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Chapter 32

Verita was alone in her classroom despite the fact it was midday. Mothers and young children had decided as one to see their husbands, siblings, and older children one last time before the transports took them away. This was the day of the great battle Jhosua had spoken of, and by this time tomorrow Verita knew that the Mandalorians would mostly abandon this world for their reclaimed home on Mandalore.

This was the battle that Jhosua had yearned for. His years of planning, fighting, and gathering resources had come together. The other generals had been just as influential, of course, but it was Jhosua who was on her mind now. If he hadn’t worked with Mandalore to negotiate with the Republic for these past few years, then perhaps things could have been different. Perhaps they could have stayed on Ordo, or Contruum, or Dxun.

She had been naïve. She had hoped that the two of them, together, would change the Mandalorians. But Jhosua had never wanted that. Even now, she couldn’t quite figure out what he got out of all this warfare and barbarism. Was it something he needed? Had fighting for the Republic changed him? There were years when he hadn’t been at war, but he hadn’t been happy. It had been evident in his face. She supposed that he either had to fight enemies outside of himself, or else he would have to wage war against whatever he struggled with inside. She could rationalize his thoughts all she wanted, but she should have left long ago.

She had only brought one box with her to collect her trappings. That was all she had needed. She fought back the urge to cry, knowing that the bright young faces she had spent years watching over, nurturing, and teaching would end up as victims of Mandalore’s crusade. Those that didn’t die would end up committing the very same atrocities that Jhosua had, with no one to tell them that what they were doing was wrong. The terror of another Mandalorian War—and the thought that she could prevent it—almost made her drop her things, put them back, and reconsider her departure.

More childish fantasies.

Verita left the classroom and locked it behind her. The glowpanels and temperature control unit were off. The windows had been bolted shut and the hallways scrubbed clean. Overwhelmed by the futility of her time among the Mandalorians, she carried her things out of the school and locked the main door behind her. She could see the transports in the distance, over some shorter buildings. She heard the shouts of young women entreating their lovers to be safe, the cries of children begging their fathers to stay behind, and the well-wishes from friends and relatives. Transports had been coming and going all day; Jhosua and Glacis were up there already. She already regretted the fact she hadn’t been there to see them off.

Fier was waiting for her at the civilian docks. They weren’t allowed to leave until the military forces had jumped to Mandalore, but she could wait until then. Their home had been cleared and there was nothing left for her on Ordo. Memories and heartache caused her will to waiver. But she had to be strong for Fier, at least. She understood—or at least, she seemed to. They would travel away from the Mandalorians, back into Republic space. First to Byblos, then to Dantooine, and then from there they would go wherever the Force guided her.

She couldn’t claim to know what the future held, but she knew that her daughter deserved better than this. The fact that Glacis had decided to stay with her father and fiercely rebuffed any attempts to abandon him was like a dagger through her heart. She wanted to leave this violent place with both of her daughters, but the Mandalorian way proved appealing to her eldest daughter. Verita had let her embrace their philosophy and way of life. The failure was hers and hers alone, and it weighed heavily on her conscience.

The spaceport was in view. She was ready for her new life, but she would not leave without both Glacis and Fier. She would wait until her eldest returned from battle—and she would return—and plead with her to reconsider her madness. She would not take no for an answer. Even if Jhosua tried to stop her, she was determined to see her children to safety. Mandalore himself would not be able to stop her.

*** ***

Jhosua stood at the helm of the the oldest Shaadlar-type troopship in the fleet. Since their defeat in the Mandalorian Wars, the Mandalorians had no production facilities of their own. All of their existing ships had either been purchased from vendors who had bought them after the war, or else they had been recovered from old battlefields and retrofitted so they could fly again. Most of the ships had their cores replaced or their central computer wiped, which meant that their original names were lost forever. Nameless vessels were simply abbreviated based on their purpose: his troopship was Trill-1.

Mandalore the Preserver had urged Mandalorians to have as many children as they could for as long as Jhosua had been living with them. Families with seven or more children were not uncommon. By tying fertility and child-bearing with the concept of restoring a clan’s pride, Mandalore had encouraged a population boom; there were tens of thousands of young men and women ready for battle twenty years after the fact.

With young warriors replacing the veterans of the Mandalorian Wars and Jedi Civil War, the Mandalorians finally had enough engineers, pilots, and officers to crew their capital ships effectively. However, Mandalore had hoped to find more ships than they did; instead of the hundreds of ships he had expected, they had recovered only fifty or so at most and most of those weren’t even space-worthy. It would take time to train more officers and build more ships, but they hadn’t the time.

Mandalore’s leadership had been directly responsible for their success. Jhosua had conquered the surrounding systems with only six thousand troops—their most experienced and well-trained unit of soldiers. But the children and grandchildren of Mandalorian veterans—whose elders had scoffed at the idea of reconquering Mandalore—flocked to join Mandalore’s cause, as had mercenaries and fringers who were looking to settle down amongst the Mandalorians. Although there weren’t many warriors fighting today to capture Mandalore, they had more than twenty thousand warriors in all.

As the plan had been laid out, Jhosua and his strike team would be the first to fight. He and forty of his handpicked commandos would descend to the surface on Basilisk war droids and Teroch-type gunships and disable the shield generator around the Republic settlements. Mandalore and the other commanders waiting in orbit would deal with the situation from there; other warriors would land after the bombardment and deal with survivors.

After their defeat over Malachor V, the Mandalorians had been forced to destroy their Basilisk droids. A few clans had managed to hide them from Republic inspectors or rebuild them years later, but the knowledge and ability to construct them were rare. In all, the clans under Mandalore the Preserver had only nine Basilisk droids, and he had given all but one to Jhosua and his unit for this battle. The Mandalorians who had not been picked by him to ride the droids would have to accompany them inside their gunships, mostly as reinforcements.

“Captains, we will jump to the base at Bonagal’s moon in ten minutes. If you’re experiencing any issues at all, please contact me,” Field Marshal Kelborn announced over the comm. “For Mandalore!”

Jhosua had confided with the captain of his vessel, a younger officer who had received his commendation not too long ago. According to the reports of his technicians, they didn’t have the power to use their shields and their guns at the same time, but Jhosua suspected that would be a non-issue. The troopships were being ferried by one of the larger ships, but they did have to be ready to defend themselves once they left the hangars.

When it came time to depart, Kelborn informed Jhosua that they had left three ships behind—two Jehavey’ir-type assault ships and one Kyramud-type battleship. The ships and troops being transported by those vessels were switched into working ships before they departed. The journey from Ordo to Bonagal was quick and uneventful. Once they were within range, Jhosua had left the bridge and headed outside into the hangar of the Kyramud battleship that was escorting them.

Their stop at one of Bonagal’s terrestrial moons was a mere detour to drop off warriors and supplies in case of an emergency. Jhosua spent most of their layover inspecting the Basilisk droids. The fleet entered hyperspace again and headed for Mandalore itself.

“How are we looking? Do we have any problems? Anything I should know about?” Jhosua asked, calling all of his warriors to gather around him.

“None, sir,” one of his lieutenants replied from the crowd. “But who will our last Basilisk droid pilot be? You never decided.”

Jhosua frowned. Despite his misgivings, he was leaning toward selecting Glacis. Piloting a Basilisk was dangerous. She had scored highly during pilot training, and she had no trouble bonding with the droid she had flown during live-fire exercises, but he couldn’t help but feel nervous. He could never live with himself if Glacis proved less-than-capable and hurt herself during the mission. There were other capable pilots. At the same time, he didn’t quite feel comfortable leaving her in space either. Her capabilities were wasted on a gunship.


“The last pilot,” Jhosua said, “will be Glacis. Suit up.”

Glacis’s face lit up. No doubt she had hoped he would allow her to accompany him on this mission. Verita would never have agreed to it. She would have been satisfied with him leaving Glacis behind on the Trill-1, watching the battle play out and doing nothing. Verita couldn’t understand honor. At the very least, Glacis had earned this. She was fully capable and would make him proud.

“High Marshal Weros, we’re in orbit over Mandalore,” Kelborn’s voice crackled in his earpiece comlink. “As expected, the settlers did not flee.”

“How many of them remain?” Jhosua asked, waving for his warriors to finish their preparations.

“Enough to keep their shields online, at least,” Mandalore said. “Initial scans indicate that anyone who hasn’t departed has hunkered down in the main settlement along the shoreline. It would have been easier if all the settlers fled, but we can’t change that now.”

“We’re not altering the mission in any way?”

“No. Carry out the mission as we agreed. We gave the Republic a chance. These settlers didn’t take it. I want those shields down by 0900 Mandalore time.”

“Understood. I’ll report in once it’s done.”

Jhosua slipped on his helmet and sealed his armor so that he could, ideally, survive several hours in vacuum with just the air canister attached to his armor. His warriors were prepared; most of them had boarded the Teroch gunships, and his elite warriors were already boarding their Basilisk droids. Semi-sentient machines that were more quadrupedal mounts than droids, they had been created many years ago to aid the Mandalorians' war effort. Armored plating made of Mandalorian iron gave the droid resistance to small arms fire, minor explosions, and even lightsaber strikes. Its front bristled with weapons, from a ring of missile tubes to laser cannons mounted just underneath their forearms, but its most threatening weapon was a cluster of shockwave generator rods that had been fashioned to look like an animal’s snout. Civilians from Iridonia to Onderon knew the terrifying sight of Mandalorians riding Basilisk war droids.

Jhosua had ridden his war droid only a few times before—both times on training missions. He hoped that the droid would be as helpful and cooperative as it had been then. Slipping into what could only be called the saddle just behind the forward guns, Jhosua activated the droid using the holographic control panel and allowed the droid’s systems to boot. His other pilots had tweaked their droids in various ways, like removing weapons, adding armor, or repainting it, but Jhosua was fine with the typical model.

“Here we go,” Jhosua said through his comlink. “Make sure you’re strapped in. That shield is still up, so you’re responsible for keeping the gunships safe until its offline. Then go in and hit hard. Be ready to defend your wingman as necessary. If you have trouble with your mount, pull away and get it under control. Glacis, you’re on my six.”

“Yes, sir.”

His Basilisk gave something akin to a growl beneath him. Before he could ask what it was growling about, the massive metal doors beneath them began to part. The chamber slowly depressurized, and the Teroch gunships and their Basilisk droid escorts were carried out of the hangar and into the emptiness of space.

With only his armor to separate himself from space, he felt small. For the first time, he could see the great warships floating in space from the outside, caught in Mandalore’s orbit. He saw the stars through his own eyes, impeded by a layer of transparisteel thinner than any ship’s viewport, and they seemed brighter to his eyes—perhaps he was only fooling himself. Dominating his field of vision was the planet Mandalore. Rich blues and greens mingled across much of the planet’s surface, and only thin stripes of desert were visible from his impressive vantage point. Dark clouds seemed to whip up storms over its oceans, but most of the continents were blessed with billowy white clouds. There were no major settlements as far as he could tell. It was the most idyllic world he had ever seen.

He knew his warriors were equally enthralled by the sight, but he couldn’t afford to waste any more time admiring the view. Rallying his forces, Jhosua commanded the Basilisk droid to set its engines to full power and head toward their target in the northern continent. As they passed through the several layers of atmosphere, Jhosua hid behind the metal crest and made himself small so as to reduce the wear on his shield and armor. The droid and his body armor were covered in an ablative resin specifically designed for rapid entry, and his droid’s frame was shaped to increase drag and lessen the effects of the atmosphere on the droid, but it was still dangerous.

At the speed he and the others were going, it didn’t take long for the clouds to give way to the vast landscape below. The northern continent stretched from the equatorial oceans all the way to the north pole; its surface was covered in all manner of wooded terrain, icy wastes, and rolling plains. Along the southern shores of the continent, the shimmering blue outline of an energy field was barely visible, and Jhosua could see the tops of the largest buildings in the major Republic settlements. Anti-air weaponry fired upon them as they got closer to their destination, and Jhosua ordered his warriors to separate lest they all be struck by a single flak cannon.

The cannonade got more vicious as they got closer to the shield’s perimeter. Jhosua had led Glacis and one other warrior toward the mountains where they suspected the shield generator was situated, and he brought them in low enough so the flak guns were no longer a threat. When they descended just above the treeline, locals fired their rifles and slugthrowers at them. Jhosua and his two warriors used their Basilisk mounts to devastating effect, destroying much of the forest around them. But as they got within the last six hundred meters of the generator’s suspected location, hidden flak guns fired at them. There was no way for the Mandalorians to get any closer to the shield by air. Jhosua ordered his troops to land about two kilometers from the shield.

Once their Basilisks had settled down onto the sands of the beach, Jhosua hopped from the hulking droid and tested his comm. “This is Marshal Weros. I have two warriors with me. Where are the rest of you? Where are my gunships?”

Information came in all at once. Based on their reports, most of his warriors had survived the descent and landed in various places around the shield. They had lost one pilot and his Basilisk against the flak guns, but all of their Teroch gunships were intact and waiting at a safe distance. That being said, the settlers were on high alert and watching the skies closely; it would be very difficult for their unit to reunite without engaging in prolonged battles with the defenders.

“High Marshal, I have movement,” Glacis reported as she scanned the inland woods. “A small team of droids and what appears to be their controllers.”

“How far?”

“Twenty meters, perhaps? They’re shuffling through the trees and not even trying to hide their presence.”

Jhosua shook his head. If the settlers were making that much commotion, that meant the concept of the stealth meant nothing to them or their enemy outnumbered them by a good deal. “How close are you to the hills?” Jhosua asked the second squad’s leader.

“We can see them, but they’re higher on this side. Unless we find a well-carved path, it might take us a while to get up there.”

“Any opposition nearby?”

“Just some scouts. We dealt with them already.”

“Glacis,” Jhosua said, switching his comlink to standby, “take point. We’re closer to the generator than second squad, so it’s up to us for the time being. Briggs, stay close to me. We’ll cover her.”

His daughter complied immediately, bringing her combat rifle to bear and rushing toward the shield. The energy field rippled as she passed through it, providing only a bit of heat resistance before she was inside. Positioning herself behind the nearest tree, she fired several short bursts into the crowd of settlers headed their way. They carried hunting rifles and slugthrowers for the most part, and none of them wore armor. The droids weren’t even designated for combat; they were protocol droids that had received combat rifles. Her scattered fire struck two settlers in the chest and another in the leg. When three of their comrades went down, the survivors scattered to defend themselves better.

Jhosua and Briggs came through the shield after her; by then, blaster fire filled the air between the trees, forcing them to dive for cover. Glacis threw a grenade deeper into the woods, and the explosion shattered many of the stocky trees and created a clearing about twenty meters away. Jhosua heard a few shouts of pain from the ditch he was situated in, and he figured the shrapnel had wounded a few more of their enemies. Peering through the scope of his sniper rifle, Jhosua scanned the shadows of the trees for a target. A settler was crouched behind a log and aiming at Glacis beyond her peripheral vision. With mechanical precision, he lined up his shot, checked his aim, calculated for the wind and projectile’s distance, and fired. The slug traveled through his target’s chest and sent him to the ground. Glacis noticed him take the shot and signaled her gratitude.

The three Mandalorians pushed hard against their attackers. Glacis held point, advancing through the line of trees and switching between steady bursts of rifle fire and fragmentation grenades to clear the way. Jhosua and Briggs gave her covering fire, although Jhosua was limited to strategic shots due to lack of a repeating weapon. Without armor or shields, the settlers lost four or five men for every meter the Mandalorians gained. When it became obvious that they couldn’t hold their position, the settlers began a full retreat.

Instead of pursuing them, Jhosua ordered his fireteam to head northeast and into the hills. The trio made good time, and the stout trees—so close back at the beach that many of their branches had intertwined—were separated by large swathes of open land as they approached their destination. As Jhosua and his lieutenant in second squad had figured, the hills were smaller and less steep on the southern side; the three of them could see the shield generator sticking out from amidst the hills.

“This place doesn’t have much by way of defense,” Glacis noted as she began her ascent. “I thought they would put up a better fight than this.”

“They’re farmers, merchants, and smugglers. I’d be worried if they had mounted a professional defense,” Jhosua replied. “Even the flak cannons are distressing.”

“Could have been issued by the Republic for defense,” Briggs suggested.

“It’s still a bit underwhelming,” Glacis mused.

The three Mandalorians marched through the hills without incident. The lieutenant of second squad reported that he and his warriors had reached the northern side of the hills, but it would be some time before they could meet. They either had to scale the cliffs on the northern side or else find a long way around. Considering how close Jhosua’s team was to the generator, he suspected they would arrive after everything was done.

The entrance to the generator was defended by nine bipedal war droids and three sentries: one on the roof of the generator, on closer to the hills, and one on a tower with a high-caliber rifle about halfway between the hills and the complex. Jhosua aimed at the sentry and killed him with his sniper rifle while his two subordinates used the last of their grenades against the droids. The area was lined with flak cannons to defend from aerial attacks, but they posed no threat to them. The Mandalorians descended the last hill and approached the generator itself, setting off a motion detector in the process.

“All right, we’ve got a handful of anti-structural mines, so let’s put them to good use. Let’s be quick. I’ll watch the front door while you two work, but I don’t want to fight the entire settlement,” Jhosua ordered.

“Are you confident that the structure will collapse if we strike it from the outside?” Briggs asked.

“If we place them properly, yes. At the very least, we can damage the shield’s projector.”

Glacis and Briggs began laying the explosives around the walls of the complex. Both of them were trained in demolition work while Jhosua was less so, so he peeked inside the compound to see if anyone was stationed inside. The structure seemed military-issue: security checkpoints, infantry perches, and durasteel walls thick enough to defend against grenade attacks. As far as he could tell, no one was guarding its entrance. If it had any defenders at all, they were deeper inside the generator and preparing for an actual assault.

“High Marshal Weros! We have a situation!” High Marshal Kelborn’s voice was fraught with alarm.

“What is it?”

“Some of the younger warriors confronted Mandalore after you left. I don’t know the details, but their interaction became violent and… they attacked Mandalore himself!”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“They tried to kill him on the bridge of the Alor’ad, but he fled on his Basilisk droid. The moment he left the ship, the Cabur began firing on him. Other ships fired on the Cabur to save him, and now everyone’s shooting at each other. Without Mandalore-”

An explosion cut off Kelborn. Running outside, Jhosua stared into the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was going on for himself. Unfortunately, the fighting was happening in orbit, and the smaller ships had yet to engage in lower altitude combat. Jhosua swore and tried contacting Kelborn again, but his comlink had either been damaged or his command ship had been destroyed. What was going on? Had everyone gone insane?


His eyes widened. There was a lot of static, but he recognized that voice. “Where are you, Mandalore?”

“I’m heading toward the surface. I’m transmitting you my current location…” Mandalore coughed. “Don’t alarm the others. Finish the mission… and then meet up with me.”

“Are you hurt? What’s going on?”

“Can’t talk… they’re right behind me. Finish the mission, Jhosua.”

Jhosua shouted into the comlink, but Mandalore had already disconnected. Sure enough, he received Mandalore’s vector of descent; if he kept his present course, he was going to land on one of the smaller islands just north of the planet’s equator. It all seemed so bizarre. Disloyalty was rare amongst the clans of Mandalore, and he couldn’t comprehend anyone holding a grudge against their leader to such a degree that they would compromise this battle.

“Where are you going?” Glacis called after him as he began to run for the shore.

“I… another team is dropping in. I’m going to make sure they land safely.”

“Let me come with you.”

“No! Stay here with Briggs and make sure the charges are set properly. Destroy the shield generator, and then fall back so you can link up with second squad before reinforcements arrive. Report to me when you’re done.”


“That’s an order, Glacis!”

Jhosua didn’t look back. He was certain that she would do her duty. Once his team was done, it was only a matter of time before the fleet dealt with the settlement and any remaining opposition—if they had a fleet left. Hiking back to the beach where his Basilisk was waiting, he thought he saw a shooting star falling toward the ocean many kilometers away.

Chapter 33

His Basilisk had been ready to fly the moment he had returned. Pushing the droid to its limits, Jhosua left the northern continent behind and scoured the uncountable islands in the equatorial sea for any traces of Mandalore and his Basilisk droid. Back and forth he flew, low enough that he felt surge of the waves on his armor and so high that flocks of avians had to maneuver to avoid him.

At last he found what he was looking for. Near the center of a reef that had been forced above the water, he could see the remains of a Basilisk war droid. Smoke was spewing from its metal hull, and there was a trail of debris and broken reef where it had initially landed before finally settling down. He could not see Mandalore. As he flew closer to the reef, he noticed a lone Teroch gunship approaching from the opposite hemisphere. Based on how fast it was traveling, Jhosua would arrive first, but it would be close.

Touching down not far from the wrecked droid, Jhosua leapt from his seat and withdrew his blaster pistol. The reef was still wet from the higher tide, and he slipped several times. When he reached the downed droid’s husk, he suddenly found himself facing the barrel of a blaster rifle. He instinctively raised his own weapon. Mandalore had nearly shot him, but both of them quickly realized their error. The leader of the Mandalorians greeted Jhosua wordlessly, crawling out from beneath one of the Basilisk war droids metal plates. Jhosua noticed that Mandalore had been wounded; he was bleeding from his arm and just below his ribs, and his armor had been burned away in several places along his torso.

“You shouldn’t move, Mandalore,” Jhosua said, “you’ve been injured.”

“We need to move,” the Mandalorian leader growled.

“I won’t let you leave until I can assess your injuries.”

Mandalore was about to object, but he cut himself off once he was about halfway upright. He showed no indication that he was in pain, but Jhosua sensed that he was incapable of standing properly. Jhosua grimaced beneath his visor when he realized that Mandalore’s left leg had been twisted about twenty degrees inward, probably from his violent impact with the reef. He did his best to help the wounded clan leader into a seated position, but it was difficult getting Mandalore out from beneath the Basilisk war droid.

“They were close enough to feel my engines’ exhaust,” Mandalore said between harsh breaths. “If we don’t flee now-”

“We’re not going to flee. I’ll handle them.”

“No. Request reinforcements from your unit.”

“They’re preoccupied.”

“What’s the point of destroying the settlement if we’re both dead, Jhosua? What will become of the Mandalorians if those traitors take control of the clans? Everything I’ve fought for…”

Mandalore was interrupted by the roar of a gunship’s engines. Jhosua positioned himself between the incoming vessel and Mandalore, and he signaled for his Basilisk droid to attack. Its missile streaked through the air, but the pilot reacted quickly enough to roll out of the way and shot back. Two direct hits from its lasers cannons knocked Jhosua’s droid over. Jhosua was certain they would aim for the two of them next; instead, the ship settled down as best as it could on top of the reef. The gunship outgassed and lowered its egress ramp. Two squads of Mandalorians emerged from within, each armed with heavy repeaters, vibroswords, and grenades.

“Well, well. The fortune of war is good to us, brothers,” a red-armored warrior whom Jhosua recognized as Captain Garol said. “We have the traitor and the failed Mandalore in one place where we may deal with them.”

“Captain Garol… you’re behind this? And you have the audacity to call me a traitor?” Jhosua spat.

“A generation of young warriors have lived under the boot of your kind for too long. Stuck in your ways, your traditions. Mandalore coddles old warriors who should have stepped down long ago, keeping us from the posts we rightfully deserve. He pits brother against brother in a misguided attempt at unification. But worst of all, he plays his flute for the Galactic Republic. You’ve been neutered… you’ve forgotten what it means to be Mandalorian!”

“Cute speech,” Jhosua replied. “I bet you went through it a hundred times just to hear yourself talk.”

“Silence! I speak on behalf of my clan! You are clanless and a foreigner, an insect not worthy to serve as a slave to my son, much less command me.”

“I have more authority and honor than you.”

“Do you?” another Mandalorian, this one wearing the traditional blue of junior officers, shouted. “Then explain this!”

One of the Mandalorians threw a datapad on the ground in front of Jhosua. He was suspicious at first, but none of the other warriors moved, so he picked it up without taking his eyes away from the crowd. When the screen activated, its contents made his heart skip a beat. It was the Republic Army’s classified report on the Battle of Wayland at the end of the Jedi Civil War. It had details of their mission to eliminate the Mandalorian stragglers, the two-pronged aerial and artillery bombardments, and their ultimate victory. But most terrifying of all, it highlighted then-Corporal Jhosua Weros’s exemplary bravery and valor in the face of the enemy, and the fact that he personally killed the false Mandalore and her lieutenant at the end of the battle.

“I take it you are familiar with that report, Jhosua Weros?” This time it was the gold-armored Commander Tyrollian who spoke. “Tell me… how much do they pay Republic spies these days?”

Jhosua shook his head. How had they discovered this? There was no way this information should have been available to them. “You misunderstand… I… I haven’t…”

“My uncle was Adebes of the clan Cor,” Commander Tyrollian continued. “When the Twi’lek guard who served that Republic senator showed me these things, told me that you were the one who killed him, I knew at once that the Mandalorians had been misled. But I am not easily deceived. I contacted a former politician in Republic space and had him use some of his contacts to verify this information. His findings lined up with what we had been told.”

“So it was you, not Captain Garol, who led this uprising,” Jhosua mused. “To what end?”

“To avenge my family for the shame it has endured in your name. To purge the Mandalorian clans of your influence. You are a liar and the fact that you have such authority is a shame to us all. I will uphold the Canons of Honor and see that you and all who ally themselves with you perish.”

“You would raise your hand against Mandalore himself? Have you no shame?”

“He has been fooled by your lies,” Captain Garol sneered. “Commander Tyrollian will kill him and take the mask for himself. In this isolated place, no one will know that he did not perish from the fall.”

“You betrayed me on the bridge of our flagship,” Mandalore said, his voice quiet but resolute. “The other warriors will know.”

“The strongest will rule. That is the rule that united our people. When I claim that mask, none will doubt my claim to the title,” Commander Tyrollian said.

“You’ll have to kill me first,” Jhosua growled.

“That’s the idea.” Commander Tyrollian began removing his combat gauntlets. “I will grant you one honor, Outsider, for your part in reconquering Mandalore for us. The two of us shall duel, and we will have no armor, no weapons, no assistance, and no interference. We will fight until one of us triumphs.”

Jhosua silently agreed. Even though the claims about his past were true, that was history. He had no loyalty to the Republic, and he would prove it in a way that Mandalorians understood. His honor was on the line. The two warriors discarded their armor and weapons, stripping down to their mesh bodysuits. The other warriors cleared away their equipment, and Mandalore kept a careful eye on his weapons and armor to make sure they were not discarded into the sea.

Tyrollian was nearly two decades younger than Jhosua, with lean muscles that were outlined beneath his bodysuit. He was tall, youthful, and determination was carved into his visage. Despite the lack of scars, Jhosua knew Tyrollian was a fearsome warrior in his own right. He was famous for his bravery in combat and adored by many of the younger warriors. Jhosua ruefully considered the fact that, in any other circumstance, he could see this man becoming the next Mandalore.

“There are no rules in this fight aside from those defined by Commander Tyrollian before. May fortune decide the winner and bring inexpressible shame upon the loser and his clan,” Captain Garol announced.

Tyrollian’s leg shot out and struck Jhosua in the right thigh, causing him to drop to one knee and allowing Tyrollian to uppercut Jhosua’s chin. Reeling from the impact, the back of Jhosua’s head hit the reef, and stars filled his vision. There were shouts of approval from the crowd around him, and Tyrollian leapt on top of him and began raining punches into his face and chest. Jhosua jabbed a few times in retaliation, but the younger warrior had more reach and a better angle of attack. Jhosua only escaped because he managed to get a good hit on Tyrollian’s solar plexus, causing him to pull back.

Jhosua pulled himself to his feet just in time to be tackled back to the ground by Tyrollian. Dazed, Jhosua took a few more hits to the face. With a black eye and blood dribbling from his nose, he was barely conscious of the last few hits Tyrollian gave him. Satisfied and thinking Jhosua defeated, the younger warrior stood over him and motioned toward the crowd. “Now we can see why he’s let his daughter do his fighting for him,” he jeered. “Look at how slow he moves. I’d expect a better fight from Mandalore the Ultimate!”

Jhosua grappled his leg and pulled him to the ground. Jhosua and Tyrollian traded punches, but the younger warrior’s ferocity—aiming for the head, throat, and spine—forced Jhosua to defend more than he wanted. Very few of Tyrollian’s punches found their mark now that Jhosua had recovered his strength, but he was persistent. Repeated strikes at Jhosua’s side and forearms took their toll. It was only when he noticed Tyrollian had overextended himself that he claimed the offensive; grabbing the commander’s forearm and underarm, Jhosua threw him with enough momentum cause him to lose his balance and fall. Jhosua stomped on his leg and chest three times before Tyrollian grabbed his ankle and pulled him down with him.

When Jhosua tried to get up, Tyrollian slipped his leg behind Jhosua’s knee and twisted his body so he could grab at Jhosua’s feet. He sat down on Jhosua while pulling his right leg back, eliciting a cry of pain from Jhosua as the muscles in his calf were forced against the bone. Something popped in his knee before he managed to jab hard enough at Tyrollian’s kidneys to force him to let go.

The two warriors were drenched in sweat. Jhosua was keenly aware of the sea air against his face and on his lips; it seemed that the wind was picking up and the tide was rising around them. Tyrollian looked like he could fight five more warriors and remain standing, but Jhosua’s chest burned and a sharp pain in his right leg. He wouldn’t be able to fight like this for much longer. The look in Tyrollian’s eyes told him that the young upstart knew this just as well. The next few hits would decide this fight.

Tyrollian rolled away from him and stood up before Jhosua could stop him. When Jhosua tried to stand, Tyrollian kicked at his face and sent him back down. His knee landed on Jhosua’s chest. The blow was debilitating, but he had just enough dexterity to grab the younger warrior’s leg. Jhosua twisted it inward and caused him to lose his balance. Once he was on the ground, Jhosua rolled on top of him and brought both fists down on his head. The commander gave a pained cry, but Jhosua didn’t relent. Grabbing the commander’s arm, Jhosua fell to the side and forced both of his legs around Tyrollian’s neck. He crossed his legs and pulled them together as tight as he could, constricting his opponent’s throat. Tyrollian’s only free arm flailed around ineffectually.

“That’s quite enough, traitor,” Captain Garol said. “Release Commander Tyrollian before he passes out.”

Jhosua turned and noticed that several of the Mandalorians in the crowd had drawn their blaster rifles—and pointed them at him. Tyrollian had said he wanted this fight to go on without any interference. Whether Garol and the others were so eager to kill Jhosua that they didn’t care, or this was simply another act of treachery, he wasn’t sure. But he was in no position to argue. Slowly, Jhosua released the pressure on Tyrollian’s neck and scrambled away from his opponent.

“Defeating you in single combat would have brought us much honor, but killing you now is just as well. Only the vastness of space and the depths of the sea keep their secrets, it has been said,” Captain Garol mused.

“This is shameful, even for you. Commander Tyrollian wanted a chance to reclaim his clan’s honor. Would you deny him that?”

“We didn’t deny him that,” another warrior replied. “We gave him a chance and he failed. It’s time to finish the job.”

Jhosua saw that he had been defeated. Even if he could dodge one of them, the others would find their mark through sheer volume of fire. Dejected, he completely forgot about the two allies he had with him. Jhosua’s Basilisk droid, damaged from earlier, regained its strength and emerged from the water. With a mechanical roar, the massive droid leapt across the reef and landed on top of several Mandalorians circling Jhosua. Startled, some of the Mandalorians pulled their triggers and barely missed their initial target. Turning their attention toward their hulking adversary, their rifle fire did very little against its reinforced plating. While they were distracted—first by the duel and then by the war droid—Mandalore had limped over to his weapon cache and secured his heavy repeater. Positioning himself against the hull of his destroyed Basilisk droid, Mandalore held down the trigger and released a torrent of fire into the crowd of warriors.

No one paid attention to Jhosua once the commotion began. As soon as Captain Garol was distracted by the Basilisk droid, Jhosua ran forward and tackled him to the ground. Pushing the blaster so it was perpendicular to them both, Jhosua wrestled with the treacherous officer for control of the weapon. Garol had fallen in such a way that his grip on his weapon was strong but awkward, and it was difficult for him to fend off the older warrior. Pressing down on the blaster with his right arm, Jhosua kept the weapon in place while grabbing Garol’s knife from its sheath with the other. In a single motion, Jhosua brought the knife to bear and plunged the blade into Captain Garol’s visor.

Whether Captain Garol was dead or not didn’t matter. Jhosua scooped up the traitor’s blaster and fired at the remaining Mandalorians. The combined might of the war droid and Mandalore’s cannon had already done most of the work, however. While Mandalore and his adviser dealt with the last warriors, his Basilisk droid fired several of its missiles at the Teroch gunship Garol and the others had arrived in, which in turn fired its cannons at the lumbering droid. The gunship exploded, killing the pilot and co-pilot who had remained inside, and the Basilisk fell on its side, critically damaged from the attack. Explosions from the ship destroyed much of the reef as well, causing waves to swell up around the chunks that remained above water.

Once Jhosua was certain that the traitors were defeated, he scrambled to Mandalore’s side. Blaster fire left deep holes and dark marks across the Basilisk droid Mandalore had used for cover, and the residue from a fragmentation grenade littered the ground. Burn marks marred his durasteel plate armor, and one of the rebreather tubes attached to his helmet had been ripped apart. His heavy repeater was still in his hand, but it pointed down toward his feet instead of straight ahead.

“Good work, Jhosua,” Mandalore said. His voice was raspy and hushed, but each word was distinct and pronounced. “There shouldn’t be anything left to worry about now.”

Jhosua nodded in agreement. He was still fatigued from his duel, but Jhosua knew Mandalore needed assistance. He leaned in to help Mandalore off his feet, but the leader of the Mandalorians pushed his hands away.

“Enough, Jhosua. That’s enough. Leave me.”

“What are you saying? We need to go back. Our warriors will finish the bombardment soon-”

“I knew from the moment I was attacked that I had made a grave mistake. I had been so focused on uniting the clans and restoring the honor of my people that I forgot what drove them in the first place. I learned long ago that there were better things to fight for, but I forgot that such beliefs cannot be imparted through words—they must be learned.”

“Don’t blame yourself for their actions. They were disloyal to you and the cause. Their actions brought shame to all Mandalorians,” Jhosua countered.

“No. As a father ill-prepares his son and sees him become a criminal, so too must I acknowledge that their failure is my failure.”

“They would have killed all the Mandalorians if they could not lead them. They chose this way for themselves.”

“I did what I could, but I do not think it will be enough. I preserved the clans, made them strong, but I did not unite them. Not truly. Many still wander. And that is to my shame.”

“No one could have done more than you,” Jhosua comforted him. “Now don’t struggle with me, Mandalore. I’m going to get you back to the mainland and they will tend to you there. Stay strong until then.”

“Stay where you are,” croaked Tyrollian. To Jhosua’s surprise, the young warrior was still conscious and relatively uninjured. He had recovered a blaster from one of his fallen comrades and was pointing it at the two of them. “Drop your weapons or I will make sure you both die here with me.”

The leader of the Mandalorians was unyielding, and didn’t even attempt to comply with Tyrollian’s demand. The commander repeated himself, but neither of them moved. How could they both escape this? Even if Jhosua fled out of Tyrollian’s range, Mandalore was vulnerable. And if he put himself in harm’s way, there was no way that Mandalore was strong enough to fight off Tyrollian in his state. Jhosua glanced at Mandalore. Even behind his visor, the high marshal seemed to understand what they needed to do. There was only one way out of this.

“On my mark,” Mandalore whispered.


*** ***

Glacis stood at the water’s edge, her eyes facing south. Briggs was nearby, as were the surviving members of Jhosua’s team. After they had deactivated the settlement’s shields, the unit had retreated back to the beach where Jhosua had landed at first. From here, they had watched the Mandalorian ships in orbit bombard the settlements until nothing remained standing. Glacis had been a bit nervous because of how long it had taken for the attack to begin after they had lowered the shields, but her fears were ultimately unfounded. Now she just waited for Jhosua to return so that they could celebrate the reclamation of Mandalore.

“Target coming in from the southeast! And another from the north,” the sensor operator announced from the shade of one of their Teroch gunships.

“What is it?” asked Jhosua’s second-in-command.

“The nearer one is ours. Basilisk war droid. It’s broadcasting Jhosua’s identification.”

“And the other?”

“They’re broadcasting old Mandalorian codes. About forty years old or so. One of ours from orbit, I think, but their comms aren’t working.”

“Run their ship’s identification through our database.”

A great weight seemed to leave Glacis’s chest. She had been terrified when her father had left so suddenly, but he was safe. There was nothing else she could ask for. Perhaps, now that the fighting was over and Mandalore was theirs, Jhosua and Verita would reconcile. Indeed, Glacis and Fier had realized their parents had been fighting but only spoke about it in private amongst themselves. She assumed that it had something to do with the battles Jhosua was a part of. But now there was no more fighting to be done. They could settle down together-

“Sir, I have some bad news,” the sensor operator announced again.

“What is it?”

“There’s been an… issue in orbit. It seems that some of the younger warriors… well… they attacked Mandalore, sir.”

Whispers of concern rose up from the crowd. The sensor operator realized his error immediately and called Jhosua’s lieutenant closer to discuss the issue privately, but the damage had been done. What did this mean? How could any child of Mandalore be so dishonorable and cowardly as to raise their hands against their leader at a time like this? If ships and warriors had been involved, Glacis reasoned that this infighting was the reason it took so long to destroy the Republic settlements. But what of Mandalore? Was this insurrection the reason for her father’s sudden disappearance?

All of the eyes on the beach watched the sky for the incoming ships. Jhosua’s Basilisk war droid landed several meters from the crowd of Mandalorians. Several warriors ran up to congratulate their commanding officer on the success of their mission. To their surprise, it was not Jhosua but Mandalore himself who had arrived. They did not know that Mandalore had even descended planetward, but evidently he had—and had been involved in combat. His durasteel armor had been burned from blaster fire, with dark pockmarks that would have burned through weaker armor. His arms were lazily hanging at his sides, almost feebly so, and his right leg was twisted in such a way that he couldn’t walk on his own. While the helmet of Mandalore was intact, the rebreather apparatus attached to it was not.

“Mandalore! What happened?” Jhosua’s lieutenant pushed his way through the crowd. “Do you need medical attention?”

Mandalore silently accepted the assistance of two younger warriors as he hobbled through the crowd. “I will be fine for now. Use available first aid on your own warriors first,” he ordered. Glacis could scarcely hear him due to the murmurs of the crowd, but he sounded different than he had the last time they had spoke. The rebreather no doubt had some effect on his voice that was no longer there.

“Should we prepare for battle? What happened? Where is Jhosua?”

“If you’ve destroyed the Republic settlement, then there is no further danger.” Mandalore was helped into a seated position on top of a boulder several meters away from the rising tide. “Several young warriors attacked me while I was commanding the Alor’ad. I managed to flee the ship on my Baslisk war droid, but it was destroyed in the descent. The traitors pursued me. Jhosua came to my aid just in time; without his assistance, I would have died out there in the middle of the sea.”

“Where is Jhosua?” Glacis asked, making herself heard about the crowd. “Where is my father?”

Mandalore turned his gaze toward Glacis and said nothing for what felt like an eternity. “We fought off most of the warriors who had chosen to pursue me. But as we were preparing to depart, the two of us were ambushed. He risked his life to give me a chance to reach his Basilisk war droid. The two warriors fought to the death while I escaped. Neither survived. I’m sorry, Glacis.”

The heaviness—the great fear—on her heart had been growing ever since Mandalore returned reached its crushing zenith at that moment. She was not prepared for this. When she had fought, she had been willing to die to defend everything she loved. She did not fear death. It was not for her sake she fought, or even for the Mandalorians themselves, but for her family. But her father was dearer to her than her own life, and her heart broke within her when she realized that he was gone. It had been so long since she had cried that the tears scared her, and she tried her best to contain them, to no avail.

Briggs knelt down near her and wrapped his arms around her, whispering encouragement. The other warriors, all handpicked by Jhosua and loyal to him for many years, silently grieved for their commanding officer. Mandalore said nothing. With some difficulty, Briggs and Jhosua’s lieutenant helped Glacis to her feet and tried to get her into the nearest Teroch gunship.

“Here comes the second vessel,” the sensor operator said, breaking the silence. “Unknown classification.”

“You couldn’t verify their identity?”

“No, sir. The ship isn’t in one of ours, although the crew apparently knows our codes.”

“Basilisks in the air. Intercept them before they arrive,” growled Jhosua’s lieutenant.

“Warriors, to me!” Mandalore ordered. “Are the turrets online?”

“Working as fast as we can, Mandalore.”

“It will be too late, then. Prepare to defend against them. Use armor-piercing slugs and heavy repeaters. Retreat if the situation appears dire. Do not concern yourselves with my fate.”

“But Mandalore-”

They didn’t have time to argue. The Basilisk droids that approached them were repulsed by some invisible barrier, throwing them toward the ocean. The sensor operator reported that their comms worked after all, but they had purposely been ignoring their attempts to establish communication. He reported that they wanted to parley with Mandalore, meant them no harm, but would not be denied audience. The leader of the Mandalorians ordered they let the ship land while preparing turrets nearby.

The ship that landed nearby was unknown to them, with angular features not unlike a Republic Aurek strikefighter and yet large enough to be comparable to a Teroch gunship. It had torpedo launchers and a laser turret for self-defense, and it was clear that the ship was built for combat in some capacity. With a dark paint scheme and red landing lights, the gunship stood out amidst the natural greens and blues around them.

Once the ship had landed, the egress ramp slid out from the back of the ship. Most of the soldiers who emerged wore light brown combat armor and helmets that resembled Republic Army helmets without the elongated segment in the back. They carried combat rifles and knives on their persons, and the Mandalorians were surprised just how many of them emerged from the gunship; there were at least two of them for every Mandalorian in Jhosua’s strike team. Finally, once the last of the soldiers were positioned on the beach, three tall individuals in dark cloaks departed from the ship. Draped in their robes and wearing grotesque masks over their faces, Glacis couldn’t tell anything about these new individuals, but their presence made her feel uneasy.

“Who is the warrior who is known as Mandalore the Preserver?” asked the masked man—Glacis figured he was a man, given his voice—closest to them.

“I am.” Mandalore growled. His warriors surrounded him to conceal the fact that he was using a makeshift cane for balance. “Who are you?”

“Who I am is not important,” the tall individual said, “but my master is. He knows that you know of him. You know of the honor and glory that belongs only to the true Emperor of the Sith.”

Mandalore did not immediately react. The other warriors looked at him expectantly. Glacis, already grief-stricken and confused, reached for her blaster. She had not been told much of the Jedi by her mother, but she knew enough that the Sith were the enemies of galactic peace. Whatever they wanted with the Mandalorians couldn’t be good. She would die defending her comrades if it meant the Sith were stopped here.

“What makes you think I know of or acknowledge your emperor?” Mandalore said at last. “The Sith were destroyed by the Galactic Republic and the warrior Revan.”

“Revan? Indeed, it has been said he defeated the Sith,” the emissary sneered. “But such reports have been… exaggerated.”

“We’ve had no reason to believe otherwise. The Sith are no more.”

“The Sith will reign forever, and the Emperor shall lead them.” The emissary made a move like he was going to lunge at Mandalore, but he restrained himself. “You know that our kind approached your predecessor, a Mandalore the Ultimate? He confided in us about his dreams of honor. Of glory. Of a crusade… we counseled him on these matters, and he headed to war in an effort to restore the Mandalorian clans to their former strength.”

“So it was your machinations that led to the Mandalorian Wars,” Mandalore surmised amidst the murmurs of his warriors.

“Hardly. We simply provided your leader then with the strength he needed to bring about his convictions. And we will do the same to you, Mandalore the Preserver. The Sith are returning. When the Emperor wills, our ships will darken the skies of Coruscant itself, render its surface nothing more than fire and ash. Our armies will march upon every world from Sluis Van at the edge of Republic space to the hills of Alderaan at her heart. We call upon the Mandalorians to join us or be swept aside.”

“If your forces are so impressive, what use do you have for us?” Mandalore asked. “Do you need additional fodder for your war machine?”

“Have the Mandalorians lost their resolve?” the emissary asked, directing his question to the crowd instead of Mandalore. “I would have thought that the esteemed sons of war would rush at a chance to wage glorious crusade against the Republic who attempted to neuter them in the last war. Where is your honor?”

“You appeal to their honor? What do we have to gain from another war? My people are strong, and they have proven their mettle in battle. They have reclaimed their homeland after thirty years in exile. Under my command lost sons and daughters have reunited with their kin. Our armor and weapons have been reforged and our ships rebuilt. We’ve regained our honor. We need none from you.”

“The continued alliance between the Sith and the Mandalorians will not be broken by you,” the emissary replied. “You have fraternized with the Jedi. I would call you Republic-friend; you are a loyal pet for the interests of Coruscant and her ilk. Have you no shame, Mandalore? Abandon this pretense of self-interest and seemingly defending your children from harm when all you want is to see the Republic grow in power. Perhaps even see Mandalore absorbed into Republic space.”

Glacis was loyal only to the Mandalorians. Her mother had been a Jedi Knight, and her father a Republic soldier, but she had only ever served Mandalore and the clans. She did not doubt her own convictions, and the warriors around her had been handpicked by Jhosua himself because of their skill and loyalty. Even so, the words of this Sith emissary seemed to make sense within her mind. Mandalore had always been soft when confronting the Republic, and he was ever wary of engaging them directly. Was this not fear? Did this not reflect poorly upon the courage of the Mandalorians? She realized there was a growing disgust inside her at Mandalore’s amicable policy toward the Republic that so despised her and her people.

“We have nothing to gain from joining the Republic, but we also have nothing to gain from joining you in your doomed attempt at conquest.” Mandalore motioned toward the other side of the beach where all of his Basilisk droids and gunships were taking to the air. “This is my answer to you. Leave our planet, and do not come back. Your manipulations will not work on me as they did my predecessor, and you are unwelcome here.”

The Sith before him were unyielding, even in the face of his threats. “We did not want to resort to this, Mandalore. Know that we approached you as friends and you regarded us as enemies. You tied our hands here; we did not tie yours.”

The other two emissaries stepped back from their speaking comrade and raised their hands above their heads. The other Mandalorians—including Glacis—seemed to have been caught in a stupor and did not even move to defend Mandalore in case this was some sort of attack, but they proved harmless. A harsh wind came from the east and swirled around the entire company, and there was an energy in the air that felt like being outdoors before a vicious thunderstorm. Suddenly, to the awe of the Mandalorians, the image of Ordo appeared before them, as though created by a holographic projector. Mandalorian civilian ships that were orbiting the planet began to flicker into view, followed by satellites and orbital debris. The image quickly became clear enough that the Mandalorians thought they were peering at Ordo through the viewscreen of a capital ship.

Then, to their surprise, many larger ships began to appear in the space around Ordo. These ships were neither Republic nor Mandalorian ships, but from their armor plating and bristling weapons it was obvious that they were warships. The ships continued to appear until there were no less than thirty of them, several hovering ominously close to the civilian vessels stationed in orbit.

“Those are ships that belong to the Emperor. If we leave this planet without a guarantee of your cooperation, the commanding officer of that fleet has direct orders to destroy your ships and bombard your settlements. Once that world is lifeless, we will search for your remaining colonies. Once your colonies have been razed, we will come here and make sure there is nothing for you to settle.”

The threats of the Sith and the thought of Verita and Fier being attacked by their ships awoke Glacis from her hazy mental state. Now that her father was dead, her sister and mother were the only family she had left, and she would not lose them so easily. The mere threat of losing them was enough to push her over the edge. Raising her blaster rifle, she was about to fire at the emissaries but was stopped by Mandalore. The emissaries' guards noticed her action, and they retaliated by raising their rifles, which caused all the other Mandalorians to raise their weapons as well. The Basilisk droids and gunships were floating around the emissaries' vessel, and their defensive turrets on the ground had been activated and were ready to assist in the defense as well.

“Enough!” Mandalore boomed. “Do not harm our civilians. We will give you what you want.”

The emissary who had done most of the speaking nodded to his companions. “You see? We can be reasonable,” the Sith said. “We do not yet require your services, Mandalore. You will be summoned soon. And as a reminder to you to keep your end of this bargain, we will leave our ships in orbit around Ordo, and none of your people will be allowed to leave unless we permit it.”

“That’s unfair!” Jhosua’s lieutenant growled. “Our people have waited many years to return to Mandalore. You cannot deny us this-”

“You are in no position to make demands,” was the reply. “Be grateful we did not punish you for attempting to strike at us earlier.”

“Peace,” Mandalore urged the lieutenant. “We will discuss this later. You have nothing to worry about. The Mandalorians will honor their agreements on all accounts.”

“I should hope so, for your sake,” the diplomat said as they began heading back to their ship. “It will not be long now, Mandalore. Expect us to return in due time!”

Once most of them had began entering their gunship, Mandalore ordered Jhosua’s lieutenant and several others to secure landing zones for their ships still in orbit. Then he approached Glacis. “The next time you act so rashly without my permission you will be stripped of your standing as a warrior. Do you understand?”

Glacis shook her head, barely holding back tears. She had not wanted to shoot at the messenger, but her mind was so rattled and something within her drove her to act. Even now, she wasn’t entirely sure why she did it.

Mandalore laid both of his hands on her shoulders. “Good,” his tone softened and he leaned forward so that they would have been eye-to-eye if not for his visor. “Go with Briggs. I want you two to secure the listening post on the other side of the continent.”

“Please don’t send me from your side, Mandalore,” Glacis cried. He began to say something, but she wrapped her arms around Mandalore without even thinking. “I… I just don’t know what to do. My father… I only wanted… I never even had a chance to say…”

“Peace, Glacis. I’ll have someone else secure the listening post. Stay with Briggs for now. There is much for us to do, but do not doubt that your father will be honored for his service. I could not have asked for a more loyal warrior, and he risked his life for mine. I will see that you and your family are cared for. But for now, take care and wait for further instructions.”

Glacis regained her composure and allowed Mandalore to leave. The Sith ship had already departed, and it seemed that Mandalorian vessels were already heading toward them. Today should have been a celebration, and for the Mandalorians as a whole it was, but for Glacis there was nothing to be happy about. Her life would never be the same. Everyone was busy, and she could tell that she was in the way, so she excused herself toward the water’s edge. No one bothered her, and for the first time in a long time, she was allowed to be alone with her thoughts and memories.

Chapter 34

Ranval had been awake for nearly forty-eight standard hours. He had rested for a day or so, allowing his body to heal both in a kolto tank and on its own, before taking command of the Blind Guide. He had dismissed all of the surviving operatives who were with him from their posts and ordered them to attend to other duties, including Selias. Aside from when he had been in a kolto tank, this was the first time he had been alone since Sernpidal. This was the first time he had tried to reconcile what had happened there with what needed to be done.

The mission couldn’t have been called a complete failure. They had learned much about their adversary, about their strength, and they had learned that the Republic knew about the Sith. Good news indeed, but Ranval had failed to acquire what he had searched for. They still did not know where the Sith were hiding. Worse still, his fellowship of Jedi Knights and operatives was divided in this crucial time. There was no time to regroup his scattered allies, and yet what he had seen on Sernpidal and the Force told him the Sith were moving.

Dynatha had been badly injured in battle against the Sith warrior in the military base. There was no permanent damage, but she had been comatose for the past several days. Her lacerations and bruises had been healed, but her internal injuries kept her in the sick bay. It would probably be a few more days until she was fully recovered and able to move around without any pain. As long as she was wounded, he had to delay his plans for dealing with the Sith. Coupled with the division of their forces and the death of many of his agents, Ranval wasn’t sure how long his work could hold together.

Initially, Ranval had thought only he and Dynatha had escaped the battle on Sernpidal. However, Northeus had sent him a message several hours after their escape. Both he and Tserne had also managed to escape, but the two of them had to venture across the galaxy to deal with a Sith threat. He had given no hint of where he was going or when he would return, but he told Ranval to wait for them on Ambria. Their safety relieved his worry somewhat, but he had received no news from either Delvin or Celes. He had not sensed their deaths as he had sensed the deaths of his operatives, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were safe either. He only hoped that they would all meet again on Ambria.

Caught up in his own thoughts, Ranval didn’t realize that Selias had entered the bridge. “We’re getting ready to depart, Ranval. Thought I’d bring you something to remember me by.”

Ranval spun around in his chair. Selias was standing nearby, holding a prosthetic hand not unlike the one he had lost on Sernpidal attached to a simple metal limb. Her emotions were indiscernible to him, but it seemed that she had not been able to sleep either. There was pain in her eyes that made it difficult to meet her gaze. He blamed himself for the loss of his operatives.

“I didn’t know you brought any extras,” Ranval said.

“I only had the extra hand. I thought it might come in handy. I made the arm myself.”

While his remaining arm guided the Blind Guide through hyperspace, he presented his second-in-command with the fleshy stub that had once been his right forearm. The wound had been cauterized, but there was no way for Selias to simply attach the prosthetic—his old injury had been near the wrist. Moving a hefty toolkit from her shoulders to the floor, she sat down and began removing the tools she would need to create the socket that would fit to his new cybernetic forearm. Ranval remembered the last time he had been subjected to the cybernetic fitting process; attaching the durasteel socket to the body and connecting the nerves to the bionic materials inside was the most painful thing he had ever endured.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” Ranval asked. “You look tired.”

“So do you.”

“I’m not the one doing the procedure.”

“Who else do you know who has experience with this kind of work? Do we have a medical droid on hand?”

“You’re right. Just be careful.”

Selias gave him a hurt look. “I’m always careful.”

Ranval began running through mental calming exercises while Selias began covering his arm in antibacterial gauze. “I’m sorry about Ranz and the others,” he said after some time.

She nodded.

“Ranz would be angry at you if he saw you like this.”

“Did you even wait for them? Or did you abandon them so that she would be safe?”

“They knew what the stakes were, Selias.”

Selias jabbed a pin into Ranval’s elbow. He didn’t react; a combination of his Force senses and meditation gave him the strength to ignore the pain. Selias said nothing and didn’t meet his gaze. Ranval let her work. She had performed simpler prosthetic addition operations on some of her comrades, but it had been some time since she had done something as complex as this. Ranval didn’t doubt her abilities. With great attention to detail, Selias began overlaying the microfibers that would connect the metal socket to his skin.

“I know,” she said at last. “But Ranz… he and I were here from the beginning. We’ve always been here for you, Ranval. We have done everything you’ve ask. There was no question in our minds. You led us because we trusted you to use us to challenge the evils in the galaxy. I believe that you’re doing that, even now. But will our sacrifices be worth it? If Dynatha fails, what will the deaths of Wendel and Ranz and everyone else mean? If you fail, will our lives be lost for nothing?”

“No. Wendel made a difference. Ranz made a difference. You are making a difference right now. Even if we all die before the Sith are defeated and no one knows what we did, it doesn’t change the fact that we did what we had to do. Wendel knew that. Ranz knew that. Meldeg and the rest of Green Shield knew that. We’re going to keep fighting until this is over. No matter what it takes.”

“And if it’s all pointless?” Selias asked, securing the final layer of adhesive tissue over Ranval’s arm.

“Then we die knowing we did our best. We fought and we lost, but we fought anyway. Could you go on knowing what this evil is capable of and doing nothing?” Ranval shook his head. “I know you miss him. I miss him too. I wanted him to see the part that the Jedi will play in restoring the galaxy to peace. Maybe he already forgave them for the Mandalorian Wars in his heart. I don’t know. I hope so.”

Selias nodded. “He might have. He saw what they were capable of. He knew they were fighting with him, not against him. He was a Mandalorian once, but I think he understood that their way wasn’t the way he wanted to live. He wanted more than what they could offer him.”

“I only hope he found what he was searching for.”

“He found you, Ranval. He found the leadership that he had lost at the end of the war. You’ve given everything you have to us. He didn’t want anything else.”

“I’ve tried my best. But I know that isn’t always enough-”

“Don’t doubt yourself because of what happened,” Selias said. “Ranz believed in you. I believe in you. You know as well as I do that along the way, we became more than your private guns-for-hire. We became your family… but please don’t forget that. Don’t throw our lives away needlessly.”

Ranval nodded. The deaths of Ranz and the others were not in vain. But at the same time, he knew that he could no longer depend on Selias and the other operatives under his command to accomplish what needed to be done. The thought of asking for their sacrifices while he led from the shadows no longer sat well with him. And if he could no longer ask the mercenaries who fought with him to sacrifice their lives for the sake of this mission, how could he ask Dynatha and the other Jedi Knights to do so? Doubt began to creep into his mind. Were they doing the right thing, asking Dynatha and Celes and the others to lead the fight?

The time for clandestine missions and proxy engagements was over. Ranval Messor was Knight of the Republic, and he had as much responsibility in this fight as the others. Perhaps it was time for him to emerge from hiding and engage the Sith and their schemes personally.

*** ***

A pulsation of dark energy stirred Falmas from her slumber. Wiping the sleep from her eyes, the chamber beyond her prison slowly began to take shape. To her surprise, she was not alone. Standing in the shadows at the opposite of the room was the Beast, wearing only a loincloth to cover itself. It raised one of its gnarled hands in a sort of greeting and crept its way toward the cell.

“Beast? How did you get in here?”

The Beast growled softly and made several sharp motions with its arms that seemed to indicate that it had snuck aboard during a battle outside. The Beast had always been difficult to sense in the Force and it was also quite adept at keeping hidden—despite its grotesque appearance. Such skill made even her envious. Regardless, Falmas had subsisted on paltry rations and scheduled refresher visits for too long to question the details of the Beast’s arrival.

She was not so eager to escape her prison that she had been stupefied. Without waiting for her to instruct it, the Beast moved to tear away the power conduit that was tied to her force cage. “Hold on,” Falmas hissed. “The cage is somehow linked to the captain of this vessel. If it is shut off prematurely, this entire ship could self-destruct.”

The Beast gave her an inquisitive look. What should we do, it seemed to ask. What should we do, indeed. Falmas wracked her tired brain for a plan. Her prisoner’s diet and odd sleep schedule did not keep her mind as sharp as she would have liked. There were many guards aboard, and some of them were quite dangerous—that Togruta especially. Even if they could be dealt with, Falmas wasn’t sure she could handle a Jedi Knight in her weakened state. But the Beast could. Sitting quietly for a few minutes, she saw no other option but to take the brute force approach.

“I suppose we have no choice,” she said at last. “Give me a while to recover my strength, and then find the generator that powers this cage. Once I’m out, we’ll deal with the guards and Jedi together.”

And how long would it take her to regain her strength? The Beast’s question had a hint of nervousness to it. Had it sensed a danger that she hadn’t? They couldn’t wait too long, that was true, but fighting in a weakened state was too risky. “It shouldn’t take too long. Give me a few hours to sleep and meditate.”

The Beast nodded and crept back into the shadows, hidden from all eyes but hers.

*** ***

Ranval flexed his new prosthetic arm. Neither Ranval nor Selias were machinists, so his metal appendage was hardly impressive. Wielding a blaster would have been problematic, and a lightsaber was out of the question entirely. Nevertheless, his new hand could easily be replaced with a number of other useful tools just like the prosthetic on his other arm: a vibroblade, a holdout blaster, uplink device, and a grapple gun, among other things. Perhaps in the future engineers would invent prosthetic limbs that could properly mimic the finesse and agility necessary to use a lightsaber; for now, Ranval was content with his replacement.

Selias and the other operatives still with him had loaded into their remaining shuttle and left the Blind Guide. Only Ranval and Dynatha stayed behind. Their two ships lingered in orbit over some unknown world so they could resolve outstanding issues before they parted ways. Selias was on the comm with Ranval; she appeared concerned about something, but she had yet to express it.

“You were right,” Selias said. “I keyed in the code to Ranz’s shuttle and it’s broadcasting an active signal. It’s headed toward Tionese space. Considering its approximate location, I’d say it left Sernpidal about the same time we did.”

“Your first priority is gathering all our operatives,” Ranval instructed. “But I’ve already sent the message to meet at our secondary outpost, so that shouldn’t be an issue. If you have time, track Ranz’s ship and see if you can pick it up.”

Selias nodded. “Once all the operatives are together, it shouldn’t be a problem. Besides, I have my suspicions about our thief.”

“They could be dangerous. Be careful.”

“You too, Ranval. I trust you know what you’re doing.”

“I’ll be waiting for you on Ambria.”

Selias gave him an unconvincing smile and cut the transmission. Ranval sat in silence and watched the shuttle make its last preparations before vanishing into hyperspace. Given the timetable of Ranz’s shuttle and the efficiency of his operatives, Ranval suspected that it would take Selias about four days to gather their allies and another three to search for Ranz’s ship.

Ranval slid his chair from the navigation board to view the security terminal. Aside from the cameras and alarms, the terminal displayed information about the force cages in the brig and anyone in the medical ward. As far as he could tell, their Sith prisoner was asleep in her cage and had last eaten about two hours ago. He made a mental note to allow her a trip to the refresher in an hour or so. Dynatha’s life signs looked better than yesterday, and he suspected that she would be strong enough to walk around in a few dozen standard hours.

Ranval slid back over to the navigation panel. He began cycling through their navicomputer’s stored coordinates when something distracted him. He wasn’t quite sure what it was at first. Extending his Force perceptions, he realized that there was another presence on board the ship. It was faint, almost faint enough where it could have been passed off as an anomaly—perhaps a pest that had been hiding in the ventilation or a ripple of life from the planet below. However, when he honed in his senses on the Blind Guide itself, he felt the unmistakable power of the dark side of the Force. Their prisoner had a distinct Force signature, and Ranval noted the difference between her presence and this one.

As he tried to discern where this danger came from, the Force urged him to move—and quickly. Jumping out of his seat, Ranval barely avoided being impaled by a large durasteel pipe that had been hurled fast enough and with force to puncture the back of his chair. At the far end of the bridge, in the corridor that led to the rest of the ship, stood the deformed and hideous Sith warrior that had wounded Dynatha on Sernpidal. How had it boarded his ship without anyone noticing?

The Sith warrior cleared the distance between itself and Ranval in a single bound. Ranval jumped back to avoid his enemy’s reach, getting behind the navigation panel. Withdrawing a jagged knife from a sheath on its waist, the Sith roared and used its free hand to smash the obstacle between them. Ranval backpedaled from the pursuing dark-sider, only to find himself at the ledge that overlooked the engineering terminals. When his opponent got too close, Ranval ducked underneath its swing and kicked at the back of its legs, causing it to topple over the ledge.

Multiple alarms began blaring, letting Ranval know that the hyperdrive was leaking and that the conduit providing power to the brig had been damaged. The standard glowpanels shifted to emergency red colors. Ranval cursed himself for his lack of perception. While he, Selias, and the other operatives were mourning their fallen comrades, the Sith had crept around their ship and sabotaged as much as they could. If this creature had operated by itself, its work was quite impressive for a being that appeared as sentient as a rakghoul.

Racing up a set of stairs to his left, the Beast jumped over a broken console and lunged at him again. Discarding his left cybernetic hand and replacing it with a stun baton, Ranval caught the Sith’s weapon arm with his other hand and increased its grip strength, causing the Beast to let out a feral growl and drop the knife. Once he had disarmed his opponent, Ranval stabbed it with his baton, sending powerful electric shocks though its body. To his amazement, the Beast managed to remain conscious and standing. Increasing the current only made it angrier. It reached for Ranval’s throat with its free hand, but Ranval jabbed the stun baton into its good eye and caused it to recoil.

Taking advantage of his opponent’s incapacitation, Ranval fled to the bridge. If the Sith had already damaged his ship, it was possible that their prisoner was already free. The Sith warrior had been dazed, but it wouldn’t be long before he gave pursuit. There was no reason for the warrior to stay on the bridge anyway; without Ranval’s security code, he could only cause more damage. He had to secure their prisoner and ensure Dynatha’s safety first. He couldn’t be everyone at once, but the ship ultimately didn’t matter if they could commandeer Celes’s or Delvin’s shuttles—both still in the hangar—and escape before the hyperdrive self-destructed.

*** ***

The dark side swirled around Falmas like a hurricane. She had been restrained for too long. The drugs they had injected her with had kept her in a stupor, unable to use the Force. Now that she was free, she felt like a wanderer in the desert who had discovered an oasis. Drinking up all the darkness she could, she used her restored power to destroy the corridors behind her, tearing framework from out of the walls, shattering glowpanels, and collapsing hallways that she didn’t intend to travel through. It had been so long since she had felt so powerful, and she intended to revel in it.

Her combat suit and weapons had been taken from her, leaving her wearing only dark shorts, a cropped sleeveless shirt, and socks. Without her equipment and lightsaber, she felt more exposed than she had ever been. She hadn’t seen anyone else since she had escaped her cell, but there were others on board—that she was sure of. An explosion from a lower deck caused the entire ship to tremble. Although she wasn’t sure why, the thought of the Jedi vessel falling apart in space made her smile. Of course, she and the Beast had agreed to keep the ship intact so that they could return to Master Nafyan, but the thought was comforting nonetheless.

She had taken a left turn toward the port side of the ship, and the dark side warned her danger was near. Since the presence had no noticeable darkness associated with it, Falmas figured it was either the Jedi or one of his friends. Her mind told her to both press on and turn back. Ever since that damnable Jedi had bested her so easily on Truuine, she couldn’t help but doubt herself, and that doubt caused her to lose her connection with the darkness. Was she actually as strong as her master told her she was? She could defeat soldiers, mercenaries, and other Sith combatants with ease, but that Jedi was so much stronger than her that he hadn’t even put up a fight. She hadn’t actually meditated on her defeat, so thinking about it now paralyzed her into inaction.

She didn’t even realize that the Miraluka Jedi who had imprisoned her crossed the T-intersection behind her. She sensed the Beast down the passage he had emerged from. Ranval noticed her before she could react, and he struck her with his stun baton. The electric shock caused her brown hair to stand on end, and she recoiled instinctively. It had been a glancing hit, but it was enough to restore her will to fight back and defend herself.

“You!” she hissed. “You’ll pay for humiliating me!”

Ranval ignored her and headed down the hall toward the life form Falmas had sensed just before he arrived. She gave chase without even thinking. The Beast appeared in her peripheral vision as she ran through the intersection, and she sensed him join in behind her. The two Sith pursued Ranval all the way to the end of the corridor, which led to a single room that appeared to be the central control room. The Jedi stopped in front of the door and turned around to face the two dark-siders.

“We’re all in danger,” Ranval explained. “I’m not sure what you did to the hyperdrive, but you damaged it so much that there’s been catastrophic damage to the rest of the ship. You’re lucky I pulled us out of hyperspace when I did. Even if you kill me here, neither of you will escape the explosion when it fails completely. We’re already descending toward the planet’s surface. The fall will kill us all.”

“What of it?” she asked.

“I propose a truce, at least until my ship is repaired. We can continue our fight on the planet’s surface.”

Falmas gave him an incredulous look. Surely he couldn’t be serious. Perhaps they would be unable to fix the ship after killing this Jedi, that was true, but she figured they could survive the destruction of the ship. Or could they? Despite her earlier confidence, something in her mind—it was something about how this Jedi was looking at her—caused her to doubt. What if they did need his help? Was he planning something? She had no idea just how much damage she had caused on her rampage through the halls of the ship, and the Beast had no doubt sabotaged other systems earlier. If the damage was as bad as the Jedi was telling them, then maybe their best chance was to work together to keep the ship intact.

Before Falmas could give her answer, the Beast charged at Ranval. It had no regard for Falmas, or even its own safety. It just wanted to kill Jedi. She saw the Jedi enter a keycode on the wall panel behind him, and the door to the control room sealed shut. Another alarm started going off. Sensing that the ship was in free-fall, Falmas realized she had no choice but to attack. Even if she and the Beast died, they could take this Jedi Knight with them. Disarmed though she was, she had the dark side, and she knew that was strong enough to ensure her victory.

*** ***

Dynatha stirred from her sleep. Opening her eyes, she found herself at the base of the large kolto tank, curled up in an awkward position. Her tank had ruptured in front of her, spilling most of the healing liquid outside, but there was a bit left at her feet. In her disoriented state, it took her a while to lift herself up. Once she was confident enough to stand without support, she unclipped the breath mask from her face and removed the empty IV lines from her arm.

Finding that the Force was already flowing through her again, Dynatha tried to open the kolto tank by telekinetically flipping the control switch on a nearby panel. When that didn’t work, she figured that the power had been disabled in the sick bay. But most medical facilities had backup power, didn’t they? Using the Force, she carefully broke away at the damaged tank until there was a hole large enough for her to crawl through.

It was only upon escaping that she realized that she wasn’t sure where she was. There was a possibility that she was back on the Blind Guide, but there was an equally likely possibility that she had been captured by the Sith and was being treated for her injuries in their medical facilities. Her clothes had been removed, and she was wearing only a patient gown to cover herself. Her utility belt, lightsaber, and comlink were also missing.

Once she was sure she was safe in this room, she extended her perception and tried to determine her surroundings. To her surprise, she was neither on Sernpidal nor in space on a starship. All sorts of plant and animal life teemed across the world, far more than could have existed on barren Sernpidal. Had she been taken to one of the larger Sith bases? The dark side was present in this place, but it was very far away. She tried to determine the nature of this building, but her powers failed her. Direct investigation would be necessary.

She had just begun scouring the room for supplies when something banged on the door. Jumping to her feet, Dynatha ducked behind one of the medical cots and prepared to defend herself. She was unarmed, but she was trained in close-quarter combat and could still use the Force. She would have to be careful; it sounded like whatever was trying to get in had friends.

The banging stopped as quickly as it had started. On the other side of the door, she barely made out the sounds of battle: there were yelps of pain and clangs of metal against metal. After a brief silence, the main door was slowly forced open from the outside. Once the door was open, Dynatha saw four sentients enter the room. They were all of the same species, with light green skin, large eyes, and manes of dark hair. Each carried a sword and shield made of some crystalline substance and wore primitive plate armor over their chest and shoulders. Their legs were long and noticeably defined; she figured they were hunters or trackers.

She sensed no immediate hostility from them, but they did seem to be searching for something—or someone. Just because they seemed to be the indigenous life forms of this place didn’t mean they couldn’t have been enslaved by the Sith. She had never even seen sentients like these, so this world was probably an uncharted world located deep in Sith space. After debating her options, she rose from her hiding place and unleashed a wave of telekinetic power that knocked her startled guests over. Once they were on the floor, she summoned the Force to place a stasis field around the four of them.

Assured that they would be immobilized for some time, Dynatha continued searching the room for her things. She found her clothes, lightsaber, and other equipment in a footlocker near the medical cots. Her clothes—especially her cloak—were frayed, bloodied, and reeked of sweat, but she didn’t have anything else. Dynatha quickly changed back into her robes and replaced her belt with all the equipment that was still on it.

She turned toward the door to leave only to discover her way out was blocked. Standing in the door was a hulking figure with gray skin, dark eyes, and a gaping mouth that was lined with sharp teeth. This figure wore nothing but a pair of frayed trousers, revealing his muscled torso and huge arms. He was so tall and so large that his frame blockaded the entire doorway. Intimidating as he was, he carried no weapons. Behind him were at least a dozen more warriors belonging to the species she had paralyzed earlier.

“You are Jedi, I presume?” the figure rumbled in an accented, but quite intelligible, Basic.

Dynatha wasn’t sure how to respond. Was this an agent of the Sith, who had come to take her to his masters? Or was this some mercenary or explorer who had fallen in with the natives? Either way, she had to hurry; those four warriors she had stunned would soon recover, and if these were enemies she would be even more outnumbered then.

“And if I am?”

“We have been commanded to take you to our leader,” he replied.

“What if I refuse?”

He reflected on the question. “My warriors are many. I am trained to subdue Jedi. There will be a struggle, and—though you initially escape us—you will be hunted until you are captured.”

Dynatha’s strength had fully recovered, and if she didn’t like this warrior’s answer to her question, she could simply place them all in a stasis field. It would exhaust her, but she would have a chance to escape. “I see. But who is your leader?”

“We do not serve Sith, in case that frightens you. My mistress is alone. She will cause you no harm.”

“May I keep my weapons and supplies?”

“I have not been instructed to deprive you of your weapons.”

Dynatha was surprised. These sentients seemed to know about the Sith and the Jedi, but as far as she knew, they were not known to the Jedi Order. Their leader, the gray giant among them, was not even of the same species as the locals. But if it was a trap, there were easier ways to ensnare her than to invite her to their home, and they surely knew how dangerous a Jedi Knight armed with a lightsaber and the Force could be.

“Very well. I’ll go with you, then.”

The figure nodded. He waved for some of his companions to attend to their paralyzed brethren while he led Dynatha out of the medical facility. As soon as she stepped out, she recognized the paint on the durasteel plating and its design. She had been in a detached section of the Blind Guide that had crashed on some world and lost power. However, she saw no trace of the rest of the Blind Guide. They had evidently escaped the Sith on Sernpidal, but what had happened since then?

“Did you see the ship that this compartment belonged to? Did it crash as well?” Dynatha asked, hoping that the alien was familiar with the concept of space travel.

“I did not see it crash, but I was informed of it. My warriors and I investigated it yesterday. There was no one inside.”

Dynatha’s heart sank. “How long ago did it fall? And where are we?”

“The shamans said that they saw your vessel fall from the heavens on the night when the two moons had hidden away together… both were new moons. That was two nights ago. I do not know the name of this world, but the locals refer to it as Thrella Djex—home of the Thrella. It’s an untamed world near Gyndine.”

The further they traveled from the crash site, the thicker the jungle became around them. Ancient roots entangled amongst one another above ground. A hardy lichen hung from branches overhead, suspended like drapes between the trees. An endless fog seemed to encompass the region, preventing her from seeing more than a few meters ahead of her and chilling the air. It brought in a mist that made the earth wet beneath her feet. She could feel the swampy murk through her worn soles.

Her guide led her through the labyrinthine jungle as though the trees had guiding signs on them. She scrambled beneath tall arcing roots, climbed layers of vines, and waded through long still pools. Neither of them spoke during the course of their journey. Her robes were drenched and stuck to her body, her hair was filled with dirt and vegetation, and she was sweating because of the humidity. She had been on many arboreal worlds, but this one was the most untamed of them all. The gnats that flew around her face and into her hair only made things worse.

They had been walking for several hours when at last her guide pointed her toward what appeared to be a settlement. With all the vigor she could muster, Dynatha traveled the last two kilometers or so between the hill and their destination.

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