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Chapter 44

It did not take long for battle to begin across the northeastern continent of Falang Minor. While Sith transports rained down across the planet, Jedi Knights organized into small teams and dispersed across key vantage points: the Jedi sanctuary itself, the northern and central pass through the Vyred Mountains, and the many ruins that dotted the landscape on both sides of the mountain range. They were the first to meet the Sith landing parties in combat, but the Jedi—capable as they were—were outnumbered and outmatched against the dark forces. Led by Generals Oro Malthesinores and Tiv Maera, the Sith fortified their landing zone and sent soldiers south and east to secure the closest ruins.

Lucius and his family were long gone by the time the Sith marched north and reached the Republic settlement. Only two teams of Jedi defended the civilians who elected to stay behind. Most of the Jedi Order’s strength was positioned elsewhere; nearly thirty Jedi defended the southern shield generator, located about twenty kilometers south of the Sith landing zone on the western side of the mountains, and fifteen more defended the mountain pass where Manda and Ralina had stolen the bronzium disk weeks earlier.

The Sith had initially tried to use low-altitude transports to ferry their forces north toward Coroq Lotte’s position in the north and south toward Lake Brinn to bypass the mountains altogether, but the Jedi had many anti-air guns hidden in the mountains, forcing their enemy to meet them in battle on the ground. The team of Jedi Knights defending the western shield generator powering that half of the shield were in the process of being overrun by Sith forces when the Republic soldiers under newly promoted Major General Ducian Eto arrived planetside.

Unhindered by friendly turrets, the Republic Army descended in the ruins directly to the north of Lake Brin. General Eto quickly set up a mobile command post and began to oversee the battle. Dividing his regiments into three primary units, he sent most of his forces northeast to bolster the Jedi Order’s defenders in the pass. The other two major units he sent north toward the Jedi sanctum and west around the southern end of the Vyred Mountains, where they could outflank the Sith forces traveling east.

Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel and the rest of Tython Squad were merged into Battle Group Mern-Six, of which he was placed in command of. Seven Kneebhawk-class trooper carriers flew over the mountain peaks splitting the western and eastern sides of the continent, safe from the Jedi guns due to their IFF. Already wearing his combat gear and carrying his weapons, Rajes Thonnel stood behind the co-pilot’s seat and scoured the area, looking for enemies hidden away in the recesses of the mountains.

“This is Mern 612 to Army Command,” the pilot said through his short-range comm. “Winds are picking up. Having trouble keeping her steady even at this altitude. I don’t think we’re going to be able to make the return trip in this weather.”

“Can you reach the western region?” asked one of the comm officers at the Republic’s primary outpost.

“We don’t have much further to go, so I think we’ll be okay. We’ll let you know if the situation becomes untenable.”

“Understood. Try to stay local while avoiding Sith artillery.”

“Easier said than done, Aurek. Mern 612 out.”

“Visibility’s getting worse,” the co-pilot muttered under his breath.

“I’m going to prepare my soldiers for the drop,” Thonnel said. “Keep me posted.”

“Yes, sir.”

As soon as Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel stepped back into the troop holding area, the Kneebhawk trembled from a near-miss. The pilot shouted something about artillery fire, and the entire ship rolled about and nearly threw the commanding officer to the floor.

“We thought you should know that we’re under fire, sir,” the pilot noted glibly.

“Major Ghoaad, are we ready for a drop?”

“Ready whenever you are, Lieutenant Colonel.”

Rajes slipped on his helmet and activated his rebreather, activating the sealants inside his armor and effectively forming an EVA suit. The soldiers under his command did likewise. Shouldering his combat rifle and a bandoleer of power paks, the lieutenant colonel approached the rear exit and stood at the ready. Major Ghoaad and two other members of Tython Squad stood directly at his six, and the rest of his unit—two dozen soldiers—were further dispersed around him.

“Settling in for a landing. Be advised, Lieutenant Colonel, LZ is hot. Jedi versus Sith… doesn’t look good.”

“That’s why we’re here, Captain. Count us down.”

“Doors open in five… four… three… two… one!”

“For the Republic!”

The Kneebhawk’s rear hangar door dropped to form an egress ramp. Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel was out first, rifle at the ready. The rain was already falling on this side of the mountains, reducing visibility so he could barely see fifty meters in front of him. They had settled down as close to the shield generator as their pilot was willing to get; its silhouette was vaguely discernible in the distance. White-armored Sith troopers were pouring out of the ruins directly to the west, firing at the twenty Jedi still able to defend the generator from their attack. Bipedal, quadrupedal, and floating war droids fought alongside their respective masters, primarily providing suppressive fire for their organic counterparts to advance. Sith warriors led the charge, attacking the vulnerable Jedi while their soldier allies began to encircle the Jedi position.

Two Sith heavy tanks bolstered the assailant’s position. One of these tanks was surprisingly close to where Mern 612 had landed, and the other was further away. The closer tank pivoted its main gun to fire at their landing craft; a missile from one of the other descending transports annihilated the tank before it could actually fire.

“Rout them!” Rajes shouted. “I want mechanized forces to cut through the middle and defend the Jedi! All other forces fight your way around them.”

The Sith forces evidently hadn’t expected the Republic soldiers to arrive so soon and so close to the battlefield. Many Sith troopers near the right flank of the enemy formation turned their attention away from the Jedi to face Battle Group Mern-Six, which—aside from the loss of a single Kneebhawk in transit—had disembarked completely. Rajes positioned himself behind a cluster of trees to avoid the incoming red blaster fire. Priming a frag grenade, he threw it into the Sith ranks and was satisfied to see a dozen Sith troopers perish in the ensuing explosion. The soldiers who had taken cover with him began firing at the few enemy soldiers who had survived.

Major Ghoaad had taken three fire teams and maneuvered behind the Sith’s main strike force, using the lack of visibility to their advantage. Then, in unison, Major Ghoaad’s forces threw grenades and fired heavy repeaters to devastate the Sith forces positioned near the ruins. When the remaining tank diverted its attention from the Jedi to Major Ghoaad’s forces, one of the soldiers near Rajes launched a missile at it, penetrating its chassis and damaging its main gun. Once the tank was dealt with, Rajes ordered the soldiers who were providing suppressive fire to advance.

The Sith Master in charge of the assault on the generator seemed to realize that the tide was turning against him and his forces. In a fighting retreat, the enemy commander led his black-armored Sith commandos, Dark Jedi, and other Sith warriors back toward Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel and the rest of the Republic soldiers. The Jedi, likewise, sensed that their enemies were moving back, and they redoubled their efforts to keep their enemy engaged.

In a move that would have made a neophyte military officer blush, Rajes led his soldiers directly into the Sith lines, using vibroswords and heavy weapons to drive back the enemy on both sides of him. The Sith that were closer to the ruins found themselves pinned between Major Ghoaad’s forces and Rajes’s advance, leaving them to be slaughtered in the crossfire. The Sith heading toward Rajes’s unit with the Jedi at their back had more Force-sensitive warriors on their side, but they were still trapped regardless. Eager to retreat and thrown into disarray, the Sith forces couldn’t rally themselves and utilize their numerical advantage against their adversaries.

A Dark Jedi leading a team of Sith troopers tried to interrupt Rajes’s advance. The lieutenant colonel pulled back several meters; the Dark Jedi moved to close the distance. Soldiers at both sides of Rajes met their end against the dark-sider’s blue lightsaber blade. Rajes shouldered his blaster rifle for a sonic pistol and fired at the enemy leader. Unlike standard energy weaponry, the aural bursts created by military-grade sonic pistols traveled around a Force-sensitive’s lightsaber blade, hitting its intended target with a weaker but still painful blow. The Dark Jedi hadn’t been prepared Rajes’s attack, keeling over from the impact of his sonic weapon. One of the soldiers who had been closer to his target lunged forward and skewered the incapacitated Dark Jedi with his vibrosword. A Jedi jumped into the fray and beheaded the three remaining Sith troopers who had stood with the Dark Jedi before they could pose a threat.

Most of the Sith combatants fled into the woods, disregarding the orders of their few remaining superiors. The few Sith warriors and commandos who refused to surrender and the droids that could not threw themselves at the Jedi and Republic, but they were all summarily dealt with.

“Major Ghoaad, go ahead and scout the perimeter for any remaining hostiles. I don’t want to be caught off guard by a secondary force.” Rajes turned to to his third-in-command. “Captain, clean up the mess and let me know how our casualties fare.”

“We appreciate your assistance,” the Jedi commander said as she approached. She was a female Miraluka a few years younger than Rajes, wearing dark blue robes and a black vest beneath a gray cloak that was drenched from the mist and the rain. “I am Councilor Visas Marr. I’m responsible for the defense of this region—but more importantly, it is my task to defend the shield generator here.”

“I’m Lieutenant Colonel Rajes Thonnel, and these soldiers with me are Battle Group Mern-Six. Until reinforcements arrive, we were told to work with you in defending this location.”

“Should we expect reinforcements?”

“A droid contingent, a light armor company, and another battle group are headed this way. They should be here in less than twenty minutes.”

The Jedi Councilor nodded. “I must tend to our wounded. Your soldiers ought to establish a perimeter around the generator. We had started to dig ditches and place sandbags before the Sith attack. If you help us, we should be able to establish some defenses before they can return in force.”

Rajes turned to his soldiers. “You heard the Jedi. Let’s move!”

*** ***

Ixi was going to be sick. Every time the Arca-class transport he was in trembled, he was certain that they were going to die. He had faith in the Jedi pilots steering them through the battle, but he had also seen the space battle himself from his chambers on the orbital station. The raging ship-to-ship combat reminded him of holographic visuals from the Mandalorian Wars. He had no idea how the other Jedi Padawans, Knights, and Masters with him were so calm; a single stray missile from any of the ships involved in the fight beyond could atomize them in an instant.

He would have given anything to remain on the ground, fighting alongside his Jedi brothers and sisters, who even now were defending the kilometers between the Vyreds and the Jedi sanctuary. Unfortunately for him, he had been one of the two dozen Jedi stationed on the space station when the battle began. Along with the others, he had been recruited by the Jedi Councilor Brianna for what he figured was a suicide mission: a strike against the Sith leadership on their flagship.

He missed Ojon. He missed Dynatha. Ixi secretly wished that he had been offworld when the battle began so he could have avoided it. Ever since his encounter with the mercenaries on Suurja, he had lost his resolve. Coming so close to death made him rethink many things, and being so eager to run into battle was one of them. The fact that his friends were gone and he had no one to turn to aside from the aloof Jedi Council compounded his somber mood.

“Coming up on the enemy flagship,” announced the Jedi pilot. “Strange… our sensors aren’t getting a reading on their shields…”

“They’re using the dark side to defend their entire ship…” Brianna muttered to herself. “That’s impossible. I've never heard of such power, even from the most powerful Sith Lords…”

“Do not fear, Brianna. I will be able to sunder the barrier, whether fashioned from energy or the Force, through my connection to the light,” the Shimholt Jedi Master sitting beside her said.

“It is a powerful shield,” the Jedi Councilor noted.

“Even so, I shall breech it—if only a small region—so we can pass through unharmed.”

The Arca shuttle circled around a dogfight between Republic strike fighters and Sith interceptors in what would have been the shadow of the Phantasm. The multitude of turrets on the flagship were mostly focused on the larger targets of the Republic cruisers, but they were assailed by point-defense turrets as they approached. Their pilot steered their craft so they approached the uppermost hangar of the modified Inexpugnable-class command ship from above; just before he crashed into what Ixi sensed was an invisible barrier of dark side power, the Shimholt Jedi Consular penetrated the dark shield for a second so that their gunship-sized shuttle could pass on through.

Evidently, the Sith Lord in charge of the barrier had either not communicated with the captain of the vessel or else hadn’t expected anyone to pass through the barrier, because the hangar’s exterior was protected only by a magshield to control the atmosphere within and two light turbolasers on both sides of the magshield. The pilot of their shuttle used their only torpedoes to destroy both turbolasers. With practiced grace, the pilot set down the ship just as the emergency alarms began to sound in the hangar. Sith marines and several Dark Jedi mobilized to meet them.

“Everyone out! Clear the hangar and take control of the control room on the upper level!”

With lightsaber in hand, Ixi followed the a trio of Jedi Knights out of the Arca shuttle just before it was fired upon by defense turrets located in the hangar. Although the shuttle’s shields were still up, the fire from the hangar turrets was heavy enough that the Jedi were pinned down and couldn’t navigate out from behind the ship without facing enemy fire.

“They’ve got us pinned down from every side!” a Snivvian Jedi Knight called out from the opposite end of the shuttle. “A Chadra-Fan couldn’t sneak his way out of here!”

“There is one way left,” Brianna mused.

The Jedi Councilor cleared the shuttle in a single bound, landing in the midst of the Sith troopers gathering on the other side. Her blue lightsaber cut swathes around her, clearing away the crowd and allowing her to advance toward the center of the hangar. Her unit was quick to follow, engaging the Sith forces as they turned away from the ship to face Brianna. The turrets divided their attention between the advancing Jedi and the shuttle, giving Ixi and the others a chance to move out from behind cover.

Following a Cerean Jedi Knight not much older than Ojon and a Nautolan Jedi Padawan, Ixi scrambled toward the starboard wall, cutting down any Sith trooper that tried to get in his way. The three of them were just about to reach one of the emergency ladders that led from the hangar bay to the observation deck when a Dark Jedi intercepted them. Draped in a tattered brown cloak and covering his face with a black cowl, the figure was shorter than Ixi but taller than the two Jedi with him. To Ixi’s surprise, he did not carry with him a red lightsaber but a yellow one, not unlike a member of the Jedi Order.

“And where were you meddlesome rodents off to?” the dark figure sneered.

“I’ll handle him. Go! Seize the observation deck,” the Cerean said.

“I’ll help you,” Ixi replied, stepping forward. “Nisna, go!”

The young Nautolan maneuvered around the Dark Jedi. Before he could stop her, Ixi and the Cerean attacked him from the left and right. Backpedaling to avoid fighting them both from both sides, the Dark Jedi positioned himself against the wall to keep both Jedi in front of him. Ixi sidestepped toward the Dark Jedi’s right, hoping to get into his blind spot, but his Cerean companion moved in for a direct killing blow.

“Is that the best you can do?” the Dark Jedi asked, repelling the Cerean just in time to face Ixi’s blade. “Pitiful Jedi! You haven’t a hope against our Sith Masters!”

“You’ll never win,” Ixi said.

“No? We’ll see who falters first, Jedi.”

The Cerean charged in again, kicking at the Dark Jedi’s knee while swinging his blade for a decapitating blow. The Dark Jedi lifted his leg and ducked, dodging the shimmering blade while forcing the Jedi Knight to hit his shinguard instead. Ixi slashed at the Dark Jedi simultaneously, but his opponent had expected his attack and jumped over Ixi. Behind both Jedi Knights, the Dark Jedi roared and charged, swinging his lightsaber with reckless abandon.

Ixi retreated in the face of his enemy’s fierce attack. His companion held his ground, shifting into a defensive position. The Dark Jedi battered against the Cerean’s defense, bringing his yellow blade down so hard that the Jedi Knight’s knees trembled while he tried to stand against his attacks. Ixi used telekinesis to lift a nearby cargo crate and threw it at the Dark Jedi, striking him in the side and throwing him to the ground. Before he could stand back up, the Cerean swung his blade in an arc, chopping off the head of their opponent. Ixi winced as the Dark Jedi’s head flew into the wall nearby.

Without saying a word, the two Jedi Knights climbed up the ladder, knowing full well that the Jedi Padawan they had sent up alone could be in grave danger. Fortunately for them, the deck overlooking the hangar had been cleared of hostiles by Brianna and the other Jedi, and Nisna was safe and waiting for them in the control room with the others.

“Good work you two,” Brianna said. “We now have full control of the hangar and all survivors are accounted for. We can proceed.”

“What’s the plan, Councilor?”

“Three strike teams,” the Shimholt Jedi Councilor who had helped them earlier replied. “One team will go with Brianna and free our Jedi prisoners. The second will come with me to the bridge and deal with the crew there so we may paralyze the ship. The last—and largest—group will head for the engine room, where we’ll use explosives to cripple the whole ship. I’d opt for only a few Jedi, but there is a meditation room between us and the engine room where many evil warriors may reside.”

“Seems risky. You sure we’ll be able to do that and get out before the real damage is done?” a Jedi asked from the back of the crowd.

“It’s a risk we have to take.”

“How do you know there are Jedi prisoners here?” asked the Snivvian.

“I sensed them when we arrived. Surely there are only a few, but even a few lights stand out against the dark tide around us.”

“We’re still working on digging through the terminal’s data to find the layout of this ship. In the meantime, we need to divide ourselves into three forces,” Brianna ordered.

Ixi immediately thought of Ojon. If Ojon was here, he wanted to be there when he was rescued. “I’ll go with you, Councilor.”

“And me as well!” cried another Jedi Knight.

“Me too.”

“I want to head to the bridge.”

“They’ll need my help facing those Dark Jedi in the meditation room…”

“We’ll need a Jedi Master to lead that,” the Shimholt noted.

“I volunteer,” a Human Jedi answered.

Brianna counted out their three units. “I think we’re set. The map’s coming up on screen now. Do your best to memorize as much as you can in case we become separated. We cannot linger here much longer; the Sith are not doubt reorganizing to take back this place. Jedi, rally to your masters, and may the Force be with us.”


Chapter 45

Verita was alone in the cockpit of a Vaya-class scout ship. The lights were dimmed and the hum of the hyperdrive was barely audible. For the first time in many years, she wore the armor plates and mesh bodysuit she had brought with her from her time as a wandering mercenary with Jhosua. Her lightsaber and comlink were on the navigation panel in front of her.

Mandalorian warriors had prevented her and Fier from leaving Ordo while the others fought at Mandalore; all civilian vessels had been grounded until their victory against the Republic had been secured. Stubborn as she was, she had tried twice to escape the docking bay, but her scout craft hadn’t been fast enough to outrun Mandalorian patrols. She and her daughter had been gathering supplies when they had learned that the battle had been won—and the Sith had set up a blockade over Ordo. The thought of the Sith killing the Mandalorian leadership and usurping control of their forces had terrified her, and she had desperately tried to contact Jhosua. She had to provide assistance if he and Mandalore were going to resist the Sith.

When communications had failed, Verita and Fier worked together with some of Mandalore’s aides who had stayed on Ordo and stowed away on an automated cargo freighter that shipped foodstuffs from Ordo to Mandalore. They had passed right under the noses of the Sith, and a few of Mandalore’s other advisers had reached the Mandalorian homeworld in the same way.

She had been escorted into Mandalore’s presence immediately. When she had realized that Jhosua wasn’t there, she had known something was amiss. But she had not lost hope until Mandalore had told her the news she had been dreading for years: Jhosua was dead.

Verita hadn’t reacted when she had received the news. Caught up in her despair, she had not quite been sure what to say to her daughters, so she hadn’t said anything at all. Glacis viewed her mother’s silence as apathy, and she despised her for it. Fier only wanted to be comforted, but Verita had no words of encouragement or hope. She had gone to the funeral, of course, but she had refused to say anything. Kerre had done most of the talking. Mandalore had said a few words. Glacis had wanted to say something, but she hadn’t been able to speak without crying.

She had waited for the crowds to depart and the sun to set before approaching the empty coffin. Even now, she could the words she had said, alone in the pavilion. She had begged for his forgiveness—too little and too late—for her infidelity. She blamed herself; his death was a consequence of her betrayal. Whatever he had done to provoke her, to lead her to that place, she could not blame him. Despite what her eldest daughter thought, there was no consolation for her in his death. She still wanted to tell him everything. To tell him about her affair with Norvos. About her past with Geryon. About Fier.

She had resigned herself to defeat. There was no way to leave the planet so long as the Sith blockade was in place; only those ships that Mandalore had pledged to the Sith were allowed to bypass the blockade. Glacis and Fier went with the others. Gone, perhaps forever. Until the Sith had triumphed, she had to remain on Mandalore with those same beings she had come to hate, and she would only be allowed to leave too late to do anything. Or so she had thought.

“A message for you,” one of Mandalore’s aides told her.

Verita said nothing.

“It’s of utmost importance.”

“Leave me. I will take no messages.”

“Jhosua needs you.”

Her eyes, still burning from tears she had waited so long to cry, glared at the Mandalorian indignantly. “How dare you? You know-”

The armored figure before her extended the comlink in his hand to her.

“Verita?”

Jhosua. That was Jhosua’s voice from the comm.

“Jhosua…?” Verita seized the comlink from his hands. “Jhosua, how? What? Where are you?”

“Verita… I’m so sorry. I should have told you-”

“How are you alive? Where are you?” she asked again. “What happened? Your daughters… we’ve been confused and heartbroken…”

“There’s not enough time to explain. I’m not myself, Verita. I've been near-death for days. I can’t trust my own judgment, and I’m scared I may do something foolish. Our children are in danger. I need your help.”

“They’re not with you?”

“No. I cannot reach the warriors I had watching them via comm, and I’m concerned for their safety. As it is, they have no way off the planet. You must come.”

“I don’t understand, Jhosua.”

“I’ll explain everything. For now, I need you here. With me.”

“I can’t leave the planet.”

“That will be dealt with shortly. Follow my aide. A scout ship is in waiting.”

“Will you explain en route?”

“I’ll try, Verita. But there’s so much going on, I might not have time-”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be there soon. I love you, Jhosua. I've never meant that more than I do now.”

“And I love you. Be swift.”

She had left Mandalore soon thereafter. Norvos had sent a scout ship prior to the engagement at Mandalore to pick up her and her daughters so that they could leave Jhosua in secret. The Sith attempted to stop her, but they were interrupted by the sudden arrival of a Republic fleet. Her Vaya-class scout immediately headed toward the coordinates Jhosua had given her. As far as she knew, her family was already at war alongside the other Mandalorian warriors.

She did not understand what her husband was talking about, but she would save her daughters. It would be difficult. Her daughters had refused to come with her and stayed on Mandalore for their departed father’s sake. That thought made her angrier than anything else; it had driven her to leave them behind before, but that same anger enlivened her spirit and urged her to hurry so she could rescue them now.

What was Jhosua up to? She had no idea, and he had not contacted her again to explain. At first she had thought that she had been tricked and hearing him again was some sort of Sith plot. The more she became attuned with the Force, she realized that her fears were misplaced. Jhosua was waiting for her, and she had to hurry. There were many things she did not understand, chief of which was why Jhosua could not rescue them himself, but those thoughts were in the back of her mind.

Would she be able to find Jhosua in the midst of all the chaos? Would she be able to find her children? Without guidance from her husband, she was wholly dependent on the Force to lead her. She desperately hoped that it wasn’t too late.

*** ***

The Sith had pulled back twice since their first assault, only to turn around and reengage twice. This time several of Admiral Isinn’s capital ships had maneuvered their way into the Republic’s line of battle, dividing Admiral Onasi and Admiral Svarsk from Admiral Yur and her ships. From then on, the fighting had become so personal that capital ships on both sides overlapped their shields with one another while their turbolasers fired mere hundreds of kilometers at their targets. Starfighters, lacking the shields like their motherships, ventured the dangerous and narrow space between the turbolasers and the wreckage to fight amongst themselves.

The Sojourn’s shields were dangerously low after taking two unimpeded strafing runs from Sith bombers, and he had ordered the ship to be pulled back from the front lines until they could recover. Admiral Marathos had positioned his ships in such a way that forced Admiral Kvorkasir and his ships back into the main battle. Although his strategy allowed the Sith admiral’s fleet to strike at the Republic’s unguarded right flank, Admiral Marathos was quick to engage and took control of the entire battle while Admiral Onasi’s ship waited for her shields to return.

“Admiral Onasi!” a comm operator shouted amidst the commotion on the bridge. “Incoming transmission.”

The fleet admiral pivoted his chair from the primary viewport. “From whom, Lieutenant?”

“It’s Vice Admiral Opelle!” came the reply. “He’s informing us that his ships have engaged the Sith blockade over Ordo and Mandalore, and the enemy is retreating on both fronts!”

“The Force is with us,” Admiral Onasi said. “Get me a comm to Mandalore immediately.”

Mandalore’s holographic visage shimmered into view. “I suppose you have good news for me?” the leader of the Mandalorians asked.

“You’ll be glad to know that the Sith forces who were threatening your people have been routed. I just received the report.”

“I haven’t received word.”

“You will, Canderous. Trust me.”

The leader of the Mandalorians thought to himself for a moment. “Very well. Then I have no reason to fight with the Sith anymore. Consider all of my forces—ships and warriors both—your allies from here on.”

“It’s good to fight alongside you again,” the Republic admiral said.

“Agreed. I’ll figure out a way to send word to my warriors on the surface. Now let’s drive these Sith out of the system.”

True to his word, the Davaab-type starfighters skirmishing with Republic strikefighters broke off and turned to engage the Sith interceptors hounding Republic frigates. On his tactical readout, Admiral Onasi saw the Alor’ad and the two Jehavey’ir-type assault ships defending it fire upon the nearest Sith Interdictor. At his behest, the identification of the Mandalorian ships on their battle maps shifted from red to blue.

Since the Mandalorian battleships had been a crucial part of the Sith formations, their sudden betrayal caused its center to collapse. Led by Admiral Svarsk’s ships, the Republic fleet punched through the lead Sith vessels and forced the survivors to retreat in every direction—where they became easy prey for Republic cruisers and Mandalorian fighters. Only the fleets of Admiral Kvorkasir and Preux remained in position, and they redoubled their efforts to push back against the sudden Republic advance.

While the bridge of the Phantasm erupted in curses against the cowardly and traitorous Mandalorian clans, Preux watched the Mandalorian turn against them in silence. The Sith Emperor’s agents had acted on their own to recruit the Mandalorians to their cause. He had been wary of them from the beginning; such coercion could be useful, but against warriors like the Mandalorians it would never have lasted. Evidently loyalty was not one of their virtues.

“What should we do, Lord Preux?” Admiral Kvorkasir asked via comm. “The Republic forces are going to divide us in two. We’ll have to pull back—and we’ll give up the advantage we’ve fought so hard to gain!”

“One good betrayal deserves another,” Preux mused. “Give the signal for our agents to emerge from hiding… and engage at will.”

“Yes, sir. But our ships…?”

“The Republic will be in disarray once we’re through. You’ll have a chance to return to the offensive. Be patient, Admiral.”

*** ***

Commodore Belsio Molir guided Blue Nova Squadron through the wreckage of a Sith Render-class frigate that had been totaled by Republic turbolaser fire. The remainder of Blue Wing was screening Admiral Onasi and the remainder of his fleet from further bombardment while he took twenty starfighters into the midst of the enemy fleet. Three ships were directly at his six, and the other dozen Republic starfighters followed him in a loose formation. With heightened reflexes from his concoction of stimulants, Commodore Molir could practically see and react to what the enemy did before they did it.

Due to the betrayal of the Mandalorians, the Sith ships were in disarray. While the enemy reassembled, he had a unique opportunity to engage their larger ships with less resistance. The Sith had mostly organized themselves into a fighting retreat, but a few stragglers had become separated from the main fleet, exposing them for a strafing run. Marking one of the Sith Interdictors in Admiral Kvorkasir’s fleet, Belsio made a sharp turn and headed upward—relatively speaking—toward the belly of the Interdictor-class cruiser.

A squadron of lithe Sith starfighters emerged from the hangar of a nearby frigate to engage them. Although Commodore Molir could have redirected the efforts of all his pilots into dealing with them, he only signaled for eight starfighters to break off and hold off the incoming fighters long enough for them to reach their target. Five Aurek strikefighters and three S-250 Chela-class starfighters disengaged from their attack run on his command.

“Coming in hot,” Belsio announced on his squadron comm. “We’re going to strafe their ventral guns and then their main hangar. Follow my lead.”

Flying a refurbished Chela starfighter, the commodore had traded the ungainly craft’s auxiliary stabilizers for an additional four concussion missiles. In the hands of a less-experienced pilot, the starfighter would have been too cumbersome to fly; although Belsio was more used to Aurek strikefighters, he had flown enough Chela fighters to have a feel for their quirks.

Coming in from below and behind the Sith cruiser, Belsio launched all but one of his missiles at the cruiser’s rearmost turbolasers. The concussion missiles exploded into a bright fireball and caused a vibrant ripple in the capital ship’s shields but otherwise did no damage. The two Aurek starfighters and one of the newer VA-1 light interceptors on his tail launched what was left of their missiles as well. On the opposite side of the ship, most of Blue Nova Squadron was attacking the rear starboard turrets.

“Didn’t seem to penetrate their shields,” Commodore Molir noted as the last of the ships behind him finished their run. “Let’s come around again and use our lasers. If we can’t do any good after that, we’ll signal for some bombers to come in.”

One of his pilots on the starboard side of the ship spoke up, “Commodore! We’ve got-”

Static cut him off. Shouts of alarm and cries for help filled Belsio’s comm. His sensor showed that four of his squadmates on the other side of the ship had been eliminated in a manner of seconds. Turning his vessel so that the upright cockpit was facing the Sith Interdictor’s starboard, he realized that his allies were under attack from other starfighters. The pilots at his six didn’t even need to be told to follow him as he increased the engine power on his starfighter and rushed to their aid.

On approach, he realized that it was not Sith who were attacking his pilots—it was an Aurek strikefighter. A single Aurek strikefighter had killed six of the pilots in Blue Nova Wing in short order, and it was marked as one of theirs. The starfighter’s IFF marked the pilot as Blue Nova Nine, formerly Houjix Six, the Twi’lek pilot who had escaped death in the derelict Sith Interdictor Asylum several weeks prior.

“So the rest of the herd comes to gawk at the dead,” came the voice of Blue Nova Nine, although it was barely recognizable. Shrill and flighty, he hardly sounded like the same pilot who had been terrified out of his mind on the Asylum and joking around earlier.

Flying his Aurek strikefighter in a circle around the pilot designated Blue Nova Four, Blue Nova Nine placed two well-aimed laser shots into his engines and killed the last of Blue Nova’s pilots on the starboard side of the Interdictor.

“What’s the meaning of this? What the hell do you think you’re doing, Nine?” Commodore Molir asked.

“Just having a bit of fun, Commodore,” he answered. “The call came out, and I figured… why not have a bit of fun before the tide turns against you?”

“What are you blathering about?” asked Blue Nova Two. “Have you gone mad?”

“I've had to play the role of the fool for not even a month and I’m already exhausted. I’ll have you know it was… glorious fun killing each of these simpletons. One, two, three! Are these really your best pilots? I can’t believe your kind ever posed a threat to us.”

“Disable his ship,” Commodore Molir ordered, cutting Blue Nova Nine off from the squadron comm. “He’s either lost his mind or else he’s-”

“A double agent!”

The Twi’lek pilot performed a dive and rushed at Belsio and the surviving members of Blue Nova Squadron who were with him. His twin cannons unleashed a rapid volley into their midst; Belsio just barely avoided the attack by transitioning from nearly idle to full-throttle. Three more of his fellow pilots were eviscerated by the traitor’s laser fire. The surviving six members scattered in all directions, hoping to regroup elsewhere. Their erstwhile ally was unimpressed; he simply picked out one pilot and pursued him doggedly. Belsio had already turned around to assist the rest of his squadron, but he was too late to help the first pilot the Twi’lek traitor had chosen to engage.

“One down.” The Sith agent smacked his lips like he was preparing for the heartiest meal of his life. “How many more lives will I claim before I return to my liege?”

Belsio was pushing his starfighter to the limit. The Sith pilot was in another class altogether, flying circles around the hapless members of Blue Nova Squadron and gunning them down one-by-one. When two of the survivors tried to engage him head-on, the Sith feigned a retreat—leading them away from the other survivors and Belsio. Then, without warning, he performed an ascending roll that turned him around and brought him level with his pursuers. Only a few kilometers ahead of them and facing their starboard side, he peppered the space in front of them with laser fire; the two pilots couldn’t turn away quick enough and were both destroyed in the barrage.

His few surviving pilots had retreated toward the Republic lines. Commodore Molir found himself alone, engines roaring and laser cannons ready, as he closed the distance between the Sith agent flying in the Aurek strikefighter. He started firing his guns as soon as his target was more than a speck on his viewport, but at such a distance he didn’t expect to hit his target—not when his enemy flew the way he did.

“No one’s here to help you here, Commodore. Are you ready? Have you said your goodbyes, you codger? Dogfights are a young man’s game; you ought to send more of your youth at me for me to eviscerate. I have no time to waste on washed-up heroes.”

“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you did with Houjix Six. You talk big. Let’s see if you have what it takes to defeat a has-been like me.”

“If you think you can stand in my way, you’re wrong! I will personally destroy the entirety of Blue Wing, and give my Sith companions a chance to bombard your capital ships. But first…”

The Twi’lek agent accelerated toward Belsio. They traded laser fire as they closed the distance, each hoping to score the glancing blow needed to win them the fight. They were nearly about to collide when Belsio pulled away, performing a high-speed turn that twisted his craft 180 degrees and toward the Republic fleet. The Sith pilot had either expected Belsio to pull away first or else was prepared to die when the two of them collided, so he was easily able to maintain his velocity and pursue Belsio as he fled.

“That’s right! Run away! Flee before the harbinger of your doom!”

Belsio headed directly for a dogfight that was taking place in the wake of a Sith Centurion-class battlecruiser. Undeterred, his Sith pursuer turned to follow. Heading into the midst of the fighting, Belsio used his nigh unmatchable reflexes to avoid the crossfire, narrowly avoiding collision with two Republic Aurek strikefighters and a Sith interceptor as he made his way through the crowd. His assailant seemed not to care for the lives of friend or foe, and he used his laser cannons to clear a path. The Republic commodore emerged from the dogfight mere seconds before his assailant did.

As he snaked his way around the Sith vessel toward its stern, his tiny starfighter trembled from near-misses of the warship’s turbolasers and anti-starfighter batteries. He had one hand on the stabilizer controls and another on the primary throttle; he nudged both by millimeters every few seconds to avoid the laser fire that surrounded him. When he reached the front of the ship, he turned at a right angle and headed toward the nearest Republic Hammerhead cruiser.

His enemy rose up to meet him from out of nowhere. A single shot of the Sith agent’s laser cannon destroyed the twin laser cannon mounted on the bottom of his starfighter and the main stabilizer. Forced into an uncontrollable roll and rendered weaponless, Belsio struggled against g-forces to get his ship back under control. The Twi’lek mocked him further by scraping the wings of his craft against Belsio’s ship, ripping apart its hull, destroying its long-range comms, and throwing the ship even more off-course.

“Well, I guess that’s the end of that. The best the Republic had to offer. Their finest pilot. No matter how impressive you are, you’re nothing against a true master of the dark side,” the Sith’s voice crackled from Belsio’s damaged comm. “I’d let you watch as turncoats hiding within your ranks take control of your ships and use Republic guns to destroy what’s left of your precious fleet, but I’m a merciful being. I think I’ll crush your cockpit and watch you succumb to vacuum.”

“Don’t underestimate me!”

Estimating how long it would take for the ship to right itself in such a way that he would be facing his Twi’lek assailant, Belsio had primed his last concussion missile. Once he was facing his opponent, Belsio let the missile fly and used the kickback from its launch to properly stabilize his craft. The Twi’lek fired his laser cannons and destroyed the incoming missile, but Belsio had successfully redirected his craft and was limping toward the Republic Hammerhead—not far to go yet.

“This is just pathetic,” the Twi’lek agent growled. “You have no weapons left. You can’t escape. I will hunt you to the end with my mastery of the Force. You might as well eject from your craft now so I can have the sport of shooting your helplessly body.”

“I’ll still outmaneuver you…” Belsio growled, carefully flying into the skeletal remains of a Foray-class blockade runner.

“We’ll see…”

The derelict blockade runner had been eviscerated by Sith turbolasers, but the paths in and out of the ship were still very narrow and filled with power conduits, cables, and durasteel framework. Belsio was a good pilot, but with only his engines and with only his central stabilizing unit he found himself quickly boxed in. The wings on the side of his starfighter were clipped off when he tried to squeeze through what had once been the gunnery decks; he barely made it out of one of the gaping holes in the port side of the ship before completely losing control of his craft.

As he spun away helplessly from the destroyed blockade runner, he saw the Sith’s agent’s Aurek fighter emerge from where he had come from and knew that he was done. He had no more tricks, nowhere to go, and he couldn’t right his starfighter.

“Goodbye, Commodore Molir.”

No sooner had the Twi’lek agent emerged from the Foray blockade runner when a shuttle, larger than a starfighter but smaller than a military gunship, headed for both of them. It had been on a collision course with the Sith’s Aurek strikefighter, and two well-placed laser shots from its forward guns completely destroyed the starfighter. To Belsio’s surprise, it didn’t stop to assess the damage it had caused or deal with Belsio in the same way. The shuttle kept on its course toward the planet’s surface, ignoring everyone except the starfighters—on either side—that tried to stop its advance.

Commodore Molir watched as the battle raged on in the distance. As the Twi’lek agent had said, several Republic cruisers had turned on the fleet; evidently commandeered by traitors, these internecine engagements crippled the Republic defenses and forced them to stop pursuing the fleeing Sith ships, which allowed the enemy to regroup and begin their attack anew under Preux’s leadership. Even with their new found assistance from the Mandalorians, the battle was turning against the Republic.

Since the Sith agent had destroyed his long-range comms, he couldn’t do anything until one of his allies got close enough for him to contact. Even the Hammerhead cruiser that he had been approaching was just out of range; if it turned toward him, perhaps they would eventually drift close enough to get their attention.

The battle itself was far enough away that he was safe for the time being, so he ruminated on the loss of most of his squadron and his defeat at the hands of the Sith. Skilled though he was, he had clearly been outmatched. Would he have been able to contend with such a foe had he been twenty years younger? Perhaps, perhaps not. But he had never experienced such a humiliating defeat, and that defeat made him rethink a great many things as his ship drifted silently through space.

*** ***

Lightning crackled in the distance, bathing the grand spire situated in the southern pass in a pale light. Rain continued to fall as it had for the last four hours, carrying mud and stone down from the mountains and flooding the lands below. Trees that were not uproot by the torrent creaked as their branches swayed back and forth against the unrelenting winds.

This tower lay at the crossroads between the Jedi sanctuary and the Sith staging area. The Republic and Jedi forces that had been defending the pass had already been pushed east, and three Sith brigades had pursued them. Only a token force remained to watch over the tower, and they had been summarily dealt with by Northeus. Only the duo of black-armored Sith commandos had sensed his dark power, and they surrendered themselves to his service as they would have to their proper Sith Master.

“My lord, reinforcements will arrive at 1720,” the commando informed Northeus. “But we’d be foolish to not expect the Jedi to make an attempt to reclaim this place.”

“Agreed,” Northeus said, his voice possessing the same haunting reverberation it had had when he tried to kidnap Dynatha. Northeus motioned at the pillar of precious metals that had been stacked one on top of another. “Remain here and guard this with your life. No one, Jedi or Sith, must be allowed to disturb it while the ritual is underway.”

“It shall be done according to your will, Lord Whell.”

Northeus ran his gloved hand across the disks of bronzium, silver, and pyronium. The ancient ones of the Jedi Order continued to surprise him. He had never thought that they had the knowledge or skill to use constructs from the Infinite Empire to fashion a weapon for themselves. This entire tower—its walls, its frame, even the stack of rare metals that seemed like its central pillar—was enriched with the Force as much as any Jedi Knight. And if this place was modeled after the architecture of the Rakata, surely an artifact from their empire would be enough to unlock its potential.

After abandoning Tserne on Sleheyron, Northeus had visited the homeworld of the Rakata species. Much like Revan and Malak before him, he had found the remnants of that once vicious and domineering species too barbaric to communicate with. Northeus had used the knowledge he had gained scouring the galaxy for clues as to the whereabouts of the Rakatan homeworld and several local prisoners to force open the Temple of the Ancients, a massive mausoleum that had once served as the chief place of worship in the Infinite Empire. It was in the undisturbed sublevels that he had found what he had been searching for: the Emperor’s Staff, a relic of tremendous dark side power that bolstered its wielder’s strength in the Force and granted him the control over the stars that had defined the power of the Infinite Empire at its apex.

Every step of the way, Avaran Whell had held his hand, guiding him from one planet to the next in his search for ultimate power. Many years ago, the voice of his lost love had whispered to him in the dark. She was suffering after death, and so were the rest of his beloved friends from so long ago. Only by seeking out the ancient knowledge of the Infinite Empire could he seize their spirits from the grave and bring them back to this plane. But the pained voice of his love had changed the more he listened to it, slowly revealing itself to be nothing more than the disguised voice of Avaran Whell. By that point, it didn’t matter. Northeus was lost. His desire to resurrect the dead had been quenched by his possessor’s will. There was little differentiation between them. Their goals had become the same.

Northeus left behind the Sith commandos and ascended the staircase that circled the wall. Rain carried by the wind pattered against the tower’s metal walls, but the only sound Northeus heard was the rapping of the imperial staff against the stone at his feet. He continued up the steps until at last he reached the highest point in the tower. The ceiling was made of a translucent metal, and in its center appeared was an inverted cone that allowed water to drip onto the pyronium disk that had been placed on top of the central column. A trapdoor fashioned out of durasteel led from the top of the stairwell to the outside of the tower. Clumsily fumbling with the lock, Northeus managed to get the door open with one hand and—after being drenched from the rainwater that had coalesced outside—emerged onto top of the tower.

The rain and winds were harsher at the tower’s crown than below. The torrent had flooded the apex of the tower; the water puddled up to his ankles and the rest spilled over the parapet at the roof’s perimeter. The gale that swept through the mountain pass whipped against his hair, face, and clothes, clouding his vision and causing his cloak to furl about behind him. Were it not for the foul weather, Northeus could have seen in all directions for kilometers, observed the battle as the Republic and Sith fought against each other, and influence the battle as he willed. For now, he would let Preux do what he wished. He would have time to deal with whoever remained once his principle task was done.

Raising the staff above his head, Northeus drove the ancient relic into the inverted cone in the ground so that its base—small enough to fit inside the hole at the other end of the cone—touched the pyronium disk inside. As soon as the Emperor’s Staff was in place, Northeus began chanting the incantation of a Sith spell that would gather the Force to this place. As the presence of the Force continued to increase, the disks below him began to slowly spin in place, causing the staff to rotate as well. The runes etched onto the staff lit up with a pale red light, and Northeus’s eyes lit up with a hint of madness.

“It won’t be long now… soon I will see this planet engulfed in darkness… a darkness powerful enough to destroy even the so-called Emperor of the Sith!”

*** ***

The Hound’s Sapphire flew over the ruins of some ancient town that was about fifteen kilometers southeast of the Republic settlement where Fetcher and the others had thought Ralina would be. When they had flown over the settlement, they had found it swarming with Sith troopers; it had become a forward operations base for their attacks to the north and east. Artillery batteries had fired on Fetcher and the other smugglers on their approach, destroying two ships before the rest of them had retreated.

Captain Haphren Marhe and his associates had volunteered to search north and west—primarily because the fighting was less intense the further north and west they went. Fetcher and his motley smuggling fleet were traveling south as fast as they could, observing Republic soldiers, Mandalorian and Ailon warriors, and Jedi Knights fighting the Sith and their many mercenaries below them. Fetcher was wary of traveling any further east than they already were; there were many more anti-air guns on both sides of the mountains, and the fighting became so intense that there was no way for him to land to pick up Ralina and the others. He hoped that she and her family had elected to travel away from the Jedi sanctuary instead of towards it.

“Where could they be, Captain?” Zalee asked from the gun controls.

“I’ll be damned if I know,” growled Fetcher. “You’d think they’d know to stay in one place when they tell someone to search for them.”

“They couldn’t exactly stay in the settlement,” Posh said. “The Sith control everything within a fifteen kilometer radius. There’s no way they could have escaped on foot.”

“Then let’s hope they left early—or else aren’t on foot anymore,” Fetcher said. “Their ships were destroyed, so if they’re alive, then they ought to be down here somewhere.”

“If they’re still alive,” Posh noted grimly.

“You needn’t worry about that, Posh. We’re receiving a message from Ralina,” Jon-Oryan announced. “She’s broadcasting her message on multiple unsecured channels—anyone could be listening in on her.

“Bring it up on the main projector.”

A holographic image of Ralina shimmered into view at the center of the bridge, below the captain’s chair. She appeared to be sitting behind a fallen tree, clutching her blaster close to her. Even from the grainy image, the crew recognized that there was blood all over her head and across her torso. On her left Lucius could barely be seen; he was currently facing the other direction, his blaster rifle pointed at some distant threat. Manda was on her opposite side, trying to clean Ralina’s wounds with a cloth and antiseptic.

“Ralina!” the crew greeted her in unison.

“Fetcher! By the Force, I didn’t think you’d come!”

“Fetchy!” Manda groaned. “Where are you? We need you here!”

“Slow down, one at a time. Where are you now?” Fetcher asked. “Are you hurt? What’s the situation?”

“We’re…” Ralina thought to herself. “I’d say we’re about nine kilometers east of the Republic settlement. We’re very close to the mountain range—the one running south to north—in the forests nearby. We hadn’t… we hadn’t expected this much resistance.”

“We can’t hold this position, Fetcher!” Lucius called from his position. “There was a Republic team nearby, but they’re pulling back. The Sith are securing the area now. Got a Sith fireteam advancing on our position…”

“Hold tight,” Fetcher said. “We’ll be there in three minutes-”

“We’re closer, Fetcher,” Captain Marhe said. “Let us pick them up.”

“Fetcher…” Ralina groaned. “We’re looking for Thertos.”

“Thertos? He isn’t with you?”

“No. He ran off.” She covered her face with her hands. We’re not sure when he left, where he went, or if he…”

“Don’t worry. We’ll find him.” Fetcher returned his attention to Captain Marhe, who was listening in on the smuggler’s private comm. “Haphren! I’ll leave her to you. Make sure she gets out of there alive!”

“It’s going to be close,” the Human captain admitted.

“Hurry. Please,” Lucius said.

“Stay safe, Fetchy! Take care of Thertos and tell him we’re okay!” Manda shouted.

“Posh! Bring us around. He couldn’t have gone very far, and we’re going to scour this whole damn planet until we find him!”

“Now? During the biggest battle since Malachor V?” Posh asked. “Captain, even the Jedi are having a hard time surviving out there. Don’t you think-”

“Now, Posh!” Fetcher barked. “Zalee, keep those guns poised and warm. We’re going to need them. Jon-Oryan, see if you can get access to any military chitchat. Try to figure out where to avoid and where we can go without tasting artillery fire.”

Posh did as he was told. Flying the Hound’s Sapphire up and around, he brought their armed freighter closer to the treeline so Jon-Oryan’s sensors could pick up life forms more directly. It would still be difficult to key in on particular individuals due to the chaotic nature of the battle below, but at least Fetcher would be able to see lone wanderers stand out from group of soldiers. Diverting most of their power to the ventral shields, Fetcher ordered Posh to keep them going at a slow but still reasonable pace. He didn’t doubt that the chances of finding Thertos at all where very slim, but he wasn’t about to give up on the boy. If he was down there, and if he was alive, they would find him or die trying.


Chapter 46

The war room was abuzz with voices of comm operators, droid chatter, and terminals in use. Major General Ducian Eto stood at the center of a large table with a holographic representation of the entire continent. His adjutants and aides were all around him, either monitoring the battle as it progressed or keeping track of the minutia of combat and filing reports on their datapads. The Ailon Nova Guard had set up their own tactical group at the far edge of the mobile command center, and the Mandalorians strategists who defected to their side—much to the chagrin of some of the older Republic officers—were near the back of the room.

The situation was not completely under control, but it was better than it had been two hours ago. Republic Army forces were holding the line in the ruins directly to the east of the northern pass out of the Vyreds, preventing Sith units from advancing into the plains that surrounded the Jedi sanctuary. Admittedly, he was disappointed that they had lost the area around the tower within the pass, but since most of their heavy armor and artillery were still east of the Vyred Mountains anyway, it was easier for him to set up a defensive position in the eastern ruins than in the pass itself.

The Republic settlement had been overrun too quickly for General Eto to do anything. Even the Jedi Knights in the area had either been killed or retreated northward toward the smuggling outpost in the hills. According to his forward scouts, most of the civilians had fled west into the lowlands. He had ordered Captain Ilen to divert some of their resources to help them flee offworld if the situation on the ground became untenable, but they were relatively safe for the time being. The main Sith base was a few kilometers south of the Republic settlement, and it was unassailable given their current resources. Most of his soldiers were tied up elsewhere, and they didn’t have the firepower to cause enough damage to make a direct assault a reliable option.

Aside from defending the Jedi sanctuary itself, keeping the shield generators intact was his primary concern. The one situated in the hills to the north of the Jedi sanctuary was secure, but the Sith had been sporadically sending scouting parties to harass forces nearby. He trusted the Jedi guarding it, but he sent two infantry companies and an armored unit to assist. The second generator, unfortunately situated to the west of the Vyreds and close to the Sith base, was where the fiercest fighting had been going on for the past five hours. Two army divisions had been sent to keep the shield from being seized and destroyed by Sith forces, and as he understood it a large team of Jedi Knights was there as well. Nevertheless, the ferocity of their opponent and the Republic’s lengthy supply line—when compared to the Sith Army’s proximity to the generator—meant that the Republic was fighting a battle of attrition to hold the location.

Of the three generals in charge of the Republic forces, Ducian Eto was technically the lowest seniority but was older than the other two and had actual battlefield experience, whereas the two lieutenant generals serving alongside him had been political appointees in the years after the Jedi Civil War. They largely deferred to his knowledge and expertise, but there were obvious tensions, especially amongst their lower ranking officers. Lieutenant General Calad from Corellia had nearly got into a shouting match with him when the Mandalorian defectors had arrived but ultimately backed down when Eto explained in detail how bad the situation could get without their assistance. General Eto felt strange accepting their help, to be sure, but he would not turn them away—not when this battle could be decided by whichever side had the most soldiers to throw at the other.

“General Eto, Colonel Velthini’s tanks have been bombarded by Sith artillery. His right flank is collapsing and he requests assistance,” one of his aides intoned, pointing to the colonel’s battalions, situated about half a kilometer north of the generator.

“Direct the 19th and 20th Battalions to secure his flank.”

“Without those battalions where they are, Major Felstan’s infantry is vulnerable to enemy armor,” another aide noted.

“Just so. Pull Major Felstan back and allow the 15th Battalion to advance and put pressure on Sith armor. Command nearby droid forces to provide fire support.”

“Mandalorian forces are falling back. Sith infantry is sweeping in to take advantage of the situation,” Captain Ilen reported.

“Captain Illen, alert me if the situation becomes dire. Until then, use your discretion for deployments and changes.” General Eto turned his attention from the battle map and headed over to the Mandalorian leaders and strategists. “Field Marshal Kerre,” he called, addressing the older gold-armored Mandalorian warrior who was standing over the Mandalorian battle map. “I need your warriors to hold their position. We do not have the soldiers to fight off the Sith there.”

“We’re trying, General. Dark Jedi and their infantry stuck us in a pincer maneuver and hit us hard on both fronts. We’re rallying them now.”

“Understood. Make it sooner than later, or else our front will collapse as well.”

General Eto was about to return to the Republic map when he noticed a young female, no older than twenty and not wearing any armor, amongst the Mandalorian strategists. She had her own tactical readout, and the console she used was a model he hadn’t seen since the Mandalorian Wars. She was biting her lip and sweating too much for the climate controlled room. He approached her without a word—she didn’t notice his presence—and glanced over her shoulder. Much to his surprise, she was in charge of a battalion of warriors, and she seemed to be advising the commanding officer on strategy.

“Send one of your companies to the left and and keep one where you are,” the young woman spoke into her earpiece comlink. “Send the other three at the enemy and let them come to you. Once you've been engaged, have your company strike the enemy’s left flank hard and push them back toward the Republic forces. Let the company on standby defend you against any flanking attempts by the enemy.”

“You don’t have the numbers to force the Sith back,” General Eto noted. “You’d be better served splitting your forces in two and sending one to attack on their forward left and the other their forward right. Begin the slow push and watch for enemy flanking maneuvers. Once your forces gain the upper hand, call for reinforcements to attack them from behind and rout them.”

“This move worked on the Republic forces at Althir III with only three companies,” she explained, only half cognizant of who was speaking to her. “It ultimately allowed Mandalorian tanks to break the Republic front and delayed victory by several hours.”

“Three companies of veteran Mandalorian warriors commanded by a skilled tactician who had taken the Republic leadership by surprise. But a learned commander will see what you’re doing. If he has the numerical advantage, he will split his forces in two and hit both your groups before you can set up your maneuver, or else he will focus all of them on one formation and destroy it before the other can assist.”

“That’s what my company on standby is for,” she countered.

General Eto watched the fighting play out. The enemy leader—a high ranking NCO, no doubt—seemed to have predicted the Mandalorian strategist’s ploy and massed all of his forces to strike at the strategist’s left formation just as Eto predicted. She tried to recover by moving her forces into a position to relieve them, but this group was itself pinned down by approaching Sith mechanized forces.

“Master Sergeant Tra'viss, pull back and regroup your forces. Signal to the other Mandalorians that you need assistance in your retreat,” the female strategist ordered.

No reply came in. The Sith drove their soldiers into the heart of the Mandalorian formation, and the warriors were routed when they realized that their situation was hopeless and their leader killed. Mandalorian warriors from Kerre’s unit came up to support them, but she had lost two-thirds of the warriors in her battalion before they could retreat entirely.

“I don’t understand…” The young strategist’s shoulders slumped and there were tears in her eyes. “Our warriors failed… but that maneuver’s never failed me…”

“It was a strategically sound move, but you have to take into account your enemy’s tenacity and the experience of your troops. For example, even a single Dark Jedi can challenge a company of Republic soldiers—maybe even more. Mandalorian warriors fare about as well.”

“I've seen fewer Mandalorians kill a Jedi before.”

“It’s a rare occurrence. Regardless, you must be ready for anything. The death of a commanding officer, especially a good one, is an unacceptable sacrifice. Consider my advice when your forces regroup.” Eto said, returning to the Republic side of the war room.

“Wait!” she called, wiping the tears from her eyes. “You recognized the faults in my maneuver, how to counter it, and a better strategy almost immediately. How?”

The general allowed himself a grim smile. “I was the captain of the Republic company that fell for that maneuver at Althir III.”

*** ***

Tserne took a deep breath and tried to steel himself. Ashla’s Banner—the Hammerhead cruiser that served as the flagship of Watchcircle Dominus—had just dropped out of hyperspace. Emergency klaxons were already going off, so he suspected that the battle was at hand. Although he had a small viewport in his personal chambers that could see outside the ship, it was a very poor view. He was grateful that he had received medical treatment and had his cybernetics repaired when he had the chance. The battle would become very hectic for them very quickly.

“The battle is not going well for the Republic and Jedi forces,” the spirit of Raystin said. When they had first departed the ghost had helped Tserne into a meditative trance, and after that Tserne had only felt the spirit’s presence but had not seen or heard him. “We have arrived at an opportune time. I believe our presence here can turn the tide against the dark forces.”

“Will we? The few hundred Jedi on board and I will be the ones to win the battle for the Jedi?”

“Do you suppose you and the Watchcircle are unimportant in the scheme of things?”

“I’m still trying to comprehend the fact that I’m here at all, to be honest,” Tserne replied. “Being trapped on Sleheyron… I would have died if not for Castan’s intervention. I wouldn’t have made it out of those subterranean catacombs without your assistance. And I would never have reached the battle in time if we hadn’t ended up being found by the Watchcircle. This whole chain of events is improbable by all accounts.”

“And yet here we are,” the spirit pointed out. “Why worry about how we arrived at this place when you’re in a condition to change things for the better?”

“If I’m able to do that. I wasn’t exactly Castan’s first pick for this sword, and somehow I doubt my Force potential is enough to challenge a Dark Jedi—much less a Sith Master or Lord.”

“But the fact you were chosen in the first place is significant.”

“Only because I was there and the hour grew late,” Tserne replied.

“I disagree. I am entombed within this blade, a spirit who failed in life, so my thoughts are worthless, but I believe you should have carried this sword far sooner. You needed the power within it to become whole again, and your connection with the Force is stronger than you presume.”

“The potential and the actual are usually different.”

“Have faith in me, as I have faith in you. You have much in common with a man I used to know, who thought like you did. His was a great path, though mired in sorrow. I expect greater things from you.”

Tserne silently noted the foreboding tragedy that accompanied Raystin’s idea of greatness. “I suppose this battle will prove one of us mistaken.”

Gathering his meager belongings, Tserne left his chambers. A Watchcircle guard was stationed outside of his room—he wasn’t allowed to wander the ship unattended—who escorted him from deck three to the bridge. Neither of them spoke to one another, but the guard greeted other members of the Jedi Covenant who joined them.

Delvin’s two apprentices met him at the entrance to the bridge; they ferried him to Delvin as they had been instructed. The elder Lightbearer was standing at the fore of the bridge, observing the naval engagement through their forward viewport. Still and quiet, Delvin said nothing when Tserne stood at his side.

As Raystin had said, the battle had not gone well for the Republic admirals and their allies. The sudden betrayal within their ranks—of whom Commodore Molir’s pilot had been but one of many—caused disarray within their lines of battle. When loyalist ships diverted their attention to ships that had been overtaken by traitorous officers, the Republic forces faltered before Preux and gave his capital ships a clear shot at their orbital station. Even now, Tserne and Delvin watched as the Phantasm’s turbolasers pummeled away at what was left of the defensive satellite’s shielding. The Mandalorians did the best they could to hold the line against the advancing Sith forces, but without the numerical superiority of a united Republic armada there was little they could do.

“Your three ships are going to turn the tide against that?” Tserne asked. “Good luck.”

“The will of the Force goes with us. Our overwhelming righteousness will crush the enemy, no matter how hopeless things seem,” Delvin said.

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Always the skeptic.” Delvin clasped his hands behind his back. “The battle has not been lost yet. We have arrived to turn the tide.”

“Give me a starfighter and I’ll leave you to it. But I’m not here to fight for you.”

“Ah, yes. I sense Dynatha. She is already here.”

“I sense her as well,” Raystin said. “As far as I know, she is on the planet’s surface.”

Delvin cocked his eyebrow at the spirit. “On the planet? She is almost certainly-”

“Our strike team is leaving, Delvin. Are you going with them?” High Lightbearer Eston asked from his seat at the center of the bridge.

“No. I will remain here and assist you. Tserne, if you are going to the surface, join my acolytes. They’re to go to the surface and help the others rescue some of ours who have been trapped there.”

“You have agents down there?” Tserne asked. “And you weren’t going to come and get them?”

“We had not expected the Sith attack so quickly, and we did not know that the situation was so dire. Our brethren had an escape plan, but it depended on a delayed Sith response. As it is, they have no way off the planet. We would have come to get them—eventually.”

Tserne was dubious. “I’d rather go down on my own, to be honest. We’re not exactly working toward the same goal here… in the short term, anyway.”

“The favored heathen will receive no ships from us,” Telerus growled. “He joins our brothers and sisters or else remains here with us.”

“When you put it that way, I suppose I have no choice but to accompany them.”

“We don’t find the idea anymore appealing than you do, I promise,” Via said.

Tserne gave her a wry smile. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll keep my complaints to a minimum—I only hope you do the same.”

“May the Force be with you, Tserne. I hope to see you and Dynatha again when this is finished,” Delvin said.

“Likewise, Delvin.”

The intercom announced that all Jedi Covenant initiates on board were to report to their battlestations. The ship began to tremble as the engines brought the old ship closer and closer to the battle. Tserne couldn’t help but think that Delvin was crazy; Watchcircle Dominus would need more than three floating relics from the Jedi Civil War to change the course of this fight.

*** ***

The eastern side of the continent was still nominally under the control of the Jedi and the Republic, so Nocion’s journey from the island to the Jedi sanctuary had been unimpeded. By the time he had arrived, Celes and Harin had already departed, leaving him as shocked as the guards who had discovered the empty cell block a few hours before.

Guards had refused him entry to the comm room—anything larger than a comlink had been confiscated by the Jedi leadership to keep the many allied factions stationed on Falang Minor working in tandem. He had been allowed inside the auxiliary hangar where the Jedi Order stored older and less reliable vessels; anything that was spaceworthy had already been commandeered for the battle in orbit. After going through the flight logs and departure manifests, he had discovered that one ship—the ship that Celes had arrived in—had been removed from the hangar by an unknown party through unknown means.

Since he hadn’t been able to access the security room in the Jedi sanctuary and had received no word from either his wife or his son, he assumed that they had already left Falang Minor. The only thing left to do was secure his own escape. The transport he had arrived in could only fly in atmosphere, and there were no ships left in the sanctuary that had a working hyperdrive. He would have to venture out into the battlefield if he wanted to commandeer a vessel, and even then most of those would probably be berthed at either the Republic or Sith base of operations. Although he couldn’t just walk into the Republic headquarters, he was still a Sith agent, and with a good word from his superiors, he imagined he would be able to take a gunship into orbit so he could ostensibly fight the Republic in orbit.

Nocion left the auxiliary hangar and went to the training fields. Under normal circumstances, Jedi Padawans would study under their masters and perform athletic feats of strength and finesse across the expansive field. The Jedi had quickly converted it into an outdoor staging area of sorts; hovercars stacked with supplies, ammunition, and medical equipment had been moved to the fields along with their surplus of swoop bikes and droids of all types.

He was powering up one of the swoop bikes that was still in working condition when the Force alerted him to the presence of another Force user. He would have ignored the warning, but the approaching Force-sensitive was shrouded in the dark side. Given that he was a double agent, he shouldn’t have been worried, but he also knew that younger or less privy Sith would be less likely to recognize him or else just attack on sight of someone who appeared to be a Jedi. He kept one hand on the throttle while reaching for his lightsaber.

Much to his surprise, Nafyan emerged from behind one of the cargo trucks. At his side was a younger woman, perhaps in her late twenties, who was draped in a brown robe and wearing light durasteel armor on her torso. She had dark hair and dark skin, and her eyes were beginning to develop the sickly yellow coloration present in true Sith warriors. However, given that her lightsaber’s blade—active and at the ready—had a yellow hue, Nocion knew she had not yet completed her apprenticeship. Atris herself stood at Nafyan’s other side, and her presence was more shocking than Nafyan’s.

“Nocion,” Nafyan hissed his name. “Tell me what you’re doing here.”

He bowed slightly. “Master Nafyan, the Jedi Order informed me of their hiding place three days ago. I arrived only this morning. I was going to inform you, but you and your forces arrived before I could do so. I think-”

Nocion’s throat began to tighten. Gasping for air, he was too distracted to notice that Nafyan had used telekinesis to lift his entire body into the air. His apprentice snatched Nocion’s lightsaber from his belt.

“You dare to deceive me at a time like this?” Nafyan growled, pinching his fingers together to tighten his grip on Nocion’s neck. “I trusted you to be my eyes and ears in the Jedi Order. You were our spy! What did they offer you, Nocion? Did they offer to absolve your misdeeds? An appointment to their Council? Did they promise to protect you from us?”

“I’m… I’m on your side, Nafyan. Don’t do this. I want to help you…”

“Your lies may work on your little Jedi friends, but I know you better than that. What are you after, Nocion? Why are you here?”

“Let me run him through, master,” his apprentice pleaded. “Let me give him a traitor’s due.”

“I’m almost tempted to let you,” Nafyan replied. “But I want him to tell me everything before he begs for my forgiveness… or else dies in silent ignominy.”

Nocion coughed. His heart was pounding against his chest and his brain was throbbing. He could barely focus, and he was certain he was going to pass out—and die—from asphyxiation. “Damn… you… I’m on your side…”

Atris had watched the entire ordeal without a word. Nafyan and his apprentice had seemingly forgotten that she was with them. She could have crept away without a word, finding the safety with the Jedi Order or the Republic. Long ago she had fallen to the darkness. So proud she had been. So proud and so wrong. She had been freed from that nightmare by the only Jedi whom she had ever called her friend, but she never forgot what that darkness felt like. She had wanted to go into exile like the one who had liberated her, to walk her path and see what she had learned that made her into the Jedi Atris only wished she could be. But the Jedi had kept her locked away. They had driven her mad. She had wanted revenge—against the Jedi, the Sith, Meetra…

She realized that there was no way to escape. The Jedi would not help her. The Sith would make sure that she helped them, and then she would die. But Nocion had helped her. Why? She wasn’t entirely sure. Perhaps he had planned on her helping the Sith. Perhaps he had heard of her past and truly wanted to help her escape. Or maybe he saw himself in her, just as she saw some of herself in him now. He was no longer a dark-sider—at least, not entirely. He was caught in limbo between light and shadow. Maybe she could set him on the right path, just as Meetra had righted her.

Springing into action, Atris slipped the dagger Nafyan had on his belt from its sheath. He had only instinctively realized what she had done, but by the time he reacted it was already too late. The blade plunged into his back just beside his right shoulder. The old Sith Master roared in pain and released his grip on Nocion’s throat, dropping him to the ground. Before anyone else could react, Atris called upon the Force and took Nocion’s lightsaber from Nafyan’s apprentice. The young Sith acolyte cursed at the former Jedi Councilor and moved to engage, but Atris had already armed herself. Their yellow and green blades clashed in a flurry of sparks.

Nocion took several deep breaths as his head cleared. Stars danced in his vision while his brain stopped throbbing. When his sight returned, he saw Nafyan on the ground not more than two meters from him, and Atris was engaged in a heated duel with Nafyan’s apprentice. She was obviously losing the fight, even against such a neophyte. Atris had been kept as a prison for so long and denied a weapon of her own that she was hardly able to use a lightsaber like she once had.

“Your wife is at the western shield generator! The Sith leaders were talking about her on the military comm. If you go to her now, you will find her there!” Atris called out to Nocion.

“What about you?”

“Consider this repayment for the debt I owe you,” she insisted. “And when you escape, tell them that it was a Jedi who saved you.”

Nocion hesitated. He wanted to help her, but at the same time, he needed to reach Celes before her position was overrun or else she defeated all of her enemies and she departed. When he had freed Atris, he had no idea that she would return to save his life. But she had played her part; whether out of selfishness or cowardice, he fled to the swoop bike and left her behind. The swoop bike’s engine was still running, and he brought the bike around and drove away from the training fields just as Nafyan removed the knife from his back.

The old Sith said nothing. He knew he had been outwitted. Whether Atris and Nocion had arranged for some secret deal beforehand or else she was simply being a good Jedi and interfering with his plans he did not know, but he would not be caught off-guard again. Rising to his full height, Nafyan summoned the dark side to himself, draping himself in its essence and twisting the pain of his injuries into rage. Removing his lightsaber from his combat vest, he pressed the trigger near its pommel and let the brilliant crimson blade burst forth.

“I will repay you tenfold for injuring me,” he grumbled, more to himself than to her. “You will be nothing but ashes when I’m through.”

She was too busy fighting his apprentice to notice him. She probably wouldn’t even notice him until he was centimeters away, ready to bring his blade to bear. He knew she could barely contend with a Sith acolyte; Atris stood no chance against a full-fledged Sith Master like Nafyan. With a terrifying roar, Nafyan charged into battle.

*** ***

Anti-air artillery and low-altitude gunships had forced Ranval to avoid the heart of the battlefield, lest the tiny shuttle that had once belonged to Delvin get atomized by enemy fire. The vessel lacked an IFF indicator, and the battle had been going on for so long that Republic and Sith forces were firing at anything that didn’t register as friendly. He had settled down at the outskirts of the smugglers’ settlement, some one hundred kilometers north of where he suspected the Jedi sanctuary was located. The rains had moved westward, but traveling by air was out of the question, so he hoped to find ground transport from the civilians or else commandeer a military vehicle—if there were any around.

Replacing one of his prosthetic hands with a vibroblade and the other with a sonic blaster, Ranval left Delvin’s shuttle behind. The hilly region to the north of the proper Vyred Mountains extended northward as far as he could reckon, interrupted only by the smugglers’ compound some dozen meters to the northeast. There were no signs that the region had been mapped out or explored, indicating that the smugglers who lived nearby either did not care to venture further or else had not had the chance. The massive energy shield that defended the Jedi sanctuary extended north to cover this entire region, and it continued at least two hundred more kilometers before ending somewhere on the horizon.

His only recourse was heading to the settlement; if anyone still had ships and transport, it would be the smugglers who lived there. As he approached their compound, he realized that some of their buildings were on fire and others were belching smoke. Worried that the Sith or one of their underlings had arrived before he did, Ranval doubled his pace.

When he arrived at the smugglers’ outpost, he found most of the structures had already been razed. Those that were still standing had been marred with laser fire and had their doors, windows, and walls smashed from the outside. Corpses were scattered in between the homes; Ranval took note of Humans, Aqualish, Gamorreans, Twi’leks, Rodians, Wookiees, and many other species. Most had been killed by blaster fire, although a few had been blown apart by much more powerful weaponry.

Ranval hid himself in the shadows of building still standing and headed toward the center of the settlement. The carnage became more brutal the further he went, and he saw beings who were still fighting—smugglers and their droids against Exchange mercenaries and slaves—in the alleys and around abandoned buildings. Every so often, a smuggler freighter would try to escape the settlement, but nearly all of them were shot down by unseen artillery and sent back to the surface in brilliant balls of fire and metal.

Coroq Lotte stood at the center of the outpost with his chief lieutenants and kinsmen, his best warriors, and many slave bodyguards. The women who had been the wives, daughters, and crew of the other smugglers had been gathered near the fountain to keep the other criminals from having their way with them. By the sheer number of dead in the central courtyard, Ranval surmised that the resistance had been fierce, but there simply hadn’t been enough smugglers to contend with the Exchange.

“Two more smugglers fled into the hills with their crews, and we've wiped out three others,” one of Coroq Lotte’s Sanyassan associates reported. “The few survivors that remain are no threat to us.”

“Excellent. Maybe next time these smugglers will think twice about double-crossing the Exchange,” Coroq said. “A suitable warmup exercise for the battles to come, I think.”

“Well, don’t leave us waiting, Coroq,” a Twi’lek mercenary with one lekku growled. “I want my share of the spoils…”

“And you’ll get them once the battle is through,” the Sanyassan commander growled, pushing his comrade away from the women. “But not a moment sooner.” He turned to the face the other mercenaries when they began to grumble and grope at the captured females. “I said not yet! Are you sacks of Hutt fat deaf and stupid?”

“And who made you the boss of us?” The translator droid of a two meter tall Wookiee with deep scars across his arms and chest asked—in a calmer manner than his master had. “Just because you have the most mercenaries serving you doesn’t mean anything… if I can break your legs and arms when you try and stop me.”

Coroq’s fellow Sanyassan and loyal enforcers maneuvered themselves between their leader and the other Exchange operatives. A hundred voices began to shout at each other in mangled Basic, Huttese, and a multitude of other languages. During the commotion, the same Twi’lek who had first petitioned for his pick of the females removed himself from the angry crowd and approached the captives. When one of Coroq’s younger officers tried to stop him, the Twi’lek removed a knife from an armband and stabbed him in the throat. He grabbed a young Zeltron woman who had been amongst the captives and pulled her to her feet.

“I don’t care whose brothel you belonged to before, but you’re mine now,” the Twi’lek sneered. “Now let’s go somewhere nice and quiet, just the two of us…”

Ranval moved out from the shadow of the alleyway. “Enough!”

The Force allowed him to project his voice loud enough that all of the criminals, even those engaged in combat and caught up in their own squabbles, heard him. Everyone, from Coroq Lotte himself to the lowly slaves who fought only because they would be killed otherwise, stared at the Jedi Knight in bemused and awestruck silence. When their initial surprise wore off, the Twi’lek who had tried to escape with one of their captives moved first, keeping one arm wrapped around her neck and raising his blaster pistol with the other.

“Damn you, smuggler! Don’t you know when you’re beaten?”

“Smuggler? I am no mere criminal. Put your blaster down. I’d hate to see anyone else hurt on your account.”

The Twi’lek’s mind proved stronger than Ranval expected. “I gave you your chance to flee. You should have taken it!”

As soon as the Twi’lek fire his blaster, Ranval maneuvered around the shot while simultaneously closing the distance between them. Moving too quickly to observe, he ended up face-to-face with the Twi’lek criminal. He kicked high, making contact with the criminal’s face and sending him to the ground. Ranval positioned himself between the captured women and the Exchange, most of whom had recovered from their stupor. With a focused telekinetic strike, Ranval scooped up the mercenaries and slaves and tossed them onto the ground. When those that remained standing tried to turn their blasters on him, he used his mind to eject the weapons’ power paks. Anyone who tried to move into melee range got a shot from his blaster—on stun—for their trouble. In a matter of seconds, only Coroq and two of his kinsmen remained conscious and standing.

“What… who are you?”

“Coroq Lotte, I presume?” Ranval asked. “Your reputation precedes you. You see, I am a friend of a friend of yours.”

“I very much doubt we’re acquainted in any way… Jedi.”

“Perhaps you’d know him as the Ghoul.”

That name caused Coroq to snarl. His two relatives raised their blaster rifles, and Ranval responded by disassembling the weapons—lock, stock, and barrel—with the Force. Left with only the feeble grip in their hands, they stepped behind their superior for protection. The Jedi could sense the mercenary leader’s fear, but to his credit, he betrayed no emotion as he stared down Ranval with all the hate he could muster.

“If he was here right now, I would disembowel him and leave him for the slaves and carrion to fight over. What do you know of that coward? Who are you?” Coroq asked.

“What would it matter if I told you? Why are you here, Lotte? I didn’t know the Exchange hired out its best enforcers to go pick on some smugglers in their frontier homes.”

“All you need to know is that this feud was an unexpected, but justified, engagement that was a long time coming.”

“I see. Whatever your reasons, you know I cannot allow you to continue. You've caused enough carnage here.”

“We will defend the honor of our clan!” the youngest of the three Sanyassan shouted. “Death to those who oppose Coroq and the rest of clan Lotte!”

Ranval sighed. The two younger Sanyassan warriors moved in first. He ducked under the first sword strike that came his way and kneed the attacker in the gut. The second had two shorter swords and swung them at Ranval’s chest and neck, but Ranval dropped to the ground and kicked his feet out from under him. Before he could stand up, Coroq Lotte moved in; his own sword—black as ebony and glimmering in the sun—nearly severed Ranval’s neck from his torso. Ranval rolled out of the way just in time, and he was on his feet before Coroq could stop him.

The leader of the Exchange mercenaries leered at Ranval, positioning himself in a stance that seemed to indicate he was going on the defensive. “What are you waiting for, Jedi? I’m not scared of you. In fact, I welcome death! If I cannot have vengeance in this life, I will have it in the next!”

“If you surrender, I will let you live. I can’t promise you’ll be allowed out of prison before you get old, though.”

“I’d rather die!”

Coroq charged forward, shouting at the top of his lungs. Neither he nor his blade ever reached his target. Ranval had calmly raised the blaster attachment and fired, striking the mercenary leader in the chest. His body fell limply about a meter away from Ranval. Sensing that all of his opponents were defeated, Ranval approached the captured women and freed them all without a word, loosing their binds with his vibroblade.

“We don’t know how to thank you, Master Jedi,” the Zeltron whom the Twi’lek had assaulted said once they were all free. “We would have been enslaved and taken away if you hadn’t come.”

“Speak nothing of it.”

“You didn’t even kill them!” said a Kedorzhan female who was examining the bodies of the defeated Exchange operatives. “What gives?”

“Their fates are yours to decide. Some of their slaves are only guilty of serving under cruel masters, but the criminals themselves deserve the justice that you mete upon them. What they did to you, your crews, and your families is beyond words. I will not think less of you if you decide to take their lives in exchange for the ones they took.”

Most of the women were content with his answer, although a few grumbled to themselves. In their minds, a Jedi Knight of his caliber would have dealt them a swift and merciless execution.

“But why are you here, Master Jedi?” asked an Echani, perhaps no older than sixteen. “We heard the fighting was confined to the land around the Central and Southern Vyreds.”

“I was forced to land here lest the Sith shoot down my ship with their guns. I need a way to reach the other Jedi at their base. Do any of you have a swoop bike or a ground transport that I can use?”

The Zeltron shook her head. “We don’t have any of those, I’m afraid. But there is something…”

“To the southwest, not five kilometers, is a huge shield generator. Biggest structure I’ve ever seen!” interrupted the Echani. “And just beside that, there’s a plateau that collects rainwater.”

“What of it?”

“There’s a tunnel there,” the Zeltron continued. “It’s not well known, but it runs under the hills from here all the way to the eastern plains. There should be a cart inside to make the trip quicker. The other side is ten kilometers north of the Jedi sanctuary.”

“That sounds like quite a trip,” Ranval mumbled to himself. “I don’t mean to be a bother, but would one of you guide me there? I would need no further assistance after that.”

“I’ll go!” the young Echani said. She sounded cheerful, but when she approached Ranval, she added, “I just really need to get away from this place. I can’t stand to look at… everything that’s happened here for much longer.”

“I understand. Lead the way, then. I hope to reach the Jedi before nightfall.”


Chapter 47

“Stop the Jedi here!”

“Hold the line, soldiers!”

Dynatha dove out of the hallway and hid herself behind a corner of the T-intersection while Phaevn found himself at the opposite wall. Red bolts of pure energy spattered against the wall they had been standing in front of seconds before, leaving dark splotches on contact. She had barely gotten a glimpse of their enemies before she retreated. There were at least two squads of Sith marines about ten meters ahead, situated behind a durasteel barricade and several droid turrets.

“Threecee,” she spoke into her comlink, “is there any other way to the elevator?”

Ranval had repaired the droid before he had departed, but Dynatha had elected for it to remain in the lower hangars of the Phantasm where it had access to map and security data from the console in the hangar security office. She and Phaevn had cleared the hangar of enemies when they arrived; for the time being, Threecee was safe where it was.

The droid beeped that the route she and Phaevn were on was the only way to the elevator. There was a maintenance corridor that went from this deck to the next, but it was located all the way on the bow side. She didn’t know how much time they had left; the battle could turn against the Republic and Jedi at any point, and she needed to deal with the Sith Lord as soon as possible.

“Four troopers are advancing upon us,” Phaevn pointed out. “How should we proceed?”

Dynatha considered their options. There was really only one way out of this situation, and she intended to see them through this. “Stay close to me, Phaevn. Cover me with your blaster.”

“Of course, Lady Aris.”

Dynatha’s lightsaber was blazing when she emerged from the corner. Time dilated for her as she became enveloped in the Force. Despite the sheer volume and blinding rate of fire, the incoming blaster shots were sluggish to her eyes. Extending her perception, Dynatha formed an ethereal dome with her mind that completely surrounded the automated gun placements with an impenetrable shield. The droids—unable to comprehend the power of the Force—continued to fire as though nothing was there, and their own ricocheting fire destroyed them.

Once the droid turrets were dealt with, Dynatha turned her attention to the Sith troopers crawling toward her position. Like a great wave washing over a beachhead, she flooded the hallway in front of her with a stasis field. The advancing troopers were caught up in her trap, and they were rendered completely immobile.

The other marines redoubled their fire, but Dynatha defended herself with her lightsaber almost without thinking. Phaevn was at her heels, firing his blaster toward the remaining troopers. With a wave of her hand, Dynatha created a ball of light in the midst of the Sith forces that exploded like a grenade; even behind their visors, the Sith troopers were blinded by the sudden flash. Uprooting the metal barricade in front of the blinded Sith troopers, she telekinetically threw the durasteel slabs onto the defenders. The few that retreated back to avoid the attack were shot by Phaevn.

Once they were sure they wouldn’t face any more opposition, the two of them proceeded as quickly as they could down the hall. Phaevn seemed at ease, even enjoying himself, but Dynatha was exhausted. The sheer presence of the dark side, coupled with the fighting she had done since arriving on the Phantasm, made it harder to use the Force than she imagined. She silently chided herself to use as little of the Force as she could to recover.

Dynatha reached the elevator first. With lightsaber still in hand, she hit the button on the wall panel to summon the elevator. Phaevn watched the Sith troopers behind them closely in case they tried to free themselves from beneath the barricades. The two were relieved when the elevator arrived and there was no one inside.

“We’re headed to the bridge,” Dynatha told Phaevn and Threecee. “Where should we be going?”

It took the droid on the other end a few seconds to figure out where to go. They had to go up three decks and then take another elevator closer to the center of the ship to reach the bridge. Dynatha hadn’t even finished talking to Threecee when Phaevn hit the button to send them on their way.

They had barely went up a single deck when the elevator screeched to a halt and the glowpanel deactivated above them.

“They know we’re here,” Phaevn muttered.

Dynatha nodded. At Phaevn’s behest, she climbed onto his shoulders and pushed open the emergency trapdoor on the ceiling. Satisfied that there were no threats outside, she pulled herself up and onto the outside of the elevator, and Phaevn followed after her. It was hard to tell exactly how far they had traveled in the darkness of the elevator shaft, but the Sith seemed to have stopped them about four meters below the next deck. The lifts in the Phantasm were powered by repulsors; there was no cable for them to climb.

“It’s too far to jump,” Phaevn noted. “At least, for me.”

“Could you scale the walls?” Dynatha asked.

He ran his hand across the surface of the wall. “Unlikely. It’s far too smooth and there is nothing to hold onto.”

“Give me a moment. Let me see what I can do.”

Dynatha traveled from the top of the elevator to the sealed door in a single bound. There was only a single bulbous fixture above the door frame to grasp, and her Force-enhanced reflexes gave her the unnatural strength to reach and hold onto it. Driving her lightsaber’s green blade into the door, she slowly cut through the thick metal and created a hole large enough for her to fit into. Slipping through the hole, she tried to summon the elevator up to her position but found it inoperable.

She considered bringing him up via telekinesis, but she was still exhausted from dealing with the enemies earlier. “I’m going to send my fibercord down so you can climb up,” she shouted to Phaevn. “Let me know when you’re about to start climbing so I can prepare myself!”

“At your ready, Lady Aris.”

While the metal she had cut through cooled, Dynatha deactivated her lightsaber and began unwinding several meters of cord from her utility belt. The Force told her that there were no enemies nearby, so she approached the hole she had made and began to lower the fibercord down to Phaevn.

“Just a bit more…” Phaevn called.

The wall panel that controlled the elevator beeped. Power returned to the elevator, and the repuslors suddenly pulled the elevator car back down toward the lower decks of the flagship. At the risk of being pulled down with it, Phaevn jumped and managed to reach the tip of the fibercord just before the elevator descended. Dynatha hadn’t anticipated the elevator’s activation or his action, and the force of him pulling on the other end of the cable pulled her into the wall. Slamming her shoulder into the durasteel door, Dynatha nearly fell over trying to support Phaevn’s weight.

“Lady Aris, are you all right?”

The Force alerted her to a rapidly approaching danger. She wrapped the fibercord three times around her hand and pulled it back as much as she could, but Phaevn was heavier than she had thought and even with her Force-enhanced strength she was too weak to right herself properly. Her eyes darted from one side of the hall to the other looking for something she could tie the cord to. There was a knee-high console about three meters away, but she did not think she was strong enough to trudge there in her current position.

“Give me a moment…” Dynatha said through gritted teeth. “I need to reach that console.”

“I understand now what Ranval meant,” shouted Phaevn. “This is your task, not mine. Let me impede you no longer.”

Dynatha had recovered her footing and was slowly pulling against Phaevn’s weight on her way to the console. Suddenly, the fibercord felt light—far too light. No! Still holding onto the cord, Dynatha sprinted to the hole she had carved out of the elevator door and stared down into the dark shaft. As she had feared, Phaevn had let go, plunging into the abyss. She shouted his name several times but no answer came. She had not sensed his death, but the Force was so muddled in this place that that was of little consolation. She silently berated herself for her weakness, and she thought of jumping into the darkness after him.

“What are you doing so far from your troupe, little Jedi?”

The evil presence she had sensed before had arrived. A black-armored Sith trooper, carrying a slugthrower and wearing a dark cape that draped around him and nearly covered his entire breastplate, stood in the intersection leading to the next hallway. Behind him was another squad of soldiers, wearing the standard white Sith armor and carrying rifles or vibroswords.

“You don’t want to fight me,” Dynatha said, her voice tempered with feelings of determination and anger. “I’m going to your master. You won’t stop me.”

“You should have stayed with your allies, Jedi.”

A radiant light emanated from Dynatha’s hands. “It didn’t have to be like this. I’m sorry.”

*** ***

Ixi’s blade cleaved a Sith trooper’s helmet in two. All around him, Jedi Knights were devastating the marine contingent that had tried to impede them. They had traveled at least six decks up from the hangar they had landed in, and the Sith had sent their minions to contend with them at every step of the way. One of theirs had fallen on the way to the brig; another had fallen to the sentries just outside the prisons. Fighting for those who had already fallen, the Jedi had made their way from the outermost prisons, where disobedient slaves and kidnapped beings were housed, to the inner prisons where more valuable captives were waiting. The Jedi Master who led them here, a Kel Dor whom Ixi had not met before today, had released several prisoners who had been in the outer prisons, sparking a prison revolt to support their efforts.

Ixi was the first Jedi to reach the door to the most secure level. The fighting had been so intense that troopers and droids had been called forward from the high security zones to deal with the advancing Jedi; only a single marine commando stood between him and his destination. Ixi blocked his blaster shots with his yellow blade and approached him with a shout. Before the soldier could arm himself with his combat knife, Ixi cut a deep gash into his chest. The Nautolan Jedi Padawan who had been with him in the hangars followed him into the maximum security prisons.

There were no guards left to defend the interior of innermost prisons. Of the thirty or so room-shaped force cages in the room, less than half contained captives. Political prisoners, Sith traitors, upstart officers, mercenary captains who had opposed Sith raids, and Jedi were scattered across different cells. There was a sudden clamor for freedom amongst the crowd of prisoners when Ixi and the Nautolan entered the room, but Ixi ignored their cries for help. Only one prisoner was on his mind, and he only hoped he was still alive.

“Ixi…”

The Frozian Jedi’s heart skipped a beat when he heard Ojon’s voice. He trotted over to the young Jedi Knight’s cell as the rest of the Jedi strike team led by the Kel Dor began to file in.

The fact that Ojon was alive at all set Ixi’s mind at ease, but he couldn’t stifle his anger when he saw what the Sith had done to his friend. His hair had been torn out, cuts had been cauterized heedlessly, and his face was so beaten and bruised that he could scarcely open his eyes, much less talk. The cranial cone that housed his two brains and heart had several unnatural recesses, and it was obvious to Ixi that someone had tried to take a bludgeon to his elongated head—perhaps more than once.

Ojon was alone in his cell and too weak to stand. The Kel Dor Jedi Master utilized the command console to lower the force field separating them, and Ixi sprung toward his friend.

“Ojon! Hold on, okay? There are Jedi here that can heal you!”

The Cerean Jedi grimaced. “I thought… it was all over. They took Atris and…”

“Try not to talk,” Ixi said, gently lifting the Cerean’s upper torso and head so he could lean against Ixi’s chest. His spindly limbs made kneeling difficult, but he did the best he could with the Natuolan’s assistance.

“It’s good to see you, Ixi.”

“And you, Ojon.”

“Did Dynatha come back? Is she with you?”

Ixi shook his head. “I don’t-”

He was interrupted by a surge of Force power that seemed to encompass the entirety of the Phantasm. The light drowned out the darkness around them—for a brief moment—and invigorated all of them, including Ojon, casting off their fatigue and restoring their will to fight. Ixi initially thought that Brianna or the Shimholt Jedi Councilor had achieved oneness in the Force to drive back their enemies. But as the light faded into the atmosphere, he realized that he could sense Dynatha’s presence within the power that strengthened him.

“She’s here… on the flagship…” Ojon whispered.

Ixi was too dumbstruck to say anything. Several of the younger Jedi were equally spellbound, but the elders were too busy ensuring that the prisoners were secure and ready to leave to pay much attention.

“Is Ojon able to travel?” asked a Human Jedi Knight who approached them.

“I don’t think so,” Ixi replied. “He’s far too weak. If we could, it might be best to leave him here for the time being and bring the healers to him. Considering the circumstances…”

“That’s not an option.” the Human motioned for the Nautolan Padawan. “Nisna, help me carry him. We’ll have to be careful and remain in the middle of the group. Stay out of the fighting.”

“I’ll do my best to protect you,” Ixi said. He helped position Ojon so that the Human Jedi and Nisna could easily scoop him up. “We’ll be out of here before you know it, okay?”

“Stay safe, Ixi. Don’t do anything stupid,” Ojon grumbled.

Ixi reactivated his lightsaber and approached the group of Jedi and prisoners who had assembled near the entrance. They had gone from five Jedi to nearly thirty combatants just by liberating the prisoners who were either willing to side with the Jedi or else had no love for the Sith cause. The freed prisoners had already looted the corpses of the Sith troopers that had been killed by the Jedi earlier and were ready to aid the Jedi in their escape. It would be a long way back to the hangars, but he hoped they had dealt with most of the enemies already.

*** ***

“First Sergeant Bo’rtho, pull your men back. If you can hear me, fall back to the southern pass. The situation around the generator has been deemed untenable, and we’re going to form a defensive line on our side of the pass. I repeat…”

Celes heard the Republic tactician through the comlink, but she couldn’t identify the corpse that had been First Sergeant Bo’rtho. After the rains had rolled over the Vyred Mountains and headed west, the Sith had initiated their first gas attack. Launched from artillery to the north, the nerve gas spread over most of the area around the shield generator, killing the majority of the Republic soldiers and some unfortunate Sith mercenaries. Only the Jedi under Visas Marr and the Jedi Covenant forces who fought alongside Celes and her son kept the front from collapsing.

The obliterated hulls of Republic speeders and Sith tanks smoldered across the battlefield, and corpses that hadn’t been blown apart or scattered about in the mud floated in the waterlogged ditches that had once served as defensive emplacements. Somewhere in the distance, the ship they had taken from the Jedi sanctuary lay with several other transports that had been gunned down by Sith anti-air batteries.

Most of the Jedi had survived the gas attack, but several had died in the ensuing cannonade that had nearly claimed the life of Councilor Marr and several esteemed Jedi Masters. Republic soldiers and their Mandalorian allies were fleeing the area as directed by army brass. Droids, tanks, and armored swoops were instructed to maintain position, and they only stayed behind because they had to ensure that the remaining artillery batteries could be pulled back safely. The Sith had chosen not to press their offensive and allow the gas and artillery to do most of the damage, but Celes sensed that they had largely regrouped and would be back in force before long.

Her son was nearby, hiding behind the remains of a Sith transport, tying a tourniquet around the arm of the Ithorian Watchcircle Jedi who had been fighting alongside him. The members of the Watchcircle who had survived were talking amongst themselves near what had been the treeline that separated the battlefield from the ruins to the west. The forest had been largely destroyed by artillery fire, mechanized cavalry, and flamethrowers, so there was little cover between the Sith base in the ruins and their current position.

“The other Jedi seem to be leaving with the Republic.” Selias had donned full-body armor, including a custom helmet with an oblong visor. All of her operatives had survived the gas attacks thanks to their armor, but they had taken heavy losses earlier in the battle as they had fought to meet with the Republic forces. “Where does that leave us?”

“Wherever you please, Selias,” Celes replied. “Our paths diverged when the ship crashed and we found ourselves in this battle. I’m not Ranval; you’re free to depart without my saying so.”

“That may be, but what do you plan to do?” Selias asked, her voice filtered by her helmet. “Without support, this position is going to be overrun. You and the Watchcircle can’t hold this position by yourselves.”

“Can’t we?”

Selias gave her an incredulous look. “Why are you biding your time? If I could ensure that our pilots could reach us without being shot down, I would have fled this place a long time ago.”

“I hadn’t planned on staying here until the Sith returned, but I’m not going back with Councilor Marr,” Celes said. “I can’t leave yet. I’m waiting for someone.”

“Who?”

“Someone important to me,” Celes muttered.

Like Selias said, there was no point holding this position or defending the shield generator—the Republic generals had already considered it lost. She needed to find a place to settle down and wait for Nocion to find them, but that was a complicated matter in a battle like this. On the front, soldiers would know of her presence and spread the word; hiding in some command post would keep her safe but make it impossible for her to find Nocion. Perhaps the tower she had seen while flying over the mountains would be suitable for waiting.

Her expression suddenly became grim. “You and your operatives ought to leave with the Republic. Sith poisons can penetrate armor and shields, and I must confess I only know how to keep them out of my body—I wouldn’t be able to save you or your operatives if they infected you.”

“And what of your son?”

“Why do you care?”

“Let me see if I follow your line of thought,” Selias snapped. “You’re willing to accept the help of these… traitorous Jedi, but you want me out of your hair?”

“I know their motives. I don’t know yours—or Ranval’s.”

“You still doubt him?”

“It’s nothing personal.”

“I know. But-”

A sudden gust of wind whipped its way through the former battlefield. Celes would have ignored it, except for the fact that it was traveling against the rest of the wind. The layers of thick clouds that had been traveling west suddenly diverted their course in the sky and began to travel toward them, bringing back the rain that had shielded them from Sith gases and poisons.

“This weather doesn’t make any sense,” Celes noted.

“It’s just an anomaly. I’ve seen stranger.”

“It’s not often that the weather fights against itself…”

“Incoming Sith!” shouted the Nikto Watchcircle Knight who was hiding behind a ruined turret. “Take cover everyone; they’ve got tanks!”

Without the Republic and Mandalorian coalition and the primary Jedi force, there were only about two dozen of them left to guard the shield generator. Selias’s forward scout reported that there were at least two armored companies coming in from the south and three infantry companies from the northwest. The incoming forces outnumbered them many times over. No doubt there would be Dark Jedi and Sith warriors to tip the scales even further.

“We’re making a fighting retreat,” Celes called out to her allies.

“But where are we going? I don’t intend to return to captivity in the Jedi sanctum,” another member of the Jedi Covenant growled.

“We go where the wind is going. Head for that tower!” she replied.

“We’re going to have to leave now if we’re going to outmaneuver those Sith coming in,” Selias noted.

“Jedi! This is your end… by the Emperor’s will!”

Clearing the distance between the Sith forces and the Jedi in a single bound, the First Hand of the Emperor landed in the midst of the Jedi Covenant and their allies. With a roar, the First Hand ignited his lightsaber and swung its red blade in a wide arc, bisecting two of Selias’s commandos. The Jedi Covenant moved to encircle him, but the Sith warrior was joined almost immediately by a contingent of Dark Jedi and Sith Marauders, evening the odds between them.

Selias fell back to a safe distance with the surviving operatives while Celes and the other Force-sensitives moved to engage. Celes knew that the First Hand was far more powerful than any of his compatriots, and she intended to eliminate him first. But if she could sense the strongest Sith, her enemies could also sense her strength. Two Dark Jedi intercepted her and effectively cut her off from the rest of her allies before she could move in to fight. Not wasting any time, they both swung at her neck, but she blocked both of their lightsabers with her own. Backpedaling as quickly as she could, Celes goaded them to pursue; when they did, Celes suddenly charged forward, forcing them both to stop midstride and attempt a defense.

Her blue blade danced between her opponents’ weapons so quickly that it was like they were fighting a Jedi wielding two lightsabers. They tried to gain the upper hand and force her on the defensive, but her flurry of slashes was impenetrable. Their desperation was evident in their swordplay, and Celes began to see their defenses slip as her blade got closer and closer to their chest and arms. Unbeknownst to them, she was guiding their blades toward each other; striking suddenly from the center, Celes forced the opponent on her left to bring his lightsaber to bear to defend his right side; his swing managed to block her attack, but when he brought his lightsaber down he clashed with the other Dark Jedi’s lightsaber. In the same instant, Celes swung from the center again, this time at the Dark Jedi to her right. He tried to bring his lightsaber to defend, but found himself in an awkward bladelock with his companion. A second later, her lightsaber severed his head from his body. Without an ally to assist him, her remaining opponent met a swift end when his torso was cleaved in two.

She turned her attention to the duels around her. The remaining members of the Jedi Covenant had engaged with the other Dark Jedi and Sith warriors. The Selphi Lightbearer who had essentially been their spokesbeing had elected to fight the First Hand alone, but it was obvious to Celes she was outmatched. Harin and the Ithorian he had aided earlier were fighting three Dark Jedi near the remains of a Mandalorian cannon, and Selias and her commandos had fallen back to the antestature where the Republic forces had been earlier, providing fire support to the nearest Force-sensitives. Sith troopers and their mercenaries were still advancing in the distance, and they would be in firing range before long.

Celes moved in to aid the Watchcircle’s Lightbearer against the Emperor’s servant. Two more Dark Jedi who tried to stop her were dispatched in a single swing. However, even in her haste, she was not quick enough. The First Hand overpowered the Sephi Jedi and severed both of her hands. Defenseless, she tried to call upon the Force to push her opponent away, but the Sith warrior resisted her efforts, seized her throat, and hoisted her above his head with a single hand.

“The destiny of all your kind,” he said.

“Even the greatest of us must die,” she replied. “Your emperor, too-”

“The Emperor shall live and reign for all time!” he shouted. His iron grip crushed her trachea, and she breathed no more. Discarding her limp body, the First Hand called upon the Force and recovered her golden lightsaber from the ground for his own use. Facing Celes, he crossed his lightsabers’ blades together in front of his chest. “Prepare yourself, Jedi. You will join her soon.”

“Try it.”

She brought her lightsaber down in the intersection of his two blades, eliciting a shower of sparks. Freeing his weapons from her lock, his lightsabers traveled in wide arcs and came down on both sides, forcing Celes to alternate her defense to protect from both blades. Taller and stronger than her and fueled by the dark side, his blows carried so much force that her entire body trembled when she blocked them. Knowing full well how quickly she could be exhausted against such attacks, she began moving out of the way, blocking only one of his incoming strikes while dodging the other.

The First Hand’s advance was slow but certain, and she instinctively retreated from him to avoid facing the brunt of his attacks. She tried several times to circle him and strike inside his guard, but he used both of his lightsabers to their fullest extent—he kept her at bay with one blade while attacking with the other. Her defensive stance couldn’t be bested even with his two blades, but she couldn’t assail him either. He was better than she had supposed, and she couldn’t help but become frustrated at her inability to turn the tide of the battle.

His red blade swept at her feet; she replied by jumping over the incoming strike and her opponent in a single bound. Her opponent had anticipated her move, and he slashed at her as she traveled over his head. Upside down, in the air, and turned at an angle away from the First Hand, she managed to only barely intercept his lightsaber with hers before landing behind him. The Sith warrior turned to face her, but he was too slow. She was already inside his guard, and her blade went right for his throat-

The two warriors had been so involved in their battle that they hadn’t noticed that the rains had returned. The light drizzle was scarcely felt or noticed, and their lightsabers hadn’t short-circuited when exposed to a few droplets. A powerful wind brought in the remainder of the storm clouds and caused the storm to pick up in earnest. The sky became dark and the torrential rainfall disabled the lightsabers of all the Jedi and Sith engaged in combat. Celes’s hilt slammed hard against her opponent’s throat, causing him to flinch but otherwise proving a far less than lethal blow she had intended. The Sith warrior brought his offhand lightsaber into her stomach at the same time, but the blade had been disabled by the rain just like hers and effectively became a punch to the gut.

Most of the combatants hadn’t been consciously aware of how quickly the rain had picked up, but Selias had noticed. The enemy infantry had only just arrived, so she and her operatives had been providing fire support for the Jedi during their duels. While her operatives shifted to focus on the incoming droids and Sith troopers, she had been watching Celes and the First Hand duel, and she had been staring through the scope of her combat rifle waiting for a good shot. When their lightsabers went out, she knew she had her chance. Slamming down on the trigger, she let her blaster fire full-auto against the chief Sith warrior.

Her volley burned through his heavy armor and left deep black marks on his back. With a deafening roar, the First Hand formed a telekinetic wave that ripped apart the ground as it moved toward Selias and her comrades. They tried to get out of the way, but it was too fast to avoid. The surviving operatives were thrown about, and Selias herself was forced backward and tossed into a waterlogged trench that had served as the forward perimeter for the Republic defenses very early in the battle.

Celes returned to the First Hand as soon as she recovered. Using the Force to propel her up and forward, she launched herself high enough to kick at the Sith warrior’s face. Upon landing, she created a whirlwind that lifted him off his feet and trapped the Emperor’s Hand in an invisible vortex. Before she could move in and finish him, a squad of Sith troopers cut between her and the Hand, blaster rifles firing wildly in her general direction. She immediately created a shield in front of her with her mind, but more Sith troopers arrived on her left flank and fired from their position, forcing her to erect an entire dome for self-defense.

War droids had begun to organize themselves across the former battlefield, and their presence was preventing the Jedi from engaging their Dark Jedi and Sith opponents without being harassed. Iotran, Iridorian, and Exchange mercenaries followed in their warpath, using grenades and batons to cause more trouble. Even Selias and her commandos, safe for most of the engagement, found themselves surrounded after the First Hand scattered them and broke their formations.

“We need to pull back!” the Ithorian Jedi fighting beside Harin said. “There are too many enemies!”

“Then let’s go!” Celes shouted back.

Her shield expanded and then imploded on itself, creating a telekinetic explosion that toppled the enemies who were around her. She began heading in the direction of the tower, but going was slow; the rainfall had muddied the ground all around them, and deep puddles and unstable wet ground caused Jedi and Sith alike to fall over and stumble. She erected shields whenever a Sith trooper or mercenary tried to confront her, and telekinesis made quick work of them when their offensive faltered, but there were many combatants in their way and a long way to go.

The Sith began another barrage of artillery. The resulting explosions lit up the darkness around them and threw mud and water high into the air. They almost seemed to be firing at random, because they certainly weren’t aiming for the last Republic position. Celes was careful to avoid any incoming fire, using her danger sense to avoid them and snake her way through the ranks of Sith forces that were practically surrounding them. However, it soon became apparent that no amount of maneuvering would get them out of the Sith forces' encirclement. Despite all else that could be said of the Sith infantry, their mobilization was quick and efficient.

Her son and two of the Jedi Covenant, the Ithorian and Miraluka Knights, approached from her behind. Lacking her mastery of the Force, they had been using uprooted chunks of earth to intercept blaster fire—a crude but effective alternative. The others were lagging behind; Selias and the surviving operatives were on the opposite side of the circle, pinned between a destroyed Republic comm array and a droid company.

“No way out of here,” Harin said.

“Stay close to me,” his mother ordered. “My shield will stop their attacks.”

“And what of their blades and their clubs?” the Ithorian grumbled. “Our lightsabers don’t work in this confounded weather.”

“Hand-to-hand combat,” Celes suggested.

“Uncivilized and brutish,” the Miraluka countered.

“It’s that or die,” Harin replied.

“Tanks! Right side!” called another Watchcircle Knight from a distance.

Sure enough, three medium tanks rolled through a gap that had been made in the encirclement and headed right for the four Jedi. Built fast enough to avoid being harassed by swoop bikes, strong enough to punch through most fortifications, and equipped with two guns—a medium turbolaser as its main gun and a repeating heavy turret to deal with infantry—they were the mainstay of the mechanized forces and easily capable of eliminating an entire company of unprepared infantry.

Harin looked nervously at his mother, but she ignored him. He knew she was a great Jedi and powerful warrior, but he had never seen her tested. He hadn’t seen her at her limits—whatever they were. Did she have the Force potential to defend them against these machines? Her son doubted. The Jedi Covenant were much less solemn about their unease, and they urged Celes to flee with them. She said nothing. With all of the strength she could muster, she redoubled the effectiveness of her shield and made it as impenetrable as she could.

The first tank fired its main gun directly at them. The Ithorian dove out of the way on instinct, nearly leaving the shield and exposing himself to the blaster fire all around them. The turbolaser fire hit her shield directly but it stood unabated. The other two tanks followed suit, but still the shield held. The tanks opted for continued volleys. One after another they fired, striking exactly the same place every time. The first few shots were easily rebuffed. After about a dozen shots, Celes began to sweat. Her face was already wet from the rain and her knotted hair spilled in front of her face, hindering her vision. Her arms and legs were trembling, but she did her best to conceal her weakness. Had Harin noticed? She hoped not. There was no way out of here, and unless she could keep the barrier between them and their adversaries up indefinitely, they were all doomed.

Harin felt helpless watching his mother struggle against the repeated tank shots. He had nowhere near the mastery of the Force she had, and there was no way for him to assist her with the shield aside from subtly providing her with additional strength in the Force. But even that was like a single droplet amidst a rainstorm. The soldiers and mercenaries around them had redoubled their efforts as well, increasing their volume of fire to cause Celes to falter sooner. He used telekinesis to force away as many as he could, but there were so many and he was nowhere near strong enough to deal with them all.

“This is it…” Celes muttered. “I thought… I thought I had more…”

The vibrant glow of the shield around them began to dim. The fire from the tanks now included their heavy repeaters along with their main gun. Celes could barely stand on her own; Harin had to help her remain upright. The two Jedi Watchcircle members, eager to fight until the end, began fashioning a massive telekinetic bubble that, upon explosion, would take as many of their enemies with them as they could. But Harin wasn’t interested in making his last stand—not here, anyway. Perhaps the Force could still save them. Nocion had once told him that the dark side had abilities that could grant great power, albeit for an equally great price. He was willing to do anything to get them out of here. If it meant breaking the Jedi Code and unleashing the full force of his emotions, then that was what he was prepared to do.

“Are you ready?” the Ithorian bellowed. “This is the sum of our devotion! Our final cry into the night!”

“The fire burns even now!” the Miraluka replied.

Just as they made the final preparations for their suicidal attack, Celes and Harin saw a troopship swoop in from the east, all of its turbolasers blazing into the Sith lines. The bay doors on its starboard and port sides were opened, and dozens of warriors dropped from the ship using their rocket packs. As it flew from one side of the battle field to the other, the ship’s turbolasers ripped apart the tanks surrounding them, leaving only one in working condition. Several of the warriors that had been disgorged from the passing ship landed on the remaining tank and placed explosive charges around its hull. They triggered the detonation immediately, sacrificing themselves in the process.

A trio of the warriors passed through Celes’s weakening shield. They were completely armored, wearing plate armor not unlike the Mandalorian Crusaders who had fought in the Great Sith War, but their helmets were smaller, with pincer-like protrusions near their rebreather tubes and bulbous visors that looked like ants' eyes. The two Jedi Wathcircle moved to engage, but the leader of the three warriors—wearing a pauldron on his left shoulder that his fellows lacked—shouted them down.

“Do you suppose we’ve come to kill you after dealing with your enemies? Come, Jedi, show some sense!”

“Who are you?” Celes asked through gritted teeth.

“I am Major Honjenber, leader of this task force of Ailon Nova Guards. General Eto of the Republic has tasked me with assisting you in your retreat.”

“There’s no way out of this place,” the Ithorian said. “They’ve got us completely surrounded.”

“We’re going to punch through this cauldron,” the Ailon major countered. “My men are fighting to keep a gap open, but we must leave now!”

“Follow… him,” Celes said.

“What about you?” Harin asked.

“She’s coming with us,” Major Honjenber said. He made a motion for his two companions to assist the Jedi. Detaching their shield units from their arms, they wrapped the armband generators around the two Jedi Covenant Knights. They gave their spares to Celes and Harin. “That should protect you from enemy fire once we’re outside the shield.”

“Your men won’t survive without their shields,” Celes noted.

“We’re prepared for that eventuality, ma’am,” one of the Nova Guards said. “Our mission is to get you, your son, and your allies back to allied forces. It doesn’t matter how many of us make it back.”

“You’re all insane,” the Miraluka Knight sneered.

“Enough chat. Master Jedi, are you ready to lower your shield?”

“Yes.” Celes fell to one knee, and Harin desperately tried to pick her back up. Major Honjenber moved to her other side and helped him. “The moment the shield goes down, head for the tower in the pass. We need to meet someone there,” she added.

“General Eto specifically instructed me-”

Celes gave him an icy glare. “Do it. I’ll stay here if you disregard my orders, soldier.”

The major was silent a moment. “Very well. We can’t stop for anything until we’re free from the Sith. And even then, they will pursue us. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Harin answered for his mother, who was barely conscious.

“Then let’s go! Drop the shield!”

The shield went down with a flash of light, and the Ailon Nova Guards charged forward with Jedi in tow. All around them the Sith traded blaster fire with the other Nova Guards and Selias’s surviving commandos; only a few specifically aimed for Celes and her party. The major was true to his word, and the Ailon Nova Guards had managed to drive back Sith troopers to make a gap in the encirclement. Harin and Major Honjenber were the first ones out, and then the Miraluka Knight. The Ithorian had nearly left the battle behind when a nearby Sith trooper who was about to throw a grenade was shot dead midthrow, and his explosive went off in the air just a meter away from the fleeing Jedi. The shrapnel ripped into his side, and the fiery explosion threw him nearly three meters away from the others.

“Wait! We have to help him!” Harin shouted.

“We stop for no one!” the major roared.

“But without our help-”

“I can’t carry her alone! Let’s go!”

Harin hesitated. Why did they have to leave him? Had the situation really become so dire that they were willing to abandon their comrades? He would have turned around, Major Honjenber and the others be damned, but he had to think about his mother first. She was still weak from keeping the shield up for so long, and if he didn’t help Major Honjenber he had every reason to believe he would leave her behind too. With a heavy heart, he continued onward with the others, leaving his former comrade to his fate.

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