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Chapter 3

The senator of Onderon drifted into a comfortable sleep, snoring loud enough to be heard in adjacent rooms. At his side, his woman’s glaucous eyes keenly observed her boorish companion. She placed one of her cool, slender fingers against his bare chest and traced a line to his stomach. Even asleep, he was excited by her touch, but he was sound asleep. Excellent. She had endured his presence for too long already, and she it was time to be rid of him.

The young woman, who must have been at least half the man’s age, carefully removed the sheets from her naked form and slid out of bed without a sound. Her smooth, slender legs crept from the side of the bed around the apartment and picked up her clothes—they had been too wantonly discarded the night before for an outfit so expensive. She meticulously dressed herself while ignoring her erstwhile companion’s snores, concealing her voluptuous figure beneath a shimmering red blouse and a dark knee-length dress.

Once she was appropriately clothed, she approached the mirror and cleaned up her face. Most of her work was haphazard at best, but she took a great deal of time arranging her hair. Her chestnut-colored locks were frazzled and knotted from the evening’s rambunctiousness, and she had to run a brush through her hair several times to straighten it all. Once it was settled, she admired its beauty; extending to just below her shoulders, it had a vibrant sheen and lustrous quality that sparked gossip among other women.

Concluding her business, she took a moment to admire herself in the full-body mirror. Perfect. There was no other word to describe it. Her face had just the right amount of color, with her skin tone and a bit of ruddiness working together to give her a coquettish appearance. The curves on her body accentuated each other in such a way that she could have been breathing copy of a masterwork formed by ancient sculptors of the early Republic, and her face rivaled those of the most famous actresses and performers on Coruscant.

She smiled. She had been given such beauty, and it would have been a shame not to use it. And use it she did. Grabbing the small purse she had with her the night before, she flipped the latch and removed a gas mask just large enough to fit the senator’s face comfortably. The gas mask had been attached to a canister which the woman was careful not to drop. Cyanogen was extremely deadly, after all. She clasped the dark breathing apparatus to the sleeping man’s face and turned the dial on the tank, allowing him to breathe in the deadly gas. He died almost immediately.

She carefully disassembled the device so no traces of the gas would be able to escape. The woman sealed the tank of cyanogen and placed it and the breath mask back in her purse. Returning her fanciful boots to her feet and donning her thick brown coat, she left the senator’s personal chambers without a care. She bid farewell to the fatigued Rodian aide at the front desk of his office and called for an air taxi.

“The Hilonot Hangars,” the woman told the driver. “Plus thirty credits more if you’re quick.”

The Nikto pilot did his best, but he wasn’t quick enough for her tastes. Once they arrived, she paid the fee and gave him a playful wink. Before he could try to negotiate with her, she disappeared into the vast crowd of the spaceport. Unlike her leisurely walk out of the senator’s office, she did her best to keep abreast of her surroundings; there was no sense getting robbed minutes before she left the planet entirely. As she walked through the Hilonot Hangars, the woman overheard news of the murder of Onderon’s senator over subspace radios. How amusing. Coruscant Security worked faster than she expected.

The reports were vague at best. However, they did say that the capital’s police forces were searching for a young woman, about twenty-six years of age with features very similar to her own, who was in the senator’s company the night before and left early this morning. That aide must have squeaked. The woman had considered killing her but realized it would not have been worth the effort. If she ever came back to Coruscant, she would come back with a new name and appearance. Until then, she would be lost in the stars and among the galaxy’s trillions of inhabitants.

She gave a show of flustered confusion to a pair of dockworkers, and they were more than willing to escort her to a KT-400 droid carrier in a hangar on the far end of the spaceport. Freighters like these had once been used primarily in military deployments, but they had since found a newfound use in the freelance market. Navigating around one of the carrier’s curled nacelles, she boarded the ship from the central ramp just below the neck that extended toward the cockpit.

As she usually did, she moved into the storage section of the ship, which was mostly darkened and filled with broken droids, empty crates, and other such useless things. Once she was comfortable, the ship’s exit sealed shut and began standard takeoff procedures. That meant that they had been waiting for her, and she was not alone here.

“Are you here, Beast?”

There was a gurgling sound somewhere amongst the crates.

“Come out. I have questions for you.”

The Beast emerged from its hiding place as requested. Unlike her, this… creature was disgusting in appearance. It was impossible for her to tell exactly how old the monstrosity was, or even its species. It could have been a masculine female or a feminine male; its chest was malformed, its hips were twisted and burned away, and it possessed an otherwise disturbing androgyny. One of its eyes had been sewn shut, leaving only a single yellow eye to stare back at her. It did not have a trace of hair anywhere on its body, and its skin had a vile pallor. The thing was repugnant, smelling of raw meat and sewage, and it could only eke out simple growls like the feral creature it was.

“Did you complete your task?” she asked.

The Beast growled and shook his head in a disappointed fashion.

“No? What do you mean, no?”

It grunted a few times and motioned at her.

“I did my part! I killed the senator of Onderon. How could you not kill Alderaan’s? That was all you had to do, Beast!”

It screeched at her.

“Commandos? Why would Senator Latona have commandos in her contingent…?” The woman shook her head. “You had plenty of time. Think of all the resources at our disposal! Why did you fail us?”

It had nothing to say to that. Crawling on all fours, the humanoid scurried to the opposite corner of the storage area and hid itself from the woman’s sight. She screamed angrily before muttering several choice curses under her breath. It would have been one thing if the Beast’s mission had been more complicated than hers, but it wasn’t. She had to employ subtlety, mischief, and all of her charm to ensure that the senator of Onderon would make himself vulnerable to her. What did the Beast have to do? It was a killer: charging in to assassinate targets was its specialty.

The worst part was, she would have to endure punishment for its failure, because no typical punishments worked on it. Such punishments did not happen very often, because she did not fail missions, and neither did the Beast. This was an abnormal circumstance; she hated abnormality. Seething, she took some solace in the fact that, no matter what torture their superiors sought to inflict on her, they would be unable to make her as monstrous as the Beast was.

Once they had escaped Coruscant’s atmosphere and the space traffic that surrounded the planet, she was informed by the bridge crew that there was an incoming transmission for her. No doubt it was time for her report. Steeling herself, she approached the nearest long-range communicator and had the foresight to bow before the transmission began.

The diminutive hologram that shimmered into existence revealed a man nearing a century old. He had long since lost most of his dark gray hair, but what remained was matted in tangled curls and otherwise unkempt. Wrinkles seemed carved into his jagged face, and his dark, rheumy eyes seemed to stare at something beyond her. He wore an ornate robe that left his arms bare, revealing a brand with some unknown meaning that traced up his right wrist toward his shoulder. In his gnarled hands, he held a long staff for balance, and he seemed dependent on it to be able to stand at all.

“Rise, Falmas. You are well. I trust the Beast is with you,” he croaked.

“Yes, Master Nafyan. We are returning to you now.”

“Good. Your mission was a success?”

“I successfully murdered my target, Master. However, the Beast-”

“Senator Latona was not killed?” Nafyan’s expression darkened. “What happened?”

“I-I’m not sure, Master,” Falmas stammered. “It claims that there were commandos that prevented it from engaging her directly, and it was forced to flee before law enforcement arrived.”

“Interesting. We will meet over Korriban. You will suffer for this failure, Falmas.” Nafyan’s image dissipated without even a curt farewell, leaving Falmas staring at the wall behind the projector.

She hated her predicament. Her work had been admirable—praiseworthy, even—but would go entirely unnoticed. Was Nafyan even capable of looking past failure, no matter how trivial? Her teammate’s utter lack of ability shouldn’t have affected her standing in the eyes of the Sith Master. Now, instead of being admired for her talents and the effort that had gone into her killing, she would be punished. She didn’t deserve this. She had earned more than this.

Falmas gritted her teeth together and whirled around, stalking toward where the Beast was hiding. There was no point punishing one such as the Beast: it practically relished in pain and possessed indomitable endurance. Perhaps Nafyan would not punish the creature, but she had enough time to ensure that it was hurt for its failures. Even if it brushed off her abuse, it would make her feel better; that alone allowed her to smile.

*** ***

Nafyan shook his head. The image of his apprentice had faded away, but he was still perturbed by the results of the mission. As far as his intelligence operatives knew, the senators of Onderon and Alderaan were both lightly guarded and killing both of them should have been a simple affair. However, on the chance that one of them was to survive, Nafyan would have preferred if Falmas had failed. The senator of Onderon spent months on Coruscant flirting with mistresses and tending to official duties. However, the senator of Alderaan was also the queen of her planet, and she was often away from the capital, participating in diplomatic missions in the Colonies or Mid Rim. When she was not engaged in such business, she was served as regent for Alderaan, and that meant she left most of her official duties in the Galactic Senate to aides or associates. Failed assassinations meant relocating targets and official protection. Targeting her again on Coruscant would be very difficult.

These commandos were also trouble. As far as he knew, the Republic Senate only assigned guards to their politicians when there was a preexisting threat. He did not know of any threats on Senator Latona’s life, and there were no traitors amongst the Sith, so there should not have been any reason for her to be defended. Did she have personal guards from Alderaan? Such preparedness and foresight was lacking amongst politicians in the Republic. She was even more dangerous than he imagined.

“My lord,” one of his apprentices announced, “you are requested on the bridge.”

Nafyan twisted his form around his staff until he faced the younger Sith behind him. “Who requests my presence?”

“Admiral Kvorkasir, Master.”

The Sith nodded sagely. The admiral probably wanted to discuss some trivial matter like fleet positions or ship production. No matter. His apprentices on Coruscant had failed, but there were several others spread throughout the galaxy who had succeeded and others who had yet to report. Nafyan was patient, and it would be some time before they informed him of their efforts, so he could oblige the admiral for a while.

“Lead me, apprentice. Admiral Kvorkasir does not like to be kept waiting.”

The youth did as he was told, guiding his Sith Master from the comm room of the Phantasm toward the bridge. Nafyan followed closely for one who received aid from a crutch. The two Sith passed squads of white-armored Sith troopers and various maintenance droids on their way to the nearest elevator, its interior guarded by two more soldiers. The four of them were as motionless as statues while the elevator descended through dozens of levels of the Phantasm, racing through each deck without stopping to pick up additional passengers. Such was the benefit of being a Sith Master.

Leaving the elevator behind upon reaching the central level that served as the primary deck, Nafyan waved his apprentice to return to his studies while he made his way toward the bridge proper. There were troopers marching around this level of the ship as well, but there were noticeably fewer here. The massive doorway that separated the bridge from the rest of the deck was guarded by four such troopers, encased in black armor and not carrying any blasters on their persons.

“Master Nafyan,” the lead guard announced, saluting. “You’re expected.”

“Let me in,” was the reply.

The four guardsmen stepped out of his way in time with the blast doors’ opening, permitting the Sith Master entrance. The circular bridge was crowded by officers, droids, and other enlisted personnel, and there were nearly as many sentient beings in this place as there were soldiers on the ship. The uppermost level of the bridge was dominated by massive computers and command terminals, stretching toward the starboard and bow far beyond his peripheral vision. Cables from these consoles snaked their way around the walls toward lower decks, where expansive holographic displays dominated the center of the bridge. In most cases, they merely displayed status reports about the ship and the fleet; during an engagement, they would have enabled the commander of the Phantasm to monitor the entire battlefront. The bridge had crew pits below the one where Nafyan found himself, each manned by at least three hundred crewmembers. Encompassed almost entirely by transparisteel, those at the uppermost level like Nafyan could stare down some hundred meters below them into the emptiness of space.

The crew’s idle chatter ended as soon as Nafyan arrived. It had become so quiet that the sound of his cane smacking against the durasteel floorboards echoed in the vastness of the bridge. No officers were bold enough to meet his gaze, and their eyes remained locked onto their consoles or with each other. As he advanced, the crew purposely walked around him, giving him a berth so wide they ended up along the edges of the pathways.

Taking his time, Nafyan walked by the empty captain’s chair at the center of the bridge and descended a flight of stairs to its third sublevel. Once he arrived, a single Sith trooper moved forward to meet him, gave him a crisp salute, and bid him to follow him to where the admiral was waiting. Nafyan did so, and he was led into an adjoining room that served as the primary comm system for the entire ship.

Admiral Nadmith Kvorkasir stood in front of several holographic projectors that had yet to be activated. Nearly a hundred years old, he was older than Nafyan, but he was not as healthy. The stout admiral had never liked engaging his body strenuously, and it showed in his age. He was at least half Nafyan’s height, had none of the muscle mass that the Sith Master did, and his breathing was short and haggard. His face was lined with scars from battles long ago, and there was very little left of his original face that was not disfigured. He had long ago replaced his wizened legs with cybernetic ones, and he wore an aural amplifier around his scalp to improve his otherwise pitiful hearing.

Under normal circumstances, Nafyan’s master would have been the commanding officer of this vessel. However, in his absence, Admiral Kvorkasir was given control of the fleet and the Phantasm. The countless medals and commendations the admiral had earned prior to, during, and after the Mandalorian Wars made him a legend amongst the soldiers. These distinctions were mere trinkets and baubles to Nafyan, and he held the admiral with the contempt he shared for all soldiers who served the Sith. They were useful slaves, nothing more.

“Admiral Kvorkasir, why have you summoned me?” Nafyan asked, rapping his staff against the deck.

The shorter man turned to regard his Sith counterpart and nodded a greeting. “I take it those encrypted transmissions to Coruscant were your doing, Nafyan?”

“What of it?”

“I would much prefer to be informed of any time someone on this ship attempts to communicate beyond the fleet,” the admiral said, disregarding the Sith’s harsh tone. “Especially when they’re directed Coreward.”

“It is not your ship to monitor, Admiral.”

“And it’s not yours either,” Admiral Kvorkasir barked back.

“You have nothing to worry about, Admiral. All of my comms are crucial to the success of the continued expansion of the Sith Empire,” Nafyan replied icily.

“But whose Sith Empire?” another voice, this one female, asked. “Darth Preux’s, or yours?”

The holoprojectors before them activated, revealing that the three individuals on the other end had been listening the entire time. The furthest one to the left was a Sluissi named Hendor Keth; his serpentine appearance looked quite odd wearing the dark uniform of a Sith officer, and he neglected the standard cap due to the drooping crest at the back of his head. Next to him was a Neimoidian, Cav Acophy, who looked more natural in the uniform but lacked the determination and ferocity found in his slithering counterpart’s features. His face was scrunched up like a kinrath pup, and his beady little eyes—complete with the trademark horizontal slits—were always glancing about, nervous about something or another. These two were new admirals in the Sith Armada, only being given command over their fleets in the past five years. Nafyan was largely apathetic about them. They were not worth his time.

She, on the other hand, was a nuisance.

The last projector revealed a Human female about fifty years of age, sitting in her commanding officer’s chair instead of standing like her compatriots. Her ink black hair had finally started to fade into a deep shade of gray, and it was cut shorter than Nafyan remembered. Every year of her military service was etched upon her face, even though she showed hardly any regard for it; her uniform was unbuttoned and her appearance disheveled, as if she didn’t care for her rank at all. She had an air of haughtiness about her, evident even in her hologram, and her purple cybernetic eyes stared at Nafyan with as much contempt as he had for her.

Nafyan did not know how he had failed to break the will of Admiral Tasa Isinn, but she never seemed to cease trying to obfuscate his more devious plans. When she was still a captain aboard the Asylum, he had taken a special interest in her, so much so in fact that he involved himself personally in her daily affairs. He confided in her on a great many things, and she was the officer he turned to when his master needed personal missions accomplished.

He had requested for her promotion to admiral hoping to have a flag officer on his side against Admiral Kvorkasir. He made a very egregious error somewhere along the way, because she proved as hostile to Nafyan as the old admiral was. It seemed that her first and only loyalty was to Darth Preux. He was not willing to admit to himself that he had been outmaneuvered by a woman, but he privately plotted ways to rid himself of her all the same.

“Admiral Isinn,” Nafyan sneered. “My first and only loyalty is to Darth Preux and his efforts. You of all people should know that.”

“I know I would sooner throw you out an airlock than trust you with command of the Phantasm,” she replied in kind.

“Admiral Isinn is out of line, I think,” Admiral Keth hissed. “However, we would appreciate if you informed us of more of your dealings, Nafyan.”

“Remember your place. I am the executor of Darth Preux’s will. I have no need to explain myself to any of you. I will keep my own counsel, and you will command our ships,” Nafyan growled.

“You seem to be forgetting that you won’t even let us do that,” Admiral Kvorkasir noted wryly. “Or did you forget that we abandoned the Asylum per your orders?”

“I just received a report from my agent: that mission was a success. He was approached by a scouting team as I predicted, and he managed to infiltrate the fleet successfully. The loss of a ship—old and unfit for war as it was—is unfortunate, but the resulting death of many Republic leaders will more than compensate.”

“If he succeeds,” the Neimoidian admiral pointed out.

“You doubt my Sith?” Nafyan was incensed not at his doubt, but because they were wasting his time. He achieved results. There was no reason for this meeting.

“I can tell you that I don’t doubt them, but I do doubt your motives,” Isinn interrupted her companion. “You've always been partial to the Sith Empire hiding on Dromund Kaas, Nafyan. You have many puppets following your every whim. How do we know you’re not sending your schemers elsewhere? Like throughout this fleet, for example?”

Nafyan shook his head, but he was smiling inside. Foolish woman. She was right to doubt him; his loyalties were never truly to the Sith forged on Alderaan under the first Sith Lord Preux, but to the Sith Emperor on his throne. However, she was too late to do anything about that particular treachery. He had been planting his loyal minions and spies throughout Darth Preux’s army and navy, not to mention taking personal care to train all of the Sith learners in their ranks. At this very moment, no less than two dozen crewers on Admiral Isinn’s bridge—and every bridge in their fleet—were absolutely loyal to Nafyan. And Nafyan, in turn, reserved his fanaticism not for the hollow shell Darth Preux had become but the Emperor of all Sith on Dromund Kaas.

“Your accusations are baseless and foolish, Admiral. I have nothing but respect for your position,” he began, pointedly emphasizing each word, “but you go too far this time.”

Admiral Isinn stewed in her seat. She hated it, but he was right; without evidence, all of her shouting and anger was useless. The other two admirals said nothing, eying the Sith Master with equal parts awe and suspicion. They were younger and more susceptible to his manipulations, but he would have to wait before he could convert them to his side entirely. It was only then, when he had half the fleet under his control, that he could wrestle the entire force away from the command of warlords past their prime like Kvorkasir and fawning imbeciles like Isinn.

“We are done here,” Nafyan said.

Admiral Kvorkasir cleared his throat. “Before you go, Nafyan.”

“Yes?”

“Do you suspect Lord Preux will be ready by the time we reach Korriban?”

Nafyan considered the idea. Honestly, he had no idea either way. “It is doubtful.”

“Do you not know?” Admiral Acophy asked.

“Darth Preux speaks to whom he chooses,” Nafyan replied simply. “Surely you know that. If you'll excuse me, I have to prepare in the event he does return.”

And with that, he spun around and took his leave of them. Their presence was simply too much for him to endure any longer.


Chapter 4

The wet grass at their feet began to clump together as it was smashed by hundreds of armored boots. They had only recently stopped marching and broken into smaller, more mobile fireteams, but that did little to detract from the noise they were making. The cawing avians and braying herbivores fell silent as the armored figures entered the wooded expanse before them. Using the trees and their low-hanging branches as cover, the small groups of soldiers skirted through the outlying forested region deeper into the swamplands.

“Smells awful,” one of the soldiers noted beneath his full-face helmet. “Hard to think they’d be hiding out here…”

“Cut the chatter,” the force’s leader ordered via comlink. “We don’t know if they’re monitoring comms or not.”

The soldiers stomped through the murky terrain with a few choice swears. The less experienced troopers, wearing a blue coloration of the standard heavy armor, were more likely to grumble under their breath, while the red- and gold-wearing officers were deathly silent, taking the advance in stride. Spreading their teams as thin as possible to search more ground, it was not surprising when a few of the soldiers took nasty tumbles into the miry swamp water and needed help getting out, slowing them down considerably.

The first sign of hostiles was not incoming blaster fire or a triggered mine, but the hushed whispers of voices—not unlike their own—deeper in the marshes. The first report came in from the westernmost teams, so the soldiers began to head in that direction. The rally masters, their crimson armor quite visible even within the thick underbrush and drooping branches of the trees around them, guided the way as the soldiers began to congregate around them on their way toward their targets.

A Mandalorian from clan Sornell was the first to spot their targets. About eight hundred meters away, on a rugged outcropping standing like an island amidst otherwise murky and unstable ground, was a small camp. The camp probably housed several hundred sentients comfortably, and the Mandalorian warriors could just barely discern the outlines of small, temporary settlements inside. The native caprine species who inhabited the camp had a few of their own on guard duty, standing at its perimeter and searching for any signs of coming danger. Obviously, the approaching Mandalorians had yet to be seen.

“Found 'em,” one of the soldiers breathed. “There’s more than I imagined.”

“All soldiers, prepare to engage on my mark,” a rally master from clan Jendri announced on the comlink.

“Disregard that,” another replied curtly. “We await the order from Mandalore’s Eyes.”

“We have to go now. If we wait much longer, they’re going to see us,” the first countered.

“He’s checking for an ambush. Just wait. He'll give us the signal…”

*** ***

The man who had come to be known as one of Mandalore’s Eyes lay prone on a grassy ridge that extended above the swamp water. His sniper rifle was lined up parallel to his body, its barrel extended in front of him by about half a meter. Large flies buzzed around him and smacked against his heavy silver armor, occasionally bouncing off his triangular visor in an attempt to approach the light reflected off its surface. Even though he had silenced his soldiers' complaints earlier, he did have to acknowledge that his surroundings did smell like someone had broken a nearby septic drain, and there was no filtration unit in these suits either, which meant he probably reeked of sweat as well.

Through the scope on his sniper rifle, he could see the chief guardsmen on duty at the camp the other Mandalorians were approaching. He was an imposing figure: the sniper figured the guard was probably about two and a half meters of pure muscle. His long, arched snout curved down into massive nostrils that must have smelled everything around them to compensate for the tiny eyes located on both sides of his face. From where they met at the crown of his head, his two hooked horns could have gored an armored soldier; however, such a thing was almost unheard of and usually done in desperation. The Mandalorian sniper was more concerned about the bowcaster in his hands and the jagged knife resting on his belt.

He released the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. Why was he nervous? They had traveled across this nameless world, defeating every city that had resisted their forces. The fights had been brutal but not catastrophic. For a world that had only recently discovered spaceflight, the sentients of this world were skilled fighters and adept in the ways of war. That said, the seven emperors who had stood against them had long since fallen, and now these rebels—perhaps nine hundred strong—were the last warriors who opposed Mandalorian occupation of the entire system. Nine hundred was nothing. Why was he worried?

“Hey, Da-” a nearby voice, this one a female, began, “High Marshal, I don’t see any other encampments. This is really the last of them.”

The sniper turned to face his scouting partner. Sitting near him, her binoculars were pressed against her visor as her head swiveled back and forth, triple-checking for enemies in the distance. She was wearing heavy armor like his, and it would have been nearly impossible to tell that she was, in fact, a woman based on its shape alone. Unlike his suit, her armor was a simple blue color, had comparatively less damage from previous combat, and did not have the accompanying white pauldron that signified his own rank as a High Marshal—essentially, the commanding officer of this entire task force. He smiled ruefully when he considered just how stolid she was on the eve of battle; she was less worried than he was, and he had been fighting in battles like these for at least three times as long.

“Good,” he replied simply.

“Should I signal the attack?” Mandalore’s other Eye asked.

“Might as well. I'll get started here.”

Turning back to his rifle, he peered through the scope. The guard captain was still waiting leisurely just between its reticule. How nice of him. Running through a lengthy checklist in his head, the sniper adjusted the angle of his weapon for any potential drift, the speed of the wind, his distance, his current elevation, and any slight movement on his target’s part. He found himself running through that list four or five times. This was ridiculous. He was the commanding officer of this mission. He had to be an example to his soldiers, and that meant he had to calm his nerves. He breathed again.

He squeezed the trigger, allowing the slug to rush forth from his sniper rifle and into the captain of the guard’s shaggy head. The resulting explosion was both satisfying and messy, sending bits of his horns and parts of his skull into the air around his headless body and painting the wall behind him with clear cerebral fluid and vibrant red blood.

The terrified guards didn’t know what was going on, and a few of them scrambled over to their dead leader—whether to see what happened or in a vain attempt to resuscitate him, the sniper couldn’t tell. His scouting partner gave the order to charge a few seconds before he had fired. The other Mandalorians suddenly burst out from under reeds, behind brush, and within the chilly waters, firing hundreds of blaster rifles toward the remaining guards. The sniper adjusted his aim and fired a few more times, killing the sentries posted on the battlements before they could assist those standing in front of the walls.

It did not take long for the invading forces to reach the walled perimeter. There was no one left to stop them by the time they got there, and the sniper could just vaguely hear screaming within the camp. The walls defending it were not particularly durable by any means; they seemed to have been created to keep native predators and swamp water out. A few specialists used mines and fragmentation grenades to breach the forward wall, and then they charged inside with ferocious battle cries.

From where he was perched, the Mandalorian sniper could barely see inside the camp, but that was enough. Careful to avoid shooting his allies rushing into battle, he fired at the few enemies who were lined up to stop them. He did not want for ammo, so he primarily aimed for their center of mass; shattered ribs, shredded lungs, and mutilated guts were more than enough to put an end to a soldier. When time was of the essence, there was no time to be flashy.

“Dad! Two contacts, eastern clearing, fifteen meters!”

The sniper jumped, quickly pivoting his rifle’s bipod toward the east. However, the two hostiles either heard his scout’s warning or else were already heading toward them anyway, and they were upon them before he had a chance to fire. His daughter moved to engage immediately, striking one of the incoming caprines with her knucklers just below the ribcage and sending him to the ground. His companion moved in to cover for him, using his girth to tackle her into a tree at the edge of the ridge.

Although the sniper could have used his rifle to end the fight, the alien was practically entangled with his daughter as they wrestled on the ground and he figured the shot was too risky. Rising to his feet, he removed the vibroblade from his combat belt, holstered his rifle, and moved to assist his daughter. However, he hadn’t expected the foe that his daughter had punched earlier to be conscious, so he didn’t even expect the hammer fist that smashed into the back of his head.

The sniper was dazed for only a second, but that was all his unseen enemy needed to leap onto his back to try and seize the Mandalorian’s rifle for his own. The sniper tried to turn and face his opponent to keep him away from the weapon, but it was a pointless struggle. The alien’s weight coupled with a firm grip on his wrist meant that he was pinned where he was, and if he didn’t act quickly he was going to lose both his knife and his rifle. He knew he had to sacrifice one or the other, but the question was which could he risk losing.

The sniper released his grip on his vibroblade so the caprine could grab at it. Despite initially fumbling around with the odd holster, his opponent managed to seize his sniper rifle and grab the knife in a single motion. Before he could rise up and use them, the sniper moved his main hand so that it was wrapped around his opponent’s neck as if to choke him. The other soldier scoffed at the attempt and swung his new vibroblade at the Mandalorian’s extended arm despite the awkward grip he had on the large rifle in his other hand. Satisfied that both his enemy’s hands were preoccupied, the sniper activated the vibroknucklers on his free hand and punched his opponent’s face, shattering his jaw.

The Mandalorian general pushed the injured soldier off of him before finishing him off for good with another jab to the head. Recovering his weapons, he winced when he saw his arm; the sudden pain had threw off the caprine’s aim, and he barely cut through the sniper’s armor to leave a nonlethal—but gruesome—wound. He moved to assist his daughter only to realize that she had already defeated her opponent, leaving his corpse with a single blaster hole through the chest. She was safe, but he noticed that her helmet was going to collapse on itself at any second due to the damage it had sustained.

“You okay, Dad?” she asked.

“Yeah.” He placed his sniper rifle back on the ground and peered through it. “You?”

She nodded.

“Good. Take that helmet off; you’re going to get shattered transparisteel in your eyes.”

“Dad…”

“Do it. Your mother would never let me hear the end of it if I brought you back blind.”

The Mandalorian scout did as she was told, carefully pulling off her helmet with a bit of help from his deactivated vibroblade. Her fair skin showed no signs of injury, but she was drenched with sweat, and there was a bit of grime from an earlier expedition that had yet to be cleaned off her face. Brushing some of flies away from her short blond hair, she knelt beside her father with binoculars in hand.

“How goes the battle, Glacis?” he asked.

“Well enough. I think they’re finishing off the last of them.”

“Then let’s get back to the camp. There’s nothing more we can do here, and the rest of the company will be returning in due time.”

Something in Glacis’s bronze eyes and her slight frown told her that she was bothered by his orders, but she didn’t express that to him. No matter. He had no reason to pry, because he was sure she would share eventually. Gathering the rest of his gear, he signaled for her to follow him out of the marshes.

*** ***

“-and sometimes I think that we’d be better off without them. I mean, you know how those Jedi are.”

“Yeah. It worries me too. And she’s teaching our sons and daughters, you know. And not in the ways of ancestors, like our fathers did. She teaches them about numbers, rocks, poems, and other nonsense.”

“Maybe we should tell Mandalore to take Jhosua off this mission…”

“That is High Marshal Weros to you,” the sniper growled. “And I'll pretend, for your sakes, I didn’t hear any of that.”

Jhosua Weros and his daughter, Glacis, emerged from edge of the trees lining the entrance to the swamp and arrived at the Mandalorian camp that had been set up there. Somehow, the company under his command had finished off the local rebels and returned here before Jhosua and his daughter; his navigation skills were never the best, but he was sure he had been on the right track out of the marshes.

The Mandalorians had hardly taken any losses against their caprine opponents, and most of them sitting here were either filling their stomachs with much-needed food or trading gossip. Unfortunately, the topic of choice for most of them seemed to be Jhosua Weros and his family. While most of the older Mandalorian warriors respected Jhosua and his position for honor’s sake, there were many younger warriors who did not. The leaders of that generation, who were only now being appointed to positions of command, were particularly vile in their distaste. At Mandalore’s behest, he had yet to scold them in any official manner, but he had half a mind to take them into the battle circle for an honor duel.

But then, he could hardly blame them. Thirty years ago, he would have considered himself crazy for joining the splintered Mandalorian clans. He had been a young man then, eager to join the Republic Army. He was never particularly patriotic, but he had to escape the confines of a demanding father and distant mother who were still distraught from losing their first son to the Jedi Order. Jhosua had fought Mandalorians who survived the war against the Republic and had personally killed their leader—a false Mandalore, who was uniting soldiers on Wayland. Luckily for him and his family, that particularly story had never been told, and he hoped to take it with him to the grave.

In the years following his departure from the Republic Army, Jhosua wandered the stars with his soon-to-be wife. Wandering the galaxy like vagabonds was no way to raise a family, and security and guard duty paid well, but they were temporary jobs that were not as fulfilling as military work. The Mandalorians offered him a place to settle down away from the wary eyes of the Republic. At first, Jhosua and his family simply lived with them as many travelers did. In time, whether due to his skill, his desire to fight, or his knack at finding trouble, Jhosua had been recruited into Mandalore’s forces.

They had given him a home, and he had given them systems in return. At first, he objected to the idea of fighting alongside them but eventually came to see it as a debt he owed them. Mandalorian culture did not deign to give him the respect he earned, though; he and his wife were considered clanless, and that made them pariah in Mandalorian society no matter his accomplishments. The fact that his wife was once a Jedi Knight and his two daughters were suspected of sharing her power—despite showing no signs of Force-sensitivity—ensured that he would never be acknowledged for his work.

“Ah, High Marshal,” a Mandalorian in blue armor, possessing more tact than most, answered for the group. “It is good to see you are well. Pay us no mind. Our talk distracts us from the losses we have endured today.”

“They are not losses but glorious dead,” Glacis replied.

“And I have no problem with you gossiping like feeble old wives,” Jhosua said, interrupting his daughter, “but you should mind your commander and keep your opinions about him for the official reports.”

“Perhaps we will,” a red-armored warrior sneered. “Mandalore ought to know what trouble you and she have been causing. He ought to know what we think of you.”

Glacis was about to say something, but Jhosua waved her to be silent. This was his battle, not hers. She would only bring dishonor upon them with her remarks, no matter how true they were.

“You seem to forget what Mandalore thinks of me now, and just why I am High Marshal and you are not, Captain Garol.”

“It certainly isn’t due to your skill or bravery in battle,” a Mandalorian in gold armor retorted. “You and she are always hiding, shooting your rifles where no enemies can engage you. There is no honor in what you do, High Marshal. Do not try to convince us otherwise.”

“And she disgraces us all by walking around without her helmet in the wake of battle. Just how much do you intend to subvert the old ways, High Marshal?” Garol asked.

Jhosua’s eyes rolled behind his triangular visor. “She was injured in close-quarters combat, and her helmet would have shattered on her face had she kept it. As for my martial prowess, I have no problem challenging any of you—in the battle circle or otherwise. Just because I command at a distance doesn’t mean I didn’t earn this position just as every Mandalorian before me has.”

“I would challenge you,” the same gold-armored warrior from before spoke up. “We can do battle right here, in fact.”

“Commander Tyrollian,” Jhosua nodded. “Do you want to be High Marshal so badly?”

“I do not want the position; I merely want to see you out of it.”

“He’s not worth your time, father,” Glacis said, barely able to keep the rage out of her voice. “Let me fight him. He'll know better than to challenge your authority.”

Captain Garol snorted. “Having your child fight for you? Are you so old already, High Marshal?”

“He’s right. Stay back, Officer Weros. I'll handle this,” Jhosua ordered.

The two warriors approached one another while younger Mandalorians started sketching a battle circle in the dirt around the pair. So much for a quick match. Most of the camp gathered around the makeshift arena, and the whoops and hollers for combat began to drown out any other conversation. Jhosua’s sight was dominated by the blues, reds, and yellows of Mandalorian armor around them, and Commander Tyrollian stood directly before him, dominating his field of vision. The two warriors began removing their weapons until they were left with nothing but their armor and their wits.

Scanning the crowd, Jhosua saw his daughter’s face. The anger had subsided from her, but it had been replaced by worry and fear. He knew she desperately wanted to fight in his place, especially due to his fatigue and the injuries he had taken earlier. This was a foolish battle, but the Mandalorians were, ultimately, a foolish people. If beating the most prominent of these upstarts was what it took to ensure he and his family received respect, then that was what he was going to do.

“Incoming!” a voice screamed above the crowd. “… Mandalore’s shuttle!”

The battle ended before it had a chance to begin. Soldiers scrambled over each other to appear uninvolved in this juvenile engagement and return to their posts in the camp. Others began throwing crates, footlockers, and weapon racks out of the way to give the leader of the Mandalorians a suitable landing area. Jhosua eyed the commander angrily, knowing that his efforts to prove himself would have to wait—for now. Commander Tyrollian seemed to get the message and moved to prepare his troops for Mandalore’s arrival. Picking up his discarded equipment, the Mandalorian general signaled for Glacis to join him at the edge of the shuttle’s intended landing zone.

The shuttle arrived quicker than expected. Mandalorian soldiers, especially younger ones, fought for a better view of the craft and the soldiers disembarking from it. It was a rare occasion that Mandalore himself left their primary base at Ordo and traveled to the battlefront, preferring to isolate himself in his command post. To see the leader of Mandalorians in this place was an opportunity few wanted to miss.

And why not? Mandalore the Preserver was not just the leader of the Mandalorians. He was the greatest of them all. Standing nearly two heads taller than Jhosua and far larger than any of the Mandalorians in his company, Mandalore towered over them as a giant would. He carried his heavy repeating blaster in the nook of his arm as one who was so familiar with the weapon it was practically an extension of his limb. Having fought in the Sith War nearly three-quarters of a century ago, the Mandalorian Wars that followed, and the Jedi Civil War thereafter gave him decades of combat experience that no living Mandalorian could match.

The durasteel armor he wore, silver like Jhosua’s but darker and heavier, covered only his vital organs while a dark underlay protected the rest. His mask, unlike the helmets of his followers, had a T-visor and rebreather tubes that attached to his combat pack. Insignificant to the untrained eye, perhaps, but it was that mask that heralded him as the true claimant to his title. Indeed, only the greatest of their people would ever become Mandalore, and to do so meant seizing the mask itself after the death of the last leader.

His authority, unlike Jhosua’s, was unquestionable. However, there was something in the way he carried himself that Jhosua couldn’t miss. Was it exhaustion? Weakness? Age? It was impossible for him to tell, but Jhosua had watched it develop for years now. He knew that the day would come when he would be challenged by those younger Mandalorians for his title. He only hoped that day would come later than sooner.

“High Marshal Weros?” Mandalore’s voice boomed from behind his mask.

“Mandalore.” Jhosua stepped in front of the crowd around him and gave the traditional salute. “I hardly expected you to come here personally. If I would have known-”

Mandalore waved one of his gloved hands in annoyance. “There’s no need for that. How did the battle go?”

“Very good, Mandalore. Per my last report, the emperors of this world fell to our forces, and the last holdout of the rebellion was crushed just now. The surviving inhabitants have been escorted into internment camps and await your mercy.”

“About how many survived?” Mandalore asked, stepping through the path the crowd had made for them and walking into the comparatively empty camp beyond.

“Natives? About twenty thousand.”

“And our troops?”

“We lost about five hundred,” Jhosua said, somewhat sheepishly. “Mostly in the initial siege of their cities. We had around one hundred fifty wounded, but most of them have been patched up already.”

“Not bad, but I had hoped for fewer casualties,” Mandalore admitted, his voice losing most of its edge.

“I beg your pardon, Mandalore, but with only twelve hundred soldiers, I had to make some… risky decisions. Most of them paid off, but we did lose more soldiers than we would have otherwise.”

“I know that. But you also know that we need soldiers to recapture our homeworld.”

Jhosua nodded solemnly. “Do you think we have enough soldiers?”

“I don’t know,” Mandalore said, his voice a bit haggard now. “But this isn’t the place for such talk. Join me on my shuttle in an hour after you've debriefed your officers. We’re going back to Ordo.”

*** ***

The last youth turned in his test and left the classroom about ten minutes before Verita Ladola Weros began locking up the school. It was a dilapidated old building, and it had long since ceased to be useful in its original task as a mobile scouting outpost. Boxish, featureless, and looking more like military barracks than a schoolhouse, Verita noted day-after-day that the building was a stunning representation of Mandalorian culture. When it came down to it, every aspect of their society was defined by war.

She ran one of her hands through one of the red curls by her left ear. Despite her age, her short hair was still colored vibrantly, and she counted that as a blessing—both from her family and the Force itself. Verita was not as young as she used to be, of course, and her gentle face was beginning to reveal that, but there was fluidity to her movements that rivaled women twenty years her junior. As a former Jedi, she probably could have retained her youthful energy for another twenty years. However, she had long since abandoned that life.

She had given birth to two daughters after marrying Jhosua, and Verita decided that her time as a warrior had to end for their sakes. She had never felt comfortable integrating with the Mandalorians they had settled down with, so she spent most of her time at home tending to their daughters' need while her husband traveled and tried to earn Mandalorian honor for them. She hated the idea of his fighting among the very same people that brutalized the galaxy in the years before the Jedi Civil War, but she did her best to avoid arguments about it. At least they were able to eat and their daughters could live comfortably.

Now that her daughters were both nearly grown, Verita had decided to take up work as a teacher. It was an odd choice, one that Jhosua hadn’t realized she was interested in, and she wasn’t quite sure what sparked the interest either. Perhaps it was the call of the Jedi, her desire to take pupils under her care. Or maybe it was the maternal nature that she adopted so well. During her time living amongst the Mandalorians, she noticed that most of the teaching in the camp was done by fathers to sons, and they would both rather be fighting anyway. Whatever the reason, she realized the good she could do in this place, and she was determined to carry it through.

Jhosua had nagged Mandalore for days on end, and it had taken all of her goodwill, but they finally convinced other Mandalorian parents that it was safe to send their children to school with a former Jedi as the sole teacher. As of today, the institution had been open five years, and Verita was looking forward to graduating her first class and accepting new students as young as eight standard years of age. She smiled. Perhaps there was hope for the future of these people after all.

Verita was locking a door with her keycard when the Force alerted her to an incoming presence. She shook her head despite herself. They dragged Jhosua back into the fray, and she couldn’t entirely blame him; he had always possessed the spirit of a warrior within him. However, there were some who were eager for her to join him in the Mandalorian’s violent excursions as well.

“You all right, Verita?”

The younger woman glanced at the armored Mandalorian standing across the hall from her. He wore silver armor like her husband, signifying his esteemed rank of Field Marshal. He was technically lower in rank than Jhosua was, but in practice they were equally regarded on the battlefield. Leaning against the wall for support, she remembered just how old the Mandalorian before her was; indeed, most of the veteran warriors in Mandalore’s forces were nearing seventy years of age, and she wondered when the formal transition of power between generations would take place.

“I’m fine, Kerre,” was all she said.

He gave an audible sigh. “Well?”

“Mandalore can send you to badger me for as long as he wants,” Verita said, locking the next door. “I refuse his offer.”

“It would be easier for all of us if you just accepted.”

She leered at the older Mandalorian angrily. Every day for the past year, Mandalore had been sending Kerre around to try and convince her to join some sort of special forces unit he was putting together. Despite the other Mandalorians' reservations, Mandalore didn’t care if Verita was a former Neo-Crusader, a Jedi Knight, or a Hutt. She was a powerful warrior, and he wanted her in a command position. He could beg all he wanted, Jhosua could play his little games, and the Mandalorians could go around trying to reclaim their place in the galaxy, but she refused to be a part of it. The cry of battle was foreign to her now, and she looked upon those who followed it with contempt.

Kerre had stopped trying to actually convince her after the first week, and now he just came by per Mandalore’s orders. He was almost too old to do much else, and she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

“As you wish,” he muttered, sensing her distaste of the topic. “I'll be back tomorrow.”

“My answer will be the same.”

“Yeah.” Kerre stopped midstride. “One other thing, Verita.”

“What is it?”

“There’s rumors going about that you’re teaching… an interesting interpretation of history to the young ones. Now, there’s no shame in teaching 'em math, or science, or even literature. But if you’re going to tarnish the traditions of our people, Mandalore may be forced-”

“I am not tarnishing the traditions of the Mandalorians,” Verita snapped, “and I don’t particularly care for Mandalore’s view of my methods. It’s not my fault your people just so happen to end up on the wrong side of history at every turn. I simply teach based on the records available to me and let the students decide for themselves what to think about it. If Mandalore has a problem with that, then maybe he should have corrected the failures of his people sooner.”

Her words stung Kerre quite a bit more than she intended. “Yeah, I… I'll just let him know that you refused the position again. Until tomorrow, Verita.”

She called out to Kerre, but he ignored her. Slamming the sliding door shut behind him, the older Mandalorian warrior left Verita alone in the schoolhouse. She gritted her teeth, chiding herself for her rash words. Weren’t the Jedi supposed to be known for their patience? She should have responded better than that, even if she was just a former Jedi. Locking the last few doors, Verita left the school behind and traveled the camp to apologize to her old friend.

*** ***

Jhosua had left Mandalore’s command post sometime late in the evening, leaving him free of any pressing duties until morning. He half-considered venturing to the local cantina and buying a few rounds for soldiers in his company that were no doubt drinking the night away, but he decided against it. He hadn’t seen the rest of his family in nearly a month, and he was sure they would be home waiting. Venturing across the grassy courtyard that made up most of the Mandalorian camp on Ordo, Jhosua headed through the uniform duracrete complexes at the western end of the base on his way toward his home.

“Jhosua? That you, Jhosua?”

He recognized that voice. “Kerre?”

“Yeah, over here.” The senior Mandalorian was sitting on a nondescript bench near a trio of homes. “How went the battle?”

“As expected.”

“That bad, huh?” Kerre shook his head knowingly. “Care to join me for a drink?”

“Not tonight; I’m exhausted and I’m ready to head home.”

“Aye. Oh, but watch yourself: the zakkeg has its teeth out,” Kerre warned, obviously hinting at his wife.

“I'll ask her not to bite too hard. Stay safe, Kerre.”

“And you, Jhosua.”

Jhosua continued his trek and arrived at his home without incident. Like the other buildings surrounding it, his home was a particularly droll and not very interesting military-style building that he shared with several other families. To his ire, most of them were clanless like him. The complex was empty at this time of night, so the sound of his boots clanking against the metal steps was his only company. Reaching the fourth and final floor, he slid the keycard on his neck into the lock and admitted himself into his home.

The glowpanels in his house were nearly all switched off, and there was no one around to greet him. Quite a welcome home, he thought ruefully. A harsh blue light stemmed from one of his daughters' rooms, and it was by that light that he found his way around the main room, depositing his combat gear and armor. Glacis was no doubt down at the cantina or doing late night training at the local gymnasium, so that meant Fier was up working through some simulation or another. The lights in his and Verita’s bedroom seemed off, so he figured Verita had fallen asleep already. Dropping his keycard on a nearby table, he decided to check in on his daughter before retiring to bed.

Unlike Glacis, his younger daughter had no natural inclination toward combat, but she was prodigious in her own way. At a very young age, Fier had shown impressive aptitude for reading and numbers; those early skills blossomed into a mastery of mathematics and sciences like Jhosua and his wife had never seen. With nigh perfect memory and reasoning that eclipsed any student her age, her parents pressed Mandalore to help her foster her gifts. They had sent her to the University of Byblos where she had graduated with highest honors at the age of seventeen.

They were proud of her and her achievements, of course, but they couldn’t help but worry about her all the same. She had always shunned the company of others in favor of holobooks and games of strategy, but her aloofness increased dramatically when she returned home the year before. She hardly interacted with anyone besides her family; the last friend she had stopped visiting years ago. Jhosua thought she would grow out of it, but now he wasn’t so sure.

As expected, the blue light originated in a holographic device at the center of Fier’s room. Shaped like a bowl, the projector shimmered brightly as it cast the illusion of hundreds of ships, from the size of cruisers down to tiny starfighters, around the room. Two fleets, one comprised of Mandalorian vessels and the other Republic, surrounded a lone world and its single moon. The world had a slight purple tinge, and there were already ships on a collision course with its surface as turbolaser fire spewed back and forth from the ships in orbit.

“Fier,” Jhosua called into the host of ships.

“Here, Dad.”

Of course, at the center of it all, was Fier. She was the splitting image of her mother, if only superficially. His daughter’s long red hair was heaped across her shoulders in scraggly bunches, and she looked more unkempt than any teenaged girl had a right to be. Jhosua brushed aside the blanket she was using to cover herself and sat beside his daughter beneath the holographic combat taking place overhead.

“Which battle?” Jhosua asked.

“Malachor V,” Fier whispered, almost breathlessly.

Jhosua frowned. The last battle of the Mandalorian Wars was not one fondly remembered by the Mandalorians. For his daughter to be engaging in that battle, even via simulation, was unnerving. “You’re commanding the Republic forces?”

To his surprise, she shook her head.

“Mandalorian. Revan’s task force has yet to arrive, and the joint Republic-Jedi force has taken heavy losses. I've already eliminated the key Republic commanders, and the ones who remain were not informed about their superweapon.”

“The mass shadow generator.”

“Yes.” Her green eyes shimmered in the faint light around her. “Their fleets are pinned between the planet and my ships. By the time Revan arrives, he won’t have a fleet left to save.”

Sure enough, the battle played out as she predicted. Interestingly, Revan actually tried to activate their superweapon in the final moments of the battle, destroying half the surviving Mandalorian vessels before his ship was destroyed by turbolaser fire. A strange take on a battle that marked the end of the Mandalorian’s galactic crusade. Of course, she was only facing a droid brain that analyzed post-battle data to make the fight as historically accurate as possible—no sentient could match her in these holographic games—but that made it no less impressive.

“Your skills have been improving,” he said after some time. “Have you considered talking to Mandalore about joining his strategy team?”

Fier blushed at the thought. “I couldn’t ask that.”

“Would you like me to?”

“You can do that? I mean, you don’t have to; it’s not your place, I’m sure…”

“Not at all,” Jhosua stroked her cheek with his hand. “I’m sure he would be pleased to have someone like you on board. There’s not a Mandalorian in this camp who can outwit you.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“I’m serious.”

Fier stared at her feet, only partially covered by her blanket. “Okay.”

“Excellent. I'll tell him first thing in the morning,” Jhosua said, getting up.

“Goodnight,” Fier muttered.

“Don’t say that if you’re going to play another round of war games.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jhosua clicked the door panel and closed her door as he left. Creeping across the house to his room, he found his wife tucked into their bed, already fast asleep. He couldn’t help but smile as he watched her. She was beautiful, lying there in peace and quiet. Despite his practically unbridled affections for her, he had learned long ago that waking Verita from deep sleep was a terrible way to greet her—no matter how long he had been gone. With a hushed yawn, he slipped into bed beside her. Whatever it was that was troubling her could wait until morning, when she was awake and ready to talk.

The last thing he felt before falling asleep was her mind gently prodding at his in the Force, realizing for the first time that he had come home.

“See you in the morning, love,” he whispered.


Chapter 5

Tserne DeLarane sat in the pilot seat of the Grimtaash, staring beyond the viewport into the kaleidoscopic blur of hyperspace. The chaotic distortion of shapes and light around him were said to drive spacefarers mad after protracted observation, but he had been staring into its mysteries for as long as he could remember and was no worse for it. Whether he was somehow immune to its incomprehensible oddity or it could simply do no worse to him, he wasn’t sure.

Then again, hyperspace madness was the least of his worries.

He flexed one of his arms as it hung from the edge of his seat, feeling the tired muscles in his forearm and biceps tense. After kneading the aches he found there, he ran through simple stretches and flexes to relieve the pain that seemed to encompass his entire body. It had been nearly twenty hours since they had left the Fate and Luck behind, but he was still feeling the residual effects of his time sneaking around and fighting.

He wiped some sweat from his brow. Cuts and bruises seemed to take forever to heal, his legs and arms protested for days after each fight, and he was much slower than he used to be. Much slower. For a clandestine operative and freelance assassin like himself, that was unacceptable.

He was not so old that fighting was entirely out of the question, but every battle did become a nuisance after the fact. How had age caught up with him so quickly? He still performed extraordinary feats, yes, and he did them well, but he had no idea how much longer he would be able to do so. Every mission taxed his body to the limits. He had no doubt that he would eventually find himself face-to-face with a younger being, lesser in skill but with boundless youthful energy, and Tserne would die that day. Or perhaps an older warrior, tired as he was but with peerless talent, would best him and show him the error of his ways. After years of endless battle, the thought of death was almost cathartic.

With no past to recall, no present worth preserving, and no future to look forward to, Tserne DeLarane—if that was even his real name—eked out what little existence he had left. He had neither confidants nor friends, because they were liabilities in his line of work. And even then, what was the point of his work? When all was said and done, his work as an assassin brought him temporary meaning, but not enough to satisfy him. He was nameless, friendless, and purposeless.

He intended for this mission to change that.

Spinning the pilot’s chair around to take his eyes off the viewport for a while, he observed his only companion, a small utility droid named 3C-AD, near the back of the bridge. A small code cylinder extended from the droid’s squat, rotund chassis, attaching to the ship’s navicomputer while the droid beeped quietly to itself. The Fidelity-class light freighter they shared had been extensively modified by its previous owner—it had enough computer uplinks to give the droid total command of the ship should the need arise. In fact, the small droid was oftentimes more reliable directing the ship than Tserne, who never considered himself a capable pilot anyway.

“Threecee,” Tserne spoke up, “what are you up to?”

The droid tweeted back at him in CBell-1, a sort of droid language, if it could be called that. In its original form, it wasn’t difficult to learn: it began as a binary language with beeps for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to communicate with simple computers. However, as computers became more sophisticated, droids had to advance as well, so their creators added nuances to the language. Tserne did not have the time or the capacity to learn such linguistics naturally, so he had an implant placed behind his left ear that translated droidspeak for him.

“No, I forgot to clear the astronavigation computer,” Tserne replied, watching the droid swivel to the other side of the room on four rolling feet. “Good catch.”

The droid beeped a few times, reminding him that this was the third time in a row he had forgotten to update their charts. No doubt the droid was testing the limits of his newfound vocabulary and benefiting from several missed memory wipes. Droids could almost be sentient at times.

“How’s our guest?”

The single white sensor that served as the droid’s photoreceptor blinked a few times, and its disc-shaped head rotated to face him. It explained that she was fine, but Tserne frowned all the same. Threecee wasn’t partial to other sentients, and he could almost hear the nervousness in its tone. Or was it concern? It was hard to tell.

“Has she eaten since coming aboard?”

It beeped a negative.

Tserne sighed. “We’re terrible hosts, Threecee.”

It whirred dismissively.

“Fine. I’m a terrible host.” Tserne pulled himself out of the pilot’s chair and headed toward their passenger. “But just remember which of us is tall enough to reach the oil bath and recharging station controls.”

Threecee made a rather unpleasant sound at him as he sealed the bridge door behind him. He was a handful at times, but Tserne would much rather deal with a stubborn droid than Dynatha. Truthfully, he had hoped to avoid this confrontation, but there was no way around it. With a defeated sigh, Tserne stalked toward the galley near the center of the ship.

“Here we go…”

*** ***

In the end, she had no say one way or another. The Jedi Council spoke, and she had to listen. Upon leaving Lord Sharzin’s space station behind, Dynatha situated herself in the cargo hold of Tserne’s ship. It was quite isolated and relatively silent, giving her time to rest while simultaneously avoiding him. Absorbed entirely in the Force, her meditations eased her troubled mind and kept her occupied during the doldrums of hyperspace travel.

She wished they had found another to go with Tserne in her stead. This was too much for her to bear. The anger and confusion within her swelled into dark feelings that kept her from the serene, meditative state she desired, leaving her feeling even worse. In the end, it proved impossible to relax, and she sat still for a long time, brooding over her feelings and trying to make sense of everything inside her head.

Even admitting her hidden thoughts to herself was painful. The affections she still had for the man who had wounded her, the intensity of her anger toward him, and even the conflicting desire to abandon her mission and escape him entirely. She did not dare discover how deep the hurt traveled within her heart, but she knew it was there. Could she merely be rid of it, as she would cast off an old garment? Or was it something she had to carry—and continue to carry—for as long as she knew Tserne?

In her contemplation, it was easier for her to subconsciously sense Tserne than it was when she was on her mission. Whether it was because her connection to the Force eased with focus or there were fewer life forms here to distract her, she wasn’t sure. Either way, he was on his way back to the cargo hold, and he was alone. Dynatha couldn’t decide on the best way to keep her emotions in check, and she had no idea what to say to him, so she simply returned to her meditations and hoped he would change his mind and leave her alone.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. “Dynatha?”

“What is it, Tserne?” she asked, a bit harsher than she intended.

“Have you eaten at all since we left the Fate and Luck?”

“I’m afraid not, no.”

“Would you like to eat?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Very well. I suspect you might be in the near future, so I'll leave this here.”

Dynatha saw Tserne set down a small metal tray near her right side. The first thing she noticed was the meaty tang of runyip stew, a popular dish on her homeworld. When she joined the Jedi, she had taken a vow to abstain from meat of any kind, but she couldn’t help remember the stew’s tastiness from her days as a Sith trainee on Alderaan. Tserne had also prepared a small container of dewberries in some kind of orange cream, a bowl of dried seaweed from some ocean world, and a few sweet, wafer-like bofa treats to round out the meal.

She mumbled a disparaging remark under her breath and realized that her body would not allow her to simply observe the food placed before her in her starved state. Glancing back, she noticed that Tserne was nowhere to be seen. Either he realized his mistake at trying to force her to eat, or else he realized that she would not eat in front of him. He was right in the latter regard. Taking the container of seaweed, she popped a few of the salty green flakes into her mouth. In a few minutes, she had sampled the entire course—sans the hearty stew—and begrudgingly admitted to herself that it was delicious before dining in further.

“You said you weren’t hungry,” Tserne spoke up, becoming visible and taking a seat in front of her.

Dynatha jumped and nearly dropped the cup of berries she had been eating. She had forgotten all about his knack for turning invisible to the eyes as well as the Force. “Spying on me?”

“Not my intention. But you didn’t answer me.”

“It would have been a shame to let this food go to waste.”

“Agreed.” Tserne glanced at the food she had devoured. “You aren’t going to eat the stew?”

She shook her head. “I've taken a vow to avoid consuming the flesh and blood of anything the Force gave life to.”

He scooped up the bowl and accompanying spoon and began eating the stew without a word. Dynatha was a bit unnerved by his presence—even though he had been here the whole time—and the idea that he was watching her eat. She did her best to continue eating, but eating with him made the whole thing seem unappealing and she lost her appetite as quickly as it had come. Tserne moved the tray to the side once he was finished and sensed that Dynatha wasn’t going to continue eating anyway.

“So you do intend on helping me,” Tserne muttered, almost to himself.

“I am here, so yes.”

“You don’t want your answers?”

“I have been tasked to accompany and assist you, so that is what I’m going to do.”

“You were a bit more insistent back on the Fate and Luck.”

“Well, I was also surprised to see you again,” Dynatha noted wryly. “I've thought about what exactly I want to hear from you, and I've realized that nothing you tell me will change anything.”

“Dynatha, I don’t have any problem telling you what happened. Like you said, it won’t exactly change anything, but I do have a reason for what I did.”

“You abandoned me,” she snapped. “There is no good reason.”

“I did not abandon you,” he insisted, almost hurt.

“Oh? What would you call it then, Tserne?”

“You won’t like it.”

“I haven’t liked much of anything since I got on board, so you might as well just tell me exactly what happened back then.”

Tserne sighed. “The Force told me to leave you.”

“The Force?” Dynatha nearly slapped him then and there. That was his reason? He had been pulled away from her by the will of the Force? “That’s a weak excuse if I've ever heard one.”

“You can choose to believe it or not,” Tserne replied simply. “That morning I left you, the Force told me that if I did not travel to Dantooine on that very day, I would never be able to rediscover my past. I ignored it at first, because—no matter what you think—I did want to stay with you. But that message was incessant, and it was impossible for me to ignore.”

Dynatha glared vibroblades at him, intent on giving him all the anger she could muster—and she had quite a bit of fury reserved still. She knew of Tserne and the mysterious accident that left him amnesiac and completely devoid of knowledge about the first twenty or so years of his life. But knowing gave her little comfort. She should have known better. He had done a lot of terrible things in his attempt to recover his lost knowledge, including serving the Sith themselves and working for the enigmatic GenoHaradan assassins. In the end, it seemed his journeys had proven fruitless, and she had come along just at the right time for him to abandon her.

Did their travels together really mean so little to him?

“I would have gone with you,” Dynatha said at last, a hint of sadness in her voice.

“I know. I would have taken you, if I could,” Tserne admitted. “The Force told me that the journey would have been perilous. It told me I had a better chance of dying during my search than receiving any answers.”

“But you went anyway.”

“Life or death does not concern me,” Tserne countered. “One who doesn’t know himself is hardly worthy of life.”

“And what about me? What about us?” Dynatha asked.

“What about it? You loved a shell of a man. Whatever we had was not love.”

“You don’t get to decide that.”

“It was all pointless.” He ignored her. “Even my leaving you ended in failure. The Force… left me when I reached Dantooine.”

“Left you?”

Tserne nodded. “Yeah. I've never been particularly adept in the Force, but my connection to it faltered even more as I approached that place. I can’t explain it. My reflexes and vigor began to decay. My precognition disappeared. I've almost forgotten what it feels like to touch the Force at this point.”

“But you can still turn invisible,” Dynatha pointed out, sure Tserne was deceiving her.

“The only skill that did not leave me,” Tserne assured her. “It is almost as natural as breathing to me. Sometimes I do it subconsciously—like while you were dining.”

“So is that why you are seeking out the Sith and their artifacts? To reclaim your connection to the Force?” Dynatha asked.

Tserne was silent for some time. “We'll arrive on Krayiss Two in about three days. Let me know if you get hungry again. The refresher down the hall to the right is broken; keep using the one near the engines.”

Before Dynatha could question him further, Tserne stood up and left her alone to her thoughts. She seethed internally but otherwise didn’t bother to say anything. Had she hit the mark or was there something else? What else could he be keeping from her? The thought nagged at her and kept her from meditation, leaving her alone with her thoughts until she fell asleep to the hum of the hyperdrive.

*** ***

Ixi limped after Ojon, careful to avoid bumping into a distracted merchant who was leading a filled hovercart through one of the busier boulevards in Suurja’s capital. Refugees and homeless crowded around them as they went, panhandling and scrounging for food outside of local businesses and apartments. The hoarse, pleading cries of so many hungry sentients grated Ixi’s ears, and the smell of so many unwashed bodies was even less comforting. All in all, the two Jedi were very glad to be out of the medcenter and on their way back to Telos.

It was a sorry state, and Ixi was troubled to see so many without homes, credits, or food, but they could do very little. They had exhausted all their own money on Ixi’s treatment, and even the Force could not materialize food and clothes to comfort all the helpless locals. It pained him to abandon so many, young and old, to their fate, but at least the Republic was doing what it could. The reconstruction effort was booming while the poorer citizens of Suurja sat in the shadows of scaffolding and cranes.

Ixi’s wound was about as severe as he had presumed: it wasn’t life-threatening, but even with light kolto exposure he had a slight limp that would take a few weeks to heal. The Force would exponentially increase his recovery, but he was no healer; they had to return to Telos. Ojon walked a few steps ahead of him, parting the crowd to the best of his ability. Ixi was so bothered by his surroundings that he couldn’t even bring himself to glance at those he passed by, but his Cerean companion seemed unperturbed by the situation. If nothing else, Ixi mused, he exemplified the stoic virtue of the Jedi Council.

Ixi was about to follow Ojon around a corner when the Force rushed through him as though he had been startled out of a dream. Turning around, Ixi scanned the crowd they had just passed with his keen eyes and the Force. Visually, nothing stood out to him. Mentally, he could sense malice all around him, and not just from the downtrodden vagrants who were so destitute they probably would have hurt him for a chance to eat. The Jedi Knight quickly turned around and sped up to meet Ojon just as he was about to cross a busy intersection.

“Ojon,” Ixi said, grabbing his wrist. “Ojon, do you sense that?”

The Cerean stopped midstride. “What, exactly, am I sensing?”

“There’s something not right about this place. Something… dangerous.”

“You don’t suppose it would have anything to do with the starving Suurjans?” Ojon suggested.

“No, this is different,” Ixi insisted. “Can you not sense it? I think we’re being followed.”

Ojon nodded slowly, and his eyes drifted behind them. Ixi warily followed his gaze until they were both observing the same figure. The mysterious figure in the distance wore armor that was almost camouflaged in the dark reds, browns, and blacks that colored the impoverished locals' rags. He was more heavily armored than most travelers, but not enough to draw too much attention to himself. It was obvious he was watching them, and he nonchalantly drifted further back in the crowd when he realized his targets had stopped.

“What should we do?” Ojon asked, watching their pursuer in the corner of his vision.

“We should split up,” Ixi whispered. “You head east, I'll go west, and we'll meet back up at the spaceport.”

Ojon shook his head. “That’s dangerous. What if there are more of them?”

“We'll get lost in the crowd if we act quickly and individually,” Ixi pointed out.

“Fine,” Ojon sighed. “On three, then.”

Once they were sure their pursuer had drifted far enough into the crowd that he would have trouble sprinting toward them, the two Jedi split up in the blink of an eye. Ojon, uninjured and a few years younger than his fellow Jedi, sprinted as fast as he could eastward. His unassuming blur swept through the crowd, heedless of anyone in his way and quite too fast for anyone to follow him. Ixi, on the other hand, was restricted by his injured leg, and he made do with blending in with the crowd and working his way westward as cautiously as he could. It took some time, but he managed to drift through the sea of sentients and eventually work his way westward.

For some time, it seemed that his efforts had paid off. He could still sense Ojon, and as far as he could tell, the Cerean was not in trouble. That malice from before had faded away, and Ixi navigated through the industrial district without incident. It was when he had returned to the residential area just to the south of the spaceport that he realized he was being tailed again. The crowd was thinner here, and he could tell that the same individual from before was behind him. He couldn’t just sprint away, and he had no way of contacting Ojon save telepathy—but the time he needed to focus was enough time to be accosted. Seeing no way of losing his opponent, Ixi trotted toward the nearest alleyway and prepared to engage his opponent on his own terms.

The alley he had selected was situated between two rather tall apartment complexes, and as such was a bit wider than he had anticipated. However, there was only one way in and one way out, which worked to his advantage. Bypassing waste disposal units and scrap metal, Ixi managed to reach the back wall of the alley just as his pursuer reached the entrance. The Frozian grabbed at his lightsaber to prepare for battle, but he chose to delay activating it, just in case this was a mistake.

“Why are you following me?” Ixi called out. “Do you know who I am?”

“Quite well,” the individual replied in Basic with a cultured accent. “This is a most interesting maneuver, Jedi. Rather risky, as well.”

“I don’t want to have to hurt you,” Ixi replied, activating his lightsaber and revealing its yellow blade.

The armored man snickered. “Come now, Jedi. There’s no need for that.”

“You’re right. Leave, and I'll forget this ever happened.”

“I’m afraid that will be impossible.” The armored man injected himself with something and withdrew a rather archaic-looking sidearm. “In most situations, your plan would have succeeded. Cornering yourself with a lightsaber in a locale with only one avenue of attack would mean certain death for a lone assailant with a blaster. Unfortunately, you miscalculated.”

Bending down to one knee, the armored pursuer fired several shots toward Ixi. His lightsaber traveled in short arcs to send them right back, but to his alarm the shots disintegrated upon contact with his shoto. His attacker’s ammunition couldn’t be deflected. Undeterred, Ixi continued his defense velocity, catching the durasteel slugs against his blade. Was that all? Slugthrowers had notoriously low ammo capacity; he just had to wait him out.

The sound of a dropship’s engines roared overhead to challenge Ixi’s notion of an easy victory. While he had been distracted, a nearby shuttle had disgorged more assailants and dropped them on the roof to his right. A few more slugs rained down upon him, forcing him to alter his bladework to defend himself from both angles. Then, without warning, a vicious screech rushed down from the rooftop, causing Ixi’s teeth to chatter and shaking his concentration. Sonic weapons? Unlike projectiles of mass and energy, lightsabers could not defend against sonic attacks, and they could easily disrupt a Jedi’s connection to the Force.

Slugs and bursts of pure sound rushed at him from all sides, and he could feel his defenses weakening. A trained Jedi Master, perhaps, could have maintained focus in spite of the unnerving sonic booms smashing around and into him, but Ixi could not. Disregarding his injury, the Jedi jumped into the wall to his right, avoiding the fire from above by positioning himself directly below those assailants. Then, in a blindingly fast motion, Ixi propelled himself off that wall and into the one directly in front of him. Jumping back and forth from the alley walls, Ixi dodged the incoming fire and managed to gain enough height to throw himself into an open window.

“He went into the apartment!” one of his attackers yelled. “Rappel down about six meters and engage!”

Deactivating his lightsaber, Ixi forced himself to his feet and bounded out of the vacated room he found himself in. He ended up in quiet hall, empty aside from a few bulky utility droids who floated around on cleaning routes. Leaving the room behind, Ixi circumnavigated the round hall and made for the upper stairs, fighting the pain that was jabbing at the back of his thigh. Transglass and stresscrete shattered in the distance while he ascended, and he struggled to trot quicker as the sounds of his assailants became louder and louder behind him.

Reaching one of the highest floors he could by using the stairs, Ixi tested a few apartment rooms until he found an unlocked one and barged inside. Ignoring the alarmed scream of a dining Twi'lek female and her Chevin companion, Ixi used the Force to push open the nearest window and jump to a lower building. The resulting collision with the flat roof was sloppy, and his ankle twisted in a direction unnatural even for one of his species. Nevertheless, he found the strength to stand just in time to face his assailants as they used grapple lines to reach his position on the roof.

“Not bad, Jedi. I applaud you for making it this far,” the same man who had addressed him earlier spoke up. “Quite a chase, but no one can escape from the darkness in the end.”

“Who are you?” Ixi panted, backing toward the other side of the roof to separate himself from his adversaries.

“Servants of power,” was all the pursuer said.

The Jedi raised his lightsaber and reactivated it, but his enemies seemed content with encircling him instead of actually fighting. There were fifteen of them, including their apparent leader; at full strength, he could probably defeat them, but not in his present state. The more they surrounded him, the more Ixi retreated. He continued to avoid them until he could back up no more, finding himself at the edge of the roof. Unlike before, there was nowhere to jump: the building behind him was several stories taller than the one he was on, and the ground was so far down that an uncontrolled descent would almost definitely prove fatal.

“I don’t want to have to kill you,” Ixi managed to say between gasps.

“Indeed? Well, we have no qualms about killing you. Unfortunately, you’re more valuable alive.” He raised his pistol. “Shoot until he’s crippled; we'll lure his partner out of hiding soon enough.”

Just as the rest of his adversaries raised their weapons, Ixi saw something strange out of the corner of his eye. Turning for a brief moment, he saw a reinforced durasteel cable from one of the cranes that loomed overhead flying toward them. Distracted, he was struck in the right arm by one of the incoming slugs before beginning his defense. As powerful waves of sound began to wash over him, he realized that there was a sentient on the incoming tether.

The inbound sentient kicked out at the farthest of the assailants surrounding Ixi, knocking him over and causing him to accidentally strike one of his own. Jumping from the swinging cable, the young individual rolled into a landing just behind most of Ixi’s attackers. On his feet in the blink of an eye, the young man revealed a shimmering blue lightsaber that cleaved through two armored warriors in a single attack. The survivors' reactions were quick, but not quick enough to stop the newest arrival. In a matter of seconds, the Force-user’s speed and ferocity had cut apart limbs, severed torsos, and lopped off heads. The apparent leader died last, fighting to the death with a concealed vibroblade, but even he was hopeless against Ixi’s mysterious defender.

Ixi heaved a sigh of relief. Having no more strength, he fell over just before the other lightsaber-wielder reached him. The younger man—wearing Jedi robes beneath a long traveler’s vest—gave Ixi a concerned look as he helped the Frozian back to his feet. Although he was fading in and out of consciousness, Ixi recognized the curled red hair and freckled face that stared down at him.

Every Jedi did, because he was the son of a Sunrider.

*** ***

He ached everywhere, and the agony he was in caused Ixi to fade in and out of consciousness for quite a while over the next hour or so. He was vaguely aware that he had been escorted to the safety of the docks. From there, he was set down in a booth of some sort—probably at a small eatery—while his savior went to communicate with someone. A few more minutes passed, and the young Sunrider returned and helped Ixi board a small Arca-class transport shuttle.

Even in his delirious state, he noticed Ojon sitting nearby along with another, older Jedi who was at the helm of their small craft. Standing almost as tall as Ojon in spite of the latter’s oblong head, the fourth Jedi—who was closer to Ixi in age than the young Sunrider—was broad-shouldered and muscular besides. He had a small nose that sharpened at the end, dark blond hair that was cut just below the ears, and lips that were pursed as if constantly pondering something. Unlike most Jedi, he forsook the standard Jedi robes for a cloak, jeweled vest, and trousers that were the same color as his durasteel gray eyes.

“I… I suppose thanks are in order,” Ixi said, barely conscious.

“No need,” the older Jedi said, standing at full height. “Are you grievously injured?”

“I'll be fine,” Ixi said, brushing off his concern. “Ojon?”

The Cerean shook his head. “But you don’t look well, Ixi. We should return to the clinic-”

“This place is already too dangerous to stay any longer,” the fancifully dressed Jedi pointed out. “We’re going to be returning to Telos, but we'll have to take the long way. Can’t risk being followed.”

“I'll do my best to tend to your wounds until we return,” the young Sunrider said. “If you’re sure they’re not life-threatening, then we don’t have to make any stops.”

“I'll manage,” Ixi assured him.

“I’m sorry, in the commotion I seem to have forgotten my place. I am Nocion Ahasies,” the older Jedi said. “This is my Padawan learner, Harin Sunrider.”

Ixi nodded; he remembered seeing Celes Sunrider’s son on Telos several years ago, during the annual Padawan tourney. As expected, he had proven himself a masterful swordsman and powerful Force-user even though he was just a Padawan. He couldn’t say he remembered Nocion at all, though.

“Ixi Meffa,” he introduced himself. “My companion here is Ojon Therdan.”

“A pleasure to meet you both. We can talk some more during our trip, but for now, we must be leaving.”

“Hyperdrive is steady and prepared for jump,” Ojon noted as he glanced at the consoles beside him.

“Very good.” Nocion returned to his seat. “Preparing for jump…”

While Harin returned to his seat, Ixi couldn’t help but groan. Hyperspace travel was usually a simple matter, but the lingering pain from his wounds would no doubt become worse the longer his wounds weren’t treated, and the trip to Telos would probably take at least two days. Gritting his teeth, he braced himself for the long journey ahead of him.

Such is the life of a Jedi Knight, he rued to himself.

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