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Chapter 17

You didn’t have to return her lightsaber, you know.

Ibrays was right. He was just a voice in his head now, lingering someone in the recesses of his mind, but he was right. Jhosua wasn’t obligated to return Lamyia’s lightsaber. In fact, it would probably be safer if she didn’t have access to a weapon at all. She was a Sith, and that was something that couldn’t change with a few words and an apology. Letting her have her weapon while onboard a frigate with a few Jedi was practically insane, and it wasn’t hard to believe that there would be some mysterious casualties before they reached their destination.

Jhosua didn’t feel comfortable holding onto the strange weapon. Even though he was a soldier, a lightsaber was exotic to him, both foreign and dangerous, and he had no idea how to use it properly. He could have let one of the Jedi disassemble it, resolving the issue entirely, but they were as nervous around the weapon as he was. It seemed that the Jedi lightsaber was different from their dark counterparts in more ways than just blade color.

He returned Lamyia’s robes and lightsaber to her at the same time. She had been ecstatic, hugging him in a rather startling—for Jhosua—display of emotion. He hadn’t seen her for some time after she had reacquired her equipment, and he feared that she had went to plot the death of the entire crew and their unfortunate passengers. To his relief, she returned after nearly an hour, wearing the ebony Sith robes that he had returned to her. Its design was modeled around the garments of the other Jedi that were in the cargo deck with them, and she held a brown breastplate and a few fanciful ornaments that presumably were supposed to be a part of the outfit. She had her lightsaber and a small red crystal in her other hand.

Sitting down, Lamyia placed her lightsaber in front of her and closed her eyes, ignoring everything around her. To Jhosua’s surprise, the lightsaber started floating in the air by itself. Was this the Force that the Jedi and Sith worshiped? The first time he had seen a physical manifestation of the Force was on Dantooine when Lamyia attacked him with a telekinetic whirlwind. He still wasn’t convinced; it must have been a sleight of hand. However, the more he watched Lamyia, disassembling her lightsaber without touching—or even looking at—the handle or its components, the more he became unnerved about the entire ordeal. Soon, Lamyia’s lightsaber was in pieces, scattered across the floor in an assortment of metal and crystals that didn’t look like they could fit together at all.

“Jhosua,” Lamyia called out to him, opening her eyes. “Come here, if you please.”

Jhosua crept toward her warily. Still not convinced Lamyia was harmless, Jhosua sat across from her, separated by the various odds and ends that were once part of her lightsaber. Lamyia smiled kindly, hoping to placate Jhosua and his skeptical attitude. He was unconvinced, and he remained where he was. A slight frown crept across her face when Jhosua refused to move, but she quickly hid it. Hoping to distract him, she pointed toward the red crystal that was at the center of the scattered pile before them.

“Do you know what that is, Jhosua?” she asked.

Jhosua eyed the crystal for a moment before shaking his head. “I’m afraid not. Should I?”

Lamyia shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s a synthetic lightsaber crystal. Only dark-siders who are true Sith may use them in their lightsabers. Dark Jedi who have them either looted them off a corpse or found naturally occurring red crystals, which are fairly rare.”

“Why tell me this?” Jhosua asked.

“I wanted to tell you that I was… am not a Sith, despite what you may think. I was a Dark Jedi Master during my time as Malak’s slave.”

A rojo is still a rojo, Jhosua thought. He didn’t even know there was a difference between the dark-siders. “So if you were not a Sith, where did your red crystal come from?”

“When I fell to the dark side, I had a Sith Master teach me. When I came to him…” Lamyia paused. Jhosua noticed that her face blanched, and she trembled for a moment before continuing: “When I came to him, I didn’t know who I was. I had no name. I was purposeless. He gave me both. He trained me as if I was his daughter, and I came to love and respect him as a father.”

“What happened?”

She bit on her lip. The former Dark Jedi hesitated again, reluctant to continue. “I killed him. I killed him, Jhosua.”

“Why?”

“Memories. Memories poured into my empty mind like rainwater into a ditch, filling my head with thoughts—and ideas—I didn’t have before. I heard, I saw, and I realized things. I had once been a Jedi Knight before my fall, and I had friends, a family, and a name. I was not Lamyia N’hoel-”

“So you struck him down,” Jhosua interrupted. “Because you realized that you had been forced into Malak’s service unwillingly.”

“Yes. They had destroyed my mind, but they can never destroy my spirit,” Lamyia said. Her boldness faded quickly, though, and she shook her head at her own display of pride. “However, the dark side is strong. Revan was pleased with my actions, so he let me keep the lightsaber.”

“If you aren’t Lamyia,” Jhosua began, “then who are you?”

Lamyia shook her head at the thought. Scooping up the parts of her lightsaber that were scattered across the floor, she disregarded Jhosua’s question and walked over to the cargo hold’s garbage chute. The lightsaber parts fell into the chute, followed by her ornate cloak and breastplate. Wearing only her dark robes, she looked more like the other Jedi in the cargo hold. Hitting the wallpanel nearby, Lamyia watched as her old equipment was jettisoned into the space. She heaved a sigh of relief as she returned to Jhosua with a smile on her face.

“Why did you do that?” Jhosua asked.

“That lightsaber and those accessories were a sign of my failure. The sooner I separate myself from them, the sooner I can accept my shortcomings and move on. I betrayed the Jedi Order; I disgrace the legacy of my mother and father even by wearing those dark things,” Lamyia said, pointing toward the armor she discarded. She even seemed disgusted by her simple robes, shaking her head and groaning at the sight of her attire. “I am Verita Ladola, and I was once a Jedi Knight.”

Jhosua’s eyes widened. There was no way that this woman could be the same bubbly, naïve Jedi that had aided him on Sluis Van. It was impossible. “You can’t be. Colonel Eto left you behind. It was a losing battle, and we were outnumbered, outmaneuvered-”

“Revan’s forces captured me after the battle,” she interrupted.

“So you should be dead,” Jhosua shot back. “The Sith do not take kindly to prisoners.”

“Now they don’t,” Lamyia said. “Darth Revan requested my audience personally.”

“Why?”

“He said something… something about my importance. I was the key to the war, he said. If he could capture me, then Geryon’s life was forfeit.”

“Geryon,” Jhosua muttered. “You said his name on Dantooine. Who is he?”

“He’s an old friend,” Lamyia explained. “We met while I was on a mission. We studied together for some time, but then he returned to his homeworld…”

“He was a Jedi?”

“Yes.”

“Why would Revan want to kill him?” Jhosua asked.

“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me. All he said was Geryon was an unseen catalyst. I didn’t understand what he meant, and he didn’t bother explaining. After I met Revan, I was subjected to…” she paused, deep in thought. “Painful things. Horrible things. I don’t know what they did, but when they were done, I was no longer Verita. I was no longer a Jedi.”

Jhosua hesitated for a moment. For all he knew, this could all be an elaborate lie. He had no way of knowing if Lamyia was who she said she was, the Jedi Knight Verita Ladola. She could have been lying; this could have been an elaborate ruse. The Sith were known for their highly detailed and complicated intelligence operations. However, she had just destroyed everything that could have associated her with the Sith, and she had done nothing to harm him since they left Dantooine. She had tried to manipulate him with her mind tricks,—the voice in his head was quick to remind him—but Jhosua believed she made up for that by comforting the crying Jedi girl as they left the doomed enclave.

“I’m going to take a chance and trust you,” Jhosua said. “But if you do anything—I mean anything—to harm me or anyone on this ship, I’ll personally kill you faster than you can say ‘Sith spy’. Understand?”

“Oh, Jhosua,” she said, hugging him again. “I knew you would believe me. I was afraid you wouldn’t trust me, but you’ve gone and proven me wrong. I couldn’t ask you for anything more.”

“All right, all right,” Jhosua said. He tried escaping her embrace, but he failed. “That doesn’t mean-”

“Jhosua, I know you have doubts,” Lamyia admitted, separating herself from Jhosua. “I know that you distrust me just because I’m a Jedi. I know… I know the situation with your brother didn’t exactly endear you to us. But that’s okay. I’m just happy you gave me your trust.”

“Of course, Verita,” Jhosua acquiesced, cracking a hint of a smile.

*** ***

Ralina grumbled as she searched her pockets for some extra credits. It was bad enough that she had been stuck escorting her Jedi passengers from Dantooine to Coruscant. She was tired of piloting these Force-users across the universe for free. Not only was it bad for business, it was simply dangerous. If she never saw another Jedi after she dropped these passengers off, she would not shed a single tear.

The worst part of her predicament was her inability to find a vacated hangar on Coruscant. The first three hangars Fetcher had tried couldn’t identify her ship’s registration codes—most smugglers used false codes to bypass customs officers—and they refused to allow her to dock. But it was always something. If it wasn’t straight-up refusal, it was a stubborn Twi’lek dockworker who didn’t speak Basic when they finally landed.

Ralina nearly screamed at the Twi’lek worker responsible for the Hound’s Sapphire’s hangar. “We. Are. Trying. To. Get. To. The. Jedi. Temple. Temple! It’s the big, fancy-looking building that everyone on Coruscant sees at least once during their evening commute.”

The dockworker mumbled something in Huttese, and then opened up a file on his desk’s console. Turning the screen so Ralina could see it, she realized that he had pulled up her file on the Republic’s database. She was several years younger, and she was wearing a Republic military officer’s uniform, but it was unmistakably her. In the corner above the picture, opposite of the biography and criminal record, was a label that read ‘Deserter’. He asked her a question in Huttese. She didn’t know what he said, but she imagined he was asking her to confirm whether or not she was Ralina Venli.

“Oh…” Ralina mumbled, suddenly realizing that the Republic’s files went farther back than she’d hoped. “That’s not me. It can’t be… I mean, no sir. Her hair is too long. And I don’t wear blue eyeliner… anymore,” she added under her breath.

The Twi’lek employee seemed unconvinced. Shaking his head, he reached for the comlink on his desk, probably to tell his boss about Ralina’s presence. Jhosua walked up to Ralina as the Twi’lek was tuning his comlink’s frequency. The ex-soldier spoke up in Huttese, and after he and the dockworker exchanged a few words, the Twi’lek seemed less inclined to contact his superiors. Whatever he had said, it worked; the dockworker opened the doors to the hangar so the crew and their allies could leave.

“Didn’t know you spoke Huttese,” Ralina said wryly.

“My family’s business had some Hutt clients,” Jhosua said. “I had to learn.”

“Well, what did you say?” Ralina asked.

“I told him that your name was Lamyia N’hoel, and you arrived with a small contingent of Jedi who escaped the recent attack on Dantooine. He was less than convinced that you should escape the law, Lieutenant Venli, but a few credits was enough to buy his silence,” Jhosua explained.

Ralina winced. “So you found out about… that… I take it?”

“Yes, he told me about your military history,” Jhosua said plainly. A small smile escaped his otherwise serious expression. “Didn’t know you fighter jockeys were good for anything aside from flying your metal heaps, much less able to shoot a blaster pistol.”

Ralina appeared indignant, but she knew Jhosua was only teasing. “Very funny. Why don’t you march yourself out of here with your new Jedi friends?”

“Well, to be fair, I’m not going with the Jedi,” Jhosua clarified. He noticed Ralina’s apprehension—visible on her face—at the thought he would stay with her crew. “I can certainly handle myself from here, though. Thank you very much, Miss Venli. I’ll take my leave now.”

“Very well. I guess I’ll see you around the hyperspace lanes,” Ralina said, although she hoped she didn’t.

Jhosua nodded and kissed her hand lightly, much to her surprise. Before she could protest, Jhosua left the hangar with Fetcher, Manda, Verita, and the rest of the Jedi who had escaped Dantooine. Strange fellow, she thought. Shaking her hand to alleviate some nonexistent pain, she proceeded up the boarding ramp to the Hound’s Sapphire alone. She was glad to be done with Dantooine, the Jedi, and all of her unexpected passengers. She hadn’t even been paid. At this rate, she’d end up running a charity—or other legitimate business—before she made a profit. Scoffing at the thought, Ralina headed for the bridge.

They were done with their business on Coruscant, but they weren’t necessarily ready to leave. She had to deal with one more potentially troublesome passenger before she headed for the Outer Rim again. Ralina’s footsteps were the only thing that could be heard as she left the halls of her vessel and entered the bridge. Fetcher and Manda had left to purchase supplies, rations, and other necessities, leaving her behind.

That was just fine. Now she could speak with Delvin Cortes privately. Standing at the center of the bridge, Ralina eyed him standing near the viewport, staring at the mauve walls of the hangar beyond. “Delvin, if you please,” Ralina said, beckoning him to her.

“Yes, Captain?” he asked, turning in her direction.

“I have something to ask you,” she replied.

“About my status as a Jedi informant?”

Ralina was surprised by his sudden lack of tact. It wasn’t like him. Then again, she really didn’t know him at all. Delvin Cortes had joined her crew a little over a year ago, and she figured he was just an ex-convict who was down-and-out before she picked him up. It was a believable story, and he did everything he could to convince Ralina and her crew that it was true. However, he apparently knew of the Sith attack on Dantooine, and he knew about it before it had actually happened. The fact he could have had another employer eluded her until now.

“Yes… about that. How long have you been a spy for the Jedi?” she asked, standing across from him on the bridge.

“I was an agent for the Jedi Order before I joined your crew. When you found me on Rhommamool, I was already under the employ of the Jedi. I was told to join your crew by any means necessary,” Delvin explained.

He certainly wasn’t kidding. When they had first met, he had posed as a mechanic and nearly stole the engine out of their first ship, the Cerulean Wolf. It was a ridiculous stunt, and Fetcher was angry at Cortes for months, even after he joined the crew, but Ralina was impressed by his ingenuity and his ability to adapt. She offered him a position on her ship, and he had refused without question. Now she knew she played right into his hands.

“Why?” she asked.

Delvin pondered the question for a moment, as if it actually entailed a great deal of thought. Scratching his jet-black hair, he hoped to make the charade more believable, but Ralina clearly wasn’t buying it. “I am unsure if I’m at liberty to speak,” Delvin noted.

“Would you like me to put ‘liberty’ through your skull?” Ralina motioned toward a blaster pistol at her side.

“That won’t be necessary,” he said, sighing. “You should know that I never did anything to undermine the status or condition of you or the rest of the crew. Quite the contrary, in fact.”

“Oh? Explain.”

“Do you recall when we were nearly ambushed by the Leviathan after raiding Convict’s Dawn? It was I who requested the aid of the Jedi. I was to ensure that our crew would be able to transport Gaiel and his companion to Polus without delays, and to make sure that they could readily continue on their way to Coruscant. And, as you know, I kept the rest of the crew from falling prey to the Sith fleet over Dantooine.”

“Were you responsible for setting us up with those jobs from that deplorable Jedi before we met the Nautolan Jedi and his friend?”

“That ‘deplorable Jedi’ is my boss. So yes,” Delvin said dryly.

“Why?” Ralina asked again. She tried to hide it, but the pain of his betrayal was evident in her voice. “What… what could the Jedi want from me?”

“From you?” Delvin nearly laughed at the idea. “Nothing. With you? You serve as an able courier and a competent thief, should the situation arise. The Jedi are not above paying a few petty criminals to do their dirty work.”

“Petty criminals?” Ralina spat. The phrase was like poison on her lips. “How dare you? Weren’t you a conman? Weren’t you a crook?”

He said nothing. Suddenly, a thought dawned on Ralina. And that thought scared her more than his betrayal.

“Are you a Jedi?”

He remained silent, but he realized that Ralina’s fears were realized through his suspicious lack of words. “Have you ever seen me use the Force? Or sensed that I could touch it?” he asked frankly. “Just because I am a Jedi informant does not mean I am a Jedi.”

“That doesn’t mean anything!” Ralina snapped back. “The Jedi can hide their Force powers from others. You know that, and I know that! You could have… wait… Did you say… sense? As in, sense you?”

Delvin nodded.

“How?”

“I was also sent to watch you.” Her enigmatic companion shrugging slightly.

“Watch me?” Ralina gasped, suddenly getting uncomfortable at the conversation’s direction. “By the Force, why?”

“The Jedi thought you could have become a threat.”

“Threat?” Ralina repeated, shivering. “Why would they consider me a threat?”

Delvin stepped from her line of sight for a moment. He paced back and forth in front of the viewport, hands clasped behind his back. Sweat was accumulating above his furrowed brow, but it was more likely from the temperature of the bridge than the situation itself. With every step he took, Ralina’s heartbeat seemed to increase rapidly. She was weary and scared, and she didn’t know what he was planning.

“Many Jedi have fallen since Revan embraced the dark side after the Mandalore War,” Cortes mused aloud, still pacing. “Several of them were quite upstanding and prodigious in their own right. Our task has always been to ensure that very few Jedi can stumble and fall.”

“Delvin,” Ralina interrupted him, her voice hoarse, “what does that have to do with me?”

“What is luck, Miss Venli?” Delvin asked, ignoring her question. “It isn’t random chance at its finest. It isn’t the permeating power of some gods. No, it is the Force creating favorable circumstances for those who can feel it.”

Ralina struggled to find her way back to her chair on the bridge, and then fell backwards into it. As she stared blankly into the viewport before her, Delvin stood by her side and placed a single hand on her shoulder, mocking her with false sympathy.

“Smuggler’s luck is no different, really. Your luck is no different.”

Ralina was silent.

He knelt by Ralina’s side, his face level with hers. “When you have a Force-sensitive brother, isn’t it likely that you will have some of that power within you, Captain Venli?”

Ralina stood up, slowly, and ambled off the bridge. Her eyes focused on nothing in particular, and she could hardly force herself to leave Delvin behind and make her way to her room. He made no effort to impede her, content with remaining on the bridge and watching her suffer.

She didn’t know—hadn’t known—that she had a brother. But it all made sense. From the moment her parents insisted on coddling her and keeping her under their watchful eye, to the ease of starfighter flying in the Republic Navy. She didn’t know if she was Force-sensitive. If she was, why had the other Jedi not said anything? Would the other Jedi be able to sense her? Surely someone would have said something. Not Delvin and his Jedi acquaintances, perhaps, but Gaiel and his friend would have noticed.

Was she the same as Delvin? The same as Gaiel? The same as all those Jedi she had met and hated. Why?

Once she was out of sight, Delvin turned to face the captain’s chair. He had done his duty to the best of his abilities, and that was enough. He didn’t have anything to collect before he left—he had no belongings. Everything he had belonged to the Watchcircle. He would return to them now and file his report. He was fond of Captain Venli and her ragtag crew. That much was certain. They were loyal, and they were prompt and capable servants. It was a shame the Jedi had no more use of them. His brief stint with Ralina and her smuggling crew was at an end.

“Jon,” he called out.

“Yes, Delvin?” the ship’s AI asked.

“Code: Dominus. Send an encrypted report of the events over Dantooine to Telerus Eston. Tell him that the Smuggler received the revelation, but the result proved that it was a false lead. Only her brother has the power. He’ll know what it means.”

“Of course, Delvin. While I secure a private channel to send the data, would you like me to erase the archives of our dialogs up until now?”

“Please and thank you.”

Jon didn’t say anything else, so Delvin presumed he was finished with his tasks. Fetcher’s AI had always been nosy; he had to reprogram it quite a bit to ensure that Jon didn’t reveal anything to Ralina and the rest of the crew beforehand. And with a bit more gratuitous tweaking, the helpless AI was forced to do Delvin’s dirty work—namely, filing reports and sending data to Watchcircle Dominus—while he remained free from suspicion. But now Delvin had to leave. He was no longer safe here, and the Jedi needed him elsewhere.

“Miss Venli,” he whispered, speaking his mind through words and the Force, even though Ralina could not hear him in either case, “do not hesitate. When the time comes, you must act. And you will act. The Force wills it.”


Chapter 18

The shuttle’s walls rattled softly as it progressed through the illuminated vortices of hyperspace. It was an old ship—older than any ship Raen had ever been on—and was never meant for extensive hyperspace travel. The engines whined and struggled behind them, desperately trying to keep the ship on its course. At first, the three Jedi were worried that the shuttle would fail them and they would be stuck in the endless abyss of space, far from their destination. Gaiel reminded them that it had brought him and Raen from Polus to Ambria, and they would be fine. The other two Jedi were not convinced, but after several days in the cockpit, they had come to trust that the antique could get them to Alderaan.

The cockpit was built for two people, and the three Jedi had to improvise to ensure that they could all spend time around the controls. Although they had started in rotating shifts that allowed one of them to take a break in the cargo hold, the monotony of their plan quickly grew tiresome and they opted to have Ranval linger around the cockpit while Gaiel and Raen took the two available seats. Eventually, Ranval grew tired of pacing and took a box from the cargo hold to use as his own seat.

Raen hadn’t spoken to either of the other two Jedi much since they had left Ambria, but he felt that he needed to. After all, they were both traveling with him to a world that was unknown to them, yet they were willing to fight for him if necessary. If they didn’t know what they were getting into, they’d be more of a burden than a blessing. Besides, there were still some issues that needed to be resolved between the three Force-users.

Ranval had fallen asleep against the back walls of the bridge, desperately in need of rest. Gaiel remained awake with Raen, both of them monitoring the ship’s systems as it progressed through hyperspace. Neither of them said anything to the other for some time, content with staring at the ethereal glow beyond the viewport.

“Gaiel,” Raen said, breaking the long-established silence. “Are you okay?”

The Nautolan’s eyes slowly drifted away from the controls, and he eyed Raen suspiciously. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“I was just wondering how you were doing,” Raen admitted. “You haven’t talked much since we left Ambria.”

“Not much to say.”

“What about Dantooine?”

Gaiel sighed. “What about it?”

“You know what I’m talking about,” Raen said. “You took the news pretty hard, but you haven’t talked about it at all.”

“I’m still sorting it out in my head. I realize that…” he paused, and then continued, his voice quieter than before: “It’s hard to accept that everything I’ve ever known is gone. I want to tell myself it hasn’t registered yet, but I know it has. I know it has…”

Raen said nothing for a moment. He had to sort out his own thoughts in his head, think of the right words to say. He felt compelled to say something, but at the same time, he didn’t know what to say. He was hardly familiar with the concept of sympathy; it had been a foreign emotion to him prior to leaving Alderaan. Yet here he was, trying to make sure Gaiel was levelheaded and prepared for whatever they had to do on Alderaan.

“Now it seems like you’re the one who doesn’t have a lot to say,” Gaiel noted.

“I know what it’s like, Gaiel.”

“You can go back to Alderaan, Raen.”

Raen was taken aback by the retort. “But it wouldn’t be the same, would it?” Raen answered quickly. “It will be as foreign to me as to you and Ranval. I’m different, and Alderaan is different.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Gaiel muttered. “You know how beautiful the Jedi enclave was, Raen. You saw my home.”

“I did.”

“You saw my family. There were a lot of good people there. People who were family to me.” He smirked ruefully. “And now they’re gone.”

“Not all of them,” Raen said. “The Jedi live.”

“For now,” Gaiel mused with a hint of disdain. “The Sith are brutal. Who knows? Maybe Coruscant is next.”

“If you keep up that attitude,” Raen snapped. “The Jedi aren’t a place. As long as one Jedi stands, the Sith can’t win.”

Gaiel stared out the viewport, pondering Raen’s words in silence.

“Belaya, Juhani, Kalthar, Bolook… They’re all gone, Raen. They’ve done a lot for me. I didn’t even thank them. Tell them how much they meant…”

“They knew,” Raen said. “They always know.”

“How do you know?”

Raen shrugged. “They were your friends, weren’t they?”

“Family.”

“Trust me,” Raen said. “Your family knows you love them. Even if they don’t say it.” His mind wandered to his own family—to his father, his mother, his brother. There was a chance they weren’t even alive. He would know if they were alive, wouldn’t he? He could still apologize to them and make amends for his actions? Rejecting the worried thoughts for later, Raen turned to the Nautolan. “I’ve got an idea, Gaiel.”

“What is it?”

“How about you and I go to Dantooine after this is all over? We’ll go to the enclave and you can pay your respects there.”

“I don’t know, Raen. I appreciate the thought, but…” Gaiel hesitated. “I don’t know if I can do it.”

“If you don’t face this, you’ll never be able to move on.”

Gaiel was silent again. Raen knew he was troubled, but he also knew that he had to face this matter before it became too much to bear. Gaiel hadn’t been overcome with grief, but the longer this demon dwelt over him, he wouldn’t be able to put it behind him. Raen sensed this, weak as his empathetic ability in the Force was, and wanted to urge Gaiel forward. He wanted to help, even if it felt strange to him.

He hardly gave advice or comfort, but Gaiel had done quite a bit for him. Since they had met, Gaiel had saved his life too many times to remember. They hadn’t met on the best terms, but Gaiel had looked beyond that—and Raen’s terrible personality—in an attempt to mold him into a proper Jedi. Had he succeeded? Raen didn’t know. He did know that Gaiel was a far better Jedi than he was, and to see him suffering hurt Raen himself.

“Fine. We’ll work out something after we visit Coruscant,” Gaiel finally said.

“Excellent,” Raen said. Not knowing what else to tell him, he added: “I’m going to be in the cargo hold if you need me. I’m exhausted. See you on the next sleep cycle.”

“Raen!” Gaiel called out.

“Yes, Gaiel?”

“For what it’s worth, I hope the Jedi pardon you,” Gaiel said. “After six months of menial labor, of course.”

Raen scoffed. “Gaiel, I did enough of that on Ambria. I think even the Jedi know the meaning of restraint.”

“Northeus is on the High Council.”

“You have a point,” Raen mumbled to himself. “Later, Gaiel.”

Gaiel nodded and turned his attention back to the viewport while Raen left the pilot’s cabin. For his cold demeanor and selfish attitude, Raen wasn’t quite as self-absorbed as he seemed. Gaiel figured that the young man could become a powerful Jedi, given the chance. He certainly had the skill, and his occasional displays of sympathy could be extended to all life forms in need. There were kinks that needed to be worked out, but the Jedi Order could handle that. Raen was young, and the Jedi Masters had worked with stubborn students before.

The Nautolan chuckled to himself. Of all the things he would have figured Raen Benax was when he first met him on Dantooine a year ago, Gaiel would not have pinned him as a kind-hearted.

As for his own pain, he knew that nothing good would come from dwelling on the death of his friends and family on Dantooine. The Jedi would continue, as they always had, and he had to endure just as the Order did. The loss couldn’t tear away at him. He had to focus on the needs of others first. Raen’s duty and Ranval’s safety were his highest priorities. And, at the behest of the Jedi Council, Raen had to reach Coruscant. He would make sure Raen survived whatever trials awaited them on Alderaan. Judgment was a precursor of redemption. Raen needed redemption.

There is no death, there is only the Force.

*** ***

Alderaan was in darkness. The Republic had fallen, fading from memory like a bad harvest during a season of plenty. Their presence had been eradicated thoroughly, and even their kingdom, led by the House of Latona, was destroyed and the vestiges of their rule razed. The Republic prided itself in the knowledge that it had never lost a single Core World to a belligerent. While not true in any sense, the populace of the galaxy believed their words, the trials of previous generations oblivious to them. Even Core planets conquered by Revan were absent from Republic propaganda; instead, they heralded the strength of the Republic Navy, the First and Sixth Fleets in particular, that protected the Core.

Preux had proven them wrong. The Jedi. The Republic. Even the Sith Empire under Darth Malak, his former protégé, had not been prepared for him. When he had first arrived on Alderaan, he arrived a broken man. A refugee in a galaxy of hunters. A convict in a realm of agents of justice. On his own, perhaps, he would have given in to despair. His plans were wild, egregious, and mad. Some would even say impossible. Arriving as a poor man with clothes on his back and a lightsaber in hand, Preux had only one other ally to aid him during his flight.

The Force had been with him. On his own, none of his plans, gambits, or risks would have succeeded or paid off. But with the Force, he had become a gambler, willing to risk lives and authority to achieve his goals. The Force was strong in him, because he was once a Jedi. He knew an old maxim that said fallen Jedi became the darkest Sith. However, he had not fallen. He had been pushed off the precipice of light into a valley of shadow. He had not willed himself into the embrace of the dark side, like many before him did. The Jedi forced his hand. They orchestrated his fall, unintentionally, and he could respond no other way.

The Jedi had made him into the man he was. A sniveling coward had become a man. They would not be pleased with the results of their cruel discipline and dark schemes. The monastic trappings veiled an evil side of the supposed kindly order, and he had seen this evil firsthand. He hated no man, beast, or machine, but he hated the Jedi Order. They had abused his fragile state, played with his emotions, and drove him to this path.

Every event of his early life had been prearranged by the Order. His parents met because of their influence. He joined the Jedi Order in a tragedy they orchestrated. The Jedi Knights, those naïve warriors who still believed in the benevolence of their cause, did not understand. They would fight, and continue to fight, in their ignorance. Preux knew that it was only the Jedi Masters, those who knew history and the terrifying secrets of the past, could attest to the Order’s wrongdoing.

All things done in secret must be exposed.

But not now. Now he had to ensure that the Jedi Order could do nothing to harm the ones he loved. If the Jedi meddled in his affairs, he would lose control, and those closest to him would die. His heart, worn and tired as it was, could not bear to lose what he had fought so hard to gain. For now, he had to mold Alderaan in his image. His masterpiece was not yet finished, and he still had much work to do. It would take a passionate will, one that both Jedi and Sith rejected, but he could do it.

His plans were grand in scheme, but even those could be delayed. The destruction of the capital set him back some time. His orders had been to leave the city intact. They had to destroy a few gates and batter a few walls down, of course. However, De’dlay’s soldiers did more than that. They had butchered the populace. They had razed the castle. They annihilated any hope Preux had of preserving the city, renown for its artistic genius and ingenuity, for use in his kingdom. All this chaos stemmed from the inherent disorder that the dark side brought. The progenitor of this madness, De’dlay, had been punished for his destruction of the city. The man who had once been his right hand had been humbled.

Preux knew that the Nikto deserved to die. Treachery, a union of stubbornness and pride, became a vice that gnaws at the soul until it manifested itself in rebellion. This spirit of rebellion was never easily assuaged. De’dlay’s lust for power would soon become a model for other aspiring Sith, and others would follow his example if Preux did not make an example of him. Unlike the Jedi, brutal execution did not create martyrs amongst the Sith; it created warnings. Preux’s rule was not to be questioned, even by those he had known since he first arrived on this beautiful world.

Preux held as much disdain for their empire as he had for the Jedi. Their selfish hatred and their eternal quest for power led to the true nature of all Sith: betrayal. In a way, De’dlay was acting on instinct. The goals of a Sith made it inevitable that, one day, he would try and betray Preux. No matter how loyal he appeared and how much fear Preux inspired, there was no force in the galaxy that could stem a Sith’s ravenous hunger for power. The Jedi hid this same desire within their hearts; at least he could prepare for Sith disloyalty.

De’dlay was a selfish, disobedient, ungrateful child, but a child he remained. Hiding him had silenced some dissenters, who thought he had actually died by Preux’s orders, but some of the stronger ones—the more power-hungry—realized that the former Sith Master still lived. If he was ever freed, rebellion would ensue under the Nikto’s banner. Even so, he could not raise his hand to kill his child. Preux would defend himself as long as he could, hoping his words would be enough.

At the center of the war, Preux found himself alone. He was not truly Jedi, and he was hardly a true Sith. He was simply there. The Jedi wished him dead, but so did the Sith. Allies were rare, and enemies were everywhere. He was an enigma in the Force. His birth had been planned, hoping that the child conceived of two mighty Force-sensitives would give birth to an offspring with enough power to harness the Force. Not simply wield it, but to master it completely. To the Jedi, he was to be their savior through wisdom. As a Sith, he had been heralded as their master through destruction. But he was neither. He was no hero—simply a failed attempt to manufacture greatness.

The Jedi had tried to use him, but they had failed. Their plans had fallen into his lap by fortune,—or the Force—and he rejected them. The Sith accepted him, but they would soon find themselves leaderless and divided. He cared not for the Galactic Republic or the Sith Empire. They were players in a game he tried so hard to avoid.

Now, in the midst of his plans, Preux played the part of Sith Overlord and planetary ruler. He cared not for the first of his two titles, but he entertained his dark subjects for now. In due time, the Sith would be eliminated, and he would be the sole master of Alderaan. He would destroy them himself, and no longer would he have to fear their insatiable desire to overthrow him. Until that time, he would act as needed to keep the Sith in line.

“Master,” Calay said, bowing before him in the old throne room of House Latona. She was a valuable piece in his game, but she, like all Sith, was expendable. She was a loathsome thing, not only for her cruelty but because of her lust for Jaeln Benax. “I have received reports from our agents.”

Disgust was evident on Preux’s visible features, escaping underneath the dark hood concealing his face. “Speak, then.”

“In most districts, the populace is reacting well to our presence. In fact, the citizenry is largely praising our actions, and many provincial governors are willing to work with us,” Calay explained.

“And what of those who were unwilling?” Preux asked.

“We killed them.”

Preux’s fist found its way to the side of his seat like a gavel. “Did I order you to kill them?”

“No, sir, but-“

“I will not hear any of your excuses, Calay. I thought by appointing you to this position, you would remember who is the master and who is the servant. But it is clear you have forgotten. Need I remind you?”

Calay folded her hands and bowed lower. Her eyes betrayed her fear. Good. She still feared him. “Please, sir, it is not necessary. I swear it won’t happen again,” she whimpered.

“Very well.” He was feeling merciful today. Besides, Calay was too useful to discard now. “Is that all, Calay?”

“There is one more thing, sir.”

“Out with it, then.”

“Our scouts report a… a force gathering at the border of the eastern highlands. They aren’t sure, but we have reason to believe that it is a Republic garrison that intends to join forces with some disgruntled locals.”

“What of it?”

Calay glanced up at Preux, and she seemed confused. “Sir?”

“I asked you a question, Calay. You would do well to answer.”

“Sir! I… would you like us to take action against these rebels? They are a threat to your rule, sir.”

“They are no threat to me, Calay. Their pitiful band is hardly a fighting force, and no matter how many soldiers they gather, they are incompetent and useless in comparison to our soldiers.”

Sith soldiers lining the throne room nodded in agreement, pleased at the compliment. They certainly believed they were the strongest fighting force in the galaxy, and if Preux, master of Alderaan, said so, then surely it must have been true. Preux was not above lauding beasts if it meant that their loyalty did not waver. Calay hesitated for a moment, realizing that if she objected too strongly, she would lose support from some of the military officers present in the room with her.

“Of course, not, sir. I understand.”

“Do not engage them, and do not harass them. Do you understand?”

“Yes-”

“Calay,” Preux interrupted her. “You will not hinder their progress. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

Preux bid her to rise and dismiss herself accordingly. She would not—she could not—understand him. Sith were not above machinations, but they were unable to comprehend those that did not involve the dark side. His mind was foreign to her because he did not think like a Sith. His goal was not power. De’dlay could not understand this, and neither could Calay. It was a shame, then, that even the greatest of the Sith on Alderaan would be left blind and helpless when his final goals were completed.

Now that Alderaan was in his grip, Preux had no need of the Sith. He could control the populace either through loyalty or by the power of the Force. He could ably use a standard collection of abilities by calling upon the Force, but his true strength was in the art of manipulation. Words were powerful, but they were fearsome when uttered by Preux. A mere suggestion tugged at mental strings, while a command brought down the full strength of his mighty will upon his target’s mind. He alone of the Sith of Alderaan understood the inner-workings of the mind, and he could control them at his whim.

Through his manipulation, he would control Alderaan. Extending his sense of perception across Alderaan, through space and time, Preux could foresee the Republic’s plan of attack. They had Jedi with them, but it would not matter. Preux foresaw that when they attacked, the Jedi and Sith would destroy themselves in the Sith academy, leaving chaos and death in their wake. The Republic forces would also perish by stumbling into a trap—his trap. However, the rebel army had to survive until the hour of the attack, so all of his opponents would be eliminated in one fell swoop. Therefore, Calay’s bloodlust had to be kept in check.

“Danc,” Preux called out.

“My lord?”

The Zabrak that stood before his throne had once served House Latona. He had been a respected warrior and a valuable teacher, forming the Royal Guardsmen of Alderaan and training its members. His Force-sensitive organization defended the royal house and its retainers even during its darkest hour, the Sith attack on the castle, when Danc himself betrayed his oath of fealty to House Latona and assaulted those he had once served.

Unlike his other servants, dedicated to the way of the Sith, Danc was an illusive man; his goals were, like Preux’s own, not found in power or hatred. He loved someone who could not love him back, so he turned to Preux for answers. In exchange for Preux’s knowledge of mind control, Danc swore his eternal loyalty and unending servitude to Preux and his family. Unlike Preux’s other warriors, sages, and servants, Danc was one of the few who answered to him alone, and not to the Sith or their hierarchy. Only two others could say the same.

“Watch Lady Calay for me,” Preux said. “Be my eyes where I cannot see. Be my ears where I cannot hear. Be my blade arm where I cannot strike. If she moves to hinder the progress of the Republic Army gathering beneath the Hallowed Hills, strike her down.”

“Your words dictate my will, master.”

And then he was gone, sooner than he had entered. Calay suspected nothing. Preux hid the contents of Danc’s mind with a powerful Sith spell that was beyond even De’dlay’s knowledge. Soon his plan would be set into motion, and he could live on Alderaan in peace. Until that time, he watched over the situation, monitoring the progress of the Republic and the Sith on this dark world from his lofty throne.

*** ***

“Lady Calay.”

Calay had been storming through the destroyed capital when she had been stopped by General Pallidus. She had wanted to be alone, wanted to kill something for Preux’s words to her. She deserved more respect than she received, and she knew it. Pallidus was simply being a nuisance, probably trying to edge her into a deeper rage.

The green-haired man was difficult for Calay to understand. His yellow, sickly eyes were starkly different than Jaeln’s, and he looked more like the late Fasin’s other student, Vericcho. However, Pallidus hardly acted like his dead friend, far less intent on sadism and destruction and more worried about his appearance and eager to woo women at the spaceport. He was a philanderer and a narcissist, and his melodramatic attitude annoyed Calay constantly, but she somehow managed to restrain herself from driving her knife through the fellow Sith Master. He would not be the victim of her fury today.

“What is it, Palldius?”

“Preux would be displeased if he knew you were going to disobey his orders.”

Calay’s eyes narrowed. “How-?”

“Your fiery emotions, my lady, are easier to read than an untrained Hortek pazaak player.”

“Preux can’t sense me.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I’d sense his presence in my mind,” Calay snapped. “He wouldn’t be able to sneak around in my thoughts without my knowing.”

“Be wary, my lady. Some have said that Preux’s powers extend across the planet. It would not be hard for him to narrow his focus and read your thoughts.”

“I don’t fear Preux.”

“Neither do I.”

Calay smiled. He seemed surprisingly confident for someone who had become a Sith Master only months before. “Pallidus. You certainly aren’t anything like your master, or even Vericcho.”

“He must have done something wrong, then,” Pallidus quipped. “I was never as interested in his stories as Vericcho was.”

Calay slowed her pace so she could stare at the young Sith. He was young, naïve, and eager to please. He respected Preux, like all younger Sith did, and Calay knew that he could be dangerous if he was allowed to do as he pleased. Like Jaeln, he had potential—he could become strong enough to defeat her, should he receive the opportunity.

Calay claimed she was not afraid of Preux, but she was lying. His power was far greater than Calay’s, and this scared her and became the focus of her jealousy. Whether or not Preux could search her thoughts, she didn’t know. She did know that if Preux deemed her unnecessary, he could have her disgraced, just like De’dlay had been. However, she reasoned that the only way Preux had defeated De’dlay, her old master, was through deception and with her assistance. If Calay could turn his own men against him, then perhaps she would have a chance. She could attempt to overthrow him.

“Pallidus.” Calay placed her hand on his chest, running her hand across his black robes. Her voice was lighter and higher than normal, a skill she could use by calling upon the dark side. “Do you know why Preux made you, a lowly and newly appointed Sith Master, general of his forces?”

“I’d guess, my lady, that he knows the power I have, and he trusts me to use it well.”

Calay chuckled lightly, stepping closer to the younger Sith. “He fears you, Pallidus. He knows you will become more powerful than him, so he placed you in charge of the Sith troopers. All of your time and energy will be focused on maintaining and organizing the soldiers.”

“I don’t… I don’t understand,” Pallidus confessed. He tried stepping away from Calay, but she managed to corner him against the wall of a nearby damaged building.

“He knows that if you dedicate your time to studying the powers of the dark side, you will surpass him. You will be a threat to him.”

“I do not think I could be a threat to Preux for some time, my lady.”

“Join me, Pallidus, and we will unlock your true power sooner than you could imagine,” she purred.

“Even together, we are no match for Preux,” Pallidus said, still trying to separate himself from Calay. “I was there in the throne room the night he defeated De’dlay. You helped him. Why are you even talking like this?”

“I don’t want you to be held down anymore, Pallidus,” Calay assured him. She tried to sound as convicing as possible, but it was difficult even for her. “I’ve seen your power. I’ve seen what you are capable of. I aided Preux because I feared him. I have nothing to fear anymore. I have found confidence in you.”

She knew him well enough to know that he was barely used to women pursuing him, and when they did, he found himself flustered and confused. He preyed on women that he thought couldn’t respond with a quick wit of their own. However, she used her own confidence and a hint of exaggerated emotion to catch his attention. Once he settled down, he was wrapped around her finger. It was as simple as saying a few kind words and toying with his desires and aspiriations. Just like Jaeln.

All young Sith were the same. He was open to suggestions and hungry for power. Every Sith dreamed of strength, dominion, and the dark knowledge that came alongside them. By tempting him with rebellious ideas, she had made sure that—in his mind—he would no longer loyally serve Preux. Some men were very difficult to manipulate, but Pallidus was not one of those men. A few kind words were enough to break him.

“What do I have to do?” Pallidus finally said, his own confidence returning.

“Come with me,” Calay whispered seductively. “I have several important jobs for you.”

“Of course, my lady.”


Chapter 19

“There she is. Alderaan,” Raen said with the hint of a smile on his face. After ten hours of sleep, he was rejuvenated and ready to do what he needed to do to free his homeworld from the Sith. “Beautiful, no?”

“She’s a tad round,” Ranval pointed out, staring at the viewport. “She could lose some weight.”

“Well, we’re about to destroy an entire Sith academy,” Raen said. “That’ll certainly slim her down.”

“All that hot air and egomania adds quite a bit of kilos, huh?” Ranval asked.

“No kidding,” Raen mused. “I suppose it’s not as bad as Coruscant…”

“Coruscant is just bloated,” Ranval agreed.

“Please stop,” Gaiel begged with a heavy sigh. “It’s hard to listen to this and stay sane.”

“Fine. I’m surprised that they don’t have orbital defenses,” Ranval noted. “They don’t even have any ships in orbit.”

“They are probably depending on secrecy to keep them safe, not strength of arms,” Gaiel reasoned. “They might not even have enough ships for a naval battle should the Republic arrive.”

“You’re probably right,” Raen said. “I hardly saw any actual combat ships during my childhood. Alderaan is a world of diplomats and artists. Aside from the royal family’s guards, I never saw an actual fighting force.”

“Then this should be easy,” Ranval said, cracking his knuckles loudly.

“Hardly. There’s an entire Sith academy down there. They probably have enough Sith troopers planetside to cause trouble, too,” Raen corrected him. “We’re three Jedi. This is going to be painfully difficult.”

“Well, we never plan ahead anyway,” Gaiel spoke up. “We’ll survive.”

“I’ll be sure to save you all a Sith Lord or two,” Ranval said haughtily. “That is, if they aren’t all scared to death of me by the time we land.”

“Raen, where should we land?” Gaiel asked, ignoring Ranval’s boasts. “I’ve received no directions from anyone on the surface, so I presume we’re safe to go wherever we please.”

Raen eyed the quickly approaching surface of Alderaan through their viewport, and it was a bit different than he remembered. The fields of vibrant green were still present, and great trees stood out amidst the plains. However, even from their high altitude, Raen spied obvious destruction in the towns and cities that dotted the surface. In the farthest corner of his eye, he saw the Sith academy—still standing in spite of its failing design—and his father’s home. On one hand, he was pleased that his family had not been evicted during the Sith takeover. On the other, he realized that he had no way of actually knowing if they still lived there.

“Raen?” Gaiel spoke up, waiting for an answer.

“Land at the East Alderaanian Spaceport,” Raen said, pointing toward their destination in the viewport. “We should be able to land there, and we can get information at the nearby cantina.”

“We always seem to go to the cantinas when we’re searching for something,” Gaiel muttered to himself. “All right, I’m setting her down now.”

Gaiel steered the small shuttle until it rested safely within the walls of a vacated hangar. The other two Jedi gathered what little gear they had while Gaiel made sure the ship couldn’t be stolen while they were gone. Once the three Jedi were prepared, they departed the ship and headed toward the end of the hangar. Walking by storage crates and bypassing a few heavy-lifting droids, the three Jedi approached the hangar bay’s supervisor, a Human male who appeared about Gaiel’s age, wearing a Sith officer’s uniform. He looked stressed, and the disorderly stack of datapads on his kiosk alluded to his inability to effectively manage his tasks.

“Hello, strangers,” the man said, distracted and hardly paying attention to them. “Welcome to Alderaan. I hate to inform you that your arrival was not scheduled with the Alderaan Traveler’s Bureau.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” Gaiel asked.

“It means I have to contact my superiors to see if you’re allowed to proceed beyond the landing zone,” the man explained, still preoccupied with other duties. “If you’d please return to your ship, I’ll see what I can do.”

“Let me handle this,” Ranval muttered to his companions. Turning to the supervisor, he waved his hand and said: “You don’t need to contact your superiors.”

“I… I don’t need to contact my superiors,” the man in the kiosk said firmly.

“You’ll open the door for us, so we can leave the hangar,” Ranval suggested.

“Here, let me open the door for you!” the supervisor repeated cheerfully. “That way, you can leave the hangar.”

“Move along.”

“Move along, now,” the supervisor urged them.

The doors to the hangar bay opened, and Ranval led the two other amused Jedi from the hangars to the visitors’ area of the spaceport. The Miraluka bowed a bit for his audience, clearly pleased with himself. Gaiel rolled his eyes at Ranval’s hopeless antics, but Raen was subtly impressed.

“What did you do?” Raen asked.

Ranval smiled widely. “A mind trick. Northeus taught it to me. It works wonders on the weak-minded.”

“Only the weak-minded?” Raen wondered aloud. “That certainly can’t be that useful.”

“Well, if you’ve got a strong mind, it might work on anyone,” Ranval mused. “I don’t care too much. When it works, it works. The rules behind it are for smarter Jedi than I to discern and discover.”

“First humble thing I’ve heard you say since we arrived,” Gaiel grumbled.

Raen nodded sagely at Ranval’s explanation, and the three Jedi returned their attention to their immediate surroundings. Very few other offworlders—spacers or otherwise—were found in the winding passages of the spaceport, and Raen figured that the Sith must have enacted some sort of blockade at an earlier time to keep travelers from coming to Alderaan. Nevertheless, there was no shortage of Sith troopers in the spaceport. Patrols navigated the passageways in periodic intervals.

Gaiel and Ranval both wore traveler’s ponchos, given to them by Thon before they departed Ambria. Their robes and lightsaber were adequately hidden under them, and they could not be identified as Jedi. Raen discarded his Jedi robes and opted to wear a long sleeved shirt with a black spacer’s jacket, coupled with brown trousers. Unlike the two Jedi, he decided to hide his weapon inside his jacket, where it was concealed from passing Sith troopers.

The three Jedi arrived at the Dying Bantha cantina, but the two visitors didn’t bother asking Raen why he had picked this particular cantina. Truth be told, Raen wanted to revisit the places he used to frequent. He wanted to see if he could recognize anyone, or if the Sith had driven them out. His first indication that the Sith had changed some things—aside from the patrols—was the absence of the Trandoshan bouncer who used to guard the cantina. He had been replaced by a Sith soldier, watching bar-goers as they entered and exited the establishment. Wearing red armor that covered his entire body and a helmet that hid his face, he was supposed to look imposing and fearsome. Raen had killed enough to know that they were no match for a Force-sensitive, but they were strong enough to cause trouble in great numbers.

Entering the cantina without incident, Raen realized that the Dying Bantha itself had changed little since his last visit, nearly a year before. The bar rested at the center of the cantina, with various barstools surrounding its semicircle counter. The entire cantina seemed less busy than usual, and only a few spacers and mercenaries were playing games at the tables that lined the walls. The lighting was poor and the chairs were damaged; the cantina’s facilities had long since fallen into disrepair. They had enacted a no spice rule, Raen figured, because the cantina smelled more like bad liquor than he remembered.

“Raen, I have a bad feeling about this,” Gaiel admitted.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“The Force has been prodding me with warnings since we arrived,” Gaiel explained. “The dark side is eerily powerful here. Its influence permeates the entire planet. I felt it as soon as we landed, but I thought it was an overreaction. I was wrong.”

“I hardly sense anything,” Raen said, slightly reaching into the Force. “Where do you think it’s coming from?”

“Hard to say. It’s everywhere. It’s feeding off everything. I’ve never experienced such power,” Gaiel said. He was worried, this much was certain, but he was also confused.

Raen assumed that the power was stemming from one of the Sith. Even though he couldn’t sense the power Gaiel spoke of, much less comprehend it, Raen knew that De’dlay was the strongest dark-sider on Alderaan. If his presence had been unleashed upon the planet, that meant Raen still had a chance to fight him.

“So what’s the plan?” Ranval asked.

“I’ll talk to the bartender. You know, to try and get information,” Raen whispered. “You two do whatever you want.”

“Awesome,” Ranval said. “I’ve got some credits to spare, and those pazaak tables are calling my name.”

Before he got very far, Raen grabbed hold of his shoulder, holding him back. “Could I borrow a few dozen credits?”

“Sure,” the Miraluka said, placing a few credits in Raen’s hand. “What for?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Raen said, leaving his companions to do as they wished.

Raen took a seat at the closest barstool to the back wall of the cantina. Placing his arms on the counter, he rested his head in his hands. The barmaids were attending to other customers, so Raen took a moment to meditate on his next course of action and strengthen his connection to the Force. Cutting himself off from the world around him, Raen delved deep into the power of the Force, drawing on its power to heighten his senses and increase his awareness.

Gaiel was right. The dark side encompassed Alderaan. Raen had to struggle to tap into the Force, and when he did, he felt unnaturally fatigued. It was difficult to meditate; he knew it would be strenuous to try and use any abilities. His breathing became labored and hoarse as he strengthened his connection in the Force, reaching a point where he could scan his surroundings.

To his surprise, there seemed to be four Force-sensitives inside the cantina, including himself. He hadn’t sensed the fourth individual before their arrival, and it was clear that whoever it was used the Force to mask their presence. Something—besides the darkness—kept him from extending his mind to the mysterious forth person, and he couldn’t even identify where they were sitting in the cantina. This Force-user’s intentions were not malicious, though, and Raen suspected he or she was not a Sith.

A green-skinned Twi’lek female approached Raen and twirled one of her lekku flirtatiously as she leaned forward on the counter to get Raen’s attention. “What’ll it be, hun?” she asked.

Raen was pulled out of his meditation, unable to totally close himself off from his surroundings. “The strongest Alderaanian ale you’ve got,” Raen said, still tired from his attempt at reaching into the Force. Smiling, he added: “I’m going to have a long day ahead of me.”

“Of course,” she muttered offhandedly. As she turned away from Raen to fetch a glass, she suddenly realized that she had seen the young Force-user before. “You? Weren’t you the one with the Iridorian friend?”

“Oh?” Raen asked, feigning ignorance. “Are you the same Twi’lek barmaid who served me the last time I was here?”

“Don’t play dumb with me,” the Twi’lek said in a playful tone. “I recognized you as soon as you said that.”

“You’ve got a good memory,” Raen noted. “You must see a lot of customers.”

“No better than yours. Besides, I’ll remember you and your creepy floating stones until the day I die,” she countered, recalling the last time Raen had been in here.

“Where’s the bartender?”

“Who?”

“The old Anzati who used to own this place,” Raen specified.

“He’s dead,” the Twi’lek said, turning her eyes from Raen. “Sith killed him when they took over this place. I run the bar now.”

“My apologies,” Raen said. “Has G’aull Iulis paid off his tab?”

“No,” the Twi’lek said, checking her records on a datapad. “He still owes me for one drink.”

Raen’s eyes drifted toward the floor. G’aull Iulis had been his friend before he had left Alderaan. If he hadn’t returned, then he had most likely died on Sluis Van with his clan. Raen hadn’t heard reports of the battle, and he didn’t even know about how many soldiers died; however, he knew that if G’aull had survived, then he would have returned to Alderaan.

His only friend from Alderaan was dead. He should have suspected it, prepared for it, but it caught him by surprise. He didn’t quite know how to respond. His last conversation with G’aull was hardly friendly, even though he realized his mistake later. He had lost his chance to see him again. Once things settled down, Raen would honor his friend’s death. He convinced himself that was what G’aull would have wanted. Struggling to maintain his composure, Raen pulled out the credits Ranval had given him and handed them to the bartender.

“What’s this for?” she asked.

“His tab,” Raen said, pain lingering in his voice. He barely managed to add: “I’m paying it off.”

“I understand,” the Twi’lek said, placing the money in her trousers’ pockets. “So what’s the story, hun? Don’t got those runes with you today, I see.”

“No, I don’t,” he said flatly. He had lost the Sith trinkets he used to manipulate and train with before he had left Alderaan. “I’m… working elsewhere now. I don’t have access to them anymore.”

“You don’t say,” the Twi’lek said, only half paying attention.

An uncomfortable silence fell over the cantina as Sith troopers ambled inside. A few of them wrestled their off-duty comrades away from the gaming tables and scolded them for their actions while others lined up in front of the bar, blasters in hand. A few of the patrons tried leaving, uneasy in the presence of law-enforcement, but the Sith kept them inside. The Sith trooper in the crimson armor who doubled as the bouncer for the cantina entered after his entire squad was already inside. The visor on his crimson helmet had been opened, revealing the lower half of his scarred face and a bit of his brown eyes.

“What do you want?” the Twi’lek bartender asked. She slammed her fist against the counter, still holding Raen’s empty glass in her other hand. “I paid your tax earlier this month!”

“Watch your tongue, subhuman mongrel,” the Sith bouncer growled. Raen realized that his accent betrayed the fact he was an offworlder, probably from Coruscant. “Just because Lord Preux sees it fit to keep this miserable excuse for an establishment open does not mean you may speak in such a tone to me.”

“I am not subhuman, you monster,” the Twi’lek shot back. Throwing the glass in her hand at his face, he deftly dodged the projectile, letting it fly into the wall behind him.

“Such insolence,” the Sith bouncer said. “Your kind is useless for anything besides senseless violence and sensual pleasure, it seems. We’re here because you owe the Sith dues that have yet to be paid.”

“I’ve already paid your taxes!” the Twi’lek said, trying as hard as she could to remain calm. “We had a bimonthly payment agreement-”

“We are altering the deal. You should count yourself lucky that we are not altering it further. We should just destroy this place with you in it,” the Sith bouncer spat.

Raen grew weary of listening to his soldier berate the Twi’lek and her cantina. In fact, Raen liked this cantina—he had been here many times during his tenure as a Sith student—despite its unsavory appearance. Plus, although this was incredibly risky, Raen figured that he could draw out the fourth Force-user who lingered here by causing a scene. If all four of them insisted on keeping a low profile, then someone was bound to wind up hurt, and he wasn’t about to let that happen. Rising from his seat, he lifted an empty glass with the Force and threw it at the red-armored Sith soldier. The glass shattered against the Sith trooper’s breastplate. It didn’t harm him at all, but it caught his attention.

“Are you done?” Raen asked mockingly.

“Who are you?” the Sith bouncer hissed.

Raen opened his jacket, revealing the lightsaber that was suspended inside. The group of Sith troopers immediately recognized the weapon. There was no visible reaction, but a few of them gasped aloud at the sight, and a few others muttered to each other. The Sith bouncer seemed unimpressed, and he reached for his blaster pistol.

“So you’re a Sith?” the bouncer mused. “I don’t care. Mistress Calay hardly cares what her students do outside the academy, it seems. I’m certain she won’t mind the death of a single pretentious student.”

Raen cut him off, grabbing his weapon with the Force and activating it in midair. His dazzling blue blade sprung to life, blocking the Sith bouncer’s instinctive blaster shot. The soldier’s earlier bravado vanished as soon as he realized just how much danger he was in.

“What…?” the Sith bouncer stammered.

“You’re right. It is such a shame that Mistress Calay won’t care what I do to a few uppity soldiers,” Raen replied with a ferocious grin on his face. “She’ll never know just how easily I bested all of you.”

The Sith troopers opened fire on him without hesitation. The Twi’lek barkeep ducked behind the counter to avoid the blaster fire, but Raen remained where he was, deflecting the blaster bolts as he moved his lightsaber to intercept their red blaster shots. For eight Sith troopers, their accuracy was poor, and Raen—coupled with the power of the Force—could defend himself with ease. One of the Sith troopers was cut down by Gaiel, leaping from his seat and startling the Sith trooper with his own viridian lightsaber. Ranval lobbed his entire table at two Sith nearby, sending them crashing to the floor and giving him a chance to activate his lightsaber as well.

All three Jedi joined up in the center of the cantina, forcing the three surviving Sith troopers to fall back out of the bar and retreat. Satisfied with their victory, the Jedi didn’t notice one of the Sith troopers that Ranval had wounded stood up, blaster pistol in hand, to shoot at their backs. Gaiel alone sensed the Sith trooper’s malice, but he couldn’t alert his companions before the shot was fired.

Gaiel pivoted on his left foot, hopelessly too late to intercept the shot with his lightsaber. However, to his surprise, another lightsaber—with a violet blade—whirled through the air and deflected the shot before it reached its intended target. The redirected blaster shot pierced the Sith soldier’s throat and sent him to the floor in a crumpled heap. The three Jedi watched the lightsaber return to its owner, a cloaked individual with clawed four-fingered hands at the farthest end of the bar.

“Who are you?” Gaiel asked.

The individual held up a single hand, bidding them to wait. There are still Sith out there. They’re likely gathering reinforcements. We’ll have to kill them before they warn their leaders of your presence, a voice echoed in their heads. Motioning for them to follow, the cloaked figure ran out of the bar, lightsaber in hand, toward the exit at the far end of the corridor.

“Are we going to follow?” Ranval asked.

“I didn’t sense any evil in that person,” Raen said, “and they might be trying to help us.”

“We don’t really have any other options right now,” Gaiel said. “Let’s go.”

The three Jedi left the cantina—with its alarmed patrons and startled employees—behind, following the mysterious fourth figure. Several Sith troopers were already dead on the duracrete floor by the time they left. Their blasters and vibroblades littered the floor, and the three Jedi carefully avoided stepping on them, not wanting to stumble or stab themselves. Any other travelers had already fled, and the patrols seemed nonexistent once they left the cantina. Either the cloaked figure killed the other Sith troopers, or they had regrouped elsewhere.

The three Jedi joined the cloaked figure by the door that led to the spaceport’s courtyard. The door was locked, probably closed by the mysterious warrior. Positioning themselves against the wall opposite of the cloaked figure, the Jedi reactivated their lightsabers.

I closed the door. A small force of Sith troopers is waiting on the other side. Probably twenty or so, the figure projected their thoughts to the Jedi. Are you ready?

Gaiel nodded, and the cloaked figure acted accordingly. Removing the hood, she showed her face to the three Jedi for the first time. The figure had white hair that seemed shine in the dim light, racing down her neck and forming two lengthy braids that rested on her shoulders. Her eyes were milky-white, lacking pupils, and her skin wasn’t much darker. She didn’t seem that much older than Raen, but she was younger than Gaiel. Her brown cloak was still draped over her shoulders and covered her body, but Raen could barely make out a suit of red armor underneath it.

Punching the wallpanel by her side, the woman let the door slide open with a wheeze before leaping into the doorway. Green blaster bolts flew toward her immediately, but she blocked the incoming shots with ease. Her violet blade sent them back toward the firing squad in the distance, threatening to strike down the gunmen.

Once she had left the spaceport, the three Jedi joined her. Gaiel went first, running into the courtyard with his lightsaber in hand. He deflected a few stray blaster shots that approached him, but most of the shots were focused on their female companion. Raen and Ranval left after he did, using their lightsabers to protect themselves with equal effectiveness. The four Jedi had lined up side-by-side, deflecting the incoming blaster fire in unison, protecting each other as they crept closer to their targets.

The squad of Sith troopers was already down to half its original size due to redirected blaster shots alone. Their leader, the red-armored Sith bouncer who had threatened the Twi’lek in the cantina, seemed to realize that if the Jedi were allowed to get close enough, they would cut down all of his men with their lightsabers. Grabbing a frag grenade from his belt, the red-armored Sith lobbed it toward the Jedi, hoping to kill a few of them and break their spirits. However, the female warrior knew what he was planning, and she used a quick burst of telekinesis to send the grenade into the midst of the Sith troopers. The ensuing explosion sent the Sith troopers flying in every direction, their corpses scattering across the courtyard’s pavement and the small fountains nearby.

Once she was sure that all the Sith troopers were dealt with, the woman deactivated her lightsaber and placed it on her belt alongside a second hilt. “Good work. We handled them nicely.”

“Who are you?” Raen asked.

The woman glanced at Raen. “Who am I? Don’t you know manners, whelp? A man should be courteous enough to introduce himself when he sees a stranger.”

“What if I’m concerned about your motives and what you will do with that information?” Raen shot back.

“The same could be said of your group,” the woman replied.

“Raen, please,” Gaiel said, chiding him. “I’m sorry, Miss. We’re just a bit on edge. My name is Gaiel Remus. I’m a Jedi Knight. This is Raen Benax, and this is Ranval Messor, both Jedi learners.”

“My name is Khondine Basilaron. I’m a Royal Guardsman of House Latona and their retainers,” the woman introduced herself.

“Why do you have a lightsaber?” Gaiel asked.

“All elite Royal Guardsmen are Force-sensitive,” she explained. “We’re taught how to create our own lightsaber after a lengthy training process.”

“Are you Arkanian?” Ranval interrupted.

Khondine scoffed. “Did the eyes give it away? Or was it the claws?”

“Neither. I can’t see, in case you didn’t notice,” Ranval said, motioning toward the sash over his face. “I’m Miraluka. I sensed your Force-presence.”

“Ah. Interesting,” Khondine said. “So we are more alike than I thought. What brings you here to Alderaan, Jedi?”

“We’re here to alleviate the Sith threat,” Gaiel said.

“Oh? More for the task force, then,” Khondine mused.

“Task force?” Gaiel repeated.

“Yes. Several dozen Jedi arrived from Coruscant to aid in our strike against the Sith and their leadership. Coupled with the Republic forces, they might be enough to help us reclaim this world for the Alderaanians,” Khondine replied.

“There are other Jedi here?” Gaiel’s voice hinted at his shock. “Can we see them?”

“Of course, Jedi. I have a speeder parked not too far from here. I’ll take you to the meeting place.”

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