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Chapter 29

Ralina’s gaze drifted lazily across the horizon. To the east, mountains ran from the northern edge of the continent all the way down south to Lake Brin. The tallest peaks still had a blanket of white snow on them even though it was early spring. To the north and south, crumbling buildings and ancient towers dotted the landscape, almost following the mountains in parallel. According to one of the spacers she had met, the ruins were older than the Republic itself and hadn’t been inhabited since the Jedi abandoned this world millennia ago. Even the native wildlife seemed to avoid them.

This world—Falang Minor, the Jedi had called it—was unlike anything she had seen in the Republic. It had all the idyllic beauty of Telos prior to the Sith bombardment, and yet there was something unsettling about it as well. The ruins themselves weren’t even the problem—although they did contribute to it. No, ever since she had arrived here with the Jedi Order, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching her. It had been keeping her awake at night.

Even when Thertos had been returned to her she hadn’t felt any better. The Republic had succeeded in their subjugation of Gamandar and the surrounding worlds, but they had taken heavy casualties in the final assault. Fortunately for her, Thertos had survived the engagement, but something had happened that made him unfit for further military service. Her son had been ferried in nearly a week ago along with several mercenaries, Jedi Knights, and other soldiers who had been discharged.

She had never been happier to hear that her son was safe and unable to fight anymore, but he came back changed. Since he had returned, Thertos did not speak to anyone unless specifically addressed—and often coerced. He lazily sat around in his room, not doing anything in particular and eating very little. More than once, Ralina had heard him screaming at night. Some nights he paced the halls for hours before finally settling into bed again. She hated seeing her son like this, but she honestly didn’t know what to do to help him. The only psychologists on the planet were Jedi, and they were just as likely to exacerbate the situation as remedy it.

“Ralina! Ralina, are you here?” Manda called from the doorway.

“I’m here, Manda. What is it?”

The Devaronian sauntered in with a smug look on her face. Ralina thought she had gone out to shop for food and supplies; since she returned without both, she had apparently been doing something else with her time.

“You’ll never believe what I found.”

“Then you’d better tell me so I can disbelieve quicker.”

“There’s a big tower to the south of us,” Manda began, waving her arms to aid in her description. “Smack in the middle of the mountains, in one of passes. It isn’t made out of the stones they used to make the old buildings around us, it’s made out of metal just like a warship.”

“So you saw a new building, who cares? I bet the Jedi built some. It’s probably one of theirs,” Ralina replied.

“Could be. Two of them guarding it from our side. The way they talk about it, it sounds pretty important.”

“Still not seeing your point here, Manda.”

“Well, I showed myself in while the Jedi were changing posts. And you’ll never believe what I found inside,” she explained, ignoring Ralina’s disproving look. “Aurodium! Just a huge cylinder of aurodium sitting right in the middle of the room. I’ve never seen anything like it!”

“And?”

“What do you mean, ‘and’? Has your marriage made you slow in the head? There’s a slab of aurodium bigger than I am just sitting there for the taking. You could sell it for millions of credits. We’d be rich!”

“If we were to take it, we’d have to steal it from the Jedi,” Ralina noted.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing in particular, but it won’t be easy. If it was, you wouldn’t have come back to recruit me for your scheme.”

“Well, maybe I just wanted some backup in case the Jedi get uppity,” Manda offered.

“More likely it was too heavy for you,” she countered. “Besides, I can’t leave. I need to watch Thertos while Lucius is working. I don’t know what he’d do if I didn’t check in on him every once in a while.”

“He’s a grown man. He’ll be fine for a bit.”

Ralina gave her old friend a scowl that told her that this was not a flippant matter.

“Or… we can take him with us! He can wait in the vehicle.”

Ralina weighed her options. No matter how Manda tried to argue otherwise, this was a terrible idea. The Jedi had moved her family here, brought Thertos to them, and were healing her injury. She begrudgingly acknowledged her debts to them. At the same time, with the amount of aurodium Manda was talking about, she could purchase a new ship and leave Falang Minor and the Jedi behind—she could even pay off bounty hunters and buy her family a safe haven far away from the eyes of miscreants trying to harm them.

Manda looked at her with pleading eyes. Her old friend didn’t like living here any more than she did, and she suspected that the strange environment wasn’t doing Thertos any favors either. On a more selfish note, her hunger for adventure was insatiable after years of being crippled and stuck on a space station with no way out. She didn’t want to go searching for danger, but at the same time she couldn’t deny how appealing this little thieving venture sounded.

“Fine,” Ralina said at last. “But we wait until Lucius returns to go snooping around.”

“But Lucius will complain-”

“We’re waiting with Thertos until he returns, and that’s that,” Ralina said.

“Okay.” Manda slumped into the nearest sofa. “I only hope the treasure isn’t gone by the time we get there…”

*** ***

“Ixi, Nocion, the Jedi Council admits you into their presence.”

Nocion followed the younger Jedi Knight into the Council chambers. Five Jedi were seated in a semicircle at the farthest side of the room. The room itself was strikingly similar to the chambers on Telos, but the vast windows behind them cast the room with warm sunlight and made the room far more inviting. There were pairs of guards at each of the cardinal directions, and humanoid statutes had been placed in the center of the room.

At the center of the semicircle of Jedi sat the Echani-Human Brianna. Her white robes, with ornate markings along the sleeves and around the torso, stood out among the darker colors of her companions. She had rested her hands in her lap and appeared quite dignified, but she sat up in such a way that she could leap into battle at a moment’s notice. Her piercing blue eyes watched them very closely as they approached. Mical sat on her right side. Nocion had not spoken much to the famed historian, but Ixi had had some contact with him during his time as a Padawan. The Jedi Councilor Visas Marr sat opposite of Mical. A Miraluka, she had no biological eyes; she constantly relied upon the Force for vision. Wearing dark blue robes with a black vest, her sleeves and outer robes seemed to encourage ease-of-movement, no doubt meant to help her in her expeditions across Falang Minor.

The last two Jedi Councilors were newer members whom Nocion did not know personally. Seven Jedi made up the High Council itself, and two others were selected from the available Jedi Masters as temporary members who served five year terms. The newest of these Jedi had been selected—a Sullustan male and Rodian female—and were both serving today. However, considering the nature of the meeting and their recent appointments, Nocion suspected they wouldn’t say much.

“We have reviewed your reports,” Mical spoke first, eying his fellow Councilors. “There is much we do not yet understand. Perhaps you can elucidate some of the finer details for us now.”

“Anything I could tell you now has already been mentioned in my report,” Nocion assured them. “I was quite thorough.”

“Then perhaps you can explain why you made the decision to leave Harin—a Jedi Padawan—alone to lead a military attack in the final hours of the battle,” Visas asked.

“He had led several previous operations with exceptional results. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the outcome of that last battle. Even in terms of military actions, it was an anomaly.”

“Leaving him alone in such a crucial moment was quite unwise. Could you explain what you were doing that was more important than guiding your Padawan?” Brianna asked.

“Of course. Rebel forces were converging on the capital during our assault. Without a leader, they would have devolved into a mob and looted the city during the fighting. I volunteered to guide them so the various factions involved could work together toward a common goal—that is, liberating the city from the king’s rule.”

“Ixi, can you support this alibi?” Mical asked.

The Frozian looked a bit alarmed. “Yes. Nocion also gave his report to the Republic leadership the day before the battle.”

The Jedi Council shared glances. They said nothing, but Nocion knew that Jedi Masters of their caliber could share much between physical cues and the Force. That language was foreign to him, but he sensed no immediate danger from the elder Jedi. They had no reason to suspect him. His Sith superiors had hidden his dark presence deep within him, concealing his true nature from even the greatest Jedi, but in exchange his Force potential was generally no greater than a typical Padawan.

“Very well. We may have to call you in again as this matter develops,” Mical announced after a long silence. “Do you have questions for us?”

“In private, Masters,” Ixi said. “Something weighs heavy on my heart.”

“May I see my Padawan?” Nocion added.

“Nocion, you are permitted, but the guard must be there with you. Since Atris’s escape, we’ve had to increase security. Ixi, you may stay and speak once Nocion leaves.”

Nocion bowed and left the Jedi Council chambers. Nocion hadn’t seen Ixi’s friend Ojon since they had arrived on Falang Minor, and he suspected that his mission had gone awry. That was probably what was bothering the young Jedi Knight. For his part, Nocion hadn’t heard from Celes since she had departed for the Sith territories nearly four months ago. The Sith hadn’t captured her—his masters would have let him know immediately—but she wasn’t dead. Even so far away, he could sense her presence. But why hadn’t she contacted the other Jedi? Something was amiss, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.

Once he was gone, Ixi cleared his throat to speak. “Masters, I am worried for my friend Ojon. Has he not reported in?”

“Your friend is on a confidential mission for the Jedi Council. I’m afraid we can say very little,” Master Marr said.

“Please, I must know! Haven’t you heard anything from him? Or anything about Dynatha? I just want to know if they’re okay.”

Mical motioned for Visas to let him speak. “Ixi, I know this bothers you. We are just as worried as you are. Believe me, if something were to happen to them, we would let you know as soon as possible. For now, continue to trust in the Force.”

Ixi sniffed and wiped away the tears in his eyes with his furry arm. So that was it? His friends might as well have been dead. “I understand. At your leave, Masters.”

Only once he had bowed and departed did Brianna speak. “We sent another team of shadows to investigate what happened to Master Joerbos and his team,” she mentioned, almost to herself.

“What did they discover?” the Sullustan Councilor asked.

“… They’re all dead. Them and the base they were sent to investigate. Killed by laser fire, explosives, and melee weapons.”

“Lightsabers?” Visas asked.

Brianna shook her head. “Vibroswords. And they didn’t recover Ojon’s body.”

“So he could still be alive,” Mical said.

“Or he was captured,” Visas offered.

“But that base belonged to the assassins who tried to kill Senator Latona, correct?” the female Rodian asked. “And that most likely belonged to the Sith. Who could hate the Jedi and Sith so much—and be strong enough—to engage and defeat both of them?”

“These are dangerous questions that we must answer,” Mical agreed. “Send another team in to investigate further. Let Atton know so he may accompany them. Until we have more answers, this mission is to remain classified.”

“Agreed,” Brianna said. “It would be best not to alarm the other Jedi until we have some knowledge of our new foe.”

*** ***

The halls beyond the Jedi Council chambers were far different than the ones on Telos. The Jedi Temple itself was more akin to a fortress than anything. Built in the earliest years of the Galactic Republic, their fortifications had once spanned the entire continent. Now, after being abandoned for thousands upon thousands of years, only the central complex remained. The majority of the important chambers were located within its central spire, and barracks, training facilities, and recreational chambers were in the five outer towers.

“You are the Jedi Knight Ahasies?” someone asked Nocion as he approached the prison.

Spinning around, he found himself face-to-face with a Stennes Shifter. The gaunt, gray-skinned species were capable of manipulating the Force to cloud the perceptions of those around them, making them the perfect spies and assassins. There had been a brutal war between their kind and the Jedi Knights many years ago, but some of them had been taken in by the Jedi Order after pleading for asylum. Due to their rarity in the galaxy at large, Nocion assumed this Jedi was one of their descendents.

“I am. And you are?”

“Aecus Vithion. I am the guard captain for this watch. You may enter, and I shall accompany you.”

Nocion regarded the furtive Jedi with suspicion. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t like someone standing over my shoulder while I’m speaking.”

“I do forgive you, but that doesn’t matter. The Jedi Council says prisoners are not to be seen unattended, and I will do as they command.”

Nocion weighed his options. He very much wanted to see his son in private; he had no desire to be overheard by this pawn of the Council. He could have disabled this guard just like he had the last one, but he knew that this Jedi Master would be harder to subdue and the Jedi Council would figure out what had occurred quickly.

“Very well. But try not to interfere with the conversation.”

“I will be neither seen nor heard.”

Nocion entered the prison and was guided to Harin’s cell by one of the guard droids on duty. The young Jedi Padawan sat cross-legged in his force cage, staring listlessly at the shimmering energy field between him and freedom. Had he done something so twisted that it was necessary to isolate him from the other prisoners? Nocion waited in the shadows, observing his pupil and child in silence for some time before revealing himself.

“Harin, are you well?”

The young man’s eyes lit up. “Master! Am I free? Am I allowed to leave now?”

“Unfortunately not. The Republic is still sour about what happened on Gamandar, and they need a scapegoat. You’re going to be here for a while.”

Harin’s expression quickly darkened. Nocion knew he was frustrated and angry at the Jedi Order. What else did they expect from him? He had done his duty, and they congratulated him by imprisoning him and pining all the failures of the final mission on his shoulders. The Republic would either bring him to Coruscant for a trial of their own or else advise the Jedi to pardon him once the public’s anger died down. Either way, Harin wouldn’t be a part of the Jedi long enough to find out.

Nocion had helped the king of Gamandar plant the explosives in such a way that the throne room would be relatively unscathed; standing on its own pillars, it would remain in place while the rest of the palace collapsed. He had recommended that Harin lead the charge, meaning he would have been safe—and taken the blame when he and his unit were mostly unharmed. Just a bit of mental influence had forced the hand of the mentally unstable Republic soldier into destroying the droids and giving Harin his opening. And it had all worked out exactly as he had planned.

Now that he was imprisoned, Harin couldn’t leave Falang Minor, couldn’t leave the temple, and would remain here until further notice. He would be safe here, at least, where Nocion could keep an eye on him. Once Celes arrived, Nocion would tell her what the Jedi had so unfairly done, free their son from prison, and escape the planet before the Sith arrived. Or at least, that was his plan at the moment. The Sith still did not know where the Jedi were hiding; a single word from Nocion would change that, but he was worried about acting too soon. Even if he didn’t say something, it was only a matter of time before the Sith found them on their own. He wasn’t sure who would emerge victorious in that bout, but no matter who won, Nocion and his family would have to go into hiding.

“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure the Jedi Council receives all the information it needs to release you as soon as possible,” Nocion encouraged him. “The Republic is quick to anger and quicker to forgive.”

“I hope so.”

“Trust me. You will be free before long. Do not hate the Republic. It is not their fault you were imprisoned.”

“That’s little comfort, Master.”

“Unfortunately. I’ll be back to check on you soon. Stay strong, Padawan.”

“May the Force be with you.”

“You are done, then?” the guard asked as Nocion headed for the hall.

“Indeed. I can count on you to make sure nothing happens to him?”

“Of course. No prisoner has ever escaped under my watch.”

For the time being, Nocion mused. That would change very soon.

*** ***

“Sometimes I think you’re the reason I’m always in trouble with the law, Manda.”

“I don’t know why you think that. I’m never in trouble with the law.”

“Because I end up on the wanted posters,” Ralina grumbled.

The two had been hiding in the brush just outside the tower Manda had mentioned. Situated in a low point between two peaks in the mountain range, the metal tower stood a kilometer high and dominated the landscape. Its long shadow concealed their position and shielded them from the setting sun. There were no windows or balconies on the spire, and it seemed to have entrances at the east and west side only. Ralina figured it was some sort of guard post for monitoring animal and vehicle traffic through the pass.

“The Jedi guards switch position every six hours. This will be their last change before nightfall,” Manda explained.

“How long does the switch take?”

“About three or four minutes. The departing guards give a brief report to the newcomers, and they make some idle chatter after that.”

“That’s awfully quick,” Ralina muttered with a grimace. “Are you sure we can get in and out in time?”

“Positive. Follow me.”

Manda jumped out of the brush and charged toward the tower. The Jedi had only just departed, both of them heading inside to leave from the east. Ralina was sure Manda would be caught by the clairvoyant Jedi, but neither of them returned. Cursing under her breath, Ralina followed her wily companion—slower, since she was still recovering—into the spire.

Following Manda inside, Ralina absorbed everything she saw around her. There was no ceiling, as far as she could tell: the room she found herself in seemed to stretch all the way to the top of the tower. A staircase ran along the wall, spiraling upward into the darkness overhead. Some ten meters away, she could see the opposite entrance to the spire, but it was too far for her to see anything outside. A wind passed through the interior, and it almost sounded like there were others inside with them, whispering eerily all around her.

At the very center of the room were many large disks of uniform diameter stacked on top of each other. They were obvious not forged from the same substance, and they had been stacked according to color: the lowest was a gold-brown color, the next a sparkling gray, then a metal that shifted among a spectrum of colors, and back to the lowest color again. To Ralina’s surprise, the stack of disks appeared to float in midair, and she couldn’t see anything that would have been responsible for its suspension.

“Manda, these aren’t even aurodium,” Ralina realized as she approached. “They’re alternating disks of bronzium, silver, and pyronium. There must be at least a hundred of them!”

“Pyronium? Those alone are worth hundreds of credits a gram!” Manda exclaimed. “Ralina, I don’t know what I’ll do with all that wealth! One planet isn’t enough. I might have to buy myself a senator…”

“If we can figure out how to get them from here to our swoop. These things probably weigh between at least thirty kilos. And there’s a matter of actually getting one from the stack.”

“I suppose it’d be impossible to grab the topmost one,” Manda agreed. “We’ll grab the bottom one, then? It’s floating anyway.”

Ralina nodded and moved to help Manda remove the bottom disk from its resting place. It was quite a bit harder than either of them expected; the bronzium disk stuck to the silver one above it like they were magnetically sealed together. Eventually, though, the two of them managed to remove the disk and began the grueling trip toward their swoop.

Several things happened once Ralina and Manda reached the exit and stepped outside. Inside the tower, the strange floating disks quivered like something was pushing up against them. It didn’t take long for the entire column of valuable metals to collapse, losing whatever strange power was keeping them together and floating. No sooner had the disks been spilled across the floor than the two Jedi who were beginning their shift entered from the other entrance. They didn’t notice Ralina and Manda at first, giving the two women a head start toward their vehicle.

Distracted though they were by the damage to the rare artifact, the Jedi quickly realized what had happened. The two women were about three meters away from the brush when the two warriors emerged from the tower, lightsabers in hand.

“We’re in for it now,” Ralina mumbled.

“Stop, thieves! Drop that disk!”

Manda complied almost instinctively, abandoning Ralina and closing the distance between her and the swoop. Stunned by her friend’s betrayal, Ralina found herself holding one side of the disk by herself, struggling to drag it along the ground. One of the Jedi remained by the door, but the other used his superhuman speed to close the distance between himself and Ralina in a matter of seconds.

“Step away from that artifact,” the Human Jedi demanded, waving his yellow blade in her direction.

Ralina did as she was told, holding her hands above her head as she did so. “I didn’t mean to cause such a commotion. Honest. I only saw the pretty coin and thought it would look good in my kitchen…”

“You’re a liar and a thief. I’d take you to the settler camp and let them deal with you, but this is a sensitive matter. Hopefully the Jedi Council will be more merciful than I would be.”

Ralina was about to expound upon her excuses, but the Jedi turned his head from her so quickly that she was almost certain he sprained his neck. Jumping backward, his Jedi senses saved him from being pummeled by Manda in their swoop. The Devaronian positioned the vehicle between the Jedi and Ralina, and she quickly hit the switch that opened the passenger’s door.

“Don’t just stand there with that dumb look on your face! Get in!”

Ralina did as she was told, rolling and throwing the bronzium disk into her seat and then jumping in on top of it. Her would-be Jedi captor, a bit dazed from his near collision with their vehicle, was slow to react; his partner ran forward to stop them instead. Once Ralina was inside, Manda didn’t even wait for her to close the door. The swoop’s engine roared when she slammed down on the accelerator, propelling the swoop backward into the brush and away from the two Jedi guards. Ralina’s face went ashen while she struggled to hold onto her seat and remain inside the hovercraft. Performing a terrifying turn that ought to have flipped them over, Manda headed back toward the settler camp as fast as she could. The Jedi tried to chase after them, but a few well-placed shots from Manda’s blaster forced them to stay where they were.

“Lucius is going to be furious!” Ralina shouted as she closed her door.

“We’re going to be rich, Ralina! We’ll build a luxury fleet and go gallivanting across the galaxy as queens!”

“This better be the most valuable piece of bronzium in existence.”

Manda could only laugh at that. Something about her friend’s actions both worried and relieved her. Ralina had long ago abandoned her adventurous spirit, but Manda’s had never left. Someday she would get in more trouble than she could handle; until then, Ralina was comforted to know that there was more left from her old life than she remembered.


Chapter 30

Nafyan glared balefully at the holographic display. His three apprentices stood on a plateau within the polar region of Telos IV. The wind whipped their hair, hoods, and cloaks in all directions, and the storm on the horizon caused their transmission to come in grainy.

“Why didn’t you find anyone?” the old Sith Master asked. “Where are they?”

“The Jedi must have left weeks ago,” the red-robed apprentice said. “There’s no evidence that they were even here. The entire complex is abandoned.”

“The computers were either removed or wiped clean. Our droids can’t recover anything from them,” her green-robed companion added.

Nafyan punched the terminal at his side. The Jedi were always one step ahead of him. The erstwhile Councilor Atris had informed him that the Jedi were hiding on Telos. He was initially skeptical of her motivations and her information, but his second prisoner, a Jedi Knight named Ojon whom Tadeus had captured during a mission, corroborated her story. Nafyan had sent three Sith warriors and a commando unit to Telos to confirm their tale, but the Jedi had outmaneuvered him again. He shouldn’t have doubted Atris and acted on her advice to attack immediately.

He was rapidly running out of time to deal with the Jedi Order. His master was summoning his various agents across the galaxy, ordering them to return to Sith space at long last. He was using captured civilian vessels to spy on potential targets across Republic space. His master was less than interested in the Jedi threat and was worried about the Light of the Order—some enigmatic Jedi who eluded him just as the Jedi Order itself hid from Nafyan. Yet if Nafyan did not deal with them soon, he would be punished for his failure. Failure to please the Emperor would be far more deadly than failure to Preux.

His reach extended across the galaxy in an effort to track them down. Nocion Ahasies, a rather mediocre Sith but blindingly loyal, served as his spy within their midst. The Jedi still did not trust him with their hiding place, but Nafyan knew they would eventually divulge it to him. The only question was if they would confide in him soon enough for that information to be useful. Until then, Nafyan had to depend on his droid spies, mercenaries, and Force-sensitive trackers to narrow down the Jedi Order’s potential hiding spots.

“Search again. Find anything that they might have left behind,” Nafyan ordered.

“Master, we’ve searched several times…”

“Search again! Do not report to me again until you return to Sith space.”

The Sith bowed their heads and cut the transmission. Those new warriors were much like Nocion: loyal but stupid. The old Sith Master regretted sending them without an elder Sith to guide them, but there was nothing to be done about that now. If the base was truly abandoned, no amount of cleverness would reveal their destination.

“A thousand pardons, my lord,” a Sith acolyte grovelled behind him, “but Admiral Kvorkasir requests your presence on the bridge.”

“What does he want?”

“A ship has been captured and he wants your opinion on how to handle the prisoners.”

Nafyan closed his eyes to think. His own apprentices hadn’t informed him that they had captured anyone. His agents likewise would have filed a report. It made sense to suppose that one of the Sith admirals had seized a ship that was operating in Sith territory, but such prisoners were beneath him. As usual, the admirals sought to waste his time.

“Execute them all. If they are not Jedi and not Republic sympathizers, they are useless to me.”

“They were… quite insistent, Master.”

The old Sith slammed his staff against the deck. Ordering the young apprentice to get out of his way, he charged out of the comm room and headed for the bridge. At one time, the admirals had operated directly under his command and heeded his every word. Recently, it seemed that they were more likely to goad him to anger and ignore his orders. He would not stand such insolence. The way of the Sith demanded that he put these upstart slaves in their place.

When he arrived on the bridge, fury was written on his face and in his posture. The bridge crew stayed at their posts as he stormed across the deck, but they gave him a clear path from the entrance to the holographic projectors on the lower decks. When he arrived, he found Admiral Kvorkasir and General Malthesinores waiting for him in person, and the other three admirals—including Admiral Isinn—were present via hologram.

“I will not be mocked by the likes of you,” Nafyan roared at the present company. “Such trifles are wasted on my wisdom. Use a semblance of sense in dealing with them yourself.”

“I thought for sure you would want to be involved in such an important process,” Admiral Isinn sneered. “Apparently I was wrong.”

“Kill them all. They deserve no mercy from us.”

“Don’t you even want to see the prisoners, Nafyan?” Admiral Kvorkasir asked. “Perhaps they could aid you in your hunt for the elusive Jedi you’ve wasted so much time on.”

How dare they take this tone with him? Something had changed in the past month that had changed their opinions on him, but he didn’t know what it was. Perhaps it was time for these glorified advisers to be relieved of command.

“My time is precious and used exactly. If you waste my time with this matter, I will see to it that you pay for your insolence.”

“One of my corvettes was passing by Truuine where they encountered a K16 civilian transport lingering in system,” Admiral Isinn began. “Normally we would have just let it go, but Tadeus informed me that you have been using the planet as a training ground of sorts, so we intercepted them.”

“I was not notified of a Sith outpost beyond traditional Sith space,” Admiral Kvorkasir mused.

“You are not required to know,” Nafyan growled. “Sith business is not your business.”

“But the captain of this vessel, Coroq Lotte, gave us quite an interesting bit of information,” Admiral Isinn continued. “He told us that he was tracking a rather notorious assassin who has operated in Republic and Hutt space for quite some time.”

“How does that concern me?”

“He confessed to us that before coming to Truuine, the assassin and his companions—all Jedi Knights, mind you—were stationed at a Jedi base on a remote world.”

Nafyan’s expression changed in an instant. “Where? Where are they hiding?”

The admiral gave him a demure smile. “Why, it seemed to have slipped my mind. Something about Sith business not being my business.”

The old Sith had stayed his hand for long enough. He called upon the dark side and raised his arms, using the dark power to choke her even though she was several sectors away from the Phantasm. Seeing the proud admiral clawing at her collar in an effort to save herself only encouraged Nafyan’s rage, and he knew this was something he should have done long ago.

“Tell me where the Jedi are hiding. Now.”

“That’s quite enough, Nafyan,” Admiral Kvorkasir ordered.

Shifting his gaze from Admiral Isinn to the admiral beside him, he realized that the old Human had a blaster pistol at his side. Across the room, General Malthesinores had his hold-out blaster aimed at Nafyan’s head. The old Sith could barely keep his anger in check, and he would have lashed out at all of them if not for the Sith troopers stationed directly behind him. Turning around, he realized that the four white armored Sith troopers had raised their blaster rifles against him, and the two commandos in black had activated their red lightsabers.

“It’s treason, then,” Nafyan mused to himself. Killing everyone but the commandos would have been no trouble, but he sensed several other warriors—his own apprentices—just outside the door, ready to engage him. Had Preux made his move against him already? Killing Isinn would have been a pleasure, but not at the cost of his own life. Worried that this was Preux’s doing, he released the admiral from his chokehold.

“You’ve simply been put back in your place,” Admiral Kvorkasir said. “Darth Preux has been most displeased with your decisions lately. He has appointed Tadeus as Master of the Sith in your stead.”

“He would never issue such an order.”

“He can and has.” Admiral Isinn rested her hands on her lap. Even though her holographic visage was distorted, Nafyan could tell she was quite satisfied by her victory. “When he received reports that Sallos failed to kill Queen Latona Panteer and that Falmas is missing, he decided that you have been wasting the potential of your apprentices.”

“It only makes sense for intelligence assets like your pupils to fall under Tadeus,” General Malthesinores added.

“But don’t worry, Nafyan. Darth Preux has insisted that you be allowed to remain aboard the Phantasm as long as you don’t start trouble,” Admiral Isinn said. “He has also decided you will be responsible for finding Falmas.”

“And your position as a strategist is too valuable to ignore,” Admiral Kvorkasir said. “But until the battles begin, you won’t be responsible for our soldiers, either.”

Nafyan’s rage had diminished into something of a quiet anger. He had been outmatched by his master, loath though he was to admit it. There was little he could do to recover his position now that even these slaves were rising up against him. While there was a chance he could use his many loyal Sith apprentices to strike back, the chances of success were slim, and the Sith could hardly be divided at such a crucial time. No matter his personal vendettas, he knew that a fractured group of Sith could not overcome the Republic and the Jedi both. He would outlast them. He would have his revenge but not now.

“I want to speak with Tadeus,” was all he could say.

“He’s gone. Headed after the Jedi that Captain Lotte was hunting. The mercenary captain had a tracking device installed on their ship. Once he returns, he intends to meet with you personally.”

Nayfan nodded. “If that’s all, I will depart.”

“That is all, Nafyan.”

The old Sith left the bridge in shame. Neither his apprentices outside nor any of the crew regarded his departure. He had no idea what prompted Darth Preux’s sudden change of heart, but it was an insult he would not stand. He was a Sith Lord, a master of darkness, and he would not be resisted by simpletons like Tara Isinn. He was so caught up in his own thoughts of a distant revenge that he didn’t even realize that General Malthesinores had followed him.

“Master Nafyan, a word. If I may,” the old soldier spoke.

“Do you intend to mock me further? Perhaps to tell me that you have stripped me of my quarters?”

“Oh, come now. You know that was all pomp. What would it look like if I was the only one there that didn’t oppose you? I’d be ostracized and my command given to one of my subordinates. I can’t have that.”

“Indeed…”

“I have no love for the admirals or their games,” the general insisted. “They’re nothing but glorified couriers. I must stay on their good side, you see, or else my armies will be stranded on some deserted rock in the far corners of the galaxy. I must do all the curtsies and fawning, but that doesn’t mean I approve of it.”

Whether from his time as a leading general in the Republic Army—a highly political position in its own right—or else from his tenure as a senator, Oro Malthesinores had learned how to play both sides of every conflict. The only being alive he looked out for was himself, and Nafyan was fairly confident that, had he been born Force-sensitive, he would have been a ferocious and successful Sith Lord. Then again, Nafyan was even more self-serving than the good general. Even disloyal slaves could be useful on occasion.

“I never doubted you,” Nafyan said. “Tell me what you need to speak about.”

“It’s Republic business. Ducian is getting too close for comfort, and I’m afraid he’s feeling out our positions for an attack.”

“You have proof of this?”

“There was the attack on Sernpidal several days ago. Reports from survivors say the base was completely destroyed. It seemed to have been a Republic operation. Police forces have dismantled our shell companies on Aargau and in Taboon’s orbit as well. And just yesterday, an unidentified group of ships attacked a military complex on Athiss.”

“You have reason to believe they were unmarked Republic ships?”

“Or mercenaries directly employed by them, yes.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Tadeus may ostensibly hold power over the Sith forces now, but I believe you still demand loyalty from them. Since he’s on a mission anyway, send a few of your elite teams to Athiss to determine if anything remains of the base and see if the Republic stole anything.”

Nafyan nodded. “You think they’re planning something, General?”

“This smells like Ducian through-and-through. He’s getting a feel for us. He’s either less interested in a direct fight or else he’s waiting for authorization. For now, he’s content attacking us through legal means or striking military facilities along the Republic border.”

“Have you increased security at those bases still standing?”

“As much as possible. I don’t want to attract attention. That’s another one straight of his holobook: striking at targets until he finds one valuable enough to lure the enemy out of hiding. Worked great on Ord Trasi. Forced Malak’s forces to reveal themselves too soon and they got slaughtered. He pushed them all the way back to Sinsang. But don’t you worry, Nafyan. I’ve studied him for years, and I’m always one step ahead of him.”

“See that you are,” Nafyan ordered.

“So you’ll send some troops to in?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

To be honest, sending his most loyal agents across Sith space was not a prudent move, especially when his own authority was in flux. As long as he was not surrounded by loyalists, he was vulnerable to scheming. He would take some of the soldiers whose loyalties were still in question and send them away. Helping General Malthesinores meant getting most of the army—who respected him as their supreme leader—on his side. Hopefully the general and his supporters could gain some traction and overcome the naval clique that had developed among Darth Preux’s inner circle.

In fact, hadn’t a new officer been appointed to a new fleet? Admiral Mauch, as he recalled. This admiral hadn’t been present during the incident on the bridge; perhaps he had yet to take a side in this little quarrel between Nafyan and the admiralty. With some hope, the old Sith bid Malthesinores farewell and headed for the comm room. With any luck, he could work on handling this mess one step at a time, starting with gaining the confidence of Admiral Mauch.

*** ***

The man who had once been the Hand of the Sith Emperor entered the observatory at the behest of his new master. Darth Preux and his guard Thoronim had been alone in the room for however long, as silent as the stars that shimmered across the dome. This was the first time he had been invited to this deck of the Phantasm, and he was confused about its purpose. Was this not a warship? Even if it was akin to a meditation chamber, it would make more sense to place it deeper inside the ship for protection.

Somehow, the Sith from Alderaan had severed what he had assumed was a permanent telepathic link between himself and the Emperor. He had never heard of such power before. As one of the few beings who had direct access to the Sith Emperor, his shame at losing that privilege had driven him mad. It was only due to the guards that Darth Preux had assigned to him that he had not succeeded in taking his own life.

His very reason for existing had been stolen from him by these pretenders. The fact that he was aiding one of the greatest enemies of the Emperor was not lost upon him. This Sith from Alderaan did not have the same far-reaching voice and awesome power that his true master did. But an unspeakable fear emanated from this not-so-crippled Sith Lord, and that power made resistance impossible. Like a child’s puppet, he could only move according to his master’s whim. Only his thoughts could struggle toward freedom.

“You summoned me, Lord Preux?”

The Dark Lord rotated his chair so he was facing the Hand. “A servant of your Sith Emperor contacted Admiral Mauch yesterday.”

The Hand stiffened in alarm. Had his lack of communication alerted the Emperor? Was help coming to relieve him from this torture?

“The admiral informed the Emperor’s servant that Mauch’s fleet engaged mine and destroyed all our ships,” Darth Preux explained. “When questioned about your sudden absence, he explained that you were killed when a starfighter struck the bridge of the ship you had been on. So as far as your Emperor knows, Admiral Mauch succeeded in his mission and will return after tracking down the ’remnants’ of our forces.”

The Hand felt his heart in his throat. Impossible. The Sith Emperor would recognize the presence in the Force and know he wasn’t dead. If he didn’t, he and the fleet under Admiral Mauch would be forced to remain in service to Darth Preux. Surely they were too valuable to simply abandon without investigating further. Did he trust Admiral Mauch’s word so utterly?

“He will come for us when he realizes Admiral Mauch has no intention of returning,” the Hand whispered to himself.

“Perhaps. But by then, you and your admiral will no longer be useful to me.” Darth Preux turned his attention to the stars overhead. “I have a mission for you in the meantime.”

“What do you command?”

“The Republic is growing too bold. Their leaders are preparing for a rapid incursion into Sith space upon Senate approval. Now that they have dealt with those rebels along the frontier, they will be able to amass the entirety of their armed forces for this assault.”

“You intend to slow them down?”

“Due to the way they are aligning their fleets, the Rimma Trade Route is relatively unprotected by Republic ships. Only regional defense forces remain. You and some of Tadeus’s agents will sneak by their defenses and sabotage valuable factories on Abregado-rae.”

“Shall I capture no diplomats? Terrorize their capital? Use bioweapons against their people?”

Darth Preux waved his hand. “In time. For now, do as I say. My ships will handle the rest.”

The Hand didn’t understand why Darth Preux would order someone of his talents to damage a few meager factories. He wanted to know more, but without the Force he had no way of sensing what his new master’s motives were. His connection with the Emperor had been created when he had been a child. He had been an extension of the Emperor’s thoughts and will. Lacking explanations now made him feel uneasy. With a curt bow, he showed himself out of the observatory.

Darth Preux was quiet for some time. “The spirit has departed, Thoronim,” he said several minutes after the Hand had departed.

“It is not permanently bound to you?”

“He and I share a bond, it is true. But his power enables him to depart from me and haunt others. For the time being, he has found another mortal to influence.”

“You are not concerned that he will leave you for this new host?”

Darth Preux shook his head. “He has sacrificed all of his power to chain himself to my body. As long as I am alive, he cannot depart from this plane. He has already made his choice; he can travel where he wills, but he cannot abandon me or else risking his own destruction.”

“I understand. But is his presence worth the power you’ve gained?”

“On my own, my powers are formidable, but my body is weak. The dark side has crippled me; it seeks to make me like that monstrous Sith years ago that had developed an insatiable desire to devour all life. Avaran Whell’s spirit has preserved my body. He has given me the strength I need to conquer my remaining enemies.”

“At what cost, Master?”

“What cost, indeed.” Darth Preux leaned back in his hoverchair. “I have the body he needs. He has the knowledge I need. But he does not know that I have been learning much in secret. When he departs from me, I read the tomes of the ancients—Sith far older than him. I have learned much, and I intend to cast him out as soon as I am able.”

“I am concerned for you until then,” Thoronim admitted. “This ghost makes me uneasy. I fear that you may not have the will to overcome him.”

“And you may be right. That is why I have several tasks for you, my loyal servant.”

“I shall obey whatever it is you command.”

“Should that conniving spirit attempt to claim this body for his own, you must use this to obliterate all of his potential allies,” Darth Preux ordered, handing his bodyguard a datapad from his coat. “Transmit that signal over all channels that our soldiers are operating on. My father ordered it developed as a fail-safe.”

“It shall be done.”

“Once you have done this, return to my side and observe if he has defeated me. You will know. If that is the case, you must destroy this body… so that he may be denied a chance to profit from my weakness.”

“You ask me to do a hard thing, Master. If I am truthful, I must confess I do not know if I can do it.”

“I trust you, Thoronim. Know that it is not your master that you would be facing, but a dark spirit who has betrayed and killed me. If you do not do as I command, he will take this body and flee into the void. But if my body is destroyed and his allies rendered harmless with that transmission, then he will lose his anchor to the galaxy and disappear, never to return.”

The towering bodyguard was silent. He had been asked to do what most loyal warriors would find anathema—that is, to strike his liege and end his life. He found no encouragement within, despite his master’s explanation.

“I will do as you ask,” he said.

“I know. But I am confident that I have outsmarted him for the time being. No spirit will claim power over me as long as my mind is intact. Let this contingency trouble you no more.”


Chapter 31

Tserne flipped the comm board back on. As before, there was nothing but the buzz of static and amorphous images where the holographic display should have been. He gave the terminal a swift kick. Threecee let out a disappointed whine next to him. For all their hard work, it seemed that the damage to the comms was external, so there was very little they could do in hyperspace.

Northeus had ferried Tserne and his droid companion away from the chaos at Sernpidal. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable course of action. Tserne assumed that they would linger just beyond the range of Republic ships and wait for Ranval and the others before heading off to wherever they had to go next. When the entire region around Sernpidal proved too dangerous, Northeus punched in a set of coordinates and fled into hyperspace without waiting.

When confronted, Northeus had refused to confess where they were going. The situation was apparently urgent enough that he had to leave both Dynatha and Celes behind. Tserne had objected and demanded Northeus give him control of the ship, but the Jedi Master threatened to lock both him and his droid out of the bridge if he tried anything. Tserne had agreed to comply only so he could contact Dynatha using the Grimtaash’s comm. Now that he knew it didn’t work, he didn’t see a reason to allow this situation to continue.

“Satellite dish must be damaged,” Tserne grumbled. “We’ll have to land to make repairs.”

Northeus didn’t say anything to him, but he was mumbling to himself—Tserne noted that he had been doing that ever since they left Sernpidal. It wasn’t just mindless rambling either; it sounded like he was talking to someone.

“Northeus. We need to make repairs to the comms to reach Ranval and the others.” Tserne approached the elder Jedi. “Northeus!”

He turned to face the former assassin. Northeus had a crazed look in his eyes, as though he was a predator seconds away from cornering his prey. “What?”

“Get us out of hyperspace.”

“I can’t do that, Tserne.”

“This is my ship.” Tserne warily reached for the knife at the back of his belt. “Threecee and I are going to pilot our ship to a place that we know is safe so we can repair it. Do you understand?”

“Of course, of course.” Northeus took a deep breath, and it seemed that whatever had come over him had passed. “I’m sorry, Tserne. I haven’t been myself. I’ve been so caught up with this business that I’ve failed to explain my plan.”

Tserne didn’t believe that someone could so quickly transition between stubborn and unhelpful to understanding, but Northeus didn’t seem nervous or agitated, so Tserne relaxed as well. “Fine. What’s going on, then?”

“While you were dealing with those soldiers back on Sernpidal, I discovered that they have found an ancient weapon—something so powerful that it threatens the fate of the Republic and all of its allies. A superweapon from an ancient race that, in the hands of the Sith, will bring about our defeat.”

“You’re sure the Sith know about this weapon?”

“Yes. They’ve been researching it for years… Darth Revan was the last Sith ambitious enough to search for these weapons of mass destruction, but information on their computers reveal that they know the location of another. They will not hesitate to use it, should it be found.”

“So what is it? And where is it?”

“A Force weapon. Something more terrifying than any technological terror the Republic or the Mandalorians could construct,” Northeus explained. “Anyone who wields it could destroy entire star systems. But as to where it is, I cannot say. Even the Sith don’t know, and that works to our advantage.”

“In what way?”

“You see, the location of the weapon is hidden within an ancient temple. There are many such temples across the galaxy, but the only one that will reveal this weapon’s location is located on Sleheyron.”

“And that’s where we’re going,” Tserne surmised.

“Indeed. I trust you, Tserne. I didn’t mean to seize control of your ship the way I did, but I would hope you could at least take me to Sleheyron before you turn around and return to Dynatha. I have no ship of my own, and time is of the utmost essence. If you do not want to accompany me upon arrival, I understand. But I do need to get there before the Sith arrive.”

If Northeus had shared this information sooner, Tserne wouldn’t have gotten so riled when Northeus commandeered his ship. Everything made sense; he had no reason not to help him, at least until they reached Sleheyron. He wasn’t particularly interested in this whole Jedi versus Sith business, but he knew it was important to Dynatha and she would want to help Northeus. And there were many good mechanics on the Hutt worlds. He could find a mechanic on that world that would give him a good deal.

“Very well. I’ll bring you to Sleheyron and then contact Ranval and the others so we can talk about what our next move is.”

“That sounds reasonable to me.” Northeus backed away from the navigation console. “I will be meditating near the engines. Send your droid to fetch me if something happens.”

He left the bridge before Tserne could say anything else. Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, Tserne bid his droid to take control of the ship. Threecee reported that they were already on their way to Sleheyron—it would be another few hours at most. Now that it could read through the ship diagnostics, it seemed that the Grimtaash had taken damage to its comm satellite, the sublights, and the quad laser cannon. The latter two were still operable, but they weren’t in optimal condition. The comm satellite was totally destroyed.

“I can fix the sublights on my own, but the other damages will be expensive. Do we still have a few credits on hand?”

The droid beeped an affirmative.

“Very good.” Tserne said after a long silence. “What do you think, Threecee? Do you think Dynatha and the others made it off Sernpidal? You think they’re okay?”

It bleeped a few times assuredly.

He gave the droid a worried look. “I wish I had your confidence.”

*** ***

Fetcher had his eyes peeled on the tactical map in front of him. It was an older model—military surplus from before the Mandalorian Wars—but it was workable. The tiny display, roughly the size of a pazaak projector, showed the Hound’s Sapphire at the center, surrounded by sixteen ships. Twelve of them were ships under his command, the auspicious Sapphire Fleet, and the other four were ships belonging to Haphren Marhe. They were millions of kilometers away from the planet itself, so he had to rely entirely on his tactical screen to determine what was going on around Sleheyron. Of the fifty or so smugglers that had joined them, about ten were on the other side of the planet, so far away that Sleheyron’s star barely stood out from the rest. The others were stationed at Aeneid, waiting for Fetcher’s signal to jump in-system.

“This had better work,” Captain Marhe grumbled over their shared frequency. “If any Hutt ship gets close to us, I’m getting out of here and taking my men and women with me.”

“Brave as always, huh?” Posh said from the pilot’s seat. “Don’t tell him I said that.”

The Hutts were certainly well-prepared for any sort of attack. Each fleet was comprised of twelve ships: one Erethos-class light cruiser, four Oorica-class heavy freighters, and seven Holshoda-class patrol ships. Apparently those smugglers who were more loyal to the Hutts than their own brethren had warned the Hutts of a possibility of an attack; the Hutts had an additional fleet around the planet and two squadrons of diamond-shaped starfighters near the fueling stations. With four fleets to contend with, Fetcher suspected that even a Republic battle group would have a difficult time assailing this planet.

“Don’t worry, Captain Marhe. You’ll get your show, and you’ll be safe and sound for the entirety of it.”

“It’s a bigger fleet than you expected,” a smuggler in Haphren’s fleet said. “Don’t you think it’d be better to call this off and try again when they’re not expecting trouble?”

“How long will that be? The longer we wait, the more we’ll fight amongst ourselves. Pretty soon, enough of us will be on Hutt payroll that we won’t be able to make this work.”

“Well, if you intend on running this operation, you’d best get started,” Captain Marhe replied.

“Captain Fetarollias, the fleet on the far side of the planet is… leaving,” Jon-Oryan announced. “It took a squadron of fighters with it.”

Fetcher allowed himself a sigh of relief. His employer had promised to handle most of the dirty work. It seemed he was already fulfilling his promise. “Let our allies around Aeneid know it’s time to begin.”

“And which fleet shall they be skirmishing?” the cyborg asked.

“The fleet monitoring that group of civilian ships waiting to purchase fuel,” Fetcher ordered.

“But Captain, what about the fleet looming over the depots?” Zalee asked. “How are we going to steal anything with those ships so close?”

“It’s being handled,” Fetcher said.

“Frak! There’s a Hutt fleet right on top of us!” one of the smugglers on the opposite side of the system shouted into the comm. “They knew we were here!”

“Do not engage!” Fetcher shouted. “Spread out and begin a steady retreat. Don’t let their fighters or picket ships get too close. Report once you’re all in hyperspace.”

“What’s going on, Fetcher? How did the Hutts know where they were?” Captain Marhe asked.

“Coming in hot,” Captain Quyen of the Horizon Bound chimed in. He and others had been stationed at Aeneid. “Got the others with me. T-minus five, four, three…”

“Inbound ship!” Jon-Oryan reported. “It’s…”

“What is it?” Posh asked.

“It’s… a Sith vessel. My scans indicate it as a Derriphan-class battleship.”

Smugglers started talking all at once in the channel. Fetcher only wished he could have been there. His tactical feed showed the Sith vessel get closer and closer to the Hutt fleet guarding the fuel depots. When it refused to divert its present course, they fired on it; by then, it was too late. The ship rammed into the Erethos cruiser, and the resulting explosion and destruction of both ships was displayed as a less-than-satisfying cross on his battle map.

Captain Quyen and the others arrived just in time to see a chain of explosions destroy most of the ships in that fleet. Once the smugglers had assembled, several freighters that had been waiting for their turn for fuel suddenly exploded as well, causing most of the civilians to panic and flee the scene. Captain Quyen and the others started their attack on the closest fleet, but neither side seemed to know what was going on.

That was by design, of course. Fetcher couldn’t claim all the credit; this plot had mostly been set up by his mysterious benefactor. The first step of the plan was drawing some of the fleet away. A Hutt captain had been bribed by Fetcher’s employer to take his ships and chase the few smugglers Fetcher had assigned across the system, removing both groups from the equation until the operation was complete. None of those smugglers were in any danger, because the captain had been instructed to command his officers to merely intimidate them and not actually fight.

The Sith battleship was practically a derelict that his employer had retrofitted with a complex droid brain that basically activated the hyperdrive, returned the ship to realspace after a set distance had been traveled, and then rammed the largest ship it detected. It just so happened that Hutt capital ships were quite larger than both smuggler vessels and most civilian freighters. Once one of the fleets had been taken care of, several freighters amongst the civilians that had been piloted by some of Fetcher’s pirate associates exploded when their hyperdrives failed—after the crews had abandoned their ships, of course. The terrifying spectacle had allowed the innocent civilians to get to safety, cleared the way toward the fuel depot, and confused the surviving Hutt captains as to exactly where the source of the danger was.

So far so good. The plan as Fetcher had explained it to his allies had been set up to allow several smugglers to break off from the Hutt forces and steal fuel themselves. However, the smugglers in Captain Quyen’s group were proving unable to flee from the tenacious Hutt starfighters, and the larger ships were more challenging to outmaneuver than Fetcher had assumed. But again, his employer had stepped in to spare him the trouble of wasting time with the other smugglers. Several heavy freighters, bearing some similarities to Sullustan designs, were already stationed at the fuel depots and stealing as much fuel as they could carry. They had been provided by his employer and hidden amidst the civilians until the commotion broke out. With a bit of help from some paid-off laborers in the depots themselves, they wouldn’t have any trouble getting in and out of the area.

But the other smugglers hadn’t known about any of this. Fetcher hadn’t even told his own crew. It was not that he didn’t trust them; until he saw it with his own eyes, even he was unsure if this crazy scheme would work. Now that it was actually happening, he had to admire the planning his employer had put into this heist. Using the mercenary nature of Hutt servants, eye-catching explosions, and misleading the Hutt-aligned smugglers certainly seemed to be working.

“The Hutt fleet around Sleheyron’s eastern hemisphere is moving to pin down the smugglers fighting the fleet on the opposite side of the planet,” his cyborg crewmate reported.

“And what of the Hutt fleet across the system? The ships attacking our fleeing allies?” Fetcher asked.

“It hasn’t returned, but our smugglers are reporting that they’ve all retreated.”

“Odd. You’d think they’d return when they received word of the attack,” Zalee opined.

“It’s quite strange,” Fetcher agreed. The smugglers were still rambling and trying to understand what was going on. He activated the comm channel. “Captain Quyen, Captain Marhe, and everyone else. Settle down. These pyrotechnics were part of the plan all along. We needed something to both dwindle the number of enemy ships and distract them.”

“You could have told us beforehand!” Captain Marhe shouted.

“My apologies. I wanted to make sure it would work before I explained what was going on.”

“We can’t even break away from the Hutts! They’ve got us pinned between their cruisers,” Captain Quyen said. “How are we going to get to those depots?”

“And that other Hutt group is on the way!” another smuggler in their skirmishing group exclaimed.

“Captain, we’ve received a text-only message from aboard the fueling stations,” Jon-Oryan announced. “It says ’reinforcements are coming in’. The sender did not divulge their identity.”

“We’ve got to make this quick. They’re requesting assistance from nearby systems, no doubt. Zalee, get our weapons ready. Posh, I want an outbound vector for the Hound’s Sapphire and all our ships ready.”

“An outbound vector, Captain?” Posh repeated.

“Yes, outbound. But for the time being, just have it on standby.” Fetcher reactivated the comm. “Captain Marhe, my ships and I are going in to relieve Captain Quyen and the others. Are you going to assist?”

“If we must. It would be unseemly to remain behind while you risk your ships to save them. But what about the fuel?”

“Don’t worry about that. I have it under control. We just need to get our friends out of there.”

“Aye aye, then.”

*** ***

Tserne eyed the navicomputer. “All right, Threecee. Bring us back into realspace… nice and slow. We don’t want to land right on top of Sleheyron. The Hutts have patrols that will bring us down to the planet.”

The droid did as it was told. Dialing back their speed, the shimmering lines of hyperspace reformed into stars before their eyes. Sleheyron itself filled their viewscreen, its red-brown atmosphere making it appear as polluted and uninhabitable as any other Hutt world. However, they quickly discovered that there were no patrols to meet them. To their surprise, there seemed to be a battle going on around the planet. Nearly a third of the fuel stations in Sleheyron’s orbit were burning, and the entire western hemisphere seemed to be littered with debris from destroyed starships. A few thousand kilometers away, sensors told them that a Hutt fleet was being harassed by an unmarked group of smaller vessels. From above the eastern hemisphere, another fleet of Hutt ships was coming to aid their comrades, and a smaller group of more unmarked ships was in their wake. Civilian freighters and supply-carriers were scattered across the system, calculating outbound vectors and fleeing the system as quickly as they could.

“What’s going on?” Tserne said. “I’ve never seen such a large-scale pirate attack.”

“Ignore this rabble,” Northeus said, emerging from the depths of the ship. “We have to reach the surface. I have the exact coordinates of the temple on this datapad. Tell your droid to land as close as it can.”

“It’s going to be messy. There are ships fighting all over the place. Chances are the Hutts have their atmospheric craft on high alert and won’t take too kindly to an incursion,” Tserne explained.

“Just do it. We don’t have time to waste.”

Threecee bleeped a few times, notifying him that another ship had just arrived from the same vector they had. Scanning the sensor reading, it didn’t seem to be broadcasting any identification, but Tserne could tell by its silhouette that it was a smaller vessel not unlike the Grimtaash.

“We’ve been followed,” Northeus growled, peering over Tserne’s shoulder. “Bring us in, whatever the cost! Now!”

The little droid did as it was told, pushing their sublights to the limit as they zoomed through the battle raging all around Sleheyron’s orbit. A few glancing laser shots hit their shields, but they were not specifically targeted and their defenses held. The ship that had followed them was in hot pursuit. The thick upper atmosphere of Sleheyron gave way to billowy clouds and polluted haze, and that gave way to a relatively clear view of the planet’s surface. Most of the cities were on elevated platforms, separating them from the dark earth below. Volcanoes, some dormant and some quite active, were on every continent, and the Hutts had constructed their largest cities as far from them as possible.

As he had expected, several Hutt patrol craft flew from the closest ports to intercept them. They began transmitting instructions, but Tserne advised Threecee to ignore them and continue on their course. Keeping the Grimtaash just below the majority of the clouds, they remained relatively safe from anti-air guns on the surface.

“Your coordinates seem to be pointing us to one of those volcanic craters,” Tserne said, gripping his chair as a burst of laser fire rippled across their shields.

“Perhaps the temple is located within the extinct volcanoes… most interesting,” Northeus mused.

The Hutt ships were fast, but the Grimtaash’s maximum speed matched theirs, so Threecee managed to stay perpetually ahead of them. Once they were nearly above their destination, Threecee pointed the nose down and dove as quickly as it could. The ship trembled as it descended. Sure enough, Tserne and Northeus saw four deep craters—sensors indicated they were indeed extinct volcanoes—that broke up the plains that surrounded them as far as their eyes could see. Two of them were completely filled with greenish water, another had all sorts of piping, structural support, and industrial drills inside of it, and the last was undisturbed by industry and nature.

“Records indicate that these volcanoes have been dormant for nearly sixty thousand years,” Tserne said. “According to the traveler’s bulletin, this country is owned by a prestigious local Hutt dynasty, and they’ve been in the process of draining the lakes to mine for valuable metals underground.”

“Tell your droid to bring us into that empty crater, without the water,” Northeus ordered, ignoring the laser fire they were taking. “Our destination lies within.”

“If you say so…”

Threecee finished their descent, flying them over one of the crater lakes and then hovering above the seemingly ignored crater. From this position, Tserne could see collapsed pillars and ruined statues that had been carved from out of the crater, and he could just barely make out an entrance to a cavern of some sort. Northeus urged the droid to land, and it did its best to bring the ship to rest just outside the entrance to what Tserne figured was the temple they had been looking for.

Northeus was on his feet and off the bridge before Tserne could stop him. He had been asked only to take Northeus to this place, but Tserne quickly decided that it would better for him to accompany the old Jedi. Even if those Sith had stopped chasing them, Tserne figured that the temple itself could be dangerous, and they were trespassing on private property that belonged to the Hutts. One way or another, there was bound to be trouble headed their way.

“Stay with the ship, Threecee. Keep it ready to go in case we need to get out of here quickly.”

The droid replied that it would do so. Not knowing how long they would be planetside or what sort of dangers Northeus was expecting, Tserne grabbed all the supplies he could. After gathering his weapons and armor, he began recharging his gauntlets and energy shield. It took him so long to find energy cells and power paks that he was already several minutes behind Northeus when he left the ship.

The ventral guns of the Hutt ships spat laser fire into the crater as they soared overhead. Tserne remained underneath the Grimtaash and its shields until they had flown away and then crossed the distance between the ship and the cavern. Climbing over rubble from the temple’s exterior and boulders that had been dislodged over time, he managed to get inside before the patrol craft returned for another strafing run.

With no torches or light sources, the interior of the temple was completely dark. Water dripped from the ceilings around him, and the musty scent of wet earth filled his nostrils. The air inside was stale, humid, and thick with dust. Adjusting his cybernetic eye so he could see in low-light environments, Tserne used that eye and his hands to navigate into the penetralia of the ancient structure.

He stumbled around in the dark, following the walls of the long chamber before him. There was writing and artwork on the walls, but he couldn’t understand the strange symbols. He had just descended a small flight of stairs when he saw something lying in the middle of the path. It didn’t take him long to realize that it was a droid. Its bipyramidal frame was quite unlike any of the droids currently on the market, with long, slender legs and a single photoreceptor coupled with a projectile launcher where its other eye, symmetrically, should have been.

“What happened?” Tserne asked, kneeling near the droid. “Have you seen an older Human male come through here?”

The droid replied to him in a staccato series of chirps and groans unlike anything Tserne had ever heard. The droid tried repeating itself several times, but when he didn’t reply, it started speaking in a high-pitched, tonal language that was definitely different than the first. Finally, the droid gave a deep, resonant growl that Tserne recognized as the language of the Wookiees. He could not speak it, but he recognized it from his time as a mercenary years ago.

“Wait, that one! You speak Wookiee?”

The droid continued to bark in the language of the tree-dwelling Wookiee people. When the droid realized that he only recognized and did not actually speak the language, it cycled to another. In a dialect somewhat akin to the language of the Duros people, it said, “My biological sensors indicate that you are a Builder, and yet my photoreceptor reveals that cannot be the case. My programming requires an explanation for this unusual phenomenon.”

“I don’t understand,” Tserne admitted. “But have you seen another Human in here? An older Human with gray hair and dark eyes?”

“Another species that is neither Builder nor slave has passed through here. He evaded my questioning and defeated the defenses set up by the Builders on his way to the map room. He has proven himself worthy, but his methodology eludes my programming.”

“Can anyone go back there?”

“Anyone who has proven themselves worthy of the legacy of the Builders.”

Tserne helped the droid back into an upright position. “What exactly… is that? Who are the Builders? How can I prove myself worthy?”

“You’re wasting your breath,” someone called from behind him. “Those droids were not programmed for inquiry.”

Tserne spun around, blaster at the ready. At the top of the stairs stood three men and a woman, all wearing skintight mesh combat suits with bandoleers around their torsos and waists. Only one of them, a taller, well-built man with blond hair and a trimmed beard, didn’t wear a full-face mask. He carried four vibroswords with him, and he stood in front of the others with a blazing torch in his hand.

“Who are you?” Tserne asked.

“I am Tadeus Bulger II, Masterblade and Sith assassin. These are my disciples, Bladeborn who have proven themselves against Jedi Knights. I understand that you and your Jedi friend have found something quite interesting. Something my master can use against the Republic.”

“These Sith were slaves of the Builders' Infinite Empire, upon which there was no beginning and shall be no end,” the droid beside him chirped.

“Ah yes, your precious ’Star Forge’. Such a shame what happened to it,” Tadeus sneered, walking down the stairs with a confident stride. “But this… could be far more promising. I have nothing personal against you,” he said, addressing Tserne, “let me into the map room, and you can go free.”

Tserne took several steps back so that the droid separated him and the Sith. His rifle was still pointed at Tadeus’s chest. “Why should I trust you? Anything that benefits the Sith will hurt me, immediately or not.”

“You’re making a mistake, of course.” Tadeus signaled for his apprentices to follow Northeus deeper into the temple. “Even if you try to stop me, your old Jedi companion will not survive. You’re merely delaying the inevitable.”

“Don’t underestimate me.”

Tserne squeezed the trigger on his blaster rifle, and a dozen blaster bolts raced toward Tadeus. The Sith assassin leapt cleanly over the incoming stream of fire, somersaulting through the air and closing the distance between them. Tserne jumped back just in time to avoid a sword to the shoulder, but the droid hadn’t been so lucky. Tadeus cut the droid down the middle. Tserne discarded his blaster rifle just in time to intercept a sword strike with his own blade.

Their vibroswords screeched each time they clashed. Tserne did his best to dodge his opponent’s attacks, but the hallway was narrow and it was hard to move around. Battering away Tadeus’s sword as it swung at his chest, Tserne countered with several quick stabs before retreating further into the ruins. Tadeus sprinted to meet him, but a quick kick from Tserne put him on his back.

Tadeus sprang up and chopped at Tserne’s neck. He managed to intercept the blow, but he hadn’t expected Tadeus to follow up with a knee to his groin. Pain wracked his entire body, and he just barely managed to shove Tadeus back before the Sith could finish him off. Breathing heavily, Tserne pulled away from the wall just in time to avoid a thrust at his gut. Tadeus’s sword impaled the wall, and the vibrating blade cut deep into the masonry.

Tserne slashed at him, preventing him from recovering his weapon. Tadeus silently withdrew another blade from its sheath. Beating Tserne back with ferocity that seemed almost unnatural, he had forced Tserne to a crouching defense when an explosion echoed from deeper inside the sanctum. An intangible blur moved between both of them toward the stairs. When they turned around, they saw Northeus at the top of the steps, with the same wild look in his eyes that Tserne had seen earlier.

“Northeus?”

“Thank you for your assistance, Tserne. I’m afraid I cannot risk anyone following me—and that includes you. You both can continue to fight, of course, but no one besides me will leave this place alive.”

“Have you gone completely crazy?”

“Where are my disciples?” Tadeus asked.

“You’ll have plenty of time to discover what remains of them. But I have no time to waste… the Sith are coming.”

He disappeared as quickly as he had come. Tserne chased after him, even though something told him it was too late. The ground shook beneath the ancient ruins, and massive stones rolled down from the very top of the stairs toward Tserne. Jumping back down, he barely managed to avoid being crushed by the boulders, but he twisted his ankle as he landed.

“So that’s it, then,” Tadeus mused. “He meant to trap me in here. It makes sense; I already know too much about his plans. But to leave you down here… quite ruthless for a Jedi, don’t you think?”

“We can still get out,” Tserne said, rising to full height despite the pain in his leg. “You and I. We can work together and dig our way out of here.”

“And why would I do that?”

Tserne looked at him like he was crazier than Northeus. “We won’t last long without air. There’s no way we can dig our way out alone—especially if your apprentices are dead.”

The Sith assassin shrugged. “I offered you a chance to assist me. You insisted on fighting, and now we’re two corpses in the same grave. We could work together, but I’d have to fight you as soon as we escaped. And on the slim chance that I don’t win…”

Tserne couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Tadeus came at him so fast, he hardly had a chance to defend himself. The Sith warrior was ferocious and unyielding, pounding away at Tserne with powerful overhead blows. Using Tadeus’s momentum against him, Tserne sidestepped away from his attacks, causing Tadeus to fall over. Tserne stretched out his leg and caught him in the jaw. Spitting out blood and a shattered tooth, the Sith rolled upright and tackled Tserne to the ground, causing both of them to lose their swords.

The Sith wasted no time pummeling away at Tserne, punching him in the face, chest, and throat. Tserne raised both arms to defend himself, which only caused the Sith to aim lower, jabbing at his abdomen. Wrapping both legs around Tadeus, Tserne pivoted his body and threw his opponent to the floor. The two of them got up at the same time, but Tserne grabbed one of the knives from his belt and stabbed Tadeus. The dark assassin maneuvered so he took the blade in the upper right arm instead of his heart, and then he elbowed Tserne in the face. Dazed, Tserne gave Tadeus a chance to take the knife out of his arm and turn it against him.

Tserne grabbed another knife for himself. The two trained killers circled each other, searching for an opening they could use. The Force was with him, it seemed, because Tserne managed to turn invisible. Unlike other times, he noticed it immediately due to the look of surprise on Tadeus’s face. Tserne used his confusion to get behind him and aimed for his spine. Tadeus stepped away from the attack, wrapped both of his hands around Tserne’s weapon arm, and then headbutted him twice. Tserne felt blood dribble down from his broken nose, and Tadeus refused to let go of his arm. He tried to maintain his grip on his weapon, but Tadeus suddenly jerked his arm forward and clockwise hard enough to dislocate it. Tserne shouted in pain and dropped the knife.

“Thought you could sneak around? I’ve been trained to hunt species that camouflage themselves with the Force. Your petty tricks are worthless here.”

As if to emphasize his point, Tadeus released Tserne and then disappeared himself. Tserne, on the ground and in pain, clawed at the wall and pulled himself back up just in time for Tadeus’s boot to meet his face. His head hit the wall hard, and his vision faded out for a split second. Shaking away the pain as best as he could, Tserne glanced around the hall, but he couldn’t see his adversary. Crawling as far as he could, Tserne struggled to stand and withdrew another knife. Tadeus was nearby, though, and Tserne felt one of his own knives slide into his shoulder. He jumped away, but the blade had done its work: the gash was deep enough to stain his sleeve red.

Adrenaline was coursing through his system. Tserne wasn’t thinking strategically and he was paying for that, but his heightened senses also helped him. In between his own labored breaths and rapid heartbeat, he heard footsteps nearby. Pivoting on one foot to turn around, he threw his knife where he thought he heard movement. Tadeus’s hushed curse and the satisfying thump of metal against flesh told him he found his mark. He sprinted across the hall and grabbed his blaster rifle before Tadeus could recover or counterattack; he had lost his target again, but he was armed.

Tserne’s body became visible again while he listened for Tadeus’s footsteps. Sweat dripped into his face, across his arms, and down his back. His arms ached, and the gash in his shoulder prevented him from carrying his blaster rifle for long. When he failed tracking Tadeus, he holstered the weapon and held his knife in his off-hand. He could feel his legs trembling; if he didn’t end this fast, Tadeus would do it for him.

He heard the assassin coming, but he was too slow to counter. He only managed to step away from the incoming blade so it slashed across his chest instead of slicing under his ribs. He swung out and nicked Tadeus’s sword with his knife, but the invisible Sith was gone again before he could follow-up with another attack.

He wouldn’t survive another attack like that. Limping toward the wall, Tserne carefully primed one of the fragmentation grenades on his bandoleer. He was too weak to stand completely; he leaned against the wall and hoped his enemy would take the obvious approach. The hallway was quiet all around him. He heard no footsteps. Only his haggard breathing broke the silence. His knife was at the ready, but he wasn’t strong enough to stop Tadeus. He knew that. Only one way to handle this.

In a fraction of a second, Tadeus dropped from the ceiling and became visible. Wielding two swords, Tadeus rushed toward Tserne; the Sith used one of his swords to parry Tserne’s attack and impaled him with the other. The blade went straight through his gut. The two trained killers glared at each other in silence for a moment, and then Tadeus swung his other sword to decapitate him. With the last of his strength, Tserne grabbed the incoming blade with his left hand. His gauntlet was the only reason his hand wasn’t instantly pulverized. With his other hand, Tserne grabbed the primed grenade he had prepared and tossed it behind Tadeus. Holding on to the blade pinning him against the wall, he kicked at Tadeus to separate the two of them.

Tserne grabbed the handle of the blade skewering him and removed it as quickly as he could—not a safe or wise move, but he had no other choice. Once he was free, he landed on the ground and rolled away from the Sith assassin. Tadeus recovered at the same time, but the grenade went off while he was standing up. At the epicenter of the explosion, the heat and force obliterated him. He didn’t even have time to shout. Although Tserne had rolled away far enough to not be caught in the primary blast radius, the shockwave and outer explosion threw him across the chamber. Deafened by the explosion and numbed by adrenaline, his mind was slow to comprehend what had happened.

Lying in a pool of his own blood, he ruminated on the fact that he had never been in so much pain. He couldn’t feel his arms or legs, it hurt to breathe, and he was coughing up blood. He cursed his own body, vainly trying to at least position himself upright. Even slight motions like craning his neck and moving his arms were taxing, and it was becoming harder to see. Even his cybernetics were failing.

For a moment, he considered Northeus’s betrayal, but the idea quickly departed. It was Dynatha that occupied his thoughts. For his own sake, he would have acknowledged the inevitable. But hadn’t she placed her faith in him? Hadn’t he promised to see her again? Not to fail her again? His desire to return to her burned within him and drove him to fight, but he couldn’t force his body to comply with his will. Alone in the dark, it was the knowledge that he would not be able to stand by her side in the end, to explain that the reason he could not be with her was because he was too weak to reach her, that broke his spirit at long last.

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