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Chapter 35

The village seemed to be populated by the same green-skinned species who had met her back at the Blind Guide’s detached med bay. She saw many warriors, but also younglings and elderly of both sexes along with many women. They seemed to be a primitive species by galactic standards, with many family dwellings made from small logs, earth, and thick local vegetation. Animals were being roasted across several fires near the center of their hutment, and she thought she saw gardens—tended to by females—near some of their homes. Children were playing amidst their many abodes while their mothers and elder kin watched over them, and the males seemed to be gathered around the fire for some sort of ritual. Dynatha was quite enthralled by the scene, but her guide kept pace and forced her to move on.

Her guide led her straight through the village, advising her to ignore the locals. Indeed, many of the younger children stopped playing with their simple toys to come and stare at Dynatha as she walked by. The women shouted at them to return to their side, but their curiosity wasn’t abated so easily. The men were so caught up in their doings that they paid her no mind. Dynatha and her hulking guide had quite a crowd by the time they reached the far end of the village, where a single hut rose above all the rest, built with more permanence than the others. She was surprised to see the remains of a ship’s hull and emergency shelter materials interspersed among rocks and lumber.

“Wait one moment, and I will inform my mistress that you are here,” her guide said.

“I am already aware of your arrival, Phaevn,” a delicate voice replied from within the building, “and our guest’s arrival as well. Send her in.”

Phaevn bowed to Dynatha. “I will remain here to ensure you are not disturbed.”

Dynatha felt a growing sense of dread as she approached the door. The watchful eyes of the entire village were on her, but that did not bother her. There was a dark power at work; it was so subtle that she hadn’t sensed it during her trek. Was it coming from inside the building? It could have been a trap. She sensed no deception from Phaevn—but then, she hardly sensed him at all. Keeping her hand close to her lightsaber, she pushed at the door and found it unlocked.

A single candle struggled to illuminate the room she found herself in. There were no chairs, tables, or any sort of decorations to be seen. The floor, elevated a few meters above the ground outside, was made of wood, but the walls and ceiling were metal. On one hand, the interior reminded her of Northeus’s home on Ambria in its austerity, but also of the Jedi Temple on Telos in its coldness—as though the entire room was shielded from the humidity outside. There were no windows, and a single hallway conjoined this room with the rest of the dwelling. When she took another step in to examine further, the door slammed shut behind her.

Sitting at the far end of the room, just barely visible in the candle’s light, was a woman who looked half her own age. Her dark hair gleamed against the warm glow, so long that it spilled over her shoulders and covered the upper half of her chest. Her skin was so pale and she remained so still that she was more akin to a statue than a living being. Wrapped in some kind of native garments with bright dyes and elaborate stitching along the sleeves, she appeared to be quite important amongst the locals despite being an offworlder herself. She bid Dynatha to sit. Dynatha did so, warily, far enough that she could stand and draw her weapon in case of an attack.

“You need not be afraid,” the younger woman said, sensing her fears. “I have been expecting you for a long time.”

“How long have you been expecting me?”

“For far too long.” Her eyes drifted away from Dynatha, staring at something through the walls. “I do not mean to imply that I was waiting for you specifically, but I knew a Jedi Knight would arrive on this world before anyone else. I’m never wrong, you know.”

“Yes, but who are you?” Dynatha pressed.

She smiled thinly. “You would know me as a Sith-”

Dynatha jumped to her feet and her lightsaber was blazing in an instant. “I knew it. Don’t move, or else…”

The sitting figure lifted one of her petite hands and waved at her to sit. “There is no need for alarm. I misspoke in my eagerness to get underway. I should have been specific. I was once what you would call a Sith. Generations have exhausted themselves in the time between then and now. Much has changed since then. I am no threat to you, fair Jedi. Please put away your weapon.”

“How can I believe you? What do you want from me? Why bring me here?”

“I suppose you should not trust me, although I think you do. It is very easy for you, isn’t it? You aren’t skeptical by nature. That is why you are the best Jedi Knight the Force could have sent. Some other Jedi might have slain me by now, and then where would they be? Lost on a lonely world with no hope of escape, no reason to venture on, and no guidance. But you and I, we can work together. I can help you; you can help me.”

“How could I do that?” Dynatha asked. Whether or not this Sith was deceiving her, she was right: Dynatha had an urge to sit down and listen to what this woman had to say. Hoping for violence was the last thing on her mind. Despite her concerns, she deactivated her weapon and sat back down, but she kept her weapon in her hand just in case.

“I have been here a long time. I have earned the obeisance of the locals, learned the secrets of this world, and become intimate with its every facet. But there is something I cannot do. When I was exiled to this world, the curse my erstwhile allies placed upon me prevented me or my servants from ever leaving this world. So I need another to take what I have learned and leave this world, for the benefit of the galaxy.”

“What would that be?”

“Within the gloom, in a stone fortress hidden somewhere in the trees, I discovered a power unlike any other. But it is wasted on this primitive world—if you prove yourself worthy in my eyes, I will pass on that treasure to you.”

Dynatha stared at her with a sort of wide-eyed wonder. “What? I don’t understand.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t expect you to be as learned as they were,” her host mumbled to herself. “Quite simply, I’ve discovered a very powerful Jedi artifact on this world. I want to give it to you, but you have to prove yourself worthy before I part with it. If I leave this world, a dark curse that was placed upon me will kill me. You are the only one I can impart this gift to.”

“So what do I have to do?” Dynatha asked. “I’ll do it, but to be honest, I’d much rather leave this world and return to my friends.”

“Ah, yes. You still don’t know what’s become of them, do you?”

“No, I don’t. Are they all okay?”

The woman closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Your companions were divided and went their separate ways… only Ranval remained with you. As far as I know, they are all okay. But the future is always in motion, and what was revealed to me earlier may not remain true for long.”

“Ranval? Has he been here?”

“Indeed. He came to me before you did, hoping I could answer his questions about this world. He is a true Jedi Knight, but he could not complete my trial. He could not prove himself worthy. He has left this place to draw away the Sith warriors who pursue the both of you. For now, he has distracted them so they do not realize you are also on this world.”

Dynatha appraised the woman before her for a long time. The Force was definitely strong in her, and there was a hint of darkness that felt not unlike the presence of a repentant criminal. Dynatha was still wary of her host, but she realized that if she was telling the truth—and she sensed no deception from her—then Ranval had already been here, and he had apparently trusted her. The fact that this woman seemed younger than her yet claimed to be many centuries old was not lost upon Dynatha.

She and Ranval were stuck on this world for the time being; life was so plentiful on this planet, and the Force so strong, that she had been unable to sense Ranval—or any other Force-sensitives on this planet. The way she saw it, she could help this woman or wander the jungle aimlessly. Not an ideal situation to be in, but she saw no other choice.

“Let’s say I trust you. What do I have to do until Ranval returns?”

The younger woman gave her a reassuring smile. “Follow me. It’s not very hard, truly, I just want to know what sort of Jedi I’m dealing with.”

*** ***

The fog never seemed to stop rolling through the trees. No matter how far he ran, there were no clearings or breaks in the treeline at all. It had been at least two days since the Blind Guide had crashed on this primitive world. The ship somehow managed to survive the descent, but the crash totaled what was left of it. Ranval and the two Sith had survived the descent. He hadn’t had time to gather additional supplies before he was forced into the jungle with the clothes on his back, a few packets of survival food, a vibroblade, and a holdout blaster attachment for his cybernetic arms.

The initial chase from the Blind Guide had been brutal, with more hand-to-hand and Force-based combat than actual chasing. The scuffle and pursuit carried on over the next several hours, with the Sith trying everything they could to trap or overpower the Jedi Knight. Ranval was always one step ahead of them, and he used the many layers of the jungle to hide himself during their hunt. The light but steady rain made tracking difficult, and Ranval managed to lose the feral looking Sith by masking his scent. The female, probably a good tracker in her own right, was dependent on the superior hunting skills of her companion and she lost his trail all the same.

Once he was sure he was safe, Ranval followed what he thought were natives to their village. From there, he had met Lalun, the former Dark Jedi who had made herself master of this planet. He had learned the reason for her exile and the nature of her curse. Her foresight was impressive considering that she had been in exile for so many centuries. Ranval had attempted a test she had prepared for him but failed. Leaving the trial for Dynatha to solve, Ranval had slipped away from the village when he had sensed that the Sith were closing in on his location.

The fog made it difficult to tell exactly when the sun rose and set, but Ranval estimated that it had been about forty hours since he had fled the crashed Blind Guide. Retreating into the branches of one of the larger trees in the area, Ranval positioned himself so he could see the surrounding area but was hidden from pursuers on the ground by many overlapping branches and thick palm leaves. Assured that there was no danger about, he drifted into a very welcome sleep.

The Force awoke him with a start after about six hours of rest. He could hear footsteps along the forest floor, and the powerful Force signatures told him that there was no way it could be the local wildlife or the native sentient population. Seeing through the vegetation with his Force vision, Ranval recognized the female Sith warrior sneaking around under the trees. Her deformed companion was nowhere to be seen. She had been imprisoned up until the Blind Guide had crashed, so her attire was quite unsuited for her jungle trek. Her entire body was soaked from the rain and humidity, and mud caked her limbs, clothes, and face. She tried to hide her displeasure as best as she could, but Ranval could see the cuts and bruises on her skin from traversing the jungle.

Ranval jumped from the canopy and landed in a murky pool just behind her. It was the splash that alerted her to his presence, fatigued and weak as she was, but it was too late by then. Ranval’s boot met her jaw as she spun around to face him, and she hit the ground with a thud. Only half-conscious, she felt the rain hit her face as she stared up into the crowns of the trees overhead. The Jedi Knight grabbed both of her arms and flipped her on her stomach so he could bind her arms with sturdy vines that dangled from the lower hanging branches nearby.

“If you’re going to kill me, just do it,” Falmas groaned, not quite cognizant of what she was saying.

“I have no intention of killing you,” Ranval admitted. “I just need to slow your companion down.”

“So I’m just bait, then? You’ll pay for this. I’m going to make sure you suffer before you die. Yes… what about that woman? The one in the kolto tank?” She saw Ranval’s expression harden as he hid his thoughts from her. She smiled to herself. That was her angle. “She’s very important, isn’t she? You care for her, I bet. What would you say if I forced you to watch her die by my master’s hand?”

Ranval’s visage softened into pity. “You talk too much. And your analysis is a bit off.”

Ranval scooped Falmas up from the ground and threw her lithe body over his shoulder. Ignoring her protests, Ranval climbed the nearest tree and placed the Sith warrior into a crevice where she would be safe from the rain and unable to roll off and hurt herself. Her arms and legs were still bound, and she found the vines tougher to break than she imagined.

“Now stay here and don’t struggle. You’ll be safe from predators here, but if you honestly try I think you could roll away—and down three meters to the ground. Your deformed companion will find you sooner than later, so you can continue your chase then.”

Falmas spit at him. “Curse you, Jedi! Is this your mercy? I will not accept it. I’ll summon the predators to me and let them devour me! I’ll engorge myself on the tree bark. I’ll… I’ll…”

Ranval took a strip of cloth and tied it around her mouth. “I don’t think you ought to be so suicidal, but just in case, this should keep you out of trouble. Your companion will come for you before you can starve or die of thirst. Until we meet again.”

Ranval summoned the Force and lowered himself from the branches. Sure enough, he sensed the other Sith warrior about a kilometer away, and the Sith no doubt sensed him as well. He would be long gone by the time his pursuer got here. Dynatha was still missing, and the emergency power in the detached medical bay wouldn’t last another day. He hoped that this distraction would give him a chance to find her without drawing any attention to himself. If he had no success, perhaps the locals would fare better.

Steeling himself, Ranval headed deeper in the forest, following a rivulet of water and mud that descended into a valley.

*** ***

Although she had been hesitant, Dynatha dined and bathed at her host’s insistence. She had traded her worn and unwashed robes for black raiments with a breastplate not unlike Jedi armor, and a thicker brown cloak made out of some sort of synthetic fiber. They had no shoes or socks to offer her—the locals did not wear them and her host did not have any—so she continued to wear her own. Her lightsaber fit on a fibrous white cord that looped around her waist, although it was not strong enough to hold the rest of her gear.

She had not interacted with either her host or her bodyguard for several days, watching the locals go about their lives and recovering from her trek through the jungle. It had started to rain sometime last night, and she stood on the porch of the woman Lalun’s home, watching the light shower become a terrifying storm. The locals had returned into their huts, placing bags of dirt around their walls to keep the water out and sheets made of woven plant stalks to keep their roofs from leaking. Water carried mud and uprooted vegetation between the buildings, and Dynatha was thankful that Lalun’s building was elevated above the earth.

“Pardon me, Lady Aris,” Phaevn rumbled. Lalun’s bodyguard was somber and said little, but he was ever busy and served as her representative to the locals—he either understood their speech or else communicated with them in some other way. She was surprised he was still here, considering the locals had had some difficulty getting their homes waterproofed.

“What can I do for you, Phaevn?”

“The Lady Lalun wishes to speak with you.”

“About her test?”

The lumbering figure nodded.

“Very well. Thank you for the message. I’ll meet with her now.”

Dynatha pulled her cloak so it wrapped around most of her chest and walked back inside Lalun’s home. Her host was sitting exactly where she had been before, her hands crossed above her lap and staring at nothing in particular. She motioned for Dynatha to sit down, and she did so.

“What can I do for you?” Dynatha asked, getting right to business.

“I believe you are ready for the trial.” The younger woman waved toward the east wall of her home. “There are ruins that way… not very far from here. The Force infuses that place with life. I believe if you were to go there, you would discover all that you wish to know and more. Indeed, if you pass all the tests there to my satisfaction, I will surrender to you the very artifact I’ve been telling you about.”

“If you are so eager to help me, why not provide me with the artifact now?”

“Just because you are the Jedi who has been destined to arrive here doesn’t mean you are worthy of my gifts. I will provide nothing for free when it can be earned instead. Ranval learned that for himself. You ought to as well.”

“I suppose that is your right. Will you walk with me there?”

“I am afraid I am bound here. I have arranged for Phaevn to take you there, if you would have him.”

Dynatha nodded. “Very well. I will see you again soon, I hope.”

The Jedi Knight received a satchel of foodstuffs and a canteen of water from Lalun. They waited for the rain to subside a bit before leaving. Her guide brought a parasol to shield them from the rain. Dynatha stayed close to Phaevn. Her muscular companion said very little throughout the walk, concentrating on keeping to some unseen path. Dynatha occasionally scanned the skyline for the ruins that Lalun had spoke of, but she couldn’t see very much between the rain, the fog, and the multitude of trees.

“Are you prepared for the trials ahead?” Phaevn asked while he was helping Dynatha over a particularly large root.

Dynatha sighed. “I’m not even sure what I’m doing here. I just want to leave this place and return to Ranval and the others. If performing this test for Lalun’s amusement will let me return to them, then I’ll do what she asks. Otherwise, I don’t care for her trinkets.”

“You must understand that she is not toying with you,” the bodyguard said. “She’s been here a very long time, and it was foretold that the first visitor she would receive would be the Jedi Knight who would free her from her torment. She is making sure that her desire to leave this place is not keeping her from her duty.”

“I don’t understand. I thought she said she could not leave this place.”

“She cannot leave this world, no. But you must understand that after thousands of years…”

“That’s another thing,” Dynatha noted. “She appears so very young. Is she deceiving my eyes, or is she truly over a thousand years old?”

“The body you see is not her body,” Phaevn admitted. “During the Great Hyperspace War, she was a slave to one of Naga Sadow’s lieutenants. Many of his fellow Sith Lords desired her for their own: she was learned, beautiful, and strong in the Force. Sensing her potential, he freed her during the war and gave her her own vessel, her own slaves, and a place in his fleet.”

“So she is a Sith,” Dynatha muttered.

“Not anymore. A Jedi Knight challenged her over the world known as Gyndine, not very far from here. His words stirred a longing in her heart; she realized for the first time that her body was free, but her spirit was not. The dark side kept her in bondage that she thought she had escaped. Even though he died in that battle, she did not forget his words.

“She confronted her master when the battle ended. Sensing the yearning for light within her, he knew that she had been… ‘corrupted’ by the words of this Jedi Knight. But he had long trusted her, and he trusted her then in spite of his better judgment. She served the Sith for some time thereafter, only to betray them when they fled from the Republic in the wake of the battle near Primus Goluud. She opened fire on her master’s ship and destroyed it, and her vessel was in turn destroyed by his Sith apprentices.”

“And she was captured and exiled here?”

“Indeed. They permitted only a dozen servants to go into exile with her. I was the first chosen and am the last survivor. Once she was forced onto this world, she was cursed so that she could not die until she met a Jedi Knight strong enough to wield the artifact hidden on this world.”

“But why would they do that?”

“They did not believe there were any Jedi strong enough to wield the artifact’s power, and they believed the Jedi she would meet would kill her. Once a Sith, always a Sith. In their minds, the dark side is irresistible, even though it can be refused for a time. They wanted her to share their fate whenever she eventually died… or worse, perhaps.”

“But she has refused the darkness for a millennium?”

“Indeed.”

Something about Lalun’s story resonated with Dynatha. The fact that she had been brought up a Sith, discovered the light, and remained in it for so long was inspiring to her. Perhaps Lalun had an indomitable will, or maybe the dark side wasn’t as mighty as the Sith were led to believe. Whatever the reason, Dynatha also had her choice, and she had chosen to resist the dark side with everything she had. This resistance drove her forward when everything seemed hopeless. Didn’t the Force always find a way? Now that she had proven herself a Jedi Knight, she wanted to prove herself to Lalun to show the old woman that her hope was not in vain.

“Does she expect me to carry on where she started?” Dynatha asked her companion.

“What is that, exactly?”

“The fight against the Sith. She did kill her master and destroy him, after all.”

“I’m afraid I do not know why she did that. Perhaps she felt convicted by the light. Or she wanted revenge for the years of suffering he had put her through. Maybe she knew the war was turning against them and wanted clemency from the Republic. Regardless, I believe she would want you to forge your own path, whatever that may be.”

The pair traveled in silence for the rest of their trip. The rains were moving on and the fog was rolling away, allowing sunlight to peek out from above the trees for the first time since Dynatha had arrived. After walking around several fallen trees, Phaevn pushed aside a curtain of vines and revealed that they had arrived at their destination. The ruined building before them was three stories tall, formed from dark volcanic rock that stood in contrast to the verdant jungle around it. Multiple stairways ran up and down its layered exterior, and four dark spires rose from the second level toward the tree crowns overhead. The ruins themselves looked very much like the ancient temple on Krayiss Two, and the thought made her shiver.

“You are to enter alone,” Phaevn said. “I will be waiting outside for your return.”

“What will I see in there?”

“I am not permitted to say. Prepare yourself for anything.”

Dynatha doffed her cloak and headed inside the passageway that Phaevn had indicated. As far as she could tell, the passage was a long tunnel that did not diverge and had no conjoining rooms. However, there were no braziers or torches, so the only light that came in was from outside—and there wasn’t much light outside either. Unclasping her lightsaber from her belt, Dynatha activated its glowing blade and used it as a beacon to light her way.

There was a loud crack that sounded like the splitting of stone. She turned around and saw that the entrance to the ruins was being covered by a massive boulder. A trap? It was possible, but it was not Phaevn that was preventing her retreat; she still sensed him, standing some meters away, waiting for her to finish this test. If there was another figure threatening to trap her inside against her will, Phaevn would have stopped them. She had no choice but to press on for now.

Suddenly, her lightsaber went out. Had her power cell expired? That had never happened before. Perhaps it had gotten wet in the rain somehow. Dynatha pressed the activation button a few times, but the weapon was completely powerless. Frowning, she returned the useless weapon to her belt. As soon as she did, she saw a red blade spring out of the darkness.

“Who’s there?” she asked, retreating just far enough to avoid getting skewered by the weapon.

“Who are you?” came the reply. The voice was that of a younger man’s, and not completely unfamiliar to her.

“Dynatha. Dynatha Aris.”

“You… are one of Calay’s students, aren’t you?”

Dynatha flinched at the mention of that name. Like a veil had been removed from her face, the darkness rolled back, revealing that she was not in an ancient temple on some nameless world far from society; she was, in fact, on Alderaan. The Sith warrior Raen Benax was standing in front of her, a red training lightsaber in his hand. He looked no older than the last time they had met, at the Sith academy on Alderaan, decades ago. His tapered brown hair was cut short and he was clean-shaven, with the same scars he had received from training against other Sith pupils. His blue eyes stared at her like he was as surprised to see her as she was him.

“I was,” Dynatha finally managed to say. “But I’m not… not any longer. I was saved. I’m a Jedi Knight now.”

Raen’s face contorted with rage. She might as well have told him that she planned on killing him then and there. “What the hell are you saying? What do you mean you’re not a Sith? I came to you to train you, to show you how to fight, like you asked, and now you’ve gone crazy.”

She shook her head. “No, you didn’t. I remember. You brushed me off, and I turned to Calay for help… I didn’t know how to speak with you then. I was smitten by you, attracted to your confidence and strength. But…”

Raen snarled at her and departed, leaving her alone in the dueling ring. And just as soon as he had appeared, he was gone. Darkness swept over her again, and she found herself back in her chambers on Alderaan, somewhere in the vast compound that had served as the Sith academy on that world. She had a comlink in her hand, and she was staring up at the holographic visage of a face she hoped to never see again… Raystin Benax, the Sith Lord of Alderaan and the man who indoctrinated her into joining the Sith Order as a child.

“You… why are you here?” Dynatha asked.

The figure stared at her from beneath his hood. “You summoned me. Mistress Calay says that you are a promising student, but you are infatuated with Raen Benax-”

“Your son,” she muttered.

“How could you know that? I erased your memory. You shouldn’t remember anything from your time before the Sith.”

“Not forever, Master Benax. I remember now. But if I had known what I knew now, perhaps I would never have become a Jedi.”

“De’dlay is afraid of me,” Raystin interrupted. “My own apprentice, the one I took as my firstborn, has set his sight higher than he can reach. He will catch you speaking with me; you only want to know how to impress Raen, but he thinks you’re conspiring against him. He will tell Calay, and she will incite De’dlay against you, because she has foreseen that you will become stronger than her. Fear spreads like disease among the Sith. Even I cannot stop that. And so you will be tortured and imprisoned.”

Dynatha nodded, and she felt something like a lump in her throat. Even Raystin Benax’s impressive powers of mind manipulation couldn’t make her forget what had transpired next. De’dlay had been caught up in a fury when he broke into her room. He had seized her from her chambers, beaten her until she couldn’t even open her eyes because they were so swollen, and then he took a knife and-

“Wake up.”

Dynatha’s eyes opened. They were well enough that she could see out of them again, but the rest of her body was so weak… always crippled. Whenever De’dlay or one of his minions decided that she looked healthy enough, he would break another one of her limbs. Sometimes they would even use a sort of dark healing to speed up the process so they could torture her more. Her body screamed for death. She had been fed through an intravenous drip, depriving her of the pleasures of eating—and the release of starvation. She drank only when her torturers permitted it, and even then only miry filth that no respectable being would think drinkable. She was not familiar with sunlight or refresher, and her cell reeked of bodily effuse, dried blood, and sweat.

They hurt her in many ways, but knives were their favorite instruments. Even now, she was bleeding from her arms, and the tiny streams of red were running down her arms—suspended above her head by chains—into her arm pits and onto her chest. She had been burned, whipped, and beaten, and there were marks across her body to show for it. Her feet dangled above the ground about a meter or so, and it was very hard for her to breathe. Her captors would adjust her position only to ensure she did not die at any point. Sometimes she suspected the dark side was the only thing keeping her alive.

The leader of her torturers and master of the Sith, De’dlay Yavalaaka, was standing in front of her. The Nikto Sith Master had a vibroblade in his hand and a blaster pistol on his belt. Unlike most other times, he was alone. His dark eyes stared at her with a hatred that she could not comprehend. Why was he doing this? Was he so evil that he violated her for his own amusement? The thought of her helplessness before him caused her to cry. Of course, he struck her with his scaly hand.

“Stop crying, you mewling wench. If you don’t stop right now, I’ll take an ear off you.”

Dynatha stared into the eyes of her captor. There was not even a hint of mercy. She had called out for Raen many times. She had hoped that he would swoop in and save her, just like in the old stories, and carry her away where they would live forever in happiness and peace. But, despite her firm belief, he never came. No, in the end, it had been Jedi Knights who had recovered her disfigured, crippled body from the Sith torture cells and nursed her back to health. Or, rather, one Jedi Master had taken it upon himself to restore her—he healed her wounds, restored her body’s shape and beauty, and given her the strength to live again. But though he had revitalized her and her body, he had died in the process. And for what?

“Get away from me,” Dynatha said, her voice soft but resolute. “I am not that weak girl you tortured. She died on Alderaan with you. You cannot hurt me.”

De’dlay reached out to strike her, but the light side of the Force sturck the room like a wave. Filled with a new strength, there was no reason for her to despair any longer. Like Tserne, it was time for her to free herself from the past. It was her choice to be in this place, haunted by things that were, and this was the last time these memories would trouble her.

The chains keeping her suspended shattered like ice, and the Force let her gently float to her feet. Her body was healed of those old wounds, memories that held no power over her. De’dlay recoiled when he saw her, radiant like the dawn, her skin and hair burning brighter than any fire he could have created. With a wave of her hand, De’dlay and his torture chamber dissipated into nothingness, a piddling shadow against the luminescence within her.

When her vision returned, she found herself on a ship. She was strong, stronger than she had ever been, and she was immediately aware of everything around her: a great dome encompassed this chamber, the stars of a thousand systems floated in the empty space around her, and there were ships just beyond the transparent dome, fighting for some reason unknown to her. This room seemed almost like a meditation chamber, without furniture, power couplings, or any sort of consoles for controlling the ship. Considering how close some of the starfighters were getting, Dynatha figured that this chamber was at the apex of the ship, and turbolaser fire defended it in spite of its vulnerable position.

Her vision turned inward and she realized that she was in danger. She saw Tserne in the corner of her eye, and he was fighting an armored figure nearly twice his size. The warrior had some sort of lance weapon, and Tserne carried a golden lightsaber. She had only seen him fight with a lightsaber once before, and she was surprised how well he fought with it. Nevertheless, he was being beaten back by the armored figure and—if her Force precognition was accurate—he was about to be defeated by his armored opponent. The last figure, situated in the center of a room, was more a shadow than a humanoid being, cloaked in darkness and altogether amorphous aside from a pair of piercing red eyes. It was as tall as the armored warrior who fought Tserne, and it was looking directly at her. Despite her present strength in the light, something about that figure still caused her to worry.

“You… are the one I’ve sought,” it said, its voice guttural and echoing throughout the chamber. “My antithesis… my equal… dark queen…”

“Dynatha!” Tserne shouted. “Look out!”

The dark figure lifted what she supposed was its right arm and launched arrows of dark energy at her. Instinctively, Dynatha unhooked her lightsaber from her belt and activated the useless weapon. To her surprise, a blue blade burst forth from the hilt and intercepted the attack. She turned to encourage Tserne and thank him for his warning, but he had been pushed against the wall by his opponent and lost his lightsaber. He was wrestling for control of his enemy’s spear, but he was in danger of being run through with it.

“What will you do, Dynatha Aris?” the specter roared. “If you do not strike me down now, I will only become stronger. You will get no second chance. Save him if you must, but know that I will defeat you both in the end. If you ignore his plight and engage me, the Sith will haunt this galaxy no more. The dark side that was brought forth by Exar Kun will finally be quenched.”

“What makes you so sure I cannot save him and defeat you?” Dynatha said.

“My spirit has gone away for a time, to see to the battle elsewhere. But he will return with a vengeance, and he will not be rebuffed by you. He will conquer your will, and by your own hand you will kill the man you love. Then you will kneel to me and call me master.”

She didn’t even have to think about her choice. No matter what this evil spirit told her, she would not abandon Tserne—and perhaps that was her greatest weakness. Her trust was implicit, even for Tserne, who had betrayed her trust in an utmost and callused way. She yearned for him, even now, though the feelings were tumultuous within her and her reason warned her that he did not feel the same way. Despite his past, his failures, and his selfishness, she had seen courage, strength, and goodness within him. Losing Tserne again would mean losing him forever.

Assured of her decision, Dynatha threw her lightsaber at the armored figure who was about to plunge his polearm into Tserne’s chest. Her blade found its mark and skewered the hulking warrior, killing him before he could kill Tserne. The lumbering giant nearly collapsed on top of him, but Tserne managed to roll out of the way just in time.

“So you have chosen a shared death,” the dark spirit boomed.

The dome cracked above her. Looking up, she saw an even greater shadowy figure, so large that his hands alone dwarfed the starship they were in. The great shadow squeezed the transparisteel together like it was clay in his hand. The smaller shadow that was still inside the dome cackled as it was thoroughly absorbed by the larger one, leaving Dynatha and Tserne alone inside the meditation chamber. Dynatha sprinted toward Tserne, but she was too late. She hadn’t even closed half the distance between them when the dome shattered. The entire chamber explosively decompressed, exposing them both to the harsh vacuum of space while their lungs failed.

Everything went dark, and she felt the light within her go out.

“Dynatha! Wake up, Dynatha.”

She awoke to find Phaevn kneeling just above her, holding the parasol so the last rains wouldn’t fall into her face. Gasping, she jolted upright, quite surprised to be alive. Those visions had been tests, of course, but they had not felt like visions. They had been powerful, visceral, and quite real. Had she passed? She had no idea, and she didn’t even know how she had escaped the ruins once the trial was over.

“How… how long was I inside?”

“A day,” Lalun’s bodyguard replied. “You wandered out of the ruins like you were in a trance, and you collapsed immediately. You stopped breathing… I was worried you had died.”

She was certain that there had been rocks blocking her way out, but when she looked back, the path inside the ruins was clear. An illusion? Dynatha shook her head. “I feel fine now, but…”

“Please,” Phaevn ran his hand over his forehead and down his chest. “What you saw or experienced inside is for you alone. Do not share such intimate knowledge with me. I am unworthy.”

“Very well… do you know if I succeeded?”

“It is not for me to decide. If you are feeling well, we can return to Lady Lalun. She knows what has occurred here. She will tell you.”

“Let’s go, then. I am ready to hear what she has to say.”


Chapter 36

Ranval jumped from the branch into a ditch below just before the Beast’s projectile struck the tree’s trunk. Upon landing, he found himself face-to-face with Falmas. The female Sith jabbed him in the throat, and he reeled back as he struggled to breathe. The Beast was upon them both in seconds, and it moved to tackle Ranval to the ground where it could stab him with the shiv it had constructed while hunting the Jedi. Ranval sidestepped just in time to avoid the Beast, and Falmas accidentally punched it in the face. Now that the two Sith were in front of him, Ranval positioned himself so that his back was to a tree trunk and could only be attacked from the front.

“You’re dead now, Jedi. Nowhere left to run. Don’t have any more weapons. No more tricks. Just you—alone—against the full power of the dark side,” Falmas said.

Ranval shook his head. “You’re wrong. I’m not out of tricks, and I’m not alone.”

Falmas sneered at him and charged. The Beast followed suit. Ranval jumped into the air just before Falmas stabbed at him with the knife she had stolen from him, grabbing onto one of the lower branches on the tree behind him. The Beast suspected his maneuver and transitioned into a running jump, very nearly grabbing Ranval’s feet. The Jedi Knight gave him a kick in the chest for his trouble. Quickly positioning himself so he was on top of the branch, Ranval backed against the tree and waited for the two Sith warriors to join him.

“Can’t you just die?” Falmas growled.

“I’m afraid it’s hard for me,” he quipped.

“Ranval!”

The Jedi Knight smiled. He had sensed her earlier. She was right on time. “Dynatha! Is Phaevn with you?”

“Yes!” the Dashade called. “What do you desire, Master Jedi?”

“Phaevn! Go tell Lalun to expect us! We’ll be back by nightfall!”

“Yes, sir!” The bodyguard left Dynatha and headed in the direction of the local settlement.

“You’d best pay attention before you lose your head, Jedi!”

Falmas swung at Ranval with her knife, nearly cutting his jugular. Ranval ducked fast enough to dodge the blow and used the momentum to jump from his branch to a lower one, forcing the two Sith to follow. He saw Dynatha on the forest floor with her lightsaber in hand, and he continued hopping down—with Sith in pursuit—until he landed in front of Dynatha.

“It’s good to see you’re okay,” Ranval said.

“Likewise. Do you need help?”

“Take the ugly one. I’ll deal with the lady. She’s no trouble at all.”

“Is he the Sith that defeated me on Sernpidal?” Dynatha asked.

“I think so.”

She nodded. “It won’t happen again.”

Both of them turned around just in time to engage their opponents. The Beast went for Ranval and Falmas for Dynatha, but the Jedi switched positions fast enough that they were each forced to fight the other Jedi instead. The Beast lunged at Dynatha’s torso with the intent of tackling her and knocking her over, but she jumped away from its assault. Before she could slash at its back, the Beast turned its tumble into a more graceful roll and righted itself, raking Dynatha’s face with its nails. The hilt of her blade slammed into its gut as it turned around. Since each of them scored a solid hit, the two retreated for a momentary respite.

The Beast had been chasing Ranval for nearly four days. It had nourished itself by eating grass from the ground and killing insects and reptiles that scurried along the jungle floor. It had quenched its thirst by taking gulps of rainwater, but it had been nearly a day since its last drink. Neither Falmas nor the Beast had slept since they crashed on this world. Dynatha sensed that her opponent was weaker than when she fought it on Sernpidal, but it was still strong—strong enough to be a dangerous foe.

Dynatha moved first, raising her lightsaber and moving in for a wide sweep of her blade. The Beast stood its ground; only when Dynatha was practically face-to-face did it grapple with her. Even in its weakened state, the Beast was physically far stronger than she was. Dynatha jabbed at the arm wrestling for control of her weapon, and her boot smashed into its bare feet several times. The Beast was relentless, and it moved in to bite at her throat; Dynatha managed to stop it only by catching its face with her elbow. She tried to pull her lightsaber away and get distance between them, but the Beast wrapped its legs around her waist and pulled her toward the ground with it.

She was on top of the Beast, but her lightsaber had flown from both their grips during their tumble and one of her arms was pinned beneath its body. Firmly holding onto Dynatha, the Beast used all of its strength to flip her over so that it was on top of her. Not willing to be beaten in the same way she had been last time, Dynatha called upon the Force and hurled her opponent off her—the nails on its feet cut at her sides as they were forcibly separated.

She jumped to her feet and recovered her lightsaber just as the Beast did. As though it hadn’t even been weakened by her attacks, the Beast charged forward again. She unleashed a telekinetic barrage against the Sith warrior, throwing it back whenever it managed to stand up and charge at her. Soon, they were separated by several meters, but the Beast refused to surrender; every time it fell, it tried to get back up and charge at her.

Dynatha knew that the longer she was forced to fight like this, the less chance she had of winning. The Beast’s endurance was greater than her own, she hadn’t been able to strike it with her blade, and if she exhausted herself to the point where she could no longer summon the Force, the battle of brute strength would go to her enemy. She had to think of another way. Her brain searched for answers while the Beast got close enough to strike at her with its fists and clawed hands; she forced the Beast back with swings from her lightsaber.

The Sith managed to get close enough to strike at her inside of her right arm; the sudden blow paralyzed her from the elbow down and forced her to drop her lightsaber. Her foot shot up to kick the Beast away, but it ignored her strike and snatched up her weapon. Suddenly weaponless, Dynatha summoned the Force like a local shaman would bring about rain. Brilliant spears of light descended from the sky, skewering the Beast and stopping it in its tracks. The Sith warrior fell to its knees, using all of the dark power it could to try and resist her attack.

“Enough. I do not want you to die. Return my lightsaber to me and surrender.”

The Beast snarled at her. Its rage gave it a burst of twisted might that allowed it to rush at her, breaking free of the pillars of light holding it in place. It swung the green blade high, aiming for a quick decapitation. Dynatha ducked under the swing. It followed up with a quick series of stabs at her chest, but she managed to Force jump into one of the lower branches of the tree Ranval had been in before. Beams of light pinned the Beast again, and this time it didn’t even try to resist. It had been totally defeated.

“What drives you to fight?” she asked. Her feelings guided her thoughts, and she only hoped her words would be enough. “The Sith made you, shaped you, twisted you into this foul image. But that is not the real you, is it?”

The Beast growled at her. It felt her presence in its mind, weakened as it was by her attacks, but it could not resist her. Indeed, she was surprised just how little the Beast’s mind was defended. She felt uneasy when she imposed her will upon the Beast, because it felt like the Sith warrior had all the mental defenses of a child.

“I was once like you, you know. The Sith brutalized me. They cut me. Burned me. They laughed at my suffering, enjoyed the pain I endured, and hoped that I would beg them for death. I was tortured every day for nearly a year. By the end I was barely recognizable. I found myself despairing more than once, but I never let that despair turn into hopelessness. I did not succumb to them. They did not win.”

She jumped off the branch just in time to avoid the spinning blade it threw at her. The blade chopped away at branch and bark, and she caught the weapon as it spiraled back toward the Beast. The Beast let out a feral cry for aid—Falmas noticed immediately, but she was so caught up in fighting Ranval that she had no way of providing assistance.

“Do you not believe me?” Dynatha cried. “You and I suffered alike. You don’t think it’s possible to reject the pain and abandon the darkness that has been forced onto you? I am living proof that you can! The dark side can only hold power over someone like you if you let it. Ask yourself… do you want to be a slave to the Sith forever?”

It was so quick that a typical Human would have missed it, but Dynatha saw that the Beast hesitated. Was it possible to rise above the torture that had defined this miserable thing for years? Its glance told her that it was willing to believe, but there was no way it could trust her word alone. The Sith were powerful, and if she was wrong, it would suffer more than either of them could possibly imagine.

So she would show it what hope looked like. Raising her hand, she allowed the Beast access to her mind—thereby also letting Ranval and Falmas access—so that it knew she was being honest. It was a dangerous move, and one that could have exposed her to a crippling mental attack. She let it see something that no one had ever seen: the pain that had been inflicted upon her by De’dlay and the other Sith on Alderaan. The emotional honesty and vulnerability halted the Beast in its tracks. For the first time, it knew that it was not alone.

“You see? You and I, we are not so different. And we don’t have to be any more different than you want us to be. Your physical disfigurements are not you. Your pain is not you. You are more than that. Be honest with me…”

There was another moment of hesitation. The Beast looked beyond her, at Falmas, seeking answers from his superior. But she was not paying attention. She fought Ranval to regain her confidence as a Sith; though she had heard its distress, the Beast wasn’t even on her mind. Returning its gaze to Dynatha, it gave her a slight nod. She sensed the Beast lower the rest of its mental defenses. For perhaps the first time ever, the creature known as the Beast revealed its innermost thoughts, fears, and dreams to another. Even Preux, the monster who had formed the beast into what it had become, had not seen these things.

But Dynatha endured the pain, and everything was plain to her. He had barely been seven years old when the Sith came and killed his entire family. He had been taken to some nameless, icy world far from the Galactic Republic. There had been a pit, bereft of water, food, and light. For a time he had fought wild beasts, staying alive through strength of will and luck—or perhaps latent Force power. He had not been allowed to eat whenever he pleased—only the armored master could tell him when to eat. His body had been scarred from his countless battles, rendered hairless from the burnings, and he had lost an eye fighting some terrifying giant reptilian creature. But he had become strong. He had been so strong that when the others who had been like him came to kill him, he fought them all by himself… and he killed them.

Then he had been allowed to eat. And so he devoured them, as Preux commanded.

What was his name? He had not even been sentient. Rudimentary lightsaber skills, a connection to the Force, and raw strength did not a person make. And so it became the Beast. But it had a real name a long time ago. Dynatha knew there was more to him than what had been forced upon him. Where the Sith saw a weapon, she saw potential for something more.

“You… I’m so sorry,” Dynatha said, finding herself at a loss for words and in tears. “If I had been there, I would have saved you then. But the Jedi and I, we are sometimes very powerless. And we overlook many great tragedies… I cannot make the pain go away, and I cannot heal your broken body as the Jedi did to me. But I can give you a chance for a future. A chance to live apart from the Sith. Please.”

She stared into his only eye. For the first time, she saw a hint of comprehension and emotion there in his dark eyes. The Sith’s legs began to quaver, and to her surprise, he started to cry. Dynatha released the binding light that kept him in place as she approached. Suddenly, the knowledge that she had been searching for came rushing forth. The last thing she needed to connect with him.

Calnin. That is your name, isn’t it?

Recognition flashed in his face. It was as though he had been taken hostage for many years, and his rescuer had stormed his prison and removed the covering from his face. His features softened into a pitiable visage, and he embraced himself in an attempt to stop his body from trembling.

“Ple… please… it hurts…”

Dynatha, exhausted from the vivid recollection of his painful memories, slowly began walking toward him. Thoughts that had long been dormant flowed through his mind, and he was delirious. His thoughts were overwhelming her own mind as well, but she refused to sever their connection. She reached out to him in encouragement. “Don’t worry. I will heal you as much as I can. I will-”

Without warning, the wounded Sith used telekinesis to snatch her lightsaber from her and activated its blade. For a second, she thought that he would turn the blade upon her in his anguish. But what he did was more terrifying.

“Thank you… but I can’t… this is how it must be.”

Turning the green blade to face himself, the man who had been christened Calnin looked up at Dynatha for the last time. He plunged the weapon into his chest despite Dynatha’s scream for him to stop. She covered the last meter between them in a second, but it was already too late. The Force had faded from the his body, and the lightsaber deactivated as it slipped out of his lifeless grip. Delirious from their forcibly severed mental link, she begged for him to open his eyes, and she held him close as though the warmth of her body could take away the chill of death.

Ranval sensed the Beast’s death immediately, as did Falmas. She was taken aback, clearly not expecting him to die—at least, not in the way he did. Something within Falmas snapped just as something within the Beast had, and she rushed at Ranval like a berserker who did not care for her own life. But her rage was no match for the calm skill of a Jedi Knight. With practiced grace, Ranval caught the hilt of her stolen blade and forced it from her hand with his makeshift knife. A swift headbutt sent her to the ground.

“I’ll destroy you! You and she will burn for what you did! Damn you both, Jedi scum. I will fight you with teeth and nails if I must… but you will die today!”

Ranval uprooted a slender segment from a hanging liana and struck her in the face with it. “Enough! Don’t you see that we’ve all seen enough death for one day? Your companion is dead and all you can think about is revenge? Your own feelings? What of him? Will you even bury him?”

The whipping cut open Falmas’s lower lip, and blood was dribbling all over her chin. She glared up at Ranval with such malice and fury that she could have killed a lesser being. Ranval stood over her like an unflinching disciplinarian, and he refused to be intimidated by her. For a moment, it appeared as though Falmas was going to stand and rush at Dynatha while she was cradling Calnin in her arms, to strike at her while she was weak and distracted. But when she saw the man whom she had known as the Beast, her gaze softened.

In her mind, his death was her fault. Falmas had been responsible for him, and she had been so caught up in her own agenda that she had scarcely noticed him. He had risked his life to save her, provided for her in the jungle, and never opposed the punishments he had received for her failures. He was her ever loyal companion… and now he was dead. The thought of vengeance returned to her again, but she knew that she was spent. This Jedi Knight was her better, and her pride was broken in that acknowledgment. No, it was not the fault of the Jedi that the Beast was dead—his death was hers to bear. She had seen many allies die, but his passing broke her in ways that she had not foreseen.

Falmas slowly rose to her feet. Ranval raised his arm as though to strike her again, but Falmas ignored him. With her remaining strength, she walked away from him, heading deeper into the jungle. She had no intention of disappearing forever in this unexplored sea of trees, but she did need answers. She could not stay around the Jedi, and she could not endure looking at the Beast’s corpse for a moment longer. Neither the teachings of her masters nor the dark side could provide her with what she sought. For the first time, Falmas realized that the future terrified her.

Ranval watched her for some time until he was confident she would not return. Dropping the vine he had whipped her with, he approached Dynatha—she was still holding Calnin’s body in her arms, but she was not crying anymore.

“Dynatha, are you all right?”

The younger Jedi averted her gaze from him. “I… I didn’t want it to end like this. I only wanted to help him. He shouldn’t have died.”

“You were not responsible for his death. Do not forget, he was Sith-”

“But not by his own volition! He was forced into that path. He would not have chosen it if he had any other choice!”

“Perhaps. Like so many of our enemies, he believed that his way was the only way. When you showed him another path—a better path—he realized that he had been deceived. You experienced this same epiphany on Alderaan. Unlike you, he awoke from his nightmare only to realize he was alone. Even if he had come with us, the weight of his crimes was perhaps too great for him to bear.”

“We could have guided him, though. We could have brought him back, I know it.”

“It is always possible. Sometimes we cannot foresee how others will react when conviction pulls them toward the light. Some will humble themselves and accept it with gladness. Others will become irrational and run further away. Still others will know despair, turning a chance at redemption into personal condemnation. But what he did he did knowing what he had been, what he was, and what he could have been. He made his choice, Dynatha. And now we must make ours.”

“I only wish that we could have done more for him.”

“We are not done yet. Let us find the one who did those things to him and bring him to justice. We will end the Sith menace now and forever. When the Sith are no more, the evil that caused men and women like him, like Tserne, and like you to suffer will be no more.”

Dynatha carefully laid Calnin down, took her lightsaber, and stood up. “Very well, Ranval. I’m ready. For his sake, for Tserne, and for all the others, I will fight. What should I do?”

“First, go to Lalun. She has something very important for you. Let me tend to Calnin’s body. I will ensure it receives the respect it deserves.”

Dynatha did as she was told. She followed the Force, which led her back to the village where Phaevn the Dashade was waiting for her. Without a word, he led her back to Lady Lalun’s abode. This time, instead of leading her into the main room, the hulking bodyguard revealed to her a secret chamber near the back of the home. After placing his hand on the console, a trapdoor slid open and the two of them walked inside.

The room hidden beneath Lalun’s home was far different than the rooms she had seen above ground. Carved mostly out of earth like some sort of cave, the air was stale and she felt claustrophobic even near the stairs that led back to the surface. There were ten primitive looking suspended animation capsules situated around the room, and a red emergency light blinked erratically on each of their control boards. Of the ten capsules, all were open and empty except for one. In the farthest capsule from the entrance, Dynatha could just barely see a humanoid being lying inside. Phaevn ran toward the capsule.

“Lady Lalun. You are awake… it is done, then? Our exile has ended?”

Dynatha walked over and saw that the woman he was speaking to did not look like the woman she had assumed was Lalun. The figure inside the capsule was ancient, a shriveled and petite figure wrapped in a medical dress not unlike what Dynatha had been wearing when she woke up on this world. The woman inside was Human, but she was so old that her features were scarcely recognizable amidst her wrinkles, and she was so weak that Phaevn had to lift and hold her outside the hibernation capsule.

“It is over, Phaevn. This Jedi Knight will go on and defeat the Sith. Her choice I did not expect, but I know in the end she will do what is right.”

Dynatha bowed to the ancient figure in Phaevn arms. “I am glad to finally make your acquaintance, Lady Lalun. Can I safely assume that the woman I saw earlier was an illusion you were projecting from your capsule?”

The ancient Force-user nodded. “An old trick I learned in the Great Hyperspace War. The local populace would never have followed a wizened helpless figure like me, but an illusive figure capable of Sith magic and Phaevn’s brute strength together are ample motivation.”

“What are these other capsules?” Dynatha asked. “I thought suspended animation capsules created a stasis field that prevented aging.”

“So they do. But these models malfunctioned many centuries ago. Since then, I have had the bodyguards I took with me watch over the situation here on this jungle world, tending to the other capsules and waiting until the day that a Jedi Knight would come to end our exile. Phaevn is the last and most loyal cohort I have. He is old in his own right, and I feared that perhaps he too would pass before a Jedi would come.”

“Your hope was not misplaced, Lady Lalun. But I must ask, why was it so important that a Jedi Knight arrive? What was the power that you spoke of… the Jedi relic hidden away in this place?”

“The Sith damned me here for my treachery, as I’m sure Phaevn told you. They wanted me to watch as my only allies succumbed to the pangs of death, whereas I was not allowed to die until I passed on this Force-empowered artifact to another. They supposed that I would give into despair, kill my companions, and reject the light. Maybe not immediately, but time can change anyone, they say. If I fell to the dark side, as they wanted, the curse would be broken, and I would be free to leave this place.”

“But you stayed true to the light,” Dynatha said, again in awe.

“So I did. And now the curse can be broken by handing this to you.”

The old lady reached into her dress and revealed a shimmering gemstone attached to a thin cord around her neck. The gem was a warm red color, glowing like coals beneath a rising flame. It seemed to have been cut by a true jeweler, an octahedron shimmering like a prism even in the dim light. She had never seen such a beautiful gem, and Dynatha felt instinctively drawn to it.

“This is a fragment of Pomojema’s Soul,” she told Dynatha. “It is a gem thought to be the last remnant of the healer god of this world. The local shamans use it as a catalyst for their untrained Force power. It is a truly impressive relic. It will bolster your will, provide clarity in foresight, and create in you mastery of healing arts.”

“It sounds too good to be true,” Dynatha admitted.

“Don’t you believe?” Lalun smiled. “The crystal was always sensitive to the Force, but I have been moving my strength from my failing body into the crystal for centuries. Even I did not expect such a reaction. It has become something quite unlike anything in nature, powerful enough to amplify the Force power of a Jedi Knight a thousandfold. Take it. Use it. Do not let its potential be wasted here.”

Dynatha graciously accepted the crystal shard from the former Sith. Like some ancient ritual had been completed, she felt its power transfer from Lalun to her. It was everything that she had promised and more. Merely touching the crystal washed away Dynatha’s fatigue and invigorated her body to its limits. The air around her seemed to regain its vitality, and the room itself lit up like there was a burning flame in its center. She could feel the Force around her, and its undulations were so strong that she thought she was going to be physically tossed about. She could nearly see the past and future as clearly as she saw the present. Even after escaping the Jedi who had healed her after Alderaan, she had never had such an intimate connection to the Force.

“This… this is impossible. Such a tiny fragment cannot possess such power. If the entire crystal ever fell into the hands of the Sith-”

“Unfortunately, the crystal bears my curse. Its power diminishes the further it goes from its initial resting place on this world. The entire crystal, perhaps, may retain a great deal of its power offworld, but a mere shard like this would not. I would not risk letting the entire crystal leave this place to fall into the Sith’s hands, but your fragment is enough to embolden you and serve as a lightsaber crystal.”

Dynatha was moved to silence. Even for a Sith of the old Sith Empire, constantly pouring power into a single source was no doubt draining and irreversible. The old woman had spent most of her life preparing for this very moment; this was her own chance at redemption. Through this crystal, she could strike back against the Sith that had exiled her here, and hopefully end the threat of the Sith for all time. Lalun seemed to know what Dynatha was thinking about her, and she smiled.

“It was not because I hated them that I invested myself in this way,” she clarified. “I did it out of love. I knew you would come. I knew you would need my help. I wanted to be more than an old crone who guided you to a bauble on some nameless world. I only hope-” She coughed several times, and Dynatha saw her shiver in Phaevn’s arms. “I… hope my efforts were not in vain.”

“I know they weren’t,” Dynatha assured her.

“Phaevn…” Lalun’s voice was already weak and hoarse. She would not last much longer out of her capsule. “Go with her and Ranval. Aid them if you wish, or else return to the world of your ancestors to live out the rest of your days.”

“I would not leave your side, my lady,” Phaevn rumbled. “Time has not separated us. Neither will death. Let me remain at your side until the end.”

The old Force-sensitive shook her head. “Even now I am not worthy of your devotion. Your destiny lies far away from here… and away from me. Go. Do not be sad for me. You have done your duties valiantly. I do not know how I was blessed with such a faithful retainer, a steady companion, and a true friend… but you have been all that and more.”

“Please let me remain here with you. How can you ask me to leave you now, in the end?”

“Care for this woman here, who now holds much of my spirit and my strength. If you desire to serve, serve her with the same conviction you had for me.”

The Dashade was quiet for a very long time. Dynatha nearly left the two alone, but Phaevn summoned the strength to speak before she could. “As my master wills, so I will do.”

“Thank you, Phaevn.” The old lady closed her eyes. “Let me return to my slumber. I would not have Dynatha or you watch this old woman waste away outside of her cage.”

Dynatha knew that Phaevn still did not want to leave her, despite his words. He stayed where he was for some time, and it was only when she repeated her request that he moved toward the suspended animation capsule. Gently laying her inside, Phaevn ran through the checklist for the device and made sure everything was working—as well as it could be, anyway. Approaching the head of the capsule, he knelt down and let her kiss his forehead.

“We will meet again soon, Phaevn. I will let the others know you are coming soon.”

“I will not leave you waiting long, my Lady.”

With great reluctance, her loyal bodyguard pressed the button on the console to seal the pod. The transparent seal slid over the top and locked itself in place. An anesthetic began pumping into the pod to make the stasis field’s activation easier on her body.

“Dynatha…” Lalun called from within the pod.

The Jedi Knight ran over. “Yes?”

“If my story has taught you anything, and you have learned something from your time here, then my life was not a waste. I leave you with this. Be assured in yourself, be confident in your decisions, and trust in those that you love. You are a true Jedi Knight. Do not forget that.”

“I only regret that your tutelage was so short,” Dynatha said. “You would have made me into a better Jedi than I am now.”

“May the Force be with you, Dynatha Aris, in everything that you do.”

Dynatha smiled and bid her farewell just before the heavier, solid plate of the capsule covered the transparent covering. The stasis field buzzed as it activated, and somehow Dynatha knew that would be the last time she and Lalun would meet. Both she and Phaevn stood by the closed capsule, quiet and alone in their thoughts.

“We must get ready to leave,” Phaevn said.

“Leave? How?”

“Ranval told us one of your shuttles has a working hyperdrive. We will use that to leave this planet.

The thought of seeing Tserne again flashed through her mind. They had not been apart for a week yet, but she had an intense longing for him. If Phaevn was right, they would be reunited soon.

“Let’s go to it, then. We ought to let Ranval know.”

“He should be done with the burial by now. Come, I will take you to him.”


Chapter 37

Brigadier General Ducian Eto sat alone in his office. It was late by Coruscant time, so most of his staff had already retired for the night. His aide Captain Ilen was still here, no doubt, and would continue to work tirelessly until he ordered her to head home. Even at this hour, Coruscant was bustling with activity, and the wider galaxy did not sleep even for the galactic capital. News was coming in from across the galaxy, and Eto was restlessly awaiting some particular updates.

Brigadier Eto sifted through stacks of flimsy and old datapads until he found the holographic projector he had been searching for. He activated the device and placed it on his desk, revealing the form of a young woman—much closer to Captain Ilen’s age than his—wearing a rustic garb that would have caused her to be laughed off Coruscant. Her dark dress was so long it nearly covered her shoes, frayed and dirtied from many days' work. Her blouse was embroidered near the collar with a family emblem, something like a star behind a sapling. Her hair was tied behind her and she wore a covering over it, keeping it out of her face and shielding her from the harsh sun. Tired though she looked, she had a bright smile on her face, and the recording showed her laughing mirthfully at something unseen.

From a small cabinet under the window, Eto removed a dark bottle and a small drinking glass and placed both on his desk. His gray eyes shifted between the bottle and the young lady before him. He sat there in silence for some time, alone with his thoughts. He released the lock on the bottle and poured some of the fizzling spice wine into the glass, filling it about half way. He held the glass in his hand and shook it ever so slightly, letting the drink swirl inside while he watched the hologram.

“Sir,” Captain Ilen’s voice chimed in from the comm. “You have a guest.”

“Who is it?” Ducian asked.

“I do hope I’m not disturbing you at this time of night, General.” That was Queen Latona Panteer’s voice. “I saw your light on and thought I’d drop by. Do you have a moment?”

“Come on in, Senator.”

Brigadier Eto considered putting his personal effects away but there was no time. It was his own private ceremony, but there was no shame in it either. The once ever-present pain had faded into fond memories and an occasional longing.

Queen Eliorae walked in with a smile on her face. She was still wearing a beautiful blue gown from her time at some political fundraiser, complemented by a black trenchcoat and matching handbag. She wore her hair in a style of chignon that was quite popular amongst upper-class Human females. He had long considered her styles to be of the more conservative sort, and he appreciated her beauty all the more for it. Certain outlandish fashion trends amongst the Coruscanti elite wore thin on him. The brigadier stood up and showed her to her seat; her expression became a scowl when she approached his desk and saw his effects.

“I’ve never seen you drink, Brigadier Eto.”

“I don’t tend to,” he replied gruffly.

“If you want some privacy, I understand. It wasn’t my intention-”

“It is quite all right. This is a ritual of mine. You see, today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of my young sister’s death. She was killed by Darth Revan because I… refused to cooperate with him.”

“Ducian… I had no idea. I’m so sorry.”

The brigadier shook his head. “It’s quite all right. It’s been a long time. I just do this out of habit, mostly. She was the last family I had. Mandalorians killed my parents, cousins, older brother…” He paused. “I joined the military to protect her. She died because I was in the military. Funny how that works.”

“No! She died because of Darth Revan’s wickedness. Don’t blame yourself.”

“That’s not what I meant. I know that he was fully to blame. Hell, he might have even apologized for it after he redeemed himself in the eyes of the Jedi. I forget. Regardless, I do this in her memory. It’s the least I could do for her.”

“I know what you’ve gone through, Ducian. You don’t have to hide anything from me.”

“I didn’t intend to.”

“Even so. Remember that the Sith took my family away from me too. My father and mother were killed in their assassination plot, and my brother was stolen away from me by the Sith, tortured, and killed. I know how you feel.”

“I’ve never heard about your brother.”

“I don’t like to talk about it much,” Eliorae said.

“Then you ought to be the one to take your advice,” he replied. “Don’t hold back if you want to talk.”

Eliorae wiped away tears that were welling up in her eyes. “It’s not that. I just never knew what happened to either of them. Geryon and Dynatha, I mean.”

“Dynatha is your sister?”

“No, I’m sorry. Geryon is my older brother. Dynatha was a young girl we knew when we were children. Her family’s cottage was lit on fire by brigands and she died when my brother and I were still very young. They never caught the ones responsible.

“My brother was a good man. A bit of a philanderer when he was younger, but being pampered and adored your entire life does that. He was a Force-sensitive—stronger than me—and an aspiring politician. He wanted very much to see the Jedi Civil War ended. My father intended for him to inherit the throne. He would have become king, but…”

“Ah, I remember now,” Ducian muttered. “The Convict’s Dawn. When Revan and Malak seized those Jedi prisoners from Bothawui and Ciutric IV, they insisted that they only negotiate with Geryon Latona. So your brother set out in the ship to meet with them in neutral space, but the whole thing was a trap. Even though the Republic sent reinforcements, they were too late.”

“The ship was abandoned. They had taken him and the crew,” Eliorae finished. “We never learned what happened to them. I was told they were subjected to torture and were executed when they refused to provide Alderaan’s military secrets.”

Ducian Eto’s military-oriented mind told him that Geryon Latona had probably surrendered Alderaan’s military secrets, thereby contributing to the aforementioned assassinations of her family. It was still a debate amongst military thinkers just how long the Sith academy had been on Alderaan; perhaps Geryon’s knowledge had helped the Sith sneak its construction past the royal family. Of course, that was speculation and certainly did not belong in a polite conversation, so he kept the notion to himself.

“Yours is a harder burden,” he said. “I wish there was a way to provide you with some closure.”

“I’ve accepted that I’ll never know,” Eliorae said. “As you said, it’s been a long time. I do what I do in his memory.”

Brigadier Eto returned to his cabinet and took out another glass. He poured a bit of wine for Eliorae and handed her the glass.

“Do you usually expect guests for this ceremony?” Eliorae asked coyly.

“Admittedly, Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel usually drinks with me, but he’s still away on a mission. Seeing as we’ve both lost loved ones to the Sith, would you mind drinking in their memory?”

“Of course not.” She raised her glass. “To the lost: the pain of their departure fades with time, but they forever live on in our hearts.”

Eto raised his glass and the two finished their drink. “Now then, what did you come to see me about, Senator?”

“Ah, I had nearly forgotten. Carth wanted me to give this to you. It’s an army matter, but for whatever reason his office received the transmission.”

She handed him a datapad. The brigadier took it out and flipped through its contents.

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s a message from a leader of an organization I’ve never heard of. Apparently, a group called the Nova Guard have been alerted by the ‘Blind One’ that we are going into battle soon, and they are willing to aid us—for free. They only ask that we have supplies and foodstuffs ready for Major Hojenber and his unit. Whoever that is.”

“What do you suppose they mean?” Eliorae asked. “I’ve never heard of an organization that does battle without compensation.”

“I’m not sure. Before I respond, I think I want a little more information about this group. I’ll have one of my aides look into it in the morning.”

“Admiral Onasi also wants to know if you’ve been updated about the Sith situation,” Eliorae noted.

“I’m afraid Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel hasn’t reported yet.”

“Are you concerned?”

“No, I’m sure he’s fine. He’s been late with his reports before. I suspect he’s just having trouble getting out of Sith space.”

“But until he replies, we cannot convince the Defense Committee to take definitive action,” Eliorae said. “If they won’t believe that the assault on my ship was due to the Sith, then they’ll only believe direct evidence provided by your soldiers, I’m afraid.”

“Perhaps. That’s why I ordered them to take the facility without destroying it. Until I hear from them, I’m afraid we have to wait.”

“I’ll let Carth know. He’s… very eager for Thonnel’s evidence, you know.”

“Well, he believes you, Senator. He knows how real the threat of the Sith is, and he knows the danger of letting them tend to their devices unopposed. I suspect he’s more ready for battle than he lets on, especially with the Senate watching his every move.”

“I can only hope so, for all our sakes. And that leads me to my final inquiry. You know the elections for supreme chancellor are fast approaching.”

“I do. Are you going to run for the Heritage faction?”

“If I am nominated, I will. You know that I am very much against the intervention of the Republic military in external affairs, and I’ve fought quite hard against pro-military policies in the past.”

She was being modest. In the seventy or so years since the Great Sith War, it was almost unheard of for a senator to be opposed to raising military spending, fleet sizes, and take an anti-interventionist stance. The Heritage faction was made up of politicians from planets that had been Core Founders of the Republic; they tended toward the idea of decentralizing the military and depending on local defense forces, or else reassigning their assets to the peacekeeping Sector Rangers and Republic Security Forces. Eliorae led this coalition, and she was condemned by many systems with strong military traditions and those frequently threatened by raiders and pirates who depended on a centralized fighting force for safety.

“So I recall. What of it?”

“I’ve agreed to negotiate with more… militaristic factions in the Senate should I be nominated. I would like endorsements from prominent military leaders in the event that that nomination becomes a reality. Carth has already offered to give one such recommendation. I was wondering if you would be willing to provide another.”

Eto considered the idea. It was not like Senator Latona Panteer to go against her ideals, but he recognized that politics was not unlike the military in that sometimes desperate measures were needed. Eliorae’s view was still growing amongst citizens in the Republic; they had not been at peace for long, and it would take time for her view to be embraced by the majority. He understood the need to play it safe, and he knew what having military leaders' endorsements would mean. Combining military and politics was always tricky business, but it had been a long time since the two had been separated in any way in the Republic.

“Say the word, and you’ll have your endorsement,” Brigadier Eto said.

“Excellent! I knew I could count on you, Ducian.” She stood up and took her handbag from his desk. “But I’m afraid it’s quite late and I must be going. I have to catch a shuttle back to Alderaan first thing in the morning and if I don’t rest now I’m sure to miss it.”

Ducian stood up and helped her with her coat. “I appreciate you coming down here in person, Senator. You didn’t have to—Carth would have sent someone in the morning.”

“Nonsense. I know you’re quite eager to receive news by the minute. And if I didn’t come by, we wouldn’t have had a chance to talk, and that-”

A chirping alarm sounded from Eliorae’s comlink. The alarm was a particular one used by politicians and their guards to let them know a crisis was occurring on a Republic member world. Seconds later, Eto’s personal comlink started to buzz as well. Captain Ilen ran inside, holding an active comm with someone on the other end.

“It’s Rodia,” the captain said. “Rodia is under attack by the Sith.”

*** ***

Nafyan stood at the helm of the Indefatigable, watching Rodia burn through its primary viewport. Sith starfighters squadrons strafed at civilian ships attempting to flee the chaos and the planet’s beleaguered defenders. Capital ships surrounded Admiral Mauch’s flagship, defending it from the remaining defensive guns on the planet and striking back with their heavy turbolasers. The heavy freighters and frigates were in lower orbit, taking precision shots at their domed cities and industrial zones. Vast swathes of rainforest burned below him, and reports had come in to confirm the destruction of several of Rodia’s cities.

Their invasion had been accomplished without much resistance. Rodia had two Republic defense flotillas in orbit, several defense platforms, and contracted independent fleets, but they had been no match for the heavily armored warships of the Sith Empire. The Indefatigable and its eight capital ships had come from hyperspace, acquired targets, and fired before emergency transmissions went out. A few enemy fighters had managed to slip by their frigates, but they had been summarily dealt with by the Indefatigable’s impressive starfighter contingent. The bombardment began thereafter.

“We’re receiving short-range transmissions from the planet surface, Lord Nafyan,” Admiral Mauch announced from the captain’s chair. “The senator of Rodia has petitioned to surrender their planet if we stop the attacks. What would you have us do?”

“Have you pinpointed the source of the communication?” Nafyan asked.

“Our comm officer reports it is coming from a high-rise apartment in Equator City. The exact coordinates are coming up now.”

“Command one of your ships to attack that apartment and continue as you were. When the local government attempts to surrender, you will bombard them as well.”

Admiral Mauch did as he was told. The Indefatigable and the other capital ships began moving away from the debris left behind by the initial battle toward the planet’s eastern hemisphere. The starfighter squadrons left behind could handle the few defenders that remained. Preux had ordered the Sith fleet to show no mercy and continue their assault until Republic forces responded. If they refused to come to Rodia’s aid, there would be nothing left of the planet and the Republic would be that much weaker. Their only choice, as Nafyan saw it, was to take the bait.

Admiral Keth and Admiral Acophy had dealt with the Republic defenders stationed at Mon Gazza and Galboron; the nearest surviving Republic battle group was stationed at Ord Pardron, which was nearly a day away. Even that group was smaller than Admiral Mauch’s forces, and both Preux and Nafyan knew the Republic would redirect ships from the Inner Regions—including the Core Worlds—to liberate Rodia. Once the Republic was in disarray dealing with Preux’s forces, Nafyan would alert his true master, the eternal Sith Emperor, and his ships would sweep in from the Unknown Regions. Caught between a hammer and an anvil, the Republic’s vaunted fleets would be nothing but debris in the face of Sith military might and their cities would be reduced to rubble.

One of his Sith acolytes approached from the starboard side of the bridge. “Lord Nafyan, We’ve received a transmission from the Phantasm. The Dark Lord Preux demands a report on the Rodia feint.”

“Lead the way, apprentice.”

*** ***

Celes Sunrider reached Falang Minor around midnight local time, landing Ranz’s shuttle at the edge of the Jedi Temple. Shrouded in her cloak and wearing its hood over her face, she wasn’t recognizable at a distance, but her Force presence was evident to any Jedi she had met before. The guards let her through without a greeting or inquiry as to her absence. She had often taken arbitrary missions that had no real timetable, so it was not unusual for her to be missing for long periods of time and return without warning.

She had never been to this Jedi sanctuary. When Delvin Cortes had told her the name of the world, she had to go to Herdessa’s grand library to find the old Jedi fortress world. Most Jedi had already retired to their quarters, but she could sense the Jedi Council somewhere in the distance, vigilant and waiting for something even at this hour. That did not concern her. So long as they did not interfere, it didn’t matter where they were.

This temple was quite different than any she had seen, surrounded by ancient turrets and constructed in layers with high walls and defensive towers more akin to some sort of fortress than a sanctuary. The interior mirrored the exterior, with more vulnerable rooms—like the dormitories and the control rooms—located very deep inside and several levels lower than other rooms. She was bound to go to the depths of the sanctum, where the prisons were. She did not know the way, but the Force guided her.

Almost in a stupor, she wandered the halls of the temple, descended its stairs, and crossed the bridges between its buildings until she reached the prisons. The Stennes Shifter Aecus Vithion and two other guards—a Yuzzem and a Bothan—were standing watch, although it seemed the latter two were just finishing their shift and the guard captain was taking over. The three of them visibly stiffened when they saw Celes approach.

“Celes, we did not know you had returned,” the Yuzzem said.

“What business do you have down here at such an hour?” the Bothan asked.

“Let me through. I wish to see my son,” Celes replied.

“You cannot,” Aecus replied. “The Jedi Council has commanded us to refuse you entry for any reason.”

“And why is that? Who lied about me and told them I was a threat to the Jedi? Who tried to hide this place from me? The Council has its own agenda, I imagine, but it doesn’t concern me.”

“We don’t know what you’re talking about, but we’re just following orders,” the Bothan countered.

“No, I wouldn’t suppose you would know anything. You’re just dumb guards. This is your last chance… move.”

“We will subdue you,” the Jedi Master replied.

“If you can, do it.”

Celes’s lightsaber jumped from her sash into her hand, activating in midair. A yellow, green, and silver blade replied to her blue one. She was in their midst in the blink of an eye. Her knee caught the Yuzzem guard in the chest, and a left hook caught his Bothan companion in the side of the face. Sidestepping away from the Bothan’s falling weapon, she caught Aecus’s blade with her own and shoved him back with enough force that he collided with the stunned Yuzzem. A telekinetic push tossed the tangled guardsmen away from the entrance. Once the Bothan collapsed onto the floor, she got to work trying to get inside the prison. When she couldn’t figure out the combination to enter the room, she overloaded the door’s shielding with a burst of Force power and then bored a hole wide enough for her to walk through.

Guard droids fired at her the moment she stepped inside. Their blaster shots bounced off her blade and flew into the walls around them. Raising her free hand, a tendril of energy surged through her fingertips and cascaded at the droids, disabling their circuitry and rendering them useless. Sensing her son in one of the isolated wards, Celes charged forward, crippling any droids that attempted to stand between her and her destination.

There was a younger Zeltron Jedi Knight standing in front of Harin’s room. She had noticed Celes at a distance, and her blue lightsaber was already in her hand and switched on. When she didn’t move, Celes used the Force to scoop up a nearby crate and toss it at her head, knocking her to the floor. She didn’t even break her stride walking over her.

“Mother!”

Harin was inside the only force cage in the room. He saw her before she saw him, but her expression immediately softened when their eyes met. He was unharmed—a bit underfed, perhaps, but otherwise he looked well. He was standing in his cage, and he had to restrain himself from trying to reach through the cage to meet his mother’s grasp. Disregarding any danger outside, Celes deactivated her lightsaber and approached the cage.

“Are you well, Harin?”

“I’d be a lot better if I could get out of here. The Jedi have gone crazy. They’re arresting anyone who speaks against the Jedi Council; I’ve never seen so many prisons filled.”

“So they intend to subjugate the Jedi Order completely, do they?” Celes was already furious, and every second she spent on this planet only made her angrier. “Well, we won’t be around to watch their takeover. I’m going to get you out of there, Harin.”

“You cannot do that, Celes.”

The Jedi Councilor Mical walked into the room, together with Aecus and the other three guards who she had encountered on her way inside. Behind them were several other droids, carrying sonic rifles and defended by personal energy shields. All of them had their lightsabers in their hands, but none of them were activated.

“You let my son out of there, Mical, or I will do it myself.”

“I’m afraid he must stay here for the time being,” he replied.

“Then-”

The Jedi Councilor raised his hand and bid her to wait. “You don’t understand. The Republic and the freedom fighters of Gamandar are quite incensed that their last operation there was botched so badly. They are convinced that your son is the reason that they lost so many soldiers, lost their political prisoner, and the retreat from the capital was so poorly handled. We know that is not the case, but we have kept him here for his own safety—at least until the chaos dies down.”

“He will be safe with me. He’s not one of your dissidents. You can lock up all the other Jedi who disagree with you, but let my son go.”

“Is that what Delvin told you?” Mical shook his head. “Jedi have been imprisoned because they were caught reporting to another agency—after we explicitly requested that no one send or receive transmissions offworld.”

“Delvin didn’t tell me anything,” Celes growled, admittedly surprised that Mical knew they had been communicating. “I will ask you one more time. Let him go.”

“I’m sorry, Celes. We cannot let you do that.”

Celes moved toward the panel to deactivate Harin’s force cage, but Mical summoned the Force and dragged her backward. She instinctively struck back, throwing Mical and the other Jedi back into the adjoining room with a wave of Force power. Before they could recover, Celes rushed for the control panel and hit the button to release the cage. Once the energy field went down, the rest of the Jedi Council revealed themselves. At the same time, two Jedi Shadows emerged from hiding, sliding behind mother and son with shotos in hand.

Another ripple of Force power from Celes threw the Jedi Shadow confronting her into the ceiling, but the other had already grappled Harin and had him pinned down so that his weapon threatened the young Jedi Padawan’s neck. Celes threw her lightsaber to scare him away, but that was just what the Jedi Council wanted. Once she was unarmed, the nine Jedi on the Council created a stasis field around Celes Sunrider and sealed the region off from the Force. She struggled against their power, screaming and trying her hardest to escape the containment field, but their combined strength was too great for her.

“Celes, stay your hand. We do not want lasting harm to come to you,” Councilor Brianna said.

Celes was defenseless, but they had not expected Harin to help her. The young man picked up several of the droids with telekinesis and threw them at the back of Jedi Masters Visas Marr and Atton Rand. The attack did not harm them, but the unexpected hit caused their concentration to falter. Their absence created a weakness in the Jedi Council’s hold on Celes, and before they could bolster the field Celes managed to free herself. Knowing she would only get one chance to subdue her assailants, Celes unleashed a torrent of light that blinded everyone—including Harin—around her and also reinvigorated herself so she could resist her adversaries.

“Harin, we’re leaving!” Celes scrambled to her feet and picked up her son, who was still reeling from the effects of her attack.

The Cathar Jedi Master Juhani recovered faster than the other Jedi, and she leapt from her place amidst the other Councilors all the way to Celes and Harin. She slammed the hilt of her lightsaber into the back of Celes’s head, and the hit was hard enough to take down the fatigued Jedi Master. Even then, barely conscious, her nails dug into the floor and she tried to crawl toward Harin, but Juhani held her in place. The Jedi Shadows recovered and seized both of Harin’s arms before he could move in to help her.

“Return him to his force cage,” Juhani ordered. “And prepare one for her. See to it that a sonic amplifier and strong anesthetic gas are in place to keep her subdued.”

“Stop! Can’t you let her go?” Harin asked. “She’s done nothing to you!”

“She will not stop until you’re free. She doesn’t trust us to keep you here. She wants to steal you away, but the Republic would track you down for trial,” Councilor Brianna said with a sigh. “If she only had foresight, she would know that you only need to remain here until the Republic finishes its deliberations and changes its verdict regarding the Gamandar situation.”

“This is a very abnormal situation, and we will let you go as soon as all the evidence is released,” Mical explained. “We do not intend to keep you here forever. You are not a criminal.”

“If the outcome is in your favor,” Juhani added. “Prepare the cages… we’ve had enough trouble with the Sunriders to last the Jedi Order a lifetime.”

“Masters!” Aecus cried. “I do not mean to bear more bad news, but it seems we have a thief on the loose. One of my Padawans has reported the Master’s Vault has been broken into.”

“What was stolen?” asked Brianna.

“He is still searching the vaults, but he is positive it was one of our holocrons. Shall I investigate?”

“Do so. Lock down the Temple until we catch this thief,” Juhani ordered. “And send word for Nocion Ahasies to meet us in the Council chambers. I want to know how Celes found where we were hiding, and I have my suspicions…”

“Nocion?” the Sullustan Councilor chirped. “Surely you can’t think-”

“I don’t know what to think. This theft is too coincidental and Celes’s knowledge too complete for this to have been spontaneous. I want answers, and I only hope we get them before the Sith do,” Juhani replied.

“If they don’t already have them,” Atton grumbled.

*** ***

Celes Sunrider’s attack against the Jedi Council had been extremely powerful—more powerful, perhaps, than she intended. Her intention had only been to daze the Jedi Council and stop the fighting just long enough to escape with Harin, but she had called upon the Force in such a way that her attack would have completely severed any dark-sider from the Force had they been in the vicinity. Every Jedi on Falang Minor had sensed her do battle, and even some travelers and fringers who were living in the town where Ralina and her family were had felt something strange in the air. Ranval and Dynatha felt a disturbance in the Force as they traveled back to Ambria in the shuttle Delvin had left behind. Northeus also sensed it as he returned from the Unknown Regions.

Such power could not escape the Sith Emperor, ancient and powerful beyond measure. He was a master of the arcane limits of the dark side, and none alive could be called his equal in mastery of the Force or skill with a blade. He felt the extent of Celes Sunrider’s power light years away from Falang Minor on his throne on Dromund Kaas. Although he would never admit it to himself, the thought of a being of light possessing such power terrified him. And what if there were more Jedi with such power? A voice in his mind told him that he did not have to begin his attack on the galaxy now. The Republic was weak, and the Jedi Order was recovering from a crippling blow, but there were still powerful bloodlines and disciples of Jedi who had been nearly as ancient as he. There was no need for him to face such an opponent when time acted in his stead, he convinced himself—or so it seemed.

The fear of death and the voice of an imprisoned Jedi influenced the Sith Emperor to stay his hand, but the fear of subservience and the spirit of a conniving Dark Jedi forced the hand of Preux. He too had sensed Celes Sunrider, and the dark side told him exactly where she was. He did not know the name of the world, and he did not know if the other Jedi were hiding there, but if his Light was there then he could not wait to attack. This was his chance. He had to strike preemptively, or else the Sith Emperor would begin his campaign, and then it would be Sith against Sith. Strong as he was, he was still not skilled enough to face the Emperor. But for every dead Jedi, he became more powerful… and if he killed all the surviving Jedi, then perhaps he would become a worthy opponent to the Emperor and his minions.

The spirit of Avaran Whell was not with him. The specter had gone to haunt some other Force-sensitive, an old Jedi who hated the Sith and sought to resurrect the dead. For the time being, he was alone. Without the spirit’s foresight and wisdom, he was forced to depend on his own knowledge and the guidance of the darkness. In any other situation, he would have preferred this, but this was such a crucial moment that he would have appreciated the sagacity of his possessor.

“Master,” Thoronim said, “what do you command?”

“Summon all our allies. Tell them to meet us at the rendezvous point. Tell the generals to rally our forces and begin loading them into the ships. It is time.”

“As you command. I will carry out your will to the end.”

“I know.” Preux approached the holographic map of the galaxy set up in the center of the domed chamber. His mind, guided by the dark side, knew exactly where the Light would be. “In the Thanium Worlds, just north and west of what was the Cron Nebula, there is a planet orbiting a single star. Our Jedi are hiding there, at the edge of the Republic, in a region of space unsettled for millennia. These are the coordinates. Tell Kvorkasir to take us there, but only after we’ve been to the rendezvous point.”

“Our soldiers will be prepared by daybreak tomorrow.”


Preux leaned back in the chair and watched the stars go by through the dome overhead. “Let me know just before we are to depart. Inform the crew I am not to be disturbed before then.”

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