly not the same man you were however many years ago your memory was taken from you. You may not realize it, but you’ve fashioned your life exactly how you’ve wanted it. You have an identity of your own. But is this what you really want? To spend the rest of your life searching for answers you’ll never find?”

Tserne’s biological eye seemed to reflect understanding. “No. I’ve compromised too much. I have made so many mistakes. Left so many things behind…”

“You’re not alone. I have a lot of things in my past that I want to forget too,” Dynatha reassured him.

“I’m sorry. I’ve hurt you so much.”

“I want to forgive you, Tserne. But you have to show me you’ve changed. I need to know I can trust you again.”

“I’ll do everything I can to show you. You’re right. I’ve been foolish, and you’re more important to me than pointless memories. I don’t expect you to trust me now, but I’ll prove it to you.”

“I want to believe you,” Dynatha whispered to herself. “Truly, I do…”

While they lingered there, Boergo emerged from the banquet. He had noticed that the blond woman who called herself Arcana had departed some time ago, but he had been too distracted by the red-haired woman who called herself Nomi to care. Just a few years older than him, Nomi was as brilliant a conversationalist as he was—and he prided himself in his wit and insight—and stunningly beautiful besides. Her body could only be called perfection. He was salivating now just thinking about it. Unfortunately, the tone of their conversation had shifted toward the tedious, and he had picked up signs she was not entirely interested in him. This was not an issue for him, because there were two women amongst the archaeologists, both worth pursuing.

His eyes were eager to wander. For as long as they had lived here, he had had his pick of the women in their midst, but these new arrivals were far more exciting than his courtesans. These women were novelties, exotic prey to a beast who had grown bored with his diet. While he wasn’t sure how long these treasure-hunters planned on staying, he was determined to snare at least one of them for his own before they departed, and hopefully entreat her with permanent residence in his frozen world.

He saw the woman who had wandered off first; upon approach, he realized that she was in the embrace of one of her companions. It could have meant anything, but Boergo’s mind immediately jumped to conclusions. These women meant nothing to him; they were mere baubles for him to lust after and snare in his clutches. But this one denied him the chance to play with her, and that made him angrier than he would have thought possible. These women were all his women, and he would broker no competition.

Boergo cleared his throat. “Pardon me. I do hope I’m not interrupting.”

He saw the woman redden as she left the cyborg’s embrace and faced him. “Ah… of course not. I- I mean we-”

“You are quite all right, aren’t you?” Boergo asked. “You left without a word, and I fear you’ll develop a terrible cold being out here.”

“I’m fine, thank you for your concern,” Dynatha said with a smile.

“Shall I escort you both back to the feast? It’s easy to become disoriented in snowfall like this.”

“We can make our own way back,” Tserne grumbled.

“We appreciate your offer,” Dynatha quickly added. “But we’ll stay out here for a bit longer.”

“Very well,” Boergo said. His tone was as conciliatory as he could muster, but he glared vibrodaggers at the cyborg. He would have to be dealt with. “I will see you both soon, then?”

Before they could reply, Boergo spun around and headed back toward the banquet hall. He had never been so insulted! He would have shouted at them if he didn’t have to put up the charade of a kindly host. It couldn’t be helped anyway. They already had plans in motion, and his personal agenda was of lesser importance. He was so blinded by his inner tumult he didn’t even realize that he had shattered the glass he had been carrying in his left hand. Cursing aloud, he immediately began to cover the wound with his handkerchief.

“Ah… I’d wondered where you’d wandered off to, brother,” his sister purred.

The elder of the two Alejis siblings mumbled scornfully. His sister was a nuisance, and her perfectionism only made her prattling worse. It was she who was always scheming, always thinking of ways to get away from this place and ways to increase their influence and strength. In a way, he almost wished that her plans all succeeded; that way, she could run the Krath by herself and he could be free to attend to his own devices—namely, women.

“What is it, Xatara?”

“You seem to be injured, Boergo. What happened. One of your lady-friends got a little too violent?”

“Quiet,” he hissed.

“Don’t be like that. What sort of sister would I be if I didn’t care how my big brother hurt himself?”

“Just tell me what you’ve come out here to say.”

“When does that woman get back from the hunt?”

Ah, the Sith lady. She had crash-landed on Truuine more than a weeks ago, but she had already proven herself powerful in the Force. She was as attractive as Arcana and Nomi—perhaps even more so—but in a different manner. This Arcana had a sort of innocent charm and natural beauty that captured his heart immediately. Nomi was fiery and passionate with a sculpted body that made his knees weak just from looking at her. But that lady carried herself with assured poise, seemed naturally flirtatious, and knew exactly how to use every advantage she had against him. She was the perfect woman for him: the ultimate prize, as it were. If Xatara hadn’t been present, Boergo would no doubt have been… persuaded to allow Falmas to remain with them instead of going out on the hunting expeditions for food.

“They left two days days ago. The starfighters don’t have that much fuel. They should return before the week ends.”

“Do you intend to wait for her? Or should I initiate our plans as soon as possible?”

They were always ‘our plans’, Boergo thought. “Prepare to seize their ship as quickly as possible, but don’t have our warriors move until I give the signal.”

“Do you intend to spare some of them?”

“I may… keep one for myself.”

“That may prove difficult. Neither of them showed particular interest in you, it seems.”

“Mind your tongue.” Boergo tightened his makeshift bandage. “By all the powers of the Krath, I will make sure one of them belongs to me. You can kill the rest.”

“Excellent. I will await your signal, then,” Xatara said as she returned inside.

*** ***

The banquet dwindled down after several hours of merriment. Ranval had naturally been suspicious of the entire event, but the Force had not warned him of any tricks or traps from their mysterious guests, so he took their hospitality in stride. Delvin had gone to search for Dynatha and Tserne, both of whom had wandered off sometime during the meal and hadn’t returned; Ranval and Celes were escorted to their guest chambers and then left alone for the first time in hours.

“I thought they’d never leave us alone,” Celes grumbled as she doffed her overcoat.

“You were quite involved in the festivity,” Ranval pointed out.

“Only because you and the others were acting unnecessarily suspicious. How are they going to believe our story if you spend the whole time disbelieving everything they say?”

“Point conceded,” Ranval replied curtly.

Celes nodded and began erecting the curtains that would separate the males and females in their group. “How’s Selias?”

“She’s doing well. I just got a message from her asking if she can join us.”

“What’d you say?”

“No, of course. She’s not ready for any sort of mission, even if it’s just reconnaissance.”

“Ah, so you do care about your people.”

Ranval shot her a dark glance. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“With all your talk about destiny and saving the galaxy, I was worried that you’d forgotten how important some of the trivial details are,” Celes explained. “Like lives.”

“You’re awfully preachy for someone who’s been condemned by the Jedi Council nearly a dozen times in the past three years for your disobedience,” Ranval countered.

“So we’re more similar than you think.”

“Hardly. I am doing what needs to be done for the greater good of the galaxy. I assembled my operatives from the farthest corners of the galaxy and gave them a purpose—they would have become marauders or hired muscle if I had let them wander aimlessly. I strike strategically and try not to cause unnecessary violence or destruction.”

“Rulers have become despots for less,” Celes noted.

“I will give my life to ensure that the threat of the Sith will never return,” Ranval shot back. “All of my people share my dedication, know the risks, and are ready to do what they must. I wouldn’t ask you to do the same, but then again, I think you’d be too scared to do so.”

“Take that back,” Celes growled.

“Am I wrong? What about your son? Who will protect him?”

“His father.”

“Is he ready for the trials ahead? Just as the Sith are searching for Dynatha—and you know that they are—they will begin searching for other beacons of light as well. They will find out about you and your bloodline. You are a force to be reckoned with, Celes Sunrider. The Sith fear you and wouldn’t dare try and convert you to their cause. But your son is not ready to inherit the things that are to come, and your husband does not share your power.”

Celes glared steely at him for a moment, but she nodded and lowered her head. “But you don’t even know who he is. How can you say that?”

“Your husband? Perhaps not, but I know that no Jedi can compete with you. Not Northeus, not I, and certainly not anyone on the Council. Your son may surpass you in the future, but not yet. And until that day comes, he is vulnerable to the machinations of the Sith. And if they want him, they will take him. You are the only one that can prevent that.”

“Do you truly believe that, Ranval?”

“I do. You already know I think Dynatha is the key to finishing this fight once and for all, but you will become the sword to her shield. Your love is your greatest strength; as long as you are with us, the Sith will not win.”

Celes shook her head ruefully. She finally understood what this was all about. “You’re a crafty one, Ranval. You know I won’t fight for you, but you know full well I’ll do anything for Harin.”

“I would never manipulate you like that.”

“Perhaps not. But you have a funny way of putting what’s at stake into the right perspective.”

“You pick up a few things working in the government,” Ranval quipped.

“At least you didn’t pick up their fashion sense,” Celes scoffed.

“Are you both quite done?”

Ranval and Celes spun around and realized Northeus was standing in the room with them. They had no idea how long he had been there. Like a statue, the old Human was rigid and emotionless, his eyes glazed over almost like he wasn’t actually conscious. Ranval had never seen him like this, but he didn’t know what to say or do. Was it the dark side power of this place or something else entirely that was making him this way?

“Northeus!” Celes exclaimed. “Where have you been? We’ve needed you.”

“Have you?” The old Jedi waved his hand dismissively. “These people are not what they appear to be. Do not trust them so implicitly, or you all will be in great danger.”

“Why are we here, then?” Ranval asked. “Surely there are better ways to train than be around furtive beings we know absolutely nothing about!”

“Do you think I brought you here on a whim? In this place is an artifact of great evil, hidden away from the gaze of the just. If it is taken away from this place, it will be brought before the throne of the Sith, and they will use it to great effect. Their powers will become too potent to endure.”

“So we’re just supposed to go on some treasure hunt and find out where they’re hiding their Sith trinket?” Celes countered. “Why don’t you come out of the shadows and help us for once! You’re ambiguous rambling isn’t helping us, Northeus!”

“You’re far too headstrong, Sunrider. Ranval, you may not know the dangers of this place, but you can feel the evil surrounding you. You know that, in the wrong hands, this power could mean the difference between the salvation and destruction of the Republic.”

“So help us!” Ranval beseeched him. “Celes is right. One more Jedi is never a burden. Be with us as we search and purge the evil from this place.”

“I have other tasks to attend to. I shall return in a few days.”

As he finished speaking, Northeus disappeared like some sort of ghost. The two Jedi stared at the area beside the window where he had been wide-eyed. Ranval shook his head. Something was wrong with his old master, and he needed to know what it was. Celes didn’t know and didn’t care, but there was a part of him that was concerned for the sake of the relationship he and Northeus had once had. Ranval knew he at least had to try.

Tserne, Dynatha, and Threecee found their way into the guest room after a few hours. By then, Ranval and Celes had already begun meditating to try and discern where the source of the danger around them was hiding. Delvin arrived shortly after they did. After Ranval explained the current situation to those who hadn’t seen Northeus, he offered to continue their training as if the elderly Jedi Master was still here.

Although Ranval had every reason to hope that Dynatha and the others would get stronger, he also had an ulterior motive in watching them train. He had heard stories of a Sith neophyte from Alderaan who had killed a Jedi Master with ease many years ago. Dismissing the few classified records about Raen Benax as useless, he deduced that Dynatha was the one whom the rumors spoke of. Even the weakest of Jedi Masters would not have fallen against a Sith neophyte unaided.

But he believed Dynatha was not alone. And if he was right, they would have nothing to fear from the Sith.

“Feel the Force around you,” Dynatha heard Ranval’s voice, but it was soft and distant as though she had fallen asleep as she assumed her meditative pose. “Be ever mindful of it. Let your senses be invigorated by it. Embrace the connection between you and all living things. From the smallest snowflake in the storm to the largest star in the sky, from the gyros that form Threecee’s frame to the heart palpating in your chest… the Force intertwines all.”

Ranval watched the Jedi around him intently through the Force. Dynatha switched from a simple cross-legged position into a handstand. At his behest, she switched from a two-handed handstand to one hand. Once she was in place, their discarded survival gear stirred and slowly drifted toward her. Tserne and his droid watched in awe as the various clothes and equipment lingered in the air around her, defying gravity itself. Celes and Delvin performed equally impressive feats of telekinetic prowess, but Ranval had no interest in them. He knew their power; this was a test for Dynatha.

“Now extend your mind. Let your perceptions take your connection further. We are more than just the composition of elements and subatomic particles. The very power of the universe, the sustenance of all space and time, is within our reach as Jedi. Its very nature eludes us, its true scope beyond our feeble attempts, but even just a dip into this boundless ocean will bind you with the Force itself.”

Delvin whispered, “As the Force wills.”

Ranval saw a surge of power erupt from where Celes was meditating. With all the fury of a storm, with the might of a star, her aura reached out in all directions like an explosion of revealing light. Ranval observed in silent admiration as the darkness that blinded him was sent away before her iron will, surrounding their chambers in a wall of light which no evil could penetrate.

He knew the other Jedi could sense the Force with renowned vigor just as he did. He could sense their hosts, their malicious auras, and he knew that they were deceiving them. He could sense Northeus, far away and very small in the Force as he was, sneaking around at the edge of the praxeum. The thoughts of his pupils, and even Tserne, were practically visible to him as though he was observing their presence through his Force-attuned vision.

Dynatha, in particular, was becoming increasingly easy to sense. The Force warmed her skin, it filled the air she breathed, and it pushed the blood within her until her entire body was in a hypervigilant state. Her power was increasing exponentially; for someone who was barely stronger than a typical Jedi Knight, her raw Force potential now ought to have come from a Jedi Master of at least two decades her senior. He could sense her unease, her inability to control what was happening, but he needed to know if she could push even more.

“Do you understand?” Ranval continued. “The Sith take the Force and make it their own. But the Force will be mastered by none. Bend instead to its will. Become a beacon for its vigor and you will find yourself bathed in its presence. Embrace this unity and be filled with light!”

Dynatha was hesitant at first. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to contain whatever was growing inside her. Ranval encouraged her with a slight mental nudge, knowing full well that what might come out could be too powerful to stop. With his encouragement, Dynatha surrendered herself to the Force. His Force vision, complex as it was, was unable to comprehend what happened next. His eyes were flooded with a brilliant white light and he went blind. He heard Celes and Delvin hit the ground with a thud before he was deafened by a mighty roar. The muscles in his legs became feeble and he collapsed.

Dynatha’s power was even more impressive than he imagined. Within her, he sensed something—an afterimage, perhaps—of someone stronger than her, as though someone else was giving her an unmatched connection to the Force. The Force flowed around, through, and in her in ways that he had never seen in a Jedi. Through his Force vision, the strands of light that filled the air were beautiful, shimmering in a vast array of colors around her. There was a subtle heat around them, as though Dynatha had become a source of both heat and light not unlike a candle in the midst of this dark world.

“What’s happening?” Celes shouted just loud enough for Ranval to hear as his other senses returned.

“Ashla! You must stop this! You’ll destroy this building and all of us in it!” Delvin shouted.

Ranval had seen enough. He knew what she was capable of and his curiosity had been sated. He rushed to her side to stop her and was immediately buffeted by the raw presence of the Force. It was like an energy shield completely encircling her, and it felt like one when he hit it head-on. He found himself on his back about two meters from where Dynatha was. He tilted his head up just enough to see Tserne rush toward her and try the same tactic, but this time Dynatha herself lashed out at him and struck him with a wave of light that threw him across the room.

“Ranval, we need to stop her,” Celes said as she rushed to his side.

“She can’t control the intensity of the Force that’s flowing through her. Her body is instinctively trying to rid itself of it, but it can’t possibly hope to do it alone. We need to assist her.”

“How?”

“Release the protection you’ve placed around us,” Ranval mused.

“No! That’s too dangerous,” Delvin said. “Her body won’t be able to withstand the light and darkness at the same time. There’s no way she’ll survive…”

“We have to try,” Ranval pointed out. “If we don’t, her body may exhaust itself. And then-”

“I’m doing it!” Celes interrupted. “Help me, Delvin!”

The two Jedi Masters slowly removed the barrier of light they had placed around them, allowing the darkness to encroach upon them once more. To their surprise, the dark side around them was again kept at bay, this time by Dynatha’s powers. Nevertheless, Ranval felt that, because she was not fully in control of her faculties and there was no will behind her light, she was beginning to yield. The others hated seeing Dynatha in such a state, particularly Tserne, but there was nothing any of them could do. They watched silently while Dynatha exhausted herself and the light side eventually faded away, allowing her connection to the Force and natural aura to return. The dark side took advantage of her fatigue and swooped in to fill the gap, crippling their senses and bodies as it had before.

Tserne was beside Dynatha as she swooned and fainted. “Dynatha! Are you all right? Can you hear me?”

She was silent. Feeling her pulse and listening for her breathing, Tserne was relieved to discover she was still alive but very weak. Ranval suspected it would take her a few days to recover entirely. With Delvin’s help, Tserne picked her up and helped her into bed.

“What… was that?” Celes whispered to Ranval. “I’ve never… that shouldn’t be possible.”

“That,” Ranval said, “is the power that will save us.”


Chapter 22

The praxeum was quiet in the hour before the sun rose. Northeus followed the Force until it led him to the central compound in the praxeum. This building was essentially a stone hemisphere rising from the snow with several spires emerging from it that just barely stood taller than the walls at the perimeter. Despite the presence of darkness, Northeus knew that he had finally found what he was searching for. He had wanted to wait, but external events would force his hand before too long and he would lose his chance. He had to act today.

The interior of the central building mirrored the simplistic designs that Northeus heard had once dotted the surface of Ossus. Massive metal braziers were situated in a circle at the center of the room, illuminating the entire room with in subdued gold and orange hues. There were vases, jars, and wicker baskets scattered around a sunken area at the opposite end of the room, where wind chimes made of some sort of heavy metal jingled in deep tones. Northeus figured this was some kind of meditation chamber for the Jedi who had once lived here.

“The Sith woman warned me about you, Jedi.”

Northeus’s gaze wandered from the braziers to an old Human male who had stepped out of the shadows at the east end of the room. This male was even older than Northeus, with no hair on his head and a gray beard that had been braided at its ends. The man wore brown plate armor of ancient design and carried a vibrosword along with a cane. His green eyes had sunken into his face, with wrinkles and folded jowls that gave him a strangely canine appearance.

“You must be the master of this place,” Northeus reasoned.

“You would be correct.” The figure stopped once he was standing between Northeus and the circle of braziers. “My name is Verunth, and I am the master of the Krath on Truuine.”

“So you are the father of those two children out there,” Northeus reasoned. “Did you intend on hiding in this place forever?”

“Their grandfather. They killed their weak parents, as was their right. And I have only waited here until they killed you and all your companions. Then we would take back what is rightfully ours.”

“You are in no condition to fight, then,” Northeus said. “You would be unwise to hinder me.”

“You judge me because of my age?” the Krath master chuckled, dislodging the phlegm in his throat. “The dark side knows no bounds, Master Jedi. This is my domain, and I would see you removed from it.”

“Surely there are safer places for your cult in the Sith worlds,” Northeus pointed out, removing his cloak and stepping toward his opponent. “Why pick an old Jedi training compound?”

“We didn’t know of the Sith worlds then,” Verunth replied, discarding his cane and gripping his sword in both hands. “My wife and I came here, along with nearly three hundred of their servants, in a crippled Supremacy-class attack ship. The ship didn’t survive the landing, but we were fortunate enough to find this place before all of us died. We took our starfighters and the guns on our ruined ship and transplanted them to this praxeum.”

“Resourceful,” Northeus mused. “But the warmth of the more equatorial lands must be quite tempting.”

“Spacers will be more likely to search those lands than these icy ruins. Our secrecy had kept us alive for this long, but the time for our revenge has come.”

“I suspect you brought many rare artifacts from the Empress Teta system with you as you fled.”

“Perhaps. What is that to you, Jedi?”

Northeus didn’t answer him. Calling upon the Force, he released a wave of energy to knock over the elderly Krath and incapacitate him. To his surprise, the Krath didn’t budge. With a loud roar, the old dark-sider charged forward, sword in hand, intending to sever Northeus’s head from his shoulders. Northeus hadn’t expected such speed from the old warlord. With his only remaining hand, he withdrew his lightsaber in time to block the attack. His silver blade crackled against metal as the old Krath brought his sword closer and closer to the Jedi Master’s neck.

“I sense much fear in you, Jedi. It’s too late to give up. The Krath will return to the galaxy this day, and your kind will pay for all that you have done to us.”

The Jedi Master pushed him back, separating the two warriors. “I underestimated you. I will not make the same mistake twice.”

“Nothing can prepare you for the powers at my disposal, Jedi!” he said, and then he charged in for another attack.

*** ***

Dynatha stood on an elevated platform in the center of praxeum, taking everything in from her lofty vantage point. Although she hadn’t liked this place when they had first arrived, she had to admit that she had taken a liking to the abandoned sanctuary. The darkness still filled the compound, but she could sense the spirit of the Jedi and the light at work amidst its power. And the icy surroundings did remind her of Telos. The Jedi Temple there had been her first real home, and she missed her fellow Jedi Knights.

She was alone for the first time in days. Delvin had informed Ranval that he had seen a frozen lake that looked quite unusual during their descent and wanted to meditate nearby. Celes’s initial enthusiasm and eagerness to act as an archaeologist was gone, and she offered to go with him to escape this place. Her restlessness was almost juvenile, Dynatha mused. Selias the others were still cooped up in the hangar, and Ranval decided to spend most of the morning with them.

Threecee, Tserne’s little droid, rolled up to the elevated platform. Its squat frame was barely taller than some the piles of snow around them, and its wheels struggled through the snow, evidently designed for more even and solid terrain. Dynatha couldn’t help but laugh when the droid fell onto its side just before it reached the ladder attached to her platform, chirping and bleeping in what she assumed was droid profanity.

“Are you keeping tabs on me, Threecee?” Dynatha asked as she descended the ladder. “Hasn’t Tserne ever told you it’s not polite to stalk a lady?”

BEEP-BEEP-VZZERT.

That sounded rather foul, even for a frisky little droid like Threecee. Honestly, what was Tserne teaching this poor machine?

“I don’t need a bodyguard, Threecee. If it’s too difficult for you to follow me, you can go back to Tserne. I can handle myself.”

DE-DE-DOOOO.

Dynatha helped the droid so it could position itself upright again. “Don’t be sad. I like being with you, but I thought you were only here because Tserne wanted you to be here.”

The droid shook its coin-shaped head almost like an organic life form and began rolling away. At first, Dynatha thought it was going to find its way back to Tserne, but after a moment she realized that it was heading toward the northern end of the praxeum. Neither her nor any of the others had been up that way; Boergo and his sister hadn’t brought them there during their initial tour or in any subsequent trip. Even the locals seemed to avoid that side of the compound, and Dynatha avoided the area on instinct.

“Where are you going, Threecee? We’re not allowed over there! Threecee!”

Dynatha tailed the droid—rolling along as fast as his little feet could go—until she caught up to it at the corner of a building that practically touched the roadside. The droid didn’t struggle as Dynatha held it in place, but it did swerve its head toward the north, toward the wall beside them. Peering around the corner, Dynatha saw Boergo speaking with a man wearing anachronistic plate armor at the far end of the path. She was too far away to hear what they were saying, and before she could call upon the Force to find out, Boergo dismissed the armored individual and headed inside an elongated building up against the north wall.

“I’ve never see anyone come over here. What do you suppose is inside?” Dynatha whispered to Threecee.

The droid whined plaintively.

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

She set the droid down, only for it to roll toward the mysterious building. Dynatha rolled her eyes and followed it, reaching for her hidden lightsaber. The metal door to the building was old and rusted, but it was strong enough that the small droid couldn’t just charge into it to get it open. She reached the door the same time it did, but instead of opening it she reached out into the Force to try and get a sense of what was inside. To her surprise, the darkness within was greater than anywhere else in the praxeum. How had they not sensed that this was the dark nexus?

“Threecee, this place is dangerous. I want you to go and let Tserne know what’s going on.”

BEEP-BOOP?

“I’ll be okay. I won’t do anything foolish. Be quick, though.”

The droid lingered. Not wanting to argue with something she couldn’t even understand properly, Dynatha ignored it and pushed the door open as gently as she could. Unfortunately, the door scraped against the earthen floor as it swung inside. The noise made her jump, and she instinctively activated her weapon. The green light wasn’t strong enough to illuminate the entire chamber, but it seemed to go back about three meters beyond what she could see.

“Nothing inside,” Dynatha muttered to herself. “But where did he go?”

She took a few steps inside, even though Threecee now seemed hesitant to follow her. Waving her lightsaber around her, she scoured the corners of the room for places where Boergo could have hidden. Threecee let out a shrill whine and rolled away from the building. Dynatha pivoted backward just in time for the metal door to slam shut, separating her from the droid and trapping her inside.

“Ah… but of course you were Jedi. I thought I sensed something the night of the banquet. The presence of Jedi, faint amidst the darkness. You should not have come to this place,” she heard Boergo moan. “This is no longer your sanctuary…”

Dynatha slashed her lightsaber in a wide horizontal arc, scanning the room for him by its subdued green light. To her surprise, he was nowhere to be found. Now that she was no longer hiding from the Sith, she could unleash all of her power. She could sense Boergo; the darkness prevented her from seeing exactly where he was, but she could sense his malice and his power. He was strong, but she was stronger.

“If you reveal yourself and surrender, I will see to it that you aren’t harmed,” Dynatha spoke up. “But you must be peaceful.”

“Peaceful? I’ve peacefully waited for more than thirty years for a ship to come to this desolate rock. I’ve dreamed of the opportunity to abandon this wasteland and return to the galaxy proper. Do you think I’d surrender to you so easily?”

Dynatha admitted to herself that a servant of the dark side likely wouldn’t go down without a fight. But being in this place was tiring, even for her. The sooner she dealt with him, the better their engagement would be.

“Why did you treat us so kindly? What do you intend to do with us?” Dynatha asked as she advanced.

He took his time responding. “I had hoped to escape this place without any fighting. I have nothing against any of you, personally, but we must have your ship. I intended to lull your friends into a false sense of security so you’d leave the ship unguarded, but now you’ve forced my hand.”

“So that’s it? You made it sound like you are here willingly. Why didn’t you just ask for help? Our captain wouldn’t have refused you if you’d asked for transport.”

“Perhaps. But I didn’t trust you anymore than you trusted me. And now that I know you are Jedi, I will not disgrace myself by begging my enemy for assistance.”

“Then you are a dark-sider,” Dynatha muttered.

“Indeed. What do you say, Arcana? If you fight me here, you will die. But if you surrender to me, become my slave, I promise you will leave this place safely. Abandon the ways of the Jedi and turn to the dark side.”

Dynatha grimaced at the thought of allying with him. She knew she could defeat him, but she did not know if he had stronger allies waiting in hiding—for that she hoped Tserne and the others would arrive soon. Escape was a possibility. Or perhaps if she could fool him. All she had to do was wait for Threecee to get back with the others. She could handle herself until then.

“Very well,” Dynatha said, deactivating her lightsaber. “I surrender. I am your prisoner.”

On cue, Boergo leapt out of the shadows behind her. She kept her lightsaber in hand, ready to strike if he went in for a killing blow. He pinned her combat arm behind her back and wrestled her lightsaber from her grip in a single motion. As she suspected, he wasn’t interested in a quick kill. Dynatha didn’t resist, and Boergo hastily tied both arms behind her back.

“Don’t try anything foolish,” he growled.

The entire room was dark without her lightsaber’s blade for illumination. She could vaguely sense the outside of the room in the Force, but she stumbled in the dark as he pulled her along to make her seem more helpless than she was. They walked toward the back of the room and stopped just long enough for Boergo to activate some console she had missed. There was a loud clank, and then they continued moving. To her surprise, she was descending a staircase. She tripped over her own feet and the stairs themselves, nearly causing both of them to fall. Boergo growled at her and carefully led her down the rest of the way.

Eventually, they stopped descending. They walked about two meters forward before he abruptly stopped. Boergo yanked on the cords he had bound her hands with and hoisted her arms over her head. He must have tied the cord to something on the ceiling, because when she tried to lower her arms she found that she couldn’t. She wanted to struggle even more, but her body froze. She couldn’t help but remember the tortures she had endured under the Sith on Alderaan, bound in a similar manner. The fear paralyzed her, made her temporarily forget her plan.

A torch lit against the wall to her left, and Boergo snatched it from its place and approached her. His affable personality was gone, and he had traded his fanciful attire for dark trousers and a combat vest over a shirt with torn sleeves. She couldn’t help but notice how feral his visage appeared in the harsh red light, and it repulsed her as he leaned closer—she shivered as his warm breath touched her neck and face.

“Arcana is not your real name, I imagine,” Boergo whispered huskily. “Tell me, Jedi, what is your real name?”

“Calay,” she managed to say.

“Ah… that is a beautiful name,” Boergo mused as his fingers ran across her cheek. His expression darkened when she recoiled from him. “How dare you resist me.”

“Leave me alone. I surrendered to you, isn’t that enough?” Dynatha asked, resisting the urge to strike at him.

“I’m afraid not, Jedi,” Boergo said, chuckling. “You came here and invaded our home. You lied about your identity and intended to destroy us all. You were going to take this place for yourself. You failed. You will die screaming… if I even let you die.”

“If you think you can do it,” Dynatha whispered, doing her best to ignore her fright. “But I think you’re a coward who’s too scared to do anything to me.”

He clenched her cheeks with his free hand and pulled her so their noses practically met. “You speak haughtily now, Jedi, but I have something that will crush you,” he whispered ominously. “The ancient Sith created many amulets to fuel their arcane arts, you know. These mysterious trinkets had so much power, the Jedi couldn’t help but experiment with them. They took these amulets and used them for their own ends, cleansing them and making them into tools for the Jedi.”

“I can’t say I’m disappointed in your story.”

“It’s not done. The Sith magicians recognized that the Jedi were taking their amulets and using them against them, so they created a special type of amulet—one that slowly feeds the body with dark side energy. Its corrupting influence is so great that it cannot be undone by Jedi techniques. Slowly but surely, even the strongest Jedi Master will eventually succumb to darkness.”

Boergo released her. Torch in hand, he approached a nearby table and grabbed a necklace lying near the wall. It had seven red gemstones embedded into it, and at its center a hexagonal amulet nearly as thick as the gems themselves was interwoven into the metal cord that held the necklace together. Dynatha shuddered when she saw it; she had never heard of an inanimate object that had received or gave Force power, but she could sense that Boergo wasn’t lying.

“What do you say, Calay? Would you like to try it on?”

“I’d rather die.”

That was true, but she would fight first. She had hoped to lure whatever allies he had out of hiding before she showed her hand, but the situation was growing dire. While he was distracted, Dynatha tested the strength of her bonds. As soon as she had been bound, Dynatha had loosened her bonds so now she could free herself with ease. She forgot the weakness of her past. She was a Jedi Knight, and she could handle this on her own.

“Don’t be so stubborn. I think it would suit you. Hold still and let me see how it fits…”

She squirmed against the cord holding her aloft, feigning helplessness as Boergo approached. He had a wicked gleam in his eye as he approached her with torch in one hand and necklace in the other. He placed the torch in the wall nearest to her and moved to slip the amulet around her neck. He was almost in striking distance. Just a little closer…

Dynatha’s heart leapt in her chest when she saw Tserne and Threecee emerge from the top of the stairs. Tserne fired at Boergo, but his first shot struck the wall behind her, creating a shower of sparks and pebbles that startled the dark-sider. Untying the feeble knot that held her in place, Dynatha planted a firm kick against her former captor’s chest and sent him to the floor. Tserne was upon them in an instant. He bodily lifted the concussed Boergo and slammed his face in the wall several times until Tserne was certain he was unconscious.

“What were you thinking, pulling this stupid stunt?” Tserne growled at Dynatha. “Did you want to die?”

“I was never in any danger! I had the situation perfectly under control,” she countered.

“Like hell you did. You were about to be brainwashed into a Sith puppet by some dark side trinket!”

“He was too caught up in his idle fantasies to realize that he hadn’t secured my bonds properly. I would have fought back regardless, but you came just in time.”

Tserne’s expression softened. “At least you’re safe.”

“Neither of you are safe, I’m afraid.”

Dynatha and Tserne turned around to see Xatara at the stairs where Tserne had been a minute before. She had traded her former gown for a tight dark dress that wrapped around her slender frame from her chest to her knees, barely held in place by a strap along her left shoulder. She was flanked by six other female warriors wearing combat suits and long flowing capes the same color as their master’s dress. The local men who had been their attendants and companions were now wearing the same plate armor Dynatha had seen earlier, and they were armed with spears and slugthrowing rifles. Even the droids that they had all assumed to be protocol droids seemed to be combat droids in disguise, brandishing swords and some sort of bow.

“The interlopers threaten the Krath!” one of the females screamed. “Death to all who challenge our legacy!”

“Kill the Jedi!”

“I would have preferred if my idiot brother hadn’t led you to Satal’s mausoleum, but there’s nothing to be done about that now,” Xatara said with a sigh. “Once you both are dead, I will kill him and see to it that we commandeer your ship for ourselves. We’ll be gone before your allies even know what’s happened.”

Dynatha touched the Force and grabbed the lightsaber Boergo had stolen. The green blade revealed itself in midair with a snap-hiss, illuminating the room and disintegrating metal slugs headed their way. Tserne dropped to one knee and fired with his blaster pistol, catching an incoming droid in the head and warrior in the chest. Threecee was by his side, using its own holdout blaster to pepper droids still across the room.

Tserne’s personal shield had been restored during their time here, allowing the incoming pulse waves and metal slugs to dissipate harmlessly against the energy field encompassing him. Dynatha knew he was safe—for now—but moved in front of him and Threecee to shield them all the same. Tserne appreciated her assistance, but it was difficult for him to fire from behind her due to the blinding speed and unpredictable direction of her lightsaber’s path.

The first opponent to reach them was one of Xatara’s humanoid battle droids. It charged on four limbs like some kind of wild animal, but it quickly shifted into a bipedal stance when engaged. Standing at full height, the machine dwarfed Dynatha by a full head, and it moved quicker than its ungainly posture would have suggested. Twisting its body away from Tserne’s blaster fire, it brought its blade down upon Dynatha, but she managed to catch its arm with her lightsaber and sever it at the limb before the blow fell. A well-placed shot from Threecee destroyed the machine for good.

Two Humans and a Twi’lek wearing plate armor arrived immediately. Dynatha called upon the Force and pushed one of the Humans into the wall beside them. Tserne tossed a vibroblade at the nearest attacker, but the vibrating blade got stuck in the Twi’lek’s plate armor. Threecee came to the rescue with two quick shots of its blaster, burning holes into the Twi’lek’s gut and another into the last Human’s pelvis.

Their enemy gave them no chance to rest. Four more warriors and two droids were upon them as a second wave, and then two more warriors and a droid came in seconds later. Threecee switched to its flamethrower, igniting robes underneath approaching warriors’ armor, but it had no effect on the droids. One of them was bisected by Dynatha’s lightsaber, but one managed to get past her and tackle Tserne while he was focusing on the organic sentients. The droid was heavier than he was, and it managed to pin him to the ground with its legs and one arm while preparing its pulse-wave cannon. Finding his right arm trapped beneath the droid’s steely grip, Tserne jabbed his knife into the gyro-balancing rotors at its abdomen in an attempt to topple it, but it had no effect. Seeing the violet haze from the bow-shaped weapon’s nock, he braced himself for a point-blank shot that would very likely obliterate his cranium.

Dynatha sensed Tserne’s distress amidst the confusion. While she was still able to fight, weariness had set in and it was harder for her to summon the Force and swinging her lightsaber was beginning to tire her. Engaging two droids and a Human warrior, she couldn’t afford to turn around and help him now. Fortunately, Threecee wasn’t being harassed. Revealing a hidden compartment that doubled as a sort of second optical sensor and weapon slot, Tserne’s droid shot the droid attacking Tserne in the head, destroying its cognitive matrix and logic processor. Finding himself pinned down by an unthinking heap of metal, Tserne quickly pushed the defeated droid off him before the pulse-wave bow exploded from excessive charge.

While the three of them had fought against the Krath infantry, Xatara and her fellow witches had taken a meditative pose on the far side of the room. Krath witches had a natural ability to call upon the dark side and manipulate it like Dark Jedi could, but their powers were less potent and less refined than any Sith arts. Dynatha defeated the last of her immediate opponents when suddenly eight more approached from all directions. She had not sensed them in the Force, and they had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. She swung her lightsaber at the nearest war droid, but her blade passed right through its metal frame. An illusion! Only one of her incoming adversaries had been real, and his spear managed to pierce her in the side before she instinctively retreated.

She and Tserne found themselves positioned back-to-back against nearly fifteen enemies. Some of these warriors and droids were illusive, but they had no way of knowing which. Dynatha could sense the real ones if she wanted to, of course, but she couldn’t passively sense individuals in her current state and droids were harder to sense either way. It was hard for her to tell if Threecee was affected by the illusions in the same way she was, but it seemed to have an easier time telling where their real enemies were.

“Dynatha, don’t panic. I’m still behind you,” Tserne said.

She turned around and found that he was, in fact, not behind her. His voice was there, but his body wasn’t. “Turned invisible again?” she guessed.

“Indeed.”

“See what you can do about those witches. If we can deal with them, the rest of these warriors shouldn’t be an issue.”

“You’ll be by yourself?”

“Yes. Besides, Threecee is still here to protect me, right?”

Dynatha sensed Tserne’s faint presence drift away. Spinning around, her green blade caught several slugs that were aimed at her back. Threecee rolled in to provide cover fire, using its flamethrower and neural scrambler to throw the organic sentients into a frenzy. Dynatha charged into the droids unaffected by Threecee’s attack and began cleaving through them with her lightsaber. Some of them were real, some of them were illusions, but she did her best to keep pressing forward and leave anything that survived for Tserne’s droid.

Tserne had managed to sneak past the ring of warriors that surrounded Dynatha without incident. Still invisible, he traded his blaster pistol for a vibrosword and charged at the meditating—and undefended—Krath witches. None of the witches moved except Xatara, who switched from a cross-legged stance and knelt on both knees. She waved her hands and rocked her body in an enraptured flurry of stilted, violent motions. Tserne decided to deal with her first.

In the air above the meditating witches, a billowy mass of darkness shifted into a more serpentine shape. Disregarding the potential danger, Tserne raised his sword and leapt into the air to skewer Xatara. The dark form lashed out at him before he could make contact, striking his chest and knocking him back. He tried again, but he was repulsed again, sending him flying backward into the ground. The second attack tore through his shields, light combat armor, and mesh underlay, and his chest smoldered where it hit.

“Not so safe and invisible now, are you?” Xatara cackled. “Our dark magic doesn’t depend on our eyes! We know where you’ve hidden yourself away, little Jedi.”

Tserne struggled to breathe. He had never experienced an attack like that before, and it almost seemed as though the attack had sapped away his physical strength. Using both his hands, Tserne trembled as he returned to his feet. Dynatha was coming toward him, but not soon enough; the witches would attack again before she reached him. He threw one of his vibroblades at Xatara, but her magical serpent disintegrated the blade before it hit her.

Another series of esoteric hand motions from Xatara summoned a prismatic shockwave that cut deep into Tserne’s body as it passed him by. Although he was invisible, he could feel the blood pouring out from cuts in his legs, arms, chest, and neck, and his cybernetics had been torn open to reveal delicate circuitry within. Although the force hadn’t been strong enough to knock him over, he didn’t have the strength to keep standing either. His vision faded, and when it returned he found himself on his back, staring at the dark ceiling overhead.

“This is it, Jedi! Any final words?”

Tserne struggled to see where she was, but the cybernetic frame along his neck had been damaged. “Dynatha. I’m sorry. I can’t protect you anymore…”

“Tserne!” Dynatha shouted. “Wait!”

A shining globe of light appeared directly above Tserne. The light that radiated from it was so bright Tserne winced as he jammed his eye shut. Warmth washed over him as the light spread across the room, no doubt illuminating the darkness—both physical and that which originated in the Force—around them. He heard Dynatha’s footsteps near him, but he wasn’t sure how close she was.

“No! In Satal Keto’s name, king and master of the Krath, I rebuke your light!” he heard Xatara screech.

“You have no power here! Neither you nor the dark side that aids you will stop me!”

“I am a Krath death witch! My grandfather was on Satal and Aleema’s court! He challenged and slew many Jedi Knights in his time. I am his equal—no better! And I will not fall to you!”

Tserne heard something that sounded like a struggle, and then Xatara let out a pained cry. With her, almost in unison, was a deeper voice. It sounded like a Human male in pain, but it was deeper, resonant, and not at all natural. The ground trembled around him, and it was so strong that Tserne was certain the entire building would collapse around them.

And then there was silence. Tserne blinked twice and opened his eyes. To his surprise, the light was gone, the battle had stopped, and both Threecee and Dynatha stood above him. He was now visible, and Dynatha had a concerned look on her face.

“What’s… what happened?” Tserne asked, his voice more hoarse than he expected.

“It’s over,” Dynatha replied. “But you’re not well. We have to get you out of here.”

“Fine. Just let me…”

Tserne tried to get up, but his arms wouldn’t even support him. Furious at his weakness, he gritted his teeth and began to try again. He wasn’t even halfway up when Dynatha placed her hands on his chest and shook her head. He resisted for a moment, but knew he couldn’t even do that.

“Let me help you,” Dynatha said.

Tserne nodded and Dynatha carefully helped him to his feet. Tserne was taller and heavier than Dynatha; she was able to support him as they walked, but he could tell it was a struggle for her. She was as exhausted, if not as injured, as he was. Tserne tried the best he could to keep his entire body weight off her shoulder and side, but he was so weak it was almost impossible. The two of them limped along, carefully ascending the stairs and heading for the exit.

*** ***

“Do you feel that, Verunth?” Northeus asked. “The dark side has been weakened. Soon it will abandon this place.”

“You are too late, Jedi,” the Krath warlord sneered. “Our warriors and war droids were destroyed many years ago—to keep them out of your hands!”

“We didn’t come here to wipe out your settlement,” Northeus countered. “But you left us no choice.”

“The Jedi fear what they do not understand! You and the Krath will never be at peace. Only one of us can remain, and the might of the Sith will forever be greater than the strength of the Jedi!”

Northeus’s silver lightsaber caught Verunth’s sword and twisted it to the side, forcing the old Krath to grip his weapon awkwardly. Without the reaffirming power of the dark side, he could not recover and strike back as he could earlier in their duel, allowing Northeus to batter his sword away and drive his luminescent blade into the old warrior’s chest. The Krath gasped, both in pain and realization, as his old body crumpled to the ground.

“It was not fear you sensed, Verunth, but anticipation.” Northeus deactivated his lightsaber and returned it to his belt. “I know what you’ve hidden here, and now it’s mine.”

“Curse… you… damn…”

Northeus sensed the old man’s life expire. It had taken far too long to deal with him. Stepping over his corpse, the Jedi approached the containers at the farthest end of the room and began searching their contents. It didn’t take him long to find what he had been looking for. Four slender crystals, each glittering with a faint red light, that had been cut from the same gemstone centuries ago.

“These crystals have been imbued with a terrifying power, but with appropriate application of the Force, they can be repurposed for our use…” he muttered.

Placing them in a satchel at his side, Northeus exited the central building just in time to see Dynatha, Tserne, and their utility droid emerge from a building in the distance.

“Northeus! Where were you?” Dynatha asked as they met. “Tserne and I could have used your help.”

“I was delayed,” the old Jedi Master explained. “But I have acquired what we needed from this place, and if I am not mistaken, you dealt with the darkness, completing your first trial.”

She nodded, but she seemed distracted by Tserne and his injuries.

The old Jedi sensed the approach of their comrades. “Ranval is coming now. Let us eliminate the rest of the Krath and then wait for Delvin and Celes to return. We’ll decide what to do after that.

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