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Chapter 48

Thertos crawled his way through the underbrush, careful to avoid dry leaves and branches that could raise alarm. The rain drowned out most noises, but he wanted to be as careful as possible. He was nearly at his target; perhaps four meters away, in the clearing, stood three Sith troopers. The rest of their squad had advanced further south toward the pass, and the three of them were waiting to ensure that they weren’t being pursued. They would wait around until they were summoned by the remainder of their unit. The soldiers had already dealt with a Republic fire team about ten minutes ago, and tensions were high. They held their weapons at the ready and didn’t say a word to each other.

It would be tricky business dealing with three Sith troopers at once. Positioning himself less than two meters away from one of the white-armored soldiers, he thought he heard his target breathing inside his helmet over the pouring rain and he saw him fidgeting ever-so-slightly. The soldier was right to be nervous. Thertos had positioned himself so he was looking at the soldier’s back, but the trooper to their right was looking in his direction. The trio had aligned themselves so they could see all around them. He figured that their visibility was reduced by the rain, but he wasn’t willing to attack them one at a time regardless.

Thertos unclasped the two grenades he had on his belt—taken from the corpses of the Republic soldiers that had been killed earlier—and primed both of the charges. The whine of the grenade activating was too quiet for his enemies to hear, and he counted in his head as the explosives’ timers ticked down. While he waited, he slowly retreated, giving himself enough distance to be outside of the primary blast radius. Once he was safe and the grenades were ready, Thertos lobbed both grenades overhead and into the clearing.

A rather impressive explosive followed. The ionic pulse that was released did not harm the soldiers, but it did overload their shields and disable most of their electronic equipment. Rising to a crouch to better aim his weapon, Thertos fired four shots and hit the gut of the soldier who had been facing him. The trooper closest to him spun around to face him just in time to take two shots to the torso. The last trooper responded with a volley from his blaster rifle, forcing Thertos to dive out of the way. Safely behind a fallen tree, Thertos and the remaining soldier traded fire while ducking in and out of cover. When the Sith trooper tried to flee and alert the rest of his squad, Thertos shot him in the back of the neck, dropping him to the earth.

Returning his mother’s blaster to its holster, he quickly took to their bodies in search of gear and supplies. He had already eaten all of the supplies he had taken from his home, and his wanderings had exhausted him. He took their military rations and power paks, plus a comlink, utility belt, and shield generator. With one of their combat rifles in hand, he felt far safer than he had before he had departed.

Why had he left the settlement, again? His memories were a blur, almost like he had been in a daydream. He had fought many soldiers—Republic and Sith—to get so far south, but now that he was here, he wasn’t sure why he had traveled this way.

Good work, young one. A voice echoed in his mind, almost in reassurance. You remember my voice, don’t you?

It felt like there was an itch inside his head. He did recognize that voice; it was the same voice that had been guiding him back on Gamandar, telling him what to do in those last few hours of the campaign. It was the same voice that had told him to go hunting for soldiers on the battlefield. Whenever it spoke, it drowned out the fear, the confusion, and the depression. It was both comforting and strange. He was compelled to do whatever it asked; it hadn’t steered him wrong yet, after all.

“Yes,” he said to himself.

Then your next task is to locate these two beings for me. Can you do that?

Images flashed in his head. The first being was a Human woman, perhaps ten years younger than his own mother, with auburn hair and dark brown eyes. She wore the robes of a Jedi Knight and carried a blue lightsaber. He had never met this woman, but now that this voice had put her image there, she looked familiar somehow. The next being he recognized. The young Jedi that flashed before his mind was the same young Jedi who had saved him on Gamandar—Harin. The two looked very similar. Perhaps the woman was a relative of his?

“I will,” Thertos said. “But please… I can’t… handle the memories of Gamandar. Keep talking so they don’t come back.”

I will do my best. But you must find them. Do not rest until you do.

“Encircle them.” Thertos heard a voice from somewhere in the woods in front of him. It was a quiet voice, practically a whisper, but it definitely wasn’t in his head. “Fire on my mark.”

The icy rain and the mist that lingered in the air prevented him from seeing whoever it was that was trying to assail him. The personal shield he had confiscated was still overloaded, and there was no way it would be ready in time. Caught in the same predicament the Sith troopers had been in not minutes before, he quickly ran through his available options in his head. Standing his ground would result in blasters pointed at him from all directions—and he was exposed in this place. He could surrender, but if his adversaries were not mercenaries but actual Sith, his fate would be worse than death. He wasn’t willing to die. Not yet. He still had work to do.

Thertos turned around and sprinted out of the clearing, heading back the way he had arrived. The commander of the hostile forces shouted at his soldiers to pursue. Blaster fire crackled against the trees and earth around him, and he scampered back and forth between trees to avoid taking a shot directly to the back. One of his pursuers tossed a grenade directly in front of him; the heavy tree line ahead of him forced him to divert to the west to get out of its blast radius.

There was a buzzing noise in his ears as he jumped over a small creek that had become flooded with rushing water. As soon as he landed on the other side, something struck him just below the ribs. It felt like a Wookiee had hammered two fists into his gut, and he fell backward and slammed his head against the bank. There was a loud pop, and he realized that his energy shield had activated and intercepted what he imagined was a blaster shot.

“Lance Corporal Weros, do you copy?” he heard someone speak from a comlink—not his own. “Did you make contact?”

“Yes, Captain,” replied a young woman. “Target neutralized. Briggs is moving in to verify the kill.”

His face was caked in mud and adrenaline was flooding his entire body. He was hyperventilating, and he took several deep breaths to calm himself. He craned his head ever so slightly—painful though it was—and examined his abdomen. His energy shield had completely engulfed whatever had struck him. He was still in a great deal of pain, and he wasn’t entirely sure if he could stand and retreat in time.

His hesitation cost him his chance to escape. Over the spray of the rain against the forest floor and the flow of water through the creek directly behind him, he heard footsteps. They advanced slowly: stopping for a moment, then proceeding, then stopping again. This process continued until they were basically on top of him.

“Looks like you got him,” the armored figure said as he approached. “Not a Sith trooper, though. Probably a mercenary.”

“Hopefully his comlink is working.”

“Damn things are so fragile. Hopefully he has access to the channels we need.”

“Hold on, Briggs.”

The footsteps stopped. Thertos had tried to appear as still as possible, but evidently something had given him away. He was not as dead as they thought.

“What is it?”

“Turn around!” the female sniper shouted, apparently at Thertos. “On your stomach. And keep your hands splayed out where I can see them.”

There was no other option available to him. Slowly and with some effort, Thertos repositioned himself so that he was facefirst in the mud. A gloved hand pressed against the middle of his back, and he felt the warrior confiscate his weapons. The grip shifted to the collar of his vest, and Thertos did the best he could to stand up while the Mandalorian pulled at the back of his clothes.

The Mandalorian scout had taken his weapons and moved him onto his feet; the sniper had a holdout pistol pointed at him and was ready to shoot given any sudden or hostile motion. Both warriors wore the typical blue Neo-Crusader armor of young officers and NCOs, but theirs had pockmarks from blaster shots and was stained with dirt and grime. When the sniper saw his face, she let out a slight gasp.

“Thertos?”

He gaped at the mention of his name. The other warrior kept Thertos’s arm pinned behind his back, but Glacis lowered her weapon and pulled off her helmet. She was a few years older than he remembered, and she had a cut along her chin that hadn’t been there before, but it was definitely Glacis Weros. Her bronze-colored eyes stared at him with an emotion he couldn’t quite pin down, and he was reminded very much of Fier in that moment. He hadn’t seen either of the Weros sisters in such a long time—and had hardly expected to see either of them here—that he was speechless.

“What are you doing here, Thertos?” Glacis asked.

“Me? What about you? I didn’t know there were Mandalorians fighting here.”

“It’s a complicated thing…” Glacis said, almost to herself. “We had initially come the aid of the Sith under duress, but-”

“Let’s not say too much. We don’t know what side he’s on,” her scout, Briggs, interrupted.

“I have no love for the Sith, if that’s what you’re implying,” Thertos countered.

“Can you vouch for him, Glacis? How well do you know him, really?” Briggs asked.

“He would never help the Sith. I know that much, and I believe him when he says that.”

Thertos wanted to say more in his defense, but he was interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the Mandalorian fire team from the brush at the opposite side of the creek. Crossing the creek, they quickly organized themselves around him and their scout-sniper duo. After a brief verbal spat between Glacis and the red-armored Mandalorian who seemed to be the leader of their unit, Glacis bowed her head and pulled back into the crowd with Briggs. The Mandalorian captain stood in front of Thertos so closely that the two of them were practically face-to-face.

“Lance Corporal Weros tells me you’re an old family friend. Be that as it may, your being here is suspect. If you were helping the Republic, you’d be on their side of the battlefield right now. How can you assure me that you won’t shoot us all in the back when we take you with us?”

“My family and I live here with the Jedi. We were staying at the Republic settlement until the attack began. I had no idea the Sith had taken over this area. We were separated during the first bombardment, and I’ve been trying to find them ever since.”

“And you’ve been out here by yourself ever since?” the captain asked. “Seems suspicious to me.”

“My comlink’s broken,” Thertos lied. “I’ve been looking for one, and I just came across these Sith troopers not too long ago. I’m hoping that with their communicator, I’ll be able to get in contact with my parents.”

The captain, although not entirely placated by the story, was apparently confident enough in Glacis’s vouching that he decided drop the matter. With a curt nod, he lowered his rifle and his unit followed suit. One-by-one they returned to the other side of the creek and ensured that the surrounding area was clear. Briggs demanded that Thertos turn over the comlink he had taken from the Sith troopers; he complied without a word. The fire team’s medic checked on Thertos’s injury while the rest of the squad secured the area.

“Where’s Fier?” Thertos asked Glacis when she returned. “Don’t tell me she’s here too.”

Glacis nodded. “She’s stationed with Mandalorian tactical command. All of the Mandalorian hunting parties are being rerouted back there; you should come with us if you want to see her.”

“I’m actually looking for someone…” Thertos mumbled. “I need to find my parents and two Jedi.”

“Jedi? What for?”

“They should be together. The Jedi led my parents out of the settlement. I don’t suppose I could use the comlink to figure out where they all are?”

“You could, but all of our comlinks are for military use only; you wouldn’t be able to pick up civilian chatter. Your best chance of finding your family and the Jedi would be to come back with us. The Republic base has an extra comm dedicated for civilian use. No doubt you could kill two pylat birds with one stone.”

Thertos didn’t particularly like traveling so far from the settlement, especially since they had no idea where he was and had no idea how to contact him, but he had to find the Jedi that the voice had tasked him with finding. If traveling with the Mandalorians was the only way he could do that, he resigned himself to their plan.

“When do we leave?”

“Just as soon as we’ve cleared the area. Our armored hovercar is waiting near the pass. We’ll probably have to deal with some more Sith troopers before then, so you should hold onto these.” Glacis returned his rifle and pistol to him. “And stay close to me, okay?”

“If you insist.”

*** ***

Tserne heard thunder crash somewhere in the distance. The shuttle they had taken from Watchcircle Dominus’s flagship was about the size of a gunship, leaving enough room to carry a dozen Watchcircle Jedi and many droids. Rain pattered against its lightly-armored hull, and from the way the craft shook he surmised that the storm he had seen from orbit was stronger than it had appeared. Since the little shuttle was wholly incapable of combat of any sort and cumbersome enough that it could not even flee from an enemy ship, the Jedi Covenant had decided—quite prudently—to provide it with a starfighter escort. As far as he knew, all four of their accompanying ships were still with them.

Most of the other Force-sensitives in the troop bay went about their meditations or conversations ignoring him. Tserne had nothing to discuss with them either; as soon as they arrived on the surface, they would part ways. The spirit of the sword could guide him to Dynatha, and once they were reunited, they could figure out what to do on their own.

“The turrets surrounding the Jedi fortress won’t let us approach by air,” the pilot said over the intercomm. “We’re going to try the secret passage that our spy on the ground reported to us. The fighting is fiercest in this part of the continent, and there are turrets and artillery pieces everywhere, so expect a bit of turbulence and general commotion from below.”

“Can you sense her?” Tserne asked the sword’s spirit. “Is she all right?”

The ghost, visible only as a vaguely humanoid shape, was silent for a moment. “She is still on the surface. She is fighting a large group of Sith, defending her allies and serving as a distraction. They are no match for her, but soon she will not be able to contend with her enemies on her own. The sooner we get there-”

“Where is she, though?”

“I believe the Jedi Covenant is headed in her direction. Unless I am mistaken, you and she will be no less than five kilometers apart when they land.”

“Is that all?” Tserne quipped.

“You were thousands of light years away less than a week ago,” the spirit noted in kind.

“And hopefully we’ll be many light years from this place sooner than that.”

“There are many enemies just below us. Hopefully none of them decide to shoot us down and end our trek prematurely.”

Like the pilot had warned them, the flight became rather harrowing after passing the Vyreds. Flak guns fired their payloads at them, forcing the pilot to perform evasive maneuvers that caused the entire ship to groan from the strain. Tserne held onto the horizontal bar above the bench he was sitting on, but it was still difficult to stay upright as the transport transitioned between near-vertical dives and sharp turns. He heard the co-pilot report something about their escort craft, but he couldn’t make out what happened to them.

After a few minutes, the ship’s progress became steadier and the attacks upon them decreased in frequency. A horn went off to signal that they were coming in for a landing.

“Have we arrived at the secret passage already?” Via asked from across the chamber, closer to the cockpit.

“Negative. We’re about fifteen kilometers southeast of the tunnels,” the pilot announced from the front. “But our sensors are tracking far heavier resistance from here on, so we think it would be safer if most of you proceeded by foot. We’ll continue the rest of the way, as per our instructions, but I can’t guarantee any of your safety if you decide to stay with us…”

“What do you think?” Tserne asked the spirit. “Will we reach her before she’s endangered?”

“Unlikely. It’s through the air or else not at all. If we could commandeer a vehicle perhaps we could reach her in time, but the Jedi Covenant has none.”

“Then we’ll stay with you, pilot,” Tserne said as the rest of the Jedi Covenant began to disembark.

“And we’ll stay with you, per the orders of Lightbearer Cortes,” K’thoi told him.

“You should go with the rest of your Watchcircle,” Tserne replied. “It’ll be a dangerous flight. We might not even make it.”

“Nevertheless, it’s what we’ve been instructed to do. You aren’t to wander around freely,” Via countered.

“If you insist on accompanying me, I won’t say no to you. I just wanted to make sure you knew the risks.”

“You needn’t tell us about risks.” K’thoi returned to his seat and watched the rest of the Jedi Covenant depart from the craft. “We know them full well.”

Once the last of the Jedi Covenant acolytes and knights left the carrier, the pilot restarted the ship’s engines and began their ascent. Standing in the walkway between the troop bay and the cockpit, Tserne could see out of the primary viewport; three of their four escorts had returned and were ready to defend them on the last leg of their journey. Below them, barely visible in the thick mist and the rain, the Jedi Covenant took off on foot toward the secret passage. It would take them far longer, but theirs was a safer trip. Tserne silently counted on his luck and the pilot’s skill as their troop transport began the perilous flight over the wooded area that separated him from Dynatha.

*** ***

The Dark Jedi Master’s head soared through the air, leaving his headless body standing for a few seconds before it collapsed to the ground amidst the corpses of many other Sith warriors. His fire team, reduced to three troopers, retreated upon his death, and his dark apprentices pulled back for a moment of respite and planning.

Verita stood under a canopy of sorts that shielded the cave entrance from the rain, allowing her to use her lightsaber freely while her enemies had to come to her—dangerously close—to use theirs. While the enemy pulled back, she used her telekinetic prowess to reposition the bodies of the dead into heaps around the entrance to the tunnel such that she could maneuver but hindered the approach of future adversaries.

She had sensed her children on the surface of the planet and had headed toward Glacis. Sith interceptors pursued her from orbit and gunned at the back of her ship, forcing her to make an emergency landing on the western side of the mountains below. She had initially planned on seeking her eldest daughter out and having her lead the way to Fier. Just through the Force, Verita knew that she and her daughter were separated by many kilometers; so long as her ship did not work, there wasn’t an obvious way to reach her.

She had been trying to repair the engine of her scout ship when she was approached by a team of Mandalorian engineers. They had explained that there was a tunnel nearby that needed to be caved-in before the Sith could use it to strike deep into Republic territory. Verita had tried to convince them that she couldn’t help them—she hadn’t been trained to use explosives—but they only needed her Jedi powers. After further protestations, they admitted that they could actually help her. If she helped them hinder the Sith advance, they would bring her to the Republic base with their armored hovercraft. She reluctantly agreed to help.

After their initial bombardment and landing, the Sith forces had discovered a cavern north of the settlement amidst the hills. A joint Ailon-Mandalorian team had discovered that the Sith were going to lead an attack on the Republic utilizing the tunnel, and they had taken heavy losses to drive the Sith away from it. By the time Verita arrived on the scene, Sith reinforcements had killed the other warriors.

The tunnel was less than five kilometers from the Sith base in the former settlement, which put Verita and the warriors before her at a distinct disadvantage. Sith troopers and Dark Jedi could be brought to bear very quickly, carried in on aerial transports and armored hovercars. With the Republic and their allies retreating eastward, it ultimately became pointless for Verita and the engineering team to defend the area, so Verita begrudgingly caused the ceiling to collapse behind them using the Force. Now it was a matter of escaping.

She sensed the approach of a team of mercenaries with a platoon of war droids. Evidently, the Dark Jedi and their Force-sensitive ilk were still regrouping, leaving her to deal with their unfortunate lackeys. That was good. Once she had dealt with this unit, they could flee east, the engineers could reach their hovercraft, and they could find her daughters.

An Iotran commando began to climb over the pile of corpses on her right while three arachnid-like war droids began crawling over the makeshift barricade in front of her. Verita telekinetically lifted the droid leading the pack and ripped its limbs and turret apart from its chassis. Using the droid parts as projectiles, Verita repeatedly slammed them into the remaining droids until they stopped moving. By the time the droids were dealt with, the commando had gotten over the corpses and primed his rifle. Lifting her lightsaber, Verita intercepted the slugs until the mercenary ran out of ammunition; before the other mercenaries could join him, Verita threw her lightsaber at the Iotran as he was switching to his blaster and bisected him at the chest. Her blade spun through the air and sliced through two more mercenaries as they were halfway up the pile of bodies.

Before the bronze blade made contact with the rain, Verita deactivated the weapon and pulled it back to her hand just in time to deflect slugs from an Iotran sharpshooter on her right, where the stacked corpses were lower. Kneeling in the rain several hundred meters away, his sniper rifle had enough power to shoot through the bodies between them. She couldn’t use her lightsaber to strike him without risking deactivating it, and he was far enough that pulling him in would be exhausting. She dodged the next shot and lobbed off the head of a mercenary who had only just peaked over the barricade. The sniper was the only enemy nearby. Verita leapt over the corpses that remained on her right and charged forward with Force-enhanced speed. Hundreds of meters became dozens which became less than one, and she found herself face-to-face with the sniper. Still crouched down, the Iotran took her knee to the face and fell backward. Verita leaned over him and used her body to shield her lightsaber from the rain; she plunged the blade into his chest before he could grab his knife.

The sniper hadn’t even expired and Verita had already turned around and was running back to the cave. The Dark Jedi had evidently regrouped while she was fighting the mercenary unit and were moving in again. A dozen Dark Jedi and a contingent of Sith troopers were en route in armored transports. She was back in position in seconds.

Observing the incoming hovercraft, she noted that there was an aerial transport coming in as well, moving fast enough to shadow the entourage but flying far too high to provide close air support. But what she had thought was a Sith ship was suddenly attacked by two Sith strikefighters that emerged from the clouds overhead. The lumbering vessel tried to maneuver, but it was just too large and too slow to avoid the lithe one-manned fighters. Taking a hit directly behind the cockpit, the transport transitioned into a free-fall. In the midst of the rain, she thought she saw two or three figures escape from the ship, but it was difficult to tell. The ship landed in front of the armored convoy and erupted into a fireball so strong that Verita felt the ground tremble where she was. The lead vehicle in the convoy diverted too late and overturned as it tried to avoid the wreckage, but the other transports managed to slow down in time to safely maneuver around it.

The wreckage slowed them down but not enough. They would arrive in seconds. She reignited her lightsaber. If she only had a moment to breathe, she could lead the Mandalorians to one of the Sith vehicles and commandeer it. She had been fighting for a long time; she was able to hold off her dark adversaries for the time being, but she had no idea how much longer she could last. If only Jhosua could help her…

*** ***

“We’re hit! Engines aren’t responding…”

The lance of energy from the Sith strikefighter tore right through the middle of the transport. Tserne was so close he could feel the heat wash over him as the blast passed by. The altimeter on the terminal nearby showed they were descending rapidly—far too quickly to land the ship in any sort of graceful manner. Figuring that they had taken care of the transport, the Sith strikefighters broke off to deal with the last of the Jedi Covenant’s escort fighters. The other escort pilots were dead and the only remaining pilot’s ship was so badly damaged that his ship was practically limping along and too late to provide assistance.

The transport turned so that it was nearly vertical, and then it began to spin out of control. Tserne stuck his knife into the wall and kept himself relatively upright, but K’thoi wasn’t so lucky. The Vultan fell into the cockpit and crashed into the back of the pilot’s chair. Tserne planned on struggling to the back doors, which Via had forced open, and escaping that way, but they were falling very fast and he knew he wouldn’t have time to get that far. Instead, Tserne activated the lightsaber Delvin had given him and slashed into the hole made in the floor by the laser fire, ensuring that it went cleanly from the floor to the hull and was wide enough for him to fit into. Signaling at K’thoi and the pilot, Tserne made sure that they saw him and his escape route before diving feet first through the breach.

The ship was less than five hundred meters up when Tserne dropped out of it. Tumbling through the air, Tserne slowed his descent with the Force as much as he was able, but telekinesis had never been his strong suit. The ship hit the ground first, and Tserne landed behind one of the moving transports as parts of the ship exploded on collision. A bit in front of him, an armored hovercraft tried to avoid the fireball, but it was moving too quickly and flipped over just in front of the crashed ship. Tserne did the best he could to roll as he hit the ground, and he largely succeeded only because Raystin’s additional Force power helped him slow down. He ended up in the mud less than three meters away from the overturned transport. Turning invisible, he avoided detection from the Sith troopers who crawled out of the armored hovercraft. The two vehicles still incoming, seeing what had happened to their companions, slowed down and steered their way around the wreckage, narrowly avoiding colliding with Tserne.

“Which way to Dynatha?” Tserne asked Raystin.

“She’s in front of the cave directly ahead of us,” the ghost replied. “These Sith are moving in for an attack.”

He was on his feet and on his way toward the cave in an instant. “What about K’thoi and Via? Did they make it?”

“I believe the two acolytes and the pilot are all right. They seem to be still inside the ship. The pilot seems injured; that may delay their advance.”

Tserne frowned. He knew that there was no way he could reach Dynatha and try to help K’thoi and Via at the same time. He owed the Jedi Covenant nothing; the most they had done was escort him here, and even that they had done begrudgingly. However, he owed Delvin, and these were his apprentices. He didn’t feel right leaving them to their fate, especially not given the sheer number of Sith.

“Damn. Raystin, let me know if Dynatha is in danger of being defeated by the Sith.”

“I doubt you’ll be able to react in time even if I did.”

Tserne sprinted through the mud as quickly as he could, circling around the remains of the downed transport just as the armored convoy had. Instead of bypassing it, Tserne crawled into the crevice where the transparisteel shielding the cockpit had been. When he tried to straighten himself, he found two lightsabers pointed in his direction.

“Tserne!” K’thoi said.

“Don’t scare us like that,” Via snapped. “We thought you were a Sith infiltrator.”

Tserne’s attention immediately went to the pilot. He was still in his seat, and he had what was effectively a metal spike sticking out of his leg. There was a lot of blood. The two Covenant apprentices had strewn medpacs across the deck and were trying to treat the wound, but it was worse than they anticipated. The pilot was fading in and out of consciousness.

“It missed the femoral artery, at the very least,” Tserne said, kneeling down and observing the injury. He checked the pilot’s pulse. It was weak, but not dangerously so. “Stay with us, okay? We’ll get you out of here.”

“Easier said than done,” Via said.

“I think if we cut away the metal just behind him, we can carry him out of here,” Tserne explained. “I don’t like moving him given the injury, but if we leave him here he’s sure to die.”

The three Force-sensitives moved quickly. Tserne carefully cut away at the metal that had torn through the pilot’s seat until it separated completely, leaving something like a metal spike in the pilot’s leg. Via and K’thoi used antibiotic sprays to clean the wound, coagulants to stop the bleeding, and painkillers to numb his nerves.

After putting the pilot’s leg into a makeshift splint and covering it with Via’s cloak, Tserne and K’thoi positioned themselves on either side of the pilot and led him out of the ship through the ajar back exit. Via led the way, lightsaber in hand, and made sure that they were clear; the Sith had, for the most part, ignored them and continued to the tunnel. In the rain, they were more exposed—given that none of their lightsabers worked—but they advanced all the same.

The cave was at the edge of the hills ahead of them, and hovercars surrounded it to provide cover fire for the soldiers that were disgorging. Sith troopers organized themselves two ranks deep, with the first row prone and firing toward the cave while the second fired from an upright position. Their advance was slow, methodical, and as a unit. The Dark Jedi acolytes accompanying them had already moved in and were engaging an unseen enemy standing just outside the cave. Guided by the Dark Jedi Master, they practically surrounded the entrance, only leaving space for blaster fire from their allies to come through.

In the midst of the rain and the battle, no one noticed Tserne and his companions approach. Signaling for Via to take his place at the pilot’s side, Tserne left the three of them behind and scaled the side of the nearest armored transport while invisible. He climbed inside the emergency exit near the sentry perch. Four troopers remained inside the vehicle; the pilot and co-pilot were in the front section while two shooters were firing from the embrasures on the side of the hovercraft facing the cave entrance. He slit the throat of the closer trooper and then the farther one, giving him access to both heavy repeating turrets.

Priming the gun closer to the cockpit, Tserne fired into the midst of the Sith troopers providing fire support to the Dark Jedi. The laser fire eviscerated their lines, and it took them a moment to realize that they were being attacked by their own transport. The other hovercraft began to position itself between Tserne and the remainder of the Sith troopers, but that only gave him an opportunity to indiscriminately fire upon it. He started at the cockpit, firing until the pilot and co-pilot were dead—and the vehicle stopped moving—and then he strafed across its broadside, killing the gunners and sentry inside.

The pilot and co-pilot of his craft had noticed the commotion and had armed themselves for confrontation. Tserne was still invisible, so they fired toward the two turrets where they assumed he would be. Tserne barely managed to leap out of the way and returned fire, striking the co-pilot in the chest and the pilot in the leg. Before he could deliver a killing blow to the pilot, the sentry leapt from his perch and began swinging his vibrosword in Tserne’s direction. Stepping away from the scout, Tserne gave himself some space and then shot him in the back. After dealing with the pilot, Tserne took some of the Sith troopers’ mines and grenades and then left the hovercraft; the other hovercraft had interposed itself between him and the cave entrance before stalling so he couldn’t assist Dynatha with the turrets any further.

Tserne jumped from one transport to the next and then to the ground just in front of the cave. As he expected, the Sith troopers had fallen back to avoid being completely destroyed, leaving the Dark Jedi on their own. Corpses of dead soldiers and Force-sensitives were strewn about in the shadow of the hills, and some were scarcely identifiable because of explosives or mud. In the midst of the carnage, a single female warrior was holding her own against many Dark Jedi. She had defeated at least four of them, and two others had been grievously wounded and were left to die in the mud by their comrades. The survivors fought well, and she was slowly being forced further into the cave.

Once he was under the cover of the stone canopy, Tserne activated the lightsaber Delvin had given him, revealing its glistening gold blade with a snap-hiss. Forgoing his invisibility, Tserne managed to sever the fighting arm of one Dark Jedi and lopped off the legs of another before the Force-sensitive host realized his presence. A blaster shot to the back felled the Dark Jedi Master who had been fighting Dynatha, and the two remaining Dark Jedi diverted their attention from her to Tserne.

The Twi’lek Dark Jedi was closer to him, and he moved in before his partner could get into position. His purple blade crossed against Tserne’s, barely missing his right ear. Tserne repelled the blade and forced the Twi’lek to backpedal from an aggressive series of slashes directed toward his torso. Before Tserne could cinch his advantage, the female Echani Dark Jedi moved in to protect her comrade, striking at Tserne’s right side and forcing his retreat.

The two Dark Jedi attacked as one, and Tserne continued to avoid their attacks. Tserne occasionally struck at one of his foe’s blades with his own, more to goad them on than to actually begin a counterattack. Even though Tserne had years of experience with swordfighting, a lightsaber still felt strange in his hand. The offensive progressions of his enemies were more fluid than anything he could manage.

He hadn’t realized that the Dark Jedi had forced him to the edge of the canopy shielding them from the rain. They had him right where they wanted him. The Twi’lek pressed his attack directly, forcing Tserne into a defensive stance lest he fall backward and his lightsaber lose power. While he guarded against the Twi’lek’s strikes at his abdomen and legs, the Echani began to circle around toward Tserne’s left side. Knowing he stood no chance against both of them in a direct attack, Tserne decided on another plan. Deactivating his lightsaber, Tserne backflipped to avoid the Twi’lek’s blade and left the canopy; neither of them followed him in fear of damaging their weapons.

Replacing their lightsabers with poison knives, the Dark Jedi followed him into the rain just as he withdrew the sword he had found on Sleheyron. His blade had greater reach than either of their combat knives, and he swung his sword in a wide arc to keep them both at a distance. A Force-imbued leap brought him from the trenches outside the cave on top of nearest transport. The Dark Jedi did the same, but the Twi’lek overestimated how far he had to jump and tried to leap over Tserne onto the vehicle. Tserne chopped off both a leg and both of his arms before he landed. The Echani landed directly beside Tserne, and she managed to slice into Tserne’s shoulder while he attacked her comrade. He managed to grab her wrist to keep her from continuing her attack, but she did the same to the crossguard with her free hand. Tserne was stronger than her, but his grip on her wrist was awkward and she had pushed his own sword very close to his body, preventing him from attacking with it.

The Echani began using the Force to bolster her own strength, and Tserne’s position became more precarious. Running out of options, Tserne searched the area for the Twi’lek’s discarded lightsaber. Fortunately, it had not fallen off the transport and was lying very close to his corpse. Although his telekinetic prowess was quite poor, Tserne had to make do with what he could. Pushing the Echani back, he forced her to backpedal about a meter lest she lose control of the knife. The body of her comrade was less than a meter away. With some effort, Tserne located the activation switch on his lightsaber and triggered it with his mind, igniting the blade and skewering the Echani’s heel. The pain caused her to fumble about, and she lost control of both weapons. Tserne turned her knife against her and plunged it into her chest.

There was Sith poison running through his veins, and he could feel its effects beginning to surface, but it didn’t matter. He had to meet with Dynatha. Returning to the ground, Tserne emerged from behind the transports just as K’thoi, Via, and the pilot reached the entrance of the cave. The woman was waiting for them, but she was not Dynatha. Indeed, they looked nothing alike. He imagined that this Jedi was about Dynatha’s age, albeit she appeared older. She had traded the clothes of a Jedi for a simple battlesuit favored by mercenaries and bodyguards across the galaxy, but she carried herself like a Jedi Knight. Her short red hair was in strands along her forehead and around her ears, and the droplets mingled with sweat on her face. Her green eyes were intense, and he was certain that she would have attacked them too if they had not been in the rain.

“Who are you?” she asked first, waving her lightsaber in his direction.

“We’re not your enemy.”

“Why should I believe you? Why are you here?”

“I just killed two of them, plus a whole squad of Sith troopers. And they just shot down our ship. That should be enough proof,” he replied. “I came here because I’m looking for someone. A woman named Dynatha. Have you seen her?”

She shook her head. “It’s been only me and this engineering crew for quite some time. Before me there was a unit of Mandalorians and Ailon warriors defending this location. Unless she fled some time ago, I doubt she was ever here.”

Never here? That couldn’t be right. Had he been misled? While he tried to reach out in the Force to determine where exactly she was, Via and K’thoi led the pilot to the canopy to get him out of the rain.

Raystin appeared at Tserne’s side, no doubt sensing Tserne’s confusion. “Ah… I see. This woman is right. Dynatha is not here.”

“Then where is she?”

“What is that?” the female Jedi asked, able to see the specter as clearly as Tserne could.

“A ghost.”

She looked at him like he was crazy, so K’thoi added, “It’s a Force spirit.”

“It inhabits the sword I’m carrying. It sounds strange, but it’s true.”

“She is in orbit, on one of the ships,” Raystin pointed out.

“In orbit?” Tserne’s anger reached a fever pitch. “Why am I down here then, Raystin? Why are you lying to me?”

“Peace. I did not intentionally mislead you. I do not know Dynatha myself, so to identify her on the battlefield I had to scrounge through your disjointed memories. I saw many things, but I misidentified Dynatha. I confused her with this woman here.”

“Then we should go to her,” Tserne said.

“As soon as possible.”

“Hold on,” the Jedi said. “They destroyed your ship. How are you going to get there?”

“We’ll have to abscond a Sith ship and leave that way,” Via said.

The woman seemed troubled by something. When Tserne turned to leave, she stopped him. “The only Sith ships are in their military outpost to the southwest. You’ll never be able to infiltrate it and escape without being hounded and shot down. I’d suggest taking one of their armored transports into Republic territory, linking up with a Republic unit, and using one of their ships.”

“That could take too long,” Tserne noted.

“If you want to commit collective suicide by trying to attack the military headquarters of the Sith on this planet, be my guest. I’ll take the safer route.”

“We’re willing to take the chance.”

“Your friend there is injured, and you’ve been poisoned. You wouldn’t make it halfway to the Sith base,” Verita countered.

“Look. I appreciate what help you’ve given us, but-”

Tserne’s face blanched, and he collapsed to his knees. Verita and Via ran over to him, and Tserne heard their voices calling to him—but they seemed incredibly far away.

“Idiot,” Via said to herself. “He’d probably charge into Korriban while bleeding out if it meant he could save her.”

Verita said nothing, but for some reason, she immediately thought of Jhosua. He was still safe, wasn’t he? When he had spoken to her, he sounded like he was barely avoiding some grave danger. Had he gone into hiding? She hoped he and her daughters would be safe until she arrived. So long as these new hangers-on didn’t try and redirect her, she would be able to reach them before long.

While the Mandalorians helped K’thoi get the injured Jedi Covenant pilot into the only working armored transport, she and Via lifted Tserne and followed them. It didn’t take long before Tserne and the pilot were positioned safely on benches where K’thoi and Via ensured they wouldn’t be thrown to the floor while the vehicle was in motion. The Mandalorian engineers were quick to start the vehicle and turn it so that it headed away from the Sith camp and toward the Republic. They wouldn’t be able to drive all the way to their destination—there was too much fighting—so Verita suggested stopping by her ship to see if they could repair it. Only if they failed would they drive the transport the whole way.

Once she was certain they were safe, Verita began healing the two injured men. Tserne muttered Dynatha’s name while Verita eliminated the poison flowing through his blood. While she worked, she occasionally wiped the sweat around his face with a cloth. She found herself examining his face intently, as though she was searching for answers hidden in his visage. She hadn’t recognized him at first, and he didn’t know her, but she had seen him before. Who was he? Whether the Force or else the recesses of her mind told her that they had been closer than she imagined, she did not know, but it made her very uncomfortable.

“Pardon me, but we need your help over here,” K’thoi called from his seat by the pilot.

Verita returned to reality with a start, as though she had been suddenly caught doing something wrong. She cursed herself and the foolish thoughts rising up within her as she went to treat the pilot’s wounds. The sooner they went their separate ways and her family was rescued, the happier she would be.

*** ***

Major General Eto surveyed the main holographic display in the war room. Since the Republic and their allies had retreated from the southern shield generator, they had continued losing ground.

He and the other commanding officers had intended to hold the Sith at the east side of the Vyred Mountains, using the two passes as kill zones against advancing enemy forces. The Republic had underestimated its preparedness. The two divisions stationed in the north had fought well for many hours, bombarding the narrow pass with artillery fire and heavy tank guns. However, their supply freighters and hovercars were quite overtaxed; they simply couldn’t refuel and rearm their defenders as quickly as the Sith could march in new combatants. Eventually, Eto gave the order to withdraw south and east toward the Republic base, where they would eventually link up with the four divisions guarding the southern pass. Only a single division, under Lietuenant General Calad’s command, was positioned west of the river that separated the Sith from the Jedi sanctuary.

The defense of the southern pass was ostensibly better. Supply lines were shorter and the grasslands in the region allowed artillery to spread out and avoid enemy cannonades. The damage to both passes was extensive, but Sith engineers had managed to move forward using durasteel support tresses to keep roads clear or sappers to tunnel beneath or around debris. According to Eto’s estimates, they could continue holding the current position in the south for at least another three hours before they had to reevaluate their defense.

The loss of the shield generator west of the Vyred Mountains had been a punishing blow for the Republic. The entire region from the southern pass to Republic headquarters had become unshielded, and it was only thanks to the efforts of the Republic Navy that their positions hadn’t been bombarded by Sith warships. However, that also meant that Republic auxiliary supplies—located in Republic capital ships and heavy freighters in orbit—would be slow to reach them as long as the battle in space continued. As he saw it, their situation was only tenable as long as either the battle on the ground or the battle in orbit was resolved in the next few hours. They wouldn’t survive a battle of attrition.

“Major General,” Captain Ilen said. “Sith forces are mobilizing for a major offensive to take the southern pass. Three divisions are approaching from the south via tunnels, two from the north, and two more are advancing directly through the pass.”

“Let Colonel Me’sthon’s division and his tank brigade meet them at the exit to the pass. Direct all light cannons toward the soldiers debouching from the tunnels. Tell Lieutenant Pelpos to lead the Ailon Nova Guard platoon north to slow down the Sith advance.”

“Sending Mandalorians to reinforce the Nova Guard platoon!” Kerre noted.

Eto and the rest of the Republic strategists watched the initial engagement play out. The cannonade caved in the tunnels to the south and devastated the Sith troopers who had already emerged. Two infantry companies and an armor contingent went to deal with the survivors. The Ailon-Mandalorian unit met the soldiers and Dark Jedi descending from the mountains in the north; when it became clear that the northern force was more than a match for their allies, Eto ordered nearby gunships to provide close air support. Simultaneously, Colonel Me’sthon’s forces engaged the enemy’s main force. Spreading his infantry wide so that they stretched from one end of the pass to the other, the consistent volume of fire against the Sith kept them in place. Droid tanks and attack speeders harassed any troopers or mercenaries on the flanks, and Republic turret emplacements and mine fields resulted in heavy casualties to the Sith vanguard.

The fighting on all fronts continued back and forth for some time. Aside from his aides requesting permission from battlefield leaders to reposition their troops, the war room waited in quiet anticipation. The Sith divisions coming in from the south had been completely annihilated, allowing the soldiers and armor on that front to relocate to the main battle at the pass. Their success on that front was fortuitous, because the Colonel Me’sthon’s left flank was collapsing and reinforcements moved quickly to keep the Sith from punching deeper into Republic lines.

“Lieutenant General Calad, a Sith battalion coupled with two tank companies have broken Major Olsh’s primary and secondary ranks. They’re pushing toward our right flank,” an aide called out from the center of the room.

“Direct the 17th Battalion to halt their attack,” General Calad ordered. “Let Olsh retreat eastward to the reduit point.”

“Belay that,” Eto said. “Who is leading that Sith strike team?”

“Eyes on the ground say a high-value Force-sensitive. Possibly a Sith Master,” Captain Ilen said after receiving a status report.

“Ignore General Eto. Send in the 17th,” Calad said.

“Hold on, General. We have an opportunity here. Notice the rest of the enemy soldiers. They have not synchronized with the advancing force, and they are only taking advantage of the confusion in our lead ranks. If I’m understanding the situation correctly, it would seem that a powerful Sith general is acting on his own accord… for his own personal glory, perhaps.”

“And what if you’re wrong, General Eto? We’re going to have our formation split in two by this advance, and then we’re going to be facing the enemy on two fronts. What’s more, they’ll have a clear line of sight on our artillery. I won’t allow it.”

“I believe this will work. Relieve Major Olsh, but let the Sith Master advance. Reform our forward ranks and let the interior prepare for a complete encirclement. Trust me. They’ll have nowhere to go, and we’ll be ready to begin our counteroffensive.”

General Calad grumbled something to himself but acquiesced. “Do as he says. Perform a fighting retreat around that Sith Master to minimize our losses, but do it slowly so they don’t catch on.”

Without the cohesion of their central forces, the Republic formation began to fall apart as General Calad had predicted. The Sith Master and his battle group advanced deep into Republic lines, scattering defenders and nearly reaching the artillery. However, the Sith hadn’t realized that their rear forces had been enveloped and destroyed by Republic heavy infantry, separating them from the rest of their allies. The Sith Master’s soldiers were completely encircled, and General Calad gave the order to finish them off. Moving medium tanks and droid contingents from the left flank, their enemy' rapid advance was completely halted, and their numbers dwindled rapidly. Deprived of his tank crews, the Sith Master and his immediate minions were boxed in by heavy infantry teams and their armor support. However, the dark side gave them an advantage over the numerically superior fireteams around them, and it took several commando squads from Lieutenant General Abros’s division to eliminate them.

The Sith Master’s foolish rush into the Republic’s zone of control cost them most of their heavy tanks and at least a dozen Dark Jedi. Generals Eto and Calad had lost many troopers and some medium tanks, but were nonetheless in a better position overall once their rank and file reformed. The Sith had lost so many combatants that the Republic vanguard began striking at their unguarded flanks, opening up two additional fronts and pushing the Sith back into the pass.

“Don’t pursue them when they begin to retreat, Colonel,” General Calad ordered. “Let the artillery take over and assess our casualties.”

“Major Felstan, bring your infantry about to assist the Mandalorians in pushing the Sith back into the mountains. Let’s finish this fight,” Eto added.

“Sir, we have several transports approaching quite rapidly from the western front,” the sentry posted at the guard tower outside the Republic base announced via comm. “Remnants of Lieutenant Colonel Phelteron’s regiment, from the looks of them.”

“Have one of your officers debrief them, if you don’t mind, Captain,” General Calad replied. “Then send Phelteron inside. I’d like a word with him.”

Eto frowned. He turned to Captain Ilen. “Lieutenant Colonel Phelteron was assigned to the southern pass. Why was he diverted here?”

She didn’t know the answer. As she turned to one of her associates to learn what was going on, blaster fire was heard in the courtyard outside the base. Before the military police or other guards waiting inside could react, someone detonated an explosive outside the northern wall of the war room. Chunks of the wall flew inside and struck adjutants and protocol droids, and the explosion tossed several officers, including Captain Ilen, off their feet. Scarlet blaster fire flew inside; the shooters aimed high and didn’t hit anyone in their initial volley. General Eto took his blaster and fired into the thick plumes of smoke where the blast had destroyed the wall, moving to get behind the cover of the holographic projector.

What he hadn’t expected was a blaster shot from behind.

Eto had no idea which of the officers had fired the shot that hit him. He registered the pain in the lower part of his back for a second, and then his body went limp. His jaw barely missed colliding with the durasteel projector, and he hit his left shoulder instead. Completely paralyzed, General Eto watched as lances of blaster fire from both sides of the room met their marks—loyal Republic officers and strategists were stunned by the sudden betrayal of their fellow comrades. Whoever had shot him had either moved on or else had been shot as well, so as long as he was on the floor he was safe from the crossfire overhead.

“Sir!”

He glance behind him as much as he was able and saw Captain Ilen approaching him. She was on her hands and knees, quickly but carefully advancing in the chaos around her. She had taken a shot to her side, but apparently her shield had absorbed most of it because it didn’t affect her gait at all.

“We need to get you out of here,” Captain Ilen said when she was practically on top of him.

“Not like this,” General Eto grumbled. “Can’t even raise my hands. Couldn’t fight if I wanted to.”

“Then I’ll carry you out. Just hold on, sir-”

“No. There’s a comlink in my back pocket. Get out of here and inform Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel and his team that headquarters has been compromised. He’s on his way here. He needs to know about this.”

“I’m not leaving without you, General.”

“That’s an order, Captain. This is no time for insubordination.”

He saw tears in her eyes and realized that she was shaking. “General… please don’t make me leave you behind. I’ve never abandoned another soldier. Not ever.”

“Now, Juleth. Don’t make me repeat myself.”

She took a moment to steel herself. “I’ll be back for you, General. I swear.”

While Captain Ilen fled the scene with General Eto’s comlink, the Mandalorians were desperately trying to deal with the Republic traitors. Kerre’s small guard team had been outnumbered and most of them died in the initial firefight. Kerre loomed over Fier like a great statue, using his repeater to keep the enemy from pouring through the front door all at once. Fier had only rudimentary training in firearms, and she did the best she could to stay near the ground and out of sight while Kerre and the other survivors fought.

However, it was quite apparent that the battle could not be won. There were less than a dozen Mandalorians against at least three times as many attackers, and they had no heavy weapons or reinforcements to bring to bear. When Kerre heard the buzz of a lightsaber from somewhere behind the rubble of the destroyed wall, he knew their cause was hopeless.

When a brief lull occurred in the fighting, he ducked under the table where Fier was hiding. Placing his repeater beside him, he held her hands in his. “I failed. Your father tasked me with bringing you back. Looks like that’s impossible now.”

“Don’t say that. We’re not… we can still do this.”

“No. But there is still one thing I can do. Forgive me, Fier.”

Kerre removed his blaster and set it to stun. Fier didn’t understand what was going on, but she recoiled in horror when she saw his weapon pointed at her. Kerre fired two shots directly at her stomach, and the bolts knocked her unconscious. Using his knife, he very carefully gave her arm and forehead shallow cuts—just enough so she would appear injured from the explosion. With that, he turned his blaster back up to full power, powered down his shield, and removed his helmet. Moving so that he was bodily on top of prone figure, Kerre pointed his blaster at his forehead.

“Jhosua, let this be enough.”

The firefight stopped less than a minute thereafter. Ducian Eto watched as traitorous Republic officers and Sith troopers began to work together to search the bodies of his deceased comrades. They looted the belongings of the dead and delivered the killing blow to those who were injured and dying. He was forced to watch many good officers die, absolutely helpless to do anything about it. They waited some time before coming to him. A Sith trooper in immaculate white armor marched toward him, shifted his rifle into firing position with droid-like efficiency, and moved his finger to the trigger. Ducian showed no emotion and said nothing.

“Hold, Corporal. This one I want to deal with.”

Ducian recognized that voice. Oro Malthesinores. He had once been a general and senator, but he betrayed them all for credits. It had been many decades since the two men had seen each other, and the old soldier was nothing like Ducian remembered. His hair had faded away, leaving him with strands of white along his temples near the nape of his neck. He was so old that he walked with a cane, and he had replaced his gaudy attire for the gray uniform of a Sith general. Only his brown eyes were still the same, scheming and pitiless.

“Are you surprised to see me?” General Malthesinores cackled. “Oh, Ducian. You were clever, but you weren’t clever enough! Always one step behind me. You should have learned after Rajes’s time on Coruscant that it takes no effort for me to insert my spies into the Republic military. Even maintaining both IFFs and fooling the comm officers was child’s play. Now the Republic fleet is in disarray because the officers loyal to the Sith turned and attacked their former commanders.”

“I have nothing to say to someone like you. Even if you kill me, yours will be the legacy of a coward and a traitor.”

“Oh, come now! Must you be so stubborn, even at this point? You’ve lost, Ducian. Don’t be sore about it. When it comes time for our histories to be recounted, you will be recognized as an able but ultimately stupid commander, and I will be known forever as the general that led the Sith armies to conquer the galaxy. I have respect for your efforts, foolish as they are. You could at least give me that in return.”

“I have nothing but contempt for you and everyone who follows you.”

The old general’s face contorted like a kinrath pup. “For all your honor, you find yourself paralyzed and at my mercy. I have won the day, and the Sith will win the war. I had planned on asking my master to pardon you… perhaps exile you to some faraway world where you couldn’t harm anyone. But I see now that my mercy is wasted on you. I will take what I need by force.”

“I have nothing to give you.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Phelteron and General Abros, I want you two to take control of the strategic operations here. Let the officers know there was an explosion, and a few soldiers were injured, but everything else is fine. Lead them all to ruin however you see fit.” General Malthesinores signaled for the two Sith troopers standing near Ducian, and they grabbed his arms and scooped him off the ground. “As for you, I have some questions about Coruscant and other high-value targets. I think you’d be just the person to tell me what I need to know.”

“You’re only wasting your time. It would be wiser for you to continue leading your forces against us.”

“You’ve already lost, Ducian. You just can’t accept that yet.” General Malthesinores waved at the two troopers carrying his captive. “Let’s take him somewhere more comfortable for the interrogation, shall we?”


Chapter 49

Harin’s heart thumped inside his chest so loud he was certain his companions could hear it. His legs wobbled beneath his own weight, and the only reason he hadn’t collapsed yet was adrenaline. He and Major Honjenber were limping along near the back of their party, carrying his mother between them. He could see the other Ailon warriors, but the Jedi Covenant were too far ahead. He wished they would slow down.

According to Major Honjenber, they were getting very close to their destination. They had run into a few Sith patrols on their journey north, but the Jedi Covenant dealt with them before they could pose a threat to Harin or his mother. While crossing into the forest between them and the mountain pass, they had run into an Ailon Nova Guard platoon which promptly joined them. Harin had heard whispers from the Jedi Covenant that some of their comrades who had defended the shield alongside them earlier had gone missing; Harin himself noted that he hadn’t seen either Selias or her commandos since their flight.

“We should be seeing the tower shortly,” Major Honjenber whispered to Harin. “Once we’ve secured it, I’ll signal for a transport to pick us up and bring us back to Republic HQ.”

It quickly became apparent that that was going to be easier said than done. The remnant of the Jedi Watchcircle, the Ailon Nova Guards, and the Sunriders had approached the tower from the west and observed the tower from a grove of trees in the distance. Since Major Honjenber and his unit had left to get Celes and the others, the tower had been occupied by a Sith garrison. Armored hovercraft were steadily rolling in and out of the western pass, bringing supplies, droids, and soldiers through the area for the ongoing offensive not ten miles east. A cadre of Dark Jedi were guarding the tower entrance, and there were automated turrets and fortified emplacements ready to resist an assault from the Republic—and them.

“We’re going to have a long fight ahead of us, clearing out this area,” the Gotal Watchcircle Knight muttered. “Maybe even worse than we had against the tanks.”

“I’m calling it off,” Major Honjenber replied. “We don’t have the numbers or firepower to capture the tower.”

“Where else are we going to go?” Harin asked. “We can’t turn back—the Sith were pursuing us the entire way. We’ll be cornered.”

“We’ll be cornered the moment we announce our presence,” another Watchcircle Knight noted.

“We’ll risk an aerial pickup five kilometers north, west side of the mountains. The Sith can’t have advanced that far north yet,” the major said. “Lieutenant, contact Republic HQ and request a sitrep.”

Harin grimaced and looked at his mother. “I don’t know if we can make it that far…”

“It’s too risky,” Celes groaned. “There are Sith anti-air guns and artillery on that side of the mountains. The pilot would never be able to land safely. We can’t afford to turn around now.”

“We don’t have a choice,” Major Honjenber countered. “Either we walk the whole way, or we pull back and request a bird there. It’d be a slaughter trying to capture that tower.”

Celes pulled herself to her feet, rebuffing her son’s attempt to help her. “No. There is another way…”

Harin and the other members of the Jedi Covenant felt the Force surge around Celes like she had reached into a hidden reservoir of strength. Revealing herself—in spite of Major Honjenber warnings—from behind the trees of the grove, Celes created a telekinetic bubble in the air that swirled around, stopping the rain and absorbing blaster fire from the droids and Sith troopers defending the tower. When the Dark Jedi moved in to engage, Celes allowed the bubble to pop, releasing an invisible shockwave that rippled through the area and tore apart droid chasses, body armor, and flesh with untempered ferocity. Ripping large balls of rock and mud from the ground with her mind, Celes threw them with enough force to topple the charging Dark Jedi and destroy several nearby turrets.

When it became evident that Celes was defeating most of the enemies with ease, the Ailon Nova Guard and Jedi Watchcircle joined her in the fight. Harin quickly moved to his mother’s side and summoned scraps of metal to intercept blaster fire that lanced toward them from every direction. Celes had already torn apart most of the shield emplacements and larger turrets, leaving the remaining defenders relatively vulnerable. As the Jedi and Ailon advanced, most of the Sith troopers retreated into the tower and began closing the door behind them.

“After them! Don’t let them seal themselves inside!” Harin heard someone shout.

Celes and Harin were still at the forefront of the offensive, so they moved in to stop them. But when they approached the door, lightning descended from the sky and nearly struck both of them. Harin leapt back in surprise; the lightning had been so close to them that he smelled the ozone and its heat washed over him even in the cold rain. Celes reacted instinctively and shielded them both from the brunt of its power. When his eyes cleared, Harin turned his head to the sky and noticed that there was a humanoid on top of the tower staring down at them. Could that have been an attack from a Force-sensitive? Celes seemed to take notice as well. The two shared a knowing look and, as one, ascended to the top of the tower in a single bound.

Though it was difficult to see through the storm, the Sunriders realized that there were actually two beings on top of the tower with them. Before either them or the others could say anything, the taller of the two beings charged at them. When he got closer to them, Harin and Celes realized that he was the Hand of the Emperor. Somehow, the Sith Master had outmaneuvered them and reached the tower before they did. The Emperor’s Hand moved to tackle Harin, but Celes interposed herself between them. The Sith warrior’s shoulder slammed against her jaw and one of his knees shot up and struck her pelvis. The hit knocked Celes off her feet—and the tower—but she managed to get a firm grasp on the Hand of the Emperor’s cloak, pulling him down with her. The fight was finished in an instant, and Harin missed his chance to rescue her from falling.

“What a shame,” the remaining figure said, his voice reverberating and quite unnatural. “I had planned on dealing with Celes, but then again, I suppose tearing off the last branch of the Sunrider tree will make my future endeavors less dangerous. I won’t pass up this chance.”

Harin returned his attention to the other being on the tower’s crown with him. He was a man who wore the robes of a Jedi, but he was far older than anyone on the High Council. Since the Jedi Council were the first of the Jedi who had sprung up after the purges, this surprised him. They had never met, but the dark side swirled around him and let Harin know that he was in the presence of a perilous foe.

“Who are you?”

“You would know me as Northeus Ulsan, young Jedi… if you would know me at all. I came here in search of a way to save the lost, and I think I’ve found it at last. I’ve only to rid myself of the meddlers and the belligerents, and then it will be done.”

Harin approached the older Force-sensitive, careful to avoid getting too close, and reached for his weapon. “I don’t know what you mean, but I know you’re a Sith. I’ll give you one chance to surrender. If you refuse, I can’t guarantee your safety.”

“Indeed?” Northeus had a wicked smile on his face. “It seems the Sunrider bravado extends across generations. Your enthusiasm and dedication to Jedi mercy are admirable, but your lack of skill means your threats are empty. Your dear mother might have stood a chance against me, perhaps even your father, but you are a waste of my time.”

Harin gave him a puzzled look. Father? What did this Dark Jedi know about him? Celes hardly mentioned him, and Harin had never really broached the subject after he had left her tutelage for Nocion’s care. Perhaps this Sith had closer ties to the Jedi than he first thought.

“You shouldn’t underestimate me. Prepare youself.”

In the blink of an eye, Harin closed the distance between them. Less than a meter apart, Harin jumped into the air, his foot practically in Northeus’s chest, but somehow the old man dodged the attack and sent Harin flying into the staff at the center of the roof.

“A good try, at least. Once more.”

Harin spun around and punched at Northeus. The old Force-sensitive was faster than he seemed, and he managed to deftly avoid Harin’s offensive. When he stopped attacking to reposition himself, Northeus reached out, grabbed Harin’s upper arm, and threw him across the tower. Harin’s head bumped against the stone, and he lay there for some time, letting the rain fall across his back while Northeus approached.

“Perhaps your fighting skills were not as refined as I was led to believe. Or perhaps your training was dedicated more toward the finer arts of lightsaber combat? Let me see if your master lived up to my expectations.”

With a wave of his hand, Northeus created an invisible dome around them. Immediately the wind stopped blowing through their hair and cloaks and the rain was kept at bay. Harin could see the the top of the tower, Northeus, and the staff between them much clearer now. The staff between them was certainly an evil object of some sort, pulsating with a vigorous and twisted energy that seemed to rise up from the planet itself. Northeus himself seemed almost at ease, and he motioned for Harin to hurry. His nonchalance irked him.

No one had come to join him, so Harin suspected that there had been reinforcements below that his mother and the others had to deal with. That didn’t dissuade him. He had only been insulted, not beaten. He took his lightsaber, dried off the handle with the inside of his robe, and activated the blue blade.

Avoiding the deep puddles that had accumulated around the roof, Harin made his way toward Northeus and swung at his chest. The old Force-sensitive jumped away from the attack and his boot caught Harin in the leg. The young Jedi ignored the scrape and followed up immediately, unleashing a dueling velocity that aimed at Northeus’s arms and torso. His opponent sidestepped or ducked underneath every attack; Harin’s blade never even got close to hitting its mark.

“A poor display of typical Jedi tactics. Is there no brilliance in the Jedi ranks anymore? You disgrace your family’s name!”

Harin’s boot caught Northeus in the chin, but the grazing hit only managed to silence him. Ducking and aiming low, Harin nearly cut Northeus’s feet off at the knees, but the old man performed a backflip in midair and avoided the attack entirely. The young Jedi moved in to seize an advantage, but Northeus stepped out of the way of his first swing and struck the side of his head with a headbutt. Harin’s vision faded to black for a moment, and when he awoke he was on the ground at the edge of the dome.

“Why… are you toying with me?” Harin growled, knowing full well the Dark Jedi could have ended his life several times since their fight began.

“Watching you fight, I have realized that you are more useful alive than dead. Yes, every dark master needs an apprentice,” Northeus replied matter-of-factly. “But make no mistake, if you do not yield to me, I will end your life. You are not so critical to my plans.”

Mimicking his mother’s earlier maneuver, Harin unleashed a Force push in every direction away from his body, throwing Northeus back and giving him a chance to safely get stand up again. His lightsaber reactivated and its blue blade came centimeters from separating Northeus’s head from his body—the old Dark Jedi only managed to defend himself by activating his own lightsaber and blocking the attack. Standing over his foe, Harin had more leverage and used his upper hand to force Northeus’s silver blade back toward his own body. With only one arm to wield his weapon, Northeus was at a distinct disadvantage.

Their positions reversed without warning. A wave of dark power struck Harin like a flurry of punches, and he backpedaled just in time to avoid having his body bisected by Northeus’s lightsaber. The Dark Jedi rose to full height and continued his attack, striking at Harin’s blade again and again. Harin’s knees buckled in the face of Northeus’s offensive, and he found himself barely able to keep his enemy’s lightsaber from slashing his face. With a wide swing, Northeus struck him so hard that Harin lost his grip on his lightsaber. Harin scrambled to get it back, but Northeus intercepted him and punched him in the jaw. Dazed, Harin fell backward and out of the dome so that his upper body dangled from the edge of the tower.

“You made the mistake of coming here now, when there is no limit to my potential. You should have fled when you knew I was here, biding my time and gathering strength. Unfortunately, you chose the harsher path, and now you and all your friends will witness my mastery of the Force directly.”

Northeus directed his gaze to the courtyard below. The surviving Ailon Nova Guards and the two remaining Jedi of Watchcircle Dominus were fighting in the distance, keeping several black-armored Sith troopers and a company of droids away from the tower. Directly beneath them, Celes was fighting with the Emperor’s Hand; lightsabers were ineffective in the pouring rain, so they were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Despite his immense size, the Sith warrior struggled to gain an upper hand on his Jedi opponent, and he had failed to grapple her effectively or land any crippling blows. Celes was nimble, skilled, and used the Force to bolster her strength to match her opponent’s. They appeared to have been fighting for some time, and both of them were beginning to tire.

Harin observed a red mist, barely tangible, emerge from Northeus’s hand down toward the duelists. The haze surrounded Celes, and Harin sensed—though barely noticeable—fatigue overwhelm her. He tried to encourage her by substituting her with Force power with his own, but Northeus rebuffed his attempts. Physically exhausted and without the protection of the Force, Celes found herself on the receiving end of a brutal string of punches to the chest, face, and abdomen from the First Hand. Bodily lifting her over his head, the Sith warrior threw her into the doors of the tower with such force that the already weakened doors gave way, revealing her limp body to the Sith defenders inside.

“What happened to her? What did you do?” Harin shouted.

“A crystal rests in her lightsaber that has been corrupted in such a way that it will drain her life force on my command. Only by discarding the blade will she be free of its effects, but she cannot defeat the Emperor’s Hand without her Jedi weapon. I will continue draining her strength until she’s faded away, or the Hand kills her.”

Harin noticed that the faint aura that comprised Celes’s stolen energy traveled from her body into the staff that had been placed upright in the center of the roof. Becoming a receptacle for her power, the staff began to emanate a pale light, and the runes inscribed on its surface began to shift between several colors. There was a loud groan, and the staff began to rotate in place faster than it had before.

*** ***

Celes’s will remained as keen as ever, but something inside her had broken, or else maybe her muscles had been expended. Whether a mysterious Force attack or else the First Hand’s assault had incapacitated her, she wasn’t sure, but she knew she was helpless like this. Two Sith troopers who had been hiding inside the tower were approaching her position while the rest watched from behind their temporary barricade, ready to fire in their comrades’ defense. The Emperor’s Hand, too, had entered the tower, and his red lightsaber was activated and ready to provide a coup de grace.

“And so it ends, Jedi,” she heard the First Hand say. He was standing directly over her, but his voice sounded more distant, like someone over a comlink. “Know your folly.”

He raised his lightsaber, but the blade did not come down. Bursting in through the opposite entrance, Nocion called upon the Force and sent a telekinetic push to repel First Hand and knock over the soldiers around them. When the rest of the soldiers in the tower turned toward him, he caused their power paks to explode with a mental nudge. The small explosions incapacitated the remaining Sith troopers. He arrived at Celes’s side before the First Hand recovered.

“Nocion…” she whispered, and he saw a small smile amidst her pain.

“Are you all right?” he asked, cupping her face in his hand.

“I will be…” Celes groaned. “Be careful. He’s strong.”

“What about Harin?”

“Top of the tower… I want to help, but I can’t…”

Nocion took her lightsaber from her belt. “I’ll need this. Don’t worry, love. I won’t be long.”

“It won’t be long before both of you are dead!”

The First Hand’s armored boot caught Nocion in the shoulder, forcing him to roll over himself into a half-upright recovery. The Emperor’s Hand, again standing directly over Celes, moved to behead her again, but this time Nocion used her lightsaber to intercept his attack. Her blue blade lingered dangerously close to her throat, and Nocion was leaning awkwardly over her to ensure that his entire body was behind his defense.

“You’re wasting your time. You can’t defeat me,” the Sith warrior sneered.

With some effort, Nocion managed to upright himself and push the enemy’s blade away from Celes simultaneously. The First Hand retreated to avoid a lunge at his chest, and Nocion pursued him—careful to keep his eye on Celes and the Sith troopers behind him. Nocion’s first plan of attack was a series of powerful slashes to exhaust the Emperor’s Hand, but from the way the Sith warrior defended Nocion realized that he was already tired. Transitioning between rapid blows at his opponent’s side and strong attacks toward his center, Nocion kept the Sith warrior on the defensive and kept moving so that the two of them headed for the nearest wall.

The First Hand maneuvered himself so that he stood in the doorway that led outside—any further and his lightsaber would be disabled by the rainfall. Nocion began an explosive series of stabs and abbreviated strikes that forced the Hand to move his lightsaber all around his body to keep up a consistent defense. The Hand defended well against his first assault, so Nocion made a feint for his neck. The Hand fell for it, allowing Nocion to go in low and strike at his right leg instead. Upon making contact, a massive explosion went off about ten meters away from them. The blast lit up the area outside and had enough force behind it to create a shockwave that pushed both of them toward the center of the tower.

Nocion pushed himself off the multifaceted and spinning column at the center of the tower and slashed at both of the First Hand’s arms. He was disappointed to discover that his attack had barely made contact due to being thrown off-balance by the explosion, and the First Hand was only burned by his attack. Even so, the dark side brought about a terrible bloodlust in the Sith warrior that gave him newfound strength amidst the long battle. Nocion wasn’t prepared for such a ferocious counterattack, and he retreated to the stairwell that traveled up the walls of the tower. The Sith followed him, battering away at his defenses while his rage increased.

Nocion lured the First Hand into attacking his torso, forcing the First Hand into overextending himself, allowing the Sith-turned-Jedi to strike at his jaw. With the Hand’s emotions overcoming his skill, Nocion gained the upper hand, driving the Sith warrior back down the steps. Striking more than twelve times in rapid succession, Nocion slipped by his opponent’s guard and cut into his body armor, burning a deep gash into the armor but not quite reaching his breast.

The First Hand realized he was in grave danger, so he used the Force to push Nocion at least a meter up the stairway. Nocion hadn’t even stood up again before his opponent rushed forward, bringing his red lightsaber down upon him in a maddened fury. The attacks were predictable, but there was so much strength behind them and Nocion had been thrown on his back, making defense difficult. He kicked out and struck at the Hand’s inner thigh, but his enemy countered by headbutting him when he tried to stand up again. Black spots danced in his eyes, but Nocion managed to flee up several more steps before the First Hand brought his lightsaber down into the stone where he had been.

Nocion stood up to face the Hand again; he hadn’t expected the First Hand to summon a ball of Force lightning. The brilliant orb hit Nocion directly in the chest. Knocked off his feet again, electrical tendrils arced across his body and illuminated his skeleton. Heedless of Celes or anyone else sensing his power, Nocion summoned the power of the dark side and created a single beam of energy that struck the First Hand and drained his life force to restore Nocion’s. The First Hand, weaker but still quite able to fight, charged at Nocion but was forced to stop when the central spire—spinning even faster and more erratically than before—began to crackle with tendrils of energy. Glancing at Celes, Nocion realized that the electrical tendrils from the central pillar would soon approach her.

“You’d better worry about yourself!”

Nocion ducked just in time to avoid being decapitated by the First Hand’s blade. However, with his free hand, the Sith warrior grabbed his throat and slammed him into the wall. Nocion stomped on his foot and raised his lightsaber to cut off the extended arm, but the Sith withdrew just in time. Before either of them could move in to attack again, Nocion fled the battle, pushing past the First Hand and racing back down the steps.

*** ***

Entrapped in stasis, Harin watched as Northeus commanded energy from within the staff to create an explosion in front of them, engulfing the battlefield where the Sith troopers, Watchcircle Knights, droids, and Ailon Nova Guards had been fighting. He roared at Northeus to stop and struggled against the Force power keeping him in place, but he wasn’t strong enough to do anything.

Northeus smiled when he saw Harin’s futile struggle. He waved his only hand to direct his attention to the plumes of smoke rising up where the explosion had occurred.

“Why are you doing this? The longer you wait, the more endangered you and your staff are. You’re wasting your time with me,” Harin said.

Northeus shook his head. “With every bit of life force I absorb from my pawns, the staff becomes even stronger. Soon I will be able to catalyze attacks that can obliterate starships and drain the Force contained within every being on this planet. Then the remnants of their power will be mine to control, and I will become unstoppable… I will hold the most powerful weapon in the universe in my grasp.”

“You haven’t won yet.”

“No, but it won’t be long now. There’s nothing you can do, and no Jedi can stop me. You are too weak and feeble-minded to oppose something so ancient and so ravenous. Only a Sith could stop me now.”

Harin said nothing. He refused to give in despite of the losses they had taken. Celes was wounded, but she was still alive—he could sense her. And, although it was a weak presence, he sensed his master down there too. Together, they would defeat the First Hand and come to rescue him. For now, he had to stay alive and stay strong.

“Your feelings betray you,” Northeus sneered. “Do you expect to leave here alive? You were defeated the moment you entered this place. You will either die here as another Jedi sacrifice to fuel my great weapon, or else you will leave as my apprentice, a loyal minion of the Sith, and together we shall conquer the galaxy.”

“You’ve lost your mind. I’ll escape, and then we’ll stop you.”

“Foolish sentiments from a foolish boy!” Northeus was laughing manically, and a terrifying light danced in his eyes. “Don’t you see? It’s futile. Not even the Jedi Council can stop me. Even the Dark Lord of the Sith, cowering on his throne, is subject to me! Now I will steal away the life from another… a leader of your precious Jedi Watchcircle… and use his strength as fuel to project my assault into orbit. For a while my power was bound to this planet, but no more! Observe and know fear!”

With a wave of his hand, Northeus sapped the strength from another Jedi, far away from the two of them, and redirected it into the Emperor’s Staff. The staff gleamed even brighter, and the entire tower began to tremble. Suddenly the apex of the tower began to radiate a bright red light that forced Harin to avert his eyes. A great beam of light extended from the staff and traveled into orbit, cutting through the storm clouds above and passing through the atmosphere. Although Harin couldn’t see it, Northeus impressed upon his mind that the beam had completely crippled a Sith warship, destroyed a nearby Republic cruiser, and vaporized many starfighters as it traveled through the battle overhead.

“Aren’t you a Sith? What would you have to gain destroying a Sith ship like that, killing the crew and the soldiers they no doubt have on board?” Harin was aghast. He had to admit that he had very little concern for the well-being of Sith minions, but he knew that a Sith mad enough to betray his own was an even greater threat. “If you continue this destructive path, your side will lose this battle!”

“My side? I have no side. I will not be satisfied until the Republic and Sith ships in orbit are mass graveyards, life has been stricken from this planet, and I have left this sector to perish from a supernova! Only then will I be powerful enough to face my ultimate adversary… the Emperor of the Sith.”

“If you intended to go after a Sith Lord, you could have consulted with Jedi,” Harin countered. “We could have helped you.”

“No one can help me now. The greatest of the Jedi—the so-called saviors of the galaxy—were slaughtered before his awesome power. I alone remain to challenge him, and only through this artifact from the Infinite Empire can he be cast down.”

“There’s always another way…”

For the first time, a hint of sanity could be seen in Northeus’s eyes. Wasn’t there another way? He had started this journey to save those who had already fallen, but Avaran had explained that only the Sith Emperor had that power. To steal it from him, he had to overcome him. Only the staff could do that. Only the staff could end all of this fighting, crush the Jedi and Sith all across the galaxy. With such immense power, he could do whatever he pleased. If this was all for naught, then why was he here? Why was he doing this? For a brief moment, Northeus realized that he had been deceived.

But his mind’s soundness was snuffed out as quickly as it had come. He refused to believe that he had done so much evil for a false hope, so he repeated his own assurances. “No matter. The ritual is nearly complete. The dear daughter of light, Ashla herself, is my final source of strength. With her life force, the staff will become the ultimate nexus of pure Force energy, and I will become unstoppable. You only have to watch-”

There was a loud bang on the trapdoor near where the staff had been placed. A moment later, Nocion was bodily launched onto the roof, smashing through the trapdoor. He landed beside the staff, his body bathed in its harsh red light. The First Hand followed. His nose had been pulverized into a bloody pulp, and his armor bore deep gashes where lightsabers had struck at it, but he stood over Nocion as though he could challenge another five Jedi.

“Why did you bring him here?” Northeus growled.

“I intend to slay him in the presence of the Emperor’s Staff,” the First Hand rumbled. “A suitable sacrifice for his majesty.”

Northeus shook his head. “Then do it quickly.”

“Master! Master, get up!” Harin shouted.

But Nocion gave no response. His body lay crumpled at the center of the roof, and his eyes were shut. Harin sensed him in the Force, but his master’s presence was very weak. Despite the feelings of fear and anger bubbling up inside him, telling him that any further action was useless, Harin continued to urge Nocion to stand up. Mere words could not help his master, but when Harin tried to tap into the Force to revitalize him, Northeus hindered him. Harin knew he had to press further. Perhaps it was true that no Jedi power could free him from his imprisonment. He had toyed with the idea of the dark side before. On Gamandar, he had nearly considered it more than once. If that was what it took to get out of this stasis and challenge the Dark Jedi he was facing, he would do whatever was necessary. It was their only chance.

“Harin… wait!”

With the last ounce of his physical strength, Nocion threw Celes’s lightsaber in Harin’s direction. The First Hand’s blade plunged into his back, but it was already too late. The instant the shimmering blade struck the stasis holding Harin in place, the young Jedi snatched the weapon and charged toward the Hand. With two lightsabers in hand, Harin unleashed a dizzying array of slashes aimed at confusing the hulking Sith warrior. The First Hand was a mighty adversary, and he managed to defend himself against Harin, but he did lose ground in face of Harin’s relentless offensive.

With a fury unlike anything he had ever experienced, Harin pushed the First Hand back, driving him toward the edge of the dome—and the edge of the tower. His two blue blades struck at his opponent’s left and right, and he would occasionally drift to one side so he could focus all of his attacks on one spot before pivoting and returning to his varied assault at the Sith warrior’s center.

When it became clear he was about to be shoved off the tower, the Emperor’s Hand reached out and tried to jab him in the abdomen, but Harin backpedaled from his strike and then brought both of his blue blades down at once, severing his arm at the elbow. Crossing his blades in front of him, Harin slashed at both sides of his opponent’s chest, burning through his breastplate and ending his life.

“Well done, young Sunrider. I underestimated you,” Northeus announced. “But you made one fatal mistake… you are using the very same lightsaber I gave to your mother. And you shall be defeated just as she was!”

The staff’s peak stopped glowing. Harin tried to discard his mother’s weapon, but Northeus had already siphoned some of his life. He rushed toward the old Dark Jedi to deliver a swift killing blow, but Northeus called upon the staff and launched a beam of light at Harin, burning through his shoulder like a heavy repeater had hit it. The young Jedi couldn’t feel his right arm, dropped his lightsaber, and found himself thrown to the ground. Harin tried to stand, but Northeus struck him with another weaker beam that created a sizable burn on his gut.

“So it ends. There’s nothing left for you now. But do not fear, Sunrider. I will leave you alive, helpless and weak, to observe the end of this pointless battle. When the Jedi Order is destroyed, and you are the last of the Jedi, you may experience the release of death.”

*** ***

Selias pulled herself onto the ledge jutting out of the mountainside. From her perch, she could see whole area around the tower, although her view inside and directly around its base were limited by the grove in her line of sight. Holstering her blaster, Selias began to attach the high-powered scope and bipod to her rifle.

She and Ranval’s other operatives had been assailed by Sith reinforcements while Celes and the others had been attacked by tanks. Although she and the others had fought back with all they could muster, only three other operatives managed to escape the area—well after Celes and the Ailon Nova Guard fled—and one of them had been injured. Selias ordered Omel to escort the survivors to the emergency rendezvous point and try to contact Ranval. She took it upon herself to track Celes and the others on their journey toward the pass, and she managed to make it to them without being ambushed by Sith forces. If nothing else, she was pleased about that.

Lying prone, Selias began to scan the area with her rifle. The Sith reinforcements rolling in from the west had been halted by a landslide that blocked the eastern exit; Selias surmised it was caused by a large explosion given the damage nearby. Most of them had begun to gather around the tower, and they faced only minimal resistance. A few quick grenades and a shot from a droid tank ended the engagement quickly enough. Selias cursed herself for being too late to help Celes and the others, but she wasn’t ready to give up yet. She wasn’t going to leave until she was certain all of her allies had either escaped or had perished.

When she scanned the area again, she realized that there was combat taking place on top of the tower. Adjusting the settings on her scope, Selias zoomed in as much as she was able. There were two males atop the tower: one of them was Harin, and the other she couldn’t identify because he had his back to her. Harin was struggling to his feet to face off against whoever he was fighting, but he appeared quite wounded. The other figure raised his hands above his head and summoned a barrage of what Selias assumed to be Force power, devastating the Sith armies gathered around the tower in many pillars of blazing red light. Selias averted her gaze as the light gave way to explosions and raging fires. She had seen enough. Though she was loathe to attack a Jedi or Sith with only her rifle when he wasn’t distracted, she had no other choice. If left to his own devices, this figure would destroy the land around them—and possibly kill her in the process. He was too strong, even for a Sith. Ranval would want him dead.

Help me, Harin. I need you to distract him…

*** ***

Harin’s mind buzzed with the voice of Selias. It hadn’t been telepathy, but rather he had picked up on her thoughts while trying to regain his Force power. Weak and physically exhausted though he was, he was still attuned with his surroundings, and he realized that she was somewhere nearby, trying to take a shot at Northeus. Had he sensed her? If he had, no matter what she did, whatever he tried to do would be useless. But if he hadn’t…

“And now, Ashla’s power is mine. The very light itself has been subjected to my authority. This place is useless to me now. You and everyone else here can burn.”

Harin ignored him. Keeping his eye on his mother’s lightsaber, he pulled himself up and approached the staff. Calling his lightsaber into his other hand, Harin activated his weapon and slammed its shimmering blue blade into the staff. Northeus wasn’t even phased, and the staff did not even seem to be scratched.

“Cunning, but pointless. The staff cannot be harmed.”

“No. But you can be.”

Harin tossed his mother’s activated lightsaber beyond Northeus, striking the barrier behind him and creating a gap where its blade passed through. When Northeus turned around to see what he had done, a blaster bolt flew in from outside the dome, striking him in the chest and coming out just above his shoulder blades. The rest of the dome collapsed as he did, bringing down a torrent of water that had been sliding down the barrier moments before. Harin’s lightsaber deactivated in the presence of so much water, but he was hardly cognizant of its failure. He was leaning over Northeus in an instant, and he turned the old Force-sensitive over so that they could see each other. To his surprise, Northeus appeared quite different; his voice was more or less the same, but he had a visage of serenity that was quite alien to Harin’s idea of him, and there was only sadness in his eyes.

“So this is how it ends…” Northeus croaked. He was barely alive, and if he wasn’t a Jedi he no doubt would have been instantly killed by Selias’s shot. “A fitting end for a coward.”

“It didn’t have to be like this. You could have surrendered before.”

“No. It had to be this way. This was the only way to rescue her… she wanted this. I heard her voice, so long ago, after Raen and the others had died. She told me this was how… this was the only way I could…” The old man appeared lost in thought. “But it seems I was fooling myself—or else the Sith were deceiving me. She is dead. There is no way to bring her back.”

Harin shook his head. “We only wanted to help you. We could have, if you would have let us.”

Northeus nodded slowly. “I had already done so much harm to the Jedi Order, I did not realize how far I had strayed from my goal. You and yours must flee this place. Someone has dislodged one of the disks inside the tower, and without the complete column to stabilize it the staff will become erratic. I see now I was doomed no matter what happened. At this rate, it will cause catastrophic damage to the surrounding area.”

“How long do we have?”

“Not long. You must leave this place… get as far away as you can…”

Harin nodded. When he moved to go, Northeus took his hand in his.

“Wait. Take this.” He placed his lightsaber in Harin’s grasp. “And tell Celes and the others I’m sorry.”

Harin nodded.

“And now I go to them… or perhaps to darkness. Alone…”

Harin wasted no time leaving the rooftop behind and descending to the bottom floor of the tower. Nocion had already passed away, but Celes was alive—and weak. When he found her, she was trying to crawl out of the tower, no doubt sensing the impeding destruction that Northeus had warned him about.

“Mother! Please wait. Let me help you.”

She did not refuse his assistance. Serving as a suitable crutch for her, Harin helped his mother out of the tower. Neither friend nor foe greeted them; only the remains of vehicles and charred corpses had been left behind by Northeus’s assault. The two Sunriders noticed that the rain was beginning to move westward again, as it had earlier.

“Harin… what happened to Nocion?”

Harin shook his head. “I’m sorry. He…”

Celes shook her head. “I understand. I only wish he had told you before the end.”

“Told me what?”

“Celes! Harin!” Major Honjenber appeared from behind some rubble, along with several other Ailon warriors. “I’m glad to see you’re all right! We weren’t sure if you had made it. The explosions annihilated our enemies, but they also devastated our ranks. We couldn’t get close to the tower to help, please understand.”

“It’s no trouble,” Celes said. “It’s not your fault.”

“I don’t suppose you managed to contact anyone to get us out of here, did you?” Harin asked.

“We were either too busy in combat or else there was too much interference,” the major explained. “But I can try again now.”

“Belay that, Major. I’ll handle this one,” Selias shouted. She had nearly descended the cliff face and was quite close to them. “I’ve already sent my operatives for an aerial pickup. I’m not going to leave any of you behind, either.”

“Will they be here soon? There’s going to be another explosion that will make the others look like jokes in comparison,” Harin said. “I don’t want to be here when it happens.”

“Count on it. They should be here in five minutes.”

“We’ll secure the area,” Major Honjenber said.

“Harin, we ought to sit down,” Celes said. “You ought to know something about Nocion…”

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