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Chapter 8

Tserne had left Dynatha alone for the remaining three days in hyperspace, allowing her to dine, meditate, and bathe at her leisure. She had received no word from the Jedi Council since her departure from the Fate and Luck, and she had lost her chance to inform them of her destination before they entered Sith space. Once she knew where he was going, she had debated her chances of commandeering the ship and returning to the Jedi; she had eventually decided that she needed more information about Tserne’s target before she acted. That meant she had to endure his companionship for a little while longer.

Dynatha walked onto the bridge as soon as the Grimtaash’s hyperdrive reverted the ship back to realspace. Tserne was already there, sitting at the gun controls. It took her a moment to realize that he wasn’t flying the ship. She was about to ask who was when 3C-AD rolled from somewhere beyond her vision and placed his uplink cylinder into a wall socket beside her legs.

“Is the droid flying the ship?” Dynatha asked, incredulous at the thought.

“Yeah. There’s a storm over the continent we’re looking for on Krayiss Two, and I feel much safer with Threecee navigating through that thing instead of me.”

“I didn’t know there were any droids capable of complex real-time navigation. Military AI can barely handle a trip through hyperspace, no?”

“So I’ve heard. This vessel is an amalgamation of stolen military tech, and it was designed with a droid pilot in mind. The systems respond better to automated control, and you'll find no better droid on the market than Threecee.”

The squat droid gave a proud whistle to acknowledge Tserne’s praise.

“Is it stolen too?” she asked.

“He was constructed at my request as payment for a job.”

Before Dynatha could continue her line of questioning, she was interrupted when the Grimtaash made a sudden turn and propelled itself into Krayiss Two’s upper atmosphere. The ship trembled as it passed through a swathe of storm clouds hovering just over the planet’s largest continent. Despite Tserne’s protests to Threecee, the little droid continued its present course. Blistering winds pounded into the ship’s hull and lightning flashed around them as their sensors—practically useless in the storm—registered close calls and high energy readings. Dynatha shouted at Tserne to turn around and find a better way down, but her voice was drowned out amidst the chaos around them.

One of their sensor modules gave way as thunder echoed in the distance. Just when she thought they were going to lose control of their ship, Threecee accelerated through the clouds and escaped the worst of the storm. Rain pelted the hull of their light freighter as Threecee steered the vessel toward a destination he and Tserne apparently agreed upon beforehand.

“See? That wasn’t so bad,” Tserne said, giving her a reassuring smile.

“That storm could have disabled every system on this ship, not to mention your droid,” Dynatha countered. “I’m surprised our flying lightning rod didn’t become just that.”

Tserne nodded. “Threecee is advanced, but once a course is set he likes to stick with it. Some sort of fluke in his self-preservation programming; he can be stubborn when he wants to be. But even if I could change him, this inclement weather is affecting the entire region, and the ionosphere around this planet is pretty harsh no matter where we decided to descend.”

“But it would have been easier to go around, and you should have ordered it to do so,” she insisted.

“Agreed. I'll try to plot a better course next time.”

While Tserne aided his droid in their descent, Dynatha turned her seat to observe the planet below. Krayiss Two had been unsettled for centuries, leaving its four major continents to be overrun by flora and fauna. The closest continent’s coastline was mostly untamed marshland that looked hostile to sentient life. The trees below them had branches that intertwined to create a canopy that shielded the muddy earth and still pools beneath them. The mountains in the distance were hardly visible in the pelting rain and foggy gloom that were carried in by the clouds overhead, and she hoped that they would continue their flight over this region into kinder terrain.

Tserne and his droid dashed those ideas rather quickly. Her companion ordered the droid to set them down in a sizable clearing coming up on their starboard side. Threecee complied, landing their ship with all the skill and grace of a seasoned pilot. Their landing gear deployed as soon as the engines switched off; Dynatha heard a sloshing sound as they made contact with the murky earth beneath them.

“This place doesn’t look particularly friendly,” Dynatha said, “and I’m worried this ground isn’t stable enough.”

“Threecee thinks we should be fine as long as we don’t take too long.” Tserne rose from his seat and left the bridge. “I guess that means we should hurry. Chrono’s ticking.”

The two of them headed for the armory, leaving Threecee to power down the rest of the ship’s systems and repair any damage they had sustained. Tserne already had the bandoleer he had been carrying when he assassinated Sharzin, and he added a few vibroblades and a blaster pistol to his combat belt to complete his stock. Dynatha didn’t need anything in particular, but Tserne insisted that she take a personal energy shield just in case. Before she could argue one way or another, Tserne left the armory behind and headed for the egress ramp. Strapping the shielding unit onto her arm, Dynatha followed without a word.

Upon leaving the Grimtaash, Dynatha felt the dark side around them like miasma, and for a moment she thought all the heat had been sapped away from her body. She had never been this far into Sith space before, and she had never been on a world so tainted by the dark side—even when Alderaan was controlled by the Sith, it hadn’t been as bad as this place. She felt nauseous and weak, and it hurt to put one foot in front of the other. Tumbling over herself, she would have hit the ground face-first if not for Tserne’s timely intervention.

“Are you all right?” Tserne helped her so she was upright again.

“I… don’t you feel that?” she asked, her breathing labored.

“What?”

“The very essence of the Force is distorted, and I can barely tap into its power. I’ve never felt the dark side so strongly before.”

“I don’t feel anything,” Tserne admitted. “Is there a source?”

She closed her eyes to focus. The darkness seemed to have no origin and spread endlessly around the planet, but the Force allowed her to see through the illusions created by the evil around them. With a bit of concentration, she determined that it was particularly focused around some sort of structure to the south of them. She pointed this out to Tserne, and he headed toward it without question. Dynatha moved to join him, but she proved too weak. Tserne returned to her side and he supported her as they walked forward side-by-side.

The rain provided ambiance for their trek, but walking proved difficult due to lack of celestial light. With nothing to talk about, the two walked through the miry pools and soggy underbrush in silence. Whatever Tserne was thinking about was beyond Dynatha’s perception, but she still didn’t understand how he could resist the strength of the darkness around them. Had he been so cut off from the Force, as he had alluded to back on the ship, that even the pervasive and crippling effects of the dark side could not assail him? Dynatha envied him in that regard but found solace in the fact that she was far more useful to the Jedi Order with the Force than without it.

Tserne led them into another clearing, this one far larger than the one where the Grimtaash landed. At the center of the area stood a towering black obelisk, as if to mark the point for future arrivals. Looming over them at three times their height, it was a strange thing to see in the middle of the wilderness, and Dynatha felt anxiety well up within her as Tserne led them closer to the mysterious object. The rain was coming down heavily around them, and once they left the safety of the trees it felt as though they were being pelted by stones. Thunder roared elsewhere in the distance, disorienting the already confused Jedi Knight.

A flash of lightning illuminated the obelisk once they were close enough to touch it. At the center of the clearing, the earth mingled with the downpour to form pools of grime, and the two of them were practically wading in muddy filth in an effort to keep themselves from falling over. Even in the darkness, Dynatha caught the delighted look on Tserne’s face once he inspected the obelisk for himself. She couldn’t recall the last time he looked so happy.

“This is it! We found it; I can’t believe how easy that was!”

“What exactly did we find?” Dynatha shouted over the gale blowing around them.

“Can you read this?” Tserne asked, ignoring her.

Dynatha wiped the wet blonde strands of hair from her eyes and glanced at the datapad he held out to her. The words on the viewscreen were foreign to her, and she couldn’t recall seeing anything like it before. It had been marked for accents, enunciation, and pauses, and the words seemed to repeat themselves more often than not.

“This isn’t exactly my second tongue, Tserne!”

“But can you read it?”

“I guess it’s easy enough. Why?”

“It’s the incantation to reveal the vault we’re looking for,” Tserne explained.

“An incantation?” Dynatha was aghast. “Tserne DeLarane, I am not going to be a part of some Sith ritual!”

“We’re so close, Dynatha! You wouldn’t deny-”

He was interrupted by a terrible cracking noise beneath their feet. The ground began to tremble and quake, forcing Tserne and Dynatha away from the obelisk. As arcs of lightning traced through the sky overhead, the mud and water rolled away from the obelisk as something rose up from beneath the earth. To their surprise, the obelisk had only been the central spire of a massive complex, standing at least six stories high. The building had sleek walls and pyramidal design, precious gems of all kinds embedded into it, and its dark stone glimmered in the light of the storm. The only entrance of any kind seemed to be the door—clearly built for giants—directly before them, guarded by a force field.

Tserne stared at the building with a reverent awe, but Dynatha could hardly look at it without clutching her head in pain. This was the source of the dark side presence on Krayiss Two, and now that it was revealed the evil around them seemed even more powerful than it had been before. The assassin approached the door, disregarding Dynatha’s feeble cries of warning, and the force field was disabled once he was close enough to touch it.

The door swung open in a single violent motion, allowing the water around the building’s entrance to flow inside. Cold, stale air emerged from within the darkness of the ancient building, and Dynatha felt her body become deathly cold when it passed over her.

“Tserne?” Dynatha called. “Tserne, let’s get out of here!”

The winds carried a subtle hiss to her ears, and a specter nearly as large as the obelisk appeared out of thin air directly behind Tserne. The ghost was vaguely humanoid, with a torn cloak encircling its massive frame and a jagged crown on top of its head. Its very presence seemed to absorb all light around it, causing the spirit to appear as a colorless figure with featureless black eyes. Dynatha reeled back at the sight of the terrifying creature, but Tserne either didn’t notice it or didn’t care.

“Dynatha Aris…” the spirit’s deep, rumbling voice echoed within her ears.

“Get away from there, Tserne!”

The assassin turned around and appeared to move toward Dynatha, but he was halted—by some unseen sorcery—by the phantom between them. Flying backward, Tserne fell into the empty darkness of the building without a sound, leaving Dynatha alone with the Sith specter.

“What are you?” Dynatha asked, noticing for the first time she was visibly trembling.

“Dynatha Aris, do you presume to defeat us, at this sanctum of knowledge and power that we created so long ago?” it replied.

“What did you do with Tserne?”

The spirit appeared puzzled for a moment. “You are not the first Jedi to come to this place, and you will not be the last. Many of your kind sought this place to rise above their weakness, but none survived the ordeal. When your flesh has returned to dust and your spirit trapped within the dark abyss, we will continue to haunt this place.”

Dynatha stared at the massive ethereal being before her. She could turn around and flee this place, leaving Tserne to whatever fate awaited him within the depths of the Sith temple, but she suspected that the specter would hunt her down and kill her before she could reach the ship. She could try fighting, but she doubted her lightsaber would do any good against a ghost, and she could not tap into the Force to aid her like she normally could. With limited options, Dynatha did her best to quell her fear and told herself the Force would sustain her.

“I don’t care about any of that! What did you do to him? Where is he?”

“A man without a past is like a machine without purpose. Without power, what is he? He is a king of folly only, a pitiful thing worth no more than his butchered flesh. Your emotions are wasted on him, Jedi. Join us in death, and you will achieve all you dream of and more.”

Dynatha shook her head and charged forward, lightsaber in hand. “If you won’t let me in, I'll send you back to wherever it was you came from!”

“Reckless.” The ghost’s figure vanished into thin air as soon as Dynatha was close enough to strike it. “Proceed if you dare; I will not impede you, because greater harm will be inflicted upon you no matter which path you choose.”

Although she didn’t understand the spirit’s words, Dynatha took his reluctance as surrender and charged into the ancient temple. The sound of the rain and the harsh winds was quickly silenced by the stomping of her soaked boots against a lengthy stone stairwell. Whatever lighting this place had had long since been extinguished, leaving her to travel by the dim glow of her lightsaber. The air was cold and thick around her, and she breathed in dust that had been left undisturbed for centuries. She pulled her cloak closer to her body for warmth as she descended further and further into the darkness.

At the base of the stairs was a circular chamber with a long bridge directly across from her. The paths perpendicular to hers were guarded by massive statues, carved out of a gray stone that shimmered softly when her lightsaber’s luminance touched them. The ceiling extended further than her eyes could see, and the floor itself was suspended above what appeared to be a bottomless pit. She was stronger now—but didn’t know why—but couldn’t sense anyone within the temple. Undeterred, Dynatha pressed forward.

Pathways continued on for too long, leading to winding staircases and pointless ramps that seemed to converge on themselves somehow. The further she traveled, the more voices she heard: some were unknown to her, but a few of the menacing voices were familiar: evil beings from her time as a Sith on Alderaan. She did her best to ignore them and continue her search. Even in her exhausted state, she couldn’t help but notice that there was only one way to go inside this place; whether her path was the only way deeper into the temple or she was being herded by some unseen power, she couldn’t tell.

Walking by a ruined colonnade, Dynatha found herself in what she assumed was the deepest level of the temple. The platform she stood on was positioned above a dark abyss, connected to another larger platform by a narrow walkway. At the end of the larger platform, there was a massive stone dais with an inferno blazing at its center. The fire burned with all the colors of the visible spectrum, fueled by some unseen source that allowed it to extend its tendrils high enough to became a fiery wall. She was so entranced by the fire itself she didn’t even notice Tserne DeLarane standing before it.

“Tserne!” She was shouting and sprinting. “How did you…? What are you doing?”

He didn’t acknowledge her. As soon as Dynatha crossed the narrow bridge separating the two of them, she was pulled off her feet by an invisible assailant. Powerful hands swatted her around like a martial artist’s training dummy. Her lightsaber escaped her grip, flying back into the colonnade. Dazed, she didn’t even realize she had hit the floor until she tasted blood from her bruised lip.

“W-what’s going on? Tserne…?”

“He cannot hear you, Jedi.” The Sith specter who had met her at the entrance reappeared, hovering over her and restraining her with the folds of his robes. “His mind was already fractured; without the Force, it is simple for those with power to fill those gaps and take control.”

“Why are you doing this?” Dynatha asked, struggling against his burdensome grip.

“That man sought the Blazing Trial,” the ghost responded. “Whoever can pass through the flames and live will receive the key to our libraries. He came to this place seeking knowledge of the skill he needed to restore the the broken links in his chain of memory.”

“Tserne! You don’t have to do this!” Dynatha shouted. “Don’t risk your life like this!”

“He cannot hear you. The spirits in this place are now the masters of his mind. Truly, he is no better or worse than he was before; the phantoms of his past would have controlled him anyway. He has traded one master for another.”

Dynatha ignored his words. “Listen to me! Your past is done! Don’t waste your present for something you can’t reclaim!”

“Words are useless in this place, Jedi. But perhaps there is a way to save him yet…” the phantom wrapped dark fingers around Dynatha’s throat. “Release your anger. Give in to your hate. The dark side alone holds power here, and only through it can you save him and yourself.”

Dynatha released a pulse of Force energy at her captor, but she was so weak from the constant exposure to the planet’s darkness and her journey through this place that it barely disturbed the terrifying spirit. Without the power to fight back, she and Tserne were as good as dead. She hated to admit it, but perhaps the ghost was right. The very thought of giving in to the dark side mortified her, but she saw no other way out of this situation. If she only called on its power once, perhaps the outcome would justify her. She needed to escape, and she needed to rescue Tserne.

“Go on. Destroy me. Unleash your righteous fury,” the specter roared.

Dynatha tried to manifest her anger, confusion, and raw emotion into strength. It was a strange feeling, one she had never quite perfected—not even as a Sith acolyte. The ways of the Jedi were firmly ingrained within her mind, and it made expressing her rage difficult. While she teetered on the edge of actually tapping into the dark side, a great ball of light erupted above her and caused the ghost holding her down to recoil and release her. Blaster fire erupted from the colonnade behind her, and more balls of light were formed—like artificial stars forming and going supernova in an instant—to illuminate the entire room. Hundreds of Sith specters, visible only now in the midst of the piercing light, shrunk back to hide beneath the suspended platforms. The ghosts holding onto Tserne’s body released their grip, causing the assassin’s body to spin around a few times before falling into the great fire. Dynatha tried to call out to him, but she proved too weak to do so.

She didn’t quite realize what was happening, but someone had scooped her off her feet and carried her in their arms. Blaster fire was still raging all around them, but it didn’t seem to be hitting anyone in particular. A figure ran by the one that held Dynatha, toward the fire, which meant whoever had her was running toward the exit. Her vision, blurry and weak though it was, noticed several armored men with blaster rifles and carbines firing into the room where she had just been.

“We’re leaving!” a woman’s voice, one she had never heard before, announced. “I have the other mark. Move, move, move!”

The company of beings who rescued Dynatha emerged from the temple faster than she expected, and before she knew it she was beneath the cloudy skies of Krayiss Two once more. The winds howled around her, and rain was still falling, softer now. Droplets splashed against her face and onto her exposed robes, and she closed her eyes to keep the incoming water out. It didn’t take long for the rain to stop falling, and when she opened her eyes again she saw that the clouds was replaced by a metal ceiling. A ship?

“Set them both down in the med bay,” the same voice from earlier said. “Give them light sedatives so they don’t struggle.”

Dynatha had no idea what was going on, but she was glad to be out of that temple. She didn’t ask any questions or fight back when she was set down on some sort of cot and injected with what she presumed were sedatives. With a sigh of relief, she allowed herself to drift into a careless, much needed sleep.

*** ***

“Dynatha Aris?”

“Where… where am I?” she asked, more instinctively than consciously.

“You are aboard the Blind Guide, a privately owned Starscape-class yacht.”

Dynatha rubbed her eyes, and she realized for the first time she had no idea what was going on. “And who are you?”

“Jedi Master Delvin Cortes, forever at your service.”

Dynatha gasped. Turning her head, she saw her guest for the first time. Sitting in a chair by her bedside, the Jedi Master before her was hardly what she expected. He appeared short, even while sitting, and he was very muscular, especially considering he must have been sixty standard years of age. His frazzled gray hair was turning white and he had a goatee to match. His face was chiseled and worn down, and his nose and cheek bones were rather prominent on his bronze face. Yet despite the Jedi’s rugged appearance, he wore a comforting smile.

“Master Cortes, I… it’s an honor to meet you,” Dynatha said.

“The honor is all mine, noble one,” the elder Jedi responded in kind.

“How did I get here? The last thing I remember, I… I should be dead.”

“We saved you from the darkness on Krayiss Two. You have nothing to fear anymore.”

“We?”

“Yes. There was an entire team of Jedi searching for you and your associate,” Delvin explained.

Dynatha gasped at the thought. Delvin was a well-respected member of the Jedi Order who served as an archaeologist. His work was rumored to be top secret, and only the Jedi Council knew of his doings. Rumors as to what he was looking for ranged from the mundane to the paranormal, and yet he was highly respected by everyone, from Padawans to other Masters. And according to Delvin, there were other Jedi as well?

“What were you doing on Krayiss Two, Master?” she asked.

“We sought you out,” the Jedi Master explained. “The Jedi Council told us you were in danger, and we took it upon ourselves to rescue you.”

“But I don’t understand. My comlink didn’t have the range to contact the Jedi Council, so how did you know where I was?” she continued.

“You'll have to ask the captain of our voyage about that,” Delvin said after some thought. “He’s on the bridge. He’s been anxious to see you.”

“And what about Tserne?” Dynatha suddenly realized, looking around. “Where is he? Is he okay?”

“We rescued him, but I am not responsible for his care,” the Jedi Master answered. “Again, the captain would know more than I.”

The elder Jedi gently helped her back onto her feet, and she was surprised how much better she felt now that she was away from that place. Once he was certain she could stand on her own, the Jedi Master took his leave and allowed Dynatha to change from the medical smock she had been wearing into her robes—which had been cleaned and dried during her sleep. She searched for her lightsaber, but it wasn’t with the rest of her gear. With a sigh, she figured it must have been lost in the temple and left the med bay.

The interior of the ship was rather confusing, although the yacht seemed to only have one level. The ship had the whitewashed durasteel and brightly lit chambers Dynatha expected from a rich being’s private ship, and she could barely hear the hum of the ship’s engines in the distance, meaning the vessel was either meticulously maintained or quite new. She had resigned herself to wandering the ship in search for the bridge when she saw a humanoid in green body armor walking through a nearby corridor.

“Excuse me. Could you point me to the captain? I’ve heard he was expecting me.”

The armored soldier tilted his head back to observe Dynatha. “Sure thing. Follow me; it ain’t far.”

Dynatha fell into step behind him. She immediately noticed the blaster carbine and pistols he wore on his combat belt, and she figured that a Jedi would never arm himself with such crude weapons. A mental scan of the armored being confirmed that he wasn’t Force-sensitive. But if they weren’t Jedi, how could they have found her, not to mention rescue her from the Sith spirits haunting the temple?

“What’s your name, soldier?” Dynatha asked, thinking she was speaking to a Republic infantryman.

“Soldier?” the man guffawed in his helmet. “Relax, lady. I ain’t no space-brained sycophant marching off to kill whatever the Senate has on its hit list.”

“I didn’t mean to offend you. You do have military gear, though.”

“Yep. The boss keeps us fed and equipped, but he’s not very good at either, honestly. We’re still using Mandalorian Wars tech, and I can’t remember the last time I ate a good steak.”

“Who exactly is your leader?”

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” he offered, waving her into the bridge.

The bridge itself was rather large for a ship of this size. The circular chamber had a viewport that traced around the exterior arc of the room—its shutters were down because the ship was in hyperspace—and computers positioned near its center. There didn’t seem to be any stations for a helmsman, comm specialist, gunner, or any specialized crew members, which was odd in a ship of this size.

She turned around to thank the warrior, but he had already gone. Perplexed, Dynatha stepped around one of the central computers to find herself staring at the captain of the ship. The man was a few years older than Dynatha herself, with shoulder-length white hair that had five red streaks from his forehead to the ends. He had a healthy complexion, but his build was the exact opposite of Delvin’s, wearing a green overcoat and black slacks that were too large for his slender frame. The captain wore a green sash where most species had eyes, and he apparently didn’t even have any hands—cybernetic hemispheres were latched into the ship’s central computer where his hands should have been.

“You must be the captain of this ship,” Dynatha said, hoping not to misjudge him as she had the armored man from before.

“I am,” he replied, not shifting his head from the console. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Dynatha Aris.”

“Have we been acquainted?”

“Not exactly, but I know who you are.”

“Then you have me at a disadvantage.”

“Ranval Messor.”

Dynatha tried her best not to appear shocked. First a Jedi Master, and now the rogue Jedi? Just how important was Tserne to the Jedi Council? Actively searching him in the Force, she realized that he was a Miraluka and did in fact have enough Force potential to be the Jedi Knight he claimed to be. The former fact explained the shroud; he needed them to cover the odd fleshy sockets that his species possessed instead of eyes.

“What made you yield to the Jedi Council and come to my aid?” Dynatha asked, still a bit stunned.

“I didn’t,” he replied evenly.

Dynatha frowned. “But then why are you here?”

“Does it matter?” Ranval countered.

“Yes. I was on a priority mission for the Jedi Council, and almost no one knew about it. How do all of you suddenly know how to find me?”

“After they lost contact with you, the Jedi Council ordered the Jedi nearest to Sith space to locate and reclaim you and your guest. Delvin Cortes happened to be in the next sector over, so he met up with Celes Sunrider and the two of them-”

“Celes Sunrider?” Dynatha interrupted. “She’s here?”

“Indeed. I believe she’s training in the cargo hold at the moment.”

This was getting too outlandish to believe. First the famed archaeologist who worked only for the Jedi Council, then the heir to the Sunrider family’s legacy? The fact that two of the Jedi Order’s most powerful warriors came to rescue her was one thing, but Ranval as well? He hadn’t undertaken a mission for the Council since he had been re-inducted to the Jedi Order, and he was only a Jedi Knight by virtue of the fact they couldn’t prove his fall to the dark side. She couldn’t speak ill of the others, but he had to have an ulterior motive for participating in this operation.

“Fine,” Dynatha said, “so two Jedi Masters enter Sith space to pick me up. Where do you—a Jedi who would sooner spit at the Council than help them—fit in?”

“Be reasonable,” Ranval urged. “I don’t know what exactly the Jedi Council has told you about me, but I’m not some Dark Jedi waiting for the right moment to become a Sith.”

“Then why don’t you listen to them?”

“Quite frankly, that’s unimportant. But to answer your earlier question, I had commandos watching the jump beacon that led from Republic space into the old Sith territories. They alerted me to your destination and I took my ship to help you. I just so happened to run into the two Jedi Masters on the way, and we agreed that only by working together could we stand a chance against the ancient evils in the Sith temple.”

Dynatha frowned. She would much rather not have been saved by a maverick Jedi like Ranval, but the presence of Delvin and Celes was much more encouraging to her, and she felt honored to be so important to the Jedi that they sent them to retrieve her. She still had many questions for the enigmatic Jedi, and she didn’t even know where to begin. Almost without realizing it, her thoughts turned to her amnesiac companion.

“And Tserne?”

Ranval shook his head. “We placed Tserne DeLarane in the med bay opposite of yours. The events on Krayiss Two have put him into a comatose state, and none of the Jedi on board have the ability to cure him. I suspect its some sort of Sith curse put upon those who are possessed by their phantoms.”

“So we’re going to Telos?” Dynatha asked.

“Telos? By the Force, no. Why would we go there?”

“Surely the Jedi Council would be able to-”

“Not one of them has the necessary skill to restore Tserne’s health; there is only one Jedi I know of who has that power.”

Dynatha didn’t believe him, but she realized arguing would be pointless. “Who is that?”

“He is a Jedi Master from before the purge. Do you know of Ambria?”

Dynatha shook her head.

“An esteemed Jedi Master used to make his abode there, combating the vestiges of its Sith rule. He has since returned to the Force, but one of his old apprentices lives there now. I believe he is strong enough to save Tserne.”

Dynatha had no intention of flying around the galaxy with Ranval and his soldiers, even if it meant spending time with esteemed Jedi Masters. “I’m afraid I’m needed elsewhere. I ask that you return me to Telos so I can report to the Council; once Tserne is healed, you can see to it that he goes into Jedi custody.”

“I’m afraid I cannot do that. Telos is too far out of our way to just stop by, and we’re on a strict timetable here. Besides, there is something waiting for you on Ambria as well. Don’t be in such a hurry to abandon us just because you think the Jedi Council has some useless mission for you to undertake.”

“I think you’re the only one dragging us around on useless missions,” Dynatha pointed out.

“Think whatever you want. Until we land, though, you'll have to be content with our current destination.”

Although she was desperate to return to the Jedi Order, Dynatha knew arguing with Ranval would get her nowhere: from what she had heard of him, he was stubborn and had a penchant for disregarding orders. She just shook her head and went to check on Tserne. Once she was certain he was okay, she would spend some time with Delvin and try to figure out exactly what Ranval was up to.

Once Dynatha had left the bridge, a figure who had lingered in the shadows emerged from hiding and traveled to Ranval’s side. The Togruta who revealed herself was the same age as he was, with strong head-tails and horns, and her red face had more scars than anyone else on the ship. The heavy combat armor she wore was black with dark blue trim, quite unlike her subordinates, and she prided herself in keeping it relatively free of damage despite its heavy use.

“You have such a way with women, boss,” the Togruta said.

“What should I have said, Selias?” the Miraluka countered angrily. “She doesn’t trust me and insisted that we return to Telos. If I listened to her, can you imagine how far behind we would be?”

“I’m not saying she was right. I’m just letting you know.”

Ranval grumbled under his breath and returned to flying the ship.

“You didn’t return her lightsaber,” Selias noted after a while.

“She won’t need it. Not yet,” Ranval replied evenly. “Did Tserne have what we were looking for?”

Selias extended one of her gloved hands and showed him a personal comlink. “It’s encrypted, and I suspect the contact history has been erased. It will take our techs weeks to figure out who he’s working for.”

“Let me handle it, then. Hyperspace should be smooth enough.”

“Very well.” Selias placed Tserne’s comlink on the computer console.

“How’s Meldeg’s team?” Ranval asked.

Selias nodded to herself. “Green Shield unit repelled the assassination attempt and left Coruscant nine hours ago. They’ve been lingering at Tinnel ever since. Which safehouse should I send them to?”

“The one near Sluis Van, for now. We'll pick them up as soon as we’re done on Ambria.”

“Very well. Sending the word.” Once she was finished, the Togruta waved at her captain and headed amidships. “I'll go keep an eye on our new guest.”

“Play nice, Selias.”

“I can’t promise anything, but I'll make sure she feels welcome.”


Chapter 9

Nafyan stood at the helm of the Phantasm. He had been standing there for several hours, unable to take his eyes off the viewport. The crew had been careful to avoid disturbing his silent musings, tending to their business around him while their ship was en route to Korriban. He had been receiving updates on his various schemes throughout the galaxy, and the results were promising. The Republic didn’t even know they were at war, and as such were easy prey to his agents. The Jedi were as weak as the government they were supposed to protect; teams of Jedi Knights had been eliminated in the span of weeks. Even the fringe elements, like the Bounty Hunters' Guild and the Galactic Mercenary Syndicate, were beginning to rally under the banner of the Sith. It would not be long until he could put his ultimate plan into motion.

The Sith Master sensed Falmas as she approached, disrupting his concentration. This would be the first time speaking together after her punishment, and he was surprised that she was so eager to consult him. The many crewers around him were dumbfounded by her beauty, ogling her shapely body in its form-fitting robes. Nafyan could sense their lecherous thoughts without even trying to probe their minds, and a few of them were so bold as to whisper salacious jokes to one another. They had seen her many times before, and every time it was the same. Admiral Kvorkasir’s crew was hardly as disciplined as he liked to believe.

“Master, I have come to seek clemency from you,” Falmas said once she was at her master’s side.

“You will receive none,” Nafyan croaked.

“Please, let me redeem myself. Let me kill the woman that the Beast failed to kill!”

She was determined, that much was certain. But power, not certainty, created results. He had given her more than enough chances. He had high hopes for her, and she was so eager to please him. Nevertheless, a weak slave and a useless slave were two sides of the same credit chit—it was time for him to dispose of her as cleanly as possible.

“Cowards and weaklings have no place in my Sith Empire. I have already assigned your task to another.”

“Who? Who have you appointed in my stead?” Falmas asked. Her eyes burned with murderous intent. “I will challenge them to a duel and take their place.”

“Silence.” Nafyan rapped the deck with his staff. “Sallos and his team have already left. They will meet with Senator Latona and succeed where you failed.”

Falmas balled her fists. “All I need is one chance to prove myself. I have become stronger, Master. Let me show you.”

“You and the Beast have worked together for too long. Your dependence on one another have made you both weak. I have returned him to Khar Delba to train with the Sith Masters there; you will travel to the Krath and ensure that they are meeting our production quotas.”

“No! Do not send me from your side, Master. I am stronger than the Beast, Sallos, and even Tadeus! Do not send me on some useless diplomatic errand. I am a Sith-”

“Enough.” His voice echoed across the bridge as though it was empty, causing more than one crewer to jump in terror. “You are not Sith until I say you are. Go to the Truuine system. You will not enter my sight again until I have received your report from the commander of the Krath.”

Falmas seethed at Nafyan, but she knew that nothing could be done against him. She spun around and stormed off the bridge, challenging any being foolish enough to stand in her way. The Force whirled around her like a tempest, threatening to damage equipment and throw officers off their feet. On her way out, a middle-aged man in a gray mesh combat suit met her gaze, but she ignored him. Stepping around the crew, the older Human approached Nafyan in silence. The Sith Master noticed his arrival but said nothing for some time.

Tadeus Balger II, king of Obulette. He was the leader of all the Sith’s covert and special operations, particularly when dealing with those blind to the Force; therefore, he commanded the Mecrosa Order of assassins, the clandestine GenoHaradan operatives, and the few Sith assassins who remained from Darth Revan’s empire. When he first joined the Sith, he had been under Nafyan’s control, but like Admiral Isinn, it seemed that the Sith Master’s dark influence was weakening. Lord Preux had taken the master assassin under his tutelage, and he had become a true champion for the Sith cause.

Theirs was a symbiotic relationship that Nafyan could hardly stand. The Sith had aided Tadeus and his assassins in subduing his political rivals in the Tapani Empire, allowing him to become the minister of war and personal adviser to its ailing emperor. In return, Tadeus used his clout to build warships for the Sith at the expansive shipyards orbiting Obulette and Tallaan, the largest in the Colonies. In the end, neither could triumph without the other, which meant Nafyan had to cater to the grandmaster’s demands on occasion.

“Your arrival is unexpected, Tadeus,” Nafyan said simply.

“General Xerro met his end yesterday,” the younger man replied. “Did Lord Preux not receive my report?”

“He hasn’t returned from Korriban. We are headed to retrieve him now.”

“I see.” Tadeus clasped his hands behind his back. “What of my GenoHaradan and Mecrosa agents? Are they meeting your expectations?”

“We lost twelve agents fighting with Republic soldiers, but most infiltrated their positions successfully and are awaiting orders. I have no complaints,” Nafyan answered.

“Twelve who died for the cause,” Tadeus murmured. “Their sacrifices will not be forgotten. For the time being, we must continue in our effort to subdue the Republic.”

“Indeed.”

The master assassin was silent for a moment, giving both Sith a time to ponder their next course of action. “I have other news as well.”

“I am listening.”

“You are familiar with the commandos that saved the life of Alderaan’s queen?” Tadeus asked.

Nafyan turned his gaze, his curiosity piqued for the first time in this conversation. “Tell me what you have learned.”

“The GenoHaradan tracked their vessel as it departed Coruscant. My Mecrosa shadows spotted that same ship at the edge of the Core Worlds, where it lingered for some time. They believe they have predicted its intended destination with reasonable accuracy. Shall I investigate?”

Nafyan despised the idea of giving Tadeus credit for killing the nuisances that had plagued his apprentices, but he saw no other way; the GenoHaradan were subservient to Tadeus alone. “Very well. In Preux’s name, I give you permission to pursue and deal with them as you see fit.”

With a slight bow, Tadeus departed the bridge of the Phantasm. Once he had left, Nafyan left as well. The admirals were no doubt almost done with their weekly meeting, and Admiral Kvorkasir would soon return to the bridge. The old fool never stopped wasting Nafyan’s time, so the Sith did his best to avoid his company whenever possible.

Soldiers marched through the corridors around him but never intercepted him, and he changed course for no one. Crewbeings and cleaning droids had long since learned that it was a bad idea to step in front of a Sith and block his path.

Nafyan entered the capital ship’s war room, located on the same deck as the bridge but on the opposite end of the warship. The chamber was filled with terminals and holographic displays, leaving little space for the comm units and emergency generators along the walls. The room’s glowpanels had been muted, leaving the chamber dark except for the blue-gray light emanating for the holograms at its center. Very few officers were present; the war room was customarily left empty except for routine maintenance. At Nafyan’s behest, the small squad of engineers abandoned their positions and left the Sith Master alone.

Standing at the center of the room, Nafyan’s gaze drifted from one holographic display to the next. The Phantasm itself was displayed in the far left corner of the room, highlighting the ship’s critical systems, weapon capabilities, and flight information in illuminated pop-ups. Next to that was a detailed count of the Sith Army, with detailed records of every soldier, vehicle, and droid prepared to fight and die as soon as Nafyan gave the word. Beside that was a detailed list of deep-cover operatives who were now posing as Republic soldiers, diplomats, scientists, and mercenaries, followed by dossiers on bounty hunters and local forces who had been bribed to assist them. Finally, on the opposite side of the room, was a massive display showing every ship in the Sith Armada, from the largest warship to the smallest fighter, spread out across the galaxy though they were.

The Sith Master approached the nearest comm unit and entered the appropriate frequency. In a few seconds, the holographic image of a Human male—younger than Kvorkasir, but older than Nafyan—appeared before him.

“General Malthesinores,” Nafyan greeted him. “The armies on Khar Delba better be prepared.”

“Come now, Nafyan,” the old man said, coughing lightly. “We have worked together for so long, and yet you still find it in your heart to doubt me.”

Oro Malthesinores had once been a famed Republic general and senator. He had always been respected, powerful, and wealthy, but the Sith were able to woo him with promises of more. His once-impressive physical strength was gone now, and he was only preserved because his adroit military mind and his political acumen were valuable to them. Even then, Nafyan often found his presence and attitude a nuisance.

“General, I will not ask you again.”

The old soldier’s laughter boomed. “Master Nafyan, all current soldiers are ready and prepared. Nine thousand clone soldiers were produced last month, two hundred commandos were created, and twenty more Force-sensitives were approved for offworld missions.”

“Tell me where the soldiers are headed.”

“Per Darth Preux’s request, the soldiers are being ferried to Ziost for training and the elite troopers are being delivered to Sigil in carbonite. I will send the new Sith to you so you can utilize them at your discretion.”

“Excellent.” Nafyan couldn’t help but smile at the thought of twenty new Sith apprentices that could engage the Jedi Order and their allies. “I will contact you with new information shortly. You are to keep all officers on ready alert.”

“My lord.” Oro added before ending the transmission.

Nafyan was about to contact another offworld agent when one of his apprentices entered the war room. “Forgive my disturbance, Master, but you told me to alert you when we exited hyperspace. We are now in orbit above Korriban, and sensors have detected Lord Preux’s shuttle. He should be here in ten minutes.”

“Very good. Leave me: I will see him personally.”

*** ***

Nafyan left the elevator and its guards behind and entered the uppermost deck of the Phantasm. The deck itself was hardly large enough to be called one, with a single long hallway that led directly to the Darth Preux’s personal chambers. This entire level of the Phantasm was sealed off and could not be accessed except for this with proper clearance—only those in the highest echelons of the Sith military and the most powerful Sith Masters could reach this place. Without ceiling lights, visitors were guided forth by floor-mounted glowpanels that gave off a dark red light. Fortunately, Nafyan didn’t need the pitiful light sources before him and walked forward with surety by the power of the Force.

Standing in front of Darth Preux’s chambers was his sole personal guard. This guard stood at attention at all times, encased in shimmering white armor with gilding and embossing unlike anything Nafyan had seen in his long life. There was no hint as to the guard’s species or gender, but the guard towered over the old Sith Master. The guard carried no blasters, vibroswords, shielding, comlink, or modern equipment of any kind, armed only with a massive halberd that was twice as tall as Nafyan was. With silent vigilance, the guard’s head inclined to observe Nafyan as he approached.

“Let me in: I have business with your master,” Nafyan ordered.

“My master has told me to refuse access to his chambers for any reason,” the guard responded in kind. “Even you, Nafyan.”

“I don’t care what he told you. I demand to see him,” Nafyan replied.

“Would you defy the orders of your lord?” the guard asked, his voice hinting at disdain.

“I need not explain myself to you. I will pass, or you will die.”

The primitive polearm shifted closer to the guard’s body. “Do you think you can defeat me?”

Nafyan reached for his lightsaber, but he was interrupted by a ringing sensation within his mind. The guard must have felt it as well, because the massive figure’s stance faltered for a moment.

You will let him through, Thoronim. Nafyan, be at peace. My guard only does what he does at my command.

Nafyan sneered at the guard as the magnetic lock disengaged. The guard said nothing and shifted the weapon back into its default position. The old Sith Master walked past Thoronim and entered Darth Preux’s personal chambers. It immediately became apparent that the room’s aural disruptors were being put to good use; once he was inside, Nafyan was greeted by a cacophony of screams. Entering Darth Preux’s chambers was like walking back into a time when the Sith depended not on military might in their conquests but every facet of the dark side.

At the center of the room, an adolescent battle hydra was fighting with a host of sentient and non-sentient species. The colossal dragon dwarfed its opponents, and they struggled just to surround it because of its two sweeping heads. When any of its challengers approached, the beast would use the claws on its front legs to gore the hapless victim; when attacked from behind, it would whip its tail, allowing its hooked stinger to rake across the attacker and infect them with a deadly poison. The creature was aggressive, nigh-invulnerable to conventional weaponry, and incredibly intelligent. Nafyan couldn’t help but watch the great beast maul several of the defenders before continuing on.

Nafyan ascended an incline that led to an overlook just above the arena. Massive slabs of carbonite were situated against the walls on both sides of him, some of them bearing familiar faces and others not. Nafyan couldn’t help but smile at those that contained defeated Jedi; one day soon, all their kind would share a similar fate.

The man known as Darth Preux sat at the edge of the overlook, observing the battle below him with disinterest. He had once been attractive by Human standards, but now—thought he was not even fifty—he looked like a creature long since dead. Wispy strands of white hair traced around his scalp, decorating the top of a cadaverous mask where his face had once been. His eyes had been a shimmering blue long ago, like the most beautiful of gems, but now they sunk deep into his face and radiated a yellow glow that was in every way unnatural. His body was frail and pathetic to behold, almost mocking the physical condition he had on Alderaan as a young man. No longer able to travel alone, all sorts of intravenous tubes and personal life support systems kept him alive.

Walking by a great many tomes, scrolls, and inscribed sheets of stone beneath a massive chronometer, Nafyan stood beside the man he had lifted up. It was only thanks to him that Jaeln Benax had not died after leaving Alderaan; Nafyan had protected the young Sith warrior and taught him how to unleash his full potential. Truly, he had been so powerful that Nafyan feared that he would have been executed if his master reached into the old Sith’s mind and discovered his ambitions. But the man who was once Jaeln Benax never discovered Nafyan’s plans, and he became more and more feeble as the years went on. Soon, he withdrew from his official duties altogether, leaving Nafyan and his military leaders to prepare for their final battle against the Republic and the Jedi without his aid.

He had nothing but scorn for Darth Preux. The Sith Lord had learned a way to gain unlimited power, and then he simply retreated into his chambers like a terrified thranta. Darth Preux wanted no part in the great triumph Nafyan was preparing, so the old Sith would give all their assets—soldiers, ships, assassins, and even Sith—to the true Dark Lord of the Sith, the master of the Sith Empire. For now, Nafyan simply had to play along until the time came for the culmination of all his treachery.

“Do you see this, Nafyan?” Darth Preux asked.

Nafyan turned his head, and only then did he realize that a derriphan was floating by Darth Preux’s other shoulder. Like a grazer that had just spotted a frightening predator in the distance, the old Sith recoiled and brought his lightsaber to bear. Derriphans were living weapons that had been created by the Sith of old with a single purpose: devour the thoughts, experiences, and life energy of Force-sensitives. They were the closest thing to a predator the Jedi had—except for the equally frightening terentatek. Unlike the monstrosity that was the terentatek, the derriphan appeared relatively harmless as a floating pulsar encased in dark fire.

“Master! The derriphan!” Nafyan growled. “Where did it come from?”

“It must have wandered onto the ship as we were leaving Korriban,” Darth Preux surmised.

“Such a creature cannot coexist with us. Let me destroy it before it devours us all.”

Darth Preux chuckled. “Do you think you are powerful enough to resist consumption?”

“A true Sith does not feel fear. It will not kill me.”

“Perhaps. I have taking a liking to this thing. Stay your blade; I will be responsible for the creature.”

Nafyan looked at his master as if he had just told him to jump out an airlock. The derriphan let out a low hum, barely audible to the Human ear, and seemed to rub against Darth Preux’s shoulder. Disgusting. He couldn’t help but fidget nervously at the sight of such a mysterious and powerful creature, and Darth Preux treated it—and his fears—with contempt. Perhaps it would be the Sith Lord’s unwillingness to listen to advice rather than Nafyan’s blade that would end his rule.

“What happened to our Light?” Darth Preux asked, waving the derriphan away from them.

Nafyan relaxed now that their enemy was gone and reachieved his previous stolidness. “We lost her after she left the Fate and Luck. Our mercenaries followed her Jedi companions to Suurja, but they were defeated by unexpected reinforcements.”

“And what happened to those Jedi?”

“They fled to their sanctuary, wherever that is,” Nafyan replied. “I’m afraid we have no further leads to pursue, Master.”

Preux smiled. “Perhaps we do. There has been a great disturbance in the Force. Have you not felt it?”

Nafyan shook his head, furious at the thought of missing such an event.

“The dark side called out to me from the world of Krayiss Two. The ancient manuscripts say it is one of our order’s holy worlds. The darkness warned me that a trio of powerful Jedi was trying to violate the sacred ground of one of our library-temples. I have no doubt that our Light was there, trying to purge from the galaxy a place of great evil.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Are you saying I’m wrong?”

“Of all the Jedi in the galaxy, how can you presume that the Light would have traveled to Krayiss Two?”

Darth Preux waved away his concerns. “Send a team of Sith apprentices there, accompanied by a marauder. Surely they left some hint as to their destination.”

“You are sending our valuable forces on pointless missions,” Nafyan growled.

“We shall see, Nafyan. We shall see.” Darth Preux rested his head against one of his gnarled hands. “Inform Admiral Kvorkasir to take us into the Iotran Expanse.”

“Master-”

“You are dismissed, Nafyan.”

The older Sith walked away from his master and his pets with a huff. For now, he was forced to carry out such pointless and wasteful orders, but it would not be long before he could serve the Sith Emperor completely and be rid of this pretender.

*** ***

Major Ghoaad grumbled to himself as he walked through the crowds of people in the Alabaster Spire. The establishment was one of the finest eateries on Coruscant and the location of a very prestigious dance hall, such that only the most wealthy senators could afford to have galas here. The senator of the Iggron system was no spendthrift; he was not particularly keen on Republic intervention in his territory, but he recognized the necessity of giving credit where credit was due—at least to an extent. He held the party tonight to honor of the soldiers who saved Iea Keradyle, his friend and a massive investor in the planet’s economy, from terrorists. More specifically, they were honoring Rajes Thonnel, although the major and his commandos got the occasional nod—but were not invited.

Although he told himself that he didn’t mind receiving almost no recognition for his work, he still couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the whole affair, even now that it was over. Perhaps he was getting tired of clandestine work, or maybe he was just annoyed by the Humans' stares as he passed by. Even though they worked together with alien species every day, the upper class Humans of Coruscant had yet to acknowledge other species as their equals. It was a strange thing. No one in the military, no matter the species, could unnerve him and make him feel inferior the way these noble-types could.

“Major Ghoaad? Major, is that you?”

The Chagrian stopped in surprise. He found himself reaching for his blaster as a nervous instinct even though he had left it back at their base. Shaking his head, he turned around and waved one of his blue hands in a typical Human-esque greeting.

To his surprise, there were two Humans approaching him. The older of the two was a woman somewhere between thirty and fifty—the major hadn’t been around enough Humans to accurately guess their ages—with silvery hair braided in the latest Coruscanti style. She was slender and graceful, walking in her dark heels with notable poise. Her facial features were soft, gentle, and she had shimmering blue eyes that were warm and inviting. She wore a green dress that touched the floor and was otherwise cut conservatively. Her companion was a male about a decade younger. Stocky and affluent, the first thing the Major noticed was the thin mustache on his person. His black suit seemed vaguely military, with a red aiguillette around his shoulder that matched his cummerbund.

Running through a list of prominent Humans in his head, the major decided he had never seen them before. While it was not an odd occurrence, he was almost positive that anyone who could recognize him out of uniform wouldn’t have been at this party. Either way, he was pleasantly surprised to see Humans who didn’t look at him like he was some sort of mongrel to be ogled for their amusement.

“We’re very glad to see you, Major Ghoaad,” the male said, his voice a bit softer than the Chagrian expected. “I have heard you were very much responsible for Miss Keradyle’s survival after that nasty business on the train.”

The soldier stiffened. “That’s classified, I’m afraid.”

His companion laughed cheerfully. “Lighten up, Major. We’re a part of the Ministry of Defense’s advisory and budget committees; we’re privy to a bit more than you think.”

“I’m sorry, you have me at a disadvantage,” the soldier replied.

“Ah!” the male Human tapped his head in dismay. “Where are our manners? I am Senator Ebel Ubens of Foerost. My charming companion is Eliorae I Panteer, Senator and Queen of Alderaan.”

The major still didn’t recognize their faces, but it took him less than a second to recognize their names. His eyes widened when he realized that he was speaking to two of the most prominent senators in the Core Worlds. “Senators! I beg your pardon, I didn’t even recognize you. What can I do for you both?”

“Major Ghoaad, we don’t need anything,” Senator Panteer said, clearly amused at his uptight attitude. “We just wanted you to know that your efforts aren’t wasted. You may think that no one knows of your work, and even fewer respect it. But understand that those who need to know do, and those are the very people who will ensure your plans for the military come to pass.”

“I’m a soldier, ma'am. I just do my duty.” His composure softened for a moment. “That said, thank you. I appreciate it, and I’m sure the beings under my command would as well.”

“Anytime, Major,” Ubens replied.

“I don’t suppose either of you have seen Lieutenant Colonel Thonnel?”

The two senators gave each other a look that the Chagrian interpreted as uncomfortable. He was going to ask again, but Senator Ubens answered, “He’s near the back of the dance hall. You'll notice him immediately.”

“May the Force be with you and the rest of Tython Squad, Major,” Senator Panteer said before the two departed.

As the two senators left, Major Ghoaad watched them with a sort of bemused interest. It was not necessarily uncommon for males and females of his own species to be seen in public, but such pairs were usually reserved for mates. From what little he understood of Human culture, married couples usually shared a clan name and tended to be closer in age than Senator Ubens and Panteer were. Strange. Either way, he had a job to do; once he found the lieutenant colonel, he could be out of this place.

Major Ghoaad navigated across the party area until he was standing at the entrance of the dancing hall. Couples were dancing to a slow-paced song at the moment, and the live band’s boredom was evident even from this distance. Scouting out the room, the major noticed a large group of women surrounding a lone figure at the far side of the hall. The major circumnavigated the room toward the females. As he approached, some of the women—all Human—at the outer ring of the circle looked at him, disgusted at inhuman features.

A man’s voice emerged from the crowd, eliciting a gasp from those around him. “… And then, my swoop bike destroyed another pirate skiff, leaving the rest of my team in the wake of its explosion. Laser fire erupted around me, and I could hardly see or hear anything. Boom! Explosions everywhere. I didn’t think I was going to reach the train in time to save her, but just then-”

“Excuse me, Colonel Thonnel?” Major Ghoaad interrupted.

The entire company of Human women, with their fanciful hair and flowing dresses that looked as impractical as they were expensive, turned to him and gave him evil looks. Lieutenant Colonel Rajes Thonnel sat in the midst, and he stopped his story with a stifled sigh. The soldier had donned his finest red military dress uniform, complete with medals and commendations dating all the way back to the Jedi Civil War. His short platinum hair had been groomed and his perfume reeked more than those around him. There were tan-colored bacta bandages on his face and his arm was in a sling; he obviously forced himself to attend this event despite his injuries. Major Ghoaad thought he looked ridiculous in his half-healed state, but he could vaguely understand why the noblewomen were fawning over him. After all, his own species participated in underwater duels to impress their mates, so surely a few scars and a tale of daredevil heroics and fearful exploits would attract some of Thonnel’s species.

“Major Ghoaad,” Rajes said, not bothering to conceal his annoyance, “what can I do for you?”

“You are requested,” the Chagrian soldier replied.

“Are you leaving us already, Rajes?” one of the women intoned.

“Surely you can stay a little longer?” another asked.

“By whom?” Rajes queried, ignoring the cooing of his companions.

“Brigadier Eto.”

Rajes jumped to his feet immediately. “Well, I suppose that’s enough for now. Ladies, I will see you all at Supreme Chancellor D'et’s birthday next month.”

The women surrounding him wailed, pleaded, and cried for Rajes to stay with them and entertain them, but he would have none of it. Waving the major forward, Rajes followed him through the crowd and left the dance hall. Even after escaping Rajes’s entourage, everyone wanted to take his hand and congratulate him for a job well done. He humored a few beings, but he simply waved the rest away with a cheerful smile and a kind word. It took them quite some time for the two to reach the major’s Twin-244 airspeeder; when they arrived, Rajes grumbled to himself.

“What is it?” Major Ghoaad asked.

“It’s hideous,” Rajes said. “I mean, at least the Twin-228 had a bit of class to it with symmetry to match. Its paint job could have used some work, sure, but that’s easily fixable. You can’t fix this.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” he replied, but immediately regretted it.

“Nothing? Look at it: boxy design, no prongs for heavy-lifting, the engine is jutting out on the back like a sore, and it probably can’t even hit five hundred kilometers per hour. Not to mention the horrendous brown-green decal and the liberal use of plasticast in the seats.”

“I used four months pay to buy this,” the major countered.

Rajes snickered. “Did you go to Nal Hutta for that deal? By the original light, this thing was probably designed with Hutts in mind. All business, no aesthetics.”

The major did his best to keep himself from getting defensive. “It flies fine. I’ve never had any problem with it.”

“It must be just the other pilots, then.” Rajes shrugged. “Theirs is a hard decision. They either have to get out of your lane to avoid sharing it with such a disgusting machine or else vomit at the sight of it.”

“Just get in.”

The flight was tedious. Rajes calmly pointed out every flaw in the vehicle, from its malfunctioning fifth gear to the way the seats wouldn’t recline 180 degrees. He hated the smell of its exhaust, he hated the weakened cargo lifters positioned just below the cockpit, he hated the way the engine sounded, and he hated the way they had designed the dashboard. It took all of Major Ghoaad’s willpower to not push Rajes out of the windowless vehicle. No matter how much he pleaded for him to stop, the lieutenant colonel continued. The worst part about it was the fact that the major was finding himself agreeing with the lieutenant colonel’s pinpoint assessment of his vehicle.

“Major, I’m going to ask Brigadier Eto to compensate you for this blight upon the universe,” Rajes said as they were nearing Eto’s offices at the Republic Army Headquarters. “Seriously. Instead of listening to some Toydarian as he swindles you at a used swoop lot, go directly to Shawken and purchase a nice Twin-228. Those things may be older than you, but they fly better than any swoop I’ve ever seen. Whoever fired the original designers of that vehicle ought to be shipped to Kessel and never allowed to return.”

“Those are considerably more expensive,” the major pointed out. “Nearly twice as much. I might as well buy a PL-90.”

Rajes shook his head. “You might as well fly a hawk-bat; you'd get to your destinations faster.”

The major pulled his speeder into the veranda of the Republic military base on Coruscant and powered down the engines, causing them to whine. Once the vessel was off and Rajes had finished lecturing him about the inferiority of the Twin-244’s engine design, he disembarked with a smile on his face.

“Take care, Lieutenant Colonel,” the major said, although he didn’t really mean it.

“Thank you,” he replied. “I'll see if I can get you a promotion to buy yourself a new speeder.”

Rajes had caught the look of surprise on the major’s face as he departed. He had nothing against the major, but if he was going to be so stiff-lipped and stuffy he was going to be mocked for it, especially if he came by and interrupted him during a rather exciting—and exaggerated—retelling of his escapades. The lieutenant colonel chuckled to himself before turning around to enter Brigadier Eto’s office. Protocol dictated that he was scanned for weapons and improvised threats before he entered, so he stood around while security droids and portable scanners sifted through his person for nonexistent dangers. After he was deemed safe, Rajes took the elevator straight up to the brigadier’s office.

A perky young woman sat behind a desk. She smiled at Rajes as he came in and beckoned for him to have a seat. He never saw her before, but he immediately noticed the red trill-shaped mark on her forehead and figured that she was a member of the Kiffar species. She tried to hide the emblem beneath her jet black hair, but the marking was just barely visible between the thick strands. Like him, she was wearing a Republic dress uniform, although she had a gray coat over her shoulders due to the lack of heating in the reception area.

“I believe Brigadier Eto is expecting me,” Rajes said, leaning on her desk.

“I’m asking him now,” she said, motioning for him to be quiet. “… Very well. Lieutenant Colonel, was it? Go on in.”

“Rajes Thonnel, but you can call me Rajes,” he urged, waving farewell to the young soldier at her desk.

The door to Ducian Eto’s office was closed despite the receptionist’s invitation, and he rapped the door a few times with his knuckles.

“It’s open,” a gruff voice answered from within.

Ducian Eto hadn’t changed at all. He was, and would always be, the opposite of Rajes Thonnel in every way imaginable. About fifteen years his senior, Ducian Eto was a famed military commander; he had served under Revan during the Mandalorian Wars, surviving the battlefields of Azure, Vena, and Makem Te. Even when Revan separated from the Republic, Eto pressed on, challenging him at Botor, Andara, and Sluis Van. His grizzled face and gray eyes held scars from every battlefield he had been at, and the decades of war had taken their toll. His black hair had grayed long ago, but he was still in top physical condition and looked like he could jump onto the front lines himself if the situation called for it.

At the brigadier general’s invitation, Rajes sat down. “You didn’t introduce me to your secretary,” Rajes said.

“Captain Ilen?” Eto looked up from the datapad he had been browsing. “She was assigned to my unit a month ago.”

“That military uniform is really not doing anything for her figure,” Rajes pointed out. “She has nice legs. Shame we don’t have a nice skirt for those dress reds.”

Eto frowned. “She’s too young for you.”

“She looked late twenties at the youngest,” Rajes countered.

“I thought you had something going with Miss Keradyle?” Eto pointed out.

“Iea?” Rajes asked with a smile. “She’s… nice. But there are just so many women fawning over me… or who would like to. Why confine myself to an entree when I can sample the platter for as long as I want?”

“You’re disgusting.”

“Noted.”

“Isn’t there any way I can work with her instead of Major Ghoaad?” Rajes moaned.

“What’s wrong with Major Ghoaad?” Brigadier Eto asked. “He’s one of the best soldiers I’ve ever seen. I’ve never heard a single complaint about him or his leadership.”

“He’s too by-the-book. I’ve seen droids who question orders more than he does.”

Eto shook his head. “That’s not a bad thing. We need soldiers like that right now.”

“It is when you’re involved in covert ops. I thought you'd recognize that.”

“Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of working with flexible officers,” Eto said. “Besides, he did very well with the information he was given. I’m still bothered that I had nothing else for him to work with.”

“He did save all the civilians without any casualties,” Rajes pointed out.

“So he did.” Eto returned his attention back to the datapads on his desk. “We received the reports from Keradyle’s people. Total destruction: there was nothing left.”

Rajes frowned. He was afraid of that. While he and Tython Squad were saving the Iea Keradyle from pirates on their orbital train, Oro Malthesinores must have had a squad of demolition experts and saboteurs enter her warehouses. Finding themselves unable to break the encryption locks, they had resigned themselves to destroying everything using military-grade explosives to keep the materiel out of Republic hands. In the end, Ncrall’s attack had been a distraction; galactic news outlets hadn’t yet picked up on the destruction of such vital military resources, but it wouldn’t be long before they were hounding Eto and his unit for answers.

Oro Malthesinores was really quite clever, Rajes had to give him that. When Rajes had failed to capture him decades ago on Coruscant, he had no idea that the former senator and general would become such a constant irritant. Discovering that he was the one funding Ncrall only made things worse. Even with Eto’s help, the two of them were always one step behind the traitor.

What’s more, there were rumors that he was funneling billions of credits through shell companies of all kinds—investments firms, arms dealers, shipping magnates—in preparation for something big. Although no one in the Senate or the press knew about it, Brigadier Eto and the rest of the Ministry of Defense were convinced that he was allied with remnants of the Sith who survived Revan’s purge.

“The Senate has agreed to overlook our misuse of military soldiers and materiel because our actions were linked to the Sith threat. But the director of ROCI wasn’t happy; he told me in private that if we pulled a stunt like that again, he'd request a formal investigation himself,” Eto continued.

“I suppose that’s good. We did get lucky; if Ncrall hadn’t been working for the Sith, I could see a court-martial in our future.”

“All in due time,” Eto grumbled.

“But what’s left now that Keradyle’s stockpiles are gone?” Rajes asked.

The brigadier shrugged. “Kuat, Alsakan, and Sullust are already producing at maximum capacity. Aratech has a ten year development agreement with the Republic military, while Gungis X Weapons and ProTech have been placed under emergency contracts. It’s taken weeks to convince the Defense Committee to retain those contracts. You know how it is-”

“We'd rather rent than own,” Rajes finished, just as tired of the military maxim as Eto was.

For centuries, the Republic had counted on fringers and planetary forces to defend their own territories; it was Revan who had first united the scattered forces of the Republic into an actual military. The current generation of admirals and generals had once been either mercenary leaders or sector commanders themselves, and they yearned for the old days when they had not been responsible to the Senate and had the capability to fund themselves. The Senate agreed, if only to keep their own pockets filled with the credits they'd be saving. Only a handful of officers agreed with Eto’s desire for a united military, and he fought with every ounce of his being to ensure that it wouldn’t be dissolved.

“Do you think it will be enough to fight the Sith if they return?” Rajes wondered aloud.

“I don’t know. Our spies haven’t reported anything, and it’s been a long time since Revan left for wherever he decided to go…” The brigadier leaned back in his chair. “But I think they’re closer than we thought. General Xerro died this morning.”

“Xerro? The Maltorran?”

“Indeed.”

Rajes crossed his arms and frowned. He had quite liked Xerro. “Any news on how he died?”

“None. You know who I suspect, but I have no proof yet. His successor is apparently a part of the Trailing Sectors Brigade.”

“Oh? Don’t they usually appoint new generals from the brigade their predecessor was in?”

“They do, but the defense minister insisted this was a special case. The outlying commanders are angry at the lack of support from the Coreward systems, so he appointed one of theirs to the post to appease them.”

“I don’t like those outlying soldiers,” Rajes admitted. “They’re too… undisciplined. They’re forgotten how to behave.”

“I agree. They don’t really like the idea of centralization, either.”

“As long as they’re out there, they'll always harbor resentment toward us,” the junior officer muttered. “Well, they can stew out there for all I care. Any news on Ncrall?” he asked, desperately hoping the pirate captain had died during his descent.

“Not yet. We’re nearly positive he survived the crash, but we have no idea where he went after that. It’s possible the Sith picked him up and hid him on one of their ships.”

“Then we'll never find him,” Rajes lamented.

“Not necessarily,” Eto replied. “Our agents report that there are unmarked ships traveling in the regions beyond the Sith territories, beyond charted space. I’m expecting their report later in the week.”

“You think Ncrall’s building a fleet out there?”

“It’s too early to say. But when I receive their findings, you and Major Ghoaad will be sent out to investigate. Understood?”

Rajes rolled his eyes. Getting to work with Major Ghoaad again was more of a chore than a pleasure. “Aye, sir.”

“Very good. You are dismissed, Lieutenant Colonel.”

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