Dynatha stood at the bottom of a great staircase. This hallway alone ran between Preux’s arena and the chamber before her, which she presumed were his personal quarters. There had been no marines, droids, or Sith waiting to stop her. There were a few floor-mounted panels that provided an inkling of blue light to the passageway, and aside from the clinking of her boots, only the occasional hissing of ventilation shafts above her kept the walkway from silence. The dark side of the Force subsumed this place; whether its suffocating presence was due to Preux or else the Dark Lord had set up his quarters in this place to feed from something else, she wasn’t sure. Whatever the reason, her own connection to the Force was practically cut off, surrounded as she was by a miasma of darkness.
She took her first step. The heavy weight that was pushing down on her shoulders seemed to become greater. Then the second step. As she ascended, slowly and cautiously, the Force impressed upon her mind a terrible sense of dread. It was as though the universe itself was begging her to turn around, forget about her foolish venture, and abandon everyone—the Jedi, the Republic, all of her friends and allies—to their respective fates. What good would you do alone? her thoughts seemed to ask. You felt Lord Preux’s power yourself. You simply cannot hope to face him. He’ll crush you like an insect. With a wave of his hand, you’ll be swept away before the dark current. She thought of Raen and the other Jedi who had opposed him—and lost.
But she kept walking.
She ascended the stairs and didn’t look back. Before she opened the door, she gripped the crystal that Lalun had given her, now attached to a necklace hidden under her robes. Once she had reassured herself, she willed open the door standing in her way, and it opened. It hadn’t even been locked.
The chamber before her consisted of a great transparent dome. It had no furnishings or machinery, with only a single seat—not unlike the one Preux had been sitting on earlier—at the center of the room. She immediately recognized it as the chamber she had seen in her vision back in the temple on the nameless jungle world. This was the place where everything would be decided. Her enemy would not run away anymore.
“At last we meet,” came the booming voice of Preux. But his voice was different, resonant and gravely, and she heard his actual voice echo after his new voice. “To think you would come willingly… I do not know what the boy had planned for you, but I am very happy to see you.”
In that moment, two things happened at once. The door she had just entered sealed shut behind her, and an energy field formed around it to keep her from trying to bypass the lock. Simultaneously, Preux revealed himself from behind the imposing throne. Two colossal wings of inky blackness emerged from behind him, engulfed his entire figure, and then shifted from a formless blob into the shape of a man at least three times Dynatha’s height. The aura before her felt like the presence of the evil Sith spirits she and Tserne had encountered on Krayiss Two, and she recognized that Preux himself was possessed by a far more terrible villain. From the humanoid mass, two red eyes emerged where they would have been on a Human, and they glared balefully upon her.
“Who are you?” Dynatha shouted.
“I am Avaran Whell. Traitor to the Jedi, Lord of the Sith, and the mastermind behind all you see before you. You have come upon my domain, and I would have you kneel.”
When it became obvious that Dynatha refused, the dark side encroached upon her entirety. Her brain was overcome with a thick haze, as though she had been given a psychoactive drug, and her breathing became belabored and hoarse. Her entire body trembled, the Force abandoned her, and she thought she was going to pass out. With invisible forces pushing her down, Dynatha collapsed face-first, striking the metal floor.
“You made an admirable attempt, but in this place, my will is irresistible. All around us, I have fashioned the very fabric of existence—the Force itself—to my liking. Everything down to the smallest molecule moves according to my design, every thought that passes your mind is broadcast into my ears, and every will is subservient to my own. You are powerless.”
Dynatha tried to speak, but she found her mouth dry and her throat quite restricted. She spoke with him telepathically Do you think I’ll surrender like this? You’ve made a show of force… nothing more. Nothing you can do will make me yield. I’m not afraid of you.
“You should be. You will be.”
Dynatha was suddenly forced upright, like a puppet being jerked about by an unseen puppeteer. Through a combination of telekinetic prowess and striking at her back with invisible dark power, the malevolent entity forced Dynatha to the edge of the dome where she could see the battle taking place beyond them. She saw Republic starfighters clashing with their Sith counterparts, cruisers adorned in red and yellow encircling dagger-shaped warships and firing all of their guns. Occasionally, an Aurek strikefighter would try and attack the Phantasm itself, but its weapons always failed to get through and the ship would disintegrate into atomic particles upon contact with the dark shield. It seemed to her that the Republic had more ships, but those ships that remained had also taken extensive damage; a keen strategist could turn the tide for either faction.
“What do you see?”
“A battle. One that you will lose.”
“Do you suppose the destruction of this fleet concerns me?” the ghost sneered. “Trinkets for an orphaned son. I need but a single ship to travel to the Sith Emperor and claim his throne for myself. To claim his multitude of ships, his loyal minions, everything. Let the Republic destroy its finest vessels fighting for this doomed world.”
“There are more fleets waiting,” Dynatha said, “all across the Republic. You may conquer a few systems, but there are many sector fleets that would destroy what little hope of empire you have.”
“Empire? Is your mind really so small? I did not spend ten generations breeding man and woman into a clan whose offspring would be worthy of housing my immortal spirit to declare myself king over some sector of space. I did not crawl through the void like a worm to escape death just to wear a crown.”
The more he spoke, the more Dynatha knew this ancient evil must be totally wiped out. His past crimes were more numerable than she knew, but even the hints she received through his words and the Force made her blood run cold. “You’re afraid of death, then. Total and complete. You know that without a willing host, you’d be condemned to the abyss. When I destroy Preux, the last of his family, you will lose.”
“So arrogant. I have lived for centuries. Jedi Masters, all more powerful than you, have sought me out, eager to see me defeated, some knowing full well everything I have done. They make you look like a blubbering infant, desperately grasping at the light. Do not fear. In my mercy, I will offer you the same choice I offered them: genuflection or the grave.”
“I’ll never join you.”
“What I mean to say is, all of this is pointless. It is true, Raystin and his wife are dead. The perfect couple that I had spent decades arranging. Raen fell to Jaeln before I could have a say in the matter. Jaeln’s body is so corrupted by the dark that it can no longer create life. Believe me, that idiot Admiral Isinn—she died as she lived—tried many times. When Jaeln dies, the Benax family will be no more.
“However, Preux has activated many of my fighting clones, both in these ships and below us on the planet’s surface. They would be unable to resist my possession and are capable of providing me with Force power. I will take one of their bodies and flee, waiting for you and all who know of me to die, and I will start all over. I am nothing if not patient. Of course, there is a more appealing alternative…”
The spirit coalesced its titanic form around Preux’s body, highlighting his frame in a black aura that licked at the air around him like an unrestrained fire. However, to Dynatha’s surprise, he appeared many years younger, somehow immune to the corrupting effects of the dark side. Only his eyes, radiating an eerie red light, reminded her that this figure she saw was only an illusion created by Avaran Whell. He seized her by the throat and held her against the transparisteel dome.
“I had no responsibility in your creation. Whether you were gifted by chance or else it was the will of the Force, I care not. Regardless, I cannot pass up an opportunity to use you to create a new bloodline—far stronger than any Benax. Jaeln and his physical body are nothing but my anchor. Deadweight, even. You… and your children… would be a vivacious and welcoming abode for my spirit.”
Dynatha could hear no more. Whether it was terror or fury that overcame her, she did not know. The light returned to her in an instant, like a brilliant star had been born within the nebulous miasma of the dark side. The Force emerged from her body, invisible at first, but eventually revealing itself as an expanding ball of light that forced Preux and his possessor away from her. A warm glow filled the chambers around her, and the strongest shadows retreated and were eventually cast into space. She sensed the Sith specter recoil, if only a little, at the presence of her wide-reaching luminance.
“You’ll never succeed. I’ll stop you here. Now.” Dynatha said. Her lightsaber was already in her hand, blazing with a bright blue light. “If you’re in there, Jaeln, I’m giving you one more chance to surrender. Join me. Fight back against the spirit that’s stolen your body from you.”
“He cannot hear you. He’s already dead. If you do not join me, you will follow him.”
Verita and Tserne had fought their way through the ship, sometimes taking engineering tunnels and other times ascending elevator shafts to the dorsal side of the ship where the Force ghost with them sensed that Dynatha was waiting. Very few Sith marines or Dark Jedi tried to stop them; most had already been eliminated by some interloper or another. Only a single Dark Jedi had stood in the hallway between them and their destination, and Verita had summarily dealt with him. Locked doors and damaged passageways presented a larger issue. Sometimes the pair went around them, other times Tserne bypassed the security so they could advance.
There was no way around this door. Tserne had been working on it for quite some time, ignoring Raystin’s comments about the battle around them or the enemies nearby. Verita had lingered nearby until her comlink had buzzed. Jhosua had been trying to reach her since she had arrived in-system; only now that she found herself trapped on the enemy flagship had he managed to contact her. She was as surprised as he was that her comlink was working and he managed to reach her.
“Verita. I can’t believe I managed to get through,” Jhosua said. His voice was hoarse, quiet, and there were other voices talking nearby. “Are you safe? Where are you? Are Glacis and Fier with you?”
“I’m fine for now. I thought I sensed you in the Mandalorian fleet, so I was headed to Mandalore to see what he had to say, but the ship I was supposed to come in on…” Verita glanced over at Tserne. He was still trying to slice the security door in front of them. She thought back to Fetcher and the others who had sacrificed themselves to help them get here. “It didn’t survive the trip. I’m stuck on the Sith flagship at the moment.”
“The Sith flagship? Verita, what are you doing? With our daughters?”
“No. They were on the surface. They should be headed your way now. If the situation changes, they’ll be ready to fly away at a moment’s notice.”
“You’re sure they’re okay?”
Jhosua heaved a sigh of relief. “You need to get off that ship. The entire fleet is closing in, and I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to convince the other admirals to hold their fire. If you need an escort, I can divert a transport with some Mandalorian shocktroopers.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Verita said, but she was surprised just how much authority Jhosua actually had for a man who was supposed to be dead. What exactly was he up to? “My children are safe. You’re safe, I hope. To make sure that doesn’t change, the leader of the Sith needs to be defeated.”
“Verita, you’re no longer a Jedi. It’s no longer your responsibility.”
“You’re wrong. It’s also my duty to see to it that evil in our ranks are dealt with. No one here is capable of doing this on their own. I have to help them. I have to be here, Jhosua.”
“I can’t help but be worried.”
“Don’t be. I’ll be back with you and the girls before you know it.”
“I… I trust you.” Jhosua said, even though Verita could tell that he wasn’t quite sure. Whether it was just concern for her safety, or else he had another reason to doubt her, she couldn’t say. “Let me know when you’re on your way out. I’ll see to it that you’re directed to me.”
She closed the connection. She hadn’t told her husband that there was another reason she had stayed behind. This man, who called himself Tserne DeLarane, was not in fact the man he thought he was. She had known him before, in a past life. In the years before the Jedi Civil War, when she had been captured by the enemy and twisted into a minion of the Sith, they had been friends—and more. It was so long ago that he didn’t remember her, and he probably didn’t remember himself either. If not for the haunting memories, the strange dreams, and the unusual longings that stirred within her, she probably would have left Tserne to his own devices.
She did not love him now. That much was certain. She had done terrible things before, failed Jhosua and her family in more ways than one. She was determined to change. As soon as she and Tserne left, she would approach Jhosua and tell him everything. Tell him everything she had kept from him for so long. He deserved to know.
But did Tserne? He spoke so fondly of the woman Dynatha, of his hope to reach her and be with her again before it was too late. He had known Fetcher and his crew well, and he had earned the trust of Delvin and his apprentices in the Jedi Watchcircle. Tserne, though that was not his name, had become a new man after the Jedi Civil War. Verita was not in the picture. Though he perhaps deserved to know the truth about himself, she could not bring herself to tell him. How would he think of her? How would he think of Dynatha? What about the men and women he thought he knew? Her heart restrained her, even though every time she looked into his pale blue eyes, she thought back to that hill on Alderaan and nearly said his name aloud…
The security door slid open. Tserne gave her a wry smile. “See? I told you. No trouble.”
“This should be the last door between you and her. But there is another danger,” Raystin said.
Preux’s meditation chamber-cum-arena was unguarded when they arrived, and the deceased Jedi Master led them up the stairs and directed them toward a door hidden away behind the throne. The Force caused Verita’s body to ache as though she had been exposed to ear-splitting white noise. There was no doubt there was a very powerful Sith Master before them. No enemy, not even the Darth she had fought with Selias and the others so many years ago on Derra IV, made her feel like this. Even Tserne, with limited Force senses, realized that they were close.
“Follow this tunnel all the way,” the ghost in the sword said, “and you will meet her.”
“Tserne, we ought to turn back,” Verita urged. “Find other Jedi. I sense them aboard. We will need help.”
“No. We’re going forward.”
“We’re not strong enough. If we continue, we won’t be able to save her! Not like this.”
“If you turn back now, Dynatha will die,” Raystin warned. “That is certain.”
“Then it’s settled.”
“I sense powerful beings ahead,” Verita said, grasping his shoulder. “Don’t you? They’re dangerous. I’m not strong enough to fight them. You’re not either. I don’t know what your plan is, but Raystin is leading you to your death!”
“Then I’ll die with her. Turn around if you want, Verita. You’ve done enough. Find those Jedi. See if they have a way out.”
Tserne left her behind, breaking into a sprint while Raystin’s Force ghost led the way. Verita considered going back for only a moment before running after him. The passage went on for longer than either of them expected, and Tserne had to slow down after running as fast as he could for several minutes. It was then that Verita caught up to him.
“I thought you were leaving.”
“And let you have all the fun? There’s Sith that need defeating.”
“Your family needs you, Verita.”
“They need me to help you defeat this evil. If this battle becomes a war, where will they be safe? Where would we be able to flee? Don’t try to get rid of me now that I’ve decided to help you.”
Tserne simply nodded and continued on with Verita in tow. As the halls got darker, he instinctively reached for his cybernetic eye, but instead of following through he extended his Force perceptions as much as he could. Verita sensed him extend his Force senses, and she followed suit. Sure enough, there were four beings in front of them—and one of them was definitely Dynatha.
As the two got closer, the more both of them seemed to realize that something wasn’t right. Verita’s feet felt heavy, like she was wearing boots made of dense metal. Even though she had extended her perceptions, they instinctively withdrew, as though she wasn’t using the Force at all. Even the air around them became cold. She saw Tserne raise his sword into a defensive stance and continue slowly, and Verita followed behind him with her hand on her lightsaber.
When they finally came to the door at the end of the passage, there was a massive armored figure waiting for them. With halberd in hand, he was apparently stationed to guard the door against intruders, but he didn’t notice their arrival; he was talking with someone over the ship’s comm using a nearby console.
“Master Thoronim, the Jedi are already here. They eliminated both squads of Sith commando units and are trying to get through the blast doors. We won’t last without reinforcements. Where is Nafyan? Where is Master Preux?”
“Please forgive my insolence, but I believe there are Jedi Councilors against us now. Surely you don’t expect two Sith Masters and a handful of dark acolytes to hold their own against them? We need a warrior of your caliber to assist us here on the bridge.”
“Go ahead. I’ll watch the door,” Tserne agreed.
Thoronim regarded him with a brief glance. “I’m afraid I must remain here, Master Hiryant. Use the dark side to secure your victory, or else die well.”
The armored colossus deactivated the console and turned so that his back was to the door. “When my master told me to expect others to come to her aid, I did not expect two Jedi.” His voice boomed inside his helmet. “Is this all that your Order could muster? Or are you two more than you appear?”
“So Dynatha is back there,” Tserne said, not caring for whatever else the figure was going on about.
“She is. I’m afraid you’ve no way of reaching her, though. I have been told to withstand any enemy that attempts to interrupt my master’s business. ‘The entire Jedi Council must be eradicated if they appear before you’, my master ordered. As he has commanded, so I will do.”
“You can try to stop me, but you’ll regret it.”
“Do you suppose I would waste my time fighting enemies of your stature? Let this creature of dark power remove you from my sight.”
Verita sensed the derriphan before she saw it. The creature pulsated with energy and was guarded by a dark miasma. Floating from some unseen place near the ceiling, the orbicular creature interposed itself between the two Force-sensitives and the armored guardian.
“That is a Sithspawn created to absorb the Force from adversaries of the Sith. Your lightsabers are useless. It was fashioned by the Force and can only be destroyed by it,” Raystin warned.
“You can try,” the Sith guard behind them said. “It has been starved for so long, I wouldn’t want to stand in its way when it hungers.”
Verita’s bronze blade lit up the chamber as her weapon came alive in her hands. She was about to rush at Thoronim, but the derriphan shifted in front of her. She swung her lightsaber at it, causing it to disappear. When it reappeared, it did so behind Tserne, and small tendrils of dark energy leapt out from its form and grasped onto the sides of his head. Tserne shouted in pain as the makeshift limbs began to claw at his flesh and force its way into his mind. Through the Force, Verita could sense the creature trying to extract something from him—memories, knowledge, or perhaps his consciousness. Whatever it was doing, Tserne couldn’t defend himself in the meantime, and he was powerless to stop it.
“It’s trying to claim his mind for its own!” Raystin shouted. “You must act now, or else-”
The armored guardsman bodyslammed Verita, sending her to the deck and causing her to lose her lightsaber. The huge figure was far heavier and stronger than she was, and merely being struck felt like she had been hit by a swoop bike. She tried to recover, but Thoronim was upon her in an instant, moving quicker than he should have been able to, and planted his boot upon her back.
“Don’t resist. He will be dead soon, and then I will dispatch you. I want you to watch as his life is drained out from his body. Observe his helplessness… and yours. After you feel the cold, empty remains of his corpse will I end your life.”
“Verita, get up!” Raystin urged her.
“A bit difficult…” Verita coughed. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Tserne needs you. Your family needs you. Dynatha needs you. Get up!”
“Stay out of this, you fool. Let the dead hold their peace.”
“Verita… help… I can’t…”
The colossal sentry was evidently pleased with himself. He planted his polearm near Verita’s head, a ready sign of what would happen if she did not act. Summoning all of her strength, Verita unleashed a wave of telekinesis that pushed Thoronim off her and gave her a chance to stand up again. She called her lightsaber to her hand and reignited the weapon, but when she tried to approach Tserne the Sith guard blocked her path.
“It won’t be so easy.”
Verita slashed at the hulking warrior before her, aiming for quick, deadly blows to the upper body and head. Her reach was hindered by her height compared to his, and her opponent kept his polearm before him so that its long haft could stop her attacks. Both the wood and the metal that composed his weapon were impervious to lightsaber strikes, and it appeared his armor was as well.
Verita jumped back and threw her lightsaber at Thoronim. He intended to seize it out of the air as it swung toward him, but Verita had counted on that and pulled him with telekinesis just before her lightsaber made contact. While he hardly budged, the minute distance he moved was enough to cause him to miss the incoming weapon, and the blade cut deep into the palm of his gauntlet before swinging back around and into her hand.
She was upon him in an instant. Her lightsaber crackled as it struck his armor with heavy blows, avoiding his defense with unmatchable speed. Every second another hit came down upon Thoronim’s armored form, and Verita moved so quickly that she appeared a blur of incessant motion. The chief guard of the Sith found himself backpedaling before her assault. With a flying kick imbued with all the Force power she could bring to bear, Verita struck Thoronim in the chest and caused him to collide with the wall behind him. Taking what precious seconds she had gained, Verita rushed to Tserne’s side.
Her amnesiac companion was on the deck now, sprawled out like Thoronim was. There was no life in his eyes, and his skin was cold and pale. The tendrils acted like anchors for the mysterious derriphan, and its globular form was nearly seated on the back of Tserne’s head. The Sithspawn shimmered in a vibrant array of colors, and the energy that surrounded it was even stronger; the intensity and the ozone it produced was almost too much for her to bear.
“How can I save him, Raystin?” Verita asked, knowing she had little time left.
“The derriphan’s connection must be severed while simultaneously keeping Tserne’s mind from collapsing wjile it is so vulnerable. How skilled are you in the telepathy?”
“Then I will do my best to sustain him instead. You can use your healing arts once he is freed. You must be quick, and you must be prepared for anything. Interrupting it during its feast will cause it to lash out at you. Be ready.”
Verita did as she was told. She had little skill in using the Force to manipulate matter at the atomic level, but she did the best she could to sever the derriphan’s tendrils by creating a pocket of air between Tserne’s skull and its claws. Finding itself suddenly removed from its sustenance, the derriphan’s shape distorted and its pulsations became erratic. Pulling itself away from Tserne, it turned all of its attention to her.
She tried to use the Force to shield herself, but her efforts were useless. It was quicker than her and its methods far stronger than her defenses. The derriphan’s spindly tendrils grasped the side of her head, just as it had with Tserne, and began to feed upon her mind. It was more painful than she could have imagined. The front of her face ached like a powerful migraine, there was a jabbing pain in the back of her skull like she was being hit over and over again, and her senses became overloaded with burning sensations. She could scarcely think straight. She only wanted it to stop.
Aside from the pain, she felt exhausted and confused, like she had woken up after a drunken stupor. But soon the true nature of the derriphan’s hunger became apparent. Memories that she had long forgotten drifted to the forefront of her mind—her time on Dantooine as a Jedi Padawan, her studies under her Jedi teacher, her experiences with her friends before the Jedi Civil War—and were snatched away as one would snatch away a holo-recording of those events. In an instant, she forgot the thoughts, feelings, and lessons that had dwelt so long in her mind. Nothing was safe. She cried out for it to stop, but the unfeeling creature continued assailing her mind without hesitation.
Slowly, methodically, it picked away at pieces of her mind. The wisdom of her Jedi Master became gibberish. Her experiences in the Jedi Civil War were reduced to the emotions she had felt. Fear, anger, courage, sorrow. She saw many people she had known disappear into a haze of ignorance. She was scared that she was going to forget everything and be left a mindless husk, an unthinking slave of the Sith.
“Please… I don’t want to forget…” The image of a man flashed in front of her eyes. The first man she had loved. The man who had pledged to be with her forever. Who had followed her into the grasp of the Sith and was tortured with her. Who, after much pain, betrayed them both. The man who had broken her heart. “Geryon!”
When she opened her eyes again, Tserne was leaning over her. When he saw her open her eyes, he gave her a reassuring smile. In that moment, he looked just like she remembered him. He had either recovered from the torture the derriphan had inflicted or else he masked his pain well. The Sithspawn was nowhere to be seen.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“I think I’m okay,” Verita stuttered, only because it felt strange to talk. “What about you? What happened to the derriphan?”
“Raystin wouldn’t stop shouting that you were in danger. There was no time, so I cut the derriphan with the sword—it dissolved into nothingness with one strike. If I had known it was so easy, I would have done that in the first place.”
“You wouldn’t have had a chance. It becomes distracted as it feeds. It was fortunate you were conscious and not alone,” Raystin said.
“Can you stand? We need to move on,” Tserne told her.
“I think so. Give me a moment.”
Disoriented though she was, her danger sense warned her of an incoming attack. Tserne must have sensed it too. He grabbed her and dove out of the way with her just in time to avoid a swing of Thoronim’s bladed weapon. Tserne stood up first, sword in hand, and stood over Verita to defend them both. To their surprise, the armored figure did not advance, but he did walk over so that he was in front of the doorway between them and Dynatha.
“Now you must contend with me, and I have no intention of toying with you anymore.”
Tserne jumped into the wall to his right, bounded off of it, used the left wall to propel him higher and farther, and then brought his sword down on Thoronim from above. The armored colossus didn’t even try to dodge; raising his polearm above his head, he caught Tserne’s blade with the haft of his halberd and then physically pushed him in the course of repelling his sword. Tserne landed only half-upright and nearly on top of Verita. With only a split second to recover, he followed up with a series of precise slashes at Thoronim’s legs. None of his blows made contact, and Thoronim pushed him back just as easily as he had before. When Tserne tried a third time, the massive guardian kneed him in the chest, knocking the wind out of him and causing him to tumble onto the floor.
“It’s futile. Leave this place. She never had a chance.”
“He is formidable. I hadn’t expected an obstacle like this. I don’t think you have what it takes to defeat him,” Raystin added.
Tserne shot him an icy look. “Whose side are you on?”
“Listen to the ghost, young one. Why throw your life away needlessly? I am implacable. You are willing but unprepared. Scores of Jedi have fallen before me. Don’t be a fool.”
Gathering the Force to him, Tserne bolstered his strength and speed as though he had injected himself with many adrenal stims. He closed the distance between himself and Thoronim in the blink of an eye, and he stabbed at his enemy’s guard many times a second, alternating between high and low attacks, swift and heavy, precise and lumbering. But no matter how he changed his methods, Thoronim refused to yield. The Dark Lord’s bodyguard was just as fast—no, even faster—than Tserne could manage, and Thoronim disarmed Tserne by catching his sword with his halberd and twisting it to the side and then down quickly. Before Tserne could reclaim his weapon, Thoronim brought his knee up and into Tserne’s gut. With a quick swing of his polearm, he struck Tserne in the face with the haft and forced him back.
“An interesting weapon,” Thoronim mused upon picking up the sword that bound Raystin’s body. “If I am not mistaken, it would appear that this is what you draw power from. Even now, I feel you losing your Force potential. Strange. What should happen if I shatter this thing in two, I wonder?”
“Should you destroy the blade, I cannot guarantee even your safety,” Raystin’s spirit told the Sith guardian. “There is awesome power contained within this weapon, and what it would do if it was suddenly unleashed all at once, I cannot say.”
“You say that only to preserve your anchor to this plane. My master would be glad to be rid of you, and I see no reason to keep you here.”
Verita had finally recovered from the derriphan’s assault. Leaping from her position to Thoronim’s side, she raised her lightsaber and brought its blade down on his right arm, burning a gash into his armor and causing him to drop Tserne’s weapon. Catching it on the way down, Verita ran to Tserne before Thoronim could counter and returned his weapon.
“Go to her, Tserne. Let me handle this,” Verita said.
“You? Verita, if I can’t handle him-”
“You don’t think I can handle myself?” Verita’s face revealed no emotion; it could have been set in stone. “If Dynatha can’t defeat this Sith Lord, we’re all in trouble, aren’t we?”
“You can’t face him alone, Verita.”
“Watch me. I’ll beat this second-rate bodyguard and escape while you and Dynatha do the dirty work. If you think about it, I’m getting the better deal,” she said with a wry smile. “I know what I’m doing, Tserne. Go.”
“Don’t make me regret this.”
“Do you expect me to let you through? Foolish. It doesn’t matter who chooses to engage me. Neither of you will pass.”
He was right. In an attempt to give her an advantage, Tserne replied by ejecting the power pak from his blaster rifle and throwing it at him. Verita knew his plan as though she had told him about it beforehand. She ignited the gasses within the ammunition via the Force and caused it to detonate in Thoronim’s face. For the first time, the titanic Sith warrior truly fumbled, caught off guard by the intensity of the explosion. Before he could recover, Tserne had raced past him, toward the door, only to discover that it was sealed by something resembling a magnetic seal. He would have to find a way to deal with that. To give him the time he needed, Verita rushed Thoronim and brought her blade to bear. She had managed to slash deep into his breastplate before the hulking guardian recovered.
She separated herself from him to avoid the wide arc of his swing. When Thoronim turned around to lance Tserne in the back, Verita pulled down durasteel plates from the ceiling in front of him. The debris forced him to pause, and Verita took the opportunity to assail his back. Again she retreated before Thoronim could turn around and strike her.
“Do you suppose this mess will stop me? Scurrying about will only tire you and make you an easier target. You are faster, not stronger. Run. This isn’t your fight.”
“Like hell it isn’t.”
Thoronim trembled for a moment, and then in the blink of an eye he was standing mere centimeters in front of her. Verita instinctively raised her lightsaber to defend herself, so Thoronim kneed her in the gut for her trouble. She stumbled back, and Thoronim closed the distance again and swatted her to the ground with the side of his halberd. She was up on her feet again just in time to avoid a swipe at her face.
Her bronze lightsaber was the only light around them. She could see Tserne, if only barely, enter the quarters Thoronim had tried to guard. With him inside, she could have fled, returned to the hangars, and left this whole mess behind. Whether it was more of those strange, long-held but suppressed feelings welling up within her or else she felt it was her duty as a Jedi, she refused to give ground. She would fight until the Sith were defeated. Everything about this ordeal she had to put behind her, and she couldn’t do that so long as she ran away.
Dynatha’s lightsaber was still in her hand, despite the fact that she hadn’t had a chance to use it. Preux had retreated to the other side of the domed observatory and had sent dark waves of energy in her direction. A Force barrier had protected her until now, but the Sith Lord’s attacks were relentless and seemed to grow stronger as time went on. Every so often, she would lash out with a spear of light of her own, but the projectiles were snuffed out amidst his furious power before they could even get close.
The undulations of shadow washed over her barrier, much stronger than before, and shattered her defenses. She erected another smaller shield around her body just before the dark side enveloped her. Preux cackled with delight. Dynatha ran around the perimeter of the ship so quickly that only Force-enhanced senses could have seen her and nearly reached her adversary; only a telekinetic shockwave managed to repel her.
“You fools will always been on the defensive. Your nature demands it. Your demise is evident even in this. Even the mightiest shield will eventually crumble against an unyielding foe. Walls collapse against a repeated cannonade. Ships' armor melts away by turbolaser fire. My power is merciless, indefatigable, and unstoppable. You can defend yourself all you want. I will win this day.”
Dynatha summoned another shield just in time to block another wave of darkness. In the lull between Preux’s attacks, she summoned her own wave of telekinetic energy and tried to knock him over. The Dark Lord rebuffed the attempt and replied by raising his hands and unleashing a surge of lightning upon her. The lightning crackled as it coursed through the air, and it shattered Dynatha’s barrier in an instant. She raised her lightsaber to defend herself and barely managed to do so. The arcs of lightning dissipated into nothingness within her blue blade, but the attack had been so close that her skin burned and she could smell the rank ozone.
Preux, realizing that his lightning strike would go no farther than her lightsaber, created icicles by taking moisture in the air and forcing it to undergo rapid desublimation. He sent these icicles at her like tiny arrows; when Dynatha tried to block one with her lightsaber, the ice rapidly melted and then turned to gas, but not before the copious amounts of water overloaded her blade’s power supply and deactivated the weapon. Before she could defend herself or alter to another defensive stance, Preux again attacked her with lightning. The lightning crackled and snaked around her body. Writhing about on the ground, Dynatha tried to form another barrier, but she was in so much pain that it was impossible for her to concentrate.
“Yield to me. Give your body to me. I will let you remain intact—much like Preux here—while I go about my business.”
“You Jedi are far too stubborn. Surely you can be reasonable?” Dynatha couldn’t say anything more given the pain she was in, so Preux continued: “I said it before. This is my abode. Your thoughts betray you. Why are you fighting here, when you could return to him?”
The lightning stopped. Dynatha took the opportunity he had given her to struggle back to an upright position, and she raised her lightsaber and tried activating it—no luck. The Force was moving through her again, without her command or intent, in an effort to restore her body to full health.
“Yes… he has a name. Tserne, I think? What would he say if he knew you were here?”
“He would help me defeat you.”
“Would he? Are you sure?” Preux vanished for a moment, only to move somewhere in the darkness behind her. “You know him. You know what he would do. He would flee. He is naturally inclined to avoid danger. Yes, he loves something more than he loves you… don’t you see? Why would he abandon you in the first place?”
“He’s a better man than you think he is.”
“Is that so? What do you suppose… were he alive, would he come to you now, or would he remain safe until the battle ends? Would he seek you out, or would he go out on his own again? Once a coward-”
Dynatha threw her lightsaber at the source of the voice. Though the blade itself activated, it struck at nothing but air. Preux suddenly emerged from behind her, standing in her shadow.
“You could still have a chance to be with him, you know. He may have passed on, or he might be dying alone in a ditch on Sleheyron—where Northeus left him. Oh yes, I know all about that. Whatever the case, I can give you what you seek. You have seen how I hold together Jaeln’s dying body. I have toyed with many of my victims, giving them life when they should have died. The dark side can reunite you with him.”
Before she had arrived on the Phantasm, her heart told her that Tserne was not dead. Not yet. But that assurance faded the more she thought about it, and the words of Preux splintered her already fragile hopes. She had fought for so long because she wanted to see him again. She wanted to be with him in the end. She fought for her friends, for her oath to the Jedi, and to fulfill what Lalun had started. She fought to defeat the dark side. That was her duty.
“Yes. You know this to be true. The darkness will give you what you desire. Your mind may object, but your heart knows what you want, above all else. Listen to it. Ignore the semantic quibbles. What are vows and loyalty but invisible bonds, slavery to intangibles? Your so-called friends have abused your trust from the beginning. Raen, Calay, the Jedi Covenant, the High Council, Ranval… all of them wanted you and your power for nothing in return. Exploitation.”
Dynatha nodded slowly, as if in a trance. She wasn’t quite herself, but she couldn’t find the words to deny him. Her body was weak, and her mind was weakening. The great haze that had overcome her earlier was again clouding her thoughts. She was scarcely cognizant of the Force’s presence, though it was desperate to aid her. Whether Preux was acting as a dam to seal off that wellspring of power or else she refused to let it in herself, she was helpless so long as Preux whispered into her ear.
“Let me in, Dynatha.” That was Tserne’s voice. “I won’t hurt you, but you have to trust me. You… do trust me, don’t you?”
“I will depart from this dying body and enter yours. Together we can go see him. Don’t struggle. Your body will resist, but you must endure. Do you understand?”
The door to the observatory slammed, as though someone had battered it with a very large weapon. The sudden noise woke Dynatha from her stupor, and she realized just how close she had come to failing—and succumbing to the darkness. Not because of any spell Preux had cast, but because of her own weakness. The very thought terrified her.
The door slammed again, leaving a large indentation. The spirit of Avaran roared in frustration and created tremors that caused the entire chamber to quake. Dynatha had nothing to hold onto, and she fell over despite trying to keep herself standing amidst the trembling. Preux raced over to her, eager to seize her while she was on the ground, but at once the barrier that had been guarding the door failed and the doors themselves imploded. Tserne DeLarane walked through the opening, sword in hand.
“Tserne!” Dynatha called to him. A million questions were on her tongue, but she couldn’t articulate one in particular.
“Dynatha.” Tserne heaved a sigh of relief. How long had he been searching for her?
“His highness, the king of the damned, appears.” Preux gave a mocking bow. “You should have stayed on Sleheyron where I left you.”
“I thought something was wrong with Northeus,” Tserne replied. “I’m glad to see that it wasn’t entirely his decision to abandon me.”
“Oh, it was his decision. I only goaded him a bit. Just as nothing I do in this body is truly my doing. I only guide Preux’s hand where he would otherwise waiver. How I would have worked through Dynatha if you had been delayed a few minutes.” The spirit glared icily toward Thoronim as he fought with Verita in the passage beyond. “Useless fool. How is he supposed to depend on you when you can’t even hold off this buffoon?”
“You’ll have to chide your pupil later. I have someone you ought to meet,” Tserne said.
Avaran Whell! This time, I’ll send you back to chaos where you belong!
Raystin Benax’s spirit, entombed in the sword, revealed himself as a humanoid shape floating behind Tserne. A ring of light surrounded his entire body, and what would have been his eyes burned with the fury of the oldest stars. In a flash, Raystin’s form engulfed Preux’s body, and the Jedi ghost sundered the control the dark spirit had on the Sith Lord’s body. Preux fumbled about, surprised to have his body back so suddenly, and his confusion gave Dynatha a chance to reunite with Tserne.
“You have no idea how relieved I am that you’re here,” she said after a brief embrace. “I was so worried. When Northeus told me what happened-”
“Don’t worry about all that. Where are Ranval and the others?”
“On the planet’s surface, I think. They went to stop Northeus.”
“So they left you alone to do this?” Tserne was indignant. “What would have happened if I hadn’t come?”
“I think… Ranval knew you would come.”
“It was too dangerous. Even with Verita-”
“I’ll explain later. For now-”
A dark beam of energy lanced at the two of them, and Dynatha raised a shield to ward off the attack. Preux recovered quickly. He stood before the two of them, lightsaber drawn.
“-we fight him together,” Tserne said.
Wiping at blood dribbling down her lip, Verita held her lightsaber at her waist and prepared for another attack. Verita was outclassed. She understood too late that she had been tricked into overconfidence and let her guard down before a very powerful foe. When Tserne had bypassed the threshold and confronted the Dark Lord, Thoronim had realized that he had failed. Whether in a rage or finally revealing his true power, the guardsman came down upon her unlike any enemy she had ever faced. Despite his size, Thoronim was faster than she was, his weapon’s reach was greater than her own, and he was well-guarded from her Force attacks.
“You are most foolish. Don’t you understand? I will eliminate you and return to my master. What you’ve done is futile. Only delayed his death. Why do you fight so for a lost cause?”
“It’s not lost. You’re not capable of defeating me.”
“I’ve bested better Jedi.”
Verita bounced off the wall behind her and slashed at his shoulders as she jumped over him. The blade didn’t penetrate his armor, but she had been so close that he couldn’t use his polearm effectively. He turned around far quicker than a being of his size should have been able to, but Verita countered every blow with a steady defense, catching haft and blade wherever Thoronim swung them at her. Sparks scattered across the floor when their weapons made contact. Verita did her best to outmaneuver him, striking where she believed his armor was weakest, but no matter how she tried she couldn’t land a good hit against her enemy.
She ducked under a stab at her chest and gave him a cut to the knee for his trouble. This time, her blow seemed to get through his armor and strike his flesh; she smelled the burning skin and heard him rumble in pain. She tried to slash at his side as he came back up, but he backhanded her and forced her away from him. Thoronim approached her just as she uprighted herself and jabbed at her with his fist. Once she was dazed by the blow to the head, Thoronim brought down his weapon for a decapitating blow. She managed to swing her lightsaber up high just in time, catching the incoming blade but forcing her to her knees.
“This is the end for you, little Jedi.”
Chunks of the ceiling fell all around Thoronim. The heavier pieces were large enough to cause him to lose his balance, and Verita moved out of the way just in time to escape being buried by the debris. She continued to bring the ceiling down around him with the Force until he was buried under half a meter of metal and plastisteel. He did not come out.
Turning her senses to the battle in the next chamber, it seemed that Tserne’s arrival had been just in time. The Dark Lord was on the retreat, and his defeat was imminent. Her initial response was to turn around and prepare an exit for them and for herself. Surely Jhosua was already waiting for her, and she had delayed too long.
The Force confused her. It seemed as though the Dark Lord… intended to bring down the entire chamber around them! Whether he had gone insane or suicidal, she had no idea. All she knew was that Tserne and Dynatha would be killed immediately without her aid. Summoning the rest of her Force power, she created a thin layer of air between the transparisteel around the observatory and space beyond. She had to focus on it to keep it active, so she hoped that her power would last them long enough to defeat him.
She had been so distracted that she hadn’t been prepared for Thoronim to emerge from the rubble with a mighty roar, weapon in hand. She hadn’t detected him in the Force and assumed him to be dead; the sight of the furious Sith warrior terrified her. Before she could raise her weapon to defend, he threw his polearm at her and skewered her through the gut. The heavy weapon went completely through her. Even bolstered by the Force and with the adrenaline that was flowing through her, she couldn’t endure such a blow. Her hands grasped at the haft jutting out of her abdomen, and when she looked down she saw that her armorweave and her hands were covered in blood.
“You should have retreated when you had the chance,” the massive figure said. “You failed.”
Verita collapsed. Breathing became noticeably difficult, and her eyes were failing her. She couldn’t feel anything below her waist, and blood was gushing out from her wound. Her lightsaber, deactivated, was just out of reach.
Thoronim didn’t even bother taking his weapon back. Whether he had another or determined to fight Tserne and Dynatha with his hands, she did not know. She did not care. As the Force began to leave her body, she thought of two things: her family foremost, and how to strike back against this Sith bastard.
Her mind worked as quickly as it could. With some difficulty, she found her lightsaber in the interconnected flow of the Force, found its inhibitor, and she shattered it with her mind. The blade’s restrained shape was freed, and when it activated, it buzzed loudly—more than enough for Thoronim to hear. The blade’s shape became wider, longer, and no longer smooth at the edges, pulsating erratically. Lifting it as high as she could, Verita took aim at the lumbering giant and put everything she had into one final attack.
“Jhosua… I’m sorry… I won’t be coming back…”
With all of her might, she thrust the weapon like a lance toward her adversary. Preux’s chief guard paid no mind to the attack until it was too late; he had assumed her lightsaber was like before, unable to penetrate the terrible armor he wore. This time, the uninhibited blade cut through the back of his helmet and straight through his skull. The armored colossus fell face first to the ground, causing the deck to tremble beneath him. The two died together.
Dynatha was more skilled in the Force than she was with a blade, but she was relieved to have a chance to fight with her lightsaber; Avaran Whell’s endless reserve of Force power had started to worry her. Preux, at least, was only a man. Sith Lord or not, he was limited by his body, and his body was weak no matter how he tried to conceal it with the dark side. Dynatha’s blue saber danced in dangerous loops around Preux’s red blade, threatening to strike every corner of his body in the blink of an eye. The Dark Lord of the Sith was forced into a perilous defensive, retreating toward the walls of the observatory while battering away her lightsaber and avoiding Tserne’s feints.
Catching Preux’s blade with her own, Dynatha moved her blade so that both of their weapons were facing the floor. Pulling her blade all the way back, she forced Preux’s wrists into an untenable position and he was forced to let go of his lightsaber. She recovered it before he could, and she crossed the red and blue beams over his neck so that if he moved, he would be decapitated.
Is this all you can muster? Dynatha thought to herself. He must have been a terrifying foe many years ago when Raen had challenged him. She regretted that she had not been there to help him then. Despite the fact that Preux was unarmed and essentially defeated, there was no emotion in his eyes—not even shame. He glared at them both darkly, even while Tserne urged Dynatha to end the fight.
“Do you suppose me beaten?” Preux growled. “Foolish girl. Your thoughts betray you. No matter what you do, you’ve already lost. It’s pointless,” Preux said. “Perish in flame.”
A ring of fire traced the floor around Tserne and Dynatha. The blaze roared as it became larger, and its heat could even be felt by Preux, who had ended up on opposite sides of the chamber. The massive pillar reached the apex of the dome, and starfighter pilots fighting nearby could see its light from many kilometers away.
Preux was no fool. He had escaped such an attack once, despite great injury, and had gone on to defeat Raen after he had used pyrokinesis like this. He had no intention of making the same mistake. His enemies would die. He refused to dissipate the inferno even though its smoke filled the room, making it very hard to breathe and see. He would bathe the entire room in fire if it was necessary.
A chill air passed over Preux. In an instant, the fires he had created were snuffed out, reduced to embers sprinkled across the deck, and the smoke began to clear. Dynatha was standing where the epicenter of the flames had been, and Tserne was at her side. What was more, the spirit of Raystin Benax floated over them both, and his hands were outstretched like Dynatha’s, both glowing with the same pale blue light. Neither their flesh nor their clothes were burnt, and Dynatha had entirely recovered from his earlier attacks.
“Idiot. You would already be dead if not for me,” the spirit of Avaran Whell told Preux, no longer restrained by Raystin.
“Go haunt someone else. This is my battle,” Preux replied.
“Your body is mine. Your mind belongs to me. You are nothing!”
“I am more than strong enough to resist you.”
Whether he was or not, the dark spirit was determined to try. Dynatha and Tserne saw the ghost enter Preux’s body, and the two struggled for control.
Dynatha knew if they were going to defeat him, they would have to do it while they fought for control. She raised her lightsaber to strike, but Preux pinned her arm in midair with dark needles that cut through her clothes and skin. She dropped her lightsaber, only for Tserne to pick it up and go on the offensive.
Ever since he had arrived on the Phantasm, the Force had been showing Tserne fractures, otherwise invisible lines that seemed to reveal vulnerabilities in everything around him. Parts of the hull that had been damaged by laser fire. Weak points in standard Sith infantry armor. Consoles that were in danger of overloading. He did not know why, but he saw these things everywhere like he had attained another sense. Some fractures took longer than others to identify, and sometimes these weakness were not tangible at all; he could see fear radiating from Sith troopers when he had engaged them, and he recognized the programming flaws in war droids, for example. He hadn’t had a chance to pinpoint Thoronim’s weakness, and Preux’s weakness was also a mystery to him. He would soon learn it.
Tserne suffused both his sword and Dynatha’s lightsaber with Force power from his own body. Preux moved to engage him as both weapons began to glow with blazing white light, illuminating the entirety of the observatory. He brought both weapons high above his head and swung at Preux with all the strength he could muster, only to be repelled by a dark shield.
“Your little light show is useless against me. Against Thoronim perhaps it would have succeeded, but no light can penetrate my guard. Not here in my domain.”
Dynatha had freed herself, and Tserne returned her weapon to her. The pair had fought together many times, and Tserne’s increased Force potential only made them fight better. Tserne led the attack, striking Preux head-on and refusing to yield before the impresive array of Force power that Preux brought to bear. Battering away at the lightsaber Preux used against them, he gave Dynatha opportunities to strike at unguarded body. They danced around him, attacking as a unit, forcing him to give ground with every blow. Preux could not match the two of them together, though he would not admit it to himself.
Rather than suffer the ignominy of defeat, Preux turned his attention to the transparisteel around them. Cracks suddenly appeared in the observatory dome. Extending like tendrils from its apex to its base, the damage quickly covered the dome fractal patterns. Lifting his hands, Preux revealed that the spirit of Avaran Whell had overcome him, and the massive ghost overshadowed him like a heavy cruiser would its starfighter contingent. With a terrifying smile, the ancient specter motioned toward the dome, and it came crashing down, attempting to expose the entire chamber to explosive decompression and the dangers of the vacuum just beyond them.
It was only Verita’s parting gift that saved them from instant death. But even that was fading. Preux realized that his initial scheme had failed, and he motioned at the thin barrier Verita had made, destroying it at once. Dynatha took the opportunity to create a smaller barrier of her own, just before Verita’s failed. Tserne heaved a sigh of relief and interposed himself between Dynatha and Preux to defend her while she focused on keeping them alive.
“I have to admit, your presence here has surprised me,” Preux said to Tserne, entering the bubble Dynatha had created. “I would have thought you would have fled by now.”
“I wouldn’t leave her fate in your hands,” he said, stepping forward in case Preux tried to charge at her.
“Hmph. I know all about you, boy. Jaeln’s father—the first Preux—had much to say about you.” The Sith Lord noticed Tserne’s sudden glimmer of interest. “Oh yes. I know all about you. Darth Revan seized you and some of your underlings and tortured them until they died. You survived, naturally. He wasn’t really after you… that Jedi woman you brought with you is far more important. Verita.”
“Verita? What does she have to do with this?”
“Oh?” Avaran was quite pleased with himself, and he gave Tserne a mocking shrug. “She has everything to do with this. I’m surprised you remember her at all, to be honest. As I recall, no amount of screaming would convince you to change your mind-”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You wouldn’t. He used to say you were the key to all of this. Why? Revan was more interested in Verita. Malfon eventually turned his attention to his little chess board on Alderaan. With Revan dethroned and Malfon distracted, there was no one left who cared about you, so they discarded you like the refuse that you are. But that does give me an idea.” Preux chuckled. “Yes… I think it’s been too long since someone has messed around in that head of yours…”
A flash of light blinded both of Tserne’s eyes. It felt like someone had kicked him hard in the gut, and he keeled over in pain. Dynatha cried out to him, but she couldn’t do anything while maintaining the barrier that protected them all from vacuum. He felt her presence while he tried to recover, but Preux snatched his sword out of his hand, separating him from his source of Force power. The dark side engulfed him completely, and he quickly passed out due to the pain.
When he awoke, he found himself seeing double of everything around him. The observatory was, at the same time, a circular chamber with no lighting that was surrounded on all sides by transparisteel. Dynatha was still there behind him, sustaining the barrier, and yet every few seconds she would disappear, only to be replaced in his mind’s eye by Verita. Preux was there, but Tserne occasionally saw a masked figure in his place, wearing ceremonial armor and draped in a long cloak. Tserne was sure he was hallucinating—or perhaps experiencing a vivid memory—but it felt quite real.
“So here we are again. Just you and I.” The voice was Preux’s, in a way. But he also heard the voice of another: sonorous and reverberating inside his mask. “You see her, don’t you?” He motioned to the images of Dynatha and Verita nearby. “We are prepared to torture her. She has endured much. We are prepared to go farther if you do not cooperate. Indeed, she has shown commendable spirit, but she is no match for us.”
“Leave her alone.”
“That was the idea. Will you do as I say, or will I be forced to use more uncivilized methods until you agree to cooperate?”
“What do you want?”
“… Leave Dynatha to me,” this was only Preux’s voice. “She is safe here. I have much to do with her, and your presence has become unnecessary. There’s nothing more you can do. You’ve lost.”
“Oh dear. Well, if defiance is the answer, we can show you what we do to spirited adversaries.”
Preux raised one of his hands toward Tserne. In that moment, Tserne’s vision erupted with spots, and his entire body was wracked by some unseen torture. It felt like the derriphan had returned, only this pain wracked not only his mind, but his whole body. He saw his early years as an assassin serving the Sith. He saw his failed attempt to protect the Sith doctor entrusted to him and how Ralina and her crew had defeated him. He saw the many months of imprisonment he had endured under her watch. Feelings that he had suppressed bubbled up again.
“You’re aware of these memories aren’t you? They’re so vivid and fresh, like you’re experiencing them anew. You know how valuable these things are, especially given the fact that they’re the start of your new life.”
Tserne said nothing. He tried to calm himself, but the Force was quickly departing from him and he was panicking. He did not know the extent of the powers of the Sith, and he was afraid of what they could do.
“Your thoughts betray you. You fear me. You know I can peel off these memories and grind them into nothingness. One by one, helping you forget all you’ve learned. Everything you’ve done. Everyone you’ve met. Your mind is a datapad in my hand. I can erase whatever I please, and… write whatever I desire.”
“Go to hell. You can do whatever you want to me. You’re only wasting your time.”
The masked figure sighed. “I think Malfon had the right idea. You’re not a bad Sith puppet, given the chance. I am not merciless. If you surrender to me willingly, I will let you keep your memories intact. All you have to do is kneel for her sake.”
“I’ll never abandon her.”
“No?” Preux chuckled this time. “Perhaps if I show you who you really are, show how far you’ve fallen, you won’t have time to worry about the little peasant girl you’ve found yourself infatuated with. Let's begin. I see you’ve had some dreams—displaced memories—of your meetings with Ernar Humbar, an old family friend, when you were younger. You won’t be needing those.”
It was definitely worse than the derriphan. Claws were burrowing into his mind. Tserne shouted in agony, and he tried to stave off the assault with the rest of his Force power, but he was altogether far too weak. As though someone had taken a knife to his skin and began to slice away, the thoughts and memories regarding what he imagined were his childhood recollections of the deceased businessman faded away. Preux also removed his memories of meeting Humbar on Humbarine.
“Did you forget something, Tserne?” Preux cackled in delight. “How about dear Ralina? You and her were close, weren’t you? It must have cut you deeply when she abandoned you on Polus. Don’t worry, dear friend. I’ll help you forget…”
Tserne struggled, but he found himself unable to move. Preux had offered to let him leave, but he wouldn’t have actually let him go. He had planned on torturing him to relieve him of his memories all along. Tserne tried to fight back against his adversary, thinking about Ralina and reconsidering everything he had done with her and her crew to create new memories, in effect. No matter what he tried, Preux was far more meticulous than Tserne could bear, and the longer he resisted the worse the pain became. At last, he stopped fighting, and Preux swept away all memories of Ralina, Fetcher, and the rest as though they had been motes of dust within his mind.
“Just kill me,” Tserne said, his voice quiet but harsh. “I won’t… can’t become like that again.”
“No? Don’t you see? You’re useless dead. You’re useless as you are now. But you’ll have immeasurable uses as an amnesiac slave.”
Tserne gritted his teeth. Not again. He refused to be turned into a mindless killer. Glaring defiantly at Preux, he began to bite down on his tongue—hard. The Sith Lord seemed to realize what he was doing, and he move forward and used both the Force and his hands to pry Tserne’s mouth open and keep his bleeding tongue away from his teeth.
“None of that now. You’re too valuable to lose that way. And what would Dynatha say? She would miss you terribly. Surely you wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to become the proud father of her children… my new servants!”
All of a sudden, a bright light flashed in his eyes. He thought he saw Dynatha, and then the illusion that Preux had subjected him to faded away. Only the observatory remained. He still held the sword in his hand, and he had not been attacked by Preux. He was right where he had been when Preux had entered the dome, and the Dark Lord had not moved either. Dynatha was also still there, although she looked terribly fatigued and was in no condition to continue holding up the barrier around them.
But in that moment, having been saved from that illusion that froze time and space, Tserne could see tremors all around him as the Force returned to him. Dynatha’s weakness was not within or upon her, but rather in her heart—he was her critical point, and she his. The Dark Lord of the Sith, perhaps Preux or perhaps Avaran Whell, also had a weakness, cracks that coalesced around him that revealed it through the Force. It was not immediately obvious, but then Tserne understood, and he knew what he had to do.
Tserne’s blade traveled in a wide arc directed from Preux’s hip to his opposite shoulder. When the Sith Lord blocked, Tserne quickly altered his fighting style, using powerful but nimble jabs to force him to defend his center. The two traded blows, but it was obvious that Tserne, if not the better fighter, was not as exhausted as the Sith Lord and was pressing the advantage. While they fought, Tserne fueled his sword with the same Force power he had earlier, giving it a blazing flame not unlike the lightsaber he was facing. The further he pushed Preux back, the more Dynatha was forced to extend the barrier.
Now, Tserne! Do it!
Tserne aimed for Preux’s head, and the Dark Lord shifted the direction of his blade to defend himself. But it had been a feint. Tserne brought his blade back toward his body and then thrust it into the Sith Lord’s chest. The moment the blade of light plunged into Preux’s body, Avaran Whell’s spirit was forcibly expelled from him and Preux’s connection with the dark side was severed. He lost all of his vitality, and the fury that had driven him faded into nothingness. His body transitioned from its muscular and able figure into the wizened old man that he actually was, a being so crippled by the dark side that he could barely stand on his own. For the first time, the Dark Lord cowered before Tserne, and he whimpered and muttered under his breath unintelligible and pathetic nonsense.
Tserne had intended on stabbing him again to finish the job, but something stayed his hand. Without the dark side and his spectral guardian, the figure before him was pathetic, hardly dangerous to anyone. As far as he could tell, the sword had completely cut Preux off from the Force; whether the Sith Lord could regain that connection, Tserne did not know. Whatever the case, he was completely helpless, and Tserne hesitated to raise his hand against him now that he couldn’t fight back.
Dynatha used what remaining power she had to extend the barrier keeping them alive so that it filled the entire chamber and forced it to linger for a few minutes. She assumed that would be enough time to deal with Preux and escape as she headed toward them.
“You’ve become soft,” Preux sneered. “This is your reward for mercy.”
With the last of his dark power, Preux had called upon Thoronim’s halberd, ripping its blade free from Verita’s body, and brought it into the observatory. By some last deception, he had ensured that neither Tserne nor Dynatha had sensed its approach. With a victorious cackle, Preux brought the blade forth and plunged it into Tserne’s back, just below his shoulders. For a moment, Tserne didn’t realize he had been hit. Without a sound, he fell face first onto the deck beside Preux.
Dynatha had nearly reached Tserne when he fell. She pushed her body to close the distance. Mentally cursing herself and screaming Tserne’s name, she called upon the Force and snatched up his sword before Preux could seize it. Although she wanted to tend to Tserne, she realized only a moment too late that the dark ghost, separated from its host, was coming at her.
“If you will not surrender to me willingly, I will take your body by Force!”
Reacting so quickly that she wasn’t sure if she had done it or it had been instinctual, Dynatha raised a wall of light between her and the specter, stopping him just before he assailed her. Calling upon the Force as she had never done before, Dynatha fashioned eight spears of radiant light and sent them into the ground in a wide ring around Avaran and Preux. The ghost, knowing what she aimed to do, tried to flee, but Dynatha was too swift. Each of the spears became pillars of light so bright that they immediately blinded Dynatha, forcing her to use the Force to see instead. These pillars began to expand and unite with one another until they formed a shimmering wall of blue energy around the pair of dark-siders.
“No! What are you doing? Damn you, Jedi woman! I will carry you down with me…!”
The spirit’s threats were drowned out by a booming roar as the light began to close in on the Dark Lord and his spectral ally. Sparks burst forth from the wall of light, and she felt its immense heat against her clothes, skin, and hair. Avaran Whell tried one last time to free himself from the incoming spiral of light, but there was nowhere for him to flee. The light completely enveloped his ghastly form, and with a fearsome cry he dissolved into nothingness. Preux had said nothing, and he did not try to escape. With the last of his strength he raised a hand to Dynatha.
I’ve… failed? Jaeln’s voice echoed in her mind. Were all my preparations wasted? All those deaths in vain? I never knew Avaran’s treachery traced back so far. I was a vehicle for his madness all along. If only I knew, perhaps Raen and I could have fought side-by-side. But you have done what you had to; I accept this death as the cost of my failure…
Jaeln Benax’s body was enveloped by the light, and his body and robes were incinerated in an instant. When he died, there was an explosion of dark energy all around him, though it was muted in part by the wall of light. The awesome barricade was more powerful than she realized, and she had lost control over the destructive power she had summoned. Certain her enemies were dead and eager to flee this place, Dynatha rushed to Tserne’s side. He was barely conscious, and he didn’t seem aware that she was sitting over him.
“Tserne! Oh, Tserne. Wake up, please. Wake up,” she sobbed. “You didn’t come all this way for it to end like this… and I didn’t fight for so long just to lose you now. Wake up, Tserne!”
“Dear one,” Raystin said. “We must flee. The Republic-”
“But Tserne! I can’t leave him!”
“If you don’t, you may not escape in time.”
Fearing the conflagration and tumultuous vortex that her wall of light had created, Dynatha grabbed Tserne beneath the shoulders and began to drag him toward the exit. She only stopped to grab the sword housing Raystin’s spirit and sling it across her back. Raystin hovered over her as she went, shielding her from the effects of the wall of light until they were completely out of its range.