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Chapter 38

“Do you have to go?”

Tserne was sitting on a grassy knoll, watching the sun descend into the sea. There was a chill wind blowing, and the swathes of ruby, ochre, and teal that had painted the sky were quickly fading into the blackness of night. On his right, there was a blue swoop bike emblazoned with an insignia he did not recognize. On his left sat a mysterious woman. She was nubile, younger than Dynatha had been when he had met her. Her hair was red like the color of blood, cascading down her shoulders and back. She wore brown Jedi robes with a gray cloak. She rested her head on his shoulder, and her green eyes were staring into his expectantly.

“What do you mean?” Tserne asked without thinking.

“Stay here with me. I can’t abide waiting anymore. Your parents have seen you with me. They know, but they haven’t said anything. I think they approve.”

“How do you know?”

“Let’s just say they weren’t prepared to defend against Jedi searching their minds.”

“You could be shipped back to Dantooine for doing something like that,” he said with false indignation.

“Don’t you get it? That means they approve of this. Of us. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone, me least of all. Let Revan and the Dark Jedi do what they please… but don’t leave me now.”

“I have to. What happens when you return to the Jedi and they send you into battle against Revan and Malak? What would happen if you—Force forbid—fell in battle?”

“Then don’t let me go back.” She moved closer to him and wrapped both arms around his neck. “Tell me to abandon my oath to the Jedi Order. Tell me to stay here with you. Tell me you want to make me yours. I love you and would give up everything to be with you forever.”

“How can you talk like that?” Tserne asked, maneuvering so she could not kiss him and keep him quiet. “You’re nearly a Jedi Knight. Doesn’t that mean anything to you? How could you ask me not to take a chance so that peace can be restored to the galaxy?”

“Because I love you. Nothing else matters to me.”

“But it’s because you matter to me that I want to see this through. If you stay here, what will you do when they turn their war machine against us? What will you do when their ships appear in orbit?”

“Then let’s get away from here! Let’s become runaways: hide from the Republic, the Jedi, the Sith…”

“And what if the Jedi Order is defeated? What happens with the Sith rule the galaxy and a bounty is placed on all surviving Jedi, exiled or not? Hunters will come, and we’ll never be able to live peacefully again. What happens then?”

“Why do you want to leave me here?” the woman cried. “Don’t you love me?”

“I do. And that’s why you must return to the Jedi Order. That’s why I have to confront the Sith. If we both succeed, we can live together without worrying about any of this. And we will live together.”

“You promise?”

Tserne gently touched her cheek and brought her face toward his. Their lips met for a brief moment, and he broke away to whisper, “When I return, I will arrange everything.”

“I wish we could be wed now.”

“So do I. But it won’t be long, love. I promise.”

The woman slipped both of her arms out of her cloak and let it fall onto the grass underneath her. He leaned in to kiss her again, and she met him in earnest. In that moment, feelings he had long forgotten rushed back to him. The sensation of fingers running across his chest and arms, the coldness of her flesh against his, the taste of her lips. She had wrapped her legs wrapped around his waist, and he could feel her heart beating faster and faster. No doubt he was shaking just like she was. His hands massaged her thighs and chest, enjoying every curve along her body, and she responded by taking his hands in hers and slipping them beneath the sash at her waist.

“Please…” she pleaded, her voice hushed. “Before you go…”

You will come back… won’t you?

That was Dynatha’s voice.

“You must stand up.”

Tserne’s consciousness returned to him in a start, and he gasped in pain. No longer was he caught up in that vision. He was lying face down on the ground, and from the taste of iron on his lips, he reasoned that he was in a pool of his own blood. Without thinking, he tried to upright himself, but his body was nowhere near strong enough to support him. He fell over and blacked out again. He remained unconscious for some time but no more visions came to him. Who was that woman? He had seen her before, in dreams and nightmares, but never in such an intimate way.

When he awoke, he heard boots patter against stone as someone walked away from him. Staring into the darkness, Tserne moved one of his arms—he could barely lift it in his state—and tried to adjust the light sensitivity in his ocular implant only to discover that it had been destroyed. Bits of metal and transparisteel spilled into the metal frame that rested just inside his orbit. Reaching for his other injuries, he realized that his wounds had been bandaged while he had been unconscious. His chest, right shoulder, and waist were wrapped in a cloth of some sort, and he could still make out the smell that remained of liberal use of antiseptic. With all of his strength, he managed to turn onto his back—but even that was taxing.

He saw the glow of a fire against the ceiling and walls as someone approached from the same direction they had left. He watched the glow become larger and larger until at last a man approached him holding the torch. This man looked Human, with dark hair that reached his shoulders and an unkempt patch along his chin that was colloquially referred to as spacer’s scruff. His blue eyes glittered with an unnatural brightness that did not reflect the fire’s light at all. He almost seemed to be a frontier soldier, with silver armor covering his shoulders, chest, and waist, beneath which there was a green robe with khaki sleeves fashioned to emphasize mobility. He had a sword in his sheath, but no other visible weapons.

“I was concerned you would not find the strength to recover,” he said. “But now I am glad all my efforts were not wasted. Please be still. Your wounds are not yet fully healed.”

“How long have I been here?”

“I have only been watching you for three days. But I must admit you were alone and very close to death before then.”

It took some time to digest what the stranger said; his brain was struggling to recover. The memories of his fight with Tadeus and Northeus’s betrayal were slowly piecing together. Dynatha, Ranval, and everyone else were still out there, somewhere, and something urged him to leave this place and find them again. Truthfully, he ought to have died without medical attention, especially considering the extent of his injuries. Death had never been closer, and it seemed like something—or someone—had sent it away.

“You’re a doctor?”

“Not in the traditional sense, no. I have been called a healer, but I have no proper training in the art.”

“Who are you, then? And what are you doing here?” Tserne tried to sit upright, but his arms were quite weak. “Northeus… the way inside was shut.”

“My name is Castan Herox. I’m afraid you wouldn’t know me. I was nearby and sensed you were in trouble, so I came to help you.”

“What do you want?” Tserne asked, becoming defensive. This was suspicious enough for him to consider ways away from this man, despite the fact he apparently tended to him and nursed him back to health.

“I want you to follow me,” he said.

“I’m sorry?”

Castan shuffled through his bag and removed a piece of flimsy rolled up like a scroll. Opening it up, he revealed to Tserne what appeared to be a sketch of a mural on a wall. “This wall is located south from here in the map chamber. It suggest that a warrior of great power will come who will unlock what is called the ‘secret way’. There is something for you there.”

“Why would I want to go there?” Tserne asked. “I’m not interested in prophesies or cryptic nonsense. Go ask that droid for help.”

“I found its chassis bisected toward the stairs,” Castan said. “But even if it was still active, no droid could help me do what needs to be done. That is why I found you. That is why you must come with me.”

“I’m afraid I can’t help you. I appreciate your assistance, but I think it’s best if I left-”

“You’re the only one who can help me.”

“Not interested.”

“Don’t you want to leave this place?” Castan asked. “You said it yourself; your companion blocked the only way out—that you know of.”

Tserne scowled at the enigmatic figure. He didn’t like this situation at all, but he had no other choice. It was only a matter of time until he ran out of air, starved, or died from dehydration. He was already weak, and he could not exacerbate his injuries searching for an exit. Castan had done no harm to him yet, but he was instantly suspicious of strangers who approached him for aid. For the sake of Dynatha and the others, he was willing to risk a detour if it meant leaving this place alive.

“Very well. Let’s go see what this secret path entails.”

Castan helped Tserne to his feet. Once he was able to stand on his own, Tserne limped around a bit and—while Castan was packing his things—took one of the knives he had lost during his duel with Tadeus and hid it in his boot. He returned to Castan and accepted his help into the map room. The two walked side-by-side for most of the way, only separating to ascend or descend stairs. The path to the map room was sheathed in thick layers of dust, and the air was suffused with particles that made it difficult to breathe. There were neither torches nor sconces to mount them on. The room itself seemed to become more narrow and lower as they progressed, until the two of them were practically kneeling and attached at the hip.

Just before the passage became too small for them to progress, the hall ended and they entered a chamber that fanned out in front of them. The entire room was illuminated by some strange light source that rose up from beneath the floor like glowing pillars. The walls were lined with writing, mostly organized in a seemingly orderly fashion from one end of the room to the other, but there were scrawls that covered up the older work at various places. At the center of the room—and surrounded by a ring of light—was a free-standing conical structure that was covered in the same runes as the wall. Just outside the ring there was a single column that rose to about half of Tserne’s height that looked like a broken pillar.

“This is the map room?” Tserne asked. “Where is the map?”

“That central object there,” Castan noted.

Tserne approached it, wary of any hidden traps or defenses, and examined the device. Carved out of stone, it was uniformly smooth and covered in symbols on all three of its faces. There was nothing on its base, either. Despite Castan warning him against it, Tserne tried to force the device open. It was sealed together by something unseen, almost like incredibly strong magnets. Realizing it was a useless endeavor, Tserne turned his attention to the pedestal nearby.

“And what about this?”

“That is what I need you for, Tserne,” Castan explained. “Touch the pedestal.”

Tserne eyed him warily. “Why?”

“You will see.”

“You’ll have to be less cryptic than that.”

“It will active the temple’s droid assistant. It will explain what you need to know.”

“How do I know this isn’t a trap?”

“If it were a trap, the two of us would be ruined together. If it activated the temple’s defenses, for example, neither of us could escape back into the central hall in time.”

Castan’s words did little to reassure him. He knew just how dangerous ancient temples could be. “You do it first.”

Castan approached the column and laid his hand on it. “As you can see, nothing happens. That is why I need you. You hold the key to unlocking the hidden sanctum within you.”

“How so?”

Castan motioned toward the column. “All will be answered when you proceed.”

Tserne thought about turning back and trying to dig his way out of the temple. Alone he couldn’t do it—not in his state—but with Castan’s help it was possible. Then again, there was no way Castan was going to help him. He really had no choice. Reluctantly, he placed his hand near the edge of the pedestal. His touch activated a hidden mechanism, and the entire pedestal began to glow with an unnatural blue light. Alarmed, Tserne immediately pulled his hand away. The glow stopped the moment his hand left the stone.

“What was that?” Tserne growled at Castan.

“You awoke the machine,” Castan replied simply.

“Life forms detected,” a digitized voice resounded, seemingly coming from the ceiling. It spoke in the same archaic Duros language that Tserne had heard the droid speaking earlier. “Initiating biological scan. Initiating neural scan. Initiating visual scan. Determining parameters…”

Tserne reached for his knife. Tserne turned his blade on Castan and scoured the room for danger. Nothing emerged from the shadows along the walls, or within crevices on the ceiling or floor, much to his relief. Castan ignored Tserne’s threat and approached the central pyramid.

“What did you just have me do?” Tserne asked.

“The computer realized someone else was in the room with it and activated. That is all. Please put down your weapon.”

“What are you?” Tserne called out, keeping an eye on Castan. “Some sort of computer?”

“Accessing introductory protocol. Processing. Greetings: I am a service module that was installed in this installation to optimize Builders’ interactions with this facility. I will assist you to the best of my programming. Speak your query now.”

“What is this place? Where are we?”

“Query too vague. Extrapolating. This structure is a monument proclaiming the expanse and might of the Infinite Empire and its Builders, a triumphal temple to the great power that drives their conquest, and a guidepost to direct seekers toward other similar structures throughout the galaxy.”

“And what about the map?” Castan asked. “It is in that center device, correct? How do we access it?”

“I am afraid I am not programmed to answer queries from slave or unknown species. Only Builders can receive answers from this module.”

“It answered your question,” Castan whispered to Tserne. “Do you understand yet?”

Tserne ignored him. Whatever he had to say could wait. “Answer his question,” he commanded the droid.

“Certainly. I shall activate the map if you wish. I understand that some of the Builders had trouble accessing their technology without my assistance during their final visit.”

“Do it.”

Something unlocked inside the central artifact, and it hissed as it opened up. In a single sweeping motion, the conical device split into three separate arms and descended to the floor. At the base of what had been the cone, there was only a simple metal orb. By some unseen force, the orb was propelled into the air and began to rotate on its own, eventually revealing its true purpose as a holographic projector. Tserne and Castan marveled as the device displayed a backdrop of the entire galaxy, marking some planets with a red triangle, others with a black diamond, and leaving the rest blank.

“There are hundreds of worlds here,” Castan murmured to himself. “Sleheyron is here, and I recognize that one as Dantooine. There had been a Jedi Enclave there before the Jedi Civil War. Manaan, Korriban, Denon… and many other worlds that are yet unnamed.”

“I’m more concerned with how we’re going to get out of here, to be honest,” Tserne admitted. He was sure this information was useful but not for him. “Do you know another way out of this place?”

“There is one entrance and one exit, just as there is only one Infinite Empire…” The computer paused for a moment. “Exception encountered. Searching archives…”

“This is what you came for,” Castan said. “You will encounter what I came here for on the way.”

“What do you mean, exception?” Tserne asked.

“It is a technicality that this module thought you would be interested in, considering the circumstances. The Builders who installed this module were opposed to the actions of their contemporaries and unshackled my programming so nothing would remain secret. Admittedly, this temple was not built upon unique foundations, but upon the remains of an older building. Access to whatever was left of that older building was blocked by this heterodox sect of Builders.”

“Is that the exit we’re looking for?” Tserne asked.

“I can’t say,” the computer replied. “I was not programmed with such information. I do know that that pillar is the lock that prevents access to the older construct, and the chamber cannot be reopened without a key—a holocron that was stolen away to prevent the Builders from accessing it.”

“So you intend to defend that place?” Tserne asked.

“No. You are biologically a Builder and yet physically neither Builder nor slave. One of my processing submodules is looping trying to resolve this contradiction. I can only provide minimal assistance until this submodule halts.”

“What are you saying?” Tserne directed his question to the droid, but he turned to Castan. “These Builders, were they Human?”

“They were not Human, Tserne. But the droid thinks you are of the same species that created this structure, and that is why I needed you. You are the way inside, and only you can access the innermost room of the temple.”

“But what’s down there? What do you want that they have hidden away?”

“It’s not what I want but what you need. Your destiny lies within.”

“Even if I believed you, you heard the droid. We don’t have that holocron. We can’t get in.”

Castan gave Tserne a wry smile. Searching through his bag, he fished out an octahedral holocron constructed from a glittering white material with gilded edges. It was just small enough to fit in his palm, but it seemed quite heavy for its size. With an almost intentional slowness, he handed the device to Tserne.

“Where did you get this?” Tserne asked.

“It is mine to hold. I gave it away twice, but both times my gift was rejected. I recovered this from the Jedi Order before coming here to save you.”

Tserne had enough of this. This wasn’t making any sense to him. Castan knew far more than he was telling him, and Tserne suspected that he was working with someone—a Sith perhaps—to keep him in this place. “And how do you know so much about what this computer is talking about?”

“It’s not important, Tserne. The end result—your fate—is not changed by your knowledge.”

“I want answers, or else you and I will both stay here until we’re dead.”

“Why do you doubt me? At the very least, trust in the machine: it believes there is another exit down there.”

“Belief is a strong word,” the temple’s artificial intelligence noted. “My probability submodule is trying to assist my complex decider in resolving the contradiction I observed in you earlier. Estimates are unavailable at this time.”

“Forget it. I’ll find my own way out.” Tserne tossed the holocron back to Castan. “I’m not going to be the key to the chest at the end of your little treasure hunt.”

“Tserne, I’m not trying to mislead you. I came here because you are my only hope. I tried to give this holocron to three other Jedi before you. The indignant defender refused it, believing it a thing too powerful for any Jedi. Benax’s son abandoned it, fearing what he would become if he listened to it. And the Watchcircle’s goddess returned it to the Jedi, believing herself too weak to use it effectively. But you… you must do this.”

“So I’m the fourth one to inherit your mission… and the other three ended up dead. It sounds like you pick good candidates, and I’ve got a good chance at survival.”

“I did not say they all died. It was not through my faults, but their weakness of will, that led to their end. Their resolve was not prepared for the trials before them. I believe you will succeed where they will not.”

“And you think I’m any better than them? You’re crazier than I thought. Why should I trust you? You’re just a stranger—a Sith, no doubt—who just so happens to drag me in here the moment you need me and threaten to keep me here unless I cooperate,” Tserne countered.

“We have met twice before, but I doubt you would recognize me if I appeared to you as I did then. Since you refuse to yield to my request, know that I am responsible for this holocron and all of its knowledge. It is my burden to bear until I can pass on its secrets to another, but I have found no one else.”

“So if you’re not a villain and so eager to access the room, you do it. Don’t waste my time with this. I’m no warrior… I’m a thief, a sellsword, a killer. You don’t want someone like me handling your wisdom.”

“You say that, but I know your thoughts. You know that if I am right, whatever is down there can help Dynatha. It could save her in the end. The wisdom in this holocron and all that it unlocks is meant for whomever I deem worthy, and I think you are worthy. We need you in this dark hour.”

To demonstrate he was no mere wandering swordsman, the man before him had ceased to maintain what Tserne figured was an illusion and revealed his true form. Castan’s slender frame was encircled by a flowing white robe that defied gravity, and his hands, arms, and legs were wrapped in rags. A turban and cowl concealed the true appearance of his face; only his eyes, blazing like faraway stars, were visible. He was at least a head taller than Tserne, and his presence seemed to fill his vision entirely.

“I don’t think you know me that well at all if you think I’m able to wield that sort of power,” Tserne said. “I’m just one man. I’m a selfish coward who would kill another being just to get enough credits to eat. You defile whatever cause you’re fighting for by choosing me.”

“You’re wrong. I know more about you than even you. I know your name—your real name. I also know that you will be a decisive figure in the events to come. But I cannot force you. I have not the strength. If you refuse to proceed, I can open up the tunnel that Northeus Ulsan caved in, but I warn you: that path is paved with much sorrow. I cannot promise you life if you proceed down those stairs, but turning back now will make you wish you were dead.”

“I could do nothing,” Tserne said. “I could refuse you and wait like I said before.”

“But what good would defiance do? The longer you wait, the closer Dynatha Aris, Ranval Messor, Northeus Ulsan, Celes Sunrider, Verita Ladola Weros, Eliorae Latona Panteer, Delvin Cortes, and Ralina Q'endel Velle will be to death. The dark side is moving even as we speak. A day spent here challenging me could be a day too late for them. The difference between victory and defeat may be decided by seconds.”

“You have nothing else to say to me? Only riddles and threats?”

“Do not doubt yourself. Stay true to the light, Tserne. You are no mere criminal. Take what is yours and go. If you seek answers, ask the spirit. He will know.”

Tserne stood looking at Castan in silence. Something inside him was certain that Castan was not fooling him like he had fooled Dynatha on Krayiss Two, but at the same time he doubted this strange figure’s motivation. Maybe there was a Jedi artifact down there. If there was, why was it there? Why did Tserne have to get it? He suspected that Castan was being willfully obtuse, ritualistic perhaps. There was no reason he had to listen to him; if he returned the way Northeus had blocked off, he could be back with Dynatha in a few days. He had no idea where he would end up if he followed the path Castan was suggesting.

What if he was right? All this talk of fate and decisions made him uneasy, but Castan seemed confident that whatever was down there, Tserne would be able to handle it. He didn’t believe a word of this nonsense, but it was a chance to escape. Anything was better than staying in these ruins waiting to die. Without saying a word, Tserne extended his hands to accept the holocron from Castan. Once he had it, he used two hands to place the holocron into the indentation on the column so that half of it fit perfectly. As he had expected, nothing happened.

“Touch the holocron and the pillar, child of the Builders,” offered the module.

Tserne did so. After a few seconds, the pedestal lit up again. A set of tiles seemed to shift beneath his feet, and a pillar of light emerged from some unseen place and engulfed the pedestal in bright light. Blinded, Tserne jumped away from it, worried that he had been led into a trap after all. The holocron’s edges began to glow with the same pale blue light that came from the pedestal, and it became so bright that its distinct light was visible from within the radiant beam of light around it.

Before Tserne could ask Castan or the module what was happening, the map room began to quake. In front of the Star Map, the floor seemed to fold in on itself and reveal a stairway into some lower chamber one step at a time. The sound of rock scraping against metal resounded in the room, and then the lights disappeared and the shaking stopped.

He was convinced that this temple was messing with his head. Perhaps he was still unconscious, and this was a feverish near-death experience. There was no doubt in his mind that those stairs would lead him out, dream or not. He could not waste any more time in these ruins. The module had suspected there was a way out down there, and it had spoken plainly. That was enough for him.

“Let’s go,” Tserne said.

Castan nodded and motioned for Tserne to lead the way. Tserne carefully walked down the stairs, half-expecting them to collapse under his weight or a sudden danger to reveal itself. Fortunately, nothing of the sort happened. Castan followed him down without a word. As soon as Tserne reached the bottom, the tiles shifted above them and the floor to the map room covered what had been the top of the stairs. Castan did not seem surprised, but Tserne was worried. How could they get trapped inside a place they were already confined in?

The sublevel was smaller than he expected. There was only one room, and it was not as spacious as the map room above it. Everything was dark around him. The only source of light was a strange gem mounted on some sort of arch made of stone at the other end of the room, bathing half the room in white and leaving the other half in shadow. Starting at one corner of the room, Tserne stumbled around in the dark, feeling the cold stone wall and searching for another door or tunnel that he could take out of this room.

“This is as far as I can go, I’m afraid,” Castan said, standing on the last step. “Whatever lies ahead is yours, Tserne DeLarane. I give you my blessing and bid you farewell.”

Tserne turned around to stop him, but he had already vanished like he had never been there at all. Damn everything. He truly had been foolish. Whatever else Castan had said, he should have just accepted the offer to leave the way he and Northeus had come in. Because if there was no door in here-

You… why have you come?

His eyes followed the voice—although he was certain it was in his head—to the arch. Although he hadn’t seen it before, there was a sword embedded in the left side of the arch. The weapon was not like a standard issue vibrosword, and it almost looked like a ceremonial weapon. Its hilt was cruciform in shape and forged from some gray metal that glistened even in the dim light. The blade itself had been plunged into the arch, and only about thirty centimeters of its full length were visible. As far as he could tell, the blade was completely straight and had writing inscribed on both edges.

Ignoring the weapon for the time being, Tserne searched for another exit. He found none. There were no doors that could be forced open, and there were no tunnels or passages to adjoining chambers. This was the only remaining room of whatever had been built before the Infinite Empire’s temple. Either the module in the map room had been wrong. There was no exit down here, or else Tserne was missing something.

Despair was quickly taking its toll. While his mind raced with futile escape plans, Tserne couldn’t shake the feeling that the sword was… watching him somehow. It sounded insane, but the voice he had heard earlier came from the sword, there was no question. If placing a holocron in a pedestal had unlocked this place, perhaps removing the sword and gem would open it back up again. Tserne grabbed the sword in one hand and the gem in the other and tried to remove both; the gem slid out of its position at the apex of the arch, but the sword would not come out as easily. Replacing the gemstone for light, Tserne took the hilt in both hands and eased the weapon out of its resting place.

As soon as the sword was freed, his hands began to tremble and his skin turned cold. A sudden pain burned in his fingers, right calf, middle back, chest, neck, and the area around his prosthetic eye. The pain progressively became worse and spread across his body, causing him to double over. Feelings of resentment, anger, and fear that came from some foreign place smashed into him like a wave, and these emotions seemed to encourage him to feel that way as well—even though he had no reason to. Weak and nauseous, Tserne realized that he couldn’t let go of the weapon in his hands. With no way out of this place and practically crippled, he was certain that he was going to die.

“Do not fear. The Force must adjust to the cybernetic attachments across your body. These things are alien to the Force, and it will take some time to reunite with your body—flesh and metal both.”

A translucent figure seemed to float out of the archway. To Tserne’s astonishment, the apparition looked like Castan Herox had when they had met earlier. The only difference was that this figure was clean-shaven and wore the robes of a Jedi Knight. He had the face of a man who had been denied resolution in life. A determination that burned like fire was visible in his gaze.

“What… are you?” Tserne asked, finding his breathing weak.

“The spirit of the sword,” the specter replied. “In life, I had been a Jedi Knight of some renown. I was the rising star, a beacon of hope for a new generation. But the Sith had wormed their way into our ranks, and one of theirs twisted the mind of my dear friend. He raised his hand and killed me. Though my body perished, my spirit burned with such fury against the darkness that it would not fade away. I hoped for an avenger to come that would complete what I had started, but no one did. Desperate for a way to keep my spirit bound to this realm, I anchored myself here. I am now imprisoned in this artifact of light, and I cannot rest so long as the sword remains.”

“You’re some sort of ghost, then,” Tserne muttered. He didn’t believe it himself, but Dynatha had once mentioned that ancient Jedi had been known to see apparitions through the Force. He had never heard of a ghost anchoring themselves to one place or object before, though. “How can I see you? I can’t use the Force.”

“By yourself, you cannot. But I see and know much—though I am anchored here in spirit, I can travel across the galaxy as I will. When the Sith captured you, they also tampered with your body, your genetic code, in a way that would eventually cut you off from the Force. You gained much, but you have lost more. This sword is powerful beyond measure, suffused with the very essence of the light. Using it as a conduit, I can transfer what remains of my power into you, and in this way you can feel the Force through me, but only as long as you carry the sword.”

He had not been consciously aware of it, but he could in fact touch the Force again. Tserne had been able to use the Force before, but what he felt now was unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sharpened senses made him feel like a man twenty years younger, and his metabolism and constitution were equally vigorous. His mind absorbed otherwise invisible information about his surroundings like a third eye. The weapon in his hand bolstered his spirits, and it had a presence not unlike how Dynatha appeared to him in the Force many years ago. The surrounding temple possessed an altogether different feeling; with such a twisted, malicious aura, the architecture almost felt alive in its darkness.

“I can already sense you through the Force,” the ghost said. “You are adept in the ways of battle. I would not have expected a warrior of your renown to come here.”

“I was once more skilled than I am now. But I’m not a warrior in any sense of the word.”

“Perhaps not in the way you’ve thought of it. Do not deride yourself yet. Have you never heard a whisper in your ear or seen fractures in your vision that told you where to place your blade? A sudden onset of urgency when you needed to conceal yourself or run away? The Force was with you in all those things, and it is with you again.”

“Those were just the instincts of battle.”

“No! It was far more than that. Your skill and the Force were intertwined in a way I have never seen and probably will not see again. As your Force power returns, you will come to agree with me.”

“Maybe. But we’ll never know unless I get out of here,” Tserne said. “I don’t suppose a ghost like you can help me with that?”

“Take the solari crystal at the apex of the arch so you can activate the gate. The shadow of the Sith has started to extend its tendrils across the galaxy. We must make haste.”

“But what is this thing?” Tserne asked. “I don’t understand. What was the sword doing here, and what’s the arch?”

“I will explain, then, briefly. This arch is actually the remains of an Infinity Gate, a device made by a species that existed before even the Infinite Empire. They had uplifted the species that eventually became the builders of that empire, called Rakata, but that was a fatal mistake. The Rakata were a bloodthirsty and violent species, caring only for the Force as long as it could fuel their conquests.

“Terrified of these barbarians, the architects of the Infinity Gates demolished many of them to prevent the gates from being abused by the Rakata. Once that had been done, they isolated themselves to their region of space. The gate before you is one of the few they had failed to destroy before the Infinite Empire conquered them. Although they had failed to dismantle it in time, the architects placed a solari crystal over the keystone of this gate and infused it with the Force. As long as the gemstone protected the gate, the Rakata could not activate it; no dark-sider can wield the solari crystal, and with so much light within it, even touching it could cause them grievous burns.”

Tserne glanced at the gate. “You’re saying that all the Rakata were Sith—or, dark-siders? There were no Rakata that could have removed the gem and activated this gate?”

“I did not say that. In the final days of the Infinite Empire, there were some who resisted. A faction of rebels dedicated to the light. They used the surviving gates in guerrilla attacks against the stronger imperial forces. However, as the war turned against them, they realized that if any of them were captured by the predors of the Infinite Empire, then they could be forced to activate the gates permanently. So they did what they deemed necessary.

“Codifying all of their knowledge into one of their holocrons and hiding a key inside of its base, the rebels sealed away the Infinity Gates and their chambers and took the holocron as far away from the Infinite Empire as they could.”

Tserne thought back to Castan Herox. With his restored Force power, he tried to sense his presence, but he had either already left the temple or the darkness was so powerful he could not extend his senses beyond this room. Even when Castan cast off his disguise, Tserne was not quite sure what he was. Was he a Jedi? Another Force ghost? Some sort of long-lived researcher who had discovered the secret of this temple? Castan had known much about him as well, so perhaps he was some sort of Force-sensitive guardian of the holocron, as he had mentioned. He trusted Castan only now that he had met this spirit and had his Force power restored.

“Then that holocron was unique,” Tserne said. “I still don’t know how I was able to get inside.”

“They appointed a guardian over the holocron in their time. This Force-sensitive would have been responsible for ensuring that it did not fall into the hands of the enemy. I can only assume that every generation of these guardians has selected a new defender and the current one approached you for aid.”

“But why didn’t he just use it himself? Surely a warrior of his caliber would have used this sword better than I ever could.”

“The holocron was designed so only servants of light could activate it, but the key to this chamber by Rakata only. After all, if all the Rakata died, but dark-siders rose up from other species, then they could potentially kidnap ignorant servants of light and take the sword for themselves. So it seems that besides whatever else the Sith did to you, they manipulated your genome so that you appear to be Rakata.”

“That’s impossible,” Tserne countered.

“Is it? There was a subspecies of Rakata who was born with the ability to manipulate the light around them to become invisible to the naked eye. The Rakata as a whole lost their connection to the Force in a plague that obliterated the population. Only this particular subspecies retained their Force power, and only then by way of this special camouflage trait—they eventually lost their ability to control this skill and it became more a nuisance than a blessing. Does this sound familiar to you?”

Tserne was speechless. If the spirit was telling the truth, he had experienced the same disconnect from the Force that the Rakata had over the past twenty years. Not only that, but he possessed the same talent for Force-based invisibility that they did. But that made no sense. How could it? Could the dark side manipulate biological systems so utterly that Humans essentially became Rakata in all but appearance? He assumed that the spirit was mistaken, and there was some other reason that Castan had chosen him.

“But you restored my connection to the Force,” Tserne insisted.

“Indeed. And only then through the immense power of the sword. If the Rakata had seized it like the rebels had feared, perhaps they could have been cured of their affliction and restored their empire through the dark side of the Force. But it was sealed away in this place precisely to prevent that from happening,” the ghost explained.

“If you can supersede the infection keeping me from using the Force, couldn’t you restore my mind as well?” Tserne asked.

“It is a possibility. Keep in mind that it was nothing short of a miracle that you regained your Force power at all. But the fragmentation of your memory was a deliberate and careful thing, done by a true master of deception. He twisted your mind in such a way that any attempts to unravel them could very well cause your mind to collapse on itself—something that even the light could not heal. On one hand, you could regain all of your memories. On the other, you could become an empty husk with no mind at all.”

Tserne sighed. In the end, he knew it was pointless. The phantom’s words were disappointing, but they brought him a measure of peace as well. The Force, neither dark nor light, could make him whole again, and no other methods had succeeded. Although Dynatha had been guiding him along the road to rejecting his past, he waited until his last hope was extinguished before giving up entirely. It was like she said, whatever he had been before was unimportant. There were more important things to worry about.

“Then it’s not worth worrying about.”

“If you desire, I can attempt to extract what I can from the depths of your mind.”

“For now, let’s worry about getting out of here,” Tserne said, prying the gemstone out of the apex. “How do I turn on this gate?”

“Thrust the blade into the indentation where the crystal laid. Prepare yourself: the powers of infinity are not gentle, and you cannot control where you end up,” the ghost said. Seeing the concerned look on Tserne’s face, he added, “I will use my power to ensure that you head for another working gate. I will try to make sure that the receiving gate is on a hospitable world, but I cannot promise anything.”

“That’s what everyone says,” Tserne grumbled. “Just once, I’d like some definitive assurance.”

After tucking the solari crystal into his pocket, Tserne stabbed the apex of the arch. All of a sudden, electricity sparked from the sides of the arch, and a vortex that looked very similar to the whorls of hyperspace appeared from within the archway. There was a very loud explosion somewhere in the distance, and the room appeared to collapse inside the Infinity Gate as its pull became stronger and stronger. His first instinct was to run, but he quickly realized there would be nowhere to run in a matter of seconds. The last of the floor tiles around him disappeared, and he felt his body drift into the archway before it too folded in on itself.

His body was pummeled by sensations beyond anything he had ever felt. There was a roar in his ears not unlike the sound of waves crashing against the shore but far louder. His biological eye was filled with swirling blues, reds, yellows, blacks, and colors that he did not altogether recognize; spectra that were typically not visible to Humans flashed before him. His hair stood on end, and he felt himself pulled this way and that by what he assumed to be gravity. Only his connection to the Force was stable, and there was some comfort in the fact that there was nothing that this place could do to disrupt his Force-sensitivity.

I will guide you through this. Trust me.

The spirit’s voice whispered in his mind, and he was relieved. The sword was still in his hand, and for all the tumult around him, it could not be torn away.

Time had no meaning in infinity. He floated through a great expanse, unbounded except where it connected to realspace, whereupon the infinite rolled up like a funnel and revealed some aspects of the dimension beyond. Sometime during his drifting, an image began to form in his mind’s eye. Eight planets orbited a single blue star, somewhere so close to the Galactic Core that most starships could not travel there. Of these worlds, two of them were habitable, and it seemed that Sleheyron’s Infinity Gate was connected to the innermost of these two planets. Even from his distant vantage point, that world seemed peaceful and serene, almost entirely made up of lush green continents and clear blue oceans. He seemed to get pulled closer and closer to the world, and he drifted into a strange sleep as he approached what would have been the planet’s atmosphere.

Chapter 39

When Tserne awoke, he found himself staring at a stone ceiling that looked similar to the one he had seen on Sleheyron. In front of him, he could see a similar stone arch with a matching solari crystal to keep the gate locked. The sword was still in his hand, and he had not lost anything during his strange trip through the Infinity Gate.

“Did you hear that, Master?” he heard a female ask.

“Sounds like noise from… inside the wall,” added a male’s voice.

While Tserne examined his injuries to ensure he had not fallen apart during the trip, the spirit of the sword reappeared. “There are Jedi Knights on the other side of this door. Three of them. Be cautious, because they are more devious than they appear. I cannot help you… a strong Jedi would be able to see me just as you see me now, and the presence of a Force ghost may cause you trouble. I will return to you when you are alone.”

“Wait!” Tserne called, but the ghost was already gone.

He heard someone tapping on the other side of the only door out of this chamber. The individuals on the other side were talking in whispers, and he knew they were trying to get inside. Warily, Tserne approached the door and pulled at the chain on its right edge to force it open.

Three individuals were waiting for him on the other side, all equally stunned to see—from their point-of-view—a man walk out from behind the walls of an ancient temple. One was a Vultan male with dark yellow skin, the other a female Mirialan with greenish skin and short black hair. The last one, to Tserne’s surprise, was Delvin Cortes. The three were not wearing Jedi robes, trading traditional garb for long pants and shirts, and it was clear from the dirt and grime on their clothes that they were in the process of excavating the ruins.

The two younger Force-users reached for their lightsabers, but Delvin waved for them to wait. “Tserne? How… where did you come from?”

“I should be asking you the same thing. I thought you were with the others on Sernpidal?”

“Perhaps you should start. How did you come out of that wall?” asked the Vultan.

“Lightbearer… who is this? What is he talking about?” the Mirialan whispered to Delvin. “What others? Why were you on Sernpidal?”

“Tserne, I think it’s best if you came with us,” Delvin said. “Peacefully, please. I need you to meet our leader, or else I’m afraid ill could come to you.”

Tserne was hesitant, but he could now sense Delvin in the Force and realized that the older Jedi Master meant him no harm. “If you insist. I expect answers, though.”

“And you will have them, but not now. It is not my place.”

*** ***

Tserne was imprisoned for some time. They had tried to deprive him of his sword; he resisted them, and Delvin allowed him to keep it, but they transferred him from a standard cell into a force cage. After receiving four meals from his captors and sleeping for a few time parts, Delvin’s Vultan apprentice came into the prisons and demanded he put on a blindfold. Tserne begrudgingly complied, and the apprentice took him by the hand and led him away from the prison block.

“Do you want to tell me where we’re going?” Tserne asked.

“I don’t have to answer your questions, corrupt one.”

“Let me talk to Delvin, then.”

“Lightbearer Cortes is not supposed to speak with you. Please stop talking.”

Tserne complied. After walking a bit, the Vultan told him to stop. The young Force-sensitive removed Tserne’s blindfold, revealing that they were both in a wide room that appeared almost like the interior of a temple, replete with candles, massive earthen censers, and chimes that moved ever so slightly thanks the breeze coming in through the circular openings many meters above the floor. At the center of the room stood a massive statue of Dynatha made out of diatium. He thought for a second he had gone delirious, but there was no denying that it was modeled after a younger Dynatha. Clothed in a dress of everlilies that left her back and left shoulder bare, the colossus lifted a torch so high she nearly touched the ceiling and held a key close to her heart. There was a somber expression on her face, and her eyes had no pupils or irises in them.

All around the feet of the statue, but not quite underneath it, were many sentients who wore robes like the Jedi, but theirs were entirely white with a gold sash. All of them bowed down before the statue of Dynatha, and Tserne estimated there was somewhere between six and eight hundred of them in all. Only three of them were standing, and they loomed in front of this congregation in silence. He recognized Delvin on the left, but the other two men were unknown to him.

“Why do you have a statue of Dynatha?” Tserne wondered aloud.

“It was replaced after the last one was destroyed by forces of evil,” said the old man standing between Delvin and the other. He was a hideously corpulent figure, so large and wide that his limbs appeared tiny by comparison and he could not actually stand on his own—he was sitting in a modified hoverchair. He had jowls that folded over each other, covering what would have been his neck, and they flapped about when he spoke. “That was our greatest shame. We lost three hundred of our own that day, and we’ve had difficulty finding uncorrupted recruits.”

“Who are you?”

“The Jedi Watchcircle Dominus,” Delvin said. “The true followers of the light, Ashla, and the successor to the Jedi Order that was destroyed by the Sith.”

“The true Jedi? I’ve never heard of you. How can you be a successor to the Jedi?”

“You’re scum,” the Mirialan apprenticed to Delvin sneered from her place nearby. “We don’t care what you think or what you know, assassin.”

“Peace,” Delvin ordered. “Why have you come here, Tserne? We will not be corrupted by you. Your darkness is not allowed in such a hallowed place; you are here to plead your case only. If you do not satisfy High Lightbearer Telerus Eston, then you will be executed accordingly.”

“May justice be done in Ashla’s name,” the congregation chanted in unison.

“I knew something was off about you, Delvin, but I thought you were just obsessed with seeing Dynatha become a Jedi Master or something,” Tserne said. “Give me a ship and I’ll be on my way. I had no intention of interrupting whatever is going on here, and I won’t tell anyone about it.”

“You will not be leaving this place without facing judgment,” the Chevin male on the opposite side of the fat Human said. “The High Lightbearer will hear your plead now, corrupted and corrupter.”

“Don’t you trust me, Delvin? You know I cannot stay here. I need to get back to Dynatha and the others, and I won’t be held here against my will.”

Tserne moved to leave, but he felt himself pulled toward the crowd of hooded Force-sensitives. Turning around, he saw Delvin was using the Force to bring him toward the dais situated in front of the statue. Tserne summoned the Force for the first time in years and willed a telekinetic push against Delvin. His erstwhile companion—stunned by Tserne’s Force power—stopped pulling and fell on his back.

“You dare attack the Lightbearer Cortes?” his Vultan apprentice growled. He had been holding his lightsaber in his hand, and its golden blade fountained into view.

“I don’t intend to fight any of you. If you won’t give me a ship, at least give me a comlink so I can contact Ranval or Celes for assistance,” Tserne countered, turning around to face him.

The Force alerted him to an attack from behind. With Force-empowered reflexes, Tserne dove out of the way just in time to avoid a spear of light that had been poised to skewer him against the floor. The fat man—apparently the highest ranking member of this Jedi Watchcircle—was shocked that his attack failed. At his behest, every Jedi warrior turned to Tserne with lightsabers in hand.

“You dare mock the power of the light? You are an insect beneath my feet. You are galactic dust before a supernova. You bring defilement and ugliness to this hallowed place. But because I, Telerus Eston, am merciful, you have one final chance to plead for your life before I obliterate you entirely,” the corpulent Human declared in a booming voice.

“Wait!” Delvin had already returned to his feet. “Tserne! You cannot touch the Force. What is the meaning of this?”

“Give me a ship offworld, and I’ll tell you everything.”

“Delvin, do not waste your time with this one. He is a creature that ought to be pitied. Now, all of you, watch as I demonstrate what happens to those who bring darkness into our sanctum!” Telerus said.

“Enough!” The spirit from the sword appeared behind Tserne, growing to a size that caused all of the Force-sensitives who could see him to gape in awe. “This man is my protege. Anyone who attempts to harm him will have to contend with me.”

“He has been possessed by a dark side spirit!” the Chevin Lightbearer moaned. “Surely only ruin can come upon us this day!”

“Do you intend to betray us all, Tserne?” Delvin asked. “How could you bring an evil like that here?”

“No matter. My powers will make quick work of victim and specter. Watch as I construct a prison of light around these evil-doers!” Telerus bellowed. “As the Force wi-”

“I am the spirit of Raystin Benax, Jedi Master and defender of the Force,” the spirit replied in a loud voice. “How can you insist on fighting your allies at a time like this? How can you claim to be Jedi when you spy on them and kill them in secret? Listen to me: even now the Sith move against the Jedi Order. If you do not aid them now, they will be destroyed…”

“Good!” snapped the Mirialan. “The destruction of the corrupt order will pave a path for the righteous, and Ashla’s banner will unfurl over a peaceful galaxy!”

“Be silent! The Jedi Order will be destroyed, and the dark forces will then turn their forces onto you. The Sith Lord Preux destroyed your last sanctuary and killed many of your followers. There is one greater than him—a Sith Emperor who will annihilate you with a darkness unlike anything you know!”

“We fear no darkness,” Telerus replied.

“You should fear him. He challenged the Dark Jedi Avaran Whell in the shadows, where they both manipulating each other to try and gain a foothold in the galaxy. This Dark Emperor orchestrated the Mandalorian Wars, leading the Jedi and Mandalorians into ruin. He corrupted Revan and Malak, inciting the Jedi Civil War and crippling the Galactic Republic. His agents are here even now, hiding as double agents until the time is right for their master to return. He will return. And he will return soon unless Preux is stopped now.”

“He cannot reach us here. We are safe behind the wall of stars between here and the Core Worlds,” Delvin assured the spirit.

“Are you all so cowardly and self-serving that you would not seek to save the galaxy in its time of need? You think mere stars will defend you? The Sith Lords of old could create supernovae that obliterated entire systems! If he cannot reach you, he will rend the galaxy itself asunder to see you dead.”

“No mere servant of darkness has such power,” the Chevin snapped.

“And he is no mere servant. But since you do not believe, I will spur you into action.”

The figure of Raystin Benax disappeared, becoming an amorphous blob. Telerus and the others were unimpressed, and Delvin’s apprentices actually moved in to seize Tserne. Before they could, the strange shape shifted into flat surface. Along the flat surface, an image of Dynatha appeared, eliciting gasps and a few solemn oaths from the Watchcircle. Tserne found his gaze drawn to it as well. She appeared to be fighting a group of enemies, and there were other Jedi at her side. Explosions went off in the distance, and blaster fire filled the air between her and her companions. In the distance, they could vaguely make out a ship rapidly approaching, its guns aimed directly at the company of Jedi. She did not seem to notice its approach.

The Watchcircle Jedi shouted benedictions and urged Ashla to move, but they were powerless observers to something that was happening elsewhere in the galaxy. Before they could see the result of the ship’s strafing run, Raystin Benax pulled the image away and returned his spiritual form to a humanoid shape.

“What happened? Where is our goddess? Is Ashla safe?” cried the crowd.

“She is safe for now. But her defenders are dwindling. She will not be able to fight against the Sith on her own, and if the Sith should capture her-”

“Never!” the Chevin cried. “Never will Ashla fall against the Sith.”

“What happens to a candle engulfed in a storm? Even the most impressive and greatest lamp goes out without protection. So too will she fail in her mission without protectors.”

“We must go to her!” Delvin shouted, eliciting excited agreement from the congregation. “We must take our place. We must defend Ashla!”

“How do we get there?” asked the Vultan.

“Tserne knows the way,” Raystin Benax said. “Listen to him, do not harm him, and he will guide you.”

And then the spirit disappeared, leaving Tserne alone with the Watchcircle yet again.

*** ***

Watchcircle Dominus had a vague idea of where the Jedi Order was hiding because they had many spies hiding among them, not unlike Delvin had been doing before his mission with Ranval and the others. However, none of their agents had reported in in the past few weeks. Telerus had mentioned that the Jedi were imprisoning anyone who tried to send messages across the galaxy. This left the Lightbearers with several very likely hiding places, but they depended on Tserne—actually Raystin’s ghost, who knew where the Jedi were located—to guide them to their final destination.

Tserne filed into a Hammerhead-class cruiser behind Delvin’s two apprentices. Their ships were always prepared to leave, well-stocked and manned by both droids and Force-sensitive pilots, which meant they could deploy in under a day. Although Telerus and the other members of the Watchcircle were less than willing to accept Tserne’s help, Delvin seemed pleased that Tserne was coming with them. His attitude was far cry from earlier; it almost seemed that he had been released from a spell that changed his persona into that one he had had when he had been with Ranval and the others.

“K’thoi, Via, please take these supplies to the mess hall,” Delvin ordered.

The two apprentices departed at their master’s insistence. Watchcircle disciples were wandering through the halls, and Tserne was surprised just how many of them there were. After all, Hammerheads were very large ships, and there hadn’t been that many Watchcircle Jedi at the center chamber earlier. Somehow, Telerus and the others had enough Jedi, droids, and other servants to command several Republic warships.

“I have provided you with a ship,” Delvin mentioned as he walked with Tserne toward the bridge. “Tell me. How did you regain your Force-sensitivity?”

“You already know the Force ghost. That’s how. He’s providing me with power through this sword.”

“I thought it was strange for you to be carrying such an ornate weapon. What is it, exactly?”

“Just an old sword,” Tserne lied.

“I see. You came across it in your travels?”

“Something like that.”

“How did you become separated from the others?”

“Northeus… betrayed me. He found something in these ruins on Sleheyron and left me and a Sith Master to die. I managed to kill the Sith, and I should have died myself. Instead, I was led to find this weapon. I’m not sure I can explain it.”

“You don’t have to. I believe I understand.”

“What are you doing here, Delvin? I thought you were a Jedi Master, but you’re actually an elite member of this cult. How long have you been a part of this organization?”

“Since before you and I met on Ralina’s ship. I learned about the Jedi Covenant when I was very young, and its ideals stood out to me. You speak of it in derogatory terms like ‘cult’, but you must understand that the Jedi Order was corrupt to the core after the Great Sith War. Jedi Masters were conspiring against each other, Councilors tried to influence politicians, and Padawans were being recruited primarily from the families of celebrities, nobles, and businessbeings. Watchcircle Dominus practiced the tenants of the Jedi Code when the Jedi Order did not, and they were willing to die for their beliefs. We still are. I am proud to be a Lightbearer for the Watchcircle, Tserne.”

“But the Jedi Order is different now, isn’t it?”

“Is it?” Delvin asked.

“You tell me. You were spying on them for years.”

“What I saw did not convince me to reunite with them,” Delvin said after a quiet moment. “I believe they have improved, but I would not risk my life for them or their kind.”

“Not for Celes? Not for Dynatha?”

“Celes Sunrider is an acquaintance, nothing more. I owe her nothing. But Dynatha is different.”

“You all worship her like some sort of goddess.”

“Because she is.”

Tserne shook his head. “Now I know you’ve lost it.”

“You are simply ignorant and blind. One of ours rescued her from the Sith on Alderaan. We were bringing her back for medical treatment, even though she was closer to a corpse than a woman when we found her. We were certain she would die. But through the Force, she was resuscitated and her body completely healed—there was not a scar or bruise on her. She had such immense power that she destroyed much of our ship escaping us. She was crazed then. She had no idea how to contain such raw power. But now we know that she was simply adapting to becoming a container for the light—a physical embodiment of Ashla, the Force.”

“She’s not even that strong. Celes is a better Jedi than her. I wasn’t even attuned to the Force when I was in their presence and I knew that.”

“Her potential is unlimited. Celes is very great, yes—perhaps the mightiest of the Jedi—but she will die someday. Ashla cannot. She will age, and her physical form may well grow old and perish, but her spirit will pass on to another. This shared spirit, this light, will become greater and greater until at last nothing will oppose her. Her last body will become an avatar of light and through her balance will be restored to the Force.”

“You can think whatever you like, but you’re crazy. You have her mixed up with someone else.”

“Did not Ashla herself will us into action? You would have been executed and we would have remained here if not for that vision. As we say, the Force wills it, and we will obey.”

“If it brings me back to Dynatha and the others, fine. I won’t argue with you, Delvin.”

“Wait.” Delvin bid him to stop, and Tserne turned around to meet his gaze. “I know you are devoted to her in your own way. The thought of returning to her in this hour has distracted me, and I forget my place. You have defended her for many years, and for that I am grateful.”

“I didn’t do it for you.”

“I know you didn’t. But if you want to keep defending her, you will need a weapon.” Delvin unhooked his lightsaber from his belt and handed it to Tserne. “Use this to keep her safe. Your sword is powerful, to be sure, but you are a Jedi Knight. You deserve a Jedi weapon.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“You can feel the Force, can you not? You’ve used a lightsaber before, no? When the time comes, won’t you fight on the side of the just and pure and noble? Then you are a Jedi.”

What about you?”

“What about me?” Delvin shook his head. “I no longer need this. My days are coming to an end. I have foreseen it. You will be the one who will defend her, and I will do what I can to aid you. That is comforting, and that is enough.”

Tserne was going to argue with him, convince him that they would both go see Dynatha together. He would force Delvin to explain the nature of the Watchcircle to her, and Dynatha would see how crazy they were and expel all the eerie beliefs they had about her. But at the same time, Delvin was so zealous, so certain, and so devoted to her that Tserne lost the will to argue with him. He simply nodded and placed the lightsaber on his belt.

“I trust you to protect her, Tserne. Do not fail us when we need you most.”

Chapter 40

Dynatha sat down in front of Northeus’s homestead, completely spent. Many dead mercenaries were strewn about her, and there were some Dark Jedi interspersed between them. Phaevn was searching the area for hidden adversaries, but neither she nor Ranval sensed any more danger. She took a moment to rest while Northeus set down the Grimtaash.

She, Ranval, and Phaevn had broken into Delvin’s shuttle—he had left it aboard the Blind Guide, and it had escaped the crash unscathed—and taken it all the way back to Ambria. Once they returned to Northeus’s homestead, they had been ambushed by Exchange mercenaries and Dark Jedi who had been lying in wait. After fighting for nearly three standard hours, Dynatha was glad that it was over. Their Dark Jedi adversaries had been powerful, and even with Ranval and Phaevn by her side she had been worried about their chances.

During the battle, she had sensed Northeus approach and assumed Tserne was with him. But even now that the Grimtaash was less than ten meters away, she did not sense Tserne at all; it was not exactly out of the ordinary, but for some reason she was worried. Celes and Delvin were already missing, and as far as Ranval knew they had been captured or killed by the Sith. She wouldn’t be able to bear it if that happened to Tserne.

Her heart sank when only Northeus debarked. She ran to meet Northeus, but she recoiled when she saw his face. The old Jedi had lost any hint of serenity or wisdom in his features, appearing deranged and walking like someone who knew he was being followed. She couldn’t see his lightsaber on his person; he had seemingly replaced it with a great staff that was taller than he was. It was jet black with runes along its side and a rosette crown. Immense power radiated from the walking stick, and Dynatha sensed within it the same darkness that was present in the lake nearby.

“Northeus… what’s going on? Where’s Tserne?”

Like he was putting his mask back on, Northeus turned to face her and suddenly seemed quite ordinary. Indeed, he was as sagacious and peaceful as he had ever been. A curtain of light seemed to fall over him, and the twisted sensation she had sensed from the staff disappeared as well. “He and I journeyed to Sleheyron to find a map—something I have been trying to find before the Sith could get it. However, he engaged a Sith Lord to give me time to access the temple interior. I’m afraid Tserne did not survive his encounter.”

Her immediate reaction was disbelief. “You’re wrong. You’re lying. Why do you have his ship? Where is Tserne?”

“I’m so sorry, Dynatha. I know what he meant to you. But I saw him die with my own eyes. The Sith cut him down with his lightsaber and then turned to me. I only escaped because I managed to reach the Grimtaash faster than he did.”

No. Twice before she had nearly lost Tserne. Lies had been whispered into her ears hoping to cripple her resolve, make her weak and hopeless. Both times Tserne had returned to her. Surely he would return again. Northeus had to be lying. She sensed no deception from him, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t wrong. He could have been mistaken. He was not perfect, and he had been wrong before. Tserne could have been taken prisoner. Or faked his death. Or-

“Ranval,” Northeus greeted his former Padawan. “Where are your minions?”

Ranval didn’t look happy at that choice of words. “Selias and the others are reuniting our forces. After recovering Ranz’s ship, they should meet us here.”

“Very good. Both of you must have sensed the return of the Sith. They are attacking the Jedi Order right now, at this very moment.” Northeus paused to let the Jedi affirm what he was saying was true. Sure enough, there was a very distant but very powerful darkness moving across the galaxy. “I had planned to remain on Ambria for a time and train Dynatha further. But that option is no longer viable. We must act now.”

“I agree. This place is no longer safe. Somehow the Sith know we’re here. We must take Dynatha, retreat from known space for the time being, and train her elsewhere,” Ranval said.

“Nonsense. What good would that be? We must go to the Jedi Order and aid them now, before the situation becomes more dire than it already is. Only together can we stand against the darkness,” Northeus countered.

“Dynatha is not ready. If we send her into battle now, she’ll just be snatched away by the Sith and used for nefarious purposes. We need to train her more—especially in skills to help her resist the dark side.”

“There is no more time for that. We must do with what we have.”

“We cannot always protect her, Northeus! What happens when we’re not there and a Sith Lord engages her?”

“Why do you doubt her? Why do you doubt me?” Northeus looked pained. “Are you really so frightened to come out of the shadows and fight that you would rather run away than join the battle? Is this what you’ve prepared for all these years? A glorious retreat in the critical moment?”

“Unlike you, I was actually preparing. But I know we’re not prepared enough. We need more time.”

“We have no more time.”

Although Northeus didn’t notice, the tone of Ranval’s voice told Dynatha something was bothering him. Hadn’t he advocated for her to aid them against the Sith threat earlier? Why the change of heart? “Then let us go, then, just the two of us,” Ranval said. “Will the Sith be able to stand against our combined might? We don’t need Dynatha for this engagement. Not yet, anyway.”

“Why do you seek to keep her from the battle? She was trained for this. It is her duty. I think your fear is misplaced, and you seek to keep her away from the Sith for another reason…”

“Enough!” Dynatha shouted. “I’m going to decide where I go, not either of you. I’m tired of being dragged around the galaxy on your crazy missions. Neither of you confided in me before, and now you just intend to carry me by the hand like a child as though I have no say? This time I say where we go, and if either of you don’t like it we will all go our separate ways.”

Ranval and Northeus said nothing. Ranval was embarrassed for his comments and readily showed it, but Northeus was stolid in the face of her rebuke.

“So where are we going?” Northeus asked.

Dynatha’s thoughts turned to Tserne. Somehow, she knew he was still alive. There was a tiny bit of hope in her heart that, unreasonably, refused to believe Northeus. During the vision that Lalun had forced her to endure, she had seen Tserne in battle with a great warrior, and she had to choose between saving the galaxy and saving him. The Force told her that he was not dead, and that they would meet again in the battle to come. Ranval and Northeus didn’t have to protect her from anyone. She would challenge the Sith and their evil as she had been trained to do, and she would do so with all of her might. She had taken an oath to defend the Republic, and nothing would keep her from that duty. She didn’t have to choose between the Jedi and Tserne; she would fight alongside both of them soon enough.

“Let us go to the Jedi Order. They will need us.”

Northeus nodded. “Then we ought to go. The Grimtaash is still online and ready to leave at a moment’s notice. You need only say the word.”

“I’ll prepare my things and let Phaevn know we’re leaving,” Ranval said, although he seemed uneasy. “I take it you know the way, Northeus?”

“I do. You need only tell me when we’re to depart.” Ranval walked away, but when Dynatha turned to leave, Northeus seized her arm. “The crystal I placed in your lightsaber. You still have it?” he whispered hoarsely at her in a very strange voice.

“The solari crystal? Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” Dynatha asked, quite unnerved.

Northeus heaved a sigh of relief. “I was worried you’d lost it. Without a powerful crystal like that to aid you, I’m afraid you would be at a disadvantage.” He bid Dynatha farewell as she headed back to his hut—warily—to rest. She was already out of earshot when his comforting facade returned to the nightmarish visage she had seen when he first departed. In an unnaturally deep and cacophonous voice he muttered to himself, “I can see why Preux searches so earnestly for you, little daughter of light. At your own insistence you rush headlong into danger. It will not be long before you call me master…”

*** ***

Admiral Onasi stared at Rodia through the primary viewport of the Sojourn. Sure enough, the Republic ships that had been meant to defend this planet from attack were nothing but floating debris, and Rodia’s beautiful rain forests were burning, sending smoke high into the sky and creating dark clouds over much of the surface. Very few of the domed cities had escaped harm, and the capital Equator City had been pulverized by orbital bombardment. The death toll was already coming in, and it was catastrophic.

This entire situation was a complete debacle for the Republic, and it was even worse because the perpetrators were nowhere to be found. Admiral Onasi’s intelligence agents had reported that vessels sharing some similarities with Sith vessels had begun the bombardment of Rodia. Assembling the First and Thirteenth Fleets and taking Ducian Eto and the Second Core Brigade to handle any surface operations, he and Admiral Svarsk waited for Senate authorization to proceed. It hadn’t taken long, but it did take longer than they had expected. Their enemy had eluded them.

“Have you come up with anything?” Carth asked the chief investigator on the ground via comm.

“Quite simply, there is no way anything short of a warship could have caused this much damage in the timetable the locals insist on,” was the reply. “Perhaps several warships.”

“A staggering insight,” the Sojourn’s captain whispered to Admiral Onasi. “How much do these agents get paid, again?”

“How many warships, precisely?” Ducian asked, who had also been listening to the conversation.

“I cannot say for sure. If had to make a professional guess for the Defense Ministry, I would say between twelve and twenty.”

“Admiral Onasi,” Admiral Svarsk interrupted. “I’ve been contacted by the minister of defense. He wants us to return to Coruscant immediately.”

“Is there an attack?”

“No. He believes the warships you’ve brought here will be better served defending Coruscant.”

“I can’t do that. I’m staying here until we figure out where our adversaries have gone.”

“He was quite insistent, Admiral Onasi.”

“Go in my stead and explain the situation, Svarsk. I’m needed here.”

Svarsk continued to badger him about the orders from the Senate, but Admiral Onasi wasn’t interested. Coruscant bureaucracy had been hindering him from searching for clues about the Sith and their whereabouts for years, and he was not about to pass up this opportunity. They were so close. The inspector provided by the Senate wasn’t particularly useful, but Republic Intelligence would arrive in a standard hour or so and they would be able to glean some more useful information about the attack.

He had sent out inquires to the listening posts he had placed around Sith space, but they had confirmed that no ships had traveled around Korriban, Ziost, or Rhelg. Wherever the Sith were hiding, they were moving around where they could not be seen. Even Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel’s report—he had just returned with Admiral Svarsk’s fleet from his mission a day ago—had offered very few potential hiding places. With the Sith base on Sernpidal destroyed, their leads were evaporating little by little.

“Admiral! We’re receiving an automated distress signal from our space station over Falang Minor.”

Falang Minor. The Republic Navy—more specifically, Carth’s flagship and the Telos Defense Forces—had assisted the Jedi Order in their move from Telos IV to Falang Minor. He had provided them with several starfighters, planetary shield generators, and moved the orbital defense station from Ord Trasi to assist them in case of a potential attack. He had not told the Ministry of Defense about these supplemental defenses, and he had not told the Jedi that there was a hidden beacon in the space station set to activate if it ever came under attack.

Everything came together in his mind at once. The Sith had attacked Rodia in an effort to draw the Republic away from the Jedi, attacking a planet across the galaxy from Falang Minor. Once the Republic had fallen for the trap, they would attack the Jedi with the bulk of their forces—as they seemed to be doing. But did they have other forces elsewhere? Where did the ships attacking Rodia disappear to? Were the Jedi their only targets, or did they intend to attack Republic targets as well?

“Admiral Svarsk!”

“Yes, Fleet Admiral?”

“Contact Admirals Marathos, Yur, and Opelle. Tell them to mobilize their ships. They are to meet us at the world of Falang Minor as quickly as they can. Inform the rest of the Admiralty to transition to high alert and transfer ships from Alderaan, Kuat, and Humbarine to Rhinnal, Corellia, and Rendili. Send all remaining ships to defend Coruscant.”

“I will send a request, but I doubt the Senate-”

“Do the best you can. Time is of the essence.” The admiral swiveled his chair to face his crew. “Bring us around, Helmsman. Use Rodia’s hyperspace beacon to calculate the quickest route to Falang Minor.”

“Sir, it will take us more than a day to get there from here.”

“Push all our ships to the limit. I want to shave off three time parts, at least.”

“What is the meaning of this, Admiral Onasi?” the minister of defense’s voice came in through the fleet comm. “Do you intend to oppose a direct order from the Senate? “You do realize that that is grounds for a court-martial.”

“The Jedi are in trouble,” Admiral Onasi countered. “The Sith have moved from Rodia to attack their hidden base. If we don’t pursue and engage-”

“The Jedi? What do we owe the Jedi? Nothing. Their wars have cost us more lives, materiel, and resources than any of our own engagements. They refused to resettle their temple on Coruscant. They want nothing more to do with us, and we have no need for those wizards and their ill omens. Your duty as Fleet Admiral of the Navy is to return to Coruscant and defend it from whatever rogues are responsible for the assault on Rodia. I will not allow the Core Worlds to be scarcely defended because you insist on going on a wild bantha chase!”

“We need all the ships we can spare. Coruscant has ample forces. I’ve seen to that personally, and the Sith have to be destroyed. This could be our only chance,” Carth explained.

“If they still exist, they will be dealt with. But the Core Worlds are more important than the frontier worlds and any Jedi bases. You are responsible for the defense and preservation of the Galactic Republic, not the Jedi Order, Fleet Admiral Onasi. Do not forget that.”

“With all due respect, Senator, I’m not going to give them that time to destroy the best allies we have and then retreat back into hiding again. You can consider this my resignation from the admiralty and the navy, and I will turn myself in upon my return to Coruscant.” He forcibly ended the transmission from the defense ministry. “Engage the hyperdrive,” he ordered. “We’re going to help the Jedi. Let the fleet know that if anyone has any misgivings about this mission, he or she is free to take their ship and return to Coruscant and see to its defense. I do not want to endanger any of your careers due to my actions.”

“I will let them know that, Admiral,” the Sojourn’s captain said. “And your orders will be carried out in the meanwhile.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

*** ***

Fetcher smiled toothily as he admired his handiwork. Nearly two dozen heavy freighters were floating around his ship, each of them loaded with nearly a thousand metric tons of starship fuel. Fetcher and the few ships in his contingent had fled Sleheyron and left his smuggler associates behind. The other smugglers had taken their share of the prize already, but they hadn’t been aware just how much fuel had been stolen. He had undercut their share, and he would be surprised if any of them had taken notice. This hidden stash was far from most hyperspace beacons, floating in the emptiness of space where there were only stars in all directions for as far as eyes and sensors could see.

While he couldn’t exactly begin his own business with what they had stolen—there was far too little fuel for that—he could sell it back to the Hutts or auction it off to any shipbuilder, manufacturer, or transport company in the Republic and make millions of credits. On the black market, fuel costs were exorbitant, but there were pirates, smugglers, revolutionaries, and others of that ilk willing to pay such prices for quick access to illegally obtained fuel. No matter which way he looked at it, Fetcher knew he would soon have more credits than he knew what to do with.

“You don’t suppose anyone will stumble upon us out here, do you?” Zalee muttered, more to herself than anyone.

“Of course not,” Posh replied. “The nearest star system is ten light years away. There’s no way anyone could just arrive here without knowing exactly where we are.”

“The exact odds of someone in the nearest habitable star system making a hyperspace jump close enough to detect us on typical sensors is something akin to one in four billion.”

“Good enough for me,” Fetcher said. “Let’s toast to celebrate our success.”

The heist was done and the treasure hidden, so details could be worked out later. Fetcher was exhausted, and it was time to relax. The crew agreed. Zalee and Posh went to get the better foodstuffs hidden away near the back of the ship while Fetcher searched the supply room for a table. Jon-Oryan monitored the ship in the meanwhile and invited the crew of the other ships in the Sapphire Fleet to come by and join them. When Fetcher returned to the bridge, he heard his comm beeping. He moved to disable it, but Jon-Oryan intercepted him.

“It may not be who you think,” the cyborg said. “The sender’s signature matches the one broadcast from Ralina’s comlink.”

“Ralina? We didn’t exactly make arrangements to drop in, but I guess she really wants to see us again…”

Fetcher activated the ship’s comm. When he saw Ralina’s face, he immediately knew something was wrong. She was hardly focused on the comlink, scanning the sky above her for something. He could vaguely make out the sounds of explosions in the distance, and the holographic image on her end was distorted and grainy.

“What’s going on, Ralina?”

“Fetcher! I… don’t know what’s going on-” She cut in and out. Fetcher ordered Jon-Oryan to clear up the signal on their end, but it did very little. “-bombing the settlement! They destroyed the hangars and our ships. We don’t… any way off this world.”

“Who’s attacking you? Where are you?”

“I’m with the Jedi on Falang Minor. Damn if I know how to get here, Lucius did the flying. I think… defenses, but it’s looking bad. It would be… pick us up. Think you can swing by?”

“I’ve never heard of Falang Minor. Where are they, Jon?”

“Searching the spacers’ maps we have aboard. Hold on.” There was a soft buzzing from the cyborg’s internals while he thought. “It’s actually not very far from us at all. We could reach Falang Minor in five standards Coruscant hours.”

“All right. Don’t worry, Ralina. We’ll come and get you and your family out of there. Tell Lucius to sit tight. Be safe.”

“Hurry… please…”

“All right, enough celebrating! Plot us a course, Jon! We need to get there yesterday.”

“Here we go again,” Posh grumbled. “Can’t even have a moment to ourselves…”

“What about the freighters, Captain?” Zalee asked.

“What about them? We have our beacon here so we can come back for them anytime, and our employer has already told us that we’ve done everything he wanted us to do, so I doubt he’s going to steal it.”

“They are his ships, though,” Posh noted.

“Let’s hope he’s as honest as we are, then,” Fetcher quipped. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll be here when we get back.”

“Famous words from the to-be hoodwinked,” Zalee said.

Fetcher reclined in his chair. Although he was more than willing to help Ralina, he couldn’t help but share Posh’s feelings on the matter. He had been very busy setting up the attack on Sleheyron—and subsequently leading it. He wanted nothing more than to relax with his crew and use some of their credits to go to a resort world somewhere in the Core Worlds. Unfortunately, that would have to wait. Oh well. Ralina and her family would appreciate the holiday, at least…

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