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Chapter 14

Raen stared at the gorge before him. The footing was perilous at its edges, and he cautiously kept himself as far away from the loose rocks and dying foliage as he could. Mountains stood on either side of it, and there was no easy way to get down. If there had been any paths leading to the bottom, they had been worn away by wind and water in the distant past. Wind howled inside the ravine, whipping up the morning fog. Raen couldn’t see the bottom, but it was easily several kilometers below.

The four Jedi training under Master Thon were standing at the edge of the precipice. They were silent, and each of them was trying to discern how long it would take to reach the bottom. That was their only goal for today’s exercise. As long as they reached the river at the bottom of the gorge safely, they succeeded. A light wind had picked up, which seemed more vicious inside the ravine, and it initially dissuaded them from beginning their descent. Picking up a smooth stone that rested nearby, Raen threw it into the gorge, listening to it hit the rocky walls on its way down.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Gaiel said, standing at Raen’s side.

“Do what?” Raen asked.

“It’s going to be a dangerous descent,” Gaiel said. “Disturbing the rocks doesn’t make it any easier.”

“No one ever accused him of being perceptive,” Jasparan noted. “He’s too focused on the immediate. He doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions.”

“That’s not true,” Raen protested. He had grown weary of Jasparan’s spiteful comments over the course of their training. “I’m debating the consequences of throwing you down the ravine, and how soon we could get down there and recover your body.”

“Insolent boy. Keep your sarcastic banter to yourself,” Japsaran replied, returning his attention to the ravine itself.

“That goes double for you, old man,” Raen hissed under his breath.

“That is quite a drop,” Ranval said, spying his surroundings in the Force.

“Thank you for reinforcing what we’ve been thinking,” Gaiel shot back.

“We think before we do this?” Raen asked, still sarcastic. “I guess that means we decided against jumping down and counting on the Force to save us.”

“It wouldn’t save you,” Jasparan muttered.

“Enough,” Jedi Master Northeus said, approaching the four Jedi. He didn’t look pleased, but then again, he never did. “You sound like younglings. If you don’t get started now, you won’t make it back to Thon’s home before nightfall.”

“Our nighttime tracking skills could use some work, Master,” Ranval quipped. “It’d be good for us to delay this as long as possible.”

Northeus frowned. “Please, Ranval. Don’t argue with me right now. If you and your allies want to combat some of the nocturnal creatures that live between here and Thon, feel free. I’m sure the hssiss and their ilk wouldn’t mind the company.”

They had all heard stories of the hssiss, apparently native to Ambria. As far as they knew, Thon had sealed them all in Lake Natth along with many dark side spirits. Over the course of their imprisonment, the once harmless lizards became dark side beasts of considerable strength and ferocity. Even as Thon’s power waned in his old age, the evil spirits remained sealed in the lake, unable to escape the power of the light side keeping them there. However, the hssiss—not originally evil—could leave the lake, and had apparently been seen as far as the Ronash Mountains to the east.

“Hssiss?” Ranval said with a hint of terror in his voice. “Well, you could have told us that at first, Master. Let’s get started!”

Northeus shook his head as Ranval headed for the edge of the cliff and nearly lost his balance, almost tumbling into the gorge’s gaping maw. “Stop fooling around. You’re going to get yourself killed, Ranval,” Northeus scolded him. “Work together. It is not a race. All you have to do is reach the bottom and return with proof that you have done so. I’ll see you all—hopefully—at Thon’s house tonight.”

“How will you know we reached the bottom, Master? What proof do we need?” Jasparan asked.

“We’ll know, and you’ll know, once you have finished,” the Jedi Master added before leaving the four Jedi alone at the edge of the ravine.

Once Northeus was out of earshot, Gaiel turned to his companions. “We should probably begin, then.”

“It’s quite steep,” Jasparan noted. “There’s not an actual path, and the rocks near the top don’t seem sturdy enough to grab hold of.”

“We also don’t have any rope,” Raen spoke up. “If someone tumbles, they’re in trouble.”

“Indeed,” Gaiel said. “We’ll go very slowly. As Master Ulsan said, we’ll have to work together. None of us will get very far on his own.”

“Does anyone have any climbing experience?” Jasparan asked, peering over the edge of the cliff.

“I climbed trees as a kid,” Ranval said.

“Thank you, Ranval,” Jasparan said, exasperated. “I wasn’t talking about that type of climbing.”

“But they were really tall trees! And I couldn’t even see where I was going,” Ranval said. “I think that’s quite a feat.”

“Ranval! Shut up!” Jasparan shouted.

“Calm down, old man,” Raen said. “You’ll give yourself a heart attack.”

“Didn’t I tell you to keep your comments to yourself?” Jasparan said, turning his attention to Raen.

Gaiel muttered something to himself and ignored the other three Jedi and their ridiculous squabble. It seemed as though they couldn’t get anything done without arguing about it. He couldn’t stand it. They acted far less like allies and more like rivals. Removing his brown cloak, Gaiel tore strips from its sleeves and tied them around his palm. Making sure they were secure, he noted their distinct lack of supplies. There was absolutely no way they could climb down the cliff without equipment. There had to be another way. Walking along the edge of the ravine, Gaiel left his companions behind and scouted out the area.

The morning fog was rolling away from the gorge, but it was still difficult to see anything. The wind brushed against his clammy green skin as he walked, searching for some sort of path that he and his companions might have missed the first time they scouted the ravine. He could still hear the voices of the other Jedi, but they were becoming fainter as he continued onward. The Nautolan watched the ground beneath him with a careful eye; one wrong step could send him tumbling to a quick and needless death.

As he continued his walk, something caught his eye across the gorge. The other side was nearly half a kilometer away, and it was hard for him to see anything from where he was standing, but there was something moving on the other side. It seemed to be following him. When he stopped, it stopped. When he walked, it followed. He could sense it in the Force, but only barely, and it seemed to be a benevolent presence. Whether it was one of their Jedi allies or simply some harmless wildlife, Gaiel didn’t know. Gaiel pressed onward, unconcerned with the mysterious presence, until he found himself standing before a massive rock in the path.

The four of Jedi had bypassed this rock on their investigation of the gorge, and none of them took particular interest in it. It was just a rock, after all. It was not until now, by himself, that Gaiel noticed a lengthy rope tied around the base of the rock. It seemed sturdy enough, and it descended several meters, although it was not yet pulled taut and could certainly be extended further.

Gaiel frowned. They certainly weren’t very perceptive if they could miss something like this. He was eager to use the rope to begin his descent, but he knew it would be dangerous if he didn’t ask for help. Just because the rope seemed sturdy did not necessarily mean that it was safe. Returning to his companions, Gaiel retraced his steps and found the other three Jedi—they had not moved since he had left. Jasparan and Raen were still arguing, and Ranval was admiring the view of the ravine from his seat on a nearby rock.

“Hey,” Gaiel called out. “I think I’ve found something that could help us.”

“Oh?” Raen asked. “Did you procure some rocket packs?”

The Nautolan shook his head. “Not quite. Come and see.”

The three Jedi followed Gaiel without a word. Gaiel knew they were tense and no one wanted to do this exercise. It was quite understandable. They had been working, exercising, and training for several months now, and they hardly received more than two days to recover every few weeks. Thon made sure that they received proper encouragement and were not overworked, but the rigorous training wore them out physically and emotionally. Even Ranval, normally upbeat and jovial, found himself complaining as the days of lightsaber drills and Force exercises wore on.

“This is it?” Jasparan asked upon their arrival. “It’s a rock!”

“There’s a rope tied around the rock. I think we can use it in our climb down the ravine,” Gaiel said.

“You’re right,” Ranval said, noticing the rope for the first time. “For something so helpful, it’s certainly inconspicuous.”

“I’m embarrassed we didn’t see it before,” Raen said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jasparan said. “We can use it now. It won’t get us to the bottom, but it will certainly help.”

“Are you sure your arms can make the trip, old man?” Raen asked angrily. “Your muscles won’t fail you on the way down, will they?”

“Enough!” Gaiel snapped. “I’ll go first. You three stay up here and watch the rope. If you need to unwind it so I can continue, I’ll let you know via the Force. Until then, no arguing. Understood?”

“You say that like we always argue,” Ranval said.

Gaiel didn’t respond. He grasped the rope, pulling it and moving it around to make sure it wouldn’t snap while he scaled the edge of the gorge. Staring pointedly at the other Jedi, he hoped they would put their bickering on hold and watch over him. Walking backwards with the rope in hand, Gaiel carefully let his feet leave the safety of the ground and touch the walls of the cliff. He was hardly a meter from the edge, and he somehow knew this was a bad idea. If the rope snapped, there was no way his allies would act quickly enough to save him. Nevertheless, he kept going, lowering himself by walking down the rock face before him.

He descended as slowly as he was able, securing a firm position for both feet before making any sudden motions. The wind had died down, but it was strong enough to impede Gaiel’s progress and beat against his blue robes as he continued. His head-tresses whipped around behind him, at times obscuring his vision and making progress difficult. Even the rope seemed to be fighting him, scratching his fingers with its rough material and subtly trying to avoid his grasp as it rocked back and forth in the wind.

The Force was constantly keeping him aware of his surroundings. The Force subtly whispered into his ear as he descended, keeping him on the safest path toward the ground below. He actively immersed himself in the Force as he continued downward, heightening his reflexes and his body’s strength as he did so. In spite of his supernatural attentiveness and agility, he continued his descent with utmost caution.

By the time he had reached the rope’s end, he noticed a very thin path in the rock face about two meters below his position—dangling from the edge of the rope—that seemed wide enough to walk on. Normally, he wouldn’t have risked the drop, but the Force was urging him onward, telling him that it would be safe if he let go now. He took one hand off the rope, grabbing onto a stone that jutted out from the cliff. His other hand left the rope as well, albeit more slowly, and grabbed onto a rock that was lower than the first. With Force-empowered awareness, Gaiel let go of both rocks simultaneously, falling from his position and landing on the path below. His arms waved back and forth as he attempted to balance himself, and he eventually managed to grab onto the side of the cliff and keep himself from falling backward to his death.

He knew that he wouldn’t have made the drop if he wasn’t a Force-sensitive, and for that he was grateful. Using the Force to communicate with his allies up above, Gaiel informed them that the rope was safe and told them about the path at its end. Once he was sure they had received the instructions, Gaiel scanned his surroundings. He could have continued and scouted the path, but it was quite narrow, and he wanted to ensure his companions reached his position safely.

The three Jedi descended after some time, and eventually the four of them were together underneath the rope on the thin path. Leading the way, Gaiel sidled against the edge and proceeded down the path, which seemed to lead toward the bottom of the ravine. His companions joined him, although none of them were quite sure about the safety of this path. After a while, Ranval noticed a few etches in the path, as though indicating a traveled distance. It seemed that the road was built by sentients, and it had not succumbed to the forces of nature; therefore, it must have been built recently.

The four Jedi made it to the bottom of the ravine without incident, and they found themselves safely on the ground. The soil here was noticeably softer than the dry earth they encountered elsewhere, and it seemed fertile. Minerals from the river flowing through the area had washed onto the shore, prompting thick herbs and reeds to grow at the riverbanks. The smell of wild spices filled the air, and the fog had finally given way to the midday light from above.

“That was certainly frightening,” Ranval said, heaving a loud sigh. “I thought we were going to slip and fall at any moment.”

“Good work, Gaiel,” Jasparan said. “Your idea was much better than our initial plans.”

“That’s because we didn’t have a plan,” Raen pointed out. “We were going to jump and count on the Force’s protection.”

“That was your plan,” Jasparan spat. “We…” he looked at Ranval, hesitated for a moment, and then continued: “I would have thought of something eventually.”

“Would you three…” Gaiel began, attempting to scold them, but he cut himself off. Stumbling, Gaiel rocked back and forth on his feet before falling on his side. He mumbled a few words to himself, but he wasn’t loud enough for the others to hear, and he faded into a subconscious state.

“Gaiel?” Raen asked.

The three Jedi rushed to his side. Jasparan checked the Nautolan’s pulse, ensuring he was still alive, while Ranval checked the Jedi’s head and neck for any wounds. Raen removed a disposable medpac from his belt and pulled out the scanner that was included within. After determining that Gaiel had no visible injuries, Ranval emptied the medpac—aside from the water sampler—of its contents and headed for the river. After ensuring the water itself was safe for Gaiel to drink, he filled the medpac with water and returned to Gaiel’s side.

While Ranval returned with water, Raen scanned the Nautolan. “Computer’s not giving any negative readings. It’s telling me nothing’s wrong with him.”

“What?” Jasparan growled. “You’re probably using it wrong. Let me see.”

“I know what I’m doing!” Raen shot back, pulling the scanner away from Jasparan’s grip. “I remember Northeus’s instructions. The interface is simple enough for a drunk Gamorrean to use it.”

“Well that says more about you than the Gamorrean,” Jasparan retorted. “Give me the scanner.”

“There’s… nothing wrong with me,” Gaiel said, suddenly regaining his consciousness. “I just need some water.”

Ranval obliged, handing him the makeshift container of water without argument. Gaiel poured the water over his head, catching some of it to drink and soaking his face with the rest. Coughing a bit, Gaiel received help from Jasparan and Ranval as he struggled to his feet. Once he was standing again, Raen guided him over to a nearby rock so he could sit down and rest his legs.

“What happened, Gaiel?” Jasparan asked.

“I don’t know,” Gaiel admitted. “I felt… I don’t know what I felt.”

“What do you mean?” Ranval asked. “Was it a vision?”

“It could have been a vision. I think it was a warning. I saw a great host. I saw many Jedi gathered together, and they were fighting the Sith. They weren’t winning, but they were surviving. Suddenly… suddenly they were gone,” Gaiel reflected aloud, interpreting his vision in light of his own explanation.

“What do you mean, ‘gone’?” Jasparan asked.

“I can’t describe it. It was as if someone had lit a bonfire on a tall hill at night, and then the fire was quenched without warning, leaving the surrounding fields in darkness,” Gaiel said, still a bit dazed. “The sudden arrival of that darkness weakened me. I wasn’t used to it.”

“And that’s why you passed out,” Raen reasoned.

“I suppose so,” Gaiel said. “Did none of you feel it?”

The three other Jedi shook their head. Not even Jasparan, the most seasoned Jedi among them, had experienced what Gaiel was alluding to.

The Nautolan sighed. “Very well. We should get what we came for and leave.”

“Do you think we should retrace our steps and return the way we came?” Ranval wondered aloud, looking up at the path they had taken to get to the bottom of the gorge. “I’m not eager to relive that experience, and we’d have to jump up to grab onto that rope. It’s not exactly safe.”

“This entire trip wasn’t safe,” Jasparan pointed out sourly. “You’re just complaining now?”

“No, he’s right,” Gaiel said. “I’m sure there’s another way out of here. One less dangerous. We just have to find it.”

“We should find proof that we got down here before we leave,” Raen said.

“Agreed,” Gaiel noted. “What can we take from here that can prove we got this far?”

“How about some of those reeds?” Ranval asked. “You’ll be hard-pressed to find water plants growing anywhere else on Ambria.”

“Very well,” Jasparan spoke up. “Then let’s grab a hand full of those and leave. If we’re going to try and find another way out, we’ll need all the time we can get.”

*** ***

The four Jedi had wandered for several hours after Gaiel had recovered, following the river as it wound through the ravine. Eventually, they had come upon rocks and debris that had become a great heap against the walls of the gorge during a mudslide. Although they were hesitant at first, they discovered that the heap was solid enough to climb, and they ascended—carefully—with their equipment and reeds in tow. Finally reaching the top, they took nearly an hour to rest before returning to Thon’s home.

“You’re back,” Thon said, greeting the four Jedi as they entered his abode. “And before nightfall. Northeus doubted your ability to work as one, but it seems his worries were baseless.”

“Yes, Master,” Gaiel said. Raen noted that his vigor and stamina had returned to him, but he still seemed weak, if only in spirit. “And we returned with these reeds as proof of our descent.”

Gaiel placed a handful of reeds on the floor before their quadrupedal teacher, and the other three Jedi did the same. Eyeing the dying plants before him, Thon said nothing, apparently trying to discern if these reeds were reasonable proof of their descent. He snorted, and then nodded silently. Northeus walked into the room as Thon took a seat on a rug in the farthest corner of the foyer.

“Well?” Jasparan asked. “What do you think, Master?”

“Argrr. You did well. All of you. This is irrefutable evidence that you reached the bottom of Syar Gorge,” Thon announced. “You are dismissed.”

“Dismissed, Master?” Gaiel asked.

“Head outside for now,” Northeus spoke up. “We’ll summon you when your training is to begin again.”

The four Jedi obliged, eager for even a brief respite in their training, and left the two Jedi Masters to speak privately. Once they were gone, Thon used the Force to lift the pile of reeds lying on the floor and placed them in a vase located at the opposite end of the room. While he did so, Northeus wandered toward a nearby wall, leaning against it with his arms crossed.

“They didn’t see the crystals in the river,” Northeus said.

“No,” Thon replied. “Neither have any of the other students we’ve sent into the gorge. At least, not on their first try. Did they notice you monitoring their progress from across the rift?”

“I believe Gaiel might have,” Northeus said, pondering Thon’s question. “But he paid me little mind. He seemed intent on finding a way to travel into the gorge.”

“Rhh. He could be our best hope, then.”

“Master,” Northeus began, distraught, “we cannot depend on mere hopes to defeat the Sith.”

“He noticed you while the others did not. Surely that implies some degree of dedication to the light side.”

“Considering that I was broadcasting my presence in the Force strong enough for the Sith to sense me from Korriban, I couldn’t have been that hard to notice,” Northeus noted dryly. “If they had only extended their senses beyond themselves, they would have noticed.”

“Argrr. Themselves and their arguments, it seems.”

Northeus sighed. “We cannot keep looking for-”

“Wait,” Thon said, suddenly shifting his body toward the door. “Did you sense that?”

Northeus nodded, reaching for his lightsabers. “Yes. We should hurry. That feeling—that power—is unmistakably the influence of the dark side.”

*** ***

Raen’s lightsaber collided against Jasparan’s staff. Between their stressful missions and their lack of rest, Raen found himself increasingly irritable. The old man’s comments did very little to improve his mood, and despite constant—and sometimes insulting—demands to stop, Jasparan continued. The young Alderaanian saw no other alternative at this point, and he would be glad when his lightsaber silenced Jasparan once and for all.

Despite his proficiency with his lightsaber, Raen could not separate the old man from his walking stick, and that meant he couldn’t strike at him with his lightsaber. Every attack was easily parried by the old man, and he couldn’t even shatter the feeble wood that separated Raen from his opponent. Kicking up the dirt around him with his foot and the Force, Jasparan managed to blind Raen long enough for him to batter his lightsaber from his hands.

Without a weapon, Raen turned to the Force for support. Calling up the omnipotent energy field, Raen backflipped once to avoid Jasparan’s follow-up strike with his staff. He positioned himself far enough from the old man to avoid his cane, but close enough to recover his lightsaber, if necessary.

Gaiel and Ranval had ventured off for a few moments, so they weren’t around to stop the battle, but they would certainly sense it,—as would Thon and Northeus—but Raen didn’t care. This had gone on for too long. He and Jasparan had to settle this alone, and Raen was confident that he could end this once and for all. He just had to forgo the weaknesses he had imposed on himself since leaving Dantooine. It was time to unleash his full power.

The Force materialized around Raen’s hands, forming small columns of smoke and the faintest hints of embers on his palm. Jasparan didn't moved in, unsure of Raen’s plan, but his hesitation gave Raen the time he needed to prepare. Fire erupted from the Alderaanian’s flesh, causing a slight stinging sensation that Raen hardly noticed anymore. Extending his palms toward Jasparan, small streams of fire coursed from his body toward the old man, exposing him to the full power of Raen’s mysterious ability.

Before Raen’s power hit Jasparan—who had not been prepared to defend it—the fire itself was repulsed on contact with an invisible barrier that had been erected between Raen’s flames and his target. Growling, Raen only applied more power to his attack, futilely attempting to breach the wall that kept his attack from hitting Jasparan by increasing the size and power of the fire that poured out of his limbs. However, a jab to the back of the head sent the young Force-sensitive sprawling to the dirt. His power seemed to naturally subside to prevent him from burning himself.

Northeus flipped Raen on his back so he could see him as he lay on the ground, and Raen realized that the Jedi Master had struck the back of his head with his lightsaber’s hilt. While he was stopping Raen’s attack, Thon had erected a barrier between the enraged Force-user and his target. While Thon approached Jasparan to ensure he was unharmed, Gaiel and Ranval arrived on the scene.

“What were you thinking?” Northeus growled. “Do you think we’d simply allow you to kill Jasparan—right in front of Thon’s sanctuary?”

Raen didn’t respond, defiantly silent.

“Your idiocy nearly killed him, and you tapped into the dark side to do so. Let me make one thing clear. If you threaten one of us, you threaten all of us. Your rage coupled with the influence of the dark side is a threat to all of us. Is that what you want, Raen Benax? Do you want to fight us? Do you want to make an enemy of the Jedi Order?” Northeus asked, goading the young Force-user.

“No.”

“Then why did you do it, Raen? You think there aren’t rules? You think because you’re an ex-Sith—or, Force knows what you are—that there aren’t consequences? You think you can go rampaging through the galaxy without facing the dead and dying you leave in your wake?” the Jedi Master pressed.

Raen said nothing.

“Speak, Raen!”

“I don’t know, Master!” Raen snapped. “I thought-”

“I am not your master,” Northeus said, calm but fiercely stern. “You are never to address me as such. If I was, you would listen to what I say. And it’s clear that you don’t.”

“Sir,” Raen said with a hint of disgust in his voice. “I thought… I tried everything. Combat was the only option left.”

“Combat is never the only option,” Thon said, approaching the two Force-users. “Mr-grah. If that was one lesson I hoped you would learn here, young Benax, it would be that. But it is clear you have not.”

Northeus snatched Raen’s lightsaber with the Force, holding it so Raen could grasp it, if he tried. “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. It is a tool to compliment our power, a warning to the evil, and a beacon of hope. You are not worthy of wielding this weapon,” he added, placing the weapon on his belt. “You have not earned the right to be trained as a Jedi. Begone from here.”

“Master Thon,” Gaiel whispered to the old Jedi. “If I may-”

“Hrmgh. Nothing you can say will cause us to retract our decision, Gaiel,” Thon said. “Northeus and I have decided. One who is dedicated to the pursuit of the dark side cannot remain here.”

Northeus sighed and separated himself from Raen, standing by Thon and the three Jedi learners. Raen struggled to his feet, but he could hardly muster the will to stand. He glanced at the Jedi gathered before him—though he could not meet their disapproving stares—and felt as though he had already been sentenced by the Jedi Order itself. He was not a Jedi, it seemed. Turning his back to the Jedi and Thon’s home, Raen ran into the Ambrian wilderness. He didn’t know where he was going, but he didn’t care. He had to get away from here.

He had walked for some time before he turned to look at the Jedi sanctuary he had left behind. By then, it was distant and seemed insignificant, and he could hardly see it against the mountainous backdrop in the distance coupled with the low visibility of the evening sun. His rage had driven him forth until now; it was only after he had stopped fleeing that he realized he was weary and cold.

“How long do you plan on walking before you acknowledge my presence, Raen?” a voice called out from behind him.

Turning, Raen focused less on the distant things and shifted his gaze toward the transparent figure, apparently Human, that materialized nearby. He wore the robes of a Jedi, and he had a lightsaber on his belt, even though it was unlikely that he could actually use it. His long grayed hair was draped behind his head, covering the hood that rested across his back. Numerous scars and wounds once present on the man’s face had nearly faded, invisible amidst his ghostly visage.

“Celsus?” Raen asked, taken aback by what he thought was the Jedi Master.

“Yes, Raen,” Celsus said, walking toward Raen solemnly. “It is I.”

“You’re… dead?” Raen stared at the Jedi Master, unsure what exactly he was seeing.

Celsus smiled—the first time Raen had seen him do so. “Walk with me, Raen. I’ll explain everything.”

The two Force-sensitives walked in silence for some time, but Raen couldn’t shake the feeling that he was interacting with a ghost. It perturbed him deeply, and Celsus’s very presence seemed to create an unfamiliar aura that caused Raen’s hair to stand on end. Celsus Djan’s feet fell silently on the ground, as though they didn’t actually touch it at all. His form cast no shadow against the setting Ambrian sun, and—unlike Raen—his breathing could not be heard. Raen could not walk very far before he stopped in his tracks, unwilling to proceed further.

“What is it, Raen?”

“You’re a ghost!” the Alderaanian cried out.

Celsus glanced at his hands and feet, and then ran his hands across his ethereal throat. “I suppose I am.”

“How are you here?”

“Raen, the power of the Force is greater than you could possibly imagine,” Celsus said. “The wisest Jedi Masters and the cruelest Sith Lords have spent decades in meditation, studying what is beyond their comprehension. They can blindly use its power to aid themselves, but they are like insects living on the most massive planet in the galaxy. They cannot understand it. They cannot control it. It is beyond their reach. In my death, I have learned much, but even I am limited.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“I am here because the Force has allowed me to return to the realm of the living,” Celsus explained. “In its power, I can take shape so you can see me one last time.”

“Why did you return?” Raen asked.

“I came back to warn you.”

“Me?” Raen asked, still frightened and very confused about this entire situation. “About what?”

“Do not submit yourself to the power of the dark side,” Celsus said plainly.

“I’ve heard that more than once today, Celsus,” Raen said. “If that’s all you came to tell me, I think the Force is wasting its-”

“Do not pursue the revenge you seek. It will destroy you.”

Raen stared at the Jedi Master, and he realized that—as a luminescent being—Celsus could sense his thoughts better than any living Jedi could. He knew exactly what Raen was planning, and how he was going to go about it. “I… am not going to surrender myself to get revenge on anyone.”

“Oh, but you are,” Celsus countered. “Raen, I know what it’s like to despair. To hate something so much that you wish it dead. I know what it’s like to spend your life enraptured in a vicious desire for retribution that ultimately burns away the light. I returned to Polus so I could kill Darth Bandon, my only foe, and avenge the death of my friends. I would have killed you, Gaiel, and everyone else who accompanied me to do so.”

“You only wanted to avenge their deaths,” Raen noted. “You wanted to do what was right.”

“No!” Celsus answered, trembling in despair. “I wanted to kill Darth Bandon. It didn’t matter what happened to you or your friends. It really didn’t matter who died, or even if I killed him honorably. As long as he died. I was a monster, Raen. I was reminded of this on Taris, but I didn’t listen.”

“What do you want me to do?” Raen asked, distressed. “If I let De’dlay and the rest of his kind go free, they’ll destroy Alderaan—and other worlds too, if they can!”

“If my quest was wrong, and I fought for my friends,” Celsus began, “then how much darker is your journey, formed out of malice and a desire for bloodshed? You don’t actually care about the harm they can cause, Raen. You want them to die for insulting you, using you, and exploiting your power.”

“Is that so wrong, Celsus?” Raen shot back. “Wrong deeds must be repaid!”

“No,” Celsus said. “Evil unto evil simply begins a cycle of darkness. The way of the Jedi is one of justice, not of revenge. Of defense, not of violence. Of hope, not of despair. Remember this, Raen Benax.”

“I cannot do as you ask,” Raen said with dismay. “I need to destroy the Sith on Alderaan!”

Celsus shifted his gaze away from the young Force-user. “Then you have already destroyed yourself, Raen. I’m sorry, but I am limited in my time here. Remember my warning, and remain in the light! You will be strong there.”

Celsus’s figure faded from view even as he finished talking to Raen. The young Force-sensitive remained still for a long time, watching the spot where Celsus’s ghost had stood, as if it would return again. However, Celsus did not return, and Raen found himself once again alone in the Ambrian wilderness. Raen was still struggling to understand what had transpired, and he wished it made as much sense to him now as when Celsus had explained it. The words of the apparition rattled him, but he didn’t know how to respond. The Jedi Master pursued Darth Bandon from one end of the galaxy to the other, and he eventually destroyed himself because of it. The darkness destroyed him. Would Raen be any different? He used to be able to say yes without hesitation; that was how confident he was in his power. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

He wasn’t going to let the Sith on Alderaan roam free, but he couldn't fight on his own. He was powerful, but he was not that strong. His time on Ambria, and seeing other Sith around the galaxy, convicted him of that. He needed allies if he was going to fight anyone. The Jedi could continue to serve as allies until he needed to distance himself from them. For now, the Jedi were helping him, and he ought to help them. He simply had to prove he was a worthy ally.

*** ***

Gaiel couldn’t meditate. He tried his best to shake away the guilt he felt for bringing Raen to this place, but nothing could clear his mind. Not even meditation, normally soothing and restorative, could bring him the peace he sought. Ultimately, it had been his idea to bring Raen here. During their travels together, Gaiel had found himself unable to deny that the young Human was strong—perhaps not as strong as he was, but stronger than many Jedi Gaiel knew. He also knew that Raen had some good in him; there were fleeting moments when it seemed so obvious, and yet it was hidden under much anger and fear. Gaiel truly believed that the former Sith’s interactions with Celsus and Thon had done him good, but based on his fight with Jasparan, perhaps he had been wrong.

Finding no solace in his lonely musings, Gaiel decided that he needed advice from one of the two Jedi Masters who were with him. Entering Thon's abode about an hour after Raen had left, Gaiel hoped that someone was awake and willing to talk. “Master Ulsan?”

“What is it, Gaiel?” The Jedi Master emerged from the hall. “Is there something troubling you?”

“Actually, yes. It's about Raen.”

Northeus didn’t seem eager to discuss such things. “What about him?”

“Do you believe he can become a Jedi?”

“It is hard for me to say. Such decisions are his and his alone.”

“I know that, Master, but do you think he has the capability? Do you think he has the heart for it?”

“What do you think?”

“I…” Gaiel found himself unsure. Certainly Raen was different now than he was on Alderaan with the Sith, and he had changed since their time together on Dantooine. In the span of a few months, Raen had grown apart from his dark heritage. Surely that was a good sign? “I believe in him, Master. I think he has what it takes.”

“But he has not yet forsaken the ways of the Sith,” Northeus reminded him. “He holds on to his inner darkness.”

“Is that not our failing?” Gaiel countered. “Are we not encouraging him enough? Are we too focused on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation?”

Northeus shook his head. “Maybe. But blame cannot fall solely on us. Remember: we cannot influence his path. Such actions are dangerous and lead to the dark side. He alone must decide where he stands. Only then can he truly call himself a Jedi.”

Although it was difficult to accept, Gaiel agreed with Northeus. There was nothing that could be done unless Raen forsook the dark side completely. He acknowledged how much Raen struggled to free himself from the Sith, having been raised by them from birth. Forsaking that would be like consciously giving up one of your senses. But Gaiel believed in him. He trusted that Raen would make the right choices.

Gaiel turned to leave, satisfied with the Jedi Master’s answers, but suddenly a thought struck him. “What if he has to return to Alderaan to free himself from the dark side?” Gaiel asked. “What if he has to face his past?”

“Did the Council not forbid him from going there?” Northeus asked.

“They did.”

Northeus paused a moment. “The future is always in motion. We do not yet know what part Raen has to play in the events to come, but let us not discount him while he is with us. He will receive judgement for his past crimes after we part, but until then he ought to follow you, Gaiel.”

“Me? Why not you, Master?”

“Because I think he trusts you, Gaiel, as much as you trust him. I believe it will be your example that will force him to surrender to the light. Do not forget that. You are a catalyst of light, and it will be your example that defines what kind of Jedi he becomes—if he becomes a Jedi at all.”

Gaiel shuddered when he realized just how much responsibility was on his shoulders. He thought he was ready for it, but he had no way of knowing for sure. Putting on a smile and assuming as much confident he could muster, he answered, “I understand, Master. I won’t disappoint you.”

*** ***

Raen retraced his steps and returned to Thon’s home some hours later. Without heed for etiquette, Raen entered, opening the front door with a quick burst of telekinesis. As far as Raen could see, Northeus was the only one inside. Meditating in the foyer, the Jedi Master was performing a handstand with one hand, using his own strength coupled with the Force to keep him suspended in midair. The three lightsabers—two of his own and Raen’—clinked against each other on his belt as they shifted back and forth underneath his overturned robe.

With a flick of his wrist, Raen used the Force to snatch his weapon from the Jedi Master and propel it into his hand. Activating its azure blade, Raen waited for Northeus to slip out of his meditation and take notice of Raen’s presence. The Jedi Master became conscious of his surroundings as soon as Raen acted. Returning to his feet, Northeus stood on the opposite end of the room, eyeing Raen suspiciously. The Jedi Master’s feelings were not evident from his expression, stolid and entirely unemotional.

“What are you doing here?” Northeus asked gruffly. “We told you to leave.”

“You told me I am not fit to be a Jedi,” Raen said, recalling the Jedi Master’s harsh words from earlier. “I disagree. This is my lightsaber, and you cannot have it.”

Northeus reached for one of the lightsabers that rested on his belt. “Will I have to take the weapon from you, Raen Benax?”

Raen stared at the Jedi Master, and then at the lightsaber he held. Instead of moving in to attack, Raen shook his head. “I don’t think so, sir.” He deactivated his lightsaber and placed it on the ground in front of him.

“I thought you said I could not take your lightsaber,” Northeus said, his own weapon in hand.

“I did, and it’s still true,” Raen replied. “However, I refuse to fight you. A Jedi uses his lightsaber to defend himself and others, never to attack—especially if unprovoked.”

Northeus was silent for a moment, watching Raen curiously. Without warning, he cracked a hint of a smile and sighed aloud. “Interesting. Well, there may be hope for you yet, Raen Benax,” he said, returning his lightsaber to his belt. “Talk to Thon. I think he’ll be pleased to know you’ve changed your mind.”

“There was never any doubt, sir.”

“You may call me master, Raen,” Northeus said. “Your words are honest enough, but we’ll see if your actions reflect that. Those are what make a Jedi. Go apologize to Jasparan.”

”Excuse me, Master?” Raen asked.

”You heard me,” Northeus replied. ”I want you to go tell Jasparan you are sorry. And once you’ve done that, I’ll have a list of chores for you to do until you’re so tired you won’t even think of lifting your lightsaber against anyone here again. And don’t think you're getting off easy. You will have no time to pursue the dark side when I’m done with you.”

Raen sighed aloud. This was going to be a very long ordeal. ”Yes, Master.”


Chapter 15

“And who might you be?”

“Tserne DeLarane. I’m going to be joining you.”

“Indeed? Well, let’s get to work, then.”

Tserne had risen several hours ago—he never slept well. He’d receive terrifying visions and signs in the form of dreams based on his past as he slept. The fact that he did not recognize the characters involved, nor the locations, only angered and disturbed him further. However, he knew that each dream was undoubtedly linked to his past, and he made a habit of scribbling notes down about each dream he had so he would not forget. It was a tedious task, and a bit ironic; if he had not forgotten everything in the first place, he wouldn’t have had to relearn everything.

Ernar had summoned him several hours after noon, and he was introduced to Jedi Master Lonna Vash, a Jedi emissary from Coruscant who would be aiding him in tracking down the Ghoul. Lonna Vash was the quintessential Jedi in Tserne’s mind. She had her ebony black hair tied into a tight bun behind her head in a display of staunch professionalism, and her dark eyes reflected a stern, no-nonsense attitude. Her tan Jedi robes were loose fitting, and she wore a massive brown cloak over her standard robes. She had a lightsaber on her person, Tserne was sure of it, but he couldn’t see it.

The two of them left Ernar’s office together in silence and headed to the brown landspeeder he had prepared for them. Lonna had opted to drive, and Tserne didn’t object. The two of them seated themselves in the cramped and outdated landspeeder. Tserne nearly hit his head on the roof of the vehicle, and its interior reeked of bantha jerky.

“You’re probably wondering how to address me,” Lonna said, starting the vehicle and pulling away from the garage. “Master Vash will do fine.”

Tserne didn’t want to insult her, but she sounded pretentious. “Of course, Master Vash,” he said coldly. “Where are we headed? Did Ernar get any new leads?”

Lonna chuckled softly. “No. He didn’t have any.”

“Then where-?”

“Humbarine is notorious for its lack of Force-sensitives. I sensed this Ghoul when my transport was landing on the planet’s surface. It was quite simple, really. We’re probably the only Force-users on this entire planet,” Lonna explained.

“We?”

“The Ghoul, myself, and you,” Lonna said.

“Me?” Tserne asked, his voice betraying his shock.

“Why, of course,” Lonna said, not taking her eyes off the traffic around her. “You mean you didn’t know? Your Force-sensitivity certainly isn’t latent, even though your presence in it is but a small candle here on Humbarine.”

Tserne was silent for some time, allowing Lonna to focus on driving while he meditated. He was a Force-sensitive. That explained several things, including his supernatural ability to alter time and gravity around him, and his masterful skill at concealing himself from sentients. Master Vash said that his power in the Force was not latent, which meant that he knew how to use those powers and defined his strength in the Force prior to losing his memory. Some powers, then, must have come naturally to him; others had to be relearned.

Of course, that meant he could have been a Jedi. Or perhaps he was a Sith. In the end, it didn’t make a difference. Until he had leads, he could not assume anything. One thing that did bother him, though, was that voice in his head, telling him where to strike during battle. He was unsure if that was the power of the Force speaking to him, luck, or simply a developing madness.

“Master Vash,” Tserne spoke up, ending the silence.

“Yes?”

“The Force—if I can use it—has spoken to me before.”

“That is not surprising. Force-users can hear the Force during meditation, in dreams, while interacting with nature-”

“What about during battle?”

“Oh? During combat? It is… difficult… to hear the Force’s call during combat. Jedi manipulate time and space during battle, and they can observe enemies’ weaknesses more easily then, but it is not necessarily the Force that tells them where to attack or how to cut.”

“The Force spoke to me during combat. During one instance, it told me to kill my opponent by striking him in the chest. I’m alive because the Force saved me.”

Now it was Lonna’s turn to drift into thought. She kept monitoring the traffic and steering the speeder, but aside from that, she made no indication she paid attention to her surroundings. “There is a power we Jedi do not have a name for; it is a rare ability that allows its user to detect the critical point of their target.”

“I don’t quite understand.”

“Very few Jedi can use it,” Lonna continued, ignoring him. “The power has been described differently by each of its users. Some see it as fractures in their target, others hear a voice telling them where to strike, and still others can sense these vulnerabilities through pheromones.”

“Does it have applications beyond combat?” Tserne asked.

“I don’t know. We don’t know much about it. As I said, very few Jedi can use it, and those that can seem to be randomly selected by the Force. What’s more… most Force-users who can use it have fallen to the dark side.” Lonna cast a glance at Tserne, telling him that she was watching him, before returning her attention to piloting.

While the Jedi Master focused on getting them to their destination, Tserne pondered her words. He did not know what it meant to be a Force-sensitive. He did not know if responsibilities, restrictions, or laws hindered him or his activities. The only thing he knew was that he could not have been a Jedi. Ernar had told him that he knew his father, and Jedi were generally not allowed to contact their children. Therefore, he must have been trained by another organization. There weren’t many, and the options didn’t look good for Tserne, who was in a speeder with a high-ranking Jedi Master.

At the very least, with his past a mystery, he could try to determine his own power in the Force. Tserne removed one of his vibroblades from his belt and placed it on the dashboard in front of him. Sitting back in his seat, Tserne closed his eyes and focused all of his thoughts on the vibroblade. Picturing it in his mind, he outstretched his hand and tried to guide it into his grip. To his surprise, the weapon didn’t move, and he hadn’t even exerted any force at all.

Lonna noticed his efforts, and she occasionally turned to watch Tserne’s futile attempts at telekinesis. After a while, Tserne disappointingly snatched his weapon from the dashboard and returned it to its sheath. Crossing his arms like a sullen child, he closed his eyes and tried to reason why he couldn’t move the weapon from its location.

“Your skills are still growing, Tserne,” Lonna said. “You shouldn’t expect you to be able to throw starfighters with your mind just yet.”

“I wanted to gauge my own abilities,” Tserne muttered. “That’s all.”

“The talents you can use now are likely natural abilities. It will take actual training to delve deeper into the Force and strengthen your connection to it.”

“Perhaps. I’d have liked to lift that vibroblade, though.”

Lonna smirked. “Of course, Tserne. We’re almost there—are you ready?”

Glancing out the passenger’s window, Tserne spied a rather large nightclub near the lower levels of the city. That seemed to be their destination, and Lonna carefully guided their beat-up vehicle to a parking area near the entrance to the club. Once they were parked, he stepped out of the car, mesmerized by the flashing lights and glittering billboards around the nightclub. They illuminated the surrounding area, and they made quite a bit of noise, announcing the nightclub’s opening in dozens of languages. A cold breeze rushed through Tserne’s light blond hair when he turned and realized Lonna had not left the car. Stopping before he reached the bouncer, Tserne lingered around the outside of the club and waiting for his partner to emerge from the hoverspeeder.

Lonna Vash stepped out of the speeder ten minutes later, and—to Tserne’s surprise—she had replaced her Jedi robes with a strapless purple dress that ended a few centimeters above her ankles. It was cold outside, and she had a gray overcoat to cover her otherwise bare arms. She had let her lustrous black hair down over her shoulders, and she was even wearing heels to compliment her appearance. Tserne’s black spacer’s trousers, beige vest, and long-sleeved shirt seemed far too casual in comparison to her new look. Tserne noted she looked far more attractive without the Jedi robes she had come with.

She glowered at her companion as she walked up the steps to the nightclub in her heels—she looked absolutely miserable—and joined Tserne amidst the crowd. “What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you ever seen a woman in a dress before?”

Tserne hadn’t said anything, and he wasn’t staring,—too much—but he realized that, as a Jedi Master, she could sense his thoughts. “I didn’t think the Jedi were capable-”

“We are,” Lonna finished for him, brusquely. “Very few people trust Jedi here on Humbarine because they aren’t familiar with Force-users. If I walked in there in Jedi robes, I’d attract unwanted attention, and I’m sure you aren’t keen on getting into bar brawls either.”

“No.” Tserne followed her up the steps. “So what’s the plan?”

“We’ll go in and sit down; once we’re settled, I’ll stay at the table and monitor the situation. You’ll head to the bar, and I’ll make sure that this Ghoul knows you’re there,” Lonna explained.

“It sounds like I’m doing most of the work,” Tserne noted.

Lonna shook her head. “Hardly. While you’re waiting for the Ghoul to appear, I’ll be hiding my presence in the Force from him and projecting yours. If I didn’t do that, he’d likely not be able to identify you within the crowd. He’ll figure out that you’re the one who killed his henchman, and he’ll attack you. You should be able to handle him. If not, I’ll help.”

“It’s going to be hard to fight in those shoes,” Tserne said, half-teasing.

“I know. That’s why I’m going to be at the table for most of this mission. Just in case, though,” Lonna said, trailing off as she reached into a matching purple handbag she had brought with her. She removed her lightsaber—the only thing in the bag—and handed in to Tserne. “Think you can use this?”

“Would you like me to try it out now?”

“No. Only use it if you can’t defeat him with your blades. Otherwise, leave it be. You need training to use a lightsaber, and you can cut off your arm—or worse—if you haven’t used one before.” Lonna looked beyond Tserne, into the nightclub. “He’s inside. We should begin.”

The two walked inside the nightclub, bypassing the massive Gotal who served as the establishment’s primary bouncer. The conical horns on his head helped him sense malicious behavior or violent tendencies in patrons, but Lonna used the Force to hinder his empathetic abilities so they could continue without suspicion. Once inside the club, Tserne followed Lonna to the nearest empty table they could find. The lights of the dance floor, ranging from bright reds and yellows to pale greens and blues, flashed rapidly overhead. These lights illuminated the rest of the club, which used dim blue glowpanels for visibility’s sake. Loud electronic dance music blasted in the speakers positioned near every table and the dance floor itself, making it hard for Tserne to focus his attention on anything in particular. Lit cigarras and burning spices created a strong fragrance throughout the club, although it was lessened around the tables due to the rules of the establishment. It was as cold inside as it was outside, and Tserne regretted not wearing anything warmer for their mission.

“All right,” Lonna said, speaking over the bass of the ambient music, “I think we can begin. Go ahead and head over to the bar. I’ll make sure he knows you’re here.”

“You’ll be okay by yourself?” Tserne asked.

“I’m a Jedi, Tserne. Of course I’ll be fine.”

Tserne nodded, silently scolding himself for asking such a stupid question, and left Lonna behind at the table. Navigating around the dance floor and its wild patrons, Tserne pushed his way through the crowd of club-goers on his way to the bar. To his relief, he did not see any Givin around, which meant that the Ghoul must have hidden himself elsewhere, or situated himself in one of the back rooms. Finally reaching the bar, Tserne was pleased to find it practically empty and the music hushed due to it being in a closed-off section of the club.

The bartender, a weary purple-skinned Anomid wearing a flowing black cloak and equipped with a vocalizer, noticed Tserne’s presence immediately. His white eyes twitched slightly, and Tserne figured that he was surprised to see him. “Hello, Human-sentient,” he said, his computerized voice sounding quite unexcited. “What can I get for you?”

“Alderaanian ale,” Tserne said. “Hold the spice, if you can.”

The Anomid’s vocalizer made peculiar chirping sounds and beeps that Tserne took to mean laughter. “You’re an amusing Human-sentient. Of course I can. One glass, coming up.”

Tserne sat down in a vacated bar stool, waiting for the bartender and a serving droid to get his drink. Scanning the other patrons, he noticed the distinct lack of individuals in the bar. A few Aqualish, Twi’leks, and a Rodian were dispersed throughout the bar. He would have figured more patrons would like to escape the obnoxious dancing music of the main club, or at least drown out what they could with a few drinks. Tserne recognized the distinct bitter tang of ryll in the air, but he didn’t mind it. The other bar-goers were too far for their spices to be overpowering.

“Your ale, Human-sentient,” the Anomid said, extending the glass with one of his six-fingered hands.

Tserne took the glass and returned his attention to his surroundings. As his vision shifted from the patrons at the bar to those back at the dance floor, he didn’t notice a Givin approach his position. The Givin’s uncanny, skeletal appearance, coupled with the black hood thrown over his head, gave him the semblance of a holovid monster. His bony fingers were hardly visible beyond the lengthy sleeves of his robe, and they seemed to be constantly searching for something at his side, twitching constantly. The dulled sounds of the music silenced his approach, and he slipped into the seat next to Tserne’s without attracting his attention.

“Boo,” he whispered to Tserne.

Leaping from his chair as if he had just heard death itself call his name, Tserne withdrew his vibroblades and pointed them at the newest patron. How he had snuck up on Tserne at all, he wasn’t quite sure. Tserne hadn’t been focused on his drink, and he was carefully scanning the entire bar for anything suspicious; even so, the Givin still managed to sneak up on him. The Givin cackled with delight at Tserne’s exaggerated response, and he waved his hands merrily at the sight of the Human’s fright.

“Best put those away, Human,” the Givin said, still chortling with glee, “or else you’ll attract unwanted attention around here.”

On cue, the other sentients in the bar sprung from their seats, revealing their assortment of weapons, and began to approach the Givin. Most of them were armed with blaster rifles, although one of the Aqualish had a vibrosword with him in addition to his blaster. Once they had all surrounded their leader, the Givin, he signaled for them to hold position for a moment.

“So you’re the Ghoul,” Tserne spat. “How did you sneak up on me like that?”

“Dear Human, sneaking—followed by killing—is my business. And I am very, very good at what I do,” the Ghoul said. Fading from view, the Givin’s body turned invisible even as he revealed his own serrated sword. “Go ahead, fellows. Wound him, but try not to kill him. This one deserves… a unique and lengthy death.”

Tserne saw one of the Twi’lek mercenaries move first, raising his blaster rifle for a quick shot. Before he could pull the trigger, the Twi’lek was shot twice in the chest, giving Tserne enough time to dive into a nearby booth. The Anomid’s serving droid had revealed its hold-out blaster, and its shots at the Twi’lek were fatal. The first mercenary fell the floor while his companions opened fire on the droid and Tserne. Another Twi’lek and two of the Aqualish died before the serving droid was destroyed by mercenary blaster fire.

However, the droid had provided Tserne with enough time to turn invisible and navigate around the mercenary’s blaster fire, sneaking from the booth to the other side of the bar counter. Rising from cover—they were still shooting at the booth—with a vibroblade in hand, Tserne threw the blade at the nearest mercenary, striking the sole Rodian in the throat. The others saw the attack but didn’t know where it had come from, so they opened fire randomly, hoping to get a lucky shot.

To the surprise of Tserne and his mercenary opponents, the Anomid bartender revealed himself from behind the counter, dual-wielding blaster carbines. Unloading a round of blaster fire into the mercenaries, and another mercenary fell to his surprise attack before the survivors could reposition themselves and return fire. By then, the Anomid had already ducked behind the counter to shield himself from their attacks.

Tserne, still invisible, jumped over the counter and joined the Anomid as he took cover from the blaster fire. The Anomid nearly jumped out of his wrinkled skin when Tserne materialized before his eyes. The bartender pointed his two carbines at him, but he realized that Tserne meant him no harm and returned them to his sides.

“Don’t startle me like that, Human-sentient,” the bartender said. “I thought you were a ghost—or demon—coming to kill me for this.”

“I’m not. Why are you helping me?” Tserne asked.

“They gave bad tips,” the Anomid joked.

“No, really.”

“Nine-to-one hardly seemed like fair odds, Human-sentient,” the Anomid said. “I know an ambush when I see one.”

“Nine-to-three isn’t much better.”

“There are only three of them, now,” the bartender noted. “Not counting your equally-frightening Givin-sentient friend.”

“You’re taking a risk, you know,” Tserne said. “These men are murderers, the Givin especially.”

“If I didn’t risk my life for a stranger in need, I sully my honor-”

“Your honor is worthless when you’re dead.”

“And my conscience. How could I continue living if I knew I could have saved you, but did not?” the Anomid asked.

Tserne shook his head. He still didn’t get it. It didn’t make sense to continue debating it, though. “We’re still pinned down here, you know,” he pointed out.

“Indeed. You can turn invisible again, correct?”

Tserne nodded.

“Attack them from the side while I provide cover fire,” the Anomid suggested.

“You’ll be exposed to quite a bit of blaster bolts.”

“Then you’ll have to take them down quick.”

On the bartender’s signal, Tserne turned invisible and leapt from his hiding spot behind the bar counter. The three surviving mercenary gunmen—two Twi’lek and the Aqualish with a sword—were standing against the wall opposite of the counter, firing upon it tenaciously. It would take some time, but their fire would eventually penetrate its durasteel. Walking parallel to their line of fire, Tserne approached one of the Twi’leks and stabbed his chest with his vibroblade. Blood splattered across the otherwise spotless white floor as Tserne’s weapon punctured his target’s superior vena cava, just above his heart. The other two mercenaries saw their companion die, and they turned their attention from the bar counter to Tserne, who had just revealed himself.

However, as they turned away from the bar counter, the Anomid bartender—who had only been firing short bursts with his weapons—popped out from behind his cover and sprayed the remaining two mercenaries with blaster fire, killing them both easily. None of the mercenaries were outfitted with anything durable to defend themselves against blaster fire, and they lacked energy shields. They all died, and the Ghoul was still nowhere to be seen. Keeping his guard up, Tserne cautiously approached the dead Rodian and recovered his thrown vibroblade while the Anomid checked the damage done to his serving droid.

Tserne! Lonna’s voice echoed in his head. The Ghoul is escaping! I don’t know what you did, but I think he’s scared of you! He’s fleeing out the maintenance door.

Tserne grumbled to himself and left the Anomid and his bar behind, shoving his way through the crowd toward the maintenance area. Due to the fight in the bar, the dancers and most of the club-goers had realized something was amiss and the entire establishment erupted into a tumult. He spied Lonna leaving the club through the main entrance with the rest of the club-goers. Ignoring the direction of the crowd, he bypassed a confused Human bouncer and entered the otherwise restricted area that led to the maintenance area of the club.

There was no light in the maintenance area, except for the iridescent glow of flashy advertisements outside. Metal crates were stacked against the walls, some so tightly packed together that Tserne could hardly move forward without squeezing his way through them. There was no sense of order in the size and location of these stacks, and it annoyed Tserne—if only because it took him forever to navigate the area.

As he moved toward the sliding door at the other end of the room, he was thrown back against his will. Realizing that he had found himself in a similar situation at the warehouse several days earlier, Tserne pulled out his vibroblades and returned to the center of the room.

“Up here,” the Ghoul announced.

Tserne’s eyes shot upward, scanning the top of the stacks for his prey. He didn’t see anyone, and the Ghoul’s shadow was nowhere to be seen. The silence was unnerving, and Tserne worriedly realized that he would have heard the Ghoul’s footsteps, had he been traveling around the room. The Force alerted him of an enemy behind him, and he spun around immediately, placing his blades near his chest for defense. Sure enough, the Ghoul had been behind him, and he was seconds away from driving his serrated sword into Tserne’s chest. Tserne’s weapons halted its advance, and the Ghoul growled angrily when his attack failed.

“Got lucky. Won’t happen again.”

“We’ll see.”

The Ghoul rushed toward Tserne, hoping to catch him off-guard and close the distance between them. Tserne forced him to fall back about a meter, swinging his blades at the Ghoul’s chest. The Ghoul struck at Tserne’s knees, forcing him to defend low so the Ghoul could strike him in the head with his fist. The Ghoul’s bony knuckles struck Tserne in the face, sending him backward as his vision flooded with stars and dizzying lights. When he had recovered his vision and his eyesight returned to him, Tserne couldn’t see the Ghoul anymore. He was still in the room,—Tserne could sense him—but he couldn't actually see him. Turning invisible, Tserne fled from his position and leapt to the lowest stack of crates he could find.

The two combatants were hiding from each other, and Tserne reflected on how similar the tactics of the Ghoul and his dead apprentice were. They depended on surprise and the fact that no one could see them—at least, no normal sentient—while they were hidden from view. They did not use invisibility like Tserne, but they did take great advantage of the shadows and their own natural skill. As a Force-sensitive, Tserne counted himself lucky, and he knew he could defeat the Ghoul.

Closing his eyes, Tserne focused on himself for a moment. Listening to the steady rhythm of his heartbeat, he slowed his breathing and calmed his tense nerves, allowing his body to abandon its fighting spirit. As his gooseflesh subsided and his adrenaline escaped his system, he found himself in a surprising state of calm.

Opening his eyes, he found himself staring into a different world. It was as if he could only see monochrome colors before, and now he could see every vibrant, surreal color of the spectrum. He could sense everything around him, from the smallest life form to the mass of patrons escaping the club elsewhere. He could see everything in beautiful clarity, as if it was daytime and a steady glowpanel was shining upon the room. He could see the Ghoul’s silhouette—even though he was invisible, for all intents and purposes, invisible—outlined by a dark aura. From what he could tell, the Ghoul could not see him, and he used that to his advantage.

Leaping down from his position on the crates, Tserne charged forward and struck at the Ghoul’s back. His blade hardly penetrated the Givin’s skin, which seemed to be protected by some sort of armor. The Ghoul turned around as soon as Tserne’s weapon made contact, swinging his serrated blade in a wide arc that threatened to cut off Tserne’s left arm. He dodged the attack by ducking under the blade and scissor-kicking his murderous opponent. The Ghoul toppled to the ground, but his blade came down upon Tserne’s chest. Quick thinking—and a warning from the Force—told Tserne to throw his weapons in between himself and the sword that was crashing upon him. He survived, but just barely. The Ghoul managed to recover his footing quicker than Tserne, and the Givin struck at him several times while he was on the ground. A quick stomp from the Ghoul sent tendrils of pain shooting up and down Tserne’s arm, causing him to drop his second vibroblade.

Rising to his feet, Tserne managed to block several quick slashes from the Ghoul with one arm before he found himself cornered. Cursing to himself, he had only just now realized he had backed away from the Ghoul and got himself stuck between his opponent and a stack of crates. The Ghoul brought down his sword upon Tserne like it was a hammer, smashing into his comparatively small vibroblade like it was wood to be broken. Forced to use one arm—his other arm was still in pain from the Ghoul’s foot—to defend, Tserne was at a severe disadvantage. The Ghoul could sense him in the Force now, so it didn’t matter whether he was invisible or not.

Instead of risking his life with a vibroblade, Tserne pulled Lonna’s lightsaber off his belt and activated it. The Jedi Master’s weapon activated immediately; its golden blade leapt from the hilt, illuminating the area around the combatants in a subtle glow. Discarding his vibroblade, Tserne deflected the Ghoul’s next strike with the newly activated weapon. When the two weapons collided, it sounded as though glass had been shattered. The Givin’s sword broke into several smaller metal fragments where it made contact with the lightsaber, and the Ghoul found himself with a useless slab of superheated metal less than half a meter long.

Without a weapon, the Ghoul fled from Tserne, hoping to escape the maintenance area and leave the club, where he planned on losing his attacker in the crowd. Tserne pursued his target, lightsaber in hand, from the room they had been dueling in back into the club itself. However, the Ghoul’s flight was cut short by Master Vash, who had been waiting outside the maintenance area. Wearing her Jedi robes, the Jedi Master kicked the Givin in the chest with her combat boots, sending him flying to the ground in an ungraceful mess. Reaching the two at the now-abandoned dance floor, Tserne tossed the lightsaber to Lonna, who narrowly avoided being chopped in two by her weapon’s blade and caught the handle itself.

“Deactivate the weapon before you throw it at me!” Lonna chided him.

“My apologies.”

“It’s fine. You did good work, Tserne,” Lonna said, holding her lightsaber in front of the frightened Givin’s face. “You caught him.”

“Thank you,” Tserne said.

The Jedi Master used the Force to flip the Ghoul on his side, allowing her to bind him in stun cuffs. Once she was sure he was restrained, she placed her hand on his forehead, and—despite resistance—the Ghoul eventually faded into a comatose state.

“What did you do?” Tserne asked.

“I placed him in stasis. It should last several hours, at least until we can board a transport to Coruscant. Once we’re there, I can reapply the effects,” the Jedi Master said.

Tserne had to admit he was impressed. “How did you know I would need the lightsaber to defeat him?”

“The Force tells us many things, Tserne,” she answered cryptically. “Although doing so left me defenseless, who am I to question its judgement? In the end, we accomplished what needed to be done.”

“I see,” he said, even though he had no idea what she was talking about. “Will you be needing me for anything else, Master Vash?”

“Tserne, I let you fight the Ghoul while I made sure civilians were evacuated safely. Surely you don’t think I’m going to ensure you do all the hard work.”

Tserne nodded. “Thank you. I appreciate help.”

“Next time, we’ll fight together,” the Jedi Master said sagely.

“It’d be an honor.”

“Of course, Tserne. If you don’t mind, I think I have a transport to catch. You can use the speeder—Ernar probably wants it back, anyway. Farewell,” she added before carrying the limp murderer’s body with the Force and heading for the door.

*** ***

Tserne returned to Ernar’s building several hours later. The sun had nearly risen, and Tserne hadn’t got any sleep. The hunt for the Ghoul had happened so quickly, and he had been doing so much, that he wished he could have dozed off for a few hours. Sadly, he missed his chance and had to return to Ernar as soon as possible. He needed the information that the businessman had, and he had finally fulfilled his end of the bargain. He could sleep afterward.

Taking the elevator from the lobby—which had been cleaned since the scene he had caused on his first visit—to Ernar’s office, Tserne silently brooded over his mission with the Jedi Master. He had tapped into the Force, and he had used a lightsaber. Even so, something didn’t seem right. He felt that something was missing. He was more assured than before that he couldn’t have been a Jedi, or else Master Vash would have told him so. So had he been a Sith, then? He would have to confront Ernar about all these questions and more. He owed him now.

Stepping out of the elevator, Tserne flinched at the sight of Ernar’s office. Stacks of flimsy were being burned across the room, and the various trinkets and decorations he had set up were completely destroyed. Blotches of blood were spread across the carpeting and the walls, and the room reeked of burnt flesh. Each step he took, he took cautiously, heading for Ernar’s desk. The floor creaked under his weight, and the only other sound left to comfort him was his own breathing.

Reaching Ernar’s desk, Tserne grimly realized that the corpse sprawled across the desk was once Ernar Humbar. He had several blaster shots through his chest, and his neck was slit. The cut was a fresh wound. Tserne estimated it had been made less than an hour ago, and blood was still pouring from the wound in streams, staining the desk and carpeting below.

The sound of footsteps alerted Tserne to a presence beside his own. The murderer…?

“Turn around, very slowly,” a muffled voice said.

Tserne obliged, and he reached for his sheaths as he did so. Only once he was facing away from Ernar’s desk did he realize that he had forgot to recover his vibroblades before leaving the nightclub. Four cloaked individuals stood before him, wearing black mesh armor and armed with daggers. There was no lighting inside the room, and it was difficult for Tserne to discern what species they were.

“Who are you?”

“We are less than a whisper. No more than a thought. We are blades in the night, masters of death, and fear in the crowd. Darkness, shadow, and silence. We are all these things. We are the GenoHaradan,” the tallest of the four individuals spoke.

Tserne was silent for a moment, trying to gauge how threatening these individuals actually were. “I’ve never heard of you.”

“No one has heard of us, Tserne DeLarane,” a shorter, stout male countered. “It is our business not to be heard, just like it is yours.”

“I don’t understand. What are you saying? And why did you kill Ernar Humbar?”

“He was a powerful and dangerous member of the Exchange,” the tallest individual spoke up. “If he were to gain control of Core Galaxy Systems, he would use those ships for racketeering, smuggling, and piracy. The Republic would be weakened as its valuable warships models ended up in the hands of criminals and spice-runners. We could not allow that.”

“And,” the stout man interrupted, “we needed to get your attention.”

“I’m listening.” Tserne folded his arms.

“We, the GenoHaradan, are a league of powerful assassins that strive to defend the Galactic Republic from the shadows. No one knows of our work, except for those truly powerful and rich enough to afford our services. We operate in secrecy, and we hire only the best and most elusive killers, thieves, cutthroats, and combatants into our organization,” a slender female explained.

“You are a perfect operative for our brotherhood,” the tall man continued. “Your name disappears after your ‘death’ on the Sith research frigate Immolation. You have no past. No one knows who you are, and you are an expert hunter-”

“And killer,” the stout man added.

“Our brotherhood would be honored if you joined our ranks,” the tall man said.

“Sounds a bit far-fetched,” Tserne noted.

“But it’s true. If you accept our offer, you will know the truth firsthand. If not, then we will be forced to conceal ourselves, and you will never hear from us again,” the tall man explained with a hint of sadness in his voice.

“You just killed the only man who could help me learn about my past,” Tserne said. “I’m not interested in your glory, your credits, or your Republic.”

“We have the means to discover who you once were,” the slender female said. “Our information network is the most extensive in the galaxy.”

“Is that a promise?” Tserne asked.

“We promise,” the stout man said. “If you join us, we shall strive to unlock the secrets of your past.”

Tserne smiled. These killers had murdered the only one that could have helped him recover the information he sought. They were audacious, and Tserne should have killed them for that. There was no shame in it; Ernar died brutally, and his killers would walk away, never to be caught, if he turned down their offer. But if he agreed, he could do exactly what he did best—killing—and remain hidden while they aided him. If they didn’t help him, then he would find his own way, as he had before. He saw no other option at this point. Without Ernar, he had no other leads.

“I’ll accept your offer,” Tserne said. “Where do I begin?”


Chapter 16

Raen was up before the sun rose over the hills. It was still dark when he went out to the brook and cleaned not only his clothes, but the sheets, towels, and various rags he had used during the past few days. He carried the wet wares and threw them across a wire that hung between Thon’s home and a tall, jagged rock a few meters away. After replacing his dirty robes with a new pair, he headed out to the dusty plains in front of Thon’s abode and began his morning stretches.

This was the routine he had undertaken for the past three months, from his arrival until now. Time was a strange thing here, in this world of order and strict schedules. Not even the landscape around him seemed to change—after all, how much drier could the wastelands get? The only hint that he had even aged during this training regimen was the light beard he had acquired. For all the various knick-knacks Thon had collected during his travels, razors were hard to come by. He had once entertained the idea of using a lightsaber, at low power of course, but decided against it when Ranval tried it out for himself. The hapless Miraluka probably still had burns from the experience.

Raen had never felt so alive. The training was brutal at times, to be sure. While Thon played the role of the good and fatherly trainer, Northeus played the unsympathetic martinet. Even so, he was indebted to Master Thon, and also to Master Northeus—begrudgingly. He had not faced training like the Councilor’s since his days as a young Sith pupil. De’dlay’s vicious routines almost paled in comparison. Here, he was forced into six kilometer runs, fights with the native wildlife, using the Force until exhaustion, and then dueling other Force-users after everything else was done. It was hard, but it was worth it, and Raen recognized that.

Ranval joined Raen as the sun was just barely peering out from its lofty resting place behind the hills. He was dressed in a light training robe, just like Raen, but his was gray instead of black. The two continued to stretch in silence, even after Gaiel and Jasparan arrived, until all of them had prepared themselves for the long day ahead. Master Thon left his house sometime later, followed by Northeus.

“Good morning, Masters,” the four trainees said at once.

“Nrrh. Good morning, young ones. Today we shall see if you are worthy to move on in your training,” the sagely Jedi Master said.

“What do you mean, Master?” Gaiel asked.

This time, Northeus spoke. “You will face your designated combat-partner, and we will judge your performance. If we deem you skilled and prepared to face the next level of training, you will be allowed to advance. If not, we will ask that you head to Coruscant and receive more formal training until you are adequately prepared.”

“Are you ready, young ones?” Thon wondered aloud.

The question lingered in the air as Northeus gave the Jedi learners their weapons. Gaiel and Ranval were allowed to take their own lightsabers, while Raen took the one he had acquired on Dantooine. Jasparan, unique among them, kept his staff to use in combat. The other Jedi didn’t mind—it created a challenge. However, none of them had ever seen him use a lightsaber, and they wondered amongst themselves if he even used one.

Gaiel and Ranval went first. After performing the necessary pre-battle formalities, the two Jedi engaged each other in combat. Raen noticed that Gaiel, as always, proved a patient adversary during battle. Ranval had trouble penetrating the Nautolan’s whirling viridian defense, and despite his best efforts, he could not land a blow on Gaiel. His attacks were strong and fluid, but they simply could not make contact. Overhead strike after overhead strike, side-lunge after side-lunge, and the Miraluka struggled in vain. Gaiel finally switched to the offensive, and Ranval proved an equally valiant opponent. He defended himself well against the Nautolan’s smooth, interconnected blows, but he ultimately did not have the stamina to keep parrying the elder Jedi’s strikes, especially after his vicious attack earlier. After a while of trading blows, Ranval was struck on the thigh with Gaiel’s powered-down lightsaber, and the match ended.

“Good work, both of you,” Northeus said. “Gaiel, your offense and defense have both improved dramatically, and Thon and I are pleased with your results. We’ve discussed your progress amongst ourselves, and we feel you should pursue the combat art of Ataru.”

“Of course, Masters,” Gaiel said, head bowed. “If I may. Is there a reason you would not advise me to learn Soresu?”

“We feel that your defensive capabilities are quite impressive, as though you were a natural at the art of Soresu. Ataru, we think, would be a natural fit for you, and its acrobatics would add variety and an unpredictable aspect to your offense,” Thon answered.

Gaiel nodded and bowed before returning to the other side of the arena.

Northeus turned to his Padawan. “Ranval, you defended yourself admirably against Gaiel, and you fought no less valiantly.”

“But I lost, Master,” Ranval said dejectedly.

“Mr-grah. It does not matter who wins and who loses,” Thon growled. “You are Jedi. Your training here is for the betterment of self, not a competition between each other.”

Ranval flinched at Thon’s reproach and bowed quickly. “I am sorry, Masters. I forget my place.”

Northeus nodded and continued: “It is true, you have some work to do, but you are a Jedi, and you are still young. Pursue your lightsaber skills with earnest, and keep practicing. I shall train you personally until you may easily adapt a lightsaber style to fight with.”

Ranval nodded and returned to his place beside Gaiel. Raen and Jasparan were called forth by the two Jedi Masters, and Raen nearly jumped in anticipation. Heading into the dueling circle, Raen took his lightsaber off his belt and faced his elderly opponent. Jasparan gave him a disapproving look and cast off his cloak. The old man had never forgotten Raen’s past as a Sith, it seemed, and he still bitterly disproved of Thon and Northeus’s decision to train him. As such, he ferociously fought Raen in the dueling arena and during practice, eager to prove himself to his superiors and make the former Sith look weak in the process.

Raen bowed low to Jasparan before activating his lightsaber. The old man responded with a curt bow and placed his staff between himself and Raen. After checking to make sure his lightsaber was weakened, Raen moved in to attack his opponent. His first blow struck at Jasparan’s right shoulder, but the lightsaber was blocked by the wood of Jasparan’s cane. The young man’s lightsaber hissed and sparkled against the staff, as though it was striking another lightsaber. With a show of force, Jasparan pushed Raen and his weapon away, sending Raen flying back into the dirt.

Raen recovered his footing quickly, but not soon enough. Jasparan was upon him before he could completely recover. The staff came down on him, eager to bruise and bloody Raen’s arms, like it had on the first day of their training. Not today, though. Throwing his azure blade between himself and Jasparan’s weapon, Raen deflected the first few vertical strikes from the old man. Jasparan’s ferocity was not encumbered by Raen’s defenses, and the old man continued his attack, throwing in a more powerful horizontal strike every so often to try and catch Raen off-balance. By the time Jasparan’s first flurry of strikes had ended, Raen was already at the edge of the dueling circle and still reeling from the attacks thus far.

However, Raen knew Jasparan’s offensive techniques better than the old man did. They had fought so many times; he had come to memorize them. The old man was quite skilled, to be sure, but he was prone to repetition and easily slipped into patterns and cycles of the same attack, over and over. Raen never had the chance to exploit this weakness before, but he was intent on doing so now. Blocking Jasparan’s first three vertical strikes—they were always aimed at his shoulders—with ease, Raen moved to the side to avoid the old man’s first horizontal strike. Now facing Jasparan’s exposed side, the younger duelist spun around and aimed at Jasparan’s back. The old man proved too quick for Raen, and a Force push—perhaps too powerful for a practice duel—sent Raen flying away from his intended target.

Again he recovered, and the duel continued. They exchanged attempts to strike at each other for some time, but neither of them could break the other’s defense. Receiving a stroke of luck, the younger duelist parried a few more strikes from the old man before leaping to Jasparan’s side. The speed of the jump allowed him to safely avoid a strike from Jasparan’s cane and land safely. Kicking at the back of his legs, Raen knocked the old man to the ground with ease.

Jasparan rolled on the ground quickly, placing his staff in between himself and Raen. But it was over. The younger duelist struck at Jasparan several times, but the old man blocked all his strikes due to the natural length of his weapon. Frustrated, Raen lifted his lightsaber over his own head and brought it down upon Jasparan with all the force he could muster. A loud crack resounded throughout the area as Raen’s weapon—even in its powered down state—shattered Jasparan’s cane into bits and splinters, and then struck the old man on the chest.

Backing up slowly, Raen was content with his victory. He deactivated his lightsaber and after placing it on his belt, reached out to help Jasparan to his feet. However, the old man pushed away his hand and, suddenly, rose to his feet in a flash. A piece of his broken staff was in his hand, and, to Raen’s surprise, it was hollow. The old man, now seething with rage, withdrew his lightsaber’s hilt from its hiding place within the staff and promptly discarded the useless piece of wood. Activating his once hidden blue lightsaber, Jasparan rushed at Raen, who had to throw up his own lightsaber in self-defense.

“Hrmgh! Stop, Jasparan,” Thon bellowed. “You have been defeated. Drop your weapon.”

But Jasparan did not hear the old Jedi’s order. He kept striking at Raen in a wild fury, performing uncoordinated attacks and vicious blows that threatened to sever Raen’s limbs should he fail to block them. With a quick wave of his hand, Jasparan used the Force to constrict Raen’s wrist. Unable to cope with the pain, the younger Jedi dropped his weapon and found himself vulnerable to Jasparan’s assault. As the old man’s weapon came down, Northeus leapt in front of Raen and deflected Jasparan’s lightsaber with his own weapon. This was the first time any of them had seen one of Northeus’s famed silver lightsabers, and Raen was subtly awed to see such a beautiful blade.

“Jasparan,” Northeus whispered, quite threateningly, “drop your weapon. Or I will make sure you do not harm anyone here—in the matter I find necessary.”

The old man suddenly came to, releasing his anger for a moment and realizing what he had done. Shamed, he deactivated his lightsaber and left the dueling circle. Raen picked up his lightsaber and went to follow him, but Northeus held him back. With a shake of his head, he ensured Raen stayed close to Thon in case Jasparan decided to lash out again.

“You all did very well, and you fought with skill and bravery,” Thon said. “Nrrh. I have not have such talented pupils in many years. Together, you would make a powerful force, in combat and in matters of peace. I think you all have deserved a chance to continue your training here, should you desire to stay here longer.”

“I will not be able to attend to your training any longer, I’m afraid,” Northeus said. “I must return to Coruscant. Some matters have arisen that have the High Council worried.”

“What sort of matters, Master Ulsan?” Gaiel asked.

“Dantooine’s Jedi Enclave fell to the Sith,” Northeus said, contemplating the words as he spoke them. “Furthermore, Alderaan was captured by the Sith, and we suspect Malak may plan to stage his attack on the Core Worlds from there.”

“Dantooine,” Gaiel mused, wearily. “No…”

The Nautolan wobbled back and forth for a moment, but Ranval helped him sit down on a nearby stone. Gaiel was visibly frightened, his teeth jittering and his entire body shaking, and he struggled to maintain any sort of self-control. Raen knew that the Nautolan Jedi knew many people on Dantooine, and the world was his home. Everyone he knew—everything he knew—had fallen against the Sith’s bombardment. For such a hallowed and protected world to fall meant disaster not only for Gaiel, but for all Jedi across the Republic. The Nauotlan had nothing to say, and the other Jedi could not comfort him.

“How has Alderaan been taken?” Raen asked after some time.

“I do not know,” Northeus admitted. “The High Council might know more, but for now, all I know is that the Republic is in grave danger.”

“Masters,” Jasparan said, speaking for the first time since the duel, “it is good that we are all here. You’ve said that you haven’t trained such powerful students in years. We can retake Alderaan and Dantooine for the Republic and end the Sith threat right now.”

“What? What are you talking about, Jasparan?” Ranval asked, clearly intrigued.

“Thon and many Jedi of old knew of a way to seal the dark side,” Jasparan explained. “They call it the wall of light. It is a great power, known to very few Jedi of this age, and it can be used as a weapon against our enemies.”

“Is this true?” Ranval turned his attention to the two Jedi Masters.

“Nrah. It is true,” Thon confirmed. “Many Jedi with me ended the terrible war against Exar Kun, trapping him in the depths of one of Yavin’s moons. I alone remain of all the Jedi who fought against him. The knowledge—how to apply this great power—is mine to teach, or to withhold.”

“Master,” Jasparan said. “You would not withhold this gift from us, would you?”

Thon growled tiredly. “I teach my students everything, in due time. To know the power of this wall of light, a Jedi must reach into his very being, and project himself as an outward manifestation of the light.”

“So?” Jasparan said, his voice nearly cracking in anticipation. “Teach us this power!”

“I am sorry, Jasparan,” Thon said. “I do not think you—any of you—are ready to endure the trials and training necessary to learn this skill. It is simply too powerful and too dangerous.”

Jasparan’s eyes alit with a fire that Raen hadn’t seen in him before. The old man shook violently, as though he was going to explode at any moment. Ranval backed away from him, and Jasparan stepped toward Thon. Each step he took rumbled against the ground, and his telekinetic powers seemed to go wild around him. Standing face to face with the elderly Jedi Master, Jasparan shouted at the top of his lungs, condemning Thon’s restraint, and then turned to leave. Northeus moved to intercept him, but Thon stepped between the two.

“Do not stop him. He must forge his own path.”

Northeus watched as Jasparan disappeared into the distance, using the power of the Force to sprint across the wasteland away from Thon’s home. The remaining Jedi stood quietly for some time, saying nothing to each other. Raen was confused and shocked at the sudden outburst in Jasparan, and he didn’t understand why it had happened. Had Jasparan been that eager to learn those powers from Thon? What exactly was this power, and how did Jasparan know about it? And why had Thon allowed him to leave?

“Master Thon,” Northeus finally said. “You should have let me go after him. He lacks a right mind, and he could endanger you.”

“Grhh. Endanger me? I am in no danger. I can see death standing on the horizon by the sun’s light, and every night, he seems to sneak closer. What time I have I will use wisely. Do not fear for my safety, Northeus, but for the sanctity and survival of the Jedi Order we swore to serve.”

“Letting him leave could have allowed him to succumb to the dark side.”

“Or it could allow him to see the error of his ways and return,” Thon retorted. “Nrgh. Ambria’s wastes are both comforting and convicting. A place where the Force, light and dark, assume shapes yet unseen and speak to those who will listen. Do not assume that he has fallen just because of a single outburst. His journey with us may end, but his quest for the light has not.”

Northeus bowed at Thon’s words, realizing that they were more objective and keen than his own.

“Master,” Raen said, in a burst of confidence, “let me go to Alderaan.”

Thon eyed Raen with surprise. “You? Why do you wish to… ah. You think you are prepared to face your past? Deal with the phantoms that still plague Alderaan?”

“Yes.”

“Then I will not hold you back. I can only offer my advice, but I cannot stop you. You must deal with this issue as you see fit, and I cannot keep you here. Like Jasparan, your path is your own.”

Ranval put his hand on Raen’s shoulder. “I am with you, Raen.”

“Ranval? Why?” Raen asked, admittedly surprised.

“You came to Taris and fought to protect me and my friends. I feel that I should return the favor now that I can,” the Miraluka said.

“You know, you don’t have to-”

Ranval interrupted him. “No, I don’t have to. I want to.”

Raen smiled, and placed his hand on Ranval’s arm. “Thank you.” He turned to Gaiel, who seemed a bit better, although he had been silent for several minutes. “What about you, Gaiel? What are you going to do?”

Gaiel stared at Raen with confused eyes, and then smiled grimly. “Raen, I’m hurt you even have to ask. I took one detour on our way to Coruscant; I think it’s only fair that you can make one as well.”

“You’re sure?” Raen pressed. “The Jedi Council told me to avoid Alderaan, and you could probably do more good on Coruscant with Master Ulsan.”

“Don’t insult me, Raen,” Gaiel said. “You won’t get away from me that easily. Besides, I’ve always wanted to see Alderaan. I heard it’s beautiful.”

Raen smiled. “Glad to have you on board.”

Northeus was about to protest their plan, but he withheld his opinion when Thon shook his head. “Best of luck to you. I trust you will take care of Ranval and keep him out of trouble. Until then, I will go to Coruscant and enlist what aid I can get from the Jedi and the Republic.”

“But don’t hold your breath,” Ranval mused.

Thon walked amidst the soon-to-be departing Jedi. “You have all advanced more than I could have hoped for. Nrgh. It is a sad thing to see you all leave here, but know that you are welcome to return at any time. May the Force be with you. All of you.”

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