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Chapter 50

Thonnel rummaged through the belongings of the corpse at his feet. As he expected, the Dark Jedi carried very little on his person, but he did have a comlink and a code cylinder. The cylinder itself didn’t carry data that was immediately useful, but he was sure the spooks back at headquarters could salvage something interesting from it. The comlink, on the other hand, was keyed in to several other Sith frequencies; most of the voices speaking were discussing combat operations happening across the planet, but a few were evidently patrols that had secretly worked their way across the Vyreds and heading for the Jedi base.

“Find anything useful, Major?” Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel asked Major Ghoaad as he approached.

“Nothing, sir. Just some blaster paks and medical kits.”

“That’s a shame.”

“This Dark Jedi team is awfully close to HQ,” the major noted. “You think they were looking for us?”

“It’s possible.” Thonnel rose to full height and slung his blaster rifle back across his chest. “No point sticking around. Let’s move on so we can let them know that they have some scouting parties to deal with.”

Major Ghoaad headed off to reassemble their unit. After falling back from the shield generator, Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel had led a special operations unit—including Major Ghoaad’s forces—in a hunt for small Dark Jedi-led teams that were operating independently of the main Sith battle groups. It was tedious work, but they had some success. This was the third group they had ambushed and eliminated, and the first group they had seen east of the mountains.

As Major Ghoaad was returning with the majority of their team, Thonnel’s comlink began to chirp. It was Ducian. Strange. Typically, one of his adjutants would have contacted him on one of their main frequencies, not with his personal comlink. “What’s going on, General?”

“Rajes? Oh, thank goodness!” To his surprise, that was Captain Ilen’s voice. “I’ve been trying to raise you for the past fifteen minutes. Please, you have to hurry! Back to base! The Sith-”

“Hold on, Captain. Relax. Breathe. You’re speaking too quickly, and our connection isn’t very good. What’s going on? Where’s Ducian?”

“Sir, the Sith have attacked Republic headquarters! They slipped by our defenses and overran the base. Our forces are being led to their deaths by traitors. You’ve got to get here quickly!”

“Where’s Ducian?” Thonnel asked again.

“I don’t know. He sent me away to ensure you got the message. I hope he’s all right, but…”

“Don’t worry, Captain. We’re coming in from the northwest, so stay out of sight of the Sith and be ready for us. We’ll be there in five minutes.”

“Please hurry.”

The soldiers with him had heard most of the conversation. They were all worried, even if most of them didn’t show it. “Don’t just stand there! Come on. We’ve got to rescue them! Double time now.” their commanding officer ordered. “Major Ghoaad, I want you to get in contact with as many officers as you can and let them know what’s going on. They’re all in danger.”

“On it, sir.”

*** ***

The ride to the Republic base where the Mandalorian leadership was located felt like a blur to Thertos. About halfway through the drive, he had felt quite uneasy. Then, suddenly, as though a heavy fog had lifted all around him, the strange presence that had been filling his mind’s eye with visions and instructions was suddenly silenced, and he felt better than he had in a long time. He wasn’t entirely sure what caused it or why it departed, but he was grateful to be well again. The whole situation had been so quick that Glacis hadn’t even noticed.

Thertos was the last one out of the hovercraft. The Mandalorians had powered down their vehicle in the shadows of two larger transports, and several other fire teams had parked their vehicles nearby. After the groups had united and gave brief status updates, Glacis’s fire team leader led the whole company to the main entrance of the Republic base. Although he wasn’t sure if his companions noticed, Thertos saw that the north wall had been pulverized by something—likely laser fire—and hadn’t been repaired. The front entrance and its guard towers had also been damaged.

“Hold on.” One of the two Republic guardsmen watching the gate signaled for the Mandalorians to halt. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Inside. We need to speak with our commander,” replied the Mandalorian captain.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible. There was an attack on this location, and we’re in the process of transferring leadership from this base into orbit. Most Mandalorians have already been returned to your own capital ships to lead the attack from there,” the guard explained.

“Attacked? When did that happen?” asked one of the lieutenants.

“And why were we not notified?” the Mandalorian captain asked. “Are there not comm jammers in place to prevent the very thing you’re doing?”

“Indeed, but over the course of the battle we’ve removed most of them. We’ve been able to establish communications with our ships in orbit.”

The Mandalorian captain signaled for Glacis to do so. “So there are no Mandalorians inside?” the captain pressed.

“None.”

“Sir, I can’t reach Mandalore,” Glacis said. “We’re still being jammed.”

“We’ve had some trouble as well. Only our strongest satellites have been working so far,” the guard reassured them.

“Then let us inside so we can use them.”

Thertos had been barely paying attention to the bickering between the two groups. One of the guards was doing all of the talking; the other took his comlink and began speaking with someone else as the voices around him got louder and angrier. Thertos wasn’t sure what was going on, but it was suspicious. When the argument was about to reach a fever pitch, Thertos heard a lightsaber activate nearby. The Mandalorian company turned and saw a Dark Jedi not four meters away, his blue lightsaber blazing. When the Mandalorians turned to fight him, they expected the Republic to assist. Instead, the two guards shot the Mandalorian captain and one of his aides in the side with their blaster rifles, and several previously unseen soldiers on the allure fired down into their midst, scattering the Mandalorian forces.

Glacis dove out of the way of the Dark Jedi, barely avoiding being bisected by his blade. He began to cleave through the Mandalorian warriors while blaster fire rained down around them, and Thertos pulled Glacis away from the fighting before her shield ran out. As the Mandalorian forces began to flee toward their hovercraft, blaster fire erupted from the trees in front of them; fortunately, the blaster fire was aimed at their enemies. Sonic blasts shattered the eardrums of the Dark Jedi pursuing them, and although he defended himself well against the volume of blaster fire, it eventually proved too much. When he died, he had nearly a dozen holes in his torso.

Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel’s commandos slowly advanced from the treeline, peppering the Sith troopers on the wall with blaster fire to keep them down. When the Mandalorians noticed that the Republic forces were on their side, they rallied around them and aided their advance. With all of the defenders occupied with Thonnel’s advance, Thertos and Glacis crept around the corner of the walls and entered through the gaping hole in the north side of the base.

Thertos felt his stomach churn when he saw what remained of the Republic war room. Despite their element of surprise, many squads of Sith troopers and war droids died around the front entrance and the northern breach. Thertos and Glacis practically waded through their corpses to get inside. Further in, the bodies of Dark Jedi and Republic soldiers were intermingled in death, and there were many dead officers surrounding the tactical displays. Sith forces had looted their corpses, and some of them had taken it upon themselves to tear out implants that could be used on their own soldiers.

Several Republic officers were still working around the holographic map and strategy tables, but there were many more Sith officers and droids. Thertos figured that they were either forced to serve the Sith or else traitors. Regardless, there were at least thirty of them. Thertos and Glacis got as close as they could without actually getting close enough to be seen.

“What now?” Thertos whispered.

“Me? I was following you!”

“Well, there’s too many of them for us to handle on our own.”

“So we wait for the Republic and Mandalorians.”

“What if they don’t get this far?”

“We probably should have thought about that before splitting up,” Glacis grumbled.

Two Dark Jedi at the opposite end of the room suddenly snapped to attention. Glacis and Thertos ducked beneath the rubble around them and held their breath, hoping they had not been discovered. Boots rapped against the floor, but their adversaries didn’t approach their location. Thertos slowly lifted his head so he could see what was going on. Two Dark Jedi were conversing with a red-skinned Night-soarer surrounded by a team of unsavory looking mercenaries.

“Republic loyalists and Mandalorians are trying to break through the front gate. Go see that they are dealt with,” the Dark Jedi ordered the avian thug.

“Are we expected to do all your dirty work?” the Night-soarer sneered. “We had to deal with the Republic’s perimeter defenses earlier, and we had to set up explosives along the pass before that. Dangerous work. Why don’t you go flex your muscles for a change?”

“You will work for your keep,” the Dark Jedi countered. “Move. Now.”

The Night-soarer looked like he was about to argue, but something distracted him. “What was that?”

“What?”

“I heard something… over there…”

The Night-soarer glided from one end of the war room to the other, landing near a heap of dead Mandalorians. Thertos could scarcely see what was going on, but something seemed to be rummaging around beneath the tactical display on that end of the room. “Well, well… looks like you boys missed one!”

The Night-soarer reached across the body of several Mandalorians and revealed Fier to the whole host of Sith strategists—plus Thertos and Glacis. Her lips and skin were pale, and blood ran down her face and along her arm. She fought to escape his grip, but his claws dug deeper into her arm, causing her to cry.

Even before the Dark Jedi or Sith could remark on the Night-soarer’s discovery, Glacis jumped out from behind the rubble she had been standing behind and shot twice with her sniper rifle. The slugs pierced the red-skinned Night-soarer’s chest, subduing him and allowing Fier to escape his grasp. One of the Dark Jedi threw his lightsaber at Glacis; Thertos tackled her to keep her from getting bisected by the spinning projectile. The other Force adept sprinted to interpose himself between Fier and her apparent saviors. As the first Force-sensitive’s blade returned to him, the front door of the Republic base was forced open by explosives primed by Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel and the Mandalorians. Red and green bolts of energy filled the room, and Thertos used the confusion as an opportunity to rescue Fier.

His shield intercepted several shots—from loyal Republic soldiers and Sith alike—as he worked his way along the wall toward Glacis’s younger sister. Most of his enemies were too distracted to notice him, but the second Dark Jedi predicted his rescue attempt and charged at him. Thertos fired several shots with his blaster, but they were easily blocked by the Dark Jedi. Just before the Dark Jedi reached him, Glacis stood up again and began firing with her rifle. Thertos fired with her, forcing the Dark Jedi to stop in his tracks to deflect both of their fire. The neophyte Force-sensitive was so caught up in defending himself against them that his Force senses lapsed and a blast from a sonic rifle struck him in the side, distracting him long enough for one of Glacis’s slugs to penetrate his throat. Thertos sprinted past him before his body hit the floor.

Fier had taken cover underneath the Mandalorian holographic display where she had been before. Avoiding blaster fire aimed in his direction, Thertos slid underneath the table and found himself practically face-to-face with her. She was already sniffling, and the sight of Thertos made her start bawling. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and he pulled her close while at the same time placing his shielded body between her and any blaster fire that would ricochet toward them.

“Thertos… I’m so happy… I never thought I’d see you here…”

“Shhh… you’re okay. You’re safe now. Glacis and I are here for you.”

She tried to say something, but she couldn’t stop crying. Thertos turned his attention back to Glacis, who was pinned down on the north side of the war room due to the volume of fire. For now, he would have to watch out for Fier.

“Are we… are you sure we’re going to be okay? Are you sure we can get out of here?”

“Positive. Trust me. We’ve got friends here. Just stay with me and you’ll be okay.”

She rested her head against his chest. “I trust you, Thertos. Please… don’t let anything happen to Glacis.”

While Glacis made her slow advance from the north side of the base to where Thertos and her sister were, Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel had also been separated from his forces. Turning over command of the attack to Major Ghoaad and Captain Ilen, Thonnel navigated his way around the fighting toward the supply depot on the south side of the base. Two troopers in black armor tried to stop him from getting through, but Thonnel managed to gun them both down before they could trade their lightsabers for the blaster rifles they had been using. With blaster rifle in hand, Thonnel passed through the doors and left the battle behind.

A blaster bolt struck him square in the chest as soon as the doors closed behind him. His face contorted into a fit of rage as he hit the ground, losing his rifle in the process. There was a booming laughter further back, and Thonnel thought he recognized Ducian’s voice as well.

“So the pupil comes to save the teacher. How touching,” Oro Malthesinores spat. “But I’m afraid you’ve yet to best the master.”

Rajes heard the old Sith general’s staff as he approached. It didn’t take long for the erstwhile Republic senator to reach him. General Malthesinores towered over him, and he quickly noticed the old soldier had a blaster pistol in one hand and his staff in the other. The old general’s elation was practically written on his face. For him, this was looking to be the best day of his life. Two of his major adversaries had been defeated, the Republic Army was in disarray, and the Sith would be marching on Coruscant in due time. Certainly Rajes couldn’t fault him for his delight, but it still caused a fury to rise up from the depth of his being.

“You really ought to know better, Lieutenant Colonel. I’ve already bested you once. I expected better things from you.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint,” Rajes croaked.

“It’s nothing like that. People like you and Ducian never learn. It simply can’t be helped.”

“And you’re too sure of yourself.” Rajes said, noting that the general had already lowered his blaster.

“I have a right to be. Everyone who’s moved against me has failed. You aren’t the first, but you may very well be the last of my worthy opponents.”

“I definitely will be the last.”

His limbs had been splayed out, as though he had taken a fatal wound and couldn’t recover, but Rajes Thonnel had exaggerated the extent of his injury. One of his hands hit the armband that he had strapped to his belt, reactivating the now-charged shield and his other hand grabbed the holdout pistol at his right side. General Malthesinores flinched in alarm, and he jerked his blaster up to get a shot at Thonnel, but his reflexes weren’t fast enough. Thonnel shot him twice in the gut while his opponent only got one shot in. The old man keeled over. Rajes rose to full height, disarmed him of his weapons, and broke the staff he had been using.

“Damn you, Rajes…” the general muttered. “Damn… y…”

While the elder soldier groaned and tried to recover from the fatal wound he had received, Thonnel turned his attention to where he thought he heard Ducian.

When he reached his superior, he almost wished he hadn’t. General Eto was on top of a long shipping container, his arms and legs bound with thick ropes. General Malthesinores had removed his officer’s coat and undershirt, and there were several dark burns along his chest and arms. Blood caked along his legs and around his neck, and it looked like some of his fingers had been smashed by something heavy. The most ghastly of all, though, was his face. General Malthesinores had been ruthless with blade and bludgeon; Ducian’s face was scarcely recognizable, much less Human. Only one of his eyes was open, and one of his ears had been cut off.

“General… Ducian,” Thonnel said. “Don’t worry. I’m going to get you out of here.”

“Ah… Thonnel? Did Captain Ilen contact you?” his voice was hoarse like someone who had been without water a very long time, and some of his words were slurred together due to some injury to his jaw.

“She did. I came as quickly as I could.”

“Good.” Ducian shook his head slightly. “Is there anyone left?”

“I’m not sure, sir. We’re still clearing the area. It won’t be long now.”

“No, it won’t…”

Thonnel was nearly finished undoing the bonds on the general’s arm, but Ducian motioned for him to stop. “It’s not worth it.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I’m not going to last much longer. You’ve much to do, and not much time to do it. The longer you linger here, the longer it will take to reorganize everyone.”

“I’m not letting you die like this. Not now.”

“Listen to me. You can hold our forces together. I need you and Captain Ilen and the others to take over. We still have a chance, but you’re the only one who can seize it for us.”

“I can’t do this without you, Ducian.”

“You can! You have to. Trust me. You’ve long since had what it takes. I believe in you, and the soldiers will follow your orders.”

“Sir… don’t ask me to do this. You ought to be the one to see this through. You fought for this-”

“And I will die for it. Don’t let everything we’ve done be for naught. I’m counting on you.”

He didn’t want to leave Ducian behind, but the general was insistent, and even with medical assistance there was a very slim chance he would survive. He could get a medic once the base was secured, but by then it would be too late.

“I’ll do what I have to do, sir.”

“Good. And Rajes-”

“Yes?”

“I’m proud of you.”

Rajes bowed his head. “Thank you, sir. It was an honor to serve under you.”

With that, Thonnel returned to General Malthesinores. The turncoat was teetering between life and death, and Rajes was only sorry he didn’t have a chance to make him suffer more.

“You deserve a thousand deaths for what you’ve done to the Republic, and for what you’ve done to me,” Rajes said as he knelt over him. “You and that damned Night-soarer have caused so much evil. I couldn’t kill him, but I’ve avenged my father, my men, and General Eto by dealing with you. That’s enough.”

“You… can’t beat me, Rajes…” General Malthesinores was fading quickly. “You’ve no chance. The Sith will win the day.”

“We’ll see about that, won’t we?” Rajes primed his blaster pistol and fired once, right between the general’s eyes.

He stood up and returned to the war room proper. The battle was over, and the Republic and Mandalorian forces had defeated the Sith. About half of them were clearing the bodies out of the room or powering on the holographic displays, and the other assembling scouting parties to deal with fleeing enemy soldiers.

“Lieutenant Colonel!” Captain Ilen practically sprinted to him. “How is General Eto? Is he all right? What happened?”

Rajes lowered his gaze. “He’s in back with General Malthesinores. If you’d like, you can send a medic, but I don’t know what good it will do now.”

The captain tried to speak, but she choked on her words. It took her a moment to recover her spirits. “I see. I… I had hoped he would be all right. If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to see if we can’t save him. What about Oro?”

“Dead.”

“That’s good news, at least.” Once she was sure a medic had gone to check on Eto, Captain Ilen immediately reverted to her professional self. “We’ve secured communications again. The situation doesn’t look good. The Sith have forced a complete withdrawal of all forces east of the Vyred Mountains. If we don’t act quickly, the Sith will push them into the river, and from there they’ll move to the Jedi sanctuary.”

“They we must do everything we can to rally our troops.” Thonnel approached the nearest working battle map. “This area isn’t secure. We don’t know how the battle above us is going, and I’d rather not risk getting vaporized by Sith warships. We ought to move to the Jedi temple as soon as we can.”

“I’ll give the order.”

“Very good. Reestablish communication with the Mandalorian parties and the Ailon mercenaries as well.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Major Ghoaad!”

“Sir?”

“You’ll take command of our unit. I want you to travel downstream and begin destroying bridges as a delaying action. Work as quickly as you can. Take all the soldiers and vehicles you need.”

“Right away.”

Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel noticed Fier, Glacis, and Thertos in the corner of his eye. They were tending to Fier’s injuries and consoling her. “And who are you all?”

“My name’s Glacis Weros. I’m a Mandalorian warrior. This is my sister, Fier, and our friend, Thertos.”

“Were you with the Mandalorian company who helped us liberate this place?” Thonnel asked.

“We were.”

“I see. We’ll be reassigning the rest of the Mandalorians as quickly as we can. Until then, you’re welcome to stay here.”

“Sir,” Fier said, her voice rather quiet and unsure. “I have rudimentary skill as a strategist. If you need me to help regroup the Mandalorians, I’m more than willing to do my part.”

“You can help my officers as they begin the reorganization,” Thonnel said, pointing toward a team of strategists and advisers in the opposite corner of the room.

“Lieutenant Colonel, if you don’t mind, could I use your civilian comms to let my family know where I am? We were separated and they don’t know where I’ve gone,” Thertos asked.

“Go ahead.”

Thonnel was so busy giving orders he didn’t realize that he had practically elected to be in charge of the planning and logistics. The other generals who had been working at the headquarters were either dead or had betrayed the Republic. The remaining officers and the Mandalorians with them fell in line without question.

It didn’t take long before the war room was flowing smoothly again. The Mandalorians were sent out with Major Ghoaad’s forces to begin destroying bridges and mining the roads that led from the river to the Jedi temple, and everyone who remained began moving their soldiers into defensible positions and reforming their lines of battle. Soon, they were back in contact with the Jedi Order, and Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel was assured that they could still win the day.


Chapter 51

The Force was with them. Somehow, the Mandalorian engineers, Tserne, and Verita had had enough technical know-how among themselves to repair the damage the Sith had done to her Vaya-class scout ship. Tserne thought he could hear the sputtering of the engines behind them, and he was worried about that it would fall apart at any second. The Jedi Covenant pilot, healed by Verita and given a rather cumbersome bandage where he had been skewered, flew them over the mountains toward the Republic base. Tserne nervously paced around in the back of the ship while the others remained in the cockpit and examined the extent of the battle below.

“How’s Dynatha, Raystin?” Tserne asked the ghost, who had been unseen and unheard for quite some time.

“She’s fine. As far as I can tell, she’s in no danger.”

“We should have figured out a way to split up. What if I don’t get to her in time because of this detour? I don’t want to lose her.”

“Patience. You have little choice in the matter, and you know that. This is Verita’s ship after all, and she deserves to do with it what she wants.”

His chief concern was Dynatha. He longed to reunite with her, to protect and stand by her side in her tribulations. He knew Ranval, Northeus, and the others would try to send her headfirst into danger, and he was determined to be there to assist her. If only Raystin hadn’t been deceived before, perhaps he could have been with her already. But instead of sensing Dynatha, he had sensed Verita.

He had said that she had been a part of his fragmented memories. What exactly did that mean? He hadn’t really thought about it, but that must have meant that they had met before. He had been to many planets, fought against many adversaries, and met many beings. He thought back to his most memorable missions, as far as he could remember them, but Verita remained an enigma to him. Nevertheless, he had seen her glancing at him quite often, mostly when she thought he wasn’t looking. She recognized him as well.

“Raystin. I… I failed Dynatha before. I abandoned her because I misread the Force. I thought the matter would be urgent and quick to resolve. I should have stayed, let her know what I had to do. I was scared. I wanted so badly to retain my Force-sensitivity and regain my memories.” Tserne stopped pacing and leaned against the side of the ship. “In the end, I did neither, and I left her when she needed me most. I can’t ever ask her to forgive me, but… I hope she does.”

“I think she will.” Verita stood in the doorway for a moment before approaching him—hesitantly. She had the same look in her eyes that he had seen before. She continued searching for something in his eyes that wasn’t there. She stopped about an arm’s length from him, and for a moment she didn’t meet his gaze. “Tserne, I… thank you. For earlier. You saved my life. I wouldn’t have survived if you hadn’t come when you did. You and your friends, I mean.”

“It was a case of mistaken identity, so I can’t say I intended for it. You’re welcome, all the same.”

“It was the Force, then, that reunited us.”

“So you do know.”

“We met before. My husband and I were mercenaries at the time, and we had engaged you on Mercium the Hutt’s planet. You were with that other young woman—Dynatha, I suppose—and you scarcely said a word. But for me, it was like seeing a ghost. Something from a dream. I knew you, or so I supposed. You didn’t remember me, in any case.”

“I’m afraid not,” Tserne said, his memories of their last meeting still hazy. He had been so focused on protecting Dynatha that he scarcely recalled the entire event. He remembered fighting the GenoHaradan, working with Lucius and his team, and Ralina meeting Lucius after so long apart, but the aftermath of their engagement was a blur. “But you were with someone, weren’t you?”

She nodded. “My husband. Jhosua.”

There was a strange silence.

“Was that our earliest meeting?” Tserne asked.

Verita said nothing. Something was on the edge of her tongue. A great secret, one that she had been pondering in her heart and seeing in her dreams for many years. The gravity, no doubt, held her back. What did she know? Perhaps she hesitated because she was uncertain. She had met someone like Tserne before, and she mistook him for that man. Or she knew of Tserne’s reputation as a killer and knew he had killed someone close to her. Whatever it was, the silence was unbearable.

“Did we meet before?” he asked again.

“Coming in for a landing,” the pilot shouted back at them, interrupting. “Everything’s been cleared, so you all can go right inside without bothering security.”

*** ***

“Glacis! Fier! I’ve never been happier to see you!”

“Mom!” her two daughters shouted in unison.

The three embraced warmly, and Fier and Verita started to cry. Even Glacis, despite an attempt to appear reserved, teared up. While they wept, the Mandalorian engineers informed their commanding officer about the situation on the ground and what had happened to the tunnel. Tserne, K’thoi, and Via waited in the doorway, near the military police, while the Republic, Ailon, and Mandalorian leaders continued to give orders to the soldiers fighting in the distance.

“Aren’t you glad we did this, Tserne?” Via said, almost teasing. “Are you telling me you wanted to leave Verita to walk all the way here, never to know her daughters’ fate? Heartless, I tell you.”

Tserne didn’t humor her with a reply. Seeing Verita with her daughters welled up strange feelings in him. He was glad for her, and he was relieved that her daughters were safe, but also envious of the filial love that he had never known. He instinctively found himself searching for Jhosua, but could not find him amidst the Mandalorian host—not that he had a good idea of what his face looked like.

“He’s alive!?” Fier shouted.

“Where? Where is he?” Glacis asked.

“I don’t know. I’m going to find him. But before I do, you and your sister have to get somewhere safe. I won’t let you stay here. Not when there’s a battle going on.”

“We aren’t leaving,” Glacis replied.

“Yes you are. Your father told me to get you both to safety, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

“I have a job to do,” Fier added. “I’m responsible for the lives of many Mandalorain warriors, and many Jedi and Republic soldiers as a result. I won’t abandon them. Not even if you and father want me to.”

Verita was taken aback by Fier’s forwardness. “This isn’t up for debate.”

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Thertos began. “But you don’t have to worry about them. Briggs and I-”

“I trust you two about as much as I trust a Snivvian and Toydarian sales duo. You two are coming with me. Briggs, you and Thertos can come if you’d like, but my girls are not staying here.”

“Why don’t you stay here so you can protect them?” Tserne suggested.

“I have to find my husband. I can’t do both.”

“I see. Well, you do what you need to do,” Tserne replied. “I need to get into orbit.”

“Which could be difficult, considering the Republic has no spaceworthy ships here,” K’thoi muttered.

“How is that possible?” Verita asked.

“We have a separate airfield,” Thonnel said, overhearing the conversation. “Besides, none of our ships are available. We need every set of wings we can get to fight the Sith; we can’t just loan out our gunships and supply fliers to anyone who comes in and asks for one.”

“We just need one.”

“No. As I said, we have nothing to spare.”

“Then I’m taking the Vaya scout ship,” Tserne said. “I can’t and won’t stay here to argue about it.”

Verita left her daughters and moved in his way. “Excuse me? That’s my ship! Who do you think you are, taking it for yourself? What am I supposed to do?”

“You can use a comlink, can’t you? That’s a good start.”

“Now hold on.” She seized his arm. “I know you’ve got a real urgent task to do. So do I. I need to get to the Mandalorian flagship; you need to get to the Sith flagship. We can share the ship. Since it is my ship, I’m being generous. I want to help you. But you are not, under any circumstances, taking my ship away from me. You got that?”

Tserne glared at her, almost threateningly. She stared right back, refusing to budge. She was quite different than the woman who had been struggling for words and trying to determine what she could confess to him not a few minutes before. Perhaps reuniting with her children had sparked a fire within her to totally rescue and unite her entire family. Whatever the cause, she would not take no for an answer, and Tserne did not have time to debate. He had wasted enough time already.

“Fine. We’ll need to leave now, though. Your daughters are deadweight—no offense—and would only slow us down. They should stay here.”

“Absolutely not.”

“They’ll be okay, ma’am. I guarantee it. We just held off a major Sith offensive on this base, and we’re about to pick up and move over to the Jedi compound. There's not a safer place on the whole planet, and the whole army will be defending it,” Briggs said.

“And there is an airfield there, so if you want, we’ll send them both right up to the Mandalorians once we’re settled and have wings to spare… if we end up having spares,” Thonnel offered.

“Yes, please. I would appreciate that,” Verita said, ignoring the looks from her daughters.

“And if it gets ugly before then, K’thoi and I will lead them to safety,” Via said.

“What? You aren’t coming with us?” Tserne asked.

“I’m afraid not. We have some… business to attend to here. Masters Delvin and Eston understand. We shouldn’t be very long, though. We’ll take one of those extra vessels and join you.”

“Fine. Are you ready, Verita?”

Verita embraced her children again. “I love you both. Glacis, watch your sister. Fier, do whatever she tells you. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t take any unnecessary risks. Once we’re clear of the jammer, I’ll see if I can’t find a transport to get you out of here.”

“Be safe, Mom,” Fier replied.

“Take care of him,” said Glacis.

“Shall we go, Verita?” Tserne called.

“I’ll see you again soon,” Verita reminded them, and then she left to join Tserne.

“Time is of the essence,” Raystin told them. “We must get airborne.”

“Will she be able to leave the atmosphere?” Tserne asked the Watchcircle pilot, who was sitting on a crate near the loading ramp.

“Hopefully. Maybe not for long, but she’ll get you there and back, at least. Take care, Tserne. I owe you one.”

“Don’t let K’thoi and Via do anything stupid.”

“Tserne!” Verita called to him.

He followed Verita into the ship. She had already taken her seat in the cockpit and powered up the internal systems. Tserne sat by her in the co-pilot’s seat. While helping her through the start-up process, he noticed that she was looking back at the Republic headquarters.

“Don’t worry. They’ll be fine.”

“I’m going to regret leaving them there.”

“If the Republic falters, Via and K’thoi are there. They’ll be sure your children escape. You have nothing to worry about.”

“I just feel like I’m never going to see them again…”

“You’re worrying too much. Come on. We have a lot to do.”

*** ***

After bidding farewell to the young Echani who had showed him the way, Ranval had taken an automated cart south for many kilometers. The cart had lacked a console, so Ranval had spent most of the journey meditating while the cart careened through the tunnels. When he reached the other end of the cavern and proceeded above ground, he was delighted to observe that it was not yet nightfall. He was close enough to see the many turret installations and vast defensive perimeter guarding the Jedi enclave from low-altitude attacks or troop deployment. The only thing that stood between him and the sanctuary was an orchard of sorts—a kilometer of edible trees, fungi, and vines that were typically tended to by young Jedi.

Drying leaves were crushed beneath his boots. Aside from the lone dirt path that traveled north-to-south and some nondescript markers, this place could have been untended and wild. As far as his senses were aware, there were no life forms in the grove, and there didn’t seem to be any guard droids either. It was quite unwise for the Jedi to leave such an obvious entryway into their sanctuary unguarded. Had they diverted their sentries elsewhere? Ranval had no way of knowing for sure, but he kept his guard up all the same.

The lack of creatures around him for most of his trek made the sudden presence of another Force-sensitive apparent immediately. A younger Force-user was approaching him from the southwest. Their presence was something of an anomaly, and it was difficult for him to tell if the individual was a Jedi on guard duty or an invasive Sith scout. Regardless, he would fare better with Jedi allies, so he pressed further south toward their temple.

He continued on until the other Force-sensitive was nearly close enough to enter his immediate vision—the primary radius of his Force senses. Ducking behind the nearest tree, Ranval focused all of his energies on making himself small in the Force, concealing his aura as much as his physical presence. The end result made him appear more like a particularly vivacious plant than a sentient being to anyone who was searching for him in the Force.

To his surprise, the young Sith who had pursued him on the jungle world and killed their prisoner on Truuine emerged from the brush. She had her lightsaber with her, but it was not active. She glanced up and down the path, evidently expecting to see him—or some other target—nearby. After a moment of silent stillness, she cursed under her breath and headed south.

Ranval waited a few minutes until he was satisfied that she had gone far enough that she would not be able to sense him and then stopped hiding his Force presence. No sooner did he return to the path than did Falmas leap in front of him; her sudden appearance nearly caused him to shoot her with his sonic blaster.

“Hold on!” Falmas said, lifting her hands placatingly. “Please put your weapon down.”

“How did you find me?”

“My master told me that this was where the Jedi were hiding. I knew if I was going to run into you again, it would be here.”

“But how did you know I was hiding here, specifically?”

“I never forget a presence, especially if it’s important. And you’re not the only one who knows how to conceal yourself in the Force,” Falmas said.

“No, I’d expect some Sith killers to be adept in the art,” Ranval agreed. “I underestimated you this time…”

“I know you probably think I’ve come to fight you and avenge myself and my companion. But hear me out.”

Ranval motioned for her to continue while swapping his knife attachment for a stun baton.

“I…” she fumbled on her words, not quite sure where to begin. “You’ve bested me three times now. My master had always told me that the Jedi were weak, that subservience to the Jedi Code and your Council made you ill-suited against the might of the Sith. I thought we were invincible when backed by the dark side. But I’ve been trounced—completely and utter defeated—by you.

“I’m the greatest apprentice my master has ever had, and I was set to become a Sith Master had only I defeated you. But I can’t. You and your female friend… when you released the Beast from his suffering, I knew what you had was something beyond the ken of even my master. You’ve a power greater than Preux, and I want to see it firsthand.”

Her hands were trembling as she unclipped her lightsaber from her belt. Ranval instinctively raised his right hand, with baton at full power, but it wasn’t necessary. She collapsed onto one knee, bowing her head and holding out her weapon to him.

“Please take me as your apprentice.”

Ranval observed her silently. This was the last thing he had thought would happen when they were reunited, and he wasn’t sure how to respond. He was skeptical—and why not? He was faced with a Sith apprentice who suddenly wanted to aid him, but at the same time he sensed no deception from her. Her desire to leave the Sith was certainly reflected by her inner turmoil and would explain why he hadn’t been able to tell if she was a friend or foe earlier. Nonetheless, he couldn’t shake his suspicions.

“I understand if you don’t trust me. I wouldn’t trust me if I were you. I’m willing to renounce the Sith and the dark side. I don’t want to go back. I’d die before I return. I…” Her voice became very soft, vulnerable. “I would devote myself to you-”

“Enough. Get up.” Ranval grumbled. “If you’re going to devote yourself to anything, at least devote yourself to the Force. To the light. You’ve caused us a lot of trouble. Why shouldn’t I just bind you and leave you here until the battle is over so the Jedi can decide your fate?”

“If that’s what you think is best, I understand. I won’t resist.”

Ranval would have rolled his eyes if he could. This was going to be a nuisance. The longer he delayed here the stronger the enemy became; he really couldn’t waste time here. The Force had told him before that she was special, so perhaps this was the reason. “Fine. You can follow me for the time being.”

“I appreciate this chance-”

Ranval raised his baton like a hand. “If you betray me, or even think of subverting the work I’m doing, I will leave you for the Sith and their mercies. Remember that you owe me for Boergo’s life, and you owe it to yourself to live for Calnin, right?”

“You’re right.”

“We’re headed for the Jedi sanctuary. Stay close and don’t do anything foolish.”

“I’ll scarcely make a sound.”

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