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Chapter 1

“Warning! Fires on decks four, five and eight. Caution is advised.”

Jhosua Weros awoke to the blare of the alarm. The young man had been asleep in his cot, wearing nothing but a white shirt and shorts. The brown eyes under his tousled amber hair stared at the ceiling, but he saw nothing beyond the coordinated flashing of the ship’s alarm system flickering between varying shades of red and yellow.

He glanced around the room and noticed that the barracks were empty; even the adjacent rooms were vacant. The lone soldier didn’t know whether they had all heard the alarms and left him to fend for himself, or whether there was something far more sinister going on. He figured he would get the answers he needed after leaving the barracks. He slipped out of his cot, but a roar was heard in the distance, and the explosion that followed rocked the ship and sent Jhosua falling backwards into his bed.

Wincing from the pain as his right leg slammed into the metal frame of his cot, Jhosua struggled to pull himself back on his feet. Using the otherwise empty table by his bedside as a crutch, the soldier forced himself to stand. He remained motionless for a moment, allowing the burning sensation in his legs to expire. He grumbled to himself, displeased with his idiocy and carelessness. He had tried to discipline himself in the past months, making the transition from civilian to soldier, but it had been difficult. It had taken several battles and far too many drills. Now, he had assured himself that he was a true soldier. A tool of the Republic and their military hierarchy. He could return to his homeworld a hero, and his deeds would inspire others to serve as he did.

Jhosua carefully made his way to his bed’s footlocker. Opening it and withdrawing its contents, Jhosua pulled a thick brown coat over his lightly toned and farmer’s tanned skin before putting on a pair of black trousers. Once he was dutifully clothed,—for wandering the ship’s interior, anyway—Jhosua procured a small blaster from the bottom of his footlocker. He checked the sidearm’s power cell: it would only last about five shots, but it was created for use in emergency situations like these, so it didn’t matter.

Once he had slipped on standard regulation boots and placed a comlink in his jacket pocket, Jhosua made his way toward the door to leave the barracks. As he reached for the door panel, he remembered what he heard about the fires. Considering the fact he was on deck four, Jhosua figured it would be foolish of him to get caught in a raging inferno should he open the door haphazardly. The soldier warily placed the back of his hand against the metal door; the frame was hot to the touch, and he recoiled immediately.

Returning to the door panel again, Jhosua placed his back against the wall near the door and hit the ‘open’ button. The door slid open with a hushed groan, allowing thick black smoke and tiny tongues of flame to flow inside the barracks. As the pillars of smoke raced inside, Jhosua hit a blue button on the same panel, causing the emergency fire suppression system to activate. The non-lethal, colorless gas doused the flames, all the while being assisted by the room’s filtration system. The flames died down slowly, but it was not long before they were purged from the room. Once he was sure he would be safe, Jhosua left the barracks.

Standing in the halls of the Republic cruiser, Jhosua found himself face-to-face with a Republic marine, wearing a red suit of armor and equipped with standard firefighting tools. The marines were a new branch of the Republic Navy, created some fifteen years ago to deal with the threat of pirates and smugglers raiding Republic vessels. They were rarely deployed groundside, even though they were technically specialized and elite infantry.

Jhosua was relieved that the fires were dealt with and approached the marine. “Hey, what the hell’s going on here?”

The marine glanced at Jhosua, clearly a bit surprised at the question. The marine removed the helmet and revealed herself to be a woman. Jhosua jumped at the revelation, slightly unnerved in the presence of a woman soldier and more so at the fact she was a Zeltron. Their pink skin and gentle appearance made them alluring to many hapless males, Jhosua included. She had a smooth, soft face with a slight smile that caused Jhosua’s face to redden.

“You’ve been sleeping, sir?” she asked playfully.

Jhosua’s cheeks flushed again, barely uttering a quick ‘no’ before adding, “The alarms caught me by surprise.”

She chuckled quietly. “Of course. Well, I’ll have you know that we’re under attack. A few Mandalorian guns are giving us a beating. Shouldn’t be too bad, though. A few fires here and there. Our own gunmen have the situation under control.”

“Are there any more fires on this deck?” Jhosua asked plainly.

“There shouldn’t be; I’ve been through the entire deck at this point, and I’ve put out every fire I’ve seen.” She paused for a moment, glancing at Jhosua a bit closer than before.

“Something wrong?” Jhosua spoke up, stepping back as she approached and blushing again.

“Aren’t you infantry?”

“Yeah. Corporal Jhosua Weros, Tenth Battalion, Aleph Company.”

She placed her hand on Jhosua’s shoulder. The young soldier jumped, and, almost as though she had sensed his nervousness, the Zeltron smiled kindly in an attempt to put him at ease. “Major Altesius requested that all infantrymen meet him in the hangars for pre-battle updates.”

Jhosua nodded. So they were already engaged. That explained the absence of every other soldier on this level. He was surprised he had not heard the announcement that they dropped out of hyperspace, but it was not unusual. The others must have left him to sleep or had been in such a hurry they did not take notice of him. Typical.

“Thank you. Miss…?”

The soldier seemed bemused at the thought. “Try Lance Corporal. Lance Corporal Shiira Nos.”

“My apologies,” Jhosua stammered. “I’ll make my way down to the hangars now. Farewell.”

“Hold on there, Army,” Shiira said, barring Jhosua’s way to the hangars. “Just because our gunmen are doing their job, doesn’t mean that the ship isn’t dangerous. I don’t want a soldier like you wandering around all alone. I’ll escort you.”

“That's not…”

“That’s protocol, Corporal,” Shiira stated rather firmly. “Follow me.”

The primary hangars were only a deck below them, so the pair didn’t have to walk far. The nearest elevator was less than twenty meters from their position, and Jhosua counted it as a blessing. That’s the good thing about Hammerheads, Jhosua mused. Elevators everywhere. He felt uncomfortable around his newfound bodyguard, but she seemed to be enjoying herself. She had put the helmet back on her head, but it did little to ease Jhosua’s nervousness. Until very recently, Jhosua had been a stubborn misogynist, but the death of several soldiers that had warmed his heart caused him to denounce his old beliefs. Even so, it was difficult readjusting to the presence of women, particularly in the military, where they tended to be stronger and far more independent.

There was almost no one in this section of the ship; everyone else had made their way to the bridge or found themselves called to the hangars. The trip from the barracks to the elevator was a silent one, and neither soldier said anything to the other. After they reached and stepped into the elevator, Jhosua and Shiira positioned themselves at opposite ends of the elevator car, only occasionally glancing at the other.

“So what brings you here, Corporal?” Shiira asked, her voice slightly muffled by the helmet she wore.

“I’m fighting Mandalorians.”

“No, silly.” She chuckled at the thought. “I meant what battles have you fought in?”

“Oh. Well, I fought at Mechis III and Sluis Van before being shipped here.”

“Sluis Van, huh? Not too many of our guys survived that one.”

“Nope.”

“Did you know Colonel Eto?”

Jhosua placed his arms across his chest. Of course he knew of Colonel Eto. His first field commander, and one of the most brilliant tacticians Jhosua had ever known. Ducian Eto led the Republic to victory on countless worlds before disappearing after the battle at Sluis Van. It had been a disaster—a loss of hundreds of soldiers and countless war materiel—for the Republic, and Jhosua didn’t blame him for vanishing. He would have run too, if his reputation had been destroyed by a single battle. Even so, Eto’s flight had led to Jhosua’s forcible reassignment. He wasn’t pleased, but he would do as he was told.

“Yeah, I knew him.”

“Quite a guy, wasn’t he?” Shiira asked, her voice fluttering at the thought.

“If you say so.” The elevator stopped once it reached the hangars, and Jhosua moved for the door. “Thanks for the escort. I can manage from here.”

Shiira nodded. “Of course, Corporal. Take care.”

Walking out of the elevator into the brightly lit and massive chamber, Jhosua left Shiira behind and headed into the hangars. Passing by several starfighters and droid dockworkers, Jhosua spied a large circle of Republic soldiers in the distance and headed toward them. As he got closer, Jhosua saw Major Altesius standing in the midst of the soldiers, giving a pre-battle speech.

The young soldier knew his commanding officer rather well, and he also knew that he was a monster of a man. His tiny dark eyes and imposing height were enough to scare off allies and enemies alike, and standing at nearly two meters, Major Altesius was truly a startling giant. His gruff facial features drew attention away from his receding orange-brown hairline and slightly deformed nose, which seemed as though someone—who was probably dead now—had given it a swift punch. His bulky hands and muscular arms were flying around as he spoke, adding gusto and vivacity to his speech.

“These Mandalorian hut-dwelling primates have shown the extent of their technological prowess this time, men. Rocket launchers attached to orbital buoys! What a feat! That must’ve taken them centuries to invent, much less get into space! In case anyone here doubted their intelligence, they’ve also managed to disable the Reconciliation’s pinpoint defense lasers. Now their puny fighters can strike at us, and we can’t intercept their rockets,” Major Altesius boomed.

Jhosua arrived as Major Altesius paused for a brief moment. He made his way into the crowd, reaching Sergeant Toredo, the leader of his squad. Jhosua’s sergeant was keenly interested in what the major had to say, as though what he was saying had any tactical merit. Jhosua had been serving with Toredo since Sluis Van, and he hadn’t changed at all. Toredo’s gray eyes and equally gray hair—a peculiar trait since he was only in his mid-thirties—reflected the soldier’s solemn and withdrawn demeanor, personality traits that escaped most of the other Republic soldiers. He looked a bit older than he actually was, and his face was lightly scarred; he joined the military about the same time as Jhosua and hadn’t seen too many battles. He hardly spoke to anyone unless he was first spoken to, and Jhosua admired his respectable habit, even though it annoyed him at times.

He tapped Toredo on the shoulder. “What’s he talking about?” Jhosua asked.

“Listen,” Toredo replied in a hushed tone. Jhosua figured it would just be easier to listen to Major Altesius.

“… You’ll take these dropships and use their pinpoint lasers to blast any of their stone age rockets and starfighters into intergalactic dust. We can’t land any mechanized infantry or bombard the planet until their massive anti-air guns on the surface are disabled. Someone’s gotta’ destroy them, and since the navy’s chickened out—like usual—it’s up to us army-boys!” Altesius continued in the distance.

“Hooah!” a soldier called out amidst the crowd. Several other soldiers followed his verbal cue with enthusiastic replies.

“That’s the proper response!” Altesius barked. “You’ll be takin’ rocket packs and performing high altitude jumps from 20,000 meters, well out of range of their primitive anti-air guns. Once you’ve got your boots on the ground, your squad leaders will lead you to separate guns until they’ve all been disabled. And then we’ll bomb their entire fortress just like we did the rest of their Force-forsaken empire!”

The soldiers cheered, hollered, and whooped before being dismissed. As the soldiers spread about amongst themselves to gather supplies, Jhosua remained behind. To the Republic at large, the Mandalorian War ended with the destruction of the Mandalorian force over the world of Malachor V. However, to the military and its brass, a war was still going on, and they sent thousands to fight against frontier strongholds left behind after the dissolution of the Mandalorian clans. They were dangerous, for sure, but no longer an actual threat. Without a true leader and forced to scavenge and pillage for supplies, the remaining Mandalorian forces were picked off one-by-one, slowly yielding to the Republic's superior military might.

Here, on Wayland, was one of their independent strongholds. Jhosua had read the reports. This forest world had once been a Republic medical outpost, but communications were cut before the end of the war. Republic Intelligence discovered that Mandalorians had captured the world, converting it into a base that survived the conquests of the Republic hero-turned-warlord, Revan. The Republic had not even known about them until they started raiding passing merchant ships and military convoys for arms and ammunition. It was a foolish plan; now the Republic had a reason to destroy their base without question.

Jhosua’s journey was almost at an end, and he knew it. This was why he became a soldier, after all. At first, it was for revenge. He wanted to fight against the Mandalorian soldiers that had killed his brother. Then, it was for honor. He wanted to make a name for himself in the frontier, in the army, where no one knew him. He could return with fame and glory, medals and power. Once the Mandalorians were dead, his goals would be complete.

“Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to get ready to drop, Corporal?” Major Altesius asked gruffly.

Pulled from his introspection, Jhosua jumped and saluted. “No, sir. I mean, yes sir. I’m going to prepare myself, sir!”

Major Altesius sighed. “At ease, Corporal… Jhosua. Would you just get ready? You’re always daydreaming. Sometimes I worry about you.”

“Of course, sir. I’ll stop, sir.”

“Just go.”

Jhosua saluted again and followed the other soldiers to the service lockers at the far corner of the hangars. He met with Toredo—the only member of his squad at the lockers—before trading his jacket for standard red-and-yellow Republic military combat armor. He had almost finished placing the armor over his black combat mesh when several other soldiers joined the pair. Jhosua ignored them for the moment, taking the time to discard his emergency blaster for a vibroblade and standard army rifle. He made sure that his suit’s shield unit was working before picking up his sniper rifle.

Running his hand across the rifle’s barrel, Jhosua removed the dust that had collected on the weapon. This was his weapon of choice. He had received the weapon from a Mon Calamari soldier named Jacque before they had parted ways after the Sluis Van campaign. Jhosua smiled as he remembered the jovial—if long-winded—soldier, but the smile faded when he realized he had never learned of Jacque’s fate. The Mon Calamari had become a pilot after they parted ways, but Jhosua didn’t even know if he was still alive. If they ever met again, they would have to exchange stories. Jacque loved stories, both telling and hearing them, and Jhosua was eager to hear of his exploits.

Sighing, he threw the weapon over his shoulder. Once Jhosua had finished his preparations, the remainder of Toredo’s squad met at the locker. Jhosua and Toredo were the only Humans in their squad; the rest of their allies were aliens. After the Mandalorian War, the Republic Army had an influx of non-Human recruits. The Senate was wary of them at first, but Republic's High Command never complained about new soldiers. Jhosua had no problem with aliens, as long as they spoke Basic. It would be far too difficult communicating during a firefight if they didn’t.

“Rocket packs?” a young Rodian soldier in their squad moaned. “Weren’t those ancient things retired after the Exar Kun War?”

“No, they were retired later,” another soldier, this one a Kel Dor, spoke up. “It wasn’t until an entire squad was killed during an aerial combat drill over Tralus that the Republic Army decided to formally retire them.”

“An entire squad…? How?” the same Rodian asked.

“Blaster fire and rocket fuel don’t mix too well,” Jhosua pointed out.

“Okay, cut the chatter,” Toredo commanded. “Grab a rocket pack, strap on your pressure gear, and follow me to the dropship.”

Now that the soldiers were silent, it didn’t take them long to prepare. Jhosua was ready, so he lingered around the lockers until the entire squad was finished. Toredo led his squad from one end of the hangar to the other, bypassing starfighters and other soldiers during their trek. The squad piled themselves into a small dropship, a tried-and-true Kneebhawk-class troop transport. Jhosua had joked long ago that these ships were basically space-worthy crates due to their simplistic, boxy shape on the outside and their cramped passenger section on the inside. Once the squad had seated themselves, they took notice of the gas canisters next to them.

“What’s this for?” one of the Twi’lek soldiers joked. “Does Major Altesius want our voices to get nice and squeaky when we fight the Mandalorians?”

A few other squad members chuckled, but Toredo’s glare silenced them.

“First of all, that’s not helium. That’s pure oxygen. Unless you want to experience a bout of decompression sickness—you don’t—and lethargy after our drop, I’d recommend using it until we’re deployed,” he explained. The oxygen mask was already over his mouth, so his voice was a bit more hoarse than usual.

The Twi’lek said nothing. A few of the soldiers snickered at the ignorance of their Twi’lek companion, but most of them ignored the ordeal entirely. Toredo headed into the cockpit to monitor their departure from the Reconciliation. After he had gone, Jhosua placed the oxygen mask across his own face and inhaled. He couldn’t describe how it felt, but it was different than inhaling regular air. Perhaps it was fresher. He continued to filter the oxygen in his body, attempting to calm his rapidly beating heart and irregular breathing.

The Twi’lek was still joking around with the Rodian sitting next to him, talking in a high-pitched voice as though he was breathing helium. Jhosua shook his head. Idiots, he thought. They don’t know what they’re getting into. He knew that humor was a way many soldiers coped with anxiety, but it was also very distracting. Having to watch newcomers make fools of themselves was hardly helping Jhosua prepare for the coming fight.

He braced himself as the dropship eased itself out of the Hammerhead's hangar and slid into the expanse of space. The ship rocked slightly as they left the hangars behind, and some of the soldiers even cheered when they realized the mission was beginning. Jhosua was still trembling violently, and he couldn’t ease his breathing. Their Hammerhead was practically orbiting Wayland, so it would not take long to reach a position where they could drop. However, the Mandalorian guns were still in orbit, and they were no doubt firing on Republic ships. Jhosua had no idea what was going on beyond the passenger section of their dropship, but the fact they could be shot down helplessly at any moment unnerved him further.

The engines roared around him, and the distinct lack of viewports caused Jhosua to feel far more cramped than he actually was. Since his hearing was distorted and the engines drowned out most of the sound, he was entirely dependent on his sight. Glancing at his squadmates, he was glad that most of them were minding their own business—except for that annoying Twi’lek.

One of his allies, a Weequay, was performing some sort of religious meditation in his seat. Jhosua frowned. He never believed in any sort of spiritual presence—even the Jedi’s Force—and considered supernatural events to be mind-games and illusions created through manipulation. Even though his brother, once a Jedi Knight, displayed some degree of ‘Force-sensitivity’, Jhosua had convinced himself that it was all a ruse to force him into the Jedi Order. After all, why would the Jedi determine Ibrays had the Force, but Jhosua did not? It did not make sense. It was all just a hoax. Therefore, he found himself perturbed as individuals dedicated their entire lives to some puerile religion. A blaster, credits, and a bit of fame—that was all Jhosua had, and that was all he would ever need.

The engines seemed to die down for a brief moment as the dropship’s comm activated. “We are approaching our drop-point,” Toredo announced over the speaker. “We’ll arrive in five minutes, and the ventral doors will open in another two. Brace yourselves.”

Jhosua’s mind raced as the final countdown began. He had never jumped from a ship before. What was it like? Soaring through the clouds toward the ground below hardly seemed safe, and it certainly wouldn’t be easy. What if his parachute didn’t work? What if his rockets failed? If his suit was punctured, would he have difficulty breathing? The questions raced through his mind as they approached their drop-point. His fingers tapped his seat viciously, and he was shaking slightly.

“Calm down, Corporal,” the Verpine soldier to Jhosua’s right spoke up. “You’re going to bust a blood vessel. Be still. We are just beginning.”

“I know, I know,” Jhosua panted. He was sweating, and his hands gripped the seat. He gave the Verpine a false smile in an attempt to mollify the Verpine and himself. It didn’t work.

Toredo emerged from the cockpit. He used his suit’s comlink to inform them that they had less than two minutes until their mission began. The squad took his hint, rising from their seats and discarding their oxygen canisters for the standard pressure masks on their suits. Jhosua tightened the fastener on his shoulder to keep his sniper rifle in place, just in case. Toredo and several other soldiers did the same, but with their combat rifles instead.

“Are you guys ready?” Toredo asked.

Each soldier gave a thumb’s up or nod of approval. Even Jhosua managed to force himself to nod.

“Very well. Major Altesius wants comm-silence, and so do I. Let’s keep this clean. Minimal losses coupled with heavy enemy casualties. Understood?”

They didn’t respond. The ventral doors wheezed as they opened, interrupting any previous thoughts. The landscape below was a luscious patchwork of green, blue, and brown, with an occasional brushstroke of white clouds. From their height, no one could make out landmarks, but that would be remedied as they descended. Toredo smiled and gave his men a salute as he jumped out of the ventral doors. The soldiers followed their commander two-by-two, each of them descending freefall. Jhosua was in the second-to-last group, and he hesitated as his feet walked his body toward the ship’s opening. He could have turned back now, but it wouldn’t help him. He needed to do this. For Ibrays. For his honor. He scarcely knew what he was doing when he jumped out of the dropship with the Verpine at his side. Madness, he thought, tears welling up inside his helmet. Absolute madness.

Within minutes, the entire battalion of Republic soldiers was plummeting headlong toward the forested surface of Wayland. Jhosua had trouble seeing anything at all; his helmet’s defroster malfunctioned, and his breath condensed against the transparisteel visor, hindering his sight. Although he tried his best to stop it, his visor effectively fogged itself up.

At the speed he was falling, Jhosua’s entire body cried out in pain. Fiery tendrils raced through his limbs while his chest was whipped by the currents of the wind. Spinning this way and that, at the mercy of the sky, Jhosua continued his uncontrolled descent. His wrists and ankles suffered the most, feeling the brunt of the wind’s coldness, but his neck fared no better. His stomach churned up and bounced back and forth, and he felt his heart beat madly inside his chest. He wanted to vomit so badly, but he knew he couldn’t.

From the very corner of his visor, which hadn’t fogged up yet, Jhosua saw Toredo activate his rockets, easing his fall until he was falling at a negligible speed. Since he couldn’t see much else and couldn’t gauge where the ground was, he took a chance and mimicked Toredo. Struggling to move his arm from his side to his waist, the young soldier barely managed to hit the button on his belt that controlled his rockets. The hapless soldier’s rockets activated immediately, pushing him horizontally for a brief moment before the individual rockets realigned to point downward. His stomach was relieved as his uncontrolled acceleration toward the ground became a gentle hover instead, and his helmet’s defogger started working at last.

Jhosua spied the skies around him, watching the thousands of Republic soldiers descend with him, rocket packs burning fuel and some parachutes activated. Several thousand meters below him, Jhosua saw the multitude of trees in perfect clarity and in their full splendor. The sea of trees would cushion their fall, but only if they descended slowly. A rapid fall would definitely kill them.

Almost on cue, a small explosion rocked Jhosua back and forth as he tried to stabilize his descent. Glancing around, he noticed that several Republic soldiers had been shot out of the sky, their bodies falling helplessly toward the forest floor. The anti-air guns? Jhosua thought. Impossible! Jhosua was sure there was no way the guns could hit such small targets at their height.

But it was true. The Mandalorian guns—all four of them—were firing at the Republic soldiers. It was easy pickings for them: the soldiers were defenseless as they tried to reach the forest floor, and they certainly couldn’t fight back. Their shots were wild and imprecise, but they managed to get lucky and kill a few soldiers with their massive guns. Jhosua panicked as the guns began to fire more rapidly, and he switched off his rocket pack, freefalling yet again. He hoped to avoid the guns altogether by reaching the ground quicker than they could aim at him. The drop was quick, and his vision blurred as his defogger failed again. His suit’s altimeter detected the rapidly approaching ground, and it activated his emergency parachute, but it was a close call. Once he was close enough, he positioned himself so that the impact with the ground would not have been fatal—although it would probably not be a perfect landing, either. The cracking of tree branches and sloshing of mud told the disoriented and sickened soldier that he had hit the ground.


Chapter 2

With his visor and gas mask gone, Jhosua’s sight was restored to him. Jhosua was surprised that he hadn’t broken anything. Taking a breath of the wild forest air, he glanced about in confusion. Where exactly was he? There were nothing but trees that extended far into the sky as far as the eye could see. The underbrush was thick, and the trees’ canopies were thicker. Sunlight barely pierced this area of the forested growth, but faint rays of sunlight helped Jhosua see beyond his current position. They had established comm-silence; no one would come looking for him. In fact, he would be expected to find them. On his lonesome, Jhosua had no chance of survival. He had to find his allies. Discarding his rocket pack and making sure his sniper rifle was still on his shoulder, Jhosua wiped the mud from his legs and cautiously headed deeper into the forest.

Jhosua carefully headed from tree trunk to tree trunk, using the natural growth as cover. He tried his best to travel silently, but the crackling of leaves under his boots proved to hinder his plans. Jhosua held his breath and shifted his body weight onto the balls of his feet in an effort to silence himself.

Some bird cawed in the distance, and its sudden call caused Jhosua to whip out his blaster pistol. He was sweating now, and he could almost hear his pulse. He pivoted back and forth, aiming his weapon at a nonexistent enemy. When Jhosua finally realized that it was only a bird, he continued his trek. His nerves remained on edge as he crept along. He tried to absorb as much about his surroundings as he could, but it all looked the same to him. It was only after he was about twenty meters from his crash-site that he realized there were other footsteps besides his own, somewhere in the distance. Throwing himself to the ground, Jhosua edged forward, crawling, into a small clearing about six meters away.

He was greeted by two warriors, armed head-to-toe in blue-hued heavy body armor. They were carrying large weapons at their sides and both of them wore helmets—complete with triangular visors—over their heads. These designs were familiar to older Republic soldiers, particularly those who had fought against these very same Mandalorians in the war that ended about a decade earlier. Jhosua had read about the Mandalorians and their armor in his brother’s letters and—more recently—mission briefings, but he had never seen them himself himself. The utilitarian design and stocky appearance was about as he imagined it.

Jhosua recalled stories that spoke of the Jedi’s brave deeds during the war, and how the Republic would have been doomed if the Jedi had not intervened—led by their vaunted general, Revan—on the Republic’s behalf. Ibrays had been there as well, at Revan’s side, early in the war. The stories were obviously exaggerated, but it made no difference. There were no Jedi here now. It was warrior against warrior in the wilderness of Wayland. No lightsabers, no Force, no mystical powers. Only brute strength and keenness of mind.

Jhosua cautiously rose to his feet, still concealed by the low-lying shrubs and dead foliage. He could have taken the shot from here with his sniper rifle, but his rifle had comparatively fewer shots in it than his pistol, and the foliage made him second guess his chances of scoring a clean hit. Further, he had no idea if they had allies or where they were, and he did not want to draw unnecessary attention to himself. Opting to move in instead, he prepared his blaster pistol, making sure its safety settings were off and it was ready to fire. Holding his blaster in one hand, he withdrew his vibroblade from its sheath with his free hand. It generally took several Republic soldiers to take down a Mandalorian. If luck is on my side, this will be easy, he convinced himself.

The Republic soldier moved quickly. Rising to his full-height and revealing his presence to the Mandalorian soldiers, he took aim and threw his knife at the Mandalorian closer to him. The weapon’s vibrating blade flew straight for its target, piercing the warrior’s breastplate and causing bright red blood to gush forth from his torn heart. As he keeled over, his partner was hit with a single blaster shot to the helmet, shattering the comparatively small visor and burning through the flesh behind it. Jhosua had been lucky the second Mandalorian had not activated his shielding. Both of the Mandalorians fell to the ground, dead, before Jhosua stepped into the clearing.

Jhosua stooped over, picking up his vibroblade and cleaning the blood that stained it. “Mandalorian scouts always come in threes,” he muttered the old adage to himself. Even while he removed the last traces of blood from the blade and put it back in his sheath, his eyes darted back and forth, watching the trees. He was sure they were hiding someone from him, if only he could see through their branches and confirm his fears.

A bush to the north rustled slightly, and the soldier pointed his blaster pistol toward it. The blaster faced the brush until, to Jhosua’s slight relief, a dead Mandalorian warrior fell out from the bush with the charred residue of a blaster shot on his back. Still wary of whatever was out his sight, Jhosua called out to whoever was hiding in the brush.

To his surprise, the same Verpine soldier who had talked with him on the dropship stepped out from behind the trees. He was holding two guns underneath his lanky green arms, and he was wiping his hands free from the sap of the tree he was hiding behind. Most of his body was concealed by Republic armor, but his insectoid appearance was still apparent.

“You summoned me, sir?” the Verpine asked, in slightly slurred and distorted Basic.

“Did you kill that Mandalorian, Eight?” Jhosua replied with another question.

The Verpine nodded. “I was sent to search for you after our descent. Sergeant Toredo figured you couldn’t have strayed far, so he sent me by myself.”

Jhosua nodded and put away his blaster. “Thank you.”

“Just as you say. It was my job, after all.”

“Care to lead me back to our squad?”

“Of course. Come along, Corporal.” The Verpine motioned for his companion to follow him through the trees.

Jhosua trailed Humbarine Eight through the forest, staying about two meters behind him at all times. His blaster pistol was still resting in his hands, and he was eager to use it again. However, their silent trip proved to be rather peaceful, and they did not encounter any enemies on their way from the clearing to the location of Toredo’s Humbarine Squad, about a kilometer away on a small hilltop overlooking the forest.

“You’re back. Good,” Toredo noted as Jhosua and the Verpine soldier approached.

“Yeah. Thanks for sending someone to look for me, Toredo,” Jhosua answered.

“Anytime, Five.”

“So what’s the plan?”

Toredo pointed toward a colossal tower in the distance. The building stood over the surrounding forest like a great tree, dwarfing the forest by its monstrous size. At its peak rested an anti-air turret with four guns. Eying it for some time, Jhosua figured that the weapon itself had enough power to take down an approaching frigate, while several of them could probably destroy a cruiser.

“We’re going to have to destroy that,” Toredo finally said, still pointing at their target.

“With what? Our fists?” a Twi’lek—the same joker from earlier—asked.

Toredo glowered at him. “No, Nine. We’ll be using an ABOL-240-”

“That’s Armor-breaching Ordinance Launcher,” Jhosua pointed out.

“-Coupled with a few grenade launchers from a safe distance,” Toredo concluded quickly. “Three, if you would?”

Humbarine Three, the Weequay who had been meditating before the battle had started, nodded obediently. He and another soldier took off the black cases they had been carrying and placed them on the ground. Opening them, the other soldier left the Weequay to assemble the elongated weapon with startling speed. Comprised of several black firing tubes, triggers for adjusting the firing angle and rate of the missiles, and a targeting computer for ease of use, the ABOL-240 ended up quite large and particularly heavy. Once it had been constructed on its side, Toredo ordered the wise-cracking Twi'lek to assist the Weequay in getting the seventy-six kilogram weapon upright and onto its tripod mount.

“All right,” Toredo spoke up again. “Three, arm the weapon. Then step away from the thing. Don’t want anyone caught in the blast or anything.”

Jhosua stepped backward several paces, finding himself side-by-side with the Verpine soldier who had found him earlier. The other soldiers followed suit and fell away from the weapon, leaving the Weequay and Twi’lek by their lonesome to fire and support the weapon, respectively. Jhosua noted that Four seemed to know what he was doing, and in a matter of seconds the ABOL-240 automatically adjusted its angle of fire according to the Weequay's measurements. The process took longer than expected due to the fact that the two gun-handlers couldn’t keep the weapon still at first. However, they eventually stabilized the tripod and a rather loud click informed all of them that the firing sequence was ready.

The Weequay smiled toothily and pressed a small button on the weapon’s firing computer. “Firing sequence initiated. Launching payload in twenty… nineteen… eighteen…”

“Sir,” a Rodian soldier called to Toredo from the other side of the hill. “We have movement. It’s about twenty-five meters to the southeast!”

“One of ours?” Toredo asked.

A massive artillery shell flew from the forest floor, moving far quicker than any of the Republic soldiers could react. Only the Rodian soldier had seen the shot coming toward them, but he couldn’t stress the danger’s arrival before it had already come. The artillery fire collided with the center of the hilltop. The Weequay heavy weapons operator, the Twi’lek, and their missile launcher did not survive the attack. The two operators’ gory remains splattered across the hillside while the missile launcher itself malfunctioned and exploded mid-flight, sending its mechanical pieces into the wind.

The subsequent artillery shots were aimed at the same location as the first, so they did not manage to hit any of the other Republic soldiers. However, the explosions themselves were powerful enough to throw them across the hill and into the forest below. By the time the attack ended, the Humbarine Squad was scattered.

Jhosua awoke to find his ears ringing violently. He was lying facedown in the dirt, and he could barely muster the strength to stand. Glancing around, he discovered he had been returned to the forest. Using his chest and arms, Jhosua dragged his body to the nearest tree and used it as a crutch to get to his feet.

He was relieved when he realized that nothing was broken. He was duly comforted when he noticed his sniper rifle was still on his back. He had lost his blaster pistol, but it was a small price to pay for keeping his life and his weapon of choice. Pulling the rifle from the holster on his back, Jhosua checked the magazine—it was still full—and replaced the targeting sights before returning his attention to his surroundings. Although there was nothing but trees as far as he could see, he did hear a deep rumbling sound in the distance that lightly shook the ground. Jhosua assumed that the rumbling noise was the Mandalorian artillery that fired at his squad. He didn’t have any heavy weapons to speak of, but he decided to help out as much as he could.

Jhosua crept from his position and followed the rumbling sound until he was less than forty meters from the enemy’s position. Ducking behind a fallen log, he examined the Mandalorian’s position and defenses. The artillery was rather unimpressive: it was a box-shaped tank about as tall as three Mandalorian soldiers, and its treads allowed it to slowly plod its way through the forest. In its initial state, Jhosua assumed the artillery had no anti-personnel defenses to speak of; it was equipped with a single cannon that was positioned upward—and couldn’t hit nearby infantry as a result—and was probably meant as a defensive vehicle. However, this one had been retrofitted with turrets on the port and starboard sides of its hull to protect it from enemy infantry. Furthermore, it had about twelve Mandalorian soldiers escorting the vehicle, just in case the turrets were overwhelmed.

From his advantageous position somewhat behind the vehicle, Jhosua could see the turrets and their operators clearly. They were hardly defended, and a single pane of clari-crystalline separated the Mandalorian gunners from enemy blaster fire. Confident that his sniper rifle could pierce the transparent shielding, Jhosua peered through the scope of his sniper rifle and carefully adjusted the weapon until its crosshairs were perfectly aligned with the first Mandalorian gunner’s head. The sniper could almost see his opponent’s eyes through his translucent visor due to the power of the rifle’s scope. Holding his breath to steady the weapon, Jhosua counted down in his head. Three… two… one…

The slug from his sniper rifle shattered the clari-crystalline defense and burrowed through the Mandalorian’s skull. A bit of pink mist stained the hull behind his target. The gunner slouched over as his body failed him. First one down. But Jhosua wasn’t done. Moving his sniper rifle to the second gunner, Jhosua—still holding his breath—kept the weapon steady as he hit the other turret-operator. This Mandalorian was a bit taller than the first one, and Jhosua’s slug hit his jaw instead of his forehead. Regardless, the impact and subsequent shattering of the Mandalorian’s jawbone was enough to kill this gunner as well. More bloody mist followed. Two down.

The Mandalorian escorts were not oblivious to Jhosua’s attacks. They all turned to their superior, a Mandalorian wearing red armor, and asked for instructions and new orders. Jhosua figured that leaving their leader alive would lead to more complications later, so he calmly adjusted his sights, allowed himself to breathe again, and then turned his attention to the red-armored Mandalorian.

“Color-coded for my convenience,” Jhosua whispered to himself. He pulled the trigger on his weapon. The sniper’s slug shattered the back of the Mandalorian captain’s helmet, and he collapsed to the ground almost instantly. The Mandalorians, although not used to having their leader die before their eyes, were disciplined warriors who could fight without depending on their leader.

At that point, Toredo and the other Republic soldiers stormed out of the brush opposite of Jhosua’s position, opening fire on their Mandalorian opponents. From his scope, he could tell that the Mandalorians were quite shocked at the Republic soldiers’ sudden appearance. Blaster fire raged around the artillery piece, which could do little to support its escort without turret-operators. Jhosua provided some aid to his allies, using a few more sniper rifle shots to kill three Mandalorians in the distance.

It wasn’t long before Toredo and his men had killed the entire escort. Jhosua revealed himself to Toredo—carefully, so he wasn’t shot—after the fighting had ceased. The sergeant ordered his soldiers to examine the tank and see if it was salvageable, despite the fact none of their group was familiar with Mandalorian technology. Unfortunately, the Mandalorian pilot had destroyed the controls with frag grenades to keep the weapon out of Republic hands before dying. Once their sergeant had counted the survivors and checked their corners, he led them back up the hill where they had gathered prior to the artillery attack.

Toredo scooped up the remains of the ABOL-240, now little more than smoldering wreckage and broken metal. Cursing quietly to himself, Toredo hit the ground several times with his armored fists. Jhosua sat down on the hilltop, holstered his sniper rifle, and peered into the distance, examining their target.

“Sir,” the surviving Rodian soldier asked Toredo, “are we going to destroy the Mandalorian tower?”

“How…?” Toredo muttered, hitting the ground again. “We don’t have the means.”

“Can’t we go by foot?”

“By foot? It’s nearly eight kilometers away!” Toredo growled.

“Then what do we do, Sergeant?” a Chagrian soldier, Humbarine Two, spoke up.

“I… I don’t know.”

Humbarine Squad lingered there in silence for some time. No one said anything, and no one bothered Sergeant Toredo. Jhosua remained seated, still looking at the Mandalorian AA tower in the distance. The Chagrian soldier motioned for the others to inspect their equipment and supplies. Jhosua ignored him, though. He didn’t need to inspect anything; he needed a plan. How could they possibly take out their objective? There was quite a distance between them and their target, but Jhosua figured that if they started a steady march now, they could reach the tower before nightfall. It would be rough, but at least the tower would eventually fall.

His introspection was suddenly interrupted by Toredo’s comlink. The slight buzzing of the transmitter was enough for Jhosua to tilt his head and focus on his sergeant.

“Major Altesius? Is that you?” Jhosua heard Toredo say.

“Damn right, Sergeant,” Altesius replied, his booming voice loud enough for the others to hear. “Do you want to hear the good news first, or the bad news?”

“Bad news, sir,” Toredo moaned. “I might as well hear the rest of it.”

“Well, you and your soldiers won’t be raising your kill count anytime soon! The navy’s finally decided to step in and clean up their act!”

Toredo’s eyes glistened. He was speechless at first, but eventually gathered his wits. “Sir, the anti-air guns are still up. They-”

“They won’t pose a problem to us. Don’t you worry, Toredo. I reminded the navy of their sense of honor, and they decided they’d be glad to take some losses. It’s the least they could do.”

“Yes sir.”

“Oh, and Sergeant?”

“Sir?”

“Might want to launch your flares. We don’t want to accidentally bombard your position during the ensuing madness.”

And with that, the transmission ended.

Toredo jumped to his feet and began to give orders. The other soldiers grabbed their flares and launched them into the air, blanketing the sky above the hill in a red-hued smoke. The canopy of colored smoke would be enough to tell the Republic Navy not to bombard the area. Jhosua remained seated while the other soldiers frantically used the last of their flares. He didn’t have any, so there was nothing he could do but sit back and watch the events unfold. He did not quite understand why the navy did not aid them in the first place, but it was a moot point now.

Although Jhosua didn’t know it, Republic soldiers had managed to destroy two of the anti-air towers. Major Altesius and the naval commanders figured the remaining two guns were hardly a threat to their force and descended upon the planet. The starfighters arrived first, and Jhosua’s eyes could barely follow the devilishly fast Aurek strikefighters. There were dozens of starfighters racing side-by-side, and their movements were fluid enough to be called an art form. Although a few of the Republic fighters were destroyed by the massive anti-air guns, the surviving Aureks—retrofitted for bombing runs—dropped more than enough bombs to cause the surviving towers to tumble to the forest floor.

The soldiers cheered as the Aureks finished their run. Peering into the sky, Jhosua knew that it wasn’t over yet. He tilted his neck back and watched the 300 meter Reconciliation enter the planet’s atmosphere with a vengeance. It was so large that its approach was heralded by the flight of birds and darkness overtaking the planet’s surface. Blotting out the sun with its size, the Hammerhead-class cruiser positioned itself over the planet’s forested surface. Seconds later, the bombardment began.

The Hammerhead had six turbolasers that were not destroyed by the orbital rockets. Their green fire would make the Mandalorians regret not taking them out. Black earth and burning foliage were thrown into the air as the turbolaser fire descended upon Wayland’s forest. Jhosua and his allies were defended from the fire on their hill, and were safe to watch the ensuing destruction. Aurek fighters returned to view as the turbolasers fired on, and they joined the attack, using their bombs and lasers to wreak havoc on the planet’s surface. The frailty of Wayland’s forest was evident, and Jhosua marveled as the fires erupted around him. The inferno enveloped the lone green hill where he and his allies stood. The pervading blaze would kill all the Mandalorian warriors who still hid in the cover of the trees, using the environment to their advantage.

Plumes of smoke rose far higher than any Mandalorian anti-air gun dared reach. Blackened soot and thick tongues of flame raced around the Republic soldiers, traveling on the corrupted air. The attack lasted for some time before the bombardment suddenly ceased. The wasteland before them reveled in death and destruction unseen in the natural world. Great fissures, shattered stones and trees, and vast expanses of enflamed earth littered the landscape around them. Nothing stood after the Republic Navy’s merciless attack. It was done.

“The Mandalorian Wars end today, Jhosua,” Toredo said, placing his hand on his old comrade’s shoulder. “And we were here to witness it.”

Jhosua nodded, but he found himself at a loss of words. Was this beauty? Was this horror? Such wanton destruction and yet so marvelous a result. Jhosua could not condemn the Republic’s actions, for there was a certain beauty to be found in the scarred and dying land that surrounded them. Besides, had the Mandalorians not done similar things to their worlds, over the course of their pillaging and conquests? The young soldier convinced himself that this was true judgment. This was the final act of suffering in the long history of a brutal war.

He said nothing as he continued nodding, watching the Republic ships travel onward, searching for things to destroy.

*** ***

“Mandalore, the Republic has scorched Wayland’s surface. We have survived their bombardment, but none of our outposts are reporting in. It is safe to assume they were destroyed.”

The Mandalorian commander, wearing the golden armor of a field marshal from the Mandalorian War, was prostrate, bowing before Mandalore. The last of his soldiers, about ninety in number, were with him, and all of them waited for instructions from their glorious leader. Sitting on his throne, Mandalore towered above them all. Wearing a black cloak and green-hued Mandalorian heavy armor, the leader of the Mandalorians wore a unique mask to represent his authority over them. The mask had an opaque, elliptical visor that encompassed Mandalore’s entire head, and it had two tusk-like ornaments extending from the base of the mask.

“Why do you disturb me with this report, Adebes Cor?” Mandalore asked his commander, his voice booming underneath the helmet. “Is there something you need from me?”

Adebes hesitated. “I ask Mandalore what he would have me do, should the Republic soldiers arrive.”

“The great Sith’ari has spoken,” Mandalore began. “He commands us to end the Republic’s war machine here. He has put all of his faith in us. We are the last of the Mandalorians. The last sons of Mandalore the Indomitable. For his honor and our own, we go forth unto battle this day!”

“For honor and death!” a Mandalorian soldier shouted.

“Death?” Mandalore asked. “No specter from beyond has power over me, nor any of you, my sons. No longer shall our people welcome death for glory’s sake; rather, we shall fight to preserve our culture and heritage, as warriors of Mandalore. Our existence depends on it.”

A Mandalorian captain snorted, but Adebes silenced him. “Mandalore’s will be done,” he said before departing.

Once the Mandalorians had departed from Mandalore’s chamber, the same disrespectful Mandalorian captain spoke up. “Who are these Sith’ari that our leader submits himself to? I will serve none but Mandalore.”

Some of the Mandalorian soldiers nodded and expressed their discontent through a fit of grumbling and murmuring. Adebes silenced them, cursing in the Mando’a tongue. He could not believe his ears. What disrespect! What insolence! How dare any disagree with Mandalore, their most glorious leader?

“You forget your place, all of you,” Adebes retorted. “Mandalore speaks for his sons, and we should follow him without the pitiful disobedience that I hear from all of you.”

The Mandalorian captain spat. “You do not speak for Mandalore, Son of the East, so do not act like you do. Or do you forgot who has served the Mandalorian clans the longest of all of us?” he shouted, translating Adebes name into Basic to insult the commander.

The other Mandalorians knew that the Mandalorian captain had served under Mandalore the Ultimate in the final days of the Exar Kun War. He believed that he would have been the most logical choice to become field marshal and commander of the Mandalorian army. However, Mandalore denied him this privelege and gave it to Adebes. Although most of the Mandalorians did not care and trusted Mandalore's judgment, Adebes and this Mandalorian captain frequently found themselves at odds.

“And you would do well not to forget who holds the higher rank,” Adebes countered.

“A higher rank is useless if it was obtained through groveling and cowardice!”

Adebes drew his vibrosword. “You go too far, Hes’on. Submit yourself to my authority, or I will send you to our ancestors, I swear it.”

The other Mandalorians began chanting, eager for a fight between the two Mandalorian warriors. However, just as Hes’on prepared to withdraw his weapon, he suddenly changed his mind and shook his head. “You still do not understand, Adebes. You are young and inexperienced, and you do not know the Mandalorians like I do. And that is why you do not have my respect.”

He turned his back to Adebes, and—as the crowd became wild and rowdy—the commander responded to this sign of disrespect by charging toward Hes’on and thrusting his weapon into the captain’s shoulder. The older Mandalorian cried out in pain, clearly shocked that Adebes actually attacked him. Although Hes’on managed to pull Adebes’s weapon from his shoulder, he was injured and his supporters had to separate the two Mandalorian warriors.

“You will regret that, Adebes, of Clan Cor! I swear it!”

“I regret nothing. Now return to your chamber and recover. We will need you to defend Mandalore,” Adebes ordered.

As the Mandalorians dispersed across the citadel, Mandalore had left his throne room and retired to his private sanctum, which doubled as a communications chamber. Removing his helmet and casting it aside, Mandalore threw his dark cloak over his head and approached the holographic communicator that rested in the center of the chamber. Upon his approach, the device activated automatically, revealing the holographic figure of a hooded man, of an unknown species, sitting upon a throne that dwarfed Mandalore’s own.

“My lord and my master.” Mandalore fell to the floor, his voice humble and fleeting in the sight of this figure. “We’ve found it.”

“Excellent,” the holographic visage replied. His voice was cold, commanding, and filled with unnatural power. “I trust you will be delivering the holocron to me as soon as you are able?”

“Yes, Great Emperor,” Mandalore said with a hushed voice. “But there are Republic soldiers here, and I do not have the men to deal with them.”

“What of it?”

“Your… your humble servant requests some of your Sith soldiers to drive back the Republic forces.”

The Sith Emperor whispered something in a language foreign to Mandalore. Suddenly, the leader of the Mandalorians found himself gripping his throat, his air passageways being restricted by the Sith Emperor’s unfathomable power. “You are pretentious to make demands of me. Obey me, and your people will survive the coming storm. Do not, and you will die. There is no other option for you.”

Mandalore nodded submissively, waving his hands for clemency. The Sith Emperor, pleased with Mandalore’s sudden change of heart, released the supernatural grip he had on the warrior’s throat.

“I trust you have nothing else to report?”

“No,” Mandalore said, still gasping slightly.

“Good. Do not fail me, Mandalore.”

The signal cut off as quickly as it had been activated, and Mandalore was left alone in his sanctum yet again. He had made a fool's bargain, and now he would have to see it through.


Chapter 3

“The Mandalorian base survived our bombardment, Major. It possesses a very durable deflector shield that is powered by a generator within their compound. However, bursts of ion can penetrate the shielding and allow soldiers to enter. Our Hammerhead’s ion guns were disabled during the initial attack, so it’s up to the army to finish what we started. I’m confident that we’re not asking too much of you?”

“Of course not, Commandant,” Major Altesius replied, speaking to the naval officer on the other side of the transmission. “Well get inside and sweep up whatever remains of those Mandalorian brutes.”

“Of course,” the commandant replied. “Good luck. We’ll be sending a contingent of marines to provide you with additional support, just in case. We know you were hit pretty hard.”

Major Altesius switched off the comlink. “Bah. They think we need the marines to aid us. We’re the Republic Army! The strong-arm of its military. We could defeat an entire battalion of Mandalorians with a datapad and an arc-wrench. Isn’t that right, men?”

No one replied. There was no one left to reply.

Of the many soldiers sent to disable the anti-air guns, less than three hundred survived. Jhosua, Toredo, and four other members of their squad were among the survivors. The major organized a rapid pickup of the survivors and they were being ferried from the battlefield toward the Mandalorian citadel—their headquarters on Wayland—in the remaining Kneebhawks. They were alive, but they were exhausted. Only Major Altesius, bold and fiery as he was, was eager to continue the fighting. Everyone else was thoroughly done with Wayland and its environmental quirks.

When the commandant said the army had been hit hard, he was making a dramatic understatement. The Republic Army was pounded. An entire battalion had been reduced to a third of its former size. Most of their medics and heavy weapon specialists had died. Two officers were dead. And of those who were still alive, many of them were shell shocked, and quite a few others were experiencing side effects from prolonged exposure to the ash and smoke sent into the air by the Republic’s bombardment.

Jhosua was one of the lucky ones. He was fine, bar the fact that he had nearly been killed several times since the mission began. He sat in the back of their ship, cleaning up the grime and dust that had gathered on his sniper rifle. He was barely paying attention to the major now. He knew their mission. In any other circumstance, they would all be dead right now, or at least, they would all be dead after their next attack. The remainder of the Republic soldiers could not fight back against a Mandalorian force. Luckily for them, initial reports of the Mandalorian base seemed to suggest that their numbers were not very large. Coupled with the Republic Marines—who numbered about eighty—and supported by some combat droids, the Mandalorians didn’t stand much of a chance.

Of course, Jhosua wasn’t stupid. There would be casualties. Some of the survivors, even those who were not experiencing symptoms of anxiety or fear, were battered and hesitant to fight. One misplaced order, one accidentally pulled trigger, or one moment of doubt would send them over the edge. Besides Toredo, the four surviving members of his squad—a Chagrian, Rodian, Kel’Dor, and Verpine—were inexperienced and the former two were injured. Without proper medical assistance, they wouldn’t survive.

“Droids have been mobilized. We’ll let them do some damage before deploying infantrymen,” the pilot of their Kneebhawk spoke up.

“Hopefully they don’t do too much damage,” Major Altesius retorted. “Us army-boys still need to kill a few more Mandalorians before the day is done!”

Jhosua scoffed. He respected his commanding officer, but he viewed him as a nuisance. A nuisance who had more muscle than a raging Wookiee. The young soldier saw no purpose to battle beyond earning glory and fame. Fighting for fun? What a ridiculous notion. Actively seeking combat would never be his idea of a good time.

The Kneebhawk performed several flybys of the Mandalorian citadel. From the rearmost window, Jhosua could see the compound some two hundred meters below. It looked like an old medical facility, and he thought he could scarcely see the red and gold paint that had been worn down by blaster fire and natural elements. It was definitely large enough to accommodate an army of several hundred, with multiple floors and a spacious exterior. There were no external defenses to speak of, although the entire compound was shielded by a yellow-green barrier that prevented the Republic Navy from bombarding the base—like most of the forest around it—into charred bricks and molten metal.

“You ready, Jhosua?” Toredo asked.

Jhosua nodded, but didn’t reply. His eyes were focused on the view beyond his window.

“Where’s your blaster?” Toredo spoke again.

Jhosua’s eyes drifted to the sergeant. “Lost it. I think it was destroyed back on the hill.”

“Do you want one?”

“No. I’ll be fine with my sniper rifle.”

Toredo grimaced. “At least take a vibrosword, Jhosua. You need something to fight with at close-range.”

“Fine,” Jhosua sighed. He halfheartedly accepted the weapon Toredo offered him, placing it in an extra holster on his belt. “Thanks, Toredo.”

The sergeant nodded and grinned. When he had turned away, the sniper threw his rifle across his shoulder and grabbed a blaster pistol from the footlocker by his feet. Just in case.

The pilot announced that they were heading toward the surface, and the ship would be groundside in less than five minutes. Jhosua stood up and followed his allies to the starboard doors. Major Altesius was waiting for his soldiers, ready to disembark as soon as they arrived. He was carrying a massive gun—at least four times larger than Jhosua’s rifle—in his left arm. The weapon was probably big enough to be the primary gun on a starfighter, and Jhosua was alarmed and awed by the major’s superhuman strength.

The Kneebhawk touched down on the surface without interference. The doors opened in a single motion, letting the light of Wayland’s sun and the ash that littered the air to pour into the ship. Major Altesius bellowed at his soldiers, but Jhosua couldn’t hear anything he said. Blood rushed to his ears and adrenaline fueled his body, nearly giving him wings. He felt light and agile, even though he was wearing heavy armor and carrying his equipment. Leaping out of the Kneebhawk with the rest of his allies, Jhosua sprinted through the empty field that was between him and their ultimate destination.

Blaster fire started to ricochet off his suit’s shielding once he had run about fifteen meters. From the north and south of their position, Mandalorian gunners fired upon the Republic soldiers. Most of his allies didn’t care and continued to charge headlong through the sea of blaster fire. However, Jhosua felt the need to conserve his shields, despite his adrenaline-empowered brain telling him not to. Diving to the ground, Jhosua fell into the drying brush that rested on the charred earth. Blaster fire flew over his head, and Jhosua could feel his heart pulsating inside his chest.

The sniper paused for a moment to calm his breathing. While Republic soldiers raced toward the Mandalorian compound, he tried to relax and control his adrenaline rush. The laborious process paid off somewhat, and he managed to steel his nerves. Pulling his sniper rifle off his back, he peered through the scope of his weapon and found a Mandalorian gunner situated near some dead trees in the distance. He smiled and pulled the trigger, not bothering to maintain his aim. The shot was dead-on, but the Mandalorian suddenly ducked behind the nearby tree, and it missed entirely. Cursing to himself, Jhosua threw his sniper rifle on his back and followed the last of the Republic soldiers toward the Mandalorian citadel. There would be time for heroics later.

*** ***

“The Republic soldiers are closing in, Commander! Twenty-five meters now, but they’re quick,” a Mandalorian scout spoke up.

“How many of them?” Commander Adebes Cor asked.

“I’d say around five hundred. They… they outnumber us by-”

“I do not care,” the commander growled. “Squads two and six, watch the left flank, three and five, the right. Everyone else, we’re watching the center. Don’t let them reach the throne room.”

The Mandalorians positioned themselves in the grand foyer of Mandalorian citadel. The vast room had been emptied to prevent the Republic soldiers from using cover, and the only hiding places that remained were the vast pillars that ran along the left and right walls, supporting the building. They had their backs to the staircase—massive enough that six soldiers could ascend or descnd it side-by-side—and their guns were pointed at the door. It would not be long before the Republic soldiers broke open the electronic security device and entered the foyer. And when they did, there would be nearly a hundred Mandalorian guns waiting for them.

His plan was flawless. The Republic would fall this day.

*** ***

“Sergeant Toredo! Your men are going in on the left. Captain Vatril, I’ll be joining you and your men on the right. Marines, head down the middle,” Major Altesius shouted. “It’s time to kill off these savages!”

Reaching the compound bleeding and exhausted, Jhosua was glad to be alive. He had narrowly avoided death at the hands of a few Mandalorian skirmishers, saved by the quick thinking of a few Republic Marines. His pistol rested at his side, his rifle on his shoulder, and his vibrosword was in his hand. He stood at Toredo’s side, silently watching their surroundings as Major Altesius spoke.

They were in the shadow of the compound now, standing at the front door of their enemy’s stronghold. However, Major Altesius held them back, prolonging their attack until all of his instructions had been given. Presuming that he did not just like to hear himself talk, Jhosua figured that their leader was not as brash as he first appeared.

A Republic hacker successfully overrode the controls for the compound’s main door as the major finished his speech. The rusted durasteel doors slowly and grudgingly opened at his command. Blaster shots spewed out from the newfound opening, like fire from a creature’s mouth. The hacker was killed as he attempted to cross the deadly storm and reach his allies. Major Altesius—as if on cue—ordered his men to charge inside the compound.

Jhosua convinced himself that either he or the major was insane. He was still trying to determine which as the first Republic soldiers charged headlong into the compound. The blazing torrent of blaster fire proved too much, even as swarms of soldiers tried to get inside. He thought that seeing soldiers fall in droves would unnerve him, but he was no coward; Jhosua was determined to see his actions through to the end. Humbarine Two, the Chagrian who assisted Toredo, was eager to fight as well. He led the charge for Toredo’s unit, and he was the first to be shot down. Jhosua followed Toredo inside, staying as close to the ground as he possibly could. Luckily for the remainder of Humbarine Squad and the rest of the units on the left side, the marines entered next, absorbing some of the fire as Jhosua and the others ducked behind pillars.

After taking heavy casualties, Republic soldiers began fighting their way inside. Once they were behind cover, the survivors began exchanging sporadic rounds of blaster fire with their foes. The marines slowly advanced, forgoing their personal safety and cover for the sake of the mission. The Mandalorians were vastly outnumbered now, and they did not have enough gunmen to take down the advancing marines. Even the army forces, initially unable to even enter the compound, began a slow and wary advance from pillar to pillar to reach the Mandalorians’ position.

Jhosua replaced his sniper rifle’s clip while he was behind cover. Once he was done, he pulled out his blaster pistol and fired several bursts at a small group of Mandalorians across the hall. There weren’t too many of them left, and those that did remain were starting to scatter around. The few that remained by their gold armored leader could have easily flew up the stairs behind them should the Republic’s advance prove too much. Jhosua knew they wouldn’t. None of the stories recorded a real Mandalorian retreat. They wouldn’t flee now.

The lack of furniture or ornaments in the foyer prevented Mandalorians from hiding or otherwise avoiding Republic blaster fire, but it also exposed the marines to their opponents’ yellow-orange blaster fire. It also hindered the advance of the Republic infantry, who were not going to throw themselves into enemy fire like their comrades. Jhosua tried his best to advance, but the Mandalorian’s consistent fire hindered his progress.

During this firefight, another Mandalorian slowly descended from the stairs, carrying a massive double vibrosword in his hand. Jhosua figured he was their leader by the unique mask he wore. Surely, the Republic soldier who killed the Mandalorian leader would get the most fame, and that was his goal. Smiling, Jhosua realized his next actions would make him a hero; he would be known as the soldier who truly ended the Mandalorian threat. Positioning himself behind the nearest pillar, Jhosua slowed his breathing and carefully aimed at the leader of the Mandalorians with his sniper rifle. The reticle aligned itself perfectly with Mandalore’s head. Smiling, Jhosua squeezed the trigger.

To his abject horror, the metal slug from his rifle dissipated against the Mandalore’s helmet, and his target didn’t even flinch. Mandalore emerged, unfazed and unscathed, from Jhosua’s attack. He had underestimated Mandalore’s shielding, and the leader of the Mandalorians was not pleased by the attack.

By the time Mandalore advanced, the fight was turning against the Mandalorians. The marines managed to reach their opponents’ position at the staircase, and the Mandalorian commander found his lines broken repeatedly. Outnumbered and outmatched against Republic Marines trained explicitly for combat in close-quarters, the Mandalorians were at the brink of being driven back. The Mandalorian’s formerly synchronized blaster fire also stopped. Republic soldiers who had been pinned down mere moments ago were now rushing toward their foes.

Although Mandalore’s presence—with his mighty sword—attempted to turn the tide, there were far too many Republic soldiers. While Mandalore was distracted, Jhosua made up his mind to kill him. No target ever survived a headshot from his rifle. It was insulting, and it wounded his pride. Ignoring the orders of Major Altesius, Jhosua dropped his sniper rifle and pulled out his vibrosword. Even if he had to strangle the Mandalorian leader with his bare hands, he would see to it that it was his hands that killed Mandalore. He wanted fame, and that desire demanded it of him.

Jhosua approached the leader of the Mandalorians while narrowly dodging the marines and warriors who were now engaged in melee combat. However, as he got within striking distance of Mandalore, the warrior fled up the stairs, separating himself from his Mandalorian allies and the battle. Jhosua pursued Mandalore, following him up the stairs to the third floor of the hospital. He could hear the battle raging below, but there were no soldiers up here to interrupt them.

Mandalore was waiting for Jhosua, his double virbosword in hand. “Do you think you can defeat me by yourself? You Republics are so stupid.”

Jhosua didn’t grace him with a reply. Mandalorians were beasts; this one was no different. Instead, he prepared his vibrosword’s power cell and rushed at Mandalore. His foe placed his weapon between his chest and Jhosua’s blade, parrying the attack with ease. Metal vibrated against metal as sparks flew across the floor. Jhosua continued his offensive with an dizzying array of wide cuts and low slashes, but Mandalore proved efficient with his weapon of choice. Despite easily blocking Jhosua’s attacks, the leader of the Mandalorians made no attempt to strike back; it was as though he was content with defending himself. Mandalore left no angle exposed and showed no weakness in his form. It was like fighting against a wall. Jhosua continued his attack nonetheless, tiring as he continued his flurry of swings.

Despite not landing any blows, Jhosua was forcing Mandalore to give ground. In fact, the Republic soldier’s constant assailment of Mandalore’s defenses had forced his opponent to reposition himself several times. Jhosua felt his strength weakening, but Mandalore had nowhere to flee. Trapped between Jhosua and an old balustrade, the leader of the Mandalorians remained in place and continued his defense. Jhosua knew the old saying about trapped creatures, but he ignored any internal warnings. He would have victory. With a single overhead swing, Jhosua hit the weapon so hard that Mandalore lost his grip, sending the double vibrosword flying from his hands.

Now defenseless, Mandalore saw no other option than to attack Jhosua with his fists. Dodging an incoming swing, Mandalore pivoted to the left and struck Jhosua in the chest, sending the soldier sprawling to the floor. Jhosua's opponent rushed for his sword, but Jhosua was quicker; jumping to his feet, he tackled Mandalore. The two of them fumbled backward into the balustrade, giving way under their weight. They fell to the second floor together, but Jhosua initially landed on top of Mandalore, cushioning his fall before he hit the ground on his own.

After a few moments, Jhosua recovered his footing. Reaching for his blaster pistol, he turned to face Mandalore. To his surprise, the Mandalorian leader had not recovered. He could hardly believe it. He had defeated Mandalore. He would be famous. It was only after pushing these thoughts aside that Jhosua realized that the mask Mandalore wore had fallen off during their descent and that Mandalore, was in fact, actually a woman.

Jhosua was stunned. He had not expected the leader of the Mandalorian clans to be a woman. Mandalore was on her back, lying prone on the metal floor. She knew she had been defeated; blood was seeping from where a rusted iron fragment from the balustrade had pierced her lower back, staining her black cloak and green armor a dark red. She could not move, and she struggled in vain to reach the hilt of her vibrosword. Her raven-color hair was matted against her face by her sweat, and her cheeks and lips were paling. Even in her weakened and defeated state, malice was evident in her yellow eyes, evidently warped long ago from their natural color by some unknown force. The occasional shudder or spasm from her body told Jhosua that she was using her every bit of her will just to remain conscious.

“Stay away from Mandalore…” a voice called out from behind Jhosua. The Mandalorian commander approached the pair, limping toward Jhosua. His golden armor had been damaged beyond repair, and his helmet was broken in several places, revealing torn flesh near the cheekbone and rivulets of blood around his face. He was missing an arm, and he could hardly keep his balance.

Before Jhosua could strike at his opponent, a Mandalorian wearing red armor emerged from the shadows and shot the Mandalorian commander in the back. The already weakened commander tumbled to the ground, but he was caught at the last moment by his assailant. The Mandalorian captain removed the golden helmet from the wounded Mandalorian’s face, enabling the two to see each other before the commander died. Closing the dead man’s eyes, the red armored captain respectfully bid his erstwhile commander farewell before turning his attention toward Jhosua. When Jhosua pointed his blaster at the Mandalorian, he dropped the heavy pistol he carried and put his hands behind his head.

"You have bested the false Mandalore. For that, you have my thanks. By killing that imposter, you will have saved my people," the Mandalorian captain said.

"I don’t understand," Jhosua replied. It was never his intent to save the Mandalorians.

"You don’t have to. But before you destroy this place, search the locked crate that lies in the throne room. I have a feeling that you and your allies will be intrigued by-”

The Mandalorian captain was cut off by six blaster shots. Glancing down, the Mandalorian captain saw his destroyed torso and realized that he would die momentarily. Accepting his fate, the Mandalorian faced Jhosua again and pointed toward the throne room. He hit the ground face-first, just as dead as the Mandalorian commander he had killed. Major Altesius and several dozen Republic Marines walked toward Jhosua and Mandalore, combat rifles in hand.

“Good work, Jhosua,” Major Altesius boomed. “It seems that this is the she-demon that’s been leading the Mandalorians. Go ahead and put her down.”

“Put her down?” Jhosua repeated, not sure he heard the major correctly. “Is that protocol, Major?”

“Of course it’s protocol. We’re not Jedi; we can kill our prisoners. And even if we couldn’t, she’s not a prisoner until she’s been apprehended by the military. I don’t think she’s quite apprehended yet. Go ahead and finish her off.”

“Major…”

“Go ahead,” Mandalore spoke up for the first time, her voice cracking and weak. “Take my life. My brothers and I will never perish. Centuries after the Republic falls, we shall remain.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it!” Major Altesius hollered. “Jhosua, kill her. Now.”

Jhosua faced Mandalore, but he couldn’t bring himself to look into her eyes. They frightened him like nothing he had ever known before. Her resolve seemed to bubble up from inside her and emobdy itself as she stared at him. She was hardly even sentient, it seemed, but rather more of an animal struggling to survive. She wanted to keep fighting, keep living, but Jhosua was assured that she could not. He dropped his vibrosword and pointed his blaster pistol at Mandalore, but he did not pull the trigger. Not yet. Major Altesius told him that she was still an enemy combatant, so killing her was perfectly legal. But something inside Jhosua told him that Major Altesius was wrong. She was not a combatant, but a civilian. If he killed a civilian, he would not be a soldier.

Murderer.

But Major Altesius told him that Mandalore was still a combatant. He convinced himself that, as a soldier, he would listen to his commanding officer. He had reformed himself; he was no longer a civilian. He was a warrior. If he killed Mandalore, he would earn fame, wealth, and power. Isn’t that what he wanted? Of course. To return home a new man. A man with no regrets and everything going for him.

He tried to squeeze the trigger, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He wouldn’t. Thoughts of Ibrays flooded into his mind. The Republic had given Ibrays a simple command. He was to lead a charge against the Mandalorians. But he couldn’t do it. He failed. He had never shown signs of confusion or illness before. Jhosua had convinced himself that it was neither the Republic’s nor Ibrays’s fault. The doctors had told Jhosua and his family that the bizarre madness that claimed Ibrays in his last moments was not genetic, and there was no way Ibrays could have known when he joined the Mandalorian War.

Madman.

He put the blaster down, pointing it to the floor. He breathed a sigh of relief. Jhosua would not go down the path his brother took. No amount of fortune and glory was worth the guilt he would feel later. Mandalore, vicious leader of his enemies, was an unarmed and crippled opponent… a civilian. He would not shoot a civilian. It just was not worth it. He wouldn’t…

“What’s wrong, Corporal Weros?” Major Altesius asked sternly. “Are you going to defy my orders?”

“Yes, what’s wrong?” Mandalore cooed. “Lost your nerve? You coward! Why don’t you step back and let your masters pull your chain while they do the job, you do-”

A blaster shot cut her off.

A light spray of blood shot out from the new hole in the center of her face. Her body slumped, lifeless, as Jhosua’s blaster did its job. He had done it. He killed her. Jhosua was shaking now, shocked that his fingers had pulled the trigger. His pride wouldn’t allow him to be insulted. He was biting his lips, and drops of blood trickled down his chin. He lowered his weapon until it was positioned at his waist, and then fell forward, positioned on his knees. It was done. He should have felt proud. Why wasn’t he proud? He would now be known as Jhosua Weros, slayer of Mandalore. He could have been on par with Revan in the chronicles of the Mandalorian War. It was not pride, nor glory, nor fame that he felt in his accomplishment. It was fear. He was scared. He couldn’t control himself. Whispering unintelligibly, Jhosua rocked back and forth, trying to clear the doubt from his mind. Surely this situation didn’t require so much trauma?

“Good work, Jhosua. We’ll make a man out of you yet,” Altesius said. He turned to the marines around him. “The generator’s down, so let’s gather up our dead comrades and let’s get the hell outta’ here. Someone search the throne room quickly; the Mandalorians were probably hiding some sort of weapon back there.”

The soldiers scattered, and everyone prepared to leave. No one said anything to Jhosua. He was alone now. they had told him that it wasn’t genetic. They told him that he wasn’t in any danger. Just because Ibrays had gone over the edge, didn’t mean he had to. But that’s not what the fear said. Major Altesius was wrong. He wasn’t becoming a man.

Monster.

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