“Approaching Destination 0-Z9: ETA 10 minutes.”
Raen didn’t remember falling asleep, but he must have. He hadn’t rested soundly since he and Gaiel left Dantooine, and he was hard-pressed for sleep. Of all the places he could have picked to rest his head, the cargo hold seemed the most convenient. Struggling to his feet, Raen tried to ease the tension in his muscles before gathering his belongings. He could hardly hear himself think in this place, the roar of the ship’s engine loud and clear from inside the back of the ship. Besides, no matter how comfortable he was, the floor was not a bed, and his body was not used to anything else.
Sometimes, he regretted agreeing to join Gaiel. From the tundra of Polus to his ultimate destination—a prison—on Coruscant, Raen had been dragged across the galaxy on unrelated missions that Gaiel needed to complete. He suspected their next destination, Ambria, would be another such stop, despite Gaiel’s insistence otherwise. Raen had never heard of Ambria before, but he hoped that there was less ice and snow than Polus.
Raen traveled through the single hall of the ship and made his way to the cockpit. Sure enough, Gaiel was still piloting the vessel due to the absence of an autopilot system. The Nautolan didn’t acknowledge Raen’s presence—he was bringing their ship in for a landing on Ambria—until the younger Force-sensitive leaned against the co-pilot’s seat.
“Why are we here?” Raen asked. He had posed the question several times since they left Polus, but Gaiel had refused to answer him every time.
“You’ll see once we land.”
“That’s not encouraging or helpful.”
Gaiel smirked. “Do you think I’m leading you into some Jedi death-camp?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Raen said, crossing his arms. “You haven’t told me anything.”
“I’d rather you not know everything,” Gaiel admitted.
Raen sat down in the seat, eyeing the planet’s surface through the viewport. “And why would I do that?”
“Because that’s how you are, Raen,” Gaiel said, sighing. “If you’re not complaining about our traveling companions, you’re complaining about the environment. Nothing changes—you always complain.”
“You don’t know me,” Raen protested.
“Raen, please,” Gaiel snapped. “I’m trying to land the ship. Can we argue later?”
Raen sourly acquiesced to Gaiel’s request, sitting quietly in the co-pilot’s chair and keeping his eyes on the viewport. The cockpit was silent, except for the hum of the engines in the distance, until Gaiel finished the landing. Bringing the vessel to rest in a rocky clearing between several hills, Gaiel made sure the ship was safe from any natural hazards before committing himself to their current landing zone. Raen remained in his seat as Gaiel left the pilot’s chair and gathered his gear from a nearby footlocker.
“We’re leaving?” Raen asked.
“Did you think we were going to land on the planet and admire the view from the ship?” Gaiel replied with a ridiculous question of his own. “Of course we’re going outside. Do you have all your gear?”
“Then let’s go.”
Raen and Gaiel left the ship, a small shuttle-sized vessel that happened to be equipped with a basic hyperdrive. Gaiel guided him through the valley he had picked as a landing zone into the wastelands beyond. The Nautolan led the way, if only because he wouldn’t complain as much as his hesitant companion.
Raen was admittedly unimpressed by Ambria. The planet’s sun produced a radiant orange glow that burned the terrain. Vegetation was nonexistent as far as Raen could see; sand and rock took the place of any low-lying grasses that would have otherwise covered the planet. The rocks provided paltry protection from the harsh light of the sun, and the two Force-sensitives were forced to trek through the arid environment with no shade and little water.
Gaiel said nothing, but Raen figured he was experiencing the worst of the Ambrian ecosystem. The noonday heat beat against Raen’s neck, causing tiny droplets of sweat to race down his back, soaking his robes and making them generally uncomfortable. He had removed his cloak already, but it hadn’t helped. Scavenging birds flew overhead, cawing loudly and reminding Raen what would happen should he fail to endure this damnable heat.
“I hate these desert worlds,” Raen finally said, his voice more hoarse than he thought.
“You complain too much,” Gaiel said.
“You’re from an oceanic world! You’re probably suffering more than I am,” Raen pointed out.
“You’re right—I probably am. And do you hear me whining?”
“I’m not whining,” Raen shot back. “I’m just saying. The heat is unbearable.” Gaiel didn’t reply, so Raen continued. “Why are we here, anyway?”
Gaiel sighed. “There’s a Jedi here. He’s rather famous, but he’s a bit of a recluse. He spent a good deal of time here, training Jedi before the war against Exar Kun.”
“There’s a Jedi here? Is he still alive?” Raen asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t know how to find him-”
“Wait,” Raen interrupted. “You don’t know where he is? Or if he’s even alive? I am not wandering the desert looking for some dead hermit!”
“He’s not a hermit! He’s…” Gaiel repeated himself, quietly, a few more times. He stopped walking, and Raen nearly collided with him. “Did you feel that?” the Nautolan said.
“That sudden heat wave? Yeah.”
“No,” Gaiel said, ignoring Raen’s comment. “Someone’s in trouble.”
Raen crossed his arms. “I didn’t feel anything.”
“Trust me. Someone’s in trouble. I think they’re to the east, not too far from here. We should help,” Gaiel said.
“It could be a trap.”
“It’s not a trap. I sensed a being in genuine danger. Besides, even if I’m wrong, we have to check it out. We’re Jedi.”
“You’re a Jedi,” Raen corrected him. “And I have a bad feeling about this.”
“A second ago, you said you didn’t feel anything.”
Raen didn’t reply. Turning his attention to the east, he spied a spire of orange-brown rocks that shot out from the ground and extended meters into the sky. “I guess whoever it is would be beyond those rocks. Shouldn’t we be going?”
Gaiel nodded, and the two Force-sensitives used the Force to give their bodies supernatural speed and stamina. Their legs protested vehemently, aching and groaning each time their feet hit the rocky ground. The Force sustained them for a time, but they eventually had to slow down. It was simply too hot to tax their bodies further. The two Force-users took a moment to catch their breath and let their legs rest before continuing onward at a steady pace.
The pair bypassed the rocky spire and spotted the scene of trouble that Gaiel had sensed. In the distance, an old Human male, clothed in a weather-worn cloak and wearing tattered garments, was standing in the midst of half a dozen swoop bikes and their riders. Most of the swoop riders were Human, although there were a few Weequay and Rodians in their midst as well. The old man seemed to have been ambushed by these thugs on his way through the desert, and he seemed to be at their mercy. The old man was speaking with the leader of the swoop bikers, a rather burly Human man with a shaved head and a prosthetic arm. Gaiel and Raen were too far away to hear the exchange between the two parties, and the dry wind that rolled in caused them even more difficulty.
However, the Force informed Gaiel that the apparent negotiations had taken a violent turn, and one of the Rodian swoop bikers fired at the old man.
“Raen!” Gaiel shouted.
The younger Force-sensitive didn’t reply. He had already rushed from their position with Force speed to intercept the blaster shot and save the old man. Once he was sure that Raen was on his way, Gaiel joined him.
Although Raen was too slow to stop the blaster shot, the old man didn’t need his help. He managed to dodge the thug’s fire with an unnatural display of luck. Before the Rodian could fire his weapon again, the old man leapt into the air and landed on the Rodian’s swoop. To Raen’s surprise, the old man smashed his cane into the Rodian’s face; a loud crack and shouts from the other swoop bikers told Raen that the simple stick had shattered its target’s skull. The other swoop bikers opened fire, but the old man avoided their shots with relative ease.
Lifting the dead Rodian’s swoop with his mind, the old man threw it at a Weequay’s bike. The resulting explosion destroyed three swoop bikes, leaving only two left. The leader of the gang was dumbfounded by the old man’s apparent magical prowess, and he urged the surviving bikers to flee. However, the old man wasn’t content with letting them go that easily. He used the Force to lift a boulder from the ground and lob it at the fleeing thugs. The boulder collided with the second swoop bike, tearing it to pieces and creating a few small fireballs that scorched the leader’s bike.
Raen found himself running toward the fleeing gang-leader, and they would have crashed into each other if Gaiel had not flipped the vehicle on its side, throwing its pilot into the ground.
The leader’s mechanical arm was crushed beneath the overturned swoop, and his left leg was bruised and bleeding everywhere. Raen made sure there were no weapons on the wounded Human before flipping the vehicle upright with the Force.
The old man himself rushed and joined Raen as soon as Gaiel arrived. His cloak was pulled away from his head, revealing his pale skin, almost as white as the braided beard that reached his chest.
“Are you all right, sir?” Gaiel asked the old man.
“Never mind me, lad. Any survivors?” the old man asked.
“This Human is barely alive,” Raen noted. “I think if he receives medical attention, he’ll be fine.”
“This pirate?” the old man asked. “He does not deserve any medical treatment. He and his crew of brigands have been preying on the weak and helpless in this sector for months. He’s made a profit by causing others pain.”
Gaiel shook his head. “Do you suggest we do nothing?”
“It would be too dangerous if we healed him. He would simply return to his base and tell his master of our actions here. These types of thugs never work alone—no, they’re always funded by a big crime boss.”
“Then we could catch him,” Raen suggested.
The old man cackled. “If only it were that easy. He’d send his entire fleet to raze this planet before he showed his own face. Cowards and gluttons, that’s all those crime lords are. Leave him, and he’d have no way of knowing what happened to his men. But he would know that this sector is dangerous, and likely avoid sending his henchmen here again.”
“I don’t like it,” Gaiel said. “We could at least heal him.”
“Come, now,” the old man said. “Be reasonable. What has he done for the galaxy, aside from causing trouble and suffering? Nothing. Besides, you did not come here to tend to wounded criminals. You’re here for something more.”
“How do you know?” Raen asked, still monitoring the gang leader’s consciousness.
“You’re wearing the robes of a Jedi, as am I.” The old man motioned toward the torn but still identifiable Jedi robes beneath his cloak. “We are one and the same. If you two are on Ambria, then you must be searching for Master Thon.”
“Master Thon is here?” Gaiel asked, shocked.
“Well, we were looking for him, but we weren’t sure if he was alive.”
“He is definitely alive,” the old man noted, “if stubborn. You’ll have some work to do if you want him to teach you anything.”
“We can manage that once we get there. Can you take us to him…?” Gaiel asked, pausing when he realized he didn’t know the old man’s name.
“Ah, my apologies. My name is Jasparan Tes. I am a Jedi Knight of the Republic, born on the space station Synergy. Is that enough introduction for you?”
Gaiel smiled. “Yes, thank you. I am Gaiel Remus, Jedi Knight, and this is-”
“Raen Benax,” the Alderaanian spoke up quickly.
“Very well. We had better be going, then. He isn’t far from here, but it would be quicker if we took this swoop bike instead of walking,” the old man said.
Gaiel nodded, but Raen turned to the Nautolan and gave him a disbelieving look. Were they about to trust another random stranger? Gaiel’s unnatural trust in strangers would be his undoing, Raen suspected, and he didn’t want to be there to witness it. This old man may or may not have been a Jedi, and it didn’t really matter. Raen still didn’t know why they had to travel to this particular planet; he didn’t even know why they had to visit this particular Jedi Master. He had been dragged along on this trip against his will. Anything was better than a prison cell, but these treks were starting to take their toll.
Gaiel seemed to know what his companion was thinking, and he silenced any doubts Raen had with a wave of his hand and a slight cough. He had only given Raen the gesture once before, when they were headed onto Ralina’s ship on Dantooine. He remembered cues and signs like this one, and Raen bitterly decided that he would put his faith in Gaiel’s trust, and by extension, this old man’s honesty. The three Force-sensitives piled onto the only good swoop, and they were soon heading through the desert, bypassing crags and empty wastes, on their way to Thon’s abode.
The sun had set long before the old man parked their speeder by a murky lake in the midst of an otherwise barren valley. Rocks barely stood over two meters tall here, and the mountains that encompassed the entire area probably provided a great deal of shade during the day. Raen silently cursed Ambria’s heat, which continued to linger long after the sun had departed.
Once they had left the speeder behind, Gaiel and Raen followed Jasparan in silence, although trailing him proved difficult due to the thick clouds that hid the moons of Ambria and many of the stars. Aside from footsteps against the gravel beneath their feet, not a sound could be heard for kilometers. Wildlife and fauna were scarce, even more so than vegetation. Everything seemed unnaturally still.
The trio eventually reached a small stone hut that was surrounded by a simple garden of desert plants and a few perennial flowers. Jasparan placed a few things at the door before returning to his two companions.
“Is this it?” Raen wondered aloud. “Seems awfully simple for a Jedi Master.”
“That’s the point,” Jasparan explained. “Jedi forsake material wealth to foster humility and kindliness, and to experience a closer connection to the Force.”
“I don’t understand,” Raen admitted. “It would make sense for lowly Jedi to give up their possessions and serve the Jedi Order. But after you have reached a rank where you have enough prestige and respect, can’t you reclaim everything you once had—and so much more?”
“Jedi are not nobles, Raen. Our ranks allude only to our mastery and dedication to the Force or swordplay. And even those ranks are sometimes misleading. Power and riches lead to temptation, and eventually the dark side itself,” Jasparan answered.
Raen nodded, even though he did not understand. The Jedi had a strange set of beliefs. The Sith used their power to obtain wealth, knowledge, and respect. The Jedi did the exact opposite, it seemed. Clearly, Jedi Masters demanded a certain degree of respect, and they were knowledgeable, but didn’t part of their code praise ignorance? Raen didn’t remember.
Jasparan muttered something to himself before opening the door to the home and bidding the two Jedi to enter. Gaiel walked in first—much to Raen’s relief—in his eagerness to see Master Thon. Raen followed the Nautolan Jedi, and Jasparan joined them both in the small home’s foyer. It was very spartan, and Raen took notice of the few antique jars and a collection of wicker baskets in the corner of the room.
“Master Thon! We have visitors!” Jasparan called out.
“Nrghh. Has Northeus returned with his Padawan?” a deep, guttural voice asked.
“I’m afraid not, Master. But two other Jedi have arrived. They seek your council.”
“I have never turned down young servants searching for guidance. Mrgg. Send them in, Jasparan.”
The old man motioned toward a hallway at the far end of the chamber they were standing in. “Just head through that hall, and make a right. Master Thon will meet you there.”
Gaiel nodded and led Raen toward Thon’s chamber. Jasparan himself bowed and departed from the other two Jedi, leaving them alone in the halls of Thon’s home. The entire house was rather cold due to the slits that were carved out of the wall, letting a draft into the home. Raen shivered when he noticed the strange temperature of the house, pulling his robe closer to his body in an effort to keep warm. Gaiel didn’t seem to mind the sudden drop in temperature. Raen figured that his companion was too excited to notice; they were about to meet a Jedi Master, after all.
Low-hanging lanterns extended from the ceiling, providing light for the halls at night. There were very few rooms despite the length of the hallway itself, and most of the rooms that they passed were locked. Raen thought he could smell incense, but only barely. He couldn’t identify the source, but it permeated throughout the house. Gaiel brusquely called for Raen to keep up, and the younger Force-sensitive hurried to catch up with the Nautolan, nearly colliding with a few lanterns in the process.
The two Force-sensitives entered Thon’s chamber, the only room at the farthest end of the hall. Thon sat at the center of his sparsely decorated room. There was a wicker basket in the farthest corner of the room, presumably to hold his few personal belongings, and a straw bed on the floor to sleep on. Raen identified the source of the smell: a small container of liquid spices being heated over an open flame. Other than those things, though, the room was empty. The Jedi Master certainly prided himself in his ascetic behavior, it seemed.
Thon arose from the floor, standing on all four of his powerful legs, and trudged toward the two visitors. He was a larger than both of them, even on all fours, and the massive bony frill that extended from the back of his head created the illusion that he was much larger still. He had a gray beard that nearly touched the floor, which seemed to contrast his otherwise reptilian features. Each step he took shook the floor lightly, and Raen thought he heard the old creature grumble something to himself as he walked toward them.
Raen spoke up as Thon approached. “Are you… you’re not Thon, are you?”
“Nrhh. Were you expecting someone else, young one?” Thon mused. “Does my appearance frighten you? It has been many years since anyone has been frightened by me.”
“Not frightened,” Raen corrected. “Confused. I didn’t think… you don’t look…”
“Intelligent?” Thon grumbled, growling softly several times before adding, “The same could be said of your kind. All thin flesh and hardly anything to defend yourself. How your species survived in the wilds of your homeworld is a mystery I have pondered for years.”
“I am sorry, Master Thon,” Gaiel said quickly, bowing as he addressed the Jedi Master. “My companion does not yet grasp the concept of manners. Please excuse him.”
Thon shook his head slowly. “It is quite all right. Anngh. It has been quite some time since I have received new travelers in my home. Tell me, who are you?”
“I am Gaiel Remus, and this is Raen Benax. We are Jedi, and we have come to seek aid and training from you, Master Thon.”
Thon’s eyes lit up. “Training? Nrghh. It has been many years since I have taken on a pupil… little Vima was my last student.”
“Vima? Vima Sunrider?” Gaiel asked.
“The very one,” Thon answered.
“Who’s Vima?” Raen whispered to Gaiel.
“Vima Sunrider is the Grand Master of the Jedi Order. She leads all the Jedi from the Jedi Temple at Coruscant, and she has led our Order since the death of her mother, Nomi,” Gaiel answered in an equally quiet whisper.
“It is as young Gaiel says,” Thon spoke up. “Vima Sunrider is now Lady Sunrider… it has been many years since I have taught Jedi. What brings you two Jedi here? Surely there are other Jedi Masters who you can train under.”
“But none as long-lived and wise as you,” Gaiel said, bowing again.
“Mr-grah. Keep your compliments. For every five students, there is one who tastes the dark side, and two more who fall. I am no longer able to train Jedi. A watchful eye I can keep, but my own stamina is beginning to fail me. The Force is infinite in power, but my body is not.”
“What would you have us do?” Gaiel asked, disappointed at the news.
Thon thought for a moment. “I will not train you, but those who still visit and tend to me, Jasparan and Northeus, are more than able to strengthen you and tend to your studies. They learned from my students, and thus have retained some of my knowledge and skills.”
“Very well,” Gaiel said. “Where would you have us go?”
“Nrah. Jasparan has set up several mattresses in the foyer for guests to sleep on. You may use those for as long as you are staying here. We will begin your training in the morning.”
“Raen! Raen! Get up.”
The young Force-sensitive stirred in his bed, but quickly returned to his slumber. The voice repeated itself, fiercely. Raen opened his eyes and, for a moment, forgot where he was. It took several seconds to remember that he was resting in Thon’s lodging, on the small mattress set aside for him. It was too small to fit his entire body, but it was still a bed, and for that he was grateful. He felt something hit him, and he nearly jumped to his feet.
He eyed Jasparan, the source of the voice that had awoken him. The old man was sitting on a wicker basket nearby, cane in hand.
“What is it, Jasparan?” Raen grumbled, still half asleep.
“It’s time for your training to begin,” the old man said.
“He’s not going to be testing you. He’ll watch, but I’ll be the one to evaluate your abilities.”
“He’ll begin in due time. For now, join me outside.”
Jasparan stepped outside of the hut, staff in hand, while Raen was left to collect himself. He straightened his robes and put on his boots; he almost considered putting his cloak back on, but he remembered Ambria’s uncomfortable heat and decided against it. Grabbing his lightsaber, just in case, Raen rose entirely and followed the old man outside.
Thon and Jasparan were waiting for Raen to arrive. Thon had seated himself on a rocky perch about ten meters from the entrance to his home and Jasparan was discussing something with him. A brisk morning air snuck up on Raen, and he was surprised that the heat he had been introduced to yesterday had not yet arrived. In fact, it was quite chilly outside, and Raen immediately regretted leaving his cloak behind. The sun had not yet risen, and small torches lit up the area around Thon’s building. He heard the buzzing of some nocturnal insects attracted to the flames, but aside from that, all he could hear was Thon and Jasparan’s dialog in the distance.
“So what are we doing, Jasparan?”
The old man struck Raen with his staff, causing the young Force-sensitive to recoil and nearly strike back. “You will address me as ‘teacher’ or ‘master’, boy,” Jasparan said with a surprising firmness in his voice. “At least as long as I am your better—which will be for some time. Come, if you want to hit me, do so with your lightsaber. We shall test your combat skills.”
Raen stared at the old man before him. He must be kidding. If Raen attacked Jasparan, the old man would be on the ground in seconds. He could not even sense the old man in the Force, so his connection to the Force must have been minimal at best. He did have some skill, as Raen and Gaiel witnessed when he was ambushed by pirates yesterday, but any Force-sensitive could hold his own against a few lowlife criminals.
Raen hesitantly withdrew his lightsaber and activated it, its blue blade shimmering brightly in the dim light. His free hand reached for the hilt in an attempt to weaken the blade’s strength, so when he cut the old man, the lustrous blade would not sever his flesh. However, Jasparan shook his head before bringing his cane to level with his chest.
“Leave your lightsaber’s power as is,” Jasparan commanded.
“If I do that, I’ll cut off your limbs,” Raen noted.
“No,” Jasparan mused, with a glimmer in his eye. “You won’t.”
Raen sighed. He might as well end this sorry display quickly. Charging toward Jasparan, lightsaber in hand, he aimed for the old man’s cane. The old man gasped as he repositioned the feeble stick in between himself and Raen’s weapon. The lightsaber came down in a powerful overhead swing, smashing against the wooden cane. Raen smiled. They had finished.
But the staff remained intact. In fact, Raen’s lightsaber was repulsed on contact. Impossible! How could that bit of wood withstand his lightsaber? It was impossible. Raen found himself defenseless when his weapon was deflected, and Jasparan countered with equal ferocity. The old man struck Raen’s weapon arm with his staff, and then swatted his opponent’s hand, causing the young Force-sensitive to drop his lightsaber. Defenseless, Raen threw his arms up to defend his chest from Jasparan’s cane. The staff made do with hitting Raen’s vulnerable forearms. As Raen’s arms began to bleed, he pulled them away, startled at the power the old man could summon. Two hits to the chest knocked Raen off his feet and into the dirt below.
“Master Thon! The boy is hardly a Padawan; he has no proper training to speak of, and his arrogance weakens him even more. I think we should send this one to Coruscant and let some other Masters teach him how to handle a lightsaber before we bother with him,” Jasparan said.
“Mnnah. Who trained you? Who was your Master?” Thon asked, stepping from his pedestal in the distance.
Raen hadn’t heard the question. When Jasparan turned his back to address the old Jedi Master, Raen had used the Force to recover his lightsaber. His arms, bleeding and in pain, could hardly support the weight of his light weapon, but he ignored their pleas to stop. Rising to his feet, he struck at Jasparan, hoping to wound him for insulting his skill with a lightsaber. However, Jasparan sensed the boy’s attack, and he used the Force to whip up dirt to blind Raen, causing him to miss the old man entirely. With another flick of his wrist, Jasparan telepathically pushed Raen to the ground.
“He is certainly persistent,” Thon noted.
“A persistent fool, perhaps,” Jasparan spat. “Only a coward attacks his opponents from behind.”
“Who was your Master?” Thon asked again.
“I… I had no Master,” Raen hissed.
“Rhh. Impossible,” Thon said. “Despite what Jasparan says, you have some skill with a blade, and your Force power is impressive for your age. Who trained you?”
“The Sith trained me,” Raen murmured.
Jasparan’s eyes suddenly lit up. “A Sith? The Nautolan brought us a Sith to train? What nonsense is this? Master, I should take off his head and be done with it.”
“Rrgh. Peace, Jasparan,” Thon growled. “The boy is of no threat to us, and Gaiel is a true Jedi. This one was brought here so he could be turned away from the darkness, not denied by the light. You will continue to train him.”
Jasparan turned to the old Jedi. “But Master Thon-”
A quick growl from Thon silenced the old man. Bowing his head, Jasparan returned inside, still fuming at the thought of Raen’s presence. Thon slowly trudged over to Raen and, once he was standing over the beaten Force-sensitive, used the Force to release a healing mist that blanketed Raen’s body. This wave of energy healed Raen’s arms by closing the cuts and bruises he acquired from Jasparan’s weapon. In seconds, he felt strong enough to stand on his own again.
“Do you want to remain here and learn from me, Raen Benax?” Thon asked. “If you do not, I will not stop you from leaving.”
Raen was silent for a moment. “Would you tell Gaiel?”
“That would be up to you. It is not my place to impose upon your actions. What is your answer?”
“Let me think about it,” Raen admitted.
With a low grunt, Thon nodded and returned to his hut, leaving Raen alone outside. The young Force-sensitive took a seat on the cold ground, watching the sunrise in the west. He was alone here, left to contemplate his next course of action. He had no doubt that Thon and his students could teach Raen a great deal about the Force and lightsaber combat; such knowledge would be useful in the future. In fact, if Jasparan was stronger than him, then he had more to learn than he thought. However, he could leave Gaiel behind here, abandoning him and the Jedi—and their judgment—by escaping to Alderaan. He had to extract his revenge, after all. De’dlay, Calay, and the rest of the Sith Masters had to pay for exploiting him and his talents.
It was likely that the Jedi would try and track him down. Gaiel and Jasparan could best him in lightsaber combat. It was not impossible, then, for other Jedi to defeat him. If he was cornered, he’d be brought to Coruscant as a prisoner, and his sentence would be harsher than before. The realization of his own weakness made Raen unsure of himself, the first time he had been so doubtful for some time. Staying here would be beneficial for a while, but it would eventually be damning to him.
While he was still thinking, a voice called out from the distance. “Raen Benax?”
Turning to the east, Raen saw a Miraluka run up to him, nearly throwing his arms around the seated Force-user. However, some quick thinking on Raen’s part and the sudden hesitation of the Miraluka kept that from happening. The Miraluka seemed familiar, but Raen couldn’t remember just who he was. He kept his hand on his lightsaber, just in case. A hood shielded the Miraluka’s white hair—with dyed red streaks—from the rising sun, and a green shroud covered the place where his eyes would have been. He was dressed in matching green Jedi robes that were covered in dust, and he had a lightsaber on his belt as well.
Raen took a good, long look at the Miraluka before he finally asked: “Have we met?”
The Miraluka’s jaw dropped. “Have we… have we met? Raen! You wound me!” he said, clutching his chest with his frail, tanned fingers. “Raen, it’s me. Ranval!”
Raen’s blank stare caused the Miraluka to gasp aloud and grip his chest even harder as though he was in pain. “We met on Taris, remember? I drove you and Selias around.”
Raen eyed him suspiciously. “Ranval…? Is that really you?”
“I’d sure like to hope so. Otherwise this is a dream, and—no offense to you—I hope I’m not dreaming about you,” Ranval said with a chortle. “I wanted to see you; not that much, though.”
“How are you here?”
Ranval smiled. “You know, a starship with a pretty decent hyperdrive can work wonders when-”
“I meant, how did you survive the destruction of Taris?” Raen clarified.
“The Sith tried to attack us once—you were there,” Ranval said. “I figured that their first attempt wouldn’t be the last, and I headed offworld soon after you did. I got lucky, too. Most Tarisians didn’t survive Malak’s bombardment. Truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have been one of the lucky ones to make it out alive.”
“What about Donnel? And Selias?” Raen asked.
Ranval’s head dropped, and he kicked a nearby stone with his foot. “To be honest, I lost contact with both of them after I left Taris. They weren’t exactly pleased that I ditched the Beks. Sorry, Raen.”
Raen was silent for a moment. Donnel had been Ranval’s constant companion on Taris since he had met them, and he was surprised that Ranval had abandoned him and the rest of the gang he had been a part of. After all, he was a loyal member of the Hidden Beks. Raen hadn’t heard from Selias since he left Taris, and he figured she had died. She had been heartbroken at the death of her brother, and she had been wounded in the Sith incursion—he hadn’t followed up on her condition. But if she was still alive by the time of the Sith attack, she could still be alive now.
Raen finally jabbed Ranval in the chest. “Well, what brings you to Ambria? Dressed like a Jedi?”
Ranval scoffed. “Dressed like a Jedi? Raen, please. I thought you of all people, Mr. Big-shot Jedi, would recognize an actual Jedi when he saw one.”
Raen shook his head. “You’re a Jedi?”
“A Jedi Padawan, to be specific,” another voice said.
A second individual, this one Human, came up beside Ranval. His footsteps made no sound against the dirt, and Raen didn’t sense his approach. Dressed in brown Jedi robes and wearing a cloak with its hood pulled over his head, only the lower face of this second Jedi was visible. He was a bit taller than Ranval and Raen, and he seemed to be quite older than them both. The Jedi tried to hide them, but Raen saw the two lightsabers resting on his belt.
“Raen, this is Master Northeus Ulsan. He is my Jedi Master and trainer,” Ranval introduced the second figure.
“A pleasure, young Jedi,” Northeus bowed.
Raen bowed as well, albeit hesitantly.
“You may continue your conversation inside, Padawan,” Northeus continued, now addressing Ranval. “We should consult with Master Thon about our next assignment.”
“Of course, Master,” Ranval said. “Since you’re here, you should join us for a moment, Raen.”
“I suppose I will,” the young Force-sensitive said. “I’ll follow you—I’m sure you’re being expected.”
“Nrrh. It is good that you are all here,” Thon said, speaking to all the Jedi—now assembled in the main room of his home. “Northeus, you will act on my behalf, training each of these Jedi in the manner I have instructed you, particularly your own Padawan and Jasparan. In the meanwhile, Ranval and Gaiel and Jasparan and Raen will spar with each other, honing their lightsaber skills when not perfecting their Force techniques. Every two weeks, you rotate sparring partners as you wish.”
Raen turned to Gaiel: “How long are we going to be here?” he whispered.
“As long as it’s necessary,” the Nautolan shot back in a hoarse whisper.
“After several months, each of you will fight each other in a training match, and Northeus and I will gauge your progress,” Thon continued. “If we deem you are prepared, we will begin to teach you the nuances of a particular form—any form of lightsaber combat you wish—so you may specialize in your own style. In the meanwhile, your Force powers will be growing steadily and your connection to the Force will increase. Do any of you have any questions?”
None of the Jedi said a word.
Master Thon nodded. “Then your training shall begin, effective immediately. Hrmgh. I expect all trainees to be outside in ten minutes with lightsabers in hand.”
“Well, well, kiddo. I have to say—and I don’t say this to just anybody, neither—you are a big shot. Or at least, you almost were. Daring as a Wookiee on stims, too. I just didn’t expect you to go after me, kiddo. Have to give you that much—never did know what the hell you were thinking.”
Tserne DeLarane listened to the man talk. He couldn’t do much else. Two rather large Humans held his arms in their sturdy grip while another had his leg on Tserne’s back so he could face the man without posing a threat. Tserne’s knees, bruised from a rough landing earlier, were pressed against the carpeted floor of the office, and he was completely immobile. He was sweating a bit from his ascent of the tower, and his vision was still blurry from a pistol-whip to the face, but he would survive. His pride was more wounded than anything at this point.
The Humbar Industries building’s interior was nicer than he expected. This office, in particular, was fancifully furnished. Glowpanels buzzed overhead, producing a faint light that encompassed the entire office. The walls had recently been repainted a dark red color to complement the room’s brown carpeting. Small plants lined the walls, and a few flowers gave the room a rather pleasant fragrance. The spacious desk at the end of the rather oblong room seemed to be a focal point for the office itself.
The man speaking to Tserne was pacing back and forth in front of his desk, a lit cigarra in his hand. He was waving it back and forth as he walked, allowing the smoke—and the accompanying scent—to slowly creep throughout the entire room. This man had black hair that would have been quite long had it not been tied into a rather extravagant ponytail. He wore a suave business suit, but it was ruffled and wrinkled, as though he didn’t actually care about his appearance.
The pacing man continued: “You know, I remember—clear as yesterday—sending you off with my blessings. Yes, I do. I said, ‘It sounds like a great idea, kiddo! Take forty thousand credits.’ You thanked me, we had a few drinks, and I came home to a very unhappy wife, I’ll have you know. Screaming at me for coming in well into the night and everything.”
Tserne said nothing. He wasn’t even sure if he was supposed to say anything. The man’s nervous green eyes met Tserne’s, and the businessman almost burst out laughing. Babbling to himself, the man placed the cigarra on his desk, dangerously close to a pile of flimsy, and approached Tserne, motioning toward the guards as he got closer. One of the bodyguards pulled out a blaster pistol and shot Tserne in the back, eliciting a cry of pain from their captive. A stinging pain shot through Tserne’s back, and he was surprised he was still conscious—and alive. Realizing that they didn’t intend to kill him, he shivered violently as the initial pain started to subside and the stinging sensation of a blaster burn took over.
“Ernar Humbar is not happy, kiddo,” the man said, addressing himself in the third person. “And when Ernar is not happy, other people won’t be happy either. Employees get laid off. Security agents get bribed. Rivals go bankrupt. You’re a sharp guy; at least, I thought you were. Never would have figured you as the gunslinging assassin type.”
Tserne had entered Ernar’s company with enough firepower to kill a garrison of Republic soldiers. He entered the building by swinging through an unsecured window from a nearby crane. Defeating several droids and the chief guard posted at Ernar’s door, he was certain that everything was going well until he was subdued by Ernar’s personal bodyguards. Admittedly, Tserne had convinced himself he could have taken them out, but he had been caught off-guard when he underestimated their abilities. To his surprise, he had not been killed; the guards disarmed him and brought him here, forcing him to endure their boss boring him to death.
“You talk too much,” Tserne muttered between breaths.
Ernar ignored him. “So why’d you come back to Humbarine, kiddo? Who hired you to take me out? It was my nephew, huh? He’s always complaining because I was the one who inherited the business.”
“No one hired me,” Tserne said.
“Ah, freelance, then?” Ernar mused. He picked up his cigarra again, but he didn’t smoke it, content with moving it around between his fingers. “Why’d you do it, kiddo? Wasn't I nothing but kind to you and your family? Your dad and my dad were trading partners for years. Our families have known each other for generations. Why the sudden change of heart?”
“I didn’t come here to kill you. I came here because I need information,” Tserne explained.
Ernar chuckled. “Information? Couldn't you have just asked me if all you needed was information?”
“I did. Your secretary said you were booked for the next two weeks.”
“I am booked for the next two weeks. I’m supposed to be taking clientele. But you come in here and shoot up my office like a Corellian who just found out that Tralus won the Centerpoint Circuit title,” Ernar said, fiddling with the model swoop bike on his desk. “What sort of information do you need?”
“I need information about me.”
“You heard me,” Tserne said. “I… I need to know everything you know about me.”
Tserne seemed to have caught Ernar’s attention, because he stopped toying around with the decorations on his desk. “Interesting,” Ernar said. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think this is all some big joke. I can hear it now: ‘Haha, Ernar, we got you good this time! We killed your employees, destroyed your propery, and we got to play mind games with you too!’ Let go out of the kid.”
The largest guard, apparently the leader, spoke up. “Let him go, boss?”
“You heard me, let him go!”
The three guards released Tserne, allowing him to get back on his feet. After twenty minutes of kneeling, his knees couldn’t have been happier, but the rest of his body still ached, particularly his back. The guards returned to the desk, standing near Ernar in case Tserne tried to attack their boss. Tserne wasn’t armed, but they still figured he could be a threat; they were smarter than he thought. Tserne performed a few quick stretches to loosen the muscles in his arms and legs while Ernar puffed on his cigarra violently.
“So, kiddo, what’s the deal?” Ernar finally asked, discarding the used cigarra at long last.
“I don’t remember anything about my past,” Tserne answered.
“You don’t remember nothing?”
“Well, I remember a few things,” Tserne said. “Vague things. I saw you in a vision, and I realized that I had met you before. I thought you could help me.”
“You sure got a weird way of asking for help,” Ernar said with a sigh. “I guess some things never change. If you don’t remember your past, as you claim, how’d you track me down?”
“Your company bought out Esseles’s share of Core Galaxy Systems,” Tserne pointed out. “Your name was all over the radio.”
Ernar laughed heartily. He took a seat at his desk and motioned for Tserne to sit nearby. “Yes, that was a rather risky—but definitely profitable—business venture. It’s not every day that such an ancient but well-respected starship manufacturer gets a facelift,” the businessman said. “Humbarine will certainly benefit, and my family will become richer for it.”
“Of course,” Tserne said, dismissively. “So will you help me or not?”
“I suppose I can help you,” Ernar thought aloud, “if you’ll help me first.”
“Why should I help you? All I need is some simple information, or even some records, and I’ll be on my way.”
“You killed one of my better security officers, destroyed some of my droids, damaged my property, and you did try to kill me,” Ernar shot back. “You do this, and I’ll forget that any of that ever happened. Maybe I’ll feel benevolent and help you out, too.”
Tserne shrugged, but he was clearly furious. “What do I need to do?”
“There’s a fellow who calls himself the Ghoul. Named after some pitiful creature on Coruscant, I think. He’s a Givin who specializes in performing assassinations and eviscerating his targets once he’s done with them. He’s in the capital at this moment, and I want you to kill him.”
“Why hasn’t he been stopped?” Tserne asked.
“Don’t you think we’ve tried? He’s slimier than a greasy Hutt. Once he escapes our detectives, he tracks down their families and… dissuades other security forces from pursuing him,” Ernar said, fiddling with the swoop bike model again. “We didn’t have any leads before now, but now I think we’ve got him cornered.”
Ernar smiled. “We traced his base of operations to a small warehouse near Humbar Spaceport. We weren’t sure if he actually lived there—maybe it was a trap, you never know—or what, so I sent a few of my guys to investigate. They never returned.”
“So you want me to go down there and kill this guy,” Tserne said.
“Precisely. Since you’re a fancy, gunslinging assassin now.”
“Why do you want me to kill him?”
Ernar shifted his gaze from the model to Tserne. “What? You think I can’t have a compassionate spirit just because I’m an entrepreneur? You think I’m some cold heartless beast who only sees the credit chits in life? Let me tell you, kiddo, that’s not me. I’m a man of integrity, and I care about my workers. This monster has killed several of my employees and threatened their families. You think you’re getting off easy; if I could go out and strangle that sadistic freak myself, I would. I helped you out once, now I’d appreciate it if you returned the favor.”
Tserne stared at the floor. He really wanted to get the information he was looking for, but he couldn’t risk alienating the only person who could help him. He didn’t want to go toe-to-toe with an insane murderer, but it didn’t appear that he had a choice.
“Fine,” Tserne finally answered. “I’ll do your dirty work for you, if you’ll help me later.”
“Of course, kiddo,” Ernar replied. “And don’t be so downtrodden. Think of this as an opportunity. You help me, you help hundreds of thousands of innocents-”
“I could die.”
Ernar winced. “You could die. But I believe in you. And if I believe in you, then you can believe in you! So go out there and save the city!” he turned to his guards and added: “Escort him to the lobby, would you please?”
Tserne cautiously followed the guards, trailing them in silence as they returned his weapons to him and eventually brought him back to the lobby. The damage done by Tserne’s heavy repeater and thermal detonators was still evident. They hadn’t even had time to remove the bodies of Ernar’s dead employees. The guards kept a close eye on Tserne until he had walked off the property by his lonesome.
Humbarine was a sister-world to Coruscant, or so it was said. Tserne had never been to Coruscant, the galactic capital, so he couldn’t attest to the old saying’s truthfulness, but the cityscape was certainly unlike any other planet he had ever seen. Skyscrapers seemed to touch the sky in multitudes, industrial giants that towered over people and normal buildings alike.
The traffic was so loud in some places, especially near dawn and dusk, that it was impossible for him to hear himself think, although it got quieter the closer he got to the ground level. However, as he distanced himself from the traffic, he entered the slums that nearly encompassed the lowest levels of Humbarine’s multi-layered ecumenopolis, and he found himself onset by despicable sights and smells that could only be described as frightening. Homeless children, dying animals, and bonfires for warmth were amongst the chief attractions in these lower levels, and Tserne hated it. The entire situation stirred up indignation in him that forced him to leave and endure the traffic on the upper levels. For the sake of the Republic, he hoped the galactic capital was not like Humbarine.
After a few hours of navigating through the cityscape, Tserne reached his destination. The warehouse he had been told to investigate certainly wasn’t much to speak of, and it seemed to have fallen into disrepair years ago. Its durasteel doors were so large a gunship could fly inside and fit comfortably; however, it seemed to be locked from the inside. This side of the spaceport was eerily free of traffic, pedestrian and otherwise, as though civilians knew that something was amiss. Tserne was alone as he investigated the warehouse for additional entrances, searching the rusted sides of the building for another way in. Finding no other doors or windows to use, Tserne took to the rooftops nearby, hoping to use the vantage point to spot some other entrance.
Standing on the flat roof of a neighboring storage facility, Tserne scanned the warehouse from his new height. To his pleasant surprise, the warehouse had a single window on its roof, probably to let sunlight in during the day, and it didn't seem to be reinforced or otherwise protected. Leaping from his vantage point to the warehouse below, Tserne slightly lightened the impact of his fall by rolling as he landed. Tserne walked across the metal rooftop as quietly as he could—the metal seemed to amplify his light steps into cumbersome clomping—and reached the window without any problems.
“If this murderer is as crafty as they claim he is,” Tserne muttered to himself, “he certainly doesn’t protect his base as well as he should.”
If anyone was in the warehouse, Tserne figured they would have heard him approach. Forgoing any hope of a stealthy entrance, he withdrew his blaster rifle. His orange blaster shots shattered the transparisteel in the windowpane, and the fragments sprinkled across the floor below. He knew the drop from the roof to the floor wouldn’t be easy, and the fragments of transparisteel could cause grievous injury should he land carelessly. In an effort to avoid dropping to the floor from his current height, Tserne leapt to one of the beams that supported the roof, grasping the cool metal with his bare hands. However, he had underestimated his own strength, and he could feel his fingers begin to slip away from him. Groaning, Tserne struggled to pull himself onto the horizontal beam itself, but his grip was already too weak. Cursing under his breath, his hands gave way—tearing some skin off his palms in the process—and sent him into a freefall toward the floor.
Time seemed to slow down around him as he plummeted several meters from his lofty position to the floor below. Gravity’s power seemed miniscule as he repositioned his body in midair so he would land on his feet and break into a roll instead of landing on his back. Seconds seemed like minutes as he carefully watched the ground get closer and closer, and as soon as the tips of his boots touched the floor, time returned to normal and gravity regained its strength.
Once he had completed his descent, Tserne scanned the warehouse’s interior. The light that streamed inside from the broken window illuminated very little, and the rest of the room was flooded in darkness. The smell of rotting, wet wood filled Tserne’s nostrils, and it was hard for him to believe the distinct silence inside the warehouse. Only in the most frightening place on Humbarine was there silence. How quaint.
Tserne stepped toward the pillar of light provided by the broken window overhead, but he was pushed back by some unseen force. Startled but not defeated, Tserne attempted to trudge ahead and reach the light before him. The force acting against him got stronger as he approached the light, and soon, Tserne couldn't step forward; his legs were completely immobile. He pulled out his blaster rifle, firing a few bursts in an attempt to light up the surrounding area. His plan didn’t work, and he couldn’t identify whatever it was that was acting against him.
His blaster rifle flew out of his hands without warning, and he was simultaneously thrown backwards, colliding with some weakened crates behind him. Tserne struggled to his feet, but he had no idea what was going on. Something was hindering his efforts, but he couldn’t tell what it was. The lack of light only added to his problem, because he couldn’t fight back against his mysterious opponent.
As if his opponent sensed his confusion, it moved itself toward Tserne so they could fight. Although he couldn’t see anything in the darkness, Tserne heard his opponent pull a blade from its sheath, and he realized that it was standing right in front of him. Grabbing a vibroblade of his own from his belt, he threw his weapon up just in time to block a strike at his face. He could faintly see the outline of a sword and its masked wielder, but his eyes were still adjusting to the low light of the warehouse. The fact that he was doing very well and keeping himself from getting killed was absolutely shocking. It was almost as though he could sense where every attack was coming from, even though he did not see them at all. He could almost fool himself into thinking he was reading his opponent’s mind, knowing its plans at the same time it was making them.
Locking blades with his opponent, Tserne kept his opponent’s weapon from moving. While their swords were crossed and immobile, Tserne heard a soft voice in his head telling him to stab his opponent in the chest. However, his blade was locked with his unseen enemy, and he couldn’t grab his other vibroblade because he couldn’t repel his enemy with just one hand. The little voice kept repeating itself, over and over again, and Tserne felt as though he had heard it somewhere before. Something seemed familiar about it, but he couldn’t tell what.
Closing his eyes, Tserne decided to trust the voice, despite not knowing its intentions or its source. Vanishing from sight, Tserne became invisible to his opponent, throwing it off-balance. Now neither of the combatants could truly see each other, and it became a battle of luck. Tserne’s enemy swung its sword around—particularly at its sides—madly, hoping to strike at Tserne before he escaped. However, Tserne hadn’t moved. He remained still while his opponent attacked blindly, and once he was certain he had an opening, he plunged his blade into the masked swordsman’s chest. The figure gasped aloud, and he practically keeled over when Tserne revealed himself.
Tserne made sure his opponent’s sword had been discarded before crouching to speak with his enemy. His foe was lying on the ground, and Tserne could tell by the blood on his own blade that he had inflicted a grievous wound. He heard the voice of a man, probably Human, panting and coughing, as he struggled to speak in spite of the injury he had received.
“Are you the Ghoul?” Tserne asked, although he knew this man wasn’t the Givin he was looking for.
“The Ghoul…” the man coughed, spitting out blood before he continued: “He’s not here.”
“Then who are you? Why are you here?”
“I am… his assistant. We… I maintain his base here, while he goes out and does his work,” the man said.
“Why would you work for a killer?” Tserne asked.
“What else was I… was I supposed to do?” the man retorted. “He killed my brother… my parents… my wife… I have nothing. I am nothing.”
“So you work for the monster that killed your family?” Tserne shot back, disgusted. “Are you insane?”
“I wasn’t going to let him do… what he wanted. Eventually, when I was… strong enough… I would have my revenge.”
“I don’t understand,” Tserne said. “You could have just joined the local police unit.”
“That wouldn’t be justice…” the man said, nearly screaming. “He’s never trusted anyone. He’s never befriended… he’s been alone since his youth. I wanted him to confide in me. I wanted him to believe I would protect him. I wanted him to think that I would sacrifice myself for his sake. I want…”
“You wanted to gain his friendship, only to betray him when he’s at his weakest,” Tserne finished for him.
“Well,” Tserne said, standing, “you’ve sacrificed yourself for his sake. He’s escaped today because of you.”
The man grabbed Tserne’s ankle. “You! You can stop him! You must stop him! For me… for my family… make sure that monster dies in the most agonizing and painful way you can muster.”
Tserne kicked his leg, freeing it from the man’s grasp. “I said I’d try. I make no oaths to a dead man.”
“Justice must be served…” the man groaned. His breathing was labored and pained, and he didn’t have much time left. “Destroy this warehouse. There’s a panel near the door… at… at the far side of the room. Right below it is a crate filled with plasma grenades. Don’t bother setting the… just make sure they’re activated, and then get the…”
“What you want isn’t justice,” Tserne said. “You’re searching for revenge.”
“The Ghoul will know I’m dead if you… if you destroy this place. He’ll come after you… swear… swear…” the man coughed up blood and muttered a few more words before Tserne turned to the door. It was time to leave.
“I knew you’d come back to me, kiddo! I just knew you’d do it. I had faith in you the entire time,” Ernar said, tending to a plant beside his desk. “I’ll admit that that explosion had me worried. Law enforcement was all over that warehouse within twenty minutes. I admire your desire for theatrics—not really, but I trust you understand what I mean—and explosions, but was that necessary?”
“The Ghoul wasn’t there,” Tserne said.
“Yeah, kiddo, you do good… what?” Ernar asked, only now completely paying attention. “What do you mean, he wasn’t there?”
“He had a decoy,” Tserne explained. “Before he died, he told me the best way to get the Ghoul’s attention was to destroy the warehouse. I think it’s an obvious sign to the Ghoul that his assistant is dead and we’re on his trail.”
“We? No, no. There is no we, kiddo. There never was.”
“What are you talking about?”
Ernar sighed. “Remember what I said about the Ghoul tracking down the family of law enforcement who pursue him? If you got his attention, then he’ll use his information network to figure out you’re working for me and track me down. That can’t happen!”
“You’re a coward.”
“I’m practical-minded! Everyone who’s gone up against the Ghoul has wound up dead. No one had any leads—and we still don’t. I’m not going to be able to protect myself should he come after me, kiddo,” Ernar admitted.
“So now you’re just going to give up?” Tserne asked, mocking the businessman.
“No!” Ernar shot back. “Quite the contrary. I’ve decided that you are useless—well, not useless, you tried. I have a contact on Coruscant, and he put me in touch with the Jedi Order. They told me that the reports on the Ghoul are startling, and they’ll be sending someone over to help stop him.”
“You’re hiring a Jedi?” Tserne folded his arms and returned to his seat by Ernar’s desk. “Are you sure that’s wise? Have you ever dealt with a Jedi before?”
“I don’t trust those Jedi-types,” Ernar said, placing his hands on his desk. “The stories they tell aren’t flattering. I’ve been told—but don’t go spreading this around—that they are demons who disguise themselves as sentients, what with their mystic powers and all.”
“And you believe that?” Tserne asked, bemused.
“No!” Ernar said loudly, but then calmed himself. “I’d prefer we not talk about the Jedi. They confuse me enough as is. I’ve set up a room for you to stay in until the Jedi arrives from Coruscant in a few days. Make yourself comfortable—I’ll call you when you’re needed.”