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Chapter 41

Preux sat in the captain’s chair for the first time in many years, watching the bridge crew of the Phantasm as the Sith flagship finished its trek through hyperspace. Through an ancient ritual he had learned from the tomes of the Sith, he had enriched the entire ship in the dark side of the Force. The atmosphere had changed. For the first time, Preux had achieved a connection between himself and the entire crew—all five thousand of them. So many minds touching one at once would have driven a lesser being mad. But his dreadful spirit, coupled with his mastery of the dark side, forced their will to submit to his own. The entire vessel had become an extension of his will.

Dark Jedi Masters had been placed on the lead vessels of his fleets. Although he was not powerful enough to master entire fleets with his mind, he could use the power of his apprentices to advise or influence the other admirals in his stead. He personally could not use battle meditation, as the Jedi called it, but one of his Dark Jedi Masters showed some rudimentary skill in it, and it was through him that Preux would drive his fleet and his soldiers.

“Reversion imminent. We will be just at the edge of the Falang system,” the chief navigator reported.

“Captain, do you have any last minute reports from our fleet?” Preux asked.

“They are still just behind us, Lord Preux. No issues have been reported, and they are ready to engage at your command.”

“Very good. And the other fleets?”

“Admiral Mauch departed from Rodia once the Republic announced plans to mobilize. He should be here soon—less than a time part by our estimation. Mandalore and his ships will arrive in four. The Iotran and Iridorian battle groups are with us, as are those Exchange mercenaries under Coroq Lotte.”

“What of the Hutts?”

“Forgive me, Lord Preux, but they have reported that they will not be joining us. They told us about an incident at Sleheyron that they demand we answer for—apparently our forces attacked their fuel depots and stole several months worth of fuel from them.”

“I gave no such order. Who authorized that engagement?” Preux asked.

“As far as I can tell, none of our agents were involved. Tadeus was there, but he has not reported back in a week. Surely he would be able to explain the situation, but-”

Preux frowned. He could not sense Tadeus in the Force, which led him to believe that he was dead. A pity. He had been the strongest duelist among his apprentices, completely loyal, and the head of Sith Intelligence. Without his guiding hand, it would be difficult to reorganize their many operatives and assassins throughout the galaxy after the destruction of the Jedi. There were very few Sith Masters who could potentially be uplifted to the positions he held.

The Hutt betrayal was almost as shocking. The Sith had provided them with weapons and other supplies to help them incite their rebellion on Gamandar. Whatever the outcome of that revolution, the Hutt clans had promised to aid the Sith in blockading the hyperspace lanes and send ships into battle against the Jedi. In the end, it appeared they were more cowardly than he had assumed and betrayed him. He would deal with them once the Republic was sufficiently crippled.

In a flash of light, hyperspace dissipated around them and they were back in realspace. As his navigator had promised, they were just beyond the farthest body in the Falang system, an icy planetoid that was wholly unsuited for life. About three light hours from the planet, they were just far enough away from the first orbit of Falang Minor that military-grade Republic sensors would not have detected them.

Preux’s Fleet of Unyielding Might was the first to assemble. With the Phantasm at its head, it boasted more than twenty capital ships, a contingent of smaller cruisers and frigates, and many starfighters. Admiral Kvorkasir’s Fleet of Peerless Skill and Admiral Isinn’s Fleet of Untempered Ferocity were close behind, arriving at his fleet’s left and right flanks. Admiral Kvorkasir’s fleet was larger than his own, but the ships were primarily older vessels that had been retrofitted after the Jedi Civil War. Admiral Isinn had far fewer ships, but they were new models crewed by veteran spacers and loyalists to Preux himself. The Fleets of Prominent Judgment and Swift Censure—commanded by Admirals Keth and Acophy, respectively—were the smallest and situated themselves behind the larger groups, organized to act in support roles for the other fleet admirals.

Reports were coming in from his own officers on the bridge and from his liaisons amongst the other fleets. Some of the older ships had problems with their sublight engines and one or two heavy frigates had experienced unexpected shield decay, but overall their ships had made it through hyperspace without issue and were ready for battle.

“Command the admirals to prepare all vessels for microjumps toward Falang Minor. Tell them to position their ships so they arrive along these vectors,” Preux ordered, sending a series of coordinates to the other fleets. “Prepare gun batteries now. Their Dark Jedi adjutant will direct them to the exact location of the Jedi base on the surface, but we must strike at once before they have a chance to defend. It must end with a single strike. Failure will not be tolerated.”

While his own officers prepared his ships for the jump, Avaran Whell returned to him. It had been several days since the dark spirit had departed; it was uncommon for the deceased Dark Jedi to be gone for so long. Standing beside his master, Thoronim noticed the ghost’s arrival but said nothing.

“You have returned at a strange time,” Preux said.

“I had other business to attend to. Your plans are already awry, boy. You should have waited for me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you not sense it?” Avaran shook his head. “The clone sensed the Jedi just as you and I did. His eagerness to engage them surpasses your own. He ordered Admiral Mauch to depart from Rodia early and alerted the Sith Emperor as to his plans. Admiral Mauch has beaten you here: he and Nafyan are attacking the Jedi even now, and the Jedi have raised their defenses appropriately. You will not have your swift victory.”

Preux steepled his hands in front of his face and took a moment to rethink his plan. If Admiral Mauch’s fleet had already arrived, he had lied to Admiral Kvorkasir about his times of departure and arrival, thus refusing to participate in the plan they had prepared. While the admiral and his Imperial ships were useful, they were too dangerous in the hands of an upstart. To make matters worse, his betrayal only alerted the Jedi to their approach. Now they were ready to fight back, instead of waiting defenselessly and unaware. But there was no turning back now; he would get no other chance. He would deal with Admiral Mauch, Nafyan, and the Jedi in one swoop.

“Is the microjump ready?” Preux asked.

The admirals announced they were prepared, and the Phantasm’s new captain informed him that all of his ships were as well.

“What are you doing?” Avaran Whell asked. “Your battle plans have been compromised. You waste your strength engaging them now. Leave that traitor and his ships for the Jedi and the Republic to pick apart.”

“And allow the Sith Emperor to make his move? No. We cannot allow him to choose when and where to attack without being challenged. We move now.”

“Foolish.” Avaran mused. “You endanger the cause of the Sith in your arrogance. Fortunately, I have prepared-”

“Enough,” said Thoronim. “There is a battle to be fought, and Lord Preux needs to concentrate.”

“Indeed?” the ghost chuckled. “And what will you do? Though he is a fool, I will use my power to aid him still. Keep your ignorant outbursts to yourself, useless minion.”

The Phantasm’s hyperdrive roared as it reactivated, and the whorls of hyperspace blinked into view for less than a minute before disappearing. When the durasteel blinds dropped away from their viewports, they saw Falang Minor. It was smaller than most terrestrial planets, and—like so many frontier worlds—it appeared pristine and unsettled from orbit. Aside from the five expansive oceans, deep lakes and long, snaking rivers were plentiful across the surface, keeping much of the land green and vibrant. The only deserts were hidden behind vast mountain ranges that kept rain clouds at bay. Masses of dark clouds were bringing a storm through the western hemisphere. It was over this hemisphere that a defensive station loomed in orbit, surrounded by orbital turrets and various satellites.

As Avaran Whell had warned him, Admiral Mauch’s fleet was engaging the enemy. The Jedi fleet had rallied around their colossal space station and orbital guns. Two Irid-class heavy frigates, two Foray-class blockade runners, and three M5 light cruisers engaged the much larger Dominator battlecruisers fielded by Admiral Mauch, and their Jedi starfighters were in dogfights against swarms of Sith interceptors to contest the space in orbit. The space station was of the type that defended Republic military installations, possessing a shield generator that matched Republic warships, carrying three starfighter squadrons in its vast hangar bay, and replete with laser cannons. Preux was surprised, but not deterred, by its presence. It would be the first target of their attack.

“Sir, we’re receiving a transmission from Admiral Mauch’s fleet.”

“Bring it up in the central projector,” Preux ordered.

The Sith flag officer replaced the holographic image of the Jedi station and the surrounding ships at the center of the bridge. The admiral was visibly trembling, and he dared not look into the eyes of the Dark Lord. Preux was not surprised that Nafyan refused to appear, but it did not matter. He would come when he was summoned.

“Lord Preux, please forgi-”

“Enough.” Preux waved his hand and used the dark side of the Force to choke Admiral Mauch even though he was several hundred thousand kilometers away. “Your treachery will cost us ships and soldiers both. You sought to return to your Emperor and have him seize everything I had laid out? Neither you nor Nafyan are as cunning as you suppose.”

“P-please… I meant…”

“But you still have your uses. Engage the Jedi fleet. Continue to do battle with them. You are not to break off your attack under any circumstances. You either destroy the Jedi yourself, or else you die here in orbit over Falang Minor. Do you understand?”

“Yes…”

“Good.” Preux released his telekinetic grip on Admiral Mauch’s throat. “Tell Nafyan to return to the Phantasm. He knows the penalty for disobedience.”

The admiral coughed and straightened his collar. “I will do as you command. I apologize for my failure. It will not happen again. Indefatigable out.”

“You ought to have killed him for betrayal and his failure,” Avaran Whell noted. “Slaves will not learn from a hesitant master.”

“Admiral Mauch is dishonest, but he is not stupid. He recognized his mistake immediately, and that is why he contacted me as soon as we arrived. I trust him to play his role in this, at least. This will be the last time I need to use him. Whether he succeeds or not, I will personally ensure he does not survive the battle.”

“Foolish boy. The merciful hand sows traitorous thoughts.”

“What are our orders, Lord Preux?” Admiral Kvorkasir chimed in from the comm.

“Move your ships toward the planet but avoid the fight. Admiral Mauch will deal with them. Inform all generals to prepare their troops for deployment. Launch the sensor jammers toward the surface—away from the Jedi—and once your contingents have been emptied, retreat toward Falang Major.”

“Retreat, sir?” Admiral Isinn asked.

“Indeed. I will provide you the coordinates. We will meet the Mandalorians behind the gas giant. Power down all but essential systems and wait for my signal.”

“As you command, Lord Preux,” Admiral Kvorkasir replied.

*** ***

Atton Rand stood at the helm of the Beacon, the lead ship in the Jedi Order’s orbital defense force. It was the only Jedi warship of its size; the other Irid-class heavy frigate and the two Foray-class blockade runners were part of a Republic contingent assigned to defend the space station in orbit, and the three M5 light cruisers belonging to the Jedi were meant as support craft. Modeled after the Hammerhead-class cruisers that served as the Republic’s workhorse, Irid frigates were aesthetically similar to the larger vessel, but they possessed more guns and a larger aft to provide room for two squadrons of starfighters. It was also less lean overall than Hammerhead cruisers, allowing it to have heavier armor than its predecessor, the Foray-class blockade runner. The Beacon was a prototype and thus lacked some weapon systems and a modern hyperdrive, but it could also be run on a skeleton crew—perfect for a small team of Jedi Knights and Padawans.

Imperial starfighters filled the Beacon’s viewport like swarms of botflies. With tiny frames and slender, hooked wings, these strike fighters were hardly distinguishable from the Sith fighters he had seen produced by the Star Forge during the Jedi Civil War. The turrets that had been strewn across Falang Minor’s higher orbital zones had been specifically designed to track and destroy nimble enemy fighters like these, but their numbers were overwhelming even for their automated targeting computers. The Jedi warships stayed as close to the orbital station as they could, maneuvering around it for cover and using its shields to bolster their own.

Shaped like a spearhead but lacking the prominent bridge common in ships like the Interdictor and Centurion battlecruisers, the Dominator warships that led Admiral Mauch’s fleet were much larger than anything the Jedi could have brought to bear. Their initial turbolaser fire had pulverized the westernmost tower and walls of the Jedi fortress below, as well as nearly half of the settlers' encampment before the Jedi Council had activated their planetary shields. Equipped with armor and shields to engage a Republic battle group, the Sith battlecruisers had forced the Jedi to retreat from their initial position, and then retreat again when the first line of turrets had been destroyed. Unfortunately, there was nowhere else for them to retreat, since the space station was considered the last line of defense.

The Republic’s orbital station was the only thing keeping this battle from becoming a slaughter. Atton was a competent pilot and an able leader, but he was no tactician. The Republic captain in charge of the space station was likewise a respected officer, but he lacked the combat history of some older officers; he could marshal only an adequate defense. Even though it was heavily armored and well-armed, the space station could not compete against a dozen Dominator cruisers for long. They had to come up with a plan.

“Master Rand, the Sith reinforcements are approaching,” announced the Jedi Knight in charge of the Beacon’s sensors.

“How many?”

“All of them.”

Atton turned his attention away from the viewport and examined the sensors himself. Sure enough, nearly one hundred capital ships were approaching Falang Minor, each one larger than the Beacon and its Republic counterparts. Each capital ship had at about three frigate-sized vessels in its wake, and the entire fleet had hundreds of gunships and thousands of starfighters waiting in hangars.

“I have a very bad feeling about this,” Atton muttered.

“Wait. Do you see that?” the sensor operator asked. “They’re on a vector away from us. Based on their current trajectory, they’re going to approach the lead ship attacking us and then make a hard turn to their port side.”

“Are they going to pin us between the space station and their larger fleet and then move in?” asked the Padawan assistant.

“No…” The senior Jedi said. “They’re not launching fighters or any support craft. Their shields are active, but we’re getting no readings on their guns. They don’t intend to attack. What are they doing?”

Atton stared at the holographic display. What did they intend to do? Atton could envision them setting up a pincer trap, but their initial position was poor. If they wanted to destroy the space station, approaching from the side opposite of where the Jedi had gathered would have been a better maneuver. Aside from the Jedi and Republic ships, there were still many turrets on their side of the space station for them to contend with.

Through reflection and a bit of guidance from the Force, he suddenly realized their plan. “They’re going to try landing their troops on the surface.”

“We have to alert the Council!” the chief gunner said.

“Get me the secure channel to the Councilor’s chambers!” Atton shouted to the comm officer across the bridge. “Tell them to prepare the anti-air defenses for incoming troopships and landers!”

“Master, we’re experiencing some kind of interference. We can’t make contact with the planet,” was the reply.

“How is that possible?” asked the navigator.

“They've already deployed ground-based sensor jammers. Switch over to short-range channels and see if you can reach anyone,” Master Rand ordered.

Atton returned to the front of the bridge. Although he was cut off from the rest of the Jedi Council through conventional means, he could still speak with them through the Force. Reaching out to his fellow Jedi Masters, he warned them of the coming dangers. He felt several affirmative responses, but some did not respond. Whether they were busy or else already endangered, he wasn’t sure. He didn’t have time to worry about them when the situation around him was becoming grimmer by the minute.

“Gun crews,” Atton announced through the comm, “fire your quad cannons at their transports, but do not engage their warships unless they engage us. Sensor operator, monitor their lead ships. I suspect they'll move in for an attack once they’re finished deploying.”

“But Master Rand, we don’t have the firepower to stop them if their larger ships do move in to engage us,” replied the Jedi Master.

“Hold position and wait on the Force. Help will come. I know it will.”

*** ***

Nocion had traveled from the Jedi fortress to one of the larger islands in the southern hemisphere for a research expedition. He and two other Jedi Knights had been tasked with defending researchers who were investigating the ruins to see if those on the island were of the same architectural style as the ruins left behind on both sides of the Vyred Mountains. The Force had prodded at him in the low-altitude transport, but he had largely ignored it. By the time he had landed and finished unloading his supplies—he was assigned guard duty, not archeological investigation—the Force felt like it was jabbing him in the side over and over. He extended his perceptions, but he felt nothing out of the ordinary—there was certainly no danger on this uninhabited island.

“Look! What’s that?” exclaimed the lead researcher.

The team of Jedi and fringer archeologists stared into the sky. Just above the clouds, so far away that it they appeared as tiny specks, Sith transports and landing craft were heading toward the northeastern continent where the Jedi fortress and the fringer settlement was located. Nocion continued to stare into the sky, using his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, until the Force helped him surmise their identity.

He was initially paralyzed by inaction. How did the Sith find them? How come he had not been alerted to the Sith battle plans? Why did he not sense their arrival sooner? He cursed himself for ignoring the warnings that the Force had been giving him. He had planned on kidnapping Celes and Harin away just before the Sith arrived at Falang Minor, so their escape would be overlooked during the chaos. He had to act quickly. He didn’t have much time to ensure their safety.

Taking advantage of the fact that the Jedi and researchers had no idea what was going on, Nocion doubled back to the shuttle before they could stop him. The shuttle pilot was smoking a cigarra on the boarding ramp; Nocion shoved him out of the way and sealed the ramp once he was inside. Fortunately, the pilot had left the ship on. Shifting its engines from idle to active, Nocion took the controls and guided the vessel back toward the Jedi fortress, leaving the researchers and two other Jedi stranded on the island until they could call for help.

*** ***

“Damn it, where are the emergency rations?” shouted Lucius.

“You’d think you would have put them somewhere obvious,” Manda snapped back. “You know… in case of an emergency?”

Ralina had torn apart her wardrobe looking for clothes suitable for orienteering and combat. After several minutes, she had managed to find a long sleeved white shirt, her old Republic pilot’s jacket, and trousers made out of synthetic fibers to insulate her from the weather. Her utility belt already had her comlink, food packs, and medpacs, but she couldn’t find her blaster or her boots. Swearing to herself, she went over to the footlockers by the window and began throwing out their contents. Her boots had been slipped under Thertos’s childhood schoolwork. How they managed to get in there, she had no idea, but she didn’t care. Discarding her slippers, she quickly pulled on socks and then her boots.

“Where’s my blaster?” Ralina shouted down the stairs.

“Where’s the emergency food?” Lucius replied in kind.

“I'll trade you when I find them!”

“Thertos, have you seen the rations?” Manda asked.

There was no response.

“Thertos?” Ralina asked. Very bad feelings began to well up inside her gut. Sprinting across the hall, Ralina nearly tripped over the stacks of datapads and holographic tapes that had been strewn across the floor. “Thertos!” She knocked on his door. “Thertos? Open up! We have to be ready to go!”

Still no reply. Was he sleeping? He couldn’t be. The bombardment had nearly obliterated them; the entire eastern section of the settlement had been razed by turbolaser fire, including the communal hangars. The fact they had lost the Whirling Fire did not even cross her mind. She tried the door panel, but it had been sealed from inside. Swiping her master key, Ralina hit the door panel again and the door slid open.

The room was just as she had last seen it, but Thertos was nowhere to be seen. The worried feeling in her stomach got worse when she saw that the window was open. He had run off once before, nearly a week ago, but Manda had caught him before he had gotten very far and had nearly thrashed him. Ralina and Lucius had sent him to one of the Jedi Masters who specialized in treating psychological and emotional trauma several days ago, and he seemed to have improved. He spoke more, he slept better, and he spent less time alone in his room.

Ralina did everything she could to keep herself from panicking. Perhaps he had just stepped out. He could have been coming back from the Whirling Fire… no, that was worse. She snatched her comlink from her belt and tried to call him. Her heart skipped a beat when she heard Thertos’s comlink chime back at her from his nightstand. She shouted incoherently and scrambled to the window. She stuck her head out as far as she could and looked all around her. There was no sign of her son anywhere.

The homes in this part of the settlement had not been damaged by the bombardment, but the Jedi fortress’s shields did not reach the settlement at all, so every second they wasted meant the possibility of a follow-up attack. Their neighbors were gathering their belongings and loved ones, but their ships were destroyed and they could not escape Falang Minor. Most of them, Ralina and her family included, had planned to retreat westward—away from the Jedi sanctuary—toward the low country. A few of the braver souls would travel northeast toward the smugglers’ outpost in the hills.

“Ralina!” Lucius stood in the doorway. “We need to go. We don’t have any more time. Where’s Thertos?”

Ralina realized that she was sobbing. “I don’t know, Lucius. He escaped out the window-”

“What? When?”

“I don’t know… I don’t know…”

Lucius was at her side in an instant. Like Ralina, his survey of the settlement gave him no clues that would lead him to his son. He turned his attention to the sky, and Ralina did likewise. Lucius swore under his breath upon seeing the Sith approaching. Their ships could not pass through the shield, forcing them to land as close to its perimeter as they could. Their initial landing zone, to the east, was so well defended by anti-air guns placed near the Jedi fortress that they opted for a safer landing place after much of their vanguard was destroyed. The survivors traveled to the south and west, all the way to the opposite side of the shield, much closer to the civilians and their settlement.

“I’ll look for him,” Lucius said at last. “You and Manda go with the others toward the lowlands.”

“No. I won’t leave you Lucius. We look for him together.”

“The shields aren’t protecting us here, Ralina! We could get hit again at any time. I won’t risk losing you.”

“And I don’t want to lose my son and my husband today. Either we all go or none of us will.”

Lucius sighed. “Get Manda and follow me, then. Those transports will be here any second.”

While his family hurried to gather the last of their things and look for him, Thertos found himself several kilometers eastward, beyond the ruins where some of the settlers intended to hide. He had taken only his pack of supplies, a canteen of water, and his mother’s blaster pistol. Earlier in the morning, he and Manda had planned on going for a hike. The coming rain had forced them to postpone. He had been about to fall asleep when the sounds of battle and the assault on the settlement revitalized the trauma that he had been trying to suppress since he had returned from Gamandar. Stealing the blaster and taking the supplies he had packed for the hike, he ran as fast as he could for as long as he could and ended up within the safety of the shield.

He wasn’t quite sure what he intended to do. It didn’t even occur to his rattled mind that he should have returned home to his concerned family. He was shaken, and the coming battle seemed to switch on an instinct within him that he didn’t know he had. Adrenaline was coursing through him and making him see enemies where there were only trees or ruined pillars. He needed to shoot something. He wanted to fight. He wanted to kill.

He had never felt this way. Not even at Gamandar, when his life had been in the most danger, had he felt such a desire for violence. With no purpose in mind other than to find and shoot the first living being he saw, he wound his way through the trees toward the base of the mountains that loomed ever closer.

*** ***

As an independent contractor of sorts, Coroq Lotte was not bound to follow the engagement procedures of the Sith. He ordered the pilot of the Shadowchaser to bring them down to the north, where the peaks of the Vyred Range became smaller and wider, eventually blossoming into smaller hills. While the Sith intended to minimize the distance they needed to reach the Jedi fortress despite facing intense opposition, Coroq sought the opposite scenario. He was fine with sneaking around and dealing a silent blow to the Jedi from behind.

There were no defenses where he ordered his group to land. It was at least half a day’s trek from the plateau he and the other Exchange mercenaries settled on, but it was a harmless one. The Shadowchaser’s sensors found no sentient beings on his way from the shield to here, so he surmised that all of the northern country was of little strategic importance. All the better. He could remain here as long as he wished.

Truthfully, he had very little interest in this battle. Coroq Lotte had been captured by Sith forces chasing the Ghoul and his crafty Jedi allies. After he had told them everything he knew, he was forced to ‘volunteer’ his services to the leader of the Sith—a rather eerie fellow by the name of Lord Preux. And so he did. No use arguing with sorcerers when he could just as easily get paid to fight for them instead.

Of course, if the Ghoul fraternized with the Jedi Order, there was a chance he was here—or would soon be here. He had been told that the mercenaries that had left on Ambria in ambush had been soundly defeated when the Jedi had returned. He did not know if the Ghoul had been involved in that defeat. The tracking beacon his underlings had planted on the Grimtaash was still there; he could not accurately track them in hyperspace, but based on their last stop they seemed to be heading from Ambria toward Falang Minor. He was beside himself in anticipation.

“All of our ships settled down safely. Shall we begin unloading our supplies?”

“Yes. Take note… today marks the day that we will avenge the deaths of my father and my nephew both. I will return to the compeer of the Exchange with the Ghoul’s head on a pike!”

“Hail the patriarch of clan Lotte! Let him lead us into battle!”

“For riches and fame!”

“Death to the Jedi!”

The Sanyassan smiled. For now, preparation was all that was needed. He would only act once he was certain the Grimtaash arrived in system and was coming to join the battle. There was no shame in lying in wait for an enemy as long as he challenged him one-on-one when the time came. Hopefully his ship’s guns could deal with any pesky adversaries who flew by searching for Sith to destroy.


Chapter 42

Glacis sat in the depths of the Kyramud-type battleship Alor’ad, readying her rifle and armor for battle. There were hundreds of Mandalorians in the so-called pit with her, each of them preparing for battle in their own way. Some of the more traditional minded were chanting the Odes, a sort of appeal to the old gods for aid in combat. Others sparred with each other near the center of the room. And a few ate, told stories, and reminisced with their brothers and sisters. She rejected offers from her unit—led by Field Marshal Bralor—to spar or offer supplication. She wanted to be alone.

She thought of her father often. She had attended a memorial service led by Kerre before they departed from Mandalore. Verita and Fier had both been there. Her mother had refused to speak with her, but she had a chance to talk with Fier and had caught up with her then. As expected, Fier was taking their father’s death hard, and Verita’s cold attitude only made her worse. After a verbal spat with her mother, Glacis had taken Fier and moved both of them to live with Briggs’s clan. Loyal to a fault, her father’s lieutenant had been accommodating to both of them, but the other members of his family avoided them in fear of being associated with clanless—even the honored daughters of one who had saved Mandalore’s life.

They hadn’t even had time to grieve when Mandalore informed them that they had to mobilize to aid the Sith forces in their attack against the Jedi. Mandalore had promoted Glacis for her courage in battle and had offered Fier a place in his strategy and planning team. Verita had tried to refuse for her daughter, but Glacis had convinced Fier to ignore her warnings and do what she felt was best.

Glacis placed her blaster rifle in its wall mount by her cot and picked up the sniper rifle at her feet. Mandalore had sent a scouting party to recover Jhosua’s remains, but the waves had washed away nearly everything from the reef. Only his sniper rifle remained, its strap caught amidst the coral. After having it repaired by the preeminent gunsmith of their people, Mandalore had gifted the weapon to Glacis. Holding it in her hands, she realized that she had never been allowed to shoot with her father’s rifle. She had had sniper training, of course, but Jhosua had refused every request she ever made to use his weapon instead of her own. The sniper rifle had been very special to him; he had told her stories about how he had acquired it when she had been very little, but she scarcely remembered them. She wished she did.

While she reflected on the history of the weapon in her hands, the crowd around her was becoming more riled up. They were about to leave hyperspace. The captains were trying to assemble their teams for a final briefing, but it proved difficult amidst the chaos. Some of her comrades donned their helmets and prepared their shields. Only the green recruits had yet to fully prepare. One of them near her, a Sluissi who had joined their unit just before the attack on Mandalore, was chanting in his own language not too far from her seat. “K’ssos verssetha lolsola, ne me can’doss va ssorc daemons vala…”

“Those aren’t the Odes,” noted the Human sitting next to him once he had finished.

“It is a plea to the gods of my people,” the warrior said. “I am asking the gods to steer my sword in battle but to shield my heart from pride.”

“I had heard Field Marshal Weros talking to you about that,” the Human said, whispering in an effort to keep Glacis from hearing. “Did he believe in your gods too?”

“He had often listened to the legends of my people. Something about the tale intrigued him.”

“Perhaps he had heard of them before.”

“Perhaps. He was interested in the history of our war god. The war god of our people was born a slave—an avatross—and wanted to avenge his family by fighting his way to freedom and killing those who had humiliated him, but he was too weak. When he begged the gods for aid, they told him he had to undergo three trials to be worthy in their eyes: one through fire, one in shadow, one beneath the sea. Only then could he shed his skin and be reborn as the champion of champions.”

“And he succeeded,” the other Mandalorian surmised.

“He did. His will gave him victory over his physical trials, but not those of his heart. He had loved another slave during his time among us, but when he ascended to godhood, he forgot about her for a time. His heart turned to battle, and his fortune and conquests were legendary. None could stand against him. His name was lauded across the stars. He had been so enraptured by his fame that he only remembered her after she became very ill and died.”

“And what happened then?” Glacis asked from her seat.

The Sluissi recruit did not realize she had been listening, but he simply concluded, “He regretted his immortality and longed for the one he had lost. His madness overcame him, and he carved the earth into a jagged peak with his blade, fell down from the hallow of the gods, and pierced himself against its apex. And so he died—for a time. The gods cannot die, of course, so only his manifestation was destroyed. Any warrior who overcomes the three trials we consider a reincarnation and successor of this same god.”

Glacis shouldered her sniper rifle. “But no matter how many times he returns, he can never reunite with his lover.”

“Just so. But someday, we say, after the final battle has been waged, she will rise up from the skin he has shed and join him among the gods.”

“I don’t suppose the friends I've lost will return from my dried skin,” muttered the Human sitting beside him.

Something about the tale resonated with Glacis, but she wasn’t sure exactly what it was. When she was younger, she probably would have scoffed at the Sluissi’s story. But for whatever reason, the thought of war gods and lost loves and reunion with the departed comforted her. When Bralor summoned the entire company to him, she thought of her sister and mother. She immediately regretted not reconciling with her mother and staying with her sister. Under her breath, she began chanting the odes against the trickster and destroyer gods of her people hoping that matron goddess of their pantheon would preserve her family until they could next meet.

*** ***

Lieutenant Colonel Rajes Thonnel stood on the bridge of the Sojourn in his combat armor. He and his unit had returned from Sernpidal only a few days ago, which meant that he hadn’t even had time to refurbish his equipment before being shipped off again. Brigadier Eto was at his left side, and Captain Illen, his adjutant, stood at his left. Admiral Onasi had relinquished the chair to the ship’s captain while he examined a map of Falang Minor as they had left it several months ago: defended by several Jedi warships, many starfighters, a space station, and enough turrets to repel a dozen pirate groups at once.

“We’re going to have to assume the situation is dire,” Carth said, speaking to the other Republic admirals via holocomm. “We have no information on the enemy’s size or strategy, and the Jedi haven’t replied to any of our long-range communications. Every second from the moment we leave hyperspace is critical. Unfortunately, we must be prepared for the scenario in which the Jedi have already been defeated.”

“A grim situation indeed,” Admiral Svarsk mused.

“Do we have a chance against the Sith in that hypothetical?” asked Commodore Molir, who was standing beside Admiral Marathos on the Palatine.

“I believe we do,” Admiral Onasi said. “But we’re dependent on every ship we have, every soldier in waiting, and any allies who have yet to reveal themselves.”

“You mean Revan and the Exile,” Vice Admiral Xera Yur noted.

“Although Fleet Admiral Onasi may be reluctant to admit it, the chance of external support is slim,” Brigadier Eto spoke up. “As it stands, we are devoting all we can to this attack—and I’m worried that we have devoted too much.”

“We cannot risk the Sith winning this engagement,” Admiral Marathos pointed out.

“No, but we do not want to be caught undermanned when the Sith attack somewhere more strategically valuable. One of our shipyards, for example. Or Coruscant,” Eto answered.

“We've sent as many forces as we can to Coruscant,” Carth replied. “I do not intend to see a repeat of our last wars, when our enemies raided our shipyards and stole valuable warships and resources. But you also know that if the Sith beat us back over Falang Minor, they hold the upper hand. They can press the attack against the Jedi, they can pursue us along the hyperlanes as we retreat, or they can flee into the emptiness of space.”

“I’m here to help you ensure that that doesn’t happen,” Brigadier Eto answered. “But I’m worried all the same.”

“The Sith will not triumph against our combined might,” Major Honjenber, leader of the Ailon Nova Guard company, growled.

The arrival of these Ailon warriors was was most opportune, but it was also strange. The Ailon were a species of warlike beings with a religious devotion to martial prowess, not unlike the Mandalorians. They lived on the fortress world of Ailon and had been allies of the Galactic Republic millennia ago in their conflicts against the Alsakans and Tionese. They had recently been contacted by the ‘Blind One’, as they called him, to aid the Republic again. They were strangely fanatical, and even some of their younger fighters proved a match for hardened Republic commandos. Admiral Onasi and Brigadier Eto determined that they had no ill-intent or ulterior motive but truly only wanted to fight and help the Republic win their battles. Though they had only brought about three thousand fighters, the Republic was grateful for their assistance.

“Fleet Admiral, reversion in twenty seconds.”

“The ship is yours, Admiral Onasi,” the captain said, leaving the chair to stand beside the helmsman.

“All hands on all ships attend to battle stations,” Admiral Onasi said, settling into the chair at the center of the bridge.

“Sir, I’m going to go see to our men and women waiting in the hangars,” Rajes whispered to Brigadier Eto.

“Go ahead, Lieutenant Colonel. I’ll handle the situation on the bridge.”

The lieutenant colonel had left the room when the navigator called out. “Reversion in five… four… three… two…”

The viewport covers peeled back as the Sojourn returned to realspace. Falang Minor practically dominated the viewport, as did the naval engagement taking place in orbit. Three Hammerhead-class cruisers arrived on the Sojourn’s port side, and several Irid-class heavy cruisers and Foray-class blockade runners appeared at its starboard side. The remaining ships in the First Fleet decanted behind Fleet Admiral Onasi and the other lead ships, immediately belching dozens of starfighters from within their hangars to screen the larger vessels. The other admirals reverted their fleets along the Sojourn’s port and port bow.

The battle had not gone well for the Jedi. Their lead ship and the M5 light cruiser that followed in its wake had no shields and were scarred from repeated turbolaser fire. One Foray blockade runner was venting atmosphere, and the other was limping along, vainly trying to retreat from the wave of bombers that was destroying what was left of its dorsal plating. The dogfights had gone a little better, although the sheer numerical advantage the Sith had over the skilled Jedi pilots was proving more significant over time. Most of their orbital satellites had been destroyed, and the majority of their floating turrets had been reduced to slag. Only the space station, looming over the battle as an unassailable fortress, was able to truly fight back against the Sith. It traded volley after volley of turbolaser fire with the pack of Dominator cruisers that were closing in to destroy what was left of the Jedi Order’s orbital defenses.

“I've never seen those ships before,” said the Sojourn’s captain.

“The Sith have been busy during these past few years,” Admiral Onasi noted. “Perform a comprehensive sensor scan. I want as much data as we can get on them.”

“Sending Rear Admiral Gabran to relieve the Jedi, sir,” Vice Admiral Yur announced.

“My ships will move in to assist as well,” Admiral Marathos said.

While his crew went to work, Admiral Onasi scowled. Something didn’t feel right. The fleet standing between them and the Jedi was daunting, to be sure, but a dozen warships was hardly what he had expected when Revan had told him about the danger to the Galactic Republic. This handful of ships would be no challenge to the assembled Republic Navy forces, but he had learned a long time ago not to underestimate the Sith.

“Raise the Jedi Commander of the Beacon,” Admiral Onasi said.

“No response, Admiral.”

“What about Captain Ha’ntesh aboard the orbital station?”

“Trying, Admiral…” The comm operator adjusted the controls on his earpiece several times to make sure it was working. “No one is responding.”

“What do you mean?”

“I've made three attempts to contact them, but all I’m getting is static. As far as I can tell from here, their communications relay is working, so I’m at a loss as to why they haven’t responded.”

“Keep trying,” Admiral Onasi said. “Keep us at a distance, Helmsman. Send some of our gunships to investigate.”

“Aye, sir.”

Fleet Admiral Onasi watched while the battle group led by Rear Admiral Gabran approached the Sith ships. Several starfighter squadrons led the way, breaking up the intense dogfight that had been going on between Sith interceptors and Jedi fighters. The Republic frigates and capital ships followed in their wake, sending a cannonade of green turbolaser fire into the left and right flanks of Admiral Mauch’s ships. Most of the Sith warships focused on attacking the space station even as they were attacked by the Republic, but the rearmost vessels began ponderously turning to show their bristling gun decks to their new adversaries.

Pinned between the Republic reinforcements and the Jedi station, the other Dominator cruisers couldn’t provide relief for the two battleships that were dogging the wounded Jedi ships. Admiral Rel Marathos and his fleet intercepted the duo of Dominator cruisers and began encircling them, bringing all of their turbolasers to bear. While the space between the Republic and Sith warships filled with green and red turbolaser fire, Commodore Molir and the starfighter wing under his command harassed the starfighters and bombers assailing the larger ships.

Most of the Republic fleet stayed back and observed the battle from afar, ready to act as reinforcements if the tide turned against them. However, Rear Admiral Gabran and Admiral Marathos seemed quite able to handle the Sith forces by themselves. Brigadier Eto figured that this was the safest time for him to deploy their soldiers onto the ground, so at his command the army corps that had been escorted along with the Republic fleet began heading for the planet’s surface, defended by the First Fleet’s starfighter contingent.

“Sir,” the comm officer said. “The space station has responded to our transmission. Captain Ha’ntesh is on the other end now.”

“Reroute it to my comm,” Admiral Onasi said. “I hope he has an explanation for his delay.”

The holographic projector on Admiral Onasi’s chair crackled, buzzed, and shifted to a shimmering view of the Hamadryas captain of Falang Minor’s orbital defenses. His uniform and hair were disheveled, and he was clutching his right arm in pain. He was breathing deeply, as one who had sprinted across the deck to get to the comm unit.

“Fleet Admiral Onasi,” Captain Ha’ntesh said, stiffening into a salute. “I’m glad you’re here… but you shouldn’t have come!”

“What’s going on, Captain? Where are the Jedi? Why didn’t you respond to our earlier transmissions?”

“No time to explain, Admiral. Gather up your forces and retreat. It’s already too late. The Sith-”

“Slow down, Jesiv. You’re not making any sense. Now…”

“Enemy ships, coming from the direction of Falang Major!” the sensor officer shouted.

“It’s a trap, Admiral!”

Admiral Tara Isinn and her fleet reverted from their microjump so their ships were interposed between the majority of the Republic fleet and the ships that had gone to assist the Jedi. The fleets of Admiral Keth and Admiral Acophy arrived at the First Fleet’s left and right flanks, respectively, and Admiral Kvorkasir’s ships appeared beside Admiral Marathos’s fleet. The Mandalorians, Iotrans, Iridorians, and Preux’s fleet emerged from hyperspace in what would have been above the Republic, their broadsides facing Admiral Onasi’s ships and guns ready to fire.

“All power to shields!” Carth ordered. “Increase dorsal and rear shields-”

There was no way for the Republic crewers to react fast enough. Crimson turbolaser fire from the Sith warships struck Republic ships from above, the side, and directly ahead. Sith starfighter squadrons guided bombers and gunships in between Republic ships on their way to deliver devastating payloads into their midst. A few of Admiral Isinn’s squadrons careened off to harass the Republic Army forces descending to Falang Minor.

The entire Republic fleet was in disarray. The Sojourn was intact, but it had taken damage along its port quarter from enemy turbolasers before their shields had reached full strength. Two of its Foray blockade runner escorts had been destroyed in the initial assault, as had the nearest Hammerhead cruiser. Admiral Svarsk and Vice Admiral Yur were already reforming their battle line and fighting back, but Admiral Onasi’s vessels had been divided by Sith cruisers.

“Status report, Captain,” Admiral Onasi said.

“All systems operational. Shields holding at seventy percent. Moderate damage on the port side of decks five through eleven.”

“Bring us around and aim for the nearest Sith ship our size,” the fleet admiral ordered. “And have all of our ships do the same.”

“I’m sorry, Admiral Onasi,” the space station captain said, who was still on the other end of the comm. Something… amiss happened to our comm officer, and he had to be restrained. There was no way for us to respond to you until he was dealt with.”

“What about the Jedi? Have you made contact with the surface?”

“The Sith have deployed ground-based sensor jamming devices,” the captain replied. “They essentially blanket the entire continent in interference. We haven’t been able to reach anyone—Jedi or civilian—planetside. They haven’t jammed our ship-to-ship communication, but they did destroy the comm relay on the Jedi flagship.”

“Understood. Keep me posted, Captain. Let me know if you need assistance.”

“Again, I’m sorry, Admiral. I should have warned you sooner. Captain Ha’ntesh out.”

“I’m going down to the planet with my soldiers,” Brigadier Eto said once he had helped Captain Ilen back to her feet. “They’ll need my expertise down there, and I’m useless up here as long as space-to-ground communications are blocked.”

“I would have liked to have you up here, but I realize there’s nothing else we can do. Stay safe, Ducian.”

“And you as well, Fleet Admiral.”

Once they were gone, Fleet Admiral Onasi turned his attention to the battle with earnest. The Sojourn had already pitched up to face the belly of a Sith Interdictor cruiser, using its forward batteries to blast away at the Sith warship’s ventral shields. Two Foray blockade runners followed in its wake, defending the Republic flagship’s flanks and complementing the Hammerhead cruiser’s heavier firepower. Most of the Sojourn’s starfighters had gone to defend the descending soldiers, leaving it more exposed to strafing runs. Fortunately, one of the Irid heavy frigates in the Sojourn’s battle group sent a squadron to defend their lead vessel.

“Admiral, we can’t remain in this position,” the ship’s captain said. “Our shields aren’t going to last long against their firepower.”

“I know, Captain. Continue firing at this ship here. But begin moving into a position where we can overtake it on its port and starboard sides. If we can destroy it and usurp its position in the Sith line of battle, we can drive a wedge between the three ships ahead of us and get out of this trap.”

“Incoming fighters! They’re not Sith, though. They’re Mandalorian snubfighters.”

“Mandalorian?” Carth scowled. “That can’t be. He wouldn’t…” The admiral closed his eyes, lost in thought for a moment. He was so still and so quiet—especially at such a tense moment—that the crew became visibly unnerved. “Try to locate and signal the Mandalorian flagship. I want some answers.”

“On it, Admiral.”

*** ***

Harin stirred from a dreamless sleep. The prison itself was silent, and while there was no way for him to tell time, he suspected that it was about midday. The Force kept prodding his minds of coming danger; it would not be long before the encroaching darkness, just barely tangible, would become a real threat. The young Jedi rose to full height, careful to avoid being burned by the shimmering force field around him. All of the Jedi prisoners, his mother not included, were awake and whispering to one another. He was too far from their cells to understand them.

“Mom…” Harin whispered. “Mom!”

It was no use. The drug-induced stupor that kept Celes Sunrider in a listless state had been created to disrupt the mental facilities of an imprisoned Sith Lord. Even her will power, impressive as it was, was not enough to stave off the continuous stream of chemicals into her body. Harin had tried on several occasions to bolster her strength with his own, but she was not aware of his efforts to aid her and could not benefit from his assistance.

The door to the prison slid open. A Nikto Jedi Knight, wearing white robes and carrying an activated gold lightsaber in his hand, stepped over the corpses of the two guards that had been on duty. The other captive Jedi greeted him warmly and urged him to hurry. The terminal that controlled the force cages required two key cards to utilize. Sliding both cards, one after the other, the Nikto Jedi gained control of the prison facilities and deactivated all of the force cages nearby. The buzzing energy field around Harin dissipated with a brief hum. After nearly a month of imprisonment, he was finally free. Rushing to his mother’s side, he managed to catch her before she fell over, no longer propped up by the force cage.

“You've done well,” one of the freed Jedi Knights, a female Miraluka, said to her apparent Nikto companion, “Have you received any word from the High Lightbearer?”

“I have received no word at all,” replied the Nikto. “But the Sith are already here. I decided that maintaining deep cover was not possible in such a grave situation.”

“Surely High Lightbearer Eston will understand that our lives are more important than shadowing the Jedi,” agreed a nearby male Gotal.

“This corrupt Order is about to be destroyed regardless of what we decide to do,” a female Sephi Jedi Master said. “We ought to find our belongings and depart from here before the greater darkness sweeps through this place.”

“What about them?” the Nikto Jedi asked, noticing Harin and Celes for the first time.

“The Sunrider family is the one of our last noble houses, and there is no darkness in them. If only the rest of the Jedi Order were like them, we would not yearn for its hastened destruction,” the Sephi Jedi answered. “Our paths will diverge sooner than not, but we ought to help them while we can.”

Harin was so distracted trying to waken his mother from her stupor that he didn’t even realize that they were talking about him. He jumped when the Gotal Jedi laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Peace, lad. Your mother will return to her senses momentarily. The foul concoction that kept her dazed is not meant to last long. Are you well? Can you travel?”

“Yes. I’m all right, but I’m worried about her.” Harin quickly realized that he was surrounded by nearly a dozen Jedi Knights, all but one of whom had been a prisoner like him only moments ago. Based on what Nocion had told him, they were only Jedi who had spoken against the Jedi Council. Nevertheless, he could not help but feel uneasy. How effortlessly had they killed those guards? If they wanted to, they could best him by sheer numbers alone.

The Sephi Jedi Master seemed to know what he was thinking. “Do not fear, son of Sunrider. We have no intention of keeping you from escaping this place. In fact, we believe that—given our shared experiences in this dungeon—we should help each other.”

“How?”

“The Jedi have locked away all of our belongings. If you want to recover your and your mother’s lightsabers, you should help us.”

“Do you know where they’re hidden?”

“He does.” The Miraluka motioned toward the Nikto Jedi who had freed them. “He’s been posing as a guard for some time, so he knows where they hide all of the confiscated equipment. What do you say? Help us get our things, and we’ll help you escape from here.”

Harin bit his lip. He sensed no deception from any of them, but he knew that they could have very well left something unsaid. As long as his mother was unconscious, both of them were in danger. Maybe from these Jedi, maybe from the Jedi Order’s guards who would come to investigate the commotion in the prisons. No doubt he would feel better with his lightsaber, but he wasn’t willing to leave from his mother’s side just yet.

“Let me stay with her. I need to make she knows I’m all right as soon as she recovers.”

The freed Jedi shared several glances with one another.

“It is not safe here,” the Nikto spoke for them. “Follow us to the elevator at least. There is strength in numbers.”

Harin nodded. “Lead the way. We'll follow you.”


Chapter 43

Nafyan guided his personal transport through the battle. A lithe ship somewhere between the size of a starfighter and a gunship, he had no trouble dealing with the Republic interceptors that tried to challenge him. The larger ships were trading turbolaser fire with reckless abandon, forcing all but the most skilled pilots to abandon the space between them to dogfight elsewhere. Guided by the Force, Nafyan wormed his way through the chaos around Falang Minor toward the Phantasm.

Built from the derelict of a Inexpugnable-class command ship, the Phantasm was larger than any other vessel fielded by the Republic or the Sith. The vessel was primarily a massive disc about three thousand meters in diameter, with a concave segment at its center and a rudder-shaped component beneath its main superstructure. Using blueprints stolen from a Republic military database, Sith engineers had spent billions of credits alleviating the errors that had plagued the original Inexpugnable ships. The engines, targeting package, on board computers, shielding units, and weapon systems had been completely overhauled, resulting in a warship that made even the Dominator battlecruisers pale by comparison.

The Phantasm’s turbolasers tore through a Hammerhead cruiser that had situated itself between Nafyan and his destination, and he narrowly avoided being caught in the aftermath of the explosion that followed. The immense firepower of the Sith flagship left durasteel skeletons of many ships in its wake. Any pursuers Nafyan had broke off as it became too hazardous to navigate the plentiful debris.

Passing through the dark shield that served as the Sith flagship’s first line of defense, Nafyan steered his transport into the lowest hangars. After settling the ship down and disembarking, he found one of his many apprentices waiting for him. The young Human female was a newer Sith acolyte, having been selected for service only a month ago, and this was among the handful of times she had actually seen Nafyan since the beginning of her apprenticeship. She regarded Nafyan with a sort of speechless fear, but Nafyan had no time to appreciate her humility.

“Where is Preux? Where are my prisoners?”

“M-my lord, Preux is on the bridge. You have been summoned-”

“Enough. My purpose surpasses his petty commands. Tell me where my prisoners are.”

“They are still in the brig, Master Nafyan. No one has given orders to move them,” the young Sith replied, rather confused.

“Very good. Take me there, apprentice. Be ready for battle.”

Master and apprentice hadn’t even departed from Nafyan’s transport craft when a contingent of Sith troopers—led by a grenadier in copper-colored armor—and two Sith Marauders intercepted them. Nafyan recognized the Sith warriors as two of Tadeus’s former apprentices, trained in tracking and neutralizing Force-sensitives. They had yet to reach for their lightsabers, but Nafyan sensed they were eager to do so.

“Master Nafyan,” the taller of the pair said, his voice muffled behind a bulbous durasteel mask. “Your presence is requested on the bridge.”

“Lord Preux wishes to speak with you,” the other added.

“And I will go to him when I see fit. My own mission is critical to the success of this operation.”

The Sith extended their ignited lightsabers to block Nafyan from proceeding. “You will come with us now. Either accompany us or be dealt with accordingly. We don’t have time to waste with you.”

“And neither do I.”

Admiral Mauch had explained to him how he had been killed and revived in a clone body at the behest of Darth Preux. As a Force-sensitive clone, his body was particularly susceptible to age and the Force, and he had regained much of the strength he had had before his death. With an incantation in the ancient Sith tongue, Nafyan summoned tendrils of dark side energy that ensnared his enemies and sapped their physical and mental strength. Even the Sith Marauders, trained in many Sith arts, could not free themselves from his spell.

“Follow me, apprentice. Leave these fools to suffer whatever fate awaits them for their failure,” Nafyan said.

He and his young apprentice traveled through the corridors of the Phantasm toward the brig. At first, they were challenged by marine contingents, but after these initial forces were dealt with, it seemed that Preux had ordered them rerouted so that they no longer impeded him. A wise move. He would have dealt with them handedly. Although their flagship was safe from Republic or Jedi boarding attempts for the time being, there was no guarantee that their forces would not find a way through the dark side barrier, and Preux needed those marines to slow down his real enemies.

After killing the two Dark Jedi guarding the brig, Nafyan and his apprentice entered the main cell block. Most of their prisoners were still there, although a few traitors and cowards had been removed and placed in suicide ships where they would be forced to throw themselves at Republic ships. Atris and Ojon, their chief Jedi prisoners, were sitting in a cell at the far end of the hall, sitting quietly and meditating at opposite ends of the prison.

Nafyan lowered the energy field that separated the Jedi from him. The Cerean Jedi Knight had tried to assail him several times in the past, but the merciless reprisals that had followed weakened his fighting spirit. Atris, for her part, did not even acknowledge his arrival. Like the younger Jedi, she had been tortured sporadically, if only for Nafyan’s amusement.

“Do you know where we are, Jedi?” Nafyan asked, striding into the cell. “We’re beginning the attack on your precious Jedi sanctuary. Our ships are bombarding the surface of the planet even now, razing your temple and killing your pupils. Soon there will be nothing left of the Jedi Order, and the Galactic Republic shall receive such a painful blow that they will fall back all the way to their precious Core Worlds and cower while we conquer the rest of the galaxy.”

“You’re lying,” Ojon muttered. “You couldn’t find the Jedi. Our information was useless.”

“So it was,” Nafyan spat. “But there are other ways of coaxing a styanax from his lair. This Jedi fortress world was once regarded as indomitable, a bastion along the Republic frontier. We'll make sure there’s nothing but radioactive waste to admire once we’re through.”

“Did you intend to spend the entire battle gloating to us?” Atris asked. “There is no glory to earn here.”

Nafyan ignored her. “The Jedi Order has recovered some of their strength since the end of the Jedi Civil War—this I will admit. Their swelling numbers and learned Jedi Masters have allowed them additional resources, and these resources have helped them track down artifacts that were stolen or lost in the aftermath of that war. You and I both know that the Jedi Council has gathered many powerful Sith relics with an intent of keeping them out of our hands forever.”

“So what?” Ojon asked.

“The battle is not yet won. The Jedi Order’s destruction is not yet complete. The Lady Atris spent her last days in exile, and she abandoned her rank of Jedi Master to become a collector of such dark antiquities, am I not correct?”

Atris said nothing, but she trembled at some unmentioned thought.

“You and I will go down to what remains of the Jedi sanctuary. We will access the treasury, and you will help me recover the artifacts that I desire. Do you understand?”

“You presume I will not refuse?”

“You will either help me, or I will kill you both.” Nafyan unclipped the lightsaber from his belt. “You have both been tortured before. You know I will not let you die quickly.”

“Even if I agree, you have no guarantee that I will not deceive you-”

“We've already established that you cannot lie to me, Jedi woman. Help me or die. Choose.”

“Don’t do it, Atris! The Sith are already powerful enough as it is. If they become any stronger…”

Nafyan’s apprentice kneed Ojon in the face. “Silence. My master was not speaking to you.”

Atris’s gaze shifted to Ojon, lying on the floor and his nose bleeding, with Nafyan’s apprentice looming over him. “Very well. I will aid you,” she said.

“Then we depart immediately.” He lifted Atris to her feet and handed her over to his apprentice. “See to it that she is guided to my transport safely.”

“And what about you, my lord?”

He gave her a wicked smile. “I’m going to enjoy myself… and deny Preux his last Jedi prisoner.”

*** ***

“Blast. Why did they change the access code?”

Selias and her commandos had set down just outside the Jedi sanctuary just before the bombing started. Ranz’s ship had been with several older vessels in the auxiliary hangars apart from the rest of the fortification, and—surprising to Selias—no one was guarding them. With the Jedi too distracted setting up the perimeter defenses and mobilizing across the continent to deal with them, Selias and her unit had all the time in the world to reclaim Ranz’s ship. Two of her best slicers were working on getting the ship’s hangar doors opened while several others kept watch for Jedi or other impending trouble-makers.

This was the first time in nearly a decade that her entire team of commandos was assembled together. Yellow Hammer, her personal unit and the one that tended to travel with Ranval, had been crippled during their operations on Ambria and Sernpidal, and she had finally received confirmation that Green Shield had been completely defeated by a Sith Lord at their secret base near Sluis Van. Red Knife had been harassing Mandalorian supply depots along the frontier before they were called back, and Blue Sword had been dealing with Sith terrorists on Abregado-rae before linking back up with them. All together, her commandos numbered about two dozen strong; only Artinan did not report in, because he had been permanently assigned to defend Eliorae Latona Panteer at Ranval’s behest.

For nearly thirty years, Ranval and Selias had led these mercenaries in the shadows, striking whenever and wherever they could. They had hoped that their efforts would cripple—or at least tremendously slow—the impending Sith threat. After all their work, the Sith had found the Jedi. The forces of good were caught unawares, outnumbered and outclassed. While she couldn’t exactly call their work useless, she had to acknowledge that much of their efforts had been for naught. As Ranval had said before she departed, in this battle she and the other operatives would play a very small role, if any at all. The Jedi Order would have to defend themselves as best as they could.

“What’s the ETA on the lock?” Selias asked.

“Looking at three minutes,” Lree, the leader of Red Knife, muttered.

“Make it two,” Selias replied. “Omel, have the Jedi noticed us yet?”

“Not yet, Commander. Guards are retreating into the sanctuary and droid patrols are working outside the walls. The primary hangars are emptied out, though. I suspect they’ll come here soon to get more workable ships into the air.”

“Agreed. That’s why we have to pick up the pace.”

“What about the hangar bay doors, Commander Siital? We’re going to need to fly it out of here, after all,” asked another operative.

Selias nodded. “Let me handle it. Keep me posted, especially if you see any Jedi coming.”

Leaving the rest of her operatives to get Ranz’s shuttle open, Selias gripped her blaster rifle and headed across the hangar. Confiscated smuggling freighters, unmarked Jedi ships used in secret missions, and outdated starfighters were berthed around the hangar with no particular order in mind, and they were in varying states of disrepair. No droids skittered about, and mechanics had been diverted to the primary hangars in case of an emergency with Jedi strikefighters. Even the glowpanels had been shut off to divert power to the rest of the Jedi sanctuary.

At the other side of the hangar, the massive durasteel door was sealed shut, and emergency protocols were in place to prevent ships from leaving without authorization from Jedi flight control. Following the exposed wiring near the hangar door, she discovered the location of one of the emergency hangar control panels. Setting her rifle down, she pulled security spikes and an automated source ripper from her bag and got to work.

Overriding both the standard locking procedure and the emergency lockout routine proved difficult. She herself was only capable of picking antiquated mechanical locks, so she was entirely dependent on her tools to do the heavy lifting. The process seemed to be progressing as expected, but about halfway through isolating the security protocols her security spike displayed an error message. Much to her chagrin, the control panel triggered an alarm as soon as she tried to backtrack through the process.

“What happened?” shouted Lree.

“Hell if I know,” Selias growled. She reset the security spike. “I'll just restart everything…”

“I've got the shuttle open in the meantime,” Lree replied.

Selias tried and failed two more times. Fortunately, this time she didn’t accidentally trigger any alarms, running the security breaching tool slower so she could monitor its progress and keep it from doing anything it wasn’t supposed to. Sure enough, on her fourth security spike, she realized that the Jedi security teams had put a fail-safe into the hangar locking systems. She identified a clever set of instructions that automatically caused any slicing attempts to fail after removing the primary lock. Calling Omel over to help her, the two of them managed to get the hangar doors opened on the fifth try.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Selias mused. “Let’s get out of here, Omel.”

Lightsabers ignited behind them. “Not so fast, Selias.”

The two operatives spun around, rifles in hand, to face two Jedi with lightsabers at the ready. Selias had no idea how they had been able to approach without alerting her scouts. Selias knew Celes, but she did not recognize the much younger Jedi warrior who stood beside her; if their resemblance was any indication, she surmised that the young man was her son, Harin Sunrider. As if they possessed the danger sense of Jedi and knew danger was near, Selias’s commandos emerged from the debarkation ramp and headed toward Selias and the others, but they were hindered by the sudden appearance of more than ten Jedi Knights carrying gold-bladed lightsabers.

“When did you get here, Celes?” Selias asked.

“Only just now. Lower your weapons.”

“I’d be more eager to comply if you put down your lightsabers, to be honest.”

“The lightsabers are here to ensure you do comply.”

“Don’t make her ask again,” Harin ordered.

“Back off, kid,” Omel growled, shifting his rifle to face Harin.

Selias shifted her weapon into a ready, but not firing, position. “Fine. What are you doing here? Come to avenge yourself for something Ranval did? Looking for something? Gone all spooky and become a Dark Jedi?”

She knew that she was outmatched, and angering someone like Celes with stinging remarks wasn’t the best idea, but she had lost control of the situation. She had no way of knowing how many more Jedi would appear and how quickly they could assemble. If Celes and her new companions wanted to kill them all, there was very little Selias could do to stop her.

“We just want the ship,” Celes said, motioning toward the shuttle.

Once she had discovered it had ended up in the Jedi sanctuary, Selias figured Celes had been the one to steal it in the first place. “We went through a lot of trouble to get it open. It’s a pretty big ship. How about we share it? Where are you headed?”

Harin looked nervously at his mother. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I don’t trust these people.”

“We’d rather not share our vessel, if it’s all the same to you,” the Sephi Jedi Master called out. “There is much to do, and additional passengers will slow us down.”

“If that’s the case, the deal’s off,” Selias replied. “We’re taking the ship, one way or another.”

“You had best rethink that idea. You know challenging us in combat is foolish…” an Ithorian nearby warned.

None of her agents even blinked, but she knew they were nervous. They had fought Jedi before, but always on their terms. There were a lot of Jedi, they were already too close to utilize effective containment strategies against them, and the battleground was squarely in their enemies' favor. The lead commando stared into Celes’s eyes, challenging her to make the first move. Selias trusted Celes to be reasonable, but if she wasn’t, Selias knew she would have to surrender their ship.

“I’m all right with you joining us only until we depart the sector. Then we’ll have to go our separate ways,” Celes said.

Selias heaved an internal sigh of relief. “We’ll negotiate for the ship later. Let me contact Ranval about it. We settled down by Lake Brin in the south; we'll drop off a few operatives there to see what he has to say.”

“Very well. We have to pickup someone before we leave this place anyway, so we can’t leave immediately anyway,” Celes explained.

“Perhaps you can’t, Sunrider,” the Ithorian Jedi huffed, “but we would rather not be here when the Sith strike in force.”

“I second that,” Harin said.

“Then we’d better get going now,” agreed Selias.

Selias and her operative headed toward Ranz’s shuttle. The Jedi deactivated their weapons and followed the other operatives inside. Before Celes could join them, Harin motioned for her to stay.

“Do you really trust these beings?” Harin asked with a furtive glance over at Selias and the others. “We’re giving them a chance to devise a battle plan against us. Not to mention those other escapees. I only agreed to help them until we had a way off this world; I didn’t realize we’d all be sharing the space.”

“I’m more than strong enough to defeat them all, and they all know that,” Celes whispered. “Don’t worry about them. I trust Selias; her master was not a bad man, and I bear his servants no ill will. Those other Jedi may become a problem, but stay close to me and keep your lightsaber at the ready. If we need to, we'll play both sides against each other.”

“Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

“Indeed. Now let’s go find Nocion. He’s still somewhere on this world; I can sense him.”

*** ***

The bulk of the Fleet Admiral Onasi’s had broken ranks and reorganized around the orbital station, leaving the burning ruin of their fallen comrades behind them. Many capital ships had been lost escaping the Sith trap; the Sojourn in particular had lost most of its accompanying warships. Admiral Svarsk and his fleet were the last one out of the ambush; his lead ships had been heavily damaged by the Sith flagship, a colossal warship that dwarfed even the impressive Palatine-class. Admiral Onasi recognized it as an abominable copy of the Inexpugnable command ships that had led the Republic’s fight against the Mandalorians in the earliest years of their crusade.

Their escape had only been possible because Vice Admiral Yur had exploited a break in the Sith Admiral Keth’s line of battle and maneuvered her ships behind the Sluissi admiral and his ships, forcing the collapse of the Sith offensive. Admiral Isinn had tried to reposition her ships to fill the breach, but the Sojourn and the remainder of the First Fleet had already pushed their way out and engaged the majority of her warships before they could assist. Preux and his fleet had redoubled their efforts to divide Admiral Svarsk’s ships, but the return of Commodore Molir and the entirety of Blue Wing forced them to retreat lest the bombers eviscerate his lead ships.

Admiral Marathos and Rear Admiral Gabran had shifted their attention from assisting the Jedi to dealing with Admiral Kvorkasir’s fleet. Their ships were still engaged and were the only ones not to pull back while the remainder of the Republic and Sith fleets regrouped and prepared for their next attack. The Jedi, per the advice of Councilor Rand, linked up with the Republic fleet where they could for safety in numbers.

“Sith fleet is moving, Fleet Admiral. They intend to meet us head-on, largest ships in front,” the captain of the Sojourn announced.

“Admiral Svarsk,” Admiral Onasi spoke to the holographic images of the other flag officers beside his chair, “Take the Thirteenth Fleet and advance on their left flank. Commodore Molir, I want Blue Wing to fly right into their midst, doing as much damage to their lead vessels as possible.”

“We’re going to take a lot of casualties with a move like that, Admiral,” the commodore noted. “Their starfighters outnumber us three-to-one, and they are going to screen their ships.”

“Acknowledged. But this is a brazen move on their part. If they advance unopposed, we’re not going to be able to hold the line against their capital ships.”

“I don’t like it, but I’ll see what we can do.”

Admiral Onasi turned his attention to Admiral Yur, Captain Ha’ntesh, and Councilor Rand. “Admiral Yur, keep the rest of the Thirty-Third Fleet close to the the station and prepare a defensive line. Tell Green Wing to focus on screening our own ships. Councilor, stay with them until your ships are battle-worthy. At the very least, keep your turbolasers ready to defend the station.”

“Understood. We'll do what we can, Admiral,” the Jedi Councilor replied.

“And what should we do, Fleet Admiral?” Captain Ha’ntesh asked. “Our station’s taken some damage, but all our guns are still working. Just give us a target.”

“That’s the idea, Captain. Aim your turbolasers at the targets my ships aim at, and hopefully we’ll be able to cause some damage before they break our lines.”

“We might even be able to hold them back,” Captain Ha’ntesh agreed.

“I hope so.”

“Fleet Admiral, we've succeeded in contacting the Mandalorians,” the senior comm officer announced.

“Send it to my personal comm,” Carth said.

The holographic images of the flag officers and Jedi leaders flickered and disappeared, being replaced by a translucent image of a humanoid completely encased in armor. It had been many years since Carth had spoken with Mandalore—Canderous Ordo—and even longer since he had seen the man without armor. The leader of the Mandalorians sat in the captain’s chair of some vessel, blaster cannon at his side.

“Canderous,” Carth said. “It’s been too long.”

Mandalore responded with a brief silence. “So it has,” he agreed.

Even behind the mask, Mandalore’s voice sounded off—that wasn’t a voice Carth recognized. His rational mind told him that it was the quality of their comms, perhaps old age was getting to him, or else the old warrior had been injured in battle. Grim though it was, it would have made Carth more comfortable if his initial suspicions for Mandalore’s strange behavior were right. He didn’t want to have to fight his old friend.

“What are you doing?”

“Defending my people, Admiral Onasi.”

“By siding with the Sith. We were supposed to prepare for their arrival and strike at them before they could endanger known space, not pave the way for them!”

“The Republic’s diplomatic sanctions and general mistrust has made it difficult for us to work together,” Mandalore explained.

“You could have bypassed all that and spoken with me personally. You know that the return of the Sith is urgent enough to work around those things.”

“Perhaps. But now is not the time for worrying about what could have been. We find ourselves on opposite sides. What are you going to do, Admiral?”

“At least explain why you’re fighting with the Sith.”

“I had no choice. The Sith are threatening the Mandalorians. Their ships are stationed over Ordo and Mandalore, ready to bombard our civilians if we do not assist them.”

Carth shook his head. “Damn it, Canderous, you could have told me. You should have told me. We would have sent a Republic fleet to liberate you and your people.”

“The fact that you sent a senator to temper the reclamation of our homeworld cast doubts on the Republic’s eagerness to aid us.”

“I would have done anything to help you, and you know that. We fought alongside each other once. I trusted you with my life. Now I need you to trust me. Help us fight back against the Sith like we were meant to do.”

Everything about this conversation seemed wrong, in a way. As though Carth was talking with someone who hadn’t traveled with Revan all those years ago. His intelligence reports had not hinted at a new Mandalorian leader, but then again, in the chaos that followed the reclamation of Mandalore, anything could have happened. For all he knew, Canderous had been truly lost to the Sith—one way or another.

“If you can save the Mandalorians, I will order my warriors to betray the Sith,” Mandalore finally said.

“We’ll have to be quick, then,” Admiral Onasi said, heaving a sigh of relief. “Captain, inform Vice Admiral Opelle to travel to Mandalorian space and engage the Sith fleets in orbit over Ordo and Mandalore.”

“Yes, Admiral.”

“Vice Admiral Opelle was on his way here to reinforce us, so he’ll be near Taris now. It should take his fleet less than an hour to reach Mandalorian space. Now help us, Mandalore.”

“We’ll see, Carth. I want to know that my people are safe before I commit to anything.”

“Captain, order our forces to avoid engaging the Mandalorians as much as possible. Prepare our IFF systems to tag the Mandalorian fleet as friendlies.”

“On it.”

Fleet Admiral Onasi returned his attention to the battle. The Sith ships leading the advance were within firing range, and their heavy turbolasers fired red lances into the midst of the First and Thirteenth Fleets. For now, the Republic ships’ shields held. Commodore Molir had already led Blue Wing to begin their run, and the Republic starfighters were challenging the Sith fighters trying to screen their larger ships. The resulting casualties from their dogfights could been seen as tiny explosions on the main viewport and a cross-hatched image on Admiral Onasi’s tactical display. Admiral Svarsk had taken his ships out from beside the space station and was moving in to strike at the enemy’s left flank. The Sith flag officers must have realized his intention, and a battle group separated from the advancing force to deal with them.

Fleet Admiral Onasi gave the order to begin firing their own turbolasers at the lead ships already in range while maintaining position and rank until it was no longer tenable. The two forces traded green and red bursts of turbolaser fire across thousands of kilometers while starfighters, gunships, and boarding craft from both the Republic and the Sith began to fill the gap.

“One minute until their lead ship enters the range of the orbital station,” their sensor operator reported.

“Steady until then,” Admiral Onasi ordered. “Bring them to us.”

*** ***

“Reversion in thirty seconds,” Ranval said.

Dynatha and Northeus were in the cockpit of the Grimtaash with him, standing beside the pilot’s chair. Since the ship was meant to be flown by Threecee with minimal assistance from Tserne, Ranval had no trouble linking into the ship’s main computer and piloting it himself.

This was the first time Dynatha had seen him since they had departed Ambria. The eldest Jedi had been content with meditating alone in his quarters and studying the staff that he refused to part with. Phaevn, by contrast, stayed by Dynatha so much that he practically became another shadow. Despite being used to Tserne’s tendency to become a bodyguard, she had urged Phaevn to search the Grimtaash for clues of Tserne’s fate to give her a chance to be alone with her thoughts.

Despite her earlier resolve, Dynatha couldn’t help but be nervous. The creeping presence of the dark side became stronger and stronger the closer they got to Falang Minor; now that they were in the same system as the Sith Lord and his many minions, the darkness was like a cruel whisper in her ear. It wormed its way into the recesses of her mind, urging her to concede defeat and accept what it saw as inevitable.

Meditation brought no comfort. The light was with her, but she could not deny that the darkness was strong enough to weaken her. Even being in Northeus’s presence was unnerving. Although her insight was not as keen as it had been on Ambria, she could not shake the feeling that something was very wrong with him. She even doubted Ranval, despite the fact that he had done nothing to violate her trust. She kept her thoughts to herself, not entirely sure who she could share her concerns with.

Dynatha watched as the whorls of hyperspace evaporated into a backdrop of stars. She saw Falang Minor, covered in swathes of dark clouds as rain moved across the hemisphere facing them. She saw two fleets in orbit engaged in a pitched battle around a massive space station. She saw unmarked ships—freighters and gunships based on their size and appearance—emerge from hyperspace not far from them and make their way toward the planet. Ranval diverted all power to shields and prepared to head in the same direction.

“What do you intend to do?” Northeus asked.

“I was going to take the Grimtaash down to the surface and find other Jedi Knights,” Ranval said. “Once we find enough Jedi to form a strike team, we’d return to orbit, board the Sith flagship, and deal with the Dark Lord of the Sith personally.”

“Do you presume we need any other Jedi? Dynatha is our secret weapon. We needn’t divert any Jedi from the defense of the surface.”

“What do you think, Dynatha?” Ranval asked.

She pondered the idea. Certainly it would be safer to face against the strongest of the Sith with more than a trio of Jedi, but at the same time she had no idea how the forces on the ground fared; if the Sith were defeating the Jedi at every opportunity, she was loathe to relieve them of additional defenders. She was no strategist, and she did not know where Jedi Knights would be more valuable in the long run.

“Time is of the essence. I think-”

“Mistress Dynatha, a thousand pardons. But I have something to show you.” Phaevn walked onto the bridge with the cylindrical head of 3C-AD in his hand.

“What happened to it?” Dynatha asked. “Where did you find that?”

“Do not disturb us,” Northeus said. “We’re discussing very important matters-”

“I would not be so quick to dismiss me,” Phaevn said. “I found the droid’s chassis ripped apart in the engineering sublevel. Whoever damaged it intended to prevent the droid from accessing the ship’s main computer and also keep the droid’s memory from being recovered. Unfortunately for our saboteur, the droid’s memory can still be accessed even in its state of disrepair.”

Ranval slowed down the ship and got out of his seat to link together with the droid’s brain and determine what information hadn’t been damaged. As soon as he got up, Northeus kicked him in the chest, knocking him into the navigation panels. Dynatha instinctively reached for her weapon, but Northeus rushed behind her and pinned her weapon arm and neck with his sole arm. When Phaevn moved to assist, the old Jedi Master created a fireball in the air between them and launched it at him, striking the hulking bodyguard in the chest.

Dynatha kicked at Northeus’s feet and struck at his side with her free arm, but her resistance only caused Northeus to increase his chokehold on her throat. Ranval bounded forward with a blaster augmentation in his cybernetic hand, but Northeus stepped back into the hallway and positioned himself so that Dynatha was effectively a human shield.

“What… what are you doing, Northeus?” Dynatha croaked.

“You would have quickly learned from the recording that it was I who picked apart Tserne’s machine. It knew too much, I’m afraid. It caught me speaking with my master. It knew about Tserne. For such a useless contraption that is dead to the Force, it proves to be continually meddlesome. I should have been more zealous in tearing it apart.”

“Put her down, Northeus,” Ranval said, aiming his blaster prosthetic at his former master’s head. “I don’t know what you intend to do, but I don’t want to hurt you.”

Northeus laughed—it was eerie and echoed as though there was another voice with his own. When he spoke, his voice was notably lower. “Your lack of resolve was always a weakness of yours, my erstwhile apprentice. How would you save her if I intended to slit her throat, end her here and now? Where would you be? What good would you do against the Sith alone?”

“But you aren’t going to, are you?” Ranval said, moving to the other side of the bridge to get a better shot. Northeus moved with him. “You… whoever you are. You need her, don’t you? You want her to come to you.”

“Very astute, young Jedi.” Northeus tightened his grip on Dynatha when she tried to squirm out of his grasp. “I know she has no hope of defeating my dark champion. You know the same truth. You and all the others would send her to her doom, and I embrace her willing sacrifice. Another ember to be snuffed out in the dark.”

“So why are you here? To mock us?”

“I needed to get to Falang Minor. There is something of great importance here. Now that I am here, you and all the rest of you Jedi are useless to me. I will take her to Preux and see that she becomes a suitable Sith Lord to end you and your pitiable kind once and for all.”

“No… you’re… not Northeus at all,” Dynatha realized. “Who are you?”

“A face in the darkness. An evil out of time. You will know my name before long.”

“Last chance, Northeus,” Ranval ordered.

“You’re weak. Your hesitation will cost you her life.” Northeus waved his hand, gathering dark side energies around them both. “Farewell, Jedi!”

“You should have escaped earlier, but you talk too much,” Dynatha growled.

She kicked herself off the ground, pushing both of them back against the wall. The impact caused the possessed Jedi Master to loosen his grip on her and delayed his Sith magic, allowing Dynatha to use the opportunity to free herself. At Ranval’s insistence, she dove out of the way just in time for him to shoot Northeus in the torso. With a grimace, the old Jedi called upon the Force and used a telekinetic wave to throw the two of them to the ground.

“I underestimated you, child of light. It will not happen again. When we meet again—yes we will—I will see you humbled and twisted into a shadow of yourself.”

Dynatha activated her lightsaber and swung at Northeus, but the old Jedi finally completed his incantation and disappeared into a pillar of darkness. She reached out to see if she could detect him with her mind, but she was surprised to discover that he was nowhere on the Grimtaash—she sensed him very far away, likely somewhere on the planet’s surface.

“Are you all right, Ranval?” she asked.

“Fine…” Ranval replied. “Just a bit winded.”

Without even thinking, Dynatha knelt beside Phaevn and began to use the Force to heal the burn from Northeus’s attack. Phaevn groaned as the burnt skin began to give way to new flesh. While Dynatha tended to his wounds, Ranval scooped up the droid head Phaevn had dropped and used one of his prosthetic additions to link his arm with it.

“You were right, Phaevn,” Ranval said after watching some of the holographic images. “The droid’s memory shows that Northeus was… speaking to someone else. From the footage, it seems like he’s just talking to himself, but I suppose there is another presence there, in his mind. It recorded Northeus traveling through space alone, occasionally mumbling to himself about leaving Tserne to die on Sleheyron. And it recorded the beginning of Northeus’s attack when Threecee tried to sabotage his ambitions by damaging the hyperdrive. He must have been in a hurry, or else he would have been more thorough.”

“So there’s a chance that Tserne is still alive,” Dynatha mused.

“It’s possible.”

Dynatha gently touched Phaevn where he had been injured. As far as she could tell, the burn had been completely healed. “Are you all right, Phaevn?”

“All I need is a moment’s rest to recover my strength, Lady Aris. Your healing arts have done what would have taken medical experts weeks.”

“Then rest. We still have time before we have to fight.”

Dynatha stood up and turned her attention to Ranval. The Miraluka had taken Threecee’s head and returned to the pilot’s seat. While he restarted the engines and began to steer them toward Falang Minor, Dynatha sat down in the co-pilot’s seat beside him.

“Ranval… I’m sorry. I know that he had been your Jedi teacher. I’m sure if we ask the Jedi Council, we might be able to do something-”

“I suspected there was something wrong with him on Truuine. I hadn’t thought that he had fallen to the dark side. I knew he was misguided, blinded by emotion, and caught up in his own schemes, but I never imagined he could become a Dark Jedi.”

“He was once a Jedi Councilor. I don’t think it’s an idea any of us really wanted to consider,” Dynatha agreed.

“I wanted to believe he was still on our side, Dynatha. I wanted to believe that the man who had trained me, who took me in, and taught me what it means to be a Jedi is still in there somewhere. Even now, I hope he is. But… I know that he is our enemy, and we have to deal with him too.”

“Please let me deal with him. I won’t see you face your own master in combat. Take me to the surface. You can deal with the Sith Lord instead.” She was sincere in keeping Ranval from further sorrow, but she left unsaid the fact that she was afraid to face the Sith Lord herself. Northeus, at least, she knew and could contend with. She wasn’t sure if she could face the enigma that was the Dark Lord of the Sith.

“No. He is my responsibility. As his last disciple, I must see to it that he does not endanger everything we've worked so hard for. I will do what I must.”

“Then let me go with you. The two of us together—or three if Phaevn recovers—will defeat Northeus, and then we'll all challenge the Sith together after he’s no longer a threat.”

“I cannot afford to let you waste your time with such things. The Jedi Order cannot face the Sith Master without your strength. You know that,” Ranval said. “You should take the Grimtaash to face the Dark Lord on his flagship. I will take Delvin’s ship to the surface.”

“But are you sure?”

“Sure of what?”

“Are you sure that my strength will be enough?” Dynatha asked. “What if you’re wrong? What if we’re all wrong?”

“Now isn’t the time for second-guessing, Dynatha. We need you to be strong.”

“I’m trying. I know what I’m capable of. The light is with me. But I’m still afraid, Ranval. I’m worried about what awaits me on that ship. What if Northeus is right and our plans are doomed from the start?”

“Don’t even entertain that thought. Remember what you learned in the temple.” Dynatha’s gaze shifted to avoid him, ashamed that her strength was lacking after such confidence in Lalun’s trial. “You passed that trial because you had the courage to face your past and cast it aside. The fear that had given the Sith on Alderaan power over you is the same fear trying to stifle you now. Don’t listen to it. Take courage and hold fast to the Force.”

“I’ll try. I know I can, but… I do not want to go alone.”

“I will go with Lady Aris,” Phaevn said, sitting upright.

“I have no objections,” Ranval said. “But Dynatha, this trial is yours. Phaevn will not be able to help you in the end.”

“I know.” Dynatha’s worry turned from herself to Ranval. If Phaevn was going with her, he would be alone on the surface, and he would have to face Northeus alone. “Please be safe, Ranval. Don’t do anything foolish.”

“Never.”

“I mean it. If you won’t do it for me, do it for Selias.”

Ranval couldn’t hide his surprise, and he tried to hide it with a wry smile. “I’m not sure what you mean, Dynatha. But you’d better take the controls. I have to prepare Delvin’s ship for takeoff. I'll see if I can fix Tserne’s droid in the meantime.”

“I’ll help you fly the ship, Lady Aris,” Phaevn intoned.

Dynatha watched Ranval leave the bridge. He was imperceptible to her, but she hoped that he was sincere about keeping himself safe. She knew how much he had done for this cause—and for her—and she wanted him to be able to see his efforts pay off. If there was anyone who could redeem Northeus, it was Ranval. Northeus had fallen far, but she still had hope for him. Something in her heart told him that he was still a Jedi, lost and confused though he was. She hoped that there was still time to reach him.

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