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Chapter 52

“Admiral Onasi, Admiral Svarsk and the rest of his fleet are regrouping around Mandalore’s forces. Enemy fighters are exploiting the breach.”

“Fires on decks five and six have been snuffed out. Still dealing with the ones on decks nine and eleven. We’ve sealed off the corridors that have been exposed to vacuum; that should make it easier for our firefighters to handle.”

“The enemy flagship is moving in again. It’s gunning for the Thirteenth Fleet. How should we respond?”

Fleet Admiral Onasi eyed the tactical display. “Have Admiral Marathos send some of his ships to assist in the defense. And alert Mandalore as well. He may have ships to spare.”

Just when he had thought their victory was secured, the Sith had contacted double agents within the Republic Navy to try and take control of ships or else wreak havoc wherever they could. Many starfighter pilots, some frigates, and a handful of larger warships were involved in the defection. Together, the Republic traitors and the Sith armada broke the lines of battle the Republic had tried so hard to create and drove them away from the orbital station. Although Admiral Onasi and the other loyal admirals managed to reunite their fleets and defeat the traitors that had challenged them, they hadn’t recovered fast enough to save the space station. The station and its defensive platforms had been destroyed by the Phantasm and the other warships in its battlegroup.

Fleet Admiral Onasi had been assailed by a droid—one of the old HK-50 models with a new chassis—that had been hacked by a Sith saboteur. Although he survived the attempted assassination, the droid did manage to crush his left arm in its powerful grip before it was destroyed. With shrapnel in his leg and one of his arms in a makeshift splint, it was difficult for Carth to walk around and provide support for his officers on the bridge. Commodore Molir had also been attacked by a traitor, saved only by the timely intervention of a shuttle ostensibly owned by Celes Sunrider. He had been saved from the wreckage of his starfighter and returned to the bridge of the Sojourn, where he could lead Blue Wing via the tactical comm.

The Sojourn had taken extensive damage when one of its Foray-class blockade runner escorts had fired on it when its commander turned out to be a Sith traitor. Admiral Svarsk interposed many of the ships of the Thirteenth Fleet between the Sith and the the Sojourn, resulting in heavy casualties but allowing Admiral Onasi and the few ships under his immediate command a chance to defeat the traitors. Once they had been dealt with, Carth ordered the Sojourn to withdraw along with its remaining escorts; the fleet admiral was directing the battle many hundreds of kilometers away from the planet, defended by the rest of the fleet just as the space station had been earlier in the engagement.

The Sith had used the Republic’s confusion as time to assemble most of their warships around the Phantasm. The Mandalorians, Jedi, and Watchcircle ships—the last of whom had been an unexpected but well-received boon—had been forced to deal with the reorganized and unified Sith armada, and they had taken heavy losses without Republic support. It was with some relief that Mandalore and Master Rand welcomed the return of Admiral Onasi and the others after dealing with the infighting.

“Vice Admiral Yur is requesting assistance,” Admiral Onasi’s comm chief noted. “She’s moving to engage one of the enemy command ships.”

“I told all admirals to pull their ships back.”

“Acknowledged, but she is requesting assistance regardless.”

The spectacle could be seen from their viewport. Vice Admiral Yur, in direct defiance of Carth’s orders, had advanced to meet the Sith. Admiral Mauch’s expeditionary fleet, reduced to two Dominator battlecruisers, three Render-class frigates, and a handful of fighter squadrons, was advancing far ahead of the other Sith ships. Whether it was a trap or not, the vice admiral saw her chance and took it. The four warships in her primary battlegroup and their contingent of frigates and fighters met them about halfway between the two lines of battle and opened fire with all of their guns.

Leading the way with her Centurion battlecruiser, the Defiant, she ignored the smaller ships and positioned herself alongside the Indefatigable so their broadsides were facing. Heavy turbolaser fire filled the narrow space between the two ships, burning away at shields and durasteel plating. The remaining three Republic capital ships encircled the other Dominator warship, floating above and below the ship to avoid its guns’ angle of fire. The engagements were quick and brutal, and it became quickly apparent that the Defiant was no match for the heavily armored Sith vessel. The heavy guns on the Indefatigable burned away most of the Centurion battlecruiser’s starboard side, exposing its internals to even more damage and causing the ship to belch flame from wherever it had been injured.

“Vice Admiral Yur, this is Mandalore. We’re moving the Cabur to relieve you. Stand by.”

“It’s too late. We’ve taken critical damage across our hull. She’s not going to make it. Most of the crew is already on their way to the escape pods… sorry, Fleet Admiral.”

“Just get out of there safely, Xera,” Carth said. “We can deal with the enemy ships that survive.”

To Admiral Yur’s credit, the Indefatigable did not last much longer than her Republic counterpart. Although the Defiant had failed to destroy Admiral Mauch’s ship, the intense turbolaser fire did remove any shielding the Sith warship had. The few squadrons of Tyross-class fleet bombers left in Vice Admiral Yur’s battlegroup struck critical locations along the warship’s dorsal section, including the unguarded bridge. By the time the Mandalorian ships arrived, the Republic Thirty-Third Fleet’s main battlegroup and the Sith Emperor’s Expeditionary Fleet had annihilated each other.

“We’re receiving reports of escape pods leaving the Defiant. Mandalorian fighters are ensuring they aren’t harassed. The remaining ships in Vice Admiral Yur’s group have fallen back to join Rear Admiral Gabran. He’s merging what’s left of the Thirty-Third with Admiral Svarsk’s ships,” reported one of Admiral Onasi’s strategists.

“The other Sith fleets are converging on our location. Switching to high alert,” announced the Sojourn’s executive officer.

“The enemy flagship is closing in. They’re already firing their torpedoes,” Admiral Svarsk said.

Admiral Onasi took the comm. “Svarsk, you and Gabran ought to approach to engage the enemy ships at their armada’s right flank. Mandalore, you and the remaining Jedi ships will deal with the other flank. Admiral Marathos, you and I will go straight down the middle.”

“It will be most dangerous there, Fleet Admiral,” Admiral Marathos said. “You should consider another attack vector.”

“There’s no alternative. We cannot spare any ships. We can do this, Rel. We have to do this.”

“May the Force be with us,” Admiral Svarsk muttered.

*** ***

The Phantasm had already proven its mettle, personally claiming four enemy capital ships and the Republic’s space station. In a show of force that would have been impossible if not for Preux’s dark shield, the Phantasm was at the head of the fleet’s V-formation. While on approach, they had fired from every active torpedo tube, destroying several Republic frigates and damaging several larger vessels. As soon as they had entered firing range for their many turbolaser batteries, a cacophony of offensive analyses and incoming fire reports came in at once; Republic and Sith targeting computers were roughly equivalent, and their range and computational speed were such that neither of them got the jump on the other. The Phantasm did not divert from its course, per Preux’s orders. With three Interdictors and a Centurion battlecruiser at its flanks, the Phantasm directed all of its guns at the center of the Republic’s formation. Their starfighter accompaniment soared through the space between them, with interceptors and multipurpose fighters leading the pack and bombers waiting in the wings until the enemy snubfighters were dealt with.

Admiral Kvorkasir’s Fleet of Peerless Skill diverged from the center, leaving Preux and his ships to hold the line. The old admiral had noticed that the Republic sought to strike their right flank with raking fire, and he intended to attack before Admiral Svarsk and his allies could reform their battle lines. Admiral Isinn pulled her capital ship, the Eviscerator, and its frigate contingent back to defend the Phantasm from starfighter attacks, leaving the remainder of her ships to deal with the Mandalorians and Jedi. Admirals Keth and Acophy, with the few ships that remained under their command, joined with Admiral Isinn to bolster the defense of their flagship.

While their capital ships traded fire with the Republic, Preux found his thoughts elsewhere. The spirit of Avaran Whell had departed from him without explanation, but he sensed the specter’s presence on the planet’s surface. Nafyan was also down there somewhere. He had escaped his punishment for the time being. At the very least, Admiral Mauch had lost his life for allowing Nafyan to escape and his treachery, but not before destroying the lead ship of one of the Republic’s fleets. For that, Preux was grateful.

But there was something else. The Jedi had managed to penetrate his dark shield and board the Phantasm. There were dangerous Jedi Masters aboard—members of the Jedi High Council—but they did not pique his interest. If his Sith Masters were unsuited for the task, Thoronim would certainly deal with them. Nevertheless, it was not their presence that bothered him. No, there was someone else. Someone he knew from long ago…

“Strange… I sense a presence I haven’t felt since…”

“Lord Preux, Admiral Acophy has broken the enemy lines! His capital ships have divided theirs, but without additional ships, he will be hemmed in by the enemy,” a Sith acolyte reported. “Admiral Isinn is requesting permission to take some of our ships and assist him.”

“… Master Hiryant,” Preux said, “You are in charge of the Phantasm and the Fleet of Unyielding Might. Give Isinn her ships and continue the attack. I am not to be disturbed.”

The Twi’lek Sith Master, the only other on the bridge beside the one bolstering the fleet with battle meditation, was aghast. “B-but the battle, sir…”

“Jedi Knights are approaching the bridge. My Sith assassins and Force-sensitive commandos are yours to command. Use them to repel the intruders. I will see you when the battle is done.”

Preux departed from the bridge amidst the murmurs of the crew and his Sith apprentices, leaving his guardsmen behind. As he approached the elevator, he was contacted by Thoronim.

Master, the Jedi have arrived at your personal chambers. She will be coming soon thereafter.

Deal with them, but do not harm her. Let her inside. I intend to see her.

*** ***

Dynatha had fought her way up some five decks from where she had lost Phaevn. She was now on the deck just below that which the bridge was on. Although Threecee had been guiding her for most of the way, she had suddenly lost contact with the droid after she had cleared out one of the forward barracks. She tried backtracking to recover the signal, but it was no use. Dynatha continued on her way alone, following the sporadic directions provided by the Force.

There were no crewers or marines patrolling this level, but she kept her lightsaber in hand regardless. The sudden loneliness, brought about by the dark side more than her own worries, caused her to doubt her own senses. The Force itself was turbulent inside the ship, much like the sea in a terrifying storm, and she wasn’t sure if she could trust in its guidance. Almost unknowingly, she diverged from what she thought was the way to the bridge to the nearest source of dark side power. After all, if she could find and destroy the evil at its source, she could avoid having to attack the bridge entirely.

Upon turning a corner, she found herself at a dead-end at the port side of the ship. A giant figure stood between her and the only door at this end of the hall. The warrior was clad from head to toe in gleaming white armor, decorated with gold trim and ornate runes, and carried a massive polearm that was a bit taller than Dynatha. At his feet were nearly a dozen dead Jedi. As far as she could tell, a team of Jedi Knights had arrived on this level before her and cleared the deck of Sith forces, and then he had personally dispatched them all.

Whatever else she was feeling, Dynatha knew she had to avenge her fallen brethren. She held her lightsaber at the ready. “Prepare yourself. You’re not the one I’m looking for, and I don’t have time to waste.”

“Hold.” The giant raised one of his gauntlets. “You’ve nothing to gain by fighting me now except pain. “My master is expecting you. He has just arrived.”

“Your master?”

“He returned to this room—his meditation chambers—when he sensed your presence. He is the one you have sought.”

Dynatha wasn’t sure she understood the situation. “If he’s expecting me… you’re going to let me through?”

“That is correct,” the armored figure replied. “I will not begrudge you if you choose to fight me, but you would exhaust yourself for any planned engagement with my master. I would allow you through freely.”

At the very least, one thing was certain: if she fought this enemy, she would be at a disadvantage when she challenged the Sith Lord. She didn’t entirely trust the words of this guard, but if he was willing to let her through, even if it was a trap, she would accept his offer. Keeping her lightsaber in a lowered guard, Dynatha warily advanced and entered through the door. The armored guard did not follow her.

The so-called meditation chambers seemed more like an arena than anything she had ever meditated in. The lower level was a large, circular room with sealed doors opposite of her and many glowpanels mounted on the floor. Stairs lined the perimeter and led to an upper level, which served as an overlook to the apparent battleground below. In the corners of her vision, she noticed that there were slabs of carbonite against the walls, although whether it was decorative or else this place was also a mausoleum, she did not know.

“Come, my Light. Join me on this balcony. I long to see you again.”

Dynatha leapt from her position near the door onto the balcony. For the first time in many years—what seemed like a lifetime—she saw the man she had known as Jaeln Benax. She could scarcely recognize him amidst the complete corruption of the dark side, but something about his presence in the Force, twisted though it was, allowed her to immediately recognize him. He was seated in a massive throne at the edge of the balcony, and she had landed less than two meters in front of him. A dark orb, crackling with raw energy, floated near his shoulder, and Dynatha couldn’t shake the feeling that it was sentient and quite dangerous.

“As I thought… you are as beautiful as I remember…”

“Jaeln.” For some reason, Dynatha couldn’t help but take a soft tone with him. Whether in memory of his departed brother or else because they had been acquaintances at the Sith academy on Alderaan, she hesitated. She had not expected to fight him. “I thought you were dead.”

“I am. Or I should say, Jaeln Benax is. He died long ago, a victim to the darkness. My name is Preux.”

“You were the mastermind all along, weren’t you? The leader of the Sith remnant,” Dynatha said. “All the hardships have been your fault. Your acolytes killed many Jedi, and you have no doubt killed many yourself.”

“I do not deny it.”

“But… why?” Dynatha asked. “Looking back, you were so kindhearted. You never spoke poorly to me. You doubted the leadership of De’dlay and the others. If anyone would have defected to the Jedi, I thought you would. Instead, you usurped leadership of the Sith and are committed to repeating De’dlay’s evils. Why?”

“Nafyan opened my eyes.”

The Force showed her the visage of a sinister old man, terrifying and engulfed by the dark side. “Your father’s servant?”

Preux shook his head. “He was a Sith Master. The clone of a man… a servant of the Sith Emperor. He used my father for his own ends, and he would have had us serving the imperial throne if he had his way. He tried to kill me and take the Sith from me, but he failed. I came so close to death, but… I didn’t die. As I teetered between life and death, a terrible voice shouted to me…

“‘Your tears will do you no good against the eternal darkness.’ it sneered. ‘I don’t want to die. Not yet. Don’t let me die like this.’ I said. But it would only save me if I surrendered to it. If I gave it everything. And so I did. I defeated Nafyan, humbled him completely, and ever since, my body has been a perversion of life itself. A shadow amidst a galaxy of light.

“Every time I raise my hand and kill, my connection with the dark side increases exponentially. The mightier the victim, the more strength I received. But no body is able to withstand such evil for so long. Even now, my flesh wastes away, kept together only by sheer force of will. On occasion, I can call upon the darkness to revive atrophied muscles and crippled bones, but that only hastens my demise. With my power secure, I constructed a fleet of ships to rival the best of the Galactic Republic. My soldiers are unquestionably loyal. My acolytes and Dark Jedi are more than a match for the Jedi Order. And yet… I am not ready. It’s not enough.”

“It never will be, Jaeln. You’re right about one thing: the darkness will only bring about your premature demise. But even now, it’s not too late. Reject the darkness. Surrender to me. End this pointless fighting.”

“Pointless?” A fierce anger burned in Preux’s eyes. For the first time, Dynatha sensed a hint of his full power. She feared he would spring up to attack, but something stayed his hand. “I cannot defeat the Sith Emperor. Not like this. I can’t… bring them all back. Not yet. But I will. I have to free myself of that cursed spirit. Just a little more, and I can be rid of him. But first, I must have… you.”

“I won’t help you.”

The derriphan’s globular shape distorted and twisted, and Preux sneered. His left hand, pale and dangling from the side of his chair not unlike a limb that had been broken, suddenly became suffused with blood. He made a fist, and his muscles began to take shape and regain some of their lost vitality.

“There’s no one left!” he shouted. “The Jedi Council is not yet mature enough in their skill. The last of the old masters has perished in battle, and even the Sunrider legacy has been swept away. Benax, Qel-Droma, Shan… there is no one else!” He stared at her, and she shivered. It was a baleful look, like he saw within and through her, and she was convinced he was reading her mind. “You are… beautiful. The ultimate Jedi. The pinnacle of light. I could ask for no one else. To pull you down from your high place and cast you into darkness… you would be a fine queen; a permanent reservoir of power for me to draw from.”

“You’re wasting your breath. I am here to stop this fighting and to stop you. If you will not surrender, I will raise my sword and defeat you.”

Preux observed her in silence. The derriphan floated between them, and Dynatha’s eyes followed it while also watching the Sith Lord intently. There was no telling what he was planning—or what he was capable of. The longer he remained quiet, the more she regretted coming so close to him so soon. He could just reach out and strike her, and then she would be in a precarious situation. Calmly, she raised her lightsaber so that it was between them. Preux noticed, but did not say anything or otherwise react to her stance.

“I thought perhaps there was some bit of shadow left in you,” Preux said at last. “A testament to your Sith training that was hidden deep within your heart. But you have cast it out and only the light remains. I see that I must break you—turn you into a husk—if I am to have you at all. So be it.”

To her surprise, Preux turned from her and began walking toward the door behind him. At first, she thought he had given up, so it took her a moment to move in and intercept him. The derriphan interposed itself between the two of them, and Dynatha dared not cross it.

“Come with me. Observe with me what you have wrought, and then you can try to raise your sword against me—if you dare.”

Preux departed and sealed the door behind him.

“Go on. The derriphan will not stop you.” The armored guardian who had been waiting for her in front of the door said. How long he had been there, she didn’t know.

“It looks threatening. Wouldn’t it attack me?”

“Why would it? He is waiting. It is not yet time to test you. Your greatest hardships are yet to come.”

“And why are you telling me this? Who are you? Why are you helping me?”

“I am Thoronim, chief guardian of Master Preux and his only confidant. He wishes for you to go to him, and I am to ensure that you do so. That is all.”

“What if I stay?”

“His thoughts and mine are linked. You will go to him. Perhaps I would be forced to engage you and drag you to him. Maybe the derriphan will begin to absorb your mind, assailing you until you advance. Regardless, you cannot delay, can you? The longer you wait, the more danger the Jedi and their allies are in. You could decide which way the battle turns.”

Of course, he was right. “He went through that door there. That will lead me to him, correct?”

Thoronim nodded. Once she was certain neither the derriphan nor Thoronim would not try to assail her when she turned her back on them, she pursued Preux.


Chapter 53

“And that’s why we’re going to the Jedi sanctuary,” Thertos concluded. “With General Thonnel watching over things, I think we’ll be okay for the time being, Fetcher. That said, once we arrive they’re going to move some of the Mandalorians and treat them in the medical frigates, so we’ll probably take one of their transports into orbit.”

Fetcher was still nervous about the whole thing. Would his mother be all right with him staying down there, given the fact that the battle was still going on? Probably not. On the other hand, there were many Republic and Mandalorian soldiers with him, and Glacis and Fier were there as well. He felt silly worrying about him—he was an adult, after all—but he couldn’t help but be uneasy.

“I can still swoop in and pick you and Jhosua’s girls up. We’re practically there already,” Fetcher said, glancing at the ship’s radar.

“That’s all right. The two Jedi with Verita managed to seize a ship from Sith mercenaries. We’re safe for now and can escape with them if it gets really bad. Just let my parents know that I’m okay,” Thertos replied.

Captain Marhe and his crew had rescued Ralina and the rest of her family from certain death; a fairly impressive feat given that he performed his extraction during the height of the battle. They were safely out of the system, and they were only waiting on Fetcher and Thertos before they would return to their smuggling base. Although Thertos wished to remain with Jhosua’s daughters—for reasons Fetcher could only guess—he was determined not to leave him without an escort in case things turned ugly.

“Jon, send one of our ships down to the Republic base. Let them know that it is a friendly and will remain on location until the majority of the fighting has stopped. And let the captain of the ship know that he needs to tell Thertos why he’s there.”

“And why will he be there, Captain?” Jon-Oryan asked.

“In case they need more firepower when they escape. I won’t let Thertos die stranded on this rock because some bureaucrats or stuffy officer does something stupid.”

“Very well. Sending the message now.”

“And what should we do, Captain?” Posh asked.

“Get us out of here. Take the long way, if you have to. I don’t want to run into any trouble on our outbound vector.”

The Hound’s Sapphire headed due south from the Vyred Mountains, largely avoiding the battle that was still raging on the eastern side of the northern pass. Most of the gun placements—Republic and Sith—had been destroyed, and those that remained were either north of their position or else located closer to either sides’ bases or landing zones. This kept the smugglers’ ship safe from anti-air turrets, but it also meant that there were far more enemy gunships and fighters than before.

Avoiding a squadron of Sith interceptors that was more interested in harassing a Republic transport anyway, Posh brought the Hound’s Sapphire into a steep ascent. Troposphere gave way to stratosphere which in turn became the exosphere and eventually revealed the starlit backdrop of space. The primary naval engagement continued on many kilometers away, whereas they had left Falang Minor closer to its south pole.

“We’ll have to make two jumps, Captain,” Posh explained. “We’ll make our first to get out of this system, and the next will take us to the smuggler hideaway.”

“How long are we waiting?”

“Well, our hideout’s coordinates were saved, so that will take us almost no time. But I’ll need at least five minutes to contact the nearest hyperspace beacon for our intermediate destination.”

“Very well. Zalee, let me know if any ships try to approach us.”

The crew sat silently while the ship’s computer pinged the nearest hyperbeacon for a route away from Falang Minor. Despite Fetcher’s concern, the Republic and Sith were far too occupied killing each other and didn’t even send out patrols or scouts this far away from the fighting. Jon-Oryan assured Fetcher that one of the smugglers on their payroll had met with the Republic convoy and received a rather cold but not entirely inimical welcome. With that, Fetcher could rest easy about Thertos and the others. If the space battle went in the Republic’s favor, their associates’ presence would be entirely unnecessary. But it was better to be safe than to gamble with lives.

“Captain, there’s an open broadcast that might be of some interest,” Jon-Oryan said.

“An open broadcast? On which channels?”

“Every one that isn’t affiliated with the Sith,” he responded.

“Play it over the intercomm.”

“… I need to reach the Sith flagship. It is of crucial importance to the Jedi and their effort to defeat the Sith that I make it there. I’m currently being pursued by a squadron of enemy fighters and I cannot evade them much longer. If anyone is in the vicinity, please provide assistance. I repeat my name is Tserne DeLarane. I have a wounded passenger on board. I am a mercenary under the employ of the Galactic Republic…”

“The message repeats from there,” the cyborg said.

“Tserne? What’s he doing here?” Fetcher grumbled. “Where is he now?”

“Hold on…” The cyborg perused their sensors. “He has just left the planet’s stratosphere. He will be in the midst of the battle—should he survive—in five minutes.”

“Captain, you’re not seriously thinking of going in there, are you?” Zalee asked. “I mean, I know he was under our employ at one point, but that doesn’t mean anything! He’s not working for us, and we don’t know what he’s up to. He could be working contrary to our interests!”

Fetcher considered the notion. The chances of him receiving any help from the Republic were slim. The battlefield in orbit was about equal, and he doubted the Republic could spare any ships to provide escort duty. The Jedi were in the same situation. He and Tserne had worked together many times. They had served on Ralina’s crew together for a long time. The assassin had been invaluable in eliminating the Exchange’s kingpins. Did he owe him any favors? Probably not. The idea of becoming a floating target to defend Tserne was quite unappealing, but leaving to die was even more distasteful. They had known each other a long time. When it had become apparent, many years ago, that Ralina could either save her crew or help Tserne, she chose the former. Was he about to make the same choice?

“I’m tracking him now,” Jon-Oryan reported. “His ship is a small scout ship, and it is unlikely that it has either the maneuverability or shields to defend itself against the Sith for much longer. That being said, he is still approaching the battlefield.”

“Damn. All right crew, listen up,” Fetcher said. “We’re going to go help him. It’s going to be dangerous. I can’t guarantee we’ll all make it. I’m giving you a chance to overrule my decision, or else use the escape pod and flee while you still can. I won’t take anyone with me if they don’t want to go. I’ll fly the whole damn ship by myself if I have to, so don’t feel pressured to stay here on my account.”

Zalee and Posh didn’t say anything, but they shared a look that must have told them everything they needed to know about the other’s opinion. Jon-Oryan said nothing, but it was not like he had a chance in the matter; if he left the ship, he would find himself without a primary source of power and would shut down and pass away within a matter of days.

“What are you moaning and groaning about, Captain?” Posh asked. “Of course we’re with you. This is exactly what we signed up for.”

“And we won’t let you down, even if the going gets tough. And I mean really, because our odds don’t look that appealing.”

“Calculating the optimum route for Posh and preparing the main guns,” Jon-Oryan reported.

“Excellent! Let’s go save that idiot. He’ll be galactic dust before long, so we’ll have to move quick.”

The Hound’s Sapphire’s engines roared. Posh made a hard turn to port, and Fetcher switched on the emergency lights. As they got closer, it became quite clear that the fighting had been brutal and the engagement between the Republic and Sith was showing no signs of letting up. Fetcher grumbled to himself. This was not going to be easy.

*** ***

On the primary control board, a diagram that outlined the major components of the Vaya-class scout ship showed each part flashing either yellow or orange. The ship Tserne was flying was typically suitable enough for deep-space or personal travel, but it was utterly worthless in any sort of combat. Given its age and the damage it had endured earlier, he was surprised that it was capable of flight at all. Threecee typically handled most of the piloting when they were alone, and for good reason. Verita had been doing most of the flying, but he was alone for the time being, struggling to completely control the ship.

After he and Verita had taken off and were preparing to leave the planet, they suddenly found themselves pursued by a squadron of Sith fighters. They had managed to avoid them for a few minutes by luring them into the midst of Republic strikefighters, but those Republic ships had already been defeated and the Sith continued assailing them.

After a momentarily shield failure had exposed them to a barrage of laser fire, an explosion on the bridge had thrown shrapnel across the cockpit. When the smoke had cleared, Tserne saw Verita had been sprawled out on the deck, bleeding and unconscious. He quickly assessed her condition. Fortunately, her head wound was superficial and she had only momentarily lost consciousness. She was disoriented, though, so Tserne refused to allow her to fly the ship.

They still hadn’t lost the Sith fighters that had attacked them and their ship wouldn’t make it much farther. He tried sending out an emergency message to anyone who would listen, but he hadn’t received a reply yet. Without help, there was a good chance neither of them was going to make it any further.

“This can’t be the way I go,” Tserne confided in the spirit entombed in the sword.

“Stay strong. Help will come.”

“Easy for you to say. You’re already dead.”

“If you give into despair now, how will you help Dynatha? How will you defeat the Sith?”

“There’s not much I can do in this floating brick!” Tserne snapped.

Two Sith fighters raced ahead of the pack, peppering the dorsal side of the scout ship with laser fire as they passed overhead. The ship trembled on impact, and Tserne watched the pair fly by his forward viewport on their way back around for another attack. Tserne forced the ship into a slow and lumbering dive, and he hid himself beneath what was left of a Hammerhead-class cruiser to keep the Sith from attacking him from above. Before the fighters could reorient themselves, they were suddenly intercepted by a squadron of Aurek strikefighters.

Tserne forced the ship up on its lateral axis to get away from the derelict ship he had been using for cover. He flew into the midst of the battle proper. Sith starfighters were pursuing Republic freighters and gunships as they tried to reach the planet surface, and Republic capital ships traded turbolaser fire with the Sith, filling the space between them and making travel almost impossible. Hundreds of IFF markers filled the scout ship’s radar. Since the ship was not designed for battle, the filtering system on the radar was too simplistic to be of use, although it did give him the names of many of the ships nearby. He had to find the enemy flagship, or perhaps the primary Mandalorian vessel for Verita’s sake, but he wasn’t sure where they would be.

An emergency klaxon began to sound, indicating that there was a fire or hull breach in one of the rear cabins. On the status monitor, some segments near the back of the ship began to blink red. Damn. He hoped the ship would hold together for just a bit longer. As he flew past a Republic frigate engaged in combat with a Sith cruiser, there was an explosion in the starboard section of the ship, and then another in the cabin just behind the bridge. As the ship trembled, Tserne hit the console he was using. Verita was also thrown out of her seat. More alarms began to blare, and he heard Raystin for a moment before he blacked out.

He lost consciousness for only a few seconds, but when he came to, the ship was spiraling out of control and the Sith fighters had gathered on both sides of the ship. Verita was nearly on top of him, and she was also recovering consciousness. A trio of Sith fighters had arrived and seemed content with firing only sporadically, seeing as the scout ship was about to make a head-on collision with an Interdictor-class cruiser.

“Tserne? I… ugh… where am I? What’s going on?” Verita grumbled.

“Hold on,” he groaned. “I need to…”

Tserne wiped the blood from his eyes and forehead and regained control of the ship. With a few dozen kilometers to go, Tserne pulled the scout ship away from the Interdictor’s hull, performing a 180 degree turn that caused one of his engines to fail but saved them and gave him a moment’s respite from the Sith fighters.

No sooner had he saved them both from crashing into the Sith capital ship than the Hound’s Sapphire arrived. Zalee used their sole anti-starfighter gun to make quick work of two Sith fighters in one pass. The one left fled, allowing Fetcher’s ship to approach and interpose itself between Tserne and the enemy. Tserne breathed a sign of relief. He hadn’t expected Fetcher to be here, but he was grateful beyond words.

“Fetcher,” Tserne said, opening a private channel. “You arrived just in time.”

“That’s what we thought,” Fetcher said, a bit happier than Tserne would have liked. “What are you thinking, pup? You were about to become one with the galaxy in a big way. This is no way to navigate this battle.”

“Well, I’m in a hurry. I need to locate either the Sith flagship or the Mandalorian one. My pilot here is wounded, and if I don’t, there’s no telling what will happen. The Sith-”

“I love a good story as much as anyone, but you’ll have to share everything with us after the battle. Just follow us, and we’ll make sure you get there. Sound good?”

“Understood. My shields are back, so we can begin whenever you’re ready.”

“Then let’s go.”

The Hound’s Sapphire rolled around Tserne’s ship and positioned themselves a bit above and in front of it. Tserne followed in their wake, and they did their best to keep pace with him. It wasn’t long before the ships that had been following him returned; if nothing else, Tserne had to admire their tenacity. At Fetcher’s insistence, Tserne continued on while the smuggler’s ship turned around to deal with their pursuers. Tserne did his best to navigate through the battle, barely paying attention to the Sith warships that were surrounding the Republic vessels far off his starboard side, and Republic capital ships rallying somewhat in front of him to break the encirclement. Starfighters occasionally zoomed by his viewport, but they were too distracted with their dogfights to bother with him.

Verita finally came to. Tserne felt bad about not helping her back up, but given the stressful situation they were in, he hoped she understood. Struggling into the co-pilot’s seat, Verita wiped blood out of her mouth and away from her brow. Still not quite cognizant of what was going on, she watched Tserne navigate the battlefield with a gaze of childlike wonder.

“Are we going to be okay?” she said at last, realizing what was happening.

“Fetcher’s here. He’ll protect us.”

She didn’t know who he was talking about, but she nodded anyway. “Do you need help flying the ship?”

“Monitor the engines and the other internals. Let me know if I’m pushing the ship too hard.”

Fetcher’s ship approached him from his ventral side, and positioned itself so they were practically side-by-side. Their main gun and anti-starfighter turret were both active, firing at small Sith ships as they passed by.

“We dealt with that nuisance from earlier,” Posh chimed in.

“I appreciate it. Where are we headed now?”

“That’s the Sith flagship. It’s called the Phantasm,” Jon-Oryan replied, sending some data from his tactical map to Tserne’s radar. “The Mandalorian flagship is further away, beyond several lines of battle.”

“Pretty big ship,” Zalee muttered.

“Haven’t seen one of those since the Jedi Civil War. Even then, they were pretty rare. Commanded sector groups, if I remember correctly,” Fetcher mused.

“We’re going to have to get pretty close,” Posh muttered. “And its hangars are bound to be protected.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to follow me inside. You can leave anytime you want,” Tserne said.

“We’re with you. Don’t try to get rid of us so easily,” Fetcher snapped.

“What about me, Tserne? I need to reach the Mandalorian flagship,” Verita asked. “Let’s link up with them so you can go with Fetcher and I can take the ship to Jhosua.”

“In this mess? We wouldn’t be able to stand still for long enough,” Tserne said, eying their ship’s shields as he did so. Even with the Hound’s Sapphire’s overlapping shields, they would be too vulnerable for too long.

“Then let’s go back where it’s safer.”

“We just got you through this mess, and you want us to get back out?” Fetcher asked. “I don’t even know if your ship can survive the return trip, much less get all the way to the Mandalorian ship afterward!”

“We’ll take you to the Mandalorian flagship, and then I’ll join Fetcher and his crew once you’re safely aboard. I’ll get to the Phantasm in the Hound’s Sapphire,” Tserne offered.

“Very well.”

“What’s the easiest way to get there, Jon?” Posh asked.

“I’m nearly finished calculating a route…” the cyborg replied. “Hold on… there. I’ve sent the path to your console, Posh. That way should avoid most of the larger skirmishes currently under way. It’s quite roundabout, though.”

“That’s fine. Follow us, Tserne!”

The Hound’s Sapphire made a sharp turn to port and Tserne followed as quickly as he could. The two ships traced their way along Jon-Oryan’s path, carefully avoiding the warships that were trading fire around them. The smuggling vessel occasionally had to use its guns, but only rarely. Most vessels paid very little attention to them, since they weren’t broadcasting a Republic, Jedi, or Sith IFF, and both were fairly small ships that were hard to track. On occasion, the Vaya would be tailed by a starfighter, but Zalee quickly removed any threats.

Tserne couldn’t help but notice that several warships were between them and the Mandalorian fleet. What’s more, they had to pass the Phantasm to get where they needed to go, and as far as he could tell, there was no way around them. Six Sith Interdictors and a Centurion battlecruiser surrounded the enemy flagship like personal guards, and nearly twice as many Republic cruisers were assailing them. Furthermore, there were a great many starfighters screening the larger ships on both sides. Even if Jon-Oryan could calculate an optimal path through this, it didn’t seem possible to get through without worrying about at least one warship.

As he expected, a contingent of Sith interceptors broke off from the main battle and tried to stop them from getting even a bit closer to their flagship. Tserne and Verita maneuvered away from the incoming wave; the Hound’s Sapphire opened fire with its entire armament of missiles and laser fire. Three interceptors met their fiery end in the initial barrage. However, the remaining craft zoomed past the scout ship and fired on it as they went, and a bomber that was in their midst hit the dorsal section of the Hound’s Sapphire.

“They’re coming around,” Tserne said. “My shields are holding at fifty percent. What about you, Fetcher?”

“Took quite a number just now…” Fetcher grumbled. “A bomb like that is meant for capital ships, you know. Our little freighter isn’t meant to endure even a scathing hit like that.”

“Are you okay? Can you continue on?”

“Hey, don’t worry about us. Just keep moving. We’ll watch your back.”

“Tserne, a gunship is heading toward us,” Verita noted.

He increased the scout ship’s speed to full throttle. He signaled for Verita to hit a switch across the panel, and she launched the last of their concussion missiles at the incoming gunship, but the vessel dodged two of them and its heavy armor allowed it to survive the third. It replied with a barrage of laser fire, striking at the front of their ship and coming dangerously close to its bridge. Their ship’s shields were dropping rapidly, and Tserne couldn’t outmaneuver the nimble gunship. He traded laser fire with the enemy ship even as they closed the distance between them, but there was no doubt in Tserne’s mind that they were about to lose the encounter.

At the last moment, the Hound’s Sapphire—which had somehow traveled in front of him—fired at the gunship from behind, striking its engines and vulnerable amidships. The gunship exploded, and the armored freighter got close enough to the scout ship so that their shields overlapped and strengthened both.

“You couldn’t have picked a more battle-worthy ship?” Fetcher asked.

“It was in better shape coming here,” Verita snapped.

“I bet. Come on. We still have a bit to go.”

Just as the Hound’s Sapphire had come from behind and surprised the gunship that had been attacking him, another approached from their starboard side and fired both of its guns upon both ships. The Vaya scout’s faltered at the tail end of the attack, leaving them drained and the hull with tremendous damage. However, Fetcher’s ship took the brunt of the attack, and Tserne and Verita looked on in alarm as some of the Hound’s Sapphire’s lower decks were exposed to vacuum and its anti-starfighter gun was obliterated.

“Fetcher! Are you all right?” Tserne asked.

“Move it, pup! Don’t just float there with your mouth agape. We haven’t got you there yet.”

“You’re not going to make it at this rate!”

“And neither will you! Now go!”

Tserne obliged, but he wasn’t happy about it. Snaking his way through an intense dogfight between Mandalorian snubfighters and Sith interceptors, Tserne ignored the alarms that went off every time a stray laser shot struck his hull. Verita began shutting down less-than-necessary systems to transfer remaining power to engines and shields, but it wasn’t enough. The scout ship was barely keeping together, and he couldn’t keep the ship stable with so few functioning engines. Avoiding turbolaser fire from two Hammerhead cruisers, Tserne navigated toward the ventral side of the Sith Interdictor that was before them. In doing so, they managed to avoid most of the traded fire, but he was pursued by a trio of mercenary strikefighters.

“Won’t be able to outrun them for long,” Verita reported. The whole ship trembled from a near-miss.

“You in the neighborhood, Fetcher?” Tserne asked.

There was no reply.

“Fetcher?”

“Won’t be with you much longer, Tserne. Got caught between a gunship and a hard place. I see you, but barely. We’re drifting at this point, and we’ll eventually end up in the range of those warships’ guns. Keep going. You’re nearly there.”

“Fetcher… there must be something we can do.”

“There is. Get the job done.”

“I’m turning around. I’m not going to abandon you. I’m not-”

“Ralina?” Fetcher interrupted. “You’re right. You’re not. She’d turn around and sacrifice everything just to bring one of my ears out of this mess. You don’t have the time or the luxury. Just trust me. I’m not holding it against you.”

“No, I’m won’t-”

Tserne was going to continue, but Verita laid a hand on his. When he tried to snap at her, she just shook her head. There was nothing they could do. It took Tserne a moment, but he knew she was right. Their own ship was barely holding together. If they went back, they’d probably end up destroyed just as quickly. But Dynatha was in danger, and he could help her. He couldn’t help Fetcher.

“I’m sorry. Tell… tell Irinna I said hello.”

“She’s waited long enough,” Fetcher agreed. “Goodbye, Tserne.”

*** ***

Ralina stood on the bridge of Captain Haphren Marhe’s ship, the Lost Oath. It had been many years since the two had met, and it had been many more since she had been on the bridge of this ship. It was a nice vessel, to be sure, but nothing could match the Hound’s Sapphire. Lucius and Manda were with her, along with some smugglers they had picked up in Falang Minor’s northern hills.

Thertos had been found, but he was not with them. He had elected to stay on the planet, in grave peril, for the sake of staying with Jhosua’s children, Fier and Glacis. They always did have a way of getting themselves into trouble, and Thertos would often get dragged along with them. Some things never changed.

“I still think we should turn around and get him,” she whispered to Lucius. “We can take the Weros girls if he won’t budge without them.”

“One of Fetcher’s associates is one his way to watch him. He’ll have a safe trip offworld in case things get messy. Don’t worry,” Lucius replied. “Don’t you trust Fetcher?”

“Of course, but-”

“Captain Marhe, incoming message!” the smuggler in charge of the comms reported. “It’s from the Hound’s Sapphire.”

“Fetcher?” Ralina asked.

“Switching the viewscreen to display the communique,” Captain Marhe said.

The viewport’s array of stars faded away and was replaced with a vision of the Hound’s Sapphire’s bridge. But the bridge was quite unlike Ralina remembered it. Fetcher was there, but it looked like he had gotten into a terrible accident. Half of his right ear was missing, and his eye on that side had been pierced by what appeared to be shrapnel. He was clutching his side, and there was blood all over his fur. The entire scene was painted orange and red, and there were fires burning in the background. Klaxons were blaring, and Jon was vaguely audible somewhere off-screen, but there was something wrong with his voice.

“Damn,” Fetcher said. “Can’t even get a clean signal. Just my luck. Ralina, I have no indication that this is going through, but I hope you and the others are seeing this.”

“We need to get closer,” Lucius said. “Hope that he picks up our response better.”

“We’ll try,” Captain Marhe whispered.

“Long story short, I’m not coming back,” Fetcher said. “There’s no way around it. Posh is… gone, and Zalee’s fading. She’s not responding anymore, at any rate. Jon’s doing his best, but there’s really no way he could fix this. It’s too much.”

“We have to go back!” Ralina shouted. “Turn this ship around. We’re going to get him!”

Fetcher smiled toothily, and it seemed like it hurt for him to do so. “I know you’re already shouting at Haphren to come get me. You’re so predictable, Ralina. Lucius will try to make you see reason, but you’ll be stubborn to the end. Maybe Haphren will try and rescue me. He won’t get here in time, but I’ll be damned if you won’t try. Manda will probably say something snide along the way, mocking my piloting skills or leadership ability or something like that. So it goes.”

“Don’t say that,” Manda whispered. “Please-”

“I really messed up. You gave me this ship with the implicit knowledge that I would take care of it, and here I’ve gone and destroyed it. It’s totally ruined. You wouldn’t believe it’s the same ship we all used to fly in together. I remember those days a lot, you know. I really do miss you. Posh and Zalee are irreplaceable, and I could never ask for a better crew, but it was different with you. We were…”

“Turn around!” Ralina shouted. “I’ll take the controls myself if I have to!”

“Ralina…” Lucius said.

“Don’t ‘Ralina’ me! Get us over there now!”

Fetcher sighed. With great difficulty, he lowered himself into the captain’s chair. “I guess what I mean to say is that you were all a family to me. You, Manda, Posh, Tserne, and even Delvin. I couldn’t have asked for a better family. I’ll miss you.”

“Fetcher, we’re coming to get you… please… hold on…” Ralina couldn’t say anymore. Lucius held her close while she cried.

“Tell Thertos that he’s made me proud. He’s become a fine young man. Let Tserne know that I’m thankful for everything, and I hope he forgives himself. Lucius, take care of Ralina. You know she’s hopeless on her own. And Manda… I’ve missed you more than I can say. Not a day’s gone by when I haven’t thought of you. I hope you find happiness…”

“Oh, Fetcher…” Manda sobbed. “Please don’t leave me… I’ve always…”

“Get them home safely, Haphren. I’ll see you in the hell that’s reserved for our kind, yeah?”

“That’s what I’m counting on, you pirate,” he said.

Fetcher smiled again. “Enjoy the credits. Hound’s Sapphire out.”

The viewport switched back, and that was the last they saw of their dear friend. Ralina and Manda cried for a long time while the crew of the Lost Oath and their guests stood in silence.

*** ***

Delvin Cortes watched the Derriphan-class battleship split into many pieces and eventually form a field of debris in the face of Ashla’s Banner and its heavy turbolasers. The fleet of Watchcircle Dominus had joined the rest of the Jedi Order in their fight against the Sith, ostensibly serving as reinforcements—they still broadcast their identification as Jedi ships. For now, their goals were the same. The time would soon come that the greater darkness was destroyed, and then they would turn their attention to the corrupted remnants of the Jedi. Their brothers-in-arms suspected nothing.

“Move all of our ships forward, including the starfighters. I want us to link up with the Jedi fleet so that we can strike the enemy flagship as one,” Telerus ordered. His girth demanded a modified captain’s chair, and even then he nearly spilled out from the sides. Nonetheless, his presence at the helm encouraged his fellow Jedi Covenant and his light guided them through the chaos of the battle. Delvin could not have asked for a better leader, and he was proud to serve as his right hand.

“Do we know what has happened to Tserne?” Delvin asked an aide who was walking by. “Is he still on the planet’s surface?”

“K’thoi and Via reported in and informed us that he had left for the naval battle, but they haven’t been able to reestablish contact since then. They’ve found themselves a ship and will be joining us shortly.”

“Very good.” Delvin paused a moment. “What of our men and women who had become Jedi prisoners?”

“No response, sir. K’thoi told me he tried several times and through the Force, but no one responded to his inquiry. It would stand to reason that they all perished.”

“A shame. They truly deserved better. We must remember to honor them when we return home. Do we know where Ashla is?” Delvin wondered, although he had a suspicion.

“No, sir.”

You do now, Master Cortes.

The ghost of Raystin Benax materialized on the bridge between Telerus and Delvin. His sudden presence startled several of the crew, but neither of the lightbearers were alarmed. By the look on Telerus’s face, it seemed he had expected the specter’s presence. Delvin was eager to hear what the ghost had to say, but he hadn’t expected him to appear like this.

“What do you want?” Telerus asked, resting one of his jowls on a fist. “Have you come to scare us again?”

“I come to you now for aid. No one else can help us—that is, Tserne and I. We must reach the Phantasm. If we don’t, Dynatha will fail to defeat the Dark Lord. We’ve lost our escort, Tserne is barely moving forward, and his engines are failing. He cannot turn back now, and we only have one chance to get him inside.”

“Ashla is capable of handling herself. Tserne’s presence is beneficial, but not necessary, to our success today,” Telerus replied. “If his situation is as dire as you claim, we will send starfighters to protect him so he can return to the surface.”

“That’s not enough,” the ghost said.

“What would you have us do?” Delvin asked.

“We need a way into the enemy flagship. Tserne does not have the knowledge and skill to pierce the dark cloak that surrounds the vessel. Neither does his only companion. But you do.”

“Our light is not meant for offense; we could create an aura to penetrate the barrier, but no more. To do that, we would have to be incredibly close to the Phantasm. Closer than we could get in our ship, at any rate,” Telerus explained.

“Then use that aura. You have the capability, and you have the means.”

“What means?” a Covenant Knight asked.

“This ship.” Raystin swept his hands across the bridge. “Subsume this entire ship in your aura of light. Go headlong into the enemy flagship, and use your radiance to destroy the shield. If you did that, you would help Tserne get inside and give the Republic and Jedi an undeniable advantage in the rest of the battle.”

“And it would mean going to our deaths,” Telerus growled. “I refuse. Our presence, our value to Ashla cannot be wasted in such a foolhardy venture.”

“She cannot appreciate your value from the grave,” the spirit noted.

“How much time do we have?” Delvin asked.

“Not long. You would have to begin the ritual now and divert this ship so it is on a collision course with the Phantasm, or else you would be too late.”

“High Lightbearer Eston, perhaps we ought to consider-”

“No. The life of even a single member of the Jedi Covenant is more valuable to Ashla than the fate of that flagship, than the well-being of some nameless assassin! Ours will be the banner that welcomes Ashla as she emerges victorious from the Phantasm in her brilliant splendor!”

The spirit regarded Delvin, and the eerie shapes representing his eyes stared through him, knowing his innermost feelings and thoughts. “The choice is yours, Master Cortes. You know the cost, and you know the responsibilities of a Jedi. May the Force be with you.”

The ghost departed in a light gust of wind. Telerus huffed, but he was obviously more at ease now that the specter was gone. He started giving orders to the rest of the crew, telling them to complete the turn that would line them up with the remainder of the Jedi ships.

Delvin wasn’t conflicted. He didn’t even doubt what course he had to take. The only question was whether the other members of his watchcircle would go along with him. If they all refused, or even if most refused, he would be in for a terrible challenge. He did not want to harm them, but he would do what he had to do. This was of the utmost importance.

“High Lightbearer, point the ship at the Phantasm. We’re going to help Tserne.”

“Know your place, Lightbearer,” Telerus scolded him. “I command this ship. I give the orders. I am the keeper of this covenant, not you.”

“If you cannot do what is necessary, then I will do it for you.”

Delvin withdrew a knife from the back of his utility belt. Before Telerus could defend himself, through the Force or otherwise, Delvin plunged the blade deep into the back of his master’s neck. The leader of Watchcircle Dominus tried to cry out in pain, but he choked to death on his own bile. None of the other members of the Jedi Covenant went to his aid, most still too stunned at what Delvin had done to react.

“Those of you who are with me can stay on the bridge. If you value your life above Ashla’s, I am giving you this chance to retreat to the remaining transports in the docking bay. Do not waste your time trying to avenge Master Eston. We will be joining him soon enough.”

Of course, no one opposed him. They were loyal not to a man, but to an ideal. To the light. While his crew redirected the ship toward their destination, Delvin focused all of his energies on the Force around them. Borrowing the strength of the other members of the Watchcircle, Delvin began to suffuse the entire ship with the power of the light side of the Force. It would not be long before the entire ship was essentially a missile, heedless of their attempts to guide it. He needed his crew to point the Ashla’s Banner at the enemy flagship.

“Tserne’s ship is just ahead of us. Engines are nearly offline, but he’s headed right for the enemy vessel. We should be able to intercept in three minutes,” came the report.

“Good. Open the channel.”

When they made contact with Tserne, they heard him, Verita, and Raystin arguing about their destination. His female companion no doubt wanted to get to the Mandalorians, but there was no way their damaged ship would make the journey, especially not on the battlefield. Their only choice was to make for the Phantasm and hope for the best. However, neither Tserne nor Verita could disable the dark shield protecting the Sith vessel from harm. That was where he and the Wathcircle came in.

“Tserne. This is Delvin. Respond, if you’d please.”

The bickering stopped. “Delvin, what’s going on? Where are you?” Tserne asked.

“Hard starboard given your current position. I’m going to see if I can’t help you get through that shield.”

“Easier said than done,” Verita noted.

“What’s the plan so far?” Tserne asked him.

“The Ashla’s Banner is going to crash into the Phantasm. You’ll be able to get through from there.”

He heard Verita gasp. Tserne began to argue, but Delvin ignored him. Signaling toward the chief gunner, Delvin watched every weapon platform and turbolaser fire at the ships around the Phantasm, eviscerating anything between them and their target. There would be no turning back. They were accelerating faster. The light had become powerful. Delvin could hardly control the fluctuations of Force power flowing through the ship, and he heard various reports about system failures and hull breaches. The ship, a comparatively simple metal contraption, was nothing before the infinite reservoir that was the Force.

“You’ve lost your mind! Slow down. Let’s think of another way,” Tserne demanded.

Maybe there was another way. Some combined assault or arcane wizardry that would bypass the dark shield entirely. If there was such a thing, Delvin did not know it. It did not matter. Tserne was wrong. He did not regret his decision. His mind was clear and made up. Watching the crew struggle to hold Ashla’s Banner, falling apart from the light and the turbolaser fire they were taking, he knew they thought as he did. He sensed it. They were not afraid to die.

For only a fraction of a microsecond Delvin considered changing course. Not because of fear, but because of love. Delvin Cortes had been a loyal servant all his life, first to the Jedi Order, then the Watchcircle Dominus. Love, in the typical usage of the word, had been foreign to him. He had been devoted to his cause, but it had been a cold and rigid devotion. He would have followed Telerus Eston to the end of the galaxy before he met Dynatha Aris. In the end, he understood that she was not the messianic figure Telerus made her out to be. She was just a woman. Nevertheless, her own devotion to the light, her courage, and her kind spirit made his own loyalty appear hollow. He admired her like he had never admired anyone. He loved her, not as Tserne did, but with a zealotry that made everything else in the galaxy appear small. If she asked, he would have gladly laid down his life for her sake.

And so he was now.

“I’m afraid it’s no longer negotiable. We must do what must be done. Goodbye, Tserne. See her safely to the end.”

“Delvin!” Tserne shouted into the comm. He severed the connection.

Everything was so bright. He could scarcely see. The Ashla’s Banner was totally enveloped by the light. The Sith admirals seemed to know what he intended to do. When smaller ships could not stop the Jedi Covenant’s flagship, he noted that one of the admirals redirected her own personal cruiser to defend her master. It was too late for that. All of the Eviscerator’s massive guns were useless before them. The Watchcircle cruiser closed the distance. His body felt like it was on fire, and much of his crew had already passed out—or departed—due to the inundation of Force power around them. Much to his surprise, the admiral commanding the Eviscerator positioned her ship so that her broadside was facing the incoming Hammerhead cruiser. A futile effort, but one that Delvin recognized shared the same devotion that he did. Though she was an enemy, he respected her. She sacrificed herself, her ship, and her crew trying to save her master.

The last thing Delvin saw was a fragment of the Ashla’s Banner, utterly destroyed upon collision with the Eviscerator, strike the dark shield of the Phantasm. He had done his duty. He smiled as his body was enveloped in light and seen no more.

*** ***

Tserne and Verita had seen everything. They knew they couldn’t get to the Mandalorian flagship in their condition, but they could still get into the Phantasm thanks to Delvin. He wasn’t quite sure if they could do it, but he was willing to try. Verita all of their remaining power to the engines, and Tserne guided the Vaya through the debris that was left behind from the destruction of the two warships. Every so often the scout ship was pelted by laser fire from a passing starfighter, but none of them pursued; the resulting confusion from the loss of Admiral Isinn allowed the Republic to move in, and the Sith had their hands full repelling them. Tserne watched the remains of Ashla’s Banner float through space and collide with the dark shield protecting the Sith’s flagship; sure enough, whenever a chunk of metal hit the barrier, the shield faded away and reformed a few seconds later. Circling the lower hangars, Tserne did his best to avoid the point-defense lasers firing at him while waiting for a piece of the Jedi Covenant’s Hammerhead cruiser to come toward him.

“Now, Tserne!” Verita urged him.

A fragment of Ashla’s Banner’s forward turbolaser passed in front of him and struck the shield. It immediately created a small hole in the energy field, just large enough for a starfighter to fit through. Tserne forced the ship into a hard upward yaw and glided through the opening. Only the back of the ship failed to get through before the dark shield was restored, and Tserne lost their other engines in the process. He lost control of the ship as it made it into the hangar. The ship crashed into the ceiling and then fell to the floor in an unsalvageable wreck.

Tserne found himself on the floor again, and this time it was Verita who was trying to wake him up. “We need to go, Tserne! This ship won’t hold together much longer!”

She was right. Defensive turrets inside the hangar fired at their damage ship. The remains of the hull were barely holding together. Verita led Tserne out of the forward exit—with only his sword in hand—before the entire scout ship turned into a spectacular fireball that tossed both of them to the deck.

“Which way to Dynatha?” Tserne asked the spirit as he tried to stand up again.

“Follow me! The Sith are converging on this location.”

“I suppose I have no choice but to follow you,” Verita mumbled. “There aren’t any starfighters nearby, are there?” she asked Raystin.

“No. This hangar is empty, as are the ones above and below us. It would seem all of the ships have been sent into combat.”

“For the second time today,” Verita quipped.

“For now, follow me. We’ll get you where you need to go, but this isn’t the time or the place to discuss it,” Tserne said. “Let’s go!”

Tserne grabbed her hand and in the blink of an eye he shrouded both of their bodies so that they were invisible. While the heaps of durasteel left behind by the Vaya-class scout ship burned behind them, Tserne and Verita followed Raystin’s spirit out of the hangar toward Dynatha and the Dark Lord of the Sith.


Chapter 54

Craters from artillery fire dotted the plains between the river and the Jedi enclave. The northern shield generator had not been destroyed by the Sith, so a protective dome still guarded their temple from attack; the Sith artillery had to move in close and fire low to prevent their shells from being disintegrated against the energy field. The Sith were still on the west side of the river, and Ranval had to credit the Republic Army with that much. For the time being, the Jedi Order’s fortress was safe, but for how long?

He had planned on meeting the Jedi Council, explaining the situation, and taking several Jedi Knights with him to challenge Northeus. Once his former master had been dealt with, he and those same companions would help Dynatha in orbit. He had only left Dynatha because he believed there was still some way to save Northeus. But his master was dead. He had felt it in the Force—and with him the passing of the last of the old Jedi Masters. Ranval kept his feelings buried, still hesitant in the presence of an apparently redeemed Dark Jedi, but even Falmas could see that he was troubled. For whatever reason, she didn’t inquire about it.

Northeus was gone, but his death did expedite Ranval’s journey across the surface of Falang Minor. He trusted Phaevn, of course, but he was worried that the old bodyguard wouldn’t be able to protect Dyantha against the powerful foes she was destined to face. If Dynatha also perished, their cause would become hopeless. Who else could stand against the Dark Lord? He would never forgive himself if his concern for his old master became the impetus for their doom. If he could find a ship in the Jedi sanctuary and meet her before the battle began, then he hadn’t entirely wasted his time on the surface.

“Master,” Falmas whispered, “do you sense that?”

“Please, just ‘Ranval’…” he began. Extending his perception through the walls of the Jedi fortress, he saw many individuals, most of them Force-sensitive. He recognized some as Jedi, and the auras of others gave them away as dark-siders. “It seems the enemy has already arrived.”

“My mast- the Sith Master who trained me is inside. There are at least five others with him, not counting any troopers or mercenaries.”

“Get in front of me. If you say or do anything-”

“I won’t. Leave it to me.”

Falmas had given her lightsaber to Ranval, so she headed through a side door of the Jedi sanctuary—which had been forced open—defenseless. Ranval followed behind her at a safe distance, with a sonic pistol as one of his cybernetic attachments and a stun baton as the other. He purposely positioned himself so he could fall back if enemies appeared and could strike her from behind if she tried to betray him. She seemed not to care and advanced cautiously through several gateways before reaching the sanctuary proper.

There seemed to have been a battle at the entrance. The bodies of Jedi Knights and a few Padawan learners were strewn across the foyer, and further back the fragmented bodies of security droids could be seen in the dim light. At least two squads of Sith troopers had died in the fighting, plus a small contingent of mercenaries not unlike those Ranval had fought in the north. There was not a sound to be heard, and the glowpanels had been sabotaged so they hardly produced any light. The pillars and statues on both sides of them cast wide shadows, concealing whole sections of the room in darkness.

Falmas seemed hesitant to progress, so Ranval took the lead without a word. The darkness and light made little difference to him, and his attuned senses told him that there wasn’t a living being anywhere on this floor. Whether the surviving Jedi had retreated to other levels or else had abandoned the fortress entirely, he wasn’t sure. However, there were no Sith either, and that was fortunate.

Ranval ascended the stairway at the far end of the foyer. Falmas followed him up the winding steps, but she was noticeably behind. Now that he was paying attention, he sensed great fear in her, a dread that she couldn’t put into words but nevertheless nearly stayed her feet. Once or twice he thought she would turn around and flee; to her credit, she continued on, despite the fact that she was trembling all over and her breathing had become terse and audible.

“Where is he?” Ranval asked. “Your master, I mean.”

“He’s… he’s several floors above us. Two more, I think?”

“If this is too much for you to bear, you don’t have to follow me. Stay here. Wait for me to return.”

“No!” Falmas nearly grabbed the sleeve of his cloak. “I can’t do this by myself. If you leave me here, I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t-”

“All right. Stay close.”

As though she had been waiting for permission, Falmas quickly slid behind him so that she was almost hiding in his shadow. Ranval led her through a long hallway on the third floor to another set of stairs. These stairs were damaged, and it took the pair quite a while to navigate their way to the fourth floor without falling through the weakened steps.

“Jedi… come here, please…”

Falmas instinctively reached for a lightsaber she didn’t have. Ranval’s senses scoured the area around them until he found the source of the voice: a Stennes Shifter, evidently a Jedi Master by the markings of his robes and the lightsaber by his side, lying beside a dead Jedi and four Sith warriors. Ranval and Falmas approached him, and they both sensed that he was barely able to remain conscious because of the wounds he had sustained.

“I knew the Force would send someone,” the wounded Jedi said. “I don’t suppose we’ve been introduced…”

“We have, Master Vithion,” Ranval said. “Do you remember me? I’m Ranval Messor.”

The Jedi Master shook his head. “Please. The Jedi Council has retreated into atmosphere with the others, and there is no one left to defend the archives. You must-” He winced when Falmas began to apply a gauze to the wound on his abdomen. “You must stop them. If they secure the landing pads, they’ll be able to escape with dangerous artifacts, relics we have kept from the Sith for centuries. For them to fall back into their hands now…”

“How many enemies are left?”

“Not many. A few droids and four or five Dark Jedi survived our battle. But their master was terrible indeed! He personally dealt with many Jedi Knights. He was the one who disarmed me and gave me these wounds. It is to my shame that the master of the guard was dealt with so swiftly.”

“Don’t be discouraged. My ma- he is very powerful. There are only three others amongst all the Sith who can challenge him,” Falmas explained. “You did well to defeat so many of his forces.”

Aecus seemed to realize that Falmas was not a Jedi—perhaps even a Sith—but he didn’t express his concern. He only shook his head and returned his attention to Ranval. “Be wary. They were talking of explosives. I am worried that they intend to raze the entire fortress.”

“We’ll be careful,” Ranval said. “Rest easy, Master Vithion. We’ll return once the task is done.”

He nodded at Falmas, and she injected him with a mix of chemicals that would invigorate his body’s immune system and put him in a comatose state so he could heal. Once he was certain the Jedi guardsman would be all right, Ranval took the guard’s lightsaber and put it on his belt with Falmas’s. Following his senses, he made his way to the treasury with Falmas in tow.

“He’ll know we’re coming,” Falmas said.

“I know. We’ll have to be careful.”

“He’s very powerful. You don’t want to fight him head-on.”

“There’s no alternative,” he replied.

Falmas stopped. “Ranval, do you trust me?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I have a plan. But we have to work together. Are you okay with that?”

Ranval grimaced. By the way she was talking, he had an inkling of her plan, and he wasn’t liking it. “What did you have in mind?”

*** ***

Nafyan smiled. His underlings were busy removing ancient Jedi and Sith relics from their pedestals, throwing them on hoverpallets where they could be taken to the landing pads on the other side of the building. Admiral Mauch had sent him several transports—before his untimely demise—that had managed to bypass the Jedi Order’s defenses using identification codes Nafyan had taken from the temple’s security console. It wouldn’t be long now before he and those transports would be on their way to Dromund Kaas, where he would present this treasure to the Sith Emperor himself.

The dark side relics had been sealed in a protective resin to keep them from being used, but one of his minions had managed to remove the sealant from a Sith talisman—at the cost of his life. This talisman revealed to Nafyan everything about his past as well as bolstering his connection with the dark side.

At last he remembered everything. He was a clone of Avaran Whell, the dark spirit who lingered beside Preux day and night. He and his cloned brethren had been created to serve many roles: assassination, special forces, commanding officers, and teachers of younger Sith. The first of these clones had served Preux’s father with distinction and died defending him in battle. Every subsequent clone, known as Nafyan, followed in his footsteps with varying degrees of success and loyalty.

A Force-sensitive clone was a perversion of life. Avaran Whell had tried many times to create a Force-sensitive clone from his many servants, but every time he failed. Their bodies’ rejected the Force as they would a virus. It was only after Avaran used a clone from his own genetic material and cut it off from the Force that he managed to create new life. But no life form could live without the Force; like Avaran Whell himself, the clones could only live so long as they were infused with Force power from another. Preux’s father provided the original clone with sustenance. His son gave life to all subsequent clones.

What Avaran Whell did not know was that the Sith Emperor had infiltrated his operations many years before he had even attempted to create his first clone. His servants had implanted his imperial will on these clones, giving them false memories and knowledge of a time spent serving the Sith Emperor. Their loyalties were thus divided, and every subsequent clone of Avaran Whell eventually sought to betray Preux—consciously or not—and return to his ‘true’ master.

Nafyan, being cognizant of all these things, was conflicted. As a clone of Avaran Whell, he should have remained with Preux and served under the spirit that had been his genetic template; after all, Preux was only a body through which the spirit of Avaran Whell moved. However, the Sith Emperor’s will was strong. Even though he knew he had never actually served under him, and everything he believed about his service was a lie, he could not shake the feeling that he had. After all, why would he have been given these memories if the Emperor did not eventually want him to return? He sensed that Preux would lose this battle, and he hoped that an offering of goodwill would be enough to join the True Sith.

“Master Nafyan.” the young Sith apprentice who had followed him from the Phantasm approached. “We’ve seized all the dark side artifacts and taken any Jedi trinkets of note. However, the most valuable items are protected by a vault that we cannot breach. It’s resistant to blaster fire, explosives, and even our lightsabers. It seems to be locked by a gemstone that reacts to the light side of the Force.”

“How very clever,” Nafyan mused. “You’ve tried to get around it?”

“Yes, Master. The entire room is made of the same material as the door. There’s no way inside aside from bypassing that lock.”

“At your command, we can begin the process of transporting these goods to the landing area,” another Sith acolyte spoke up.

Nafyan considered leaving with what they had seized so far. They had acquired many valuables, some dating back to the Great Hyperspace War, and the Sith Emperor would surely be pleased with everything they had gained. On the other hand, only the rarest and most dangerous objects of all would be hidden behind the Jedi Order’s final vault, and it could mean the difference between serving as one of many Sith Masters or becoming a member of the Dark Council. He would not pass up such an opportunity.

“No. We will not leave until we’ve acquired everything the Jedi Order has collected,” Nafyan said at last.

“Then we will need to find a Jedi, or some other warrior capable of projecting the Force into this gem.” replied his female apprentice.

“Well isn’t that a coincidence?” a man’s voice boomed. “I came all this way looking for you, and you’ve been expecting me the whole time!”

Nafyan peered into the darkness around the doorway. There was someone there, but he couldn’t see him. A moment later, a grenade landed about a meter away from Nafyan. He tried to push it away with the Force, but it was primed to detonate and it exploded when he lifted it. One of his pupils jumped in front of him to shield him from the blast, pulverizing his body and allowing Nafyan to escape with minor scratches. Fires burned around the small craters formed by the blast, creating a dim red light around them. The war droids readied their weapons and the other Sith acolytes ignited their lightsabers, but the heavy-lifting construction droids that had been moving the artifacts and pallets didn’t know what to do and began to fall back toward the far wall.

“Where are they going?” the same man from before asked. “I thought you Sith never retreated.”

An ion gun fired out of the darkness, bypassing the Sith and their combat droids to strike the fleeing construction droids. Waves of blue energy washed over their massive frames, and all three of them crumpled to the ground near the sealed vault. An acolyte leapt from his position to where the ion blasts seemed to be coming from, but their opponent had already gone. The young Sith realized mid-jump that danger awaited him, but he didn’t divert his course soon enough to avoid the fragmentation mine their enemy had left for them. The resulting explosion destroyed everything from his waist down and tore apart the floor beneath him, sending what was left of him plummeting to the floor below.

“Catch me if you can. I have plenty more where that came from.”

Though he was hidden in the dark, Nafyan sensed their adversary. The enemy—most likely a Jedi given his Force presence—was hiding in the far corner of the room with weapons at the ready. Nafyan was about to command his remaining two pupils to charge at him, but the sudden sound of a scuffle stayed his hand. The hidden enemy they had been fighting suddenly found himself engaged with an unseen foe, and the fight did not last long. The new arrival gained the upper hand quickly and struck the Jedi on the back of the head with a lightsaber, knocking him to the floor.

“Master Nafyan, your servant returns.” That voice belonged to Falmas.

“Falmas, when did you get here? Where have you been?”

“I only just arrived. I’ve been tracking this impudent Jedi across the galaxy. I thought I lost him back on Truuine, but as the Force would have it I followed him here. I would never have caught him without your assistance.”

A red lightsaber ignited in the same corner the Jedi had been hiding in. Nafyan could vaguely make out the shape of their foe, lying on the ground at her feet, by the red glow of her blade. He noted that Falmas had her blade so close that he couldn’t move at all lest he find his head severed from his shoulders in short order.

“Your weakness is apparent,” Nafyan snapped. “If you couldn’t capture him without my assistance, how am I to count on you to operate alone?”

“Why are you angry, Master?” she purred. “I’ve brought you a Jedi Knight’s head. Or rather, I will.”

Falmas raised her blade and was about to bring it down on her captive’s neck, but Nafyan shouted, “Wait! Hold your blade. We could use him.” He turned to his two other apprentices. “Help Falmas bring him here.”

His three pupils worked together to pull the Jedi Knight to his feet and bring him over to Nafyan. The Miraluka they brought before him was hardly worth Nafyan’s time; his Force presence was barely greater than the Jedi Padawans they had eliminated earlier, despite his age, and he had lost his hands in some accident, leaving him with stubs below both wrists. He was no threat; indeed, Nafyan found his presence contemptible. The fact that such a weak opponent managed to defeat two of his apprentices—through cowardly tricks—enraged him.

“Where is the Beast, Falmas?” Nafyan asked, ignoring his prisoner for now.

“Dead.” She motioned toward the Jedi. “Killed by his hand.”

“You’ve caused us a lot of trouble given your disability and lack of skill,” Nafyan regarded his prisoner.

“You have no idea.”

“It doesn’t matter. Whatever you think you’ve done is for naught. You’re going to compensate for all of it now.” The Sith Master motioned toward the glistening gem on the wall beside the vault. “Do you see that crystal? It is the final lock on this vault here. You are going to suffuse that gemstone with the Force and open it for us.”

“Do it yourself.”

“I’m afraid it’s designed in such a way that only Jedi and their ilk can operate it. If you open it, we will let you live.”

“I’ve been betrayed by Sith before,” the Jedi turned his head to address Falmas. “You’ve got to do better to convince me.”

Falmas returned his look with a steely glare. “I have nothing to say to you, Ranval.”

“Oh, is there more to this story?” Nafyan feigned interest. “Falmas, I expect the details in your report. As for you, Jedi, you will open the vault.”

“I won’t be fooled by your mind tricks.”

Nafyan sighed. “It’s inconsequential, really. If you do as I say, we will take you with us when we escape. Perhaps my master could find some use for you. If you don’t, we will leave you for dead so you can endure the nuclear fire that will envelop this place.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We have a nuclear bomb in the basement of this building,” Nafyan said. He noticed Ranval’s expression changed, and Falmas’s eyes widened but she otherwise restrained herself. “That caught your attention, didn’t it? It has a preset timer, so it’s going to detonate regardless of what happens here. If you do not assist us, we will have no choice to take what we have, abandon you, and depart before then.”

“That does simplify things,” Ranval said. “Very well… I’ll help you.”

“Very sensible.”

“Ranval…” Falmas began.

“I thought you had nothing to say to me. Keep it that way,” Ranval growled. He regarded Nafyan. “It will take me a moment to unlock the vault. I’m getting weaker in my old age, you understand.”

“I can’t say I do. But you know procrastinating is futile, so it doesn’t worry me.”

Falmas seemed quite concerned about their Jedi prisoner; subtle though she was, Nafyan couldn’t help but notice her feeling of unease. Such obvious displays of vulnerability in his prize pupil were quite unbecoming. She would have to be sternly admonished when they departed for Dromund Kaas. He didn’t have time to dwell on her issues, because Ranval opened the vault door without delay. The massive and otherwise implacable door slowly slid out of the way, removing a settled layer of dust as it moved. Archaic glowpanels flickered on inside the last vault, and Nafyan could vaguely make out the first of many treasures near the doorway.

“Magnificent…” Nafyan stepped toward the door. “Just what did the Jedi seek to keep from us?”

“I’m afraid this glimpse is all you’ll get.”

Lightsabers blazed behind him. His senses alerted him to danger, and he spun around just in time to see Falmas run her blade through the younger female acolyte who had accompanied him from the Phantasm. The Jedi Knight had produced a metal wire from one of the stubs in his wrists, and he used a blood choke to take down Nafyan’s other apprentice.

“Falmas… I know treachery when I see it.”

“You should. You taught me how.”

Nafyan glowered at her. How had this happened? Falmas, his very best pupil, dared to raise her hand against him. The idea ignited a fury within him; a Sith working with the Jedi was unfathomable to him, an abomination of every credo and passion they held dear. Worse still, he couldn’t help but feel a feeble embarrassment, a stinging acknowledgment that the most promising of all his students challenged him—not as an upstart apprentice seeking to replace him, but as a turncoat. Not even the Jedi Knight whom she had allied herself with inspired such raw hatred in his heart.

“You’ll die screaming,” he said, his voice quiet but harsh, “screaming for mercy as I demonstrate the cost of treachery!”

“Falmas, see to the bomb. I’ll deal with him,” Ranval said.

“I won’t leave you. We’ll fight him together.”

Nafyan’s lightsaber jumped into his hand and its red blade burst forth in like radiant geyser. It seemed that the Jedi’s idea of cooperation was sorely lacking. Falmas moved in to engage him, and Ranval fell back, lingering some distance from his left side. Nafyan had sparred with Falmas many times. Not only had he taught her everything she knew, but he had already learned all of her cheap tricks, maneuvers, and feints. The idea that she could pose a threat to him was as ridiculous as a Ugnaught wrestling a Wookiee. With an assured two-handed grip, she slashed at his throat; he repelled her with one hand. Their blades crackled every time they made contact, and every time they made contact Nafyan forced Falmas backward, several times nearly throwing her to the floor. His clone body would eventually degrade sooner than a natural-born man’s, but for now he still had the strength to best his pupil with ease.

Her swipes at him were largely puerile, not even worthy of being regarded as attacks. Nafyan refused to give ground, and Falmas was rebuffed time and time again—like a weakening storm against a time-tested seawall. She attempted to kick him in the knees, hoping to force him into a vulnerable position, but he brought his elbow up and struck her in the chin. Her kick never made contact. In fact, Nafyan would have cut her in two then and there, but Ranval swooped in with a blade attached to his arm at the last moment, blocking the killing stroke.

“Tell me, Jedi,” Nafyan growled. “Is it fear that stays your hand, or do you hope for her to die before having your chance at me?”

The Jedi said nothing. Nafyan swung his blade in a wide arc in front of him, and Ranval barely managed to duck in time to avoid it. Falmas had already recovered and moved in. Again her Jedi companion pulled back. It seemed that the Jedi was intent on making a game out of this. He had no time for it. Falmas would die an ignoble death, one worthy of her stature, and then he would deal with the Jedi. In a sudden bout of fury, Nafyan caught her lightsaber with his own, violently repulsed it, and then he began his offensive. Falmas backpedaled just in time to avoid losing all of her fingers, and she kept her lightsaber very close to her body as she tried to come up with a better defense against her erstwhile master’s powerful blows.

Ranval recognized the trouble she found herself in and returned to her side, slowing Nafyan’s advance by striking at his side. But the longer Nafyan fought, the more he became engrossed in the dark side. His emotions reached a fever pitch, and he became a centerpiece of darkness: his enemies became dim balls of white light against his vision, and all he saw were victims to the slaughter. The two of them could not restrain him, even together, and his single lightsaber traveled back and forth between them, steadily coming closer and closer to them as their defenses faltered.

Falmas called upon the Force and brought down pieces of the ceiling upon him. Caught up in the darkness, he created a dark shield—not unlike the one defending the Phantasm—to protect himself. Ranval motioned for a telekinetic attack of his own, but Nafyan was quicker. Raising his right hand, he unleashed a barrage of lightning from his fingertips, striking Ranval in his chest. The energy threw Ranval back into what had once been pedestals for Jedi artifacts, and Nafyan continued to unleash tendrils of energy upon him until Falmas threatened to cut off his hand. The Jedi did not recover, and he laid there lifeless amidst the podiums he had broken.

With the Jedi dealt with, Nafyan could turn all of his attention to his impudent student. Seeing her new ally defeated so easily brought about a combination of rage and fear in her, and Nafyan relished her distraught emotional state. What a mighty Sith she could have been. Without her guardian’s assistance, he could have finished her off in a single stroke. Not yet, he told himself. As a traitor, her punishment had to be drawn out, and her death most painful.

“What could have drawn you away from the Sith?” Nafyan asked, his tone more of a condemnation than an inquiry. “Were you too weak for tasks I allocated you? Where you afraid of what I had planned?”

“You’ll never understand.”

“The only thing to understand about the Jedi is their ultimate failure,” Nafyan agreed, “but you are not a Jedi yet. Your own thoughts betray you. Every swipe with your weapon. That look of longing in your eyes. Even your stance! You cannot help but defend him, even though I’ve reduced him to a charred corpse!”

Falmas redoubled her efforts. Her strikes become quicker and more staccato—but they became sloppier as well. Her footwork faltered, and her blade missed its mark entirely more than once, slashing only at the air. Nafyan laughed at her, goaded her on by giving her room to maneuver and lowering his guard ever-so-slightly. What a sight she was! She was red in the face, and she was sweating. In the Force, her thoughts might as well have been broadcasted on the subspace radio for all to hear.

“Poor Falmas…”

“Shut up!”

“A bastard child left for dead. Unwanted and abandoned. Saved at the last moment by a Sith who saw her potential. She had pined for her master’s affections for so long, seeking what she never had. It was a pointless venture. Her master had no love to give such a useless, pathetic creature-”

“I’ll kill you!”

“So her heart turned to another. ‘Perhaps the Jedi, debased and feeble as they are, would love me?’ she thought to yourself. How touching. Though I’m afraid it’s all futile. You know that, don’t you? You do, in your heart. It is your greatest fear. You are scared more of it than you are of me. You yearn for him so, and he will never return your affections. Do you know why?”

Falmas was in an incoherent rage. She couldn’t say anything, but her tears revealed that he had hit his mark—too well, perhaps. She probably wasn’t even listening to him. Her lightsaber struck at him blindly, like she was in a stupor, and Nafyan effortlessly batted her blade away. She stepped into his guard in a suicidal attempt to stab at his heart, but Nafyan shoved her back. She didn’t get up again, sobbing like a beaten child. Nafyan couldn’t even express his contempt.

“You’re ugly, Falmas. You’re a loathsome, disgusting creature whose pretty face belies everything unlovable inside you. Why do you think I paired you and the Beast together, hmm? A perfect pair, ugly inside and out.”

With a flick of his wrist, he brought his lightsaber up and across her face, burning her from the bottom of her chin to her right ear. The strike hadn’t been deep enough to kill, only to maim, but the way she was screaming it might as well have been lethal. Nafyan waved his hand and formed a reflective disk in front of her face. He wanted her to admire his handiwork. She didn’t want to look, but she couldn’t help herself. Nafyan’s weapon had carved a monstrous gash across her face, disfiguring her lips, nose, and blinding her right eye. It hurt for her to cry.

“I suppose I could let you die with him, a sort of romantic tragedy, but I don’t intend for you to leave this plane just yet. You’ll serve as a fine lesson to future pupils—a new Beast. You will be a creature of such terror that students will whisper about you in the halls. They will despise you in secret, turn from you when you growl and grunt at them, and see you as a cautionary tale against treachery…” Nafyan smiled. It was the first time Falmas had seen a genuine smile on his face. “Now where should I begin?”

An immense telekinetic bubble rippled through the air and struck Nafyan on the left side, tossing him through the air and causing him to tumble across the floor before coming to an abrupt landing against the far wall. Ranval rushed to Falmas’s side and knelt beside her. His breathing was pained and he was trembling; he should have been in a kolto tank, by all accounts.

“Are you all right?” Ranval asked, tenderly feeling her wounds.

She nodded and tried her best to hold back tears.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t-” Ranval winced in pain. He nearly collapsed, but he managed to stay somewhat upright. “I couldn’t stop him. I may not be able to, so you must be ready to flee.”

“Ranval-”

“I’ll be back for you. Trust me.”

Ranval hobbled his way over to where Nafyan had been thrown. The Sith Master had already picked himself up and reactivated his weapon. Whether he intended on toying with Ranval or else was more exhausted then he let on, Ranval wasn’t sure. Regardless, it seemed that his telekinetic attack had little effect.

“How do you intend to survive this, Jedi? I’ve already bested you once.”

Ranval’s cybernetics had been damaged by Sith lightning, and there was no guarantee that any of his prosthetic attachments would work. Without saying a word, Ranval unclasped two lightsabers from the back of his utility belt with his mind. Lifting them with telekinesis, Ranval ignited both of their blades as they orbited his body. The lightsabers floating around Ranval became extensions of his will, weapons that he could not wield by hand, and they prevented Nafyan from charging him by striking at him while he stood watching from afar.

Without the encumbrance of physical reach and footwork, Ranval’s blades proved a challenge for Nafyan. Gracefully floating around him as though they were held by a puppeteer’s strings, one lightsaber would swoop down and slash relentlessly at the Sith Master’s guard before pulling back, well out of reach, only to come down again just as its companion blade was retreating. Without an actual enemy to fight, Nafyan was forced to contend with the weapons themselves, and they proved difficult to disable because they had such freedom of movement.

Nafyan’s rage continued to build the more he contended with the floating lightsabers. Realizing that trying to cut through their hilts was a pointless venture, Nafyan produced a bubble of dark side energy that severed Ranval’s connection with them. As the lightsabers fell to the ground, Nafyan used Force speed to reach his opponent nigh instantaneously. Of course, Ranval followed him with his own Force senses, and he retreated just in time to avoid a red beam of energy to the throat.

The Sith Master pressed his attack, forcing Ranval to retreat until he was standing over Falmas. Ranval recalled his lightsabers and positioned them between them, but by then Nafyan’s fury was so great that he didn’t even acknowledge the floating weapons. With a wave of his hand, he overpowered Ranval’s telekinesis and tossed both weapons onto the floor near the vault. Before Ranval could pick them up again, Nafyan plunged his lightsaber right at his opponent’s chest; Ranval only managed to block it by using telekinesis to interpose his vibroblade in the few centimeters between the lightsaber and his heart.

“This is it, Jedi…” Nafyan sneered. “For all your effort, you’ve lost. As it had to be.”

“You just don’t know when you’re beaten, do you? You’ve already revealed your weakness to me. You’ll regret what you’ve done,” Ranval countered.

“You cannot defeat me. I served at the foot of the Emperor himself. There are none comparable to me.”

“Then you should be comfortable beneath my heel.” Ranval pushed back against Nafyan’s blade, but his telekinesis was weakening. “Falmas, now!”

Falmas—quite conscious despite Nafyan discounting her ever since her defeat—suddenly sprang into action. She threw her lightsaber at Nafyan’s right shoulder like a javelin, its shimmering crimson blade coming to life only once it had passed Ranval safely. Nafyan tried to reposition himself to block the attack, but he was too slow. That damnable Jedi woman, Atris, had stabbed his shoulder with a knife, and when he tried to move too quickly he found his arm wracked with pain, and it refused to go high enough to block the incoming strike. His treacherous pupil’s lightsaber skewered him just above the breast. He tried to retreat, but Ranval had already recalled his lightsabers. Their blades lanced into his back, and both shimmering yellow beams sprung out just below his chest cavity. Nafyan gave one last feral cry and then fell upon his face, dead.

Ranval didn’t quite believe it at first, but the Force could not deceive him. The Sith Master had fallen. “We did it,” he breathed.

“We… have to deal with the explosives…” Falmas said.

“Don’t worry about that. While he was focused on dealing with my lightsabers, I destroyed his war droids and reprogrammed the construction droids from afar—see, they’ve already gone.” Ranval bent the truth. He had done some of his handiwork while Falmas was challenging Nafyan, but he did not have the heart to tell her. He hadn’t thought Nafyan would pose such a challenge; his pride had cost them both and he regretted it terribly. “I commanded them to take the bomb and move it as far as they could into the tunnels that run underneath the Jedi sanctuary. It won’t be pretty, but I think it will prevent the worst of the damage.”

“Will the sanctuary be okay?”

“I suspect it will. But we should leave as soon as possible, with Master Vithion.”

Falmas forced a smile. “Oh, Ranval…”

The Jedi Knight returned to her side. Her wounds were not severe, and for that he was grateful. The scar on her face was brutal, but it was already cauterized and would not get worse. When she had trouble moving, he helped her into a reclining position where she could rest in his arms. Although she had tried to remain strong for him, she couldn’t hold back her tears. She began to cry in his arms, and Ranval embraced her more tightly.

“Ranval…” she whispered. “Please forgive your foolish apprentice.”

“You’ve nothing to apologize for.”

“My heart,” she choked on her words, “caused me to falter. In that moment when I thought I was going to lose, I gave in to the darkness again. I let it in willingly. I was so afraid. I was afraid of losing everything. I thought perhaps the dark side could save me, but it didn’t. It only created this!” Her hand touched at the burned flesh across her face. “I’m so sorry…”

“No. I was complicit in your failure. I… did not help you when I could have. I brought this about. I’ve been afraid to take an apprentice for so long, for this very reason. I know my failures all too well, and I don’t want them to reflect upon you. I don’t want to become…” Ranval stopped himself. Northeus was still on his mind, but he didn’t want to speak ill of him now that he was dead.

She had faltered, but Ranval did not doubt her conviction. In her heart she held no ill will toward him, he thought no less of her, and her esteem for him was not troubled by both of these revelation. His kindness relieved her worries. They hadn’t wanted for any of this to happen, but there was no changing it now. She was comforted by the fact that he would not abandon her, even now. She was happy to be his apprentice. She would make him proud.

“Come,” Ranval said once she had begun wiping away her tears. “The bomb will go off before long. We ought to put all these items in the vault to protect them and rescue Aecus before fleeing. At the very least, we should take one of the Sith shuttles to get some distance between us.”

“Of course, Master. I’ll follow wherever you go.”

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