FANDOM

60,447 Pages

Chapter 25

Artinan Neim was sitting on the floor throwing dice against the wall when Queen Eliorae Latona Panteer returned to the Basilaron. She had been gone for just over two standard hours. Alderaan’s leader had tasked him with defending the ship against any more boarders, so he had remained in the lobby that connected the ship’s egress ramp with the rest of the ship. The boarding party they had dealt with earlier seemed to have been their only invading force, leaving Artinan with little to do. The white-skinned Twi’lek’s attention quickly waned after she had left, and he had gone back to counting the sixes that appeared on his weighted dice.

“You haven’t even removed the bodies yet, Mister Neim. Surely a few corpses aren’t grotesque enough to keep you from moving them to the airlock?”

His dark eyes glanced at the four bodies lying on the floor behind him. Three of them were Sith troopers in dark armor with cauterized blaster wounds or lightsaber burns near vital organs. The last one was a warrior in a charcoal colored bodysuit; he traded the armor of his compatriots for a chance to show off his toned body. The warrior’s face was visible, his skin paler now than when it was alive, and his unnatural yellow eyes stared blankly into the whiteness of the ceiling above him. His red cape practically draped his body like a funeral robe.

“It’s not so much that I was disturbed by them,” Artinan admitted to her, “but they were quite heavy.”

She shook her head. “Come, Mister Neim. I trust you can fly a ship?”

“I’ve had some practice. Why?” he asked, rising to his feet.

“I’ll need you to help me reach Mandalore. With the crew gone…”

“I’ll try my best.”

Artinan sealed the embarkation ramp behind them and followed Alderaan’s leader toward the front of the ship. It was quieter now than when they had been in hyperspace. He almost missed the sounds of blaster fire from earlier. They occasionally came across the corpses of Alderaan royal guards and Sith troopers in many of the halls. Artinan didn’t say anything, but he noticed Eliorae avert her eyes from the bodies of her fallen defenders.

She had been alerted to the situation too late. The security chief and captain of the royal guard together had tried to repel the Sith attack on their ship, but there had been too many intruders. As their enemy headed deeper into the ship, the guard captain finally realized the danger of the situation and ordered Artinan to reach the queen. He had no doubt hoped she would take an escape pod and flee from the Basilaron with Artinan, but Queen Eliorae was stubborn. She and Artinan had continued fighting the Sith, driving them back all the way to the entry ramp and forcing their leader—the same Sith warrior whose body now lay near the entrance of the ship—to engage them. They had won the battle, but the entire crew and Eliorae’s guard contingent were dead.

“Mister Neim,” the queen said.

“Yes?”

“Are communications working?”

“I believe they were damaged by the attackers,” Artinan said after a moment. “Short-range comms should be online, however.”

“Emergency beacons?”

“Also disabled.”

She nodded. “We’ll have to contact Coruscant. Let them know that the Sith have returned.”

“We will. But we have to get to Mandalore first, right?”

“Of course. I’ve disabled the security locks on their hangar and destroyed their starboard turrets. We should be able to leave,” she said. “I only hope what we’ve accomplished hasn’t been in vain.”

Artinan had flown many ships while serving with the rest of Ranval’s Red Knife team before being assigned to Alderaan’s royal house. He had been in the final days of his royal guardsman training when the Sith had made an attempt on Eliorae’s life on Coruscant, and he had completed his training just in time to join the contingent of guards watching her before she traveled to Mandalore. Now that all of his associates were dead, it seemed he was both captain of Eliorae’s guard and her chief adviser. He pondered the strange fate as they left the Sith Interdictor behind.

The rest of their journey to Mandalorian space was less than noteworthy. The senator-queen of Alderaan spoke little, caught up in her own thoughts. Since she had no piloting ability to speak of, she began the slow process of gathering the bodies of the dead and placing them in the airlocks. Artinan had insisted most vehemently that she ought to allow him to clean the ship, but she had refused all his offers. Even though his first loyalty was to Ranval, the guardsman training had ingrained some devotion to his current charge as well. Her task made her somber and quiet, and Artinan hated seeing her in low spirits.

They arrived in Mandalorian space two days later. They were met by a squadron of Davaab starfighters who demanded an explanation for their incursion. Eliorae calmly explained her purpose, and the starfighters both apologized and escorted the diplomatic vessel to the Mandalorian camp on the planet Ordo. On their approach, Artinan noticed a sizable group of warships in geosynchronous orbit around the Mandalorian world.

“They’re preparing for something big,” Artinan noted.

“As the Senate feared,” Eliorae replied. “They’re going to reclaim this system. The settlers on Mandalore are in danger. I need to delay their war plans.”

“How?”

“It depends on their leader. Mandalore the Preserver is no war-monger, but I fear that there are many close to him who are. I am counting on him cooperating with the Republic so no lives have to be lost in the upcoming reconquest.”

“What if he won’t listen to you?”

“Then we may have to prepare for a second Mandalorian crusade.”

“Over a few settlers?”

“They’re Republic citizens just as we are, Mister Neim. Although they may not be the most upstanding citizens, they have rights and deserve protection.”

“But you would begin a galactic war to ensure their safety?”

“It is not something I wish for. But it is our responsibility to enforce the laws we’ve enacted. If Mandalorians refuse to heed our words, then they will be forced to heed our ships and our guns. To prevent the deaths of millions, I would earnestly hope for their cooperation today.”

The Twi’lek didn’t dare look at her. He had never heard her so forceful. “So do I. For all our sakes.”

*** ***

“Jhosua, the Republic diplomat’s here. Report to the war room, please,” Mandalore ordered through his comlink.

“Be there shortly, Mandalore.”

Considering how far Mandalore’s base was from his home, he knew that he had no time to lose. Grabbing his armor and gear, Jhosua began putting things over his bodysuit before he was even out of his room. Jhosua had half of his armor on when Verita walked in through the front door.

“And where are you headed off in such a hurry?” she asked.

“The Republic is here. Mandalore’s requested my help.”

“Ah, about that…”

“Can’t talk. In a big hurry.”

“Hold on a minute.”

“Leaving-”

Verita grabbed his arm. “Jhosua!”

“Verita, Mandalore needs me. Whatever we need to talk about can wait.”

“No, it can’t!” Verita pushed her way by her husband and stood in the doorway. “Damn it, Jhosua, we haven’t even had a chance to talk about what happened! You don’t think that’s important?”

She was referring to the terrorist attack, of course. It was what everyone was talking about, if they weren’t talking about the upcoming invasion of Mandalore. Glacis didn’t say much about it—she had been too busy training—but Fier in particular had not been taking it well. Jhosua hadn’t had a chance to sit down and talk with either of them.

“It was a unique security failure. An anomaly. We’ve been here twenty years and that’s only happened once,” Jhosua explained.

“Fier could have died! Glacis could have died! Doesn’t that even matter to you?”

“Of course it does,” Jhosua glared down at his wife. “I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been. I haven’t slept in days. Mandalore-”

“You haven’t even spoken to Fier about it. She’s terrified out of her mind! You wanted her to go into Mandalore’s service and plan your little battles, but that life isn’t for her—especially not now. Have you even told Mandalore that that idea is off the table?”

“I was getting to it.”

“You weren’t ever going to get to it.”

“Don’t accuse me of neglecting my children!” Jhosua took a step closer to Verita, fury flashing in his eyes, but she didn’t budge. “I won’t have it, not from you! Don’t you understand? After we claim Mandalore, there will be no danger. But if we botch this diplomatic meeting with the Republic-”

“I won’t let you endanger my daughters, Jhosua,” Verita said, her voice quiet but determined. “If you won’t end this madness right now, I’m going to leave. And I’m going to take them with me.”

The magnitude of her statement was lost on Jhosua in the heat of the moment. “You can’t do that. They’re old enough to do what they want.”

“You’re counting on Glacis staying here, aren’t you?” Verita shook her head. “Are you so obsessed with your little war games that you can’t see the danger we’re in? I’m going to give you one chance to come with us, Jhosua-”

“You have responsibilities here. You have people here that need your help. I need you here.” Jhosua was livid. “You’re just going to abandon them? You’re just going to abandon me?”

“I won’t let you endanger Glacis and Fier.”

“Then I’ll send them back to one of our encampments near Togoria! We’ll call them back when the battle’s over.”

“No, Jhosua. That battle will end, but the fighting never will, will it? It’s just been one long war for you. I joined the Mandalorians because I thought they’d learned their lesson after Revan disarmed them. I thought they’d settle down on some world somewhere and eject the warmongers from their number. They’d civilize themselves and maybe even join the Republic someday. But they don’t want that, and I don’t think you want that either.”

“Maybe I don’t.”

“I made the mistake of raising my children here, because I love you. But I will not let them raise theirs here. They’re leaving with me.”

Jhosua shook his head. “You’re just using the children as an excuse. I think you’re the one whose scared. You don’t think I can protect you. You don’t think I can protect us. Or maybe it’s something else.”

“Now you’re making excuses.”

“I’m not. In fact, these manipulative ploys are beneath you. Something you learned from the Sith?”

Verita’s eyes widened. In a second, her expression shifted from horror to rage. She recoiled from Jhosua when he reached out to apologize, and then she struck him in the face. She moved to hit him again, but Jhosua grabbed both her arms and held her back. Lifting her, he struggled to move her out of the way so he could leave.

“I’m going to help Mandalore. We’ll talk about this later.”

“No. We won’t.”

“Have it your way, then.”

*** ***

The Mandalorians around the camp were busy loading personal belongings into large transport ships and military supplies into dropships that would bring them to the fleet overhead. Very few of the locals paid any attention to Eliorae and Artinan as they headed toward Mandalore’s compound, although a few warriors did join their existing escort.

As expected, the entire camp was militarized and prepared for battle. Massive anti-air guns were active and scouring the skies for hostiles, and Artinan saw smaller turrets meant to destroy armor and organic flesh at key checkpoints. But what surprised Artinan the most were the blackened craters, scrap metal, and damaged buildings across the camp. Had there been infighting between the different Mandalorian factions?

Upon reaching Mandalore’s bunker, the two of them were asked to sit down outside on a metal bench while one of their escorts went inside to inform Mandalore of their arrival. About ten Mandalorian warriors stayed beside them; with their guards so close, Eliorae and Artinan didn’t talk much.

“Eliorae Latona Panteer, Senator and Queen of Alderaan, as well as representative for the Galactic Republic: Mandalore will see you now,” a warrior in blue armor announced.

“Thank you very much.” Turning to her companion, she said, “Remain here unless I call for you. Hopefully this won’t be too long.”

“I’m going with you. It’s my responsibility to protect you, and we don’t know what their plans are. You’ll be safer if I came with you. No offense,” he muttered at the nearby Mandalorians.

She gave him a polite smile. “If you wish. But it will bore you, Mister Neim.”

“You presume too much, Your Highness.”

Artinan and Eliorae were led into Mandalore’s bunker by three warriors. The interior was even better defended than the camp itself. Turrets lined the halls and snipers were positioned on raised balconies that weren’t reachable from the ground floor. The two of them had to wait several times while the Mandalorians reset energy shield emplacements that hindered access. It was a long, dull walk into Mandalore’s war room. Several other warriors were there with Mandalore, all of them wearing silver armor nearly the same color as their leader’s. It seemed as though everyone from the top general to the fresh recruit wore the same helmet with the triangular visor and the matching suit of armor.

“You must be Senator Latona Panteer. I’ve heard a lot about you,” the leader of the Mandalorian clans boomed.

“And it’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Mandalore. I apologize for my tardiness. I bring word from the Republic.”

“You are the first diplomat the Republic has sent since Malachor V. What could you possibly say after so long?” The question seemed rhetorical, so Eliorae didn’t answer. “Have a seat so we can begin, Senator.”

Eliorae and Mandalore’s advisers went back and forth, discussing the importance of Mandalorian space and its place in their culture. The system was also on the verge of becoming a trading hub due to its location along the so-called Mandalorian Road and its close proximity to Telos IV. With wealth flowing in from the outer colonies and manpower gathered from the entirety of Mandalorian space, it wasn’t hard to envision the revived Mandalorians rebuilding their armies and navies and attacking the Republic again. There was solid evidence that they were currently raiding outlying systems in preparation for their attack on Mandalore; it was not out of the question to presume they would expand their operations after uniting this system.

Despite her objections, Eliorae quickly realized there was no way to convince them to abandon their goal of reuniting the system under Mandalore’s rule, so she tried a different approach. The Mandalorians were quite aware of the Republic colonists on their ancestral homeworld, and it seemed they had intended on bombarding the colonies and killing all the survivors. Such a solution was obviously problematic for the Republic, so Eliorae offered to negotiate with the settlers and convince them to travel offworld.

“There’s no guarantee that they will leave,” one of Mandalore’s generals noted. “We’re to attack in two day’s time. Do you intend for them to abandon their homes in that time—without ships or resources?”

“You’re right. Even I cannot ensure that they will leave. I think given enough time, they will leave Mandalore for another world. But we must give them that chance,” Eliorae said.

“Are you suggesting we push back our plan to attack?” Mandalore asked.

“I was hoping you would see that it is unreasonable to demand settlers to leave in two days.”

“If you had arrived far sooner, I’d be willing to be more flexible. This attack has been planned for some time and our warriors are nearly ready to begin the assault.”

“I was delayed en route. If I could have arrived sooner, know that I would have. I don’t want to see the Republic and Mandalorians embittered toward each other. Please understand that while I’m looking out for Republic interests, I fully intend to see that you are treated fairly as well.”

“Why should we believe you?” Mandalore asked.

“If you allow as many colonists to leave the planet as possible over the course of two weeks, I will ensure that the Republic does not retaliate for dealing with those too stubborn or autonomous to leave.”

“And if we refuse your offer and go ahead with our current schedule?” a general inquired.

“Then I’m afraid we will be forced to use Republic naval assets to ensure that our people are defended,” Eliorae said, ignoring the harsh whispers of some of Mandalore’s generals. “Because although Mandalore is not our world, there are Republic citizens living there no matter how you look at it.”

Mandalore nodded. “You speak of a Republic far different than the one we fought years ago. The Galactic Republic my allies and I knew did not even acknowledge our attacks until we had threatened key infrastructure and economic centers. They cared little for settlers and fringers along the edges of their space.”

“It was your people who were responsible for that change,” Eliorae explained. “But I’m not sure if I should be thanking you for your lesson.”

“Whatever the case may be, I do not intend to encourage hostilities between us,” Mandalore said. “I will see to it that your settlers are given an appropriate time frame to leave, but beyond that I can promise little else. We will reclaim our world, Senator, against the Republic’s wishes if necessary.”

“I can assure you the Republic has no qualms with you reuniting your people,” Eliorae replied. “But it must be done without encroaching upon Republic space. The worlds in this system are a special case. We colonized these worlds in a short-sighted plan to weaken the Mandalorian clans—I would hope you understand that that is an admission of both classified information and guilt that I’m sharing with you in an act of trust. We were wrong, and we will allow you to do what you will to these worlds. But do not expect such freedom in the future.”

Artinan did his best to focus on the proceedings, but all the diplomatic chatter bored him. Leaning against the wall behind him, he placed his hands behind the lekku at the back of his head and closed his eyes. Ranval and the other members of Red Knife had told him that he had a good sense of impending danger, so if Eliorae needed him he would be ready.

Come to think of it, hadn’t Red Knife been assigned to take down a high-value target on Ordo? Artinan wondered if their attack was the reason for all the security as he drifted into a light sleep, his closed eyes hidden beneath his helmet. Just as he was about to doze off, there was a soft beep from his datapad. He had received a message from one of his commanders. While Eliorae and the others were debating the finer details of the Mandalorians’ advance, Artinan fished the datapad out of his pocket. His eyes widened. He hadn’t heard anything from Ranval since he had joined the guard. The message read:

MANDALORIAN SITUATION UNMANAGEABLE WITH CURRENT RESOURCES. REACH OUT TO THE COMMANDER TYROLLIAN AND SHOW HIM THE ENCLOSED FILES. LET THE SITUATION HANDLE ITSELF - DIRECTOR

*** ***

Thertos stared out the Diath-class transport’s hangar bay window. This old ship was one of the last of its class serving in military capacity, and he was nervous just flying around Gamandar in it. It was a larger than most of transports typically fielded by the army, large enough to carry two companies comfortably, three in a pinch. Considering he had nowhere to sit down and he couldn’t even hear himself think because of all the conversations going on around him, this was definitely a pinch.

After Harin had led the remainder of his company to safety, Thertos and the surviving soldiers had been scattered among the battalions that arrived with Admiral Marathos. An additional five thousand soldiers and three thousand droid units had turned the tide drastically. The second and third largest cities fell within four days, and the constant bombardment—by artillery and starfighters—softened Emross’s exterior defenses since then.

The fighting across the planet changed from fierce guerrilla engagements to occasional surgical strikes, and from there became little more than isolated pockets of resistance. The daily fighting had worn down the resistive spirit of the locals, and those who were undecided about their independence before just wanted the fighting to end. The rebels hadn’t won a major victory since the arrival of the Palatine and its army contingent, making their cause seem futile. Indeed, it was the mercenary forces recruited from offworld that proved most stubborn and eager to continue fighting.

And then Harin and the other army leaders had discovered a major gap in the capital’s defenses. It had apparently been so great that several companies of soldiers managed to get as far as the castle gates before being forced back by the leaders of the rebellion and their best mercenaries. But the attack had proven that the enemy was assailable, and the Republic commanders on the ground decided to press their advantage.

Thertos was in one of three battalions that would attack the castle and capture it for the Republic. The starfighters brought by Admiral Marathos and his forces had buzzed over the skies since dawn, bombarding the outer walls and anti-infantry lasers positioned around the rebel base. Speeders, tanks, and war droids had been brought in about noon, fighting their way through the ruined capital and forcing the rebel squads back toward the center of the city. Flying overhead on his way to join the battle, the sun was beginning to set in the hills beyond Emross, and the sounds of blaster fire and artillery below were nearly gone. The fate of Gamandar would be decided today.

For his part, Thertos didn’t wish to be here. Physically, he was fine. Mentally, he was scattered and not entirely present, mustering what strength he had left after weeks of fighting. The events in the sewers haunted him still, but Harin’s Jedi Master had met with him between battles and had assured him that he would be able to endure one more battle. He certainly didn’t feel like it, but the older Jedi had been so certain and put his mind at ease, so Thertos took him at his word. Nevertheless, he tried his best to avoid thinking about what had happened and hoped he wouldn’t be thrust into a battle like that again.

“Approaching LZ in two minutes. It’s been pretty quiet, but you boys still ought to watch yourselves,” the transport pilot drawled.

“This is it. Rifle and shield checks, everyone. Make any emergency fixes now, because you won’t get another chance,” their captain snapped. “Follow your platoon leaders as we leave. Stay close. Auxiliaries remain near the drop point until you’re called in. Test your comms now.”

The soldiers around Thertos clattered about following orders. Cramped as he was, Thertos moved as little as possible, just barely checking the reading on his pistol and energy shield. Both were battle-ready, and he wouldn’t need anything else unless things turned for the worst.

“Twenty seconds. Got a few hostile artillery pieces here and there; might get a bit bumpy.”

“Esk Company, I want you in the throne room with Master Sunrider,” the captain said, motioning toward Thertos and his company. “Provide him droid and fire support for the assault.”

“Will do, sir,” the captain of the company replied. “You heard him! Let’s get ready to assist the young Jedi in his attack!”

Emross Castle filled his vision very quickly. An ancient building from days long before the Republic, the structure had ten levels, each held up by an increasing number of columns, stacked one atop the other. At the topmost floor a spire about half as tall as the building around it extended toward the sky. The building, not meant to withstand assault from modern weaponry, was missing many of its supports, walls, and windows, and smoke rose from within wherever their fire extinguishing methods had failed.

The transport brought itself into a low hover above a veranda overlooking the central plaza of Emross. The metal door that had sealed it off from the main building had been blasted away, allowing Thertos and the rest of his company access to the castle’s interior. Thertos turned and watched the transport fly away, ferrying the other soldiers inside to the other entrances of the castle. A holler from his captain snapped Thertos back to reality, and he made his way inside amidst the crowd of soldiers of Esk Company.

“Master Jedi, are you ready?” Thertos’s captain asked.

“Yes. Give me two squads of soldiers. I will handle the rest.”

“Of course, sir.” The captain assigned two dozen soldiers to join Harin on his way to the throne room and ordered the rest to spread out and search the castle from top to bottom. Thertos and the other droid operators were grouped with the technicians and computer specialists on their way to the security offices.

They encountered no resistance on their way to the security offices. Thertos had seen a lot of dead bodies and destroyed droids between the veranda and their destination, but either the living had retreated or else there was no one left to deter them. Once they were at their destination, the slicers and security teams began raiding the rebel terminals and security footage for information that would prove useful to the team assailing the throne room. Thertos and the other droid operators activated floating patrol and probe droids to scout out the surrounding halls and several bipedal war droids to aid their comrades throughout the castle.

“We’ve got a recording of the throne room,” one of the soldiers at the terminals pointed out. “The Jedi and the others are already there.”

Once Thertos’s tasks were done, he fought his way through the crowd to get a better look at the security footage. The cameras were working, and it appeared to be a live feed.

The throne room was not at all like Thertos had expected. Concentrated artillery fire had destroyed much of the floor, leaving gaping craters in the floor and shattered glass wherever the floorboards remained. There were no living guards, only two damaged war droids positioned against the far walls. The faint echo of tank fire and aerial vehicles could be heard through the broken windows, a bit quieter than it was inside the security room. The glowpanels no longer had any power, so the only available light was provided by torches and the setting sun. Much of the room was hidden by long shadows.

Opposite of Harin, sitting on what was left of the throne, was an older humanoid male. He wore a combat suit stained with blood and grime that was torn in several places. He sat at the edge of his seat, arms crossed and his head down so his chin touched his chest. His skin was an orange color, with hazel eyes and short gray hair flecked with dirt and sweat. He either didn’t notice Harin and the others enter the room or else he didn’t care.

“You… you’re the king of Gamandar!” he heard Harin say. “You’re alive?”

“Yes, Master Jedi,” the man sitting upon the throne replied. “But not for much longer. Your Republic has made sure of that.”

“They said you and your entire family were killed by insurrectionists. Why didn’t you try and contact us?”

“In a manner of speaking, they were killed by the rebels. I killed them,” the king answered.

“You? What do you mean?” the Republic captain spoke up. “What is the meaning of this?”

The king of Gamandar gripped the only armrest that remained on his throne and forced himself to his feet. Every blaster in the room jumped up to meet him, but he didn’t reach for a weapon. He sighed a deep sigh and took a step away from the throne.

“Gamandar is dying. Or, it has been dying since our sector was discovered by the Republic so many years ago. Your Corellian scoundrels and your Aqualish pilgrims settled this place with no regard for its inhabitants, forcing upon it Republic legislation that benefited your leaders on Coruscant at our expense.

“The battles between those two invaders embroiled our entire sector. They destroyed Goroth Major. They conquered Telfray. The space around the Vestor Pulsar is so littered with debris that we cannot even use the hyperspace beacon nearby. I fought in that war, and I saw hints of what was to come, but I was powerless to stop it.

“The taxes imposed after the fighting crushed us. Until the rebellion, the Corellians and Aqualish both exploited our resources and our ships, and the Republic refused our requests for aid. My people were living in the streets, dying from starvation. The price of flatbread and flangth has doubled in the past six months alone! So I, along with mercenaries from Telfray and Hutt space, removed the Republic from this world and across this system.”

Harin balled his hand into a fist. “So that’s it? You’re a megalomaniac obsessed with power? You were scared that someone had more authority than you… and for what? What did you gain from this war?”

“There is no war here beyond what your Republic has brought,” the king countered. “Peaceful protests were allowed from the beginning.”

“The citizens of Iskalon and many other nearby planets have suffered trying to resist you. And your wife and son are dead! Don’t try to convince me that you’re some benevolent dictator,” Harin snapped.

“She never believed in my vision,” the king said, almost to himself. “Can you believe that she convinced my own son to raise his sword against me? A monster of a woman, if there ever was one. But then, what can you expect from a Corellian half-breed?”

“Give me one good reason not to cut you in half right now,” Harin said, raising his lightsaber’s blue blade so its tip was pointed at the old king.

The king shook his head. Moving very slowly as to not alarm the soldiers ready to kill him given the order, he withdrew a small cylinder from his coat and held it so the Jedi and everyone else could see it. “You see this, Master Jedi? Soldiers?”

“What is it?” the Republic lieutenant asked.

“A trigger. If you all do not drop your weapons and leave this place, I will detonate explosives hidden within this building, killing us all.”

“You will surrender the detonator to me,” Harin urged him, waving his free hand.

“Mind tricks?” The king’s eyes flashed angrily. “I was a soldier in the Jedi Civil War as the crown prince. Much like many of your own soldiers, I was trained to resist your Jedi mind games. Leave now, or I will force the bombs to go off.”

“What do you think you’ll accomplish by escaping now?” the Republic leader asked. “We’ve defeated all of your forces. Your fleet is gone. Your supporters are being imprisoned by Republic loyalists. This castle will remain under siege until you surrender.”

“I don’t intend to survive. I only intend to die in a manner of my choosing. I will not submit myself to Republic mercy.”

“You could have killed yourself at any time. Why wait until we arrived to use your detonator unless you intend to kill us as well?” Harin noted.

“A shrewd point, Master Jedi. Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing my intentions. Your fate is in my hands, it seems.”

The Jedi and his Republic liaison shared nervous glances. No one knew what they were thinking, but the entire situation made Thertos very nervous. If what the king said was true, he had explosives planted across the city and he would detonate them given the opportunity. Some of the other soldiers shouted at the screen for the captain to shoot the king dead, and others pleaded for them to let him go. Thertos felt helpless just watching this all unfold. The more he thought about it, the more a quiet voice in his head compelled him to do something.

“Pull back,” he heard Harin say on the feed. “A squadron of Commodore Molir’s fighters are coming in. Now that the shields are down, they’ll handle this situation.”

No. That wasn’t good enough. Something inside his head—a whisper from some distant place—demanded that he take action now. Separating from the crowd, Thertos reached the nearest empty terminal and began searching through the commands—already sliced by Republic agents—available for the droids utilized by the rebel forces. There was no way for him to identify the two droids in the throne room based on the operating numbers stored in the central database, so he couldn’t just command them to fire at the king himself. If he knew their weapon systems were operational, he would have ordered all the droids to fire at their nearest target, but that could have endangered Republic soldiers elsewhere in the castle.

Just as Harin and the others were about to exit the throne room, Thertos reached the last command available to him and confirmed the action. The two droids on either side of Gamandar’s rebellious king sparked for only a moment as their cores overloaded, and then both exploded. Shrapnel, gas, and flame spewed across the room, startling the king and the others but not wounding them. However, Harin’s Force precognition allowed him to recover his bearings nanoseconds quicker than the others, and he used his readiness to throw his lightsaber at the king like a spear. His lightsaber’s shimmering blue blade struck the king’s arm, severing his forearm just below the elbow. He shrieked as the detonator bounced away from him.

Harin and his soldiers rushed toward the king. The Republic captain kicked the detonator away from the king as he struggled vainly to reach for it with his other hand. Harin recovered his weapon and kept it near the king’s throat.

“You will now face the justice of the Republic,” Harin said. “The galaxy deserves to know what you’ve done.”

The king chuckled quietly. “Don’t you see, Master Jedi? You’ve already shown me Republic justice.”

“Be at peace. You’ll argue your twisted mentality before the courts.”

“Ah… d-did you think I would count on a device that required manual detonation?” the king closed his eyes and sighed. “There is a dead man’s switch for the explosives, and a suicide pill in one of my teeth. You’ll soon… be joining me.”

Harin’s eyes widened. The Republic captain began barking orders, but they were drowned out by an explosion in the distance. It was closer to Thertos and the others in the security room than the throne room, and it was strong enough to cause the entire chamber to shake. The entire castle seemed to groan as explosions became more frequent and louder. Thertos realized that the bombs must have been set around the building’s foundations, the pillars that held each floor of the castle aloft.

Everyone in the security chamber was panicking; the primary power had gone off in one of the first explosions, disabling all the terminals and screens and leaving them in total darkness. They had attempted to flee the room but an explosion outside the room had caused the ceiling in the hallway to collapse, leaving them with nowhere to go. The comms were abuzz with voices, but conflicting orders were coming in and it wasn’t clear what to do or where to go. He had heard that ships were coming in to pick them up, but there was no way for them to reach the rendezvous point without immediate assistance.

Thertos realized that this was all his fault. If he hadn’t been compelled to destroy the droids, Harin wouldn’t have had an opportunity to kill the king. Perhaps they would have had a chance to flee before the king activated the explosives. Regret, fatigue, and fright immobilized him while the other soldiers attempted to remove debris that was blocking the doorway.

The explosions seemed louder in the darkness, and Thertos knew that there was no easy way out of his place. He was resigned to his fate, but he couldn’t shake the overwhelming loneliness. How he wished he had a chance to speak to his parents, Manda and Fetcher, and his other friends before the end.

Something exploded in the room directly beneath them, causing the floor of the security chamber to collapse. Thertos and the other soldiers with him fell down several floors as the entire castle collapsed around them. The floor they finally landed on couldn’t support them, and they continued to fall toward the ground. The roar and heat of many simultaneous explosions overwhelmed Thertos, and the last thing he saw were pillars giving way around him as he plummeted into the darkness.


Chapter 26

Tserne rubbed the sleep out of his good eye. His prosthetic failed for a split second as he disturbed the other. Training had been brutal since Boergo had been killed. Ranval and Northeus had switched back and forth training Dynatha in their Jedi arts, leaving them with little time together. Delvin had been training Celes in some of their more esoteric skills while Dynatha was busy, so Tserne was stuck sparring with Selias and the other commandos who had arrived with Ranval’s lieutenant, Ranz.

It was a few days after Tserne had challenged three of Ranval’s commandos that Northeus summoned the Jedi, the commandos, and Tserne to the tomb—the same chamber Boergo had restrained Dynatha in—for a meeting. This was the first time he had seen Northeus since that day, and Tserne couldn’t help but shake the feeling that he was looking more eccentric than usual. His gray hair was wiry and misplaced so that his forehead and eyebrows were hidden behind it, his clothes were frayed and clearly hadn’t been washed since they had arrived, and his eyes darted wildly in the torchlight. Dynatha didn’t seem to notice and neither did Ranval, so he didn’t say anything.

“Very good. Everyone’s here,” Northeus turned to Dynatha. “If you don’t mind.”

She nodded. “I’m going to clear the dark side from this place. But I need your help. If we all work together, I think… I think I can do it.”

Northeus nodded. “You will. Bring out the sarcophagus, Ranz.”

“Are you sure she’s ready?” Celes whispered to Northeus. “This training… she’s good, but she’s not mastered it. If we’re wrong-”

“I trust her. That is enough.”

“No, that’s not enough. If she fails, she could endanger us all!”

“Peace, Celes. I trust that Northeus knows what he’s doing,” Ranval said.

“I hope so.”

Ranz, Selias, and a few other commandos dragged out a gigantic slab of rock out from the darkness of the chamber. Ranval’s operatives removed the covering of the sarcophagus and revealed to everyone present the preserved remains of a humanoid male, draped in funeral garb, who seemed to hold a staff and knife in what were once his hands. The harsh tang of the preservatives wasn’t quite as bad as rotting flesh, but it was pretty close. Tserne himself didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary, but he noticed the Jedi and the commandos tremble as something seemed to come over them.

“So this is the source of the dark side on this planet,” Delvin mused.

“Yes. The body of Satal Keto, the first of the Krath warlords and leader of Empress Teta before he was defeated by one Jedi Knight,” Northeus explained. “I don’t know how, but these cultists managed to ferry his remains to this world, where they’ve been gathering strength for some time. But no more. Dynatha, if you would?”

“I will try my best, Master Ulsan.”

The Jedi and commandos gave Dynatha some space as she approached the sarcophagus. She hesitated when she saw the skeletal remains of the ancestral Krath up close, and she seemed ready to pull away from it. Nevertheless, she stood her ground. Raising her hands, Dynatha closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Nothing happened for some time. Some of Selias’s commandos began to get restless. Then, to Tserne’s surprise, two tiny globes of light appeared in her palms.

“Very good, Dynatha,” Ranval said. “Focus. Feel our presence here. Use our strength to increase your own. You can do it.”

Tserne watched in awe as the little orbs of light expanded into a shimmering halo that nearly encompassed the entire room. The great ring of light slowly enclosed on the sarcophagus. As it shrank, the ring caught the edges of the rectangular tomb and surrounded it like a sheath. The ring began to develop height, moving toward the ceiling and down toward the floor until it became a great pillar that hid the sarcophagus from view. There was a slight shockwave as the light became stronger, and it became so bright that Tserne averted his eyes; when he turned back, the pillar was gone and only Northeus’s torch illuminated the dark chamber. Celes and the commandos were dumbfounded and said so, but everyone else was too awed to speak.

“Nothing happened,” Ranz drawled after some time. “Pretty light show, though.”

“She just extinguished the dark spirit of Satal Keto, and in doing so she removed the dark side presence that haunted this place,” Ranval explained.

“I don’t feel any different,” Selias noted.

“Most of the damage was undone earlier. The difference would be too minute for you to detect,” Delvin said, “but I’ve noticed. I feel lighter. I feel stronger. It as if there were Jedi above ground, waiting for us to return to the surface.”

“And one day, perhaps the Jedi will return to this place. But for now, we have done all we can,” Northeus said.

“What do you mean?” Ranval asked. “We’re leaving now?”

“Did you expect us to stay here for the rest of our days?”

“A bit of notice would have been nice.”

“Our training is complete. She has done what we have hoped. What more could we do here?” Northeus pointed out.

“Just give her a moment, at least!” Tserne said. “Can’t you tell she’s tired?”

Dynatha shook her head as Tserne helped her steady herself. “I’m fine, Tserne. Really.”

“Just a few hours, Northeus. And then we’ll leave,” Ranval assured him.

“Very well.” Northeus reached into the knapsack at his side. “To commemorate this occasion, I’ve prepared a little something for you… my students.”

“What is it?” Celes asked.

Northeus extended his hand. In his palm were four tiny red crystals that just faintly glimmered in the light of the fire. They were no bigger than Tserne’s little finger, and they were quite a bit thinner as well. Tserne figured they were quite fragile.

“What are these, Northeus?” Ranval asked.

“Crystals. Powerful augmentations for the lightsaber of a Jedi Knight devoted to the path of light.”

“What are they called?” Delvin asked.

Northeus eyed the old Jedi Master suspiciously. “The solari crystal. Have you heard of it?”

Celes gaped. “Impossible! You have four solari crystals in your possession? How?”

“Not four. One. I had it carefully cut into four pieces. It was in the lightsaber blade of a… friend I had long ago. She has long since passed to join the Force. Ranval, Delvin, Celes, and Dynatha. You four will need the guiding light of the solari crystal in the days to come. I present this gift to the four of you now.”

The four Jedi each took a crystal from Northeus. Dynatha and Delvin put it in their weapons immediately, but Celes and Ranval took a moment to examine the rare crystal before inserting theirs. After the four of them checked to make sure that their lightsaber blades were still functioning, Northeus quickly led them all out of the burial chamber and back to the enclave proper.

“Are you sure you’re all right, Dynatha?” Tserne asked. “I can ask Northeus to give you a few more hours to rest, at least.”

“No. I can travel. But thank you for your concern.”

“If you’re sure.” He didn’t want to confess just how worried he was for her, so he held his peace. Even if he argued with Northeus and the others, he doubted he would change their minds.

“Now that we’re sure Dynatha is armed to defeat the Sith, we must take the fight to them,” Northeus explained. “Their plans have only accelerated while we have been training here in secret, and we no longer have the luxury of time. Ranval has been right to preach haste.”

“Where are we going next?” Delvin asked.

“The Sith have rebuilt one of their old bases in the Sernpidal system. We must go there and destroy it once and for all.”

“That sounds dangerous. Are you sure we’re ready for that, Northeus?” Ranval asked.

“It is valuable enough to the Sith that ending it will set back their war efforts and yet it is not so dangerous that we cannot act with the strength we have now.”

“Then the sooner we leave, the better,” Ranval agreed. “Ranz, get the ship ready. Selias, check on our prisoner. Everyone else, gather up your belongings and meet us back on the Blind Guide within the hour.”

“An hour? I thought we were going to take a few hours to rest,” Celes said.

Ranval shook his head. “No time. Have to keep the schedule, you know.”

“Always in a rush,” Celes mumbled to Tserne and Dynatha. “Sometimes I wonder if they even sleep.”

*** ***

The containment field buzzed around Falmas, holding strong even though the ship itself was powered down. No doubt it had a separate generator. She had attempted to manipulate the energy field with the Force, but such alterations were beyond her ken. The controls for her prison were located somewhere else on the ship, so she couldn’t just telekinetically free herself, and they had disassembled her lightsaber, leaving her with no easy way out of this cage.

The only time they lowered the energy field was to provide her with food. During that short period of time, she was shackled to a nearby durasteel railing and several other warriors were nearby to guard the one in charge of feeding her. Sometimes there was a Jedi, sometimes there wasn’t. She had tried to fight her way out during one of these feedings; she still had a bruise on her head from the angry Togruta’s blaster rifle. Since then, she was sedated whenever they lowered the fields. It kept her weak, but she could overpower the drugs if necessary. It was only a matter of time.

The same Togruta who had given her the injury on her head walked in with a tray of food of colorless and odorless food that probably came out of a dispenser. Two warriors in Mandalorian armor stood at the door, and she could just barely make out two more in the halls. No chance of escaping. Reconnaissance would have to do.

“Don’t move,” the Togruta said. “I don’t want to have to beat you down again.”

Falmas said nothing. She glared defiantly at the older female, but the alien didn’t even notice. Sedative gas filled the energy chamber at the Togruta’s command. Falmas controlled her breathing through the Force, leaving her in a weakened but conscious state. It was what her captors wanted, but at least this way she would remain conscious—if powerless—throughout the ordeal.

The Togruta waited until it seemed Falmas was dazed, allowed the gas to dissipate, and then she lowered the energy field. Dropping the food inside, she reactivated the energy field quicker than Falmas could revitalize herself. By the time Falmas was fully conscious, the Togruta was nearly out of the room.

“Hold on,” she called.

“We need to tell Ranval to strengthen the gas. Or perhaps we need to use a syringe,” Selias whispered to one of her operatives nearby.

“Ranval’s the name of your Jedi companion?” Falmas asked.

“Appreciate the fact we’re feeding you and eat,” Selias replied. “I’m too busy to chat with you.”

“You and your armored allies there aren’t Jedi, that’s obvious. Why are you helping him?”

“Republic black operations team,” Selias explained.

“Doubt it,” Falmas countered. “I’ve… seen Republic forces at work. You’re nothing like them. Besides, if you were Republic, you wouldn’t be wearing Mandalorian gear.”

“That’s enough talking for today,” Selias said, sealing the door behind her.

Falmas frowned. This Togruta was laconic and obviously unwilling to divulge anything. She had been trained well. But Falmas needed to spend more time with her—or any of these non-Jedi—if she wanted to control them with her Force persuasion. It would take a bit of work, but she was confident that a bit of smooth talking and liberal application of her Force talents would get her out of here in time to return to her master and deal with these Jedi.

With some reservation, she jabbed at the spongy white block placed in front of her. The sooner the better.

*** ***

“All systems ready, Director Messor,” the helmsman chirped from his seat.

“Good. Let’s get away from this icebox.”

Dynatha settled into her seat on the starboard side of the bridge. Tserne and Celes were seated beside her, with several of Ranval’s operatives situated nearby. Delvin, Northeus, and the other agents were on the opposite side, with Ranval and his chief underlings occupying most of the center consoles and seats where Ranval typically steered the ship by himself.

“Leaving atmosphere now. All systems green,” Ranz reported.

“Hyperspace beacon located and responding to us. Receiving coordinates for the Julevian system,” the navigator intoned.

Selias walked onto the bridge with a quartet of operatives while the hyperdrive’s computer was gathering data. She whispered something to Ranval and then headed for her position at the gun controls.

“Got something on radar,” Tserne spoke up after Threecee beeped at him.

“What is it?” Ranval asked.

“Incoming ship. Approaching from the far side of the planet. Looks like…” Tserne frowned. “Civilian transport. Heavily modified. K16 model.”

“This system is fairly out of the way. Who could they be?” Selias asked.

“They’re not broadcasting their codes,” Ranz mumbled. “But they’re on an intercept course.”

“They intend to do us harm,” Dynatha said.

“Could just be pirates,” one of Ranval’s operatives offered. “We could handle them easily.”

“I’d rather not. How long until we’re gone?” Ranval inquired.

“It will take them five minutes to intercept, and they’re powering shields and weapons,” Selias answered. “We’ll be gone in that time.”

“You’re sure?” Celes asked.

“Yes.”

“Should we power weapons and shields just in case?” Tserne asked.

Ranval crossed his arms in thought. The bridge seemed to pause as he considered their options. “No. Devote all resources to the engines and central computer. Let’s get those coordinates in and get out of here.”

“Boss, they’re hailing us,” Selias said.

“Ignore them,” Ranval ordered.

There was little Dynatha could do but watch as the Blind Guide drifted away from the larger ship. The retrofitted vessel started firing at theirs, no doubt aware that they were ignoring attempts to communicate. They were out of weapon range, but their fire was getting awfully close all the same. Laser bolts zoomed by their forward viewport and just above their bow. The ship shook from several near misses.

“How long?” Ranval demanded.

“Two minutes,” came the reply.

“They’re within weapon range, Director,” Ranz said.

“Evasive maneuvers,” Ranval ordered. “We need more time.”

Tserne glanced down at his droid. “Threecee, do you think you can help the computer finish the transmission and input those coordinates?”

The droid turned its tiny head and trilled excitedly. Dynatha watched with equal amusement and anxiety as the tiny utility droid rolled its way across the bridge and plugged itself in to one of the Blind Guide’s empty terminals.

Laser fire continued to flash in their viewport. Dynatha could sense that the enemy gunners were narrowing their firing range. This ship was not a warship, but a luxury transport. A direct hit from their opponent’s weapons would tear through their hull without shields.

“We need to leave or put shields up!” Celes shouted.

“Time?” Ranval asked.

“Ten seconds!”

“Ten?” Selias asked the operative. “That doesn’t sound right.”

Before she could receive an explanation from the equally bewildered officer, the roar of their hyperdrive emerged from the lower corridors of the ship, and the hazy streaks of hyperspace replaced the mosaic of stars in their view. In the blink of an eye, they had left Truuine and its dangers behind. The bridge heaved a sigh of relief.

“I don’t know how we made it out of there so quickly, but we did,” Ranval said. “Selias, how long do you think it’ll be before we reach Sernpidal?”

“Four days, at most,” she replied.

“Then we have four days to train and prepare ourselves,” Northeus said. “You all wanted to rest? Now is your chance. I shall be meditating near the engine room.”

“My crew and I will handle everything from here,” Ranval told the other Jedi. “Get some rest. You’ll need to be well-rested and vigilant for the trials to come.”

Dynatha and Tserne left the bridge with Threecee. Neither Ranval nor any of his operatives had inquired how their ship had hastened its computations, so Tserne didn’t bother explaining his droid’s handiwork. As long as they were safe now, it didn’t matter. He also kept to himself the fact that the ship that had attacked them was owned by Coroq Lotte—the mercenary who had nearly killed them on Ambria. The mercenary was persistent, Tserne had to give him that much, but he didn’t know how Coroq had tracked them to this place. Was he being aided by the Sith? Did he have a double agent working among them? A tracking device, perhaps? Tserne made a mental note to investigate further.

“Where are you headed, Tserne?” Dynatha asked.

“I was going to retire to my quarters. To be quite honest, I’m exhausted.”

She nodded. “I haven’t slept well lately. I’ve been very busy.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“No,” she confessed. Now that she and Tserne were on better terms, she had been more receptive and open to sharing her thoughts. Not as well as she once had, Tserne noted, but it was better than he could have asked for. “I’m scared.”

“Of what?”

“Northeus and Ranval have been telling me just how important my part is in all this. It’s overwhelming to think that it is my destiny to defeat the Sith. I was born to do it, they say. It’s like I’m the savior of the galaxy.”

“You don’t agree?”

“No! I mean, I don’t think so. I’m not afraid to admit my faults, but I also know my limits. Northeus and Ranval have taught me to look at the Force in a way that I had never thought possible. I’m capable of so much more now, I know that. But at the same time, I can’t match our enemies in their skill or power.”

“You handled yourself pretty well back on Truuine. And even on Ambria and the Fate and Luck. Don’t you think you’re underestimating your talents?”

“I’m sure. I know what I’m capable of as a Jedi Knight, and I don’t think defeating the Dark Lord of the Sith—much less all the Sith—is one of those things.”

“You won’t know until you try.”

“It’s not exactly something you get to try again if you fail.”

“But we believe in you. I know you’ll be ready when the time comes.”

The two of them reached Dynatha’s quarters. She looked like she was going to open the door, but she hesitated.

“Tserne, can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Can I depend on you?”

“Yes. With your life.”

“Even if I… if this mission changes me?”

“No matter what. I will stand with you and make sure you see this through to the end.”

Dynatha embraced the cyborg. “Thank you, Tserne. I trust you.”

*** ***

Celes had lingered on the bridge for a bit, intending to speak with Ranval. When he had proved too busy with his own operatives and guiding the ship through hyperspace, she abandoned the bridge and headed back toward Northeus in the engine room. She needed to complain to someone; even if Northeus didn’t want to acknowledge her complaints, she was going to voice them.

This quest was beginning to feel like an elaborate waste of time. She and Dynatha had been trained on Truuine like their masters had promised, but she also knew that Northeus and Ranval had given her and Dynatha an abridged version of the training they ought to have received. They had learned much over the few weeks they had spent on Truuine, but not nearly enough to challenge a true master of the dark side. Celes could still count on her swordplay, but facing an opponent with greater power in the Force would make those skills useless. She couldn’t shake the feeling that these trips to different planets were part of a larger plan that either Northeus or Ranval weren’t willing to share. If she was going to continue this journey, she was determined to be in the loop.

“Ah, Celes Sunrider. A word?”

Celes turned to see Delvin leaning against the wall to her right, hidden from sight because of the damaged glowpanels in this corridor. He held Northeus’s gift in his hand, admiring the tiny gem quite closely. Celes stopped and leaned against the opposite wall so they were facing each other.

“What is it?”

“Have you spent time considering the… less obvious qualities of Northeus’s gift? It’s quite an amazing little crystal. I have never seen anything like it,” Delvin began.

“What of it?” Celes asked. “The qualities of the solari crystal are well-documented in the Jedi archives. When I return to Telos, I can learn everything I need to about it.”

“Indeed… actually, that is what I wanted to speak to you about.” Delvin carefully slipped the thin crystal back into his lightsaber and returned the closed hilt to his belt. “Don’t you suppose that it is nearly time to return to the Jedi?”

“What do you mean?”

“I have received a summons,” Delvin clarified. “The Jedi Order has left Telos. Something or someone has jeopardized the hidden sanctuary. They’ve informed me which of the many worlds they have selected for their next hidden abode. Surely you’ve received a similar announcement?”

Celes frowned. She hadn’t heard anything from the Jedi Order—or her family—since she had joined Delvin on this mission with Ranval. There was something suspicious going on. “No. Where are they hiding?”

“Can I trust you?”

Celes couldn’t believe what he said. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“You didn’t receive a summons. Either you’ve been neglecting your messages or…”

“Or what, Delvin?” Celes was upright and glaring down at Delvin in an instant. “What are you saying?”

“Perhaps the Jedi do not want you to return,” Delvin concluded.

“That’s nonsense.”

“How would I know that?” Delvin raised his hands placatingly. “I can only assume a few things from this, and none of them look good for you.”

Celes shook her head. How could Delvin doubt her? She had been nothing but loyal and dependable for the entirety of this mission, and she had done everything in her power to prove herself a warrior of light. Delvin and the others would never again find a Jedi as dependable as her. These accusations were unfair. Nevertheless, she hadn’t heard anything. She had been checking her messages quite diligently, and the Jedi hadn’t requested her.

“It could also mean that someone is preventing me from receiving these messages,” Celes noted dryly. “Did that occur to you?”

“It did. And that could also be dangerous for you.”

“If you aren’t going to help me or tell me where the Jedi are hiding, I’ll find out myself.”

Delvin watched her go, no doubt back to Ranval on the bridge where she could interrogate him. The Jedi Master said nothing as she left. Like her, his time here amongst Dynatha and the others was nearly at an end, and he was already making his final preparations to depart. There was much to do with the Sith so near, and traveling around at Northeus’s pace was not something Delvin intended to continue indefinitely. If Tserne’s increased presence around Dynatha was any indication, she had found a dependable guardian, so his presence was no longer necessary.

“Be strong, Ashla,” he whispered.

*** ***

Ranval frowned. A door separated them, but he wasn’t sure if he really wanted to go through with this little talk. Perhaps it was better just to leave their prisoner to herself to stew. After all, the more he said the more he was in danger of giving away; her side had the advantage of being on the offensive, so any plans he had could be overcome by a single wrong word from him. On the other hand, this was the only time he knew of that anyone had managed to capture a high-ranking Sith prisoner and kept them alive long enough for interrogation. That counted for something, and if Ranval could extract anything useful out of her, it could very well mean the preservation of thousands of lives.

Steeling himself, Ranval hit the door panel and admitted himself to the brig. Falmas was reclined in her cell, finishing the last of her meal with some reluctance. She noticed Ranval almost immediately—and had probably sensed him lingering outside—and stood up to watch him as he shut the door behind him, locked it, and sat down in front of her force cage.

“Did you enjoy your meal?” Ranval asked.

She didn’t say anything.

“To be honest, I’m surprised you haven’t decided to use your poison pill,” he added after a long pause. “You do still receive those, right?”

“I’m going to escape,” Falmas said. “And I’m going to kill all of you for underestimating me.”

“We don’t take these precautions for all our prisoners,” Ranval said, motioning toward the cage and other aspects of the room to demonstrate the extent of their security. “I figure you’re a fairly important operative in the Sith hierarchy. Are you counting on someone realizing you’re missing?”

“My master will know something is wrong when I don’t check in. Then you’ll regret everything.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe he’ll just elevate another acolyte into your position.”

“I’m too valuable to be replaced.”

“Are you sure?” Ranval pressed. “Seems to me a Sith Lord of your master’s status would simply find another servant to step in. He must have many servants, after all.”

“No, he’ll search for me. He’ll track you down, free me, and then use the information in your ship to slaughter the rest of your Jedi friends,” she countered.

“I’m not a Jedi.”

“You’re not a Sith. You carry a lightsaber.”

“I have absolutely no affiliation with the Jedi Order. Even if you managed to free yourself, kill everyone aboard, and commandeer the ship, it would be absolutely useless to you and the other Sith. There’s nothing here that would help you find the Jedi Order,” Ranval explained.

Falmas gave him an suspicious look. “I don’t believe you.”

He smiled. “We’ve talked a lot about me. Let’s talk about you.”

“I have nothing to tell you, Jedi.”

“Not even a name?”

“Your worst nightmare.”

“Quaint.”

“Do you really intend to waste your time down here? I won’t tell you anything,” Falmas said. “And to be honest, you’re annoying me.”

“I’m also the only one who can get you out of your cage. Did you know that if I die, the Blind Guide’s core self-destructs? So if your Sith friends do track us down, you’d better hope that they kill me last.”

Falmas’s face betrayed something between terror and anger. “It won’t matter. Killing you Jedi will bring me honor, even in death!”

“What good is honor when you’re not alive to revel in it? But if you insist, I will leave you alone with your thoughts.”

“And don’t come back, either!”

Ranval waved at her dismissively. “I’d rather not waste my time. We’ll be in Sith space soon. Anywhere you’d like us to drop you off?”

She didn’t dignify him with a response. That was fine. Like the other gambits he ran against the Sith, this would require patience and persistence. Ranval had more than enough time to cause her to slip up and reveal important information that he was sure she knew. For now, he had to focus on their overall mission: leading Dynatha to a place where she could defeat the Sith.

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.