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Chapter 8

“Here come hostiles!”

The lifeless voice of an automated loudspeaker repeated itself several times. He had heard it the first time. It wouldn’t be long now.

Jaeln Benax stood alone, surveying the room around him. His blue eyes glittered as the pale light beat down upon him from above, creating a ferocious shadow behind him. The flowing charcoal-colored robes he wore underneath a beige vest appeared darker than normal in this place. A personalized lightsaber decorated with runes rested on his sash, but he wouldn’t need it. Not yet. He kept his hands behind his back, waiting patiently his enemies to appear.

The serenity before combat always defined the rest of the battle for Jaeln. He didn’t know why, but the prospect of violence did not incite the dark side within him. It should have; as a Sith Marauder, the dark side flowed through him the most during battle. But there was no thrill. No adrenaline rush. He was the strongest lightsaber duelist he knew, and he had long since learned how to subdue the Force more aptly than his companions. Nothing could catch him off guard, and he could face any opponent in combat. These fights were created to keep him sharp, but he figured he didn’t need them.

As the computer’s voice had predicted, the first wave of enemies appeared. Twelve machines, carrying blaster rifles and armed with personal energy shields, emerged from adjacent rooms. These Sentinel war droids were designed as dispensable combatants, and they were useless unless they fought together in a large group. They communicated with each other in buzzes and blips, as though they could strategize and prepare themselves. However, no amount of droids could stop a master of the Force. They could come in dozens at once, and they would still fall.

Jaeln let them attack first. No point in lashing out at the machines and finishing this exercise before it could begin. Several droids opened fire at him, sending a few red blaster shots at the young warrior. Placing his hands in front of him, Jaeln closed his eyes and diverted his attention from the droids before him and concentrated on the Force itself. The very same energy field that empowered him encompassed everything and united the galaxy as one. Nothing could hope to stand against him with its power. The tips of his fingers grasped at the Force, as though he had dipped his hand in a stream and seized a handful of the water racing by. In the blink of an eye, a transparent wall was erected between Jaeln and his droid combatants. The shots dissipated against the wall, sizzling and eventually disappearing into harmless energy. The young warrior opened his eyes again, and the droids fired upon him in union, trying to destroy his barrier.

They were bold,—for machines—but they were not programmed to face someone like Jaeln. Still behind his protective wall, Jaeln went on the offensive. Concentrating on a single droid, he thought of sending it into the air. Sure enough, the Force granted his mental wish, and the droid was pulled off its feet. Its weapon hit the ground with a crack as its owner levitated in midair, utterly useless without its weapon. But he wasn’t content with a single droid. Within seconds, more than half the droids were floating in the air, suspended by the ethereal power of the Force, both weaponless and defenseless. Blips and bloops from their vocabulators told him that they were still active, but they could do nothing to stop him. The rest of the droids rushed at Jaeln, hoping to bypass his shield and attack him at close range.

A single Force-empowered push ended that idea. The telekinetic burst washed over his droid combatants, crumpling their fragile frames and throwing them to the floor. The wave of invisible energy had even caught some of the floating droids, sending them to join their collapsed allies.

A second wave appeared, this one containing twice as many droids as before. Jaeln knew he was in no danger; their combat algorithms were predictable and their weapons were outdated. Focusing on the nearest droid, Jaeln outstretched his hand and let a small spark form in his palm. Launching it from his hand, Jaeln watched as the burst of electricity spread into a stream of energy that disabled his droid opponents as if infected by a virus. Their cores fried and smoke rose up from their insides even as they hit the ground in a quaint synchronized fashion.

No droids remained, but Jaeln knew he had one last opponent to fight.

“Activating Colossus unit.”

It certainly earned its designation. His last droid opponent was four meters tall and protected with modified tank armor. It was vaguely humanoid, although its extra pair of arms—each equipped with a heavy blaster cannon—compensated for its lack of legs. Its base had old-fashioned tank treads to move, but the groans of the droid’s weak torso meant that it couldn’t move quickly or very far.

Making sure his shield was strong enough to resist the mechanical giant’s first few attacks, Jaeln called upon the Force to attack his newest foe. The combat droids he had destroyed became makeshift projectiles, and he threw them at their hulking counterpart. The large droid ignored them, and it continued to fire upon Jaeln’s defenses. The blaster fire rapidly slammed into Jaeln’s barrier. The shield was staving off the shots for now, but Jaeln could tell that each round of fire weakened it substantially. He’d have to end the battle now.

His lightsaber activated midair as he used the Force to pull it off his sash. The crimson blade leapt from the hilt, the snap-hiss of the energy-blade ringing in Jaeln’s ears. It was a shame. If Jaeln’s opponent could feel fear, then the battle would have ended then and there. However, since this droid couldn’t feel emotions, he would have to destroy it.

He called upon the Force, bidding it to serve him more than before. His vision became cloudy as his heart pumped faster and faster inside his chest. The sound of the blaster fire beating against his shields was drowned out by the hum of his lightsaber. He felt the blood rush through his legs and his arms, and he savored the thought of ending this battle. Time began to slow around him, even as he continued to move at his own pace. Blaster shots were slow-moving objects for him to dodge, and he could see their lines of fire perfectly. Leaping into the air, Jaeln rose up to meet the droid’s head. He swung his lightsaber and it caught itself in the droid’s photoreceptor, but the weapon cleaved a straight line through the droid even as it fell with Jaeln. The tank armor was pathetic, like fabric against blade, and the droid’s internal systems were compromised before Jaeln even finished his descent. A critical system failure forced the droid to power down and saved Jaeln from having to avoid the explosive effects of his work. With its defeat, the exercise ended.

“Impressive, Jaeln,” a voice said. “Most impressive.”

Jaeln recognized the high-pitched voice and knew it belonged to De’dlay, one of the Sith Masters of Alderaan. Turning to face his superior, Jaeln acknowledged the Nikto’s presence by bowing as low as he could, lightsaber still in hand but deactivated. De’dlay’s armor clinked gently as he walked; he wore the armor of a Sith trooper, but it was old and rusted at its edges, and he didn’t bother to refurbish it. He owned a lightsaber, but it wasn’t on his person. Jaeln figured that De’dlay trusted him to not attack his former master in the sanctuary of his own Sith academy.

He was right. Jaeln would have been foolish to attempt such an attack, but trust was dangerous, especially for a Sith Master. De’dlay was not the first master of this academy, and the Nikto had probably taken it from its former master by exploiting his trust. Jaeln had no desire to take the academy from him, but that didn’t mean that De’dlay was safe.

“Stand, young one,” De’dlay spoke when Jaeln did not. “We have much to do and little time to do it.”

Jaeln stood and followed the Nikto out of the room. “Are we going to undertake a mission?” he asked.

“We are. All the Sith of Alderaan.”

“All of us?” Jaeln repeated, a bit shocked. “What are you planning, Master?”

“Not me. Preux.”

Preux. Jaeln had not heard that name prior to the disappearance of his younger brother, Raen, and now he could not go a day without hearing it. There had been a time when Jaeln had suspected that De’dlay led the Sith on Alderaan. Now there was little doubt in his mind that the exact opposite was true. Preux was the lord of Alderaan, and De’dlay was his executor. He had yet to meet the enigmatic figure, but he had a feeling he did not need to. There was little camaraderie between Sith, and the relationship between master and servant was even closer to enmity.

“What is he planning, then?”

De’dlay smiled toothily. “Not here, Jaeln. Let us speak in private. Follow me to the library.”

The trip through the academy was silent. Unlike the room Jaeln had trained in, the rest of the academy did not have an industrial design scheme. In fact, the academy had been modeled after the dreary ruins on Korriban, the Sith capital. A strange thing, since the academy was supposed created out of a Jedi base. Gray walls lined the silent halls of the academy, decorated with ancient Sith runes and an occasional splatter of dried blood. The few Sith they passed hailed De’dlay as he walked by, but they said nothing to his companion. To them, Jaeln was just another Sith.

“Master,” Jaeln finally asked. “Why do you not carry your lightsaber with you of late?”

De’dlay turned to face Jaeln as he kept up his stride, but then continued looking forward. “So you noticed, did you?”

“Yes, Master.”

“The Force has shown me a vision, Jaeln. It has told me that my position as master of this academy will be in danger.” Jaeln suspected that he heard a hint of worry in the Nikto’s light voice.

“By the Jedi?”

“No, by the Sith,” De’dlay corrected him. “It told me that my closest ally would betray me, and he would leave me to die with the ones I had damned.”

“Was that all, Master?” Jaeln asked.

De’dlay hesitated for a moment. “Yes. That was all.”

Jaeln pondered De’dlay’s words for a moment. He realized that De’dlay was not wearing his weapon because he sought out his closest ally. The dark side had confused the Sith Master and created a paranoia within him; he did not trust Jaeln, as he had initially suspected, but the Nikto feared him. Or perhaps he did not fear him at all, but he feared someone. He feared the unknown. De’dlay did not know who would betray him, but he was confident that walking around the academy unarmed would draw the traitor out. It was an interesting tactic, but a dangerous one.

“Master,” Jaeln began, slowly, “you know I would not betray you.”

De’dlay scoffed. “Jaeln, you are a Sith. Authority belongs to those who have the most power. If you have more power than I, then I must accept—perhaps violently—that you deserve this position.”

“Master, you’ve trained me since I was a boy. I could not betray you, even if the dark side compelled me. It would be like challenging my own father,” Jaeln replied.

“Jaeln, I’d like to believe you,” De’dlay said sadly. “You are a strong warrior, and you are unmatched by any Jedi. Even the Sith will learn to fear you, in time. You alone can save me from whoever it is that seeks to destroy me.”

“I swear that I will stand by your side until we both perish,” Jaeln said.

Some relief appeared on De’dlay’s face. “Thank you, Jaeln. Come, the others are waiting.”

The two Sith entered the academy’s library in silence. Upon their arrival to the darkened chamber, they were greeted by a woman, hardly older than Jaeln, wearing the gray military uniform of the Sith, with short blond hair and piercing feline-like eyes. De’dlay greeted her with a low grunt and passed her by. Calay welcomed him with equal enthusiasm, but she addressed Jaeln with respect and cautiously flashed a smile to him. Jaeln pecked her lips softly. It had been some time since the two had done anything together, but now was not the time for it. They bypassed a few bookshelves to reach the room’s lounge where De’dlay was waiting.

“Calay, where is Fasin?” De’dlay asked, his voice fluctuating and unclear. Jaeln recognized it as a habit of the Nikto’s, particularly when he was impatient. He had always been good at recognizing personal idiosyncrasies, even in people he hardly knew.

“I am here, De’dlay,” Fasin spoke up. He had been in their presence the entire time, but he had hidden himself amongst the books in the corner of the room. As a Cathar, he was larger than all of them, but his kempt dark fur and braided mane conflicted with the idea of the wild, giant feline he was supposed to be. He halfheartedly ambled away from his collection of lore and joined the Sith at their seats.

Jaeln rarely saw Fasin because he was always attending to his work. The old Cathar was either in the library studying ancient tomes and translating ancient texts, or he was training one of his two pupils. He was rumored to be centuries old, but Jaeln had suspected those rumors to be untrue until now. Even as he stood in their presence, the dark side poured out of Fasin like no one Jaeln had ever sensed before, and it was obvious that the old sage kept himself alive by the unnatural powers of the dark side.

“Fasin, have you been informed of the plan?” De’dlay growled.

“Preux ensures I am informed of all his plans,” Fasin retorted. “As his oldest and wisest subordinate, he sees it fit to instruct me before the rest of you.”

“You think too highly of yourself,” De’dlay sneered, taking note of Fasin’s cold tone. “Humble yourself before me, the master of the academy and leader of the Sith!”

“You will receive the respect you earn. And you have earned nothing from me,” Fasin countered.

De’dlay stood from his seat and grasped his lightsaber, which had been resting on the desk before him until now. “You’re insane. You are my servant because I am stronger than you. You will respect me, beast.”

The Cathar hissed, but he said nothing. In fact, neither of them spoke, and neither attempted to engage the other. Jaeln watched as Fasin reclined in his seat, apparently surrendering to De’dlay, allowing the Nikto to sit down himself. Fasin’s silence had become his means of surrender.

The three Sith Masters of Alderaan—Calay, De’dlay, and Fasin—all served Preux, but they were not equals. Calay was involved in subterfuge and assassination, De’dlay commanded Preux’s troops and led his academy, while Fasin translated old tomes and learned the knowledge of the ancient Sith. Despite Fasin’s apparent mastery of the dark side of the Force, he had lost his position of power many years earlier to De’dlay. Calay and Fasin simply could not compete against the Nikto directly, but they could conspire in the shadows. It was fear that kept the Sith Masters in a fragile alliance: fear of Preux, for he was supposed to be stronger than them all.

“Then we may begin,” De’dlay continued his earlier train of thought.

“What is your apprentice doing here, De’dlay?” Fasin asked. He loathed the idea of speaking to De’dlay, which was evident from his voice. He didn’t even bother pretending to make eye contact.

“Jaeln is here because Preux demands it,” De’dlay replied. “You said you knew all of Preux’s machinations. So much for that! If you weren’t lying, you would know that Jaeln is the most prominent of our Sith Marauders, and he has proven himself in battle—”

“Against droids,” Fasin interrupted.

“Don't underestimate him,” Calay shot back, defending Jaeln. “He’s taken out Jedi before. And he’s stronger than most of your apprentices.”

Fasin’s eyes glistened at the mention of his students, and what Jaeln thought was a smile snuck onto the old Cathar’s face. “Oh?” he asked, mockingly. “So Jaeln is more skilled than Vericcho and Pallidus, is he? I doubt that, Calay. I quite doubt that.”

“Vericcho is a monster, and Pallidus is as enamored by old stories as you are,” Calay said. “Neither of them can match Jaeln in skill or raw power.”

Fasin cackled. “You speak as though you know of teaching students, Calay. What happened to your last students—your only students? Mar’vai perished due to the plague, and little Dynatha was accused of being a traitor. You have yet to train a successful heir for yourself.”

“Your students are just like you, Master Fasin,” Jaeln finally spoke. “They’re too focused on old stories. I am here because I am the strongest Sith Marauder—in fact, the only one who deserves that title—on Alderaan, and I am the strongest because I was trained by Master De’dlay.”

“Enough!” Fasin shouted. He glared at Jaeln, then at the other Sith Masters. He found himself opposed by his allies, so he ceased his offensive for now. “We’ve wasted enough time bickering here. When this mission ends, we will see who has died and who remains to receive Preux’s blessing.”

“First reasonable thing you’ve said since we arrived,” De’dlay responded. “Jaeln, you are the only one of us who does not know why we are here. Our master—Preux—has decided to end the Republic’s long reign on Alderaan. Our time here on Alderaan has not been wasted; since our arrival, we have strengthened our garrison and abducted many, forcing them to join our ranks. We have infiltrated this world of artisans and scholars, and we have since taken root. Our legacy stems from the Qel-Droma family, who were the first Sith born on Alderaan. It is time that we seize that legacy by force.”

Jaeln crossed his arms. The Nikto’s words could mean only one thing, but the young Sith feigned ignorance for now. “How? What are you saying, Master?”

“The royal family has turned a blind eye to our activities so far, as long as we pay them heftily to falsify reports to the Senate. The Jedi did not sense our presence before, but ever since Jedi Master Tor’chal’s death, they suspect that the Sith may control Alderaan. They're mistaken, but not for long. The time for secrecy has ended. Darth Malak, Dark Lord of the Sith, aims to attack the galactic capital at Coruscant. Preux has given us his permission to overthrow the royal family,” De’dlay explained.

“Master, House Latona is loved, and they’ve done more for the good of Alderaan and its position in the Republic than any of their predecessors. Any sort of uprising would cause hysteria.”

“Boy, you needn’t worry about such trivialities,” Fasin chided Jaeln. “The reaction of the hoi polloi does not concern Preux, so it does not concern us.”

“Besides,” Calay interrupted, “House Organa has pledged their support to us, and they are quite popular with the citizens.

“Why would House Organa support us?” Jaeln asked.

“The Alderaanian noble families are always infighting,” Calay explained. “House Organa seems to think that they’ve earned a chance at the throne, and they’re willing to side with us to get it.”

“But won’t the Republic attack us?” Jaeln mused.

Fasin laughed. “De’dlay, I don’t believe in your student’s strength, but his inquisitive nature is obvious. If he were older, he might have been a tactician during the war against Mandalore.”

“Jaeln, you are to follow orders, not question them,” De’dlay said. “We will inform you of your part in this plan before long. For now, prepare yourself. We shall attack in three day’s time.”

Jaeln nodded and, sensing that he was no longer welcome, rose from his seat and left the Sith Masters to speak privately. As he was about to leave, Calay chased him down and grabbed his shoulder.

“What is it, Calay?” Jaeln asked.

“You said you needed this,” Calay said, placing a small amulet in his hand. “Return it to me before tonight. De’dlay won’t be pleased to learn that he has lost his key.”

“Understood,” Jaeln said. “Thank you, Calay.”

“Anything for you.”

Calay returned to the library to continue her discussion with the other Sith Masters, and Jaeln returned to the halls. He clenched the amulet Calay had stolen from De’dlay in his hand, hiding the small metal chip from view. He had asked Calay to procure the key to De’dlay’s private sanctuary several days ago, and she proved capable as ever. De’dlay had let him behind those doors once before, but he had to return. He had to see inside that place again. He had to know more about what was going on Alderaan. He needed more knowledge.

Walking across the academy, he was confident that the Sith Masters would be talking for quite some time, and De’dlay would not be able to catch him. He passed by Sith soldiers taking apart their guns near the barracks and Dark Jedi sparring in the arena. No one interrupted his path, and no one paid any attention to him. All these agents of the Sith Empire would be mobilized soon enough, and they would see each other again when they attacked the capital in a few days. Until then, they would not speak or interact.

“Jaeln! Just the star I was looking for!”

Jaeln turned around to face the source of the sudden voice. A man a few years younger than Jaeln approached him, clothed in a dark, form-fitting robe and a flowing brown cloak. He was bald, but a hideous birthmark that looked like a blaster scar covered most of his forehead. His pale skin and yellow eyes reflected his unrestrained devotion to the dark side, and his crooked, discolored teeth formed a disheartening smile.

“Vericcho,” Jaeln greeted Fasin’s pupil with apathy.

The other Sith Marauder seemed hurt, but Jaeln knew he was incapable of being pained by such trivial things. “Don’t say my name like that, Jaeln. After I was so keen on speaking to you…”

“What do you want?”

“I just want to talk, Jaeln,” Vericcho said, his voice laced with false amicability. “We can do that, right? Or are you too important to talk to me, your old friend?”

“I was never your friend,” Jaeln replied, quickly pushing Vericcho’s hand away from his shoulder.

“You wound me.” Vericcho’s eyes lit up when he caught a glimpse of the item in Jaeln’s hand. “What is that?”

“Nothing that concerns you,” Jaeln snapped. “Don’t you have to rip the legs off some poor, defenseless creature? Maybe exploit some peasant’s time of need?”

“I did those things today,” Vericcho said, dismissing the ideas. “But after I had stolen some credits from a poor, single mother and her three children at the spaceport, I thought: ‘you know what you haven’t done in a while, Vericcho? You haven’t spoken to your old friend, Jaeln Benax.’”

“I said I’m not your friend,” Jaeln replied, turning to walk away from the other Sith Marauder. “And I certainly don’t want to talk to you. Go away.”

“Calay was looking awfully pretty today.”

Jaeln shot Vericcho a deadly stare. “What did you say?”

“Jaeln, you’re not as sneaky as you think you are. When you look at her…” Vericcho cooed, drifting into a melodramatic sigh. “You are quite oblivious to everything else around you.”

“Drop it, Vericcho.”

“Have you ever thought about how she would look with no arms?” Vericcho asked, a wicked smile spreading across his pale face. “Think about it—a quick vibroblade cut here or there…”

He was cut off when Jaeln spun around and immersed himself in the Force. Vericcho gasped and wheezed as his throat was constricted by Jaeln’s telekinetic grasp, waving his arms helplessly. Jaeln grabbed his lightsaber and placed the weapon’s deactivated hilt on the other Sith Marauder’s chest.

“I said, drop it.”

“I… I hear you,” Vericcho said, choking on his own words. “Dropping it like a stone. A heavy stone.”

Jaeln let him go, and Vericcho gladly sighed in relief. Jaeln continued toward De’dlay’s private sanctum, but he turned around and faced Vericcho. “If you even think about hurting Calay, I’ll know. I have the power to make you die a slow, painful death. Remember that.”

As Jaeln turned to leave, Vericcho licked his lips hungrily. “I’d like that, Jaeln.”

*** ***

Jaeln slid the amulet into the door’s key slot. He had made sure no one, especially Vericcho, had followed him here. Reaching out into the Force, he monitored every being around him, sensing how far each of them was from him. Once he was sure there was no one within eyeshot, he entered De’dlay’s private room.

After he closed the door behind him, Jaeln took note of the fetid smell that had been sealed in this room. He gagged violently as the stench of sweat and seared flesh rose up from the depths of the room. The hair on his neck stood on end as he walked inside, each step echoing amidst the darkened chamber before him. The dark side was thick in this room, hovering around him like miasma, making it hard to breathe.

Making his way by the light of dim lanterns, Jaeln arrived at a T-intersection. It was difficult to see through the haze and the rotting smell distracted him, but he made his way to the right, passing several prison cells as he did so. Unlike the cells in the academy proper, these were old-fashioned, complete with stone walls and metal bars, meant to create a feeling of separation and hopelessness. The light seemed to avoid the inside of these cells, as though the damned were not fit to feel the warmth and security it brought.

Eventually, Jaeln made his way to the very last cell. It was left open; De’dlay had probably been down here before meeting him in the training room. Jaeln had been down here only once before, and the sickening atmosphere hadn’t changed. In fact, it was probably worse. Nevertheless, he remembered who occupied that last cell, and he hoped she was still alive.

Dynatha Aris. She had been a Sith once. Now, she was a prisoner, a helpless pawn in a power-struggle between the Sith Masters. Chained to the wall at the farthest end of the cell, her feet dangled nearly a meter above the ground. As Jaeln left the light of the hall and approached her, he felt an eerie coldness sweep over his body. Her blond hair was scattered over her face, but it was torn and knotted into an ungraceful mess. Blood and sweat covered her bare limbs, and Jaeln found himself shuddering when he saw the fresh cuts on her arm. Blood flowed from her wounds like crimson tears, racing down her body and dripping to the floor, forming puddles beneath her.

“Dynatha,” Jaeln said.

“… Raen…”

“What?” Jaeln asked, shocked.

Her voice was hoarse and hushed, but he could still hear her. “… Raen…”

She kept repeating his name, over and over, and she hadn’t heard him. Stepping to her, he lightly touched her chin—she flinched as his fingers met her cold skin—and lifted her face to meet his. She continued to mutter the name of Jaeln’s brother, even as her hazel eyes, lifelessly resting on faded bags beneath her eyelids, met Jaeln’s stare. Her face was emaciated and the bones in her cheeks jutted out of her skin as though they were going to tear through it.

“Dynatha.”

Her eyes shifted away from him when he said her name. Recoiling, she struggled against the chains that bound her arms to the wall. “No! Master chokes me when I say her name! Stop it, stop it!”

De’dlay… why are you doing this? Jaeln moved her head so that she could look at him again. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you; you just need to help me. Do you know why De’dlay is doing this?”

“The master says I betrayed the promise I made to him,” Dynatha said, still squirming in her chains. “I spoke to the one who overmasters, and the master said I deserve this.”

It was true. Dynatha had been Calay’s student before she ended up in this dark place. She was never meant to be a Sith—not really. De’dlay sensed that she was Force-sensitive and took her from her parents, a couple living on a fishing village in the most rural part of Alderaan. She developed a crush on Raen before he fled Alderaan. Calay toyed with Dynatha’s feelings and told her that if she contacted Preux and told her about Raen’s progress, she could help him become a Sith Marauder, and eventually win his heart.

Calay had set up the meetings with Preux, but De’dlay discovered Dynatha’s actions. Thinking that Raen had convinced Dynatha to act as an envoy between himself and Preux, De’dlay moved to capture Dynatha and tried to kill Raen. Raen had escaped; Dynatha did not.

Jaeln, then, felt responsible for Dynatha’s unfortunate position. He had convinced Calay to set up the meetings between Dynatha and Preux, hoping to discover more information about the enigmatic figure. And now she was here, broken and tortured at De’dlay’s hands. He should have killed her; he didn’t know why his master kept the girl alive.

“Dynatha, why are you calling out Raen’s name?” Jaeln asked.

The young girl held back a sob. “He… Raen will come to rescue me. I know he will. And we’ll escape, and he’ll keep me safe from the master.”

Jaeln hesitated when he heard the young girl’s hopes. Raen wasn’t dead, but if he was wise, he wouldn’t return to Alderaan. He never reciprocated Dynatha’s feelings, and yet she thought he was some sort of knight, coming to rescue her. Shaking his head, Jaeln turned to leave. He couldn’t do anything more here. It was clear that Dynatha didn’t have anymore information about Preux; she could hardly speak, much recognize her own name.

“Jaeln,” Dynatha’s soft voice called after him.

He stopped. “Yes?”

“Master says…” she paused and tried to reach her arms to wipe away her tears. “Master says Raen is dead. Is that true?”

“… No. Raen’s alive.”

Jaeln left the cell, not bothering to turn around and face Dynatha again. If he had, he might have saw the faint smile that graced Dynatha’s face for the first time in a long time.

He’s out there… Raen. Save me.


Chapter 9

Aldera, the capital city of Alderaan, was beautiful in the starlight. Mountains formed a semicircle in the distance, creating a natural wall that would have hindered ancient invaders. Even the serene lake that surrounded most of the city hinted at the ingenuity and practical-mindedness of Aldera’s architects, turning the vast body of water into a natural moat. Water flowed freely in the unseen streets as canals and along buildings like waterfalls, creating illustrious gardens and grand pools for artists, tourists, and thinkers alike to enjoy.

The city’s alabaster towers reached for the sky, peering out from behind the walls that encompassed the entire city. Aldera police patrolled the wall’s perimeter, but most of them were stationed inside to protect the citizens of the capital. At the heart of the entire city stood the Castle of Alderaan itself. A domed building with a single grand spire reaching for the starry night sky, the castle was not the largest building, but it was majestic all the same. About seven stories tall, it had several raised bridges that connected to a series of towers surrounding the castle and a grand citadel for storing supplies had been constructed directly in front of the castle itself.

In the stillness of night, Jaeln was awed at the splendor of the city. He stood alone in the grassy plains that raced out from the edge of the lake and headed into the forested lands beyond. About half a kilometer behind him, Sith engineers were activating bipedal combat droids, and Sith troopers were making last minute preparations for their attack. They were far enough from the city’s walls to avoid the sight of the night watch, but close enough to see the banks of the lake itself. The night air raced through Jaeln’s hair, and he thought he felt mist tossed into the air from the lakes pelt his face.

Artillery fire would raze buildings and burn the land. Metal stakes would be erected to slow vehicles. Broken droids and shattered defenses would be scattered across the fields. The Sith planned on leaving most of the capital’s buildings intact, but there was no guarantee that a single brick would be standing at dawn.

Calay’s footsteps crunched against the wet grass beneath her boots, and Jaeln recognized her approach before she had even reached him. He remained still, focusing on Aldera’s majesty. To his surprise, she wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed her chest against his back. Calay hardly acted on her passions in public, mostly to avoid arousing suspicion. With Sith like Vericcho around, Jaeln agreed with her wholeheartedly. There were many Sith who would use knowledge of their relationship to endanger either of them. Nevertheless, the secrecy of their relationship became irksome at times, especially during long missions.

Jaeln continued to focus his attention elsewhere, playfully ignoring the Sith Master until she whispered something in his ear.

“What was that?” Jaeln whispered, still being coy.

“Are you ready, love?”

“I hope so,” Jaeln replied. He placed his hand on top of hers. “This could be our last battle.”

“Do you think one of us could die?” Calay asked, humorously entertaining the thought.

“No.”

“Well,” Calay began, “we could have done something romantic.”

“We’re alone. We still have time.”

Calay slowly turned Jaeln around, until the two were facing each other. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and slowly brought herself close to Jaeln for a kiss. Jaeln placed his arms at her waist as Calay’s touch continued to weaken him, her lips joining his in their embrace. But it was over too quickly. Calay’s comlink went off, and she quickly escaped Jaeln’s grasp, much to his dismay.

“Calay…” he said, reaching for her.

She brushed him off. “Not now. De’dlay’s giving me the signal; it’s time to begin.”

“Calay,” Jaeln called out to her.

“Yes?”

“Don’t die.”

“I can’t,” Calay purred. “I need to come back to you, don’t I?”

Activating the stealth generator on her belt, Calay’s body faded from view even as Jaeln reached out to touch her again. Her footfall could still be heard, and Jaeln listened as the sound of her steps faded away, heading toward the capital. She was crucial to the entire battle plan, and Jaeln knew she had to leave, but he privately bemoaned the entire ordeal. He wanted to feel her, hold her, and kiss her. It was always something. If it wasn’t this mission, it was some lesson. If it wasn’t some lesson, it was a meeting.

“Jaeln,” Fasin’s low, haunting voice called from behind him. “It is time. Are you ready?”

Jaeln almost jumped. How had the elderly Cathar snuck up on him when Calay had failed? He felt embarrassed, and quickly banished thoughts of his love into the depths of his mind before locking his mind from the probing powers of the other Sith. “Of course, Master Fasin. I trust you and your pupils are prepared?”

“We are,” Fasin said. “Follow me, boy.”

Jaeln acknowledged Fasin’s command, not speaking to the Sith Master as the two headed for Aldera. As they approached the walls, Jaeln saw legions of Sith troopers descend from their positions in the hills in the distance and head toward the city’s gates. Once Calay unlocked the sanctuary gates, the Sith troopers could cross the lake on a makeshift bridge and enter the city itself. In the meanwhile, the Force-sensitives would bypass the walls and the city altogether, heading for the castle itself to pave the way for the infantrymen.

Fasin reached the edge of the lake, and Jaeln stood by his side. Both of them stared at the silver walls on the other side. They knew how they were going to climb it, but they had to wait for their brethren. The cold water from the lake splashed against Jaeln, its spray dampening his robes and his uncovered face. De’dlay and the other Marauders could not have arrived any sooner than they did. Once all the Force-sensitives had finally arrived, Jaeln leapt from the banks of the lake all the way to the top of the wall. The Force served him well, and he found footing as soon as he ascended. Overlooking the city, Jaeln took notice of multitude of walkways leading from the city’s entrance to the castle itself while the rest of the Sith joined him on the wall-walk.

The city that surrounded the castle was certainly underdeveloped. Residential areas were located closest to the city walls, while the large alabaster towers that were involved in industry and trade became plentiful near the center of the capital. Beyond the city’s center—a large marketplace where goods were exchanged and offworlders spent most of their time could be seen—the castle’s walls stood and eclipsed the height of the city’s own defenses. They would have to leap those walls to reach the castle’s citadel, a large block-shaped fortress that stood in front of the castle to defend it from assault. It likely doubled as a bunker in case of bombardment. Then they could enter the castle itself.

The Sith, led by De’dlay, leapt from the top of the walls to the nearest rooftops. Jaeln tried to make as little noise as possible, but it proved difficult due to the poor construction of these homes. Quickly moving on, the Sith jumped from house to house, building to building, and some of the less-experienced Dark Jedi even navigated the otherwise empty streets of Aldera. There were police, of course, protecting the city from criminals and adolescent troublemakers, but it was easy to circumnavigate their sloppy and undisciplined patrols.

Reaching the castle walls, Jaeln jumped to the top of its citadel. He walked from one end of its flat top to the other, now peering down at the castle itself. It was certainly large enough to dwarf most of the other buildings in the capital, but it was small enough that it was difficult to target directly from outside the city walls. There were many buildings across the castle, but they lessened as the building got taller; clearly, the royal family stayed on the upper floors where entry was difficult from the outside. At De’dlay’s behest, Jaeln leapt from the citadel and propelled himself into a random window on a lower floor.

No alarms were raised as Jaeln shattered the glass and rolled into the dark room. Once again, Jaeln thanked his training in the dark side; if not for the Force, he would have bled to death. There was nothing in this room,—probably a storage area—and Jaeln approached the door, pressing his hand against its wooden frame. The Force flooded images into his mind, showing him two guards, idly chatting, on the other side of the door. He could vaguely hear their voices and feel their hearts beating. His power naturally stemmed forth from his body, and invisible tendrils grasped at the guards’ throats. As the Force choked the clueless guards, Jaeln opened the door telekinetically to reveal himself to his victims.

They were dead before he stepped out of the room. His first kills of the evening, but certainly not his last. The dead guards lay at his feet as he glanced to his left and right. This hallway’s ceiling at least eight meters high and was wide enough for several Hutts to travel through side-by-side easily for meters on end. Most of the hall was constructed out of wood and stone, although bronzium decorations and metal pedestals lined the walls in both directions as far as he could see. Occasionally, a painting or tapestry was placed on the wall to add some liveliness to the otherwise hallow halls. Light hardly entered the building from the outside; instead, glowpanels on the floor and walls provided a subtle glow to the entire castle.

“This is Jaeln,” he said, activating his comlink. “I’m inside the castle.”

“Good work, Jaeln,” De’dlay’s voice replied. He sounded distracted, but that was expected. They were undertaking a dangerous mission, after all. “Each Sith will be responsible for the death of an Alderaanian leader. You will be responsible for killing the princess, Eliorae Latona.”

“Why? Isn’t she just a kid?” Jaeln asked.

“She’s eighteen.”

Jaeln chuckled softly. She was Raen’s age; she was a kid. “Just to make sure there are no heirs to the throne?”

“Correct.”

“Very well. Jaeln out.”

Jaeln put his comlink back in his cloak and then reached into the Force. Closing his eyes, he could feel the presence of hundreds of beings, including some of his Sith allies, across the castle. He had seen maps of the castle, but the princess did not have a permanent room for herself. It would be nearly impossible to find her in the Force with all these people around him. Instead of dwelling internally and trying to find her on his own, he decided that the best course of action would be to scour the castle. It would take longer, but the Force would eventually guide him toward his target.

Jaeln headed east, approaching a wall that had a large mural of Alderaan’s oceans on its walls. Turning the corner at the end of the long hall, he practically collided with an armored Twi'lek male and several castle guards. The Twi’lek wore the same red-and-black armor as the guards he accompanied, but he didn't carry a blaster on his person. A green lightsaber leapt from his belt, and Jaeln realized mere seconds before the swing came down that the warrior was Force-sensitive. Stunned, Jaeln barely managed to dodge the attack and block with his own lightsaber. There were no Jedi here; it was impossible. If there had been any on the planet, De’dlay would have known about them and warned the Sith. A quick Force push sent the Twi’lek flying away, knocking him out of the fight for a moment.

“Don't let the invader pass you!” one of the other guards growled.

One of the guards charged at Jaeln with his vibroblade. Immersing himself in the power of the Force, Jaeln controlled his temporal perception until the guard slowed to a crawl. Now moving at superhuman speed, time seemed trivial to the Sith Marauder. Throwing his red lightsaber, Jaeln let the weapon cut through the charging guardsmen and his two non-Jedi companions, killing all three of them in a single arcing motion. How pathetic.

As the three guards died around him, the Twi’lek guard recovered his footing. Now it was just Jaeln against the Jedi. The Sith warrior pivoted on his left foot to face his opponent, but he was not expecting such a quick recovery. The Twi’lek sprung toward him and his lightsaber just barely grazed Jaeln’s face; if Jaeln had turned a second later, he would have lost his jaw. The smell of charred flesh filled the Sith’s nostrils, and he cried in pain. He managed to deflect the Jedi’s next few attacks in spite of his injury, but he received no respite.

The Force had saved him from a deadly blow, but he had never been wounded in battle like this. He would be permanently scarred from his chin to his right cheek. Rage began to build inside of him as he blocked the Twi’lek’s blows. The pain from the wound fueled his anger. His opponent was skilled, and he hated it. Jaeln hated him for his capability to inflict harm on him, and he hated his presence. Moving into an offensive stance, Jaeln observed several weak points in the opponent's style, particularly around his lower body. Breaking a quick saberlock, Jaeln tried to cut at the Twi’lek’s chest. The quick swings from the Sith forced the Twi’lek to defend his torso, which was exactly what Jaeln wanted. Quickly switching his target, Jaeln’s red blade found its mark at his opponent’s thigh.

The Twi’lek flinched for a second, but that was all Jaeln needed. Once his opponent was distracted by the pain, Jaeln cut the Twi’lek’s chest with a diagonal slice. His opponent collapsed, dropping his lightsaber as he struggled to heal himself with the Force.

“Who are you, and how many more Jedi are there in this place?” Jaeln asked, stomping his boot on the cauterized flesh of his foe’s chest.

“My… my name is Lyos, but I won’t betray my brothers and sisters to you, Sith,” the Twi’lek spat. “End my life as you see fit, or torture me if you must. But you will fail.”

Jaeln touched the wound on his face. Some flakes of burnt skin fell to the floor as his fingers ran across it. “You are the first enemy to scar me in battle. I will make your end quick.”

Jaeln’s lightsaber cut Lyos’s face horizontally, tearing his lower jaw and the end of his dangling lekku from the rest of his body. Before he left Lyos’s corpse, he cut the Twi’lek’s chest with his lightsaber, shouting in anger. That was not all he deserved, but it was all Jaeln could muster. He had a mission to do. Once he was sure Lyos was dead, Jaeln realized that he heard the sound of laser fire in the distance. The Sith artillery pieces must have begun their assault on the city walls. That meant the Sith troopers were inside the city; he would have to hurry and finish his task.

Racing up a flight of stairs, Jaeln ran into a group of four guards. They were startled to see him, and they probably did not even know they were under attack. The castle’s poor communication would prove to be its downfall. Jaeln used a concentrated burst of telekinesis to send two guards flying into the walls beside them. The other two managed to draw their blasters before Jaeln used a burst of Force lightning to disable their weapons. One guard’s blaster exploded in a violent burst of excess energy, and the burns felled him. The last guard, weaponless, tried to flee from the Sith invader.

Jaeln grabbed his lightsaber and threw the weapon at his escaping target. Its blood-red blade activated in midair, buzzing as it raced up the stairs and successfully tore off one of the guard’s legs. Crying out in pain, the crippled guard was already pleading for mercy by the time Jaeln walked up to meet him.

“Please… don't… don’t kill me! I’ll do anything!” the guard yelped when he saw Jaeln’s weapon.

“We’ll make a deal,” Jaeln mused, “I’ll spare your life in exchange for information.”

“Anything!” the guard cried.

“Where is the princess?”

“Eliorae? Well, why didn’t you say you were looking for her? She’s two floors up, in the room next to the large mural of the Alderaanian grassland. Please don’t kill me.”

“Very well,” Jaeln muttered.

The young Sith deactivated his lightsaber and continued his ascent. Before he arrived on the next floor, Jaeln reached into the Force and choked the guard he left lying on the floor. He heard the guard’s dying gasps as he ran down the hall toward the next set of stairs. There were no other guards, although Jaeln knew he had taken too much time ensuring that the enemies he encountered were dead. Reaching the floor that the guard had told him about, Jaeln raced down that hall as well, cutting the guards that idly stood in his way. He had been hesitant about using his lightsaber to defeat these trivial opponents, but he would not exert the effort to kill them with the Force.

Once he had reached the room by the mural at the farthest end of this floor, he examined the door. He hadn’t expect it to be unlocked, and a quick telekinetic nudge forced the door wide open. Jaeln realized that the room had been destroyed: the bed at the farthest end of the room was broken in half and items from the various wardrobes were scattered across the floor. He was shocked at the sight of two Dark Jedi and a Sith Marauder waiting for him. Based on their reaction, they were startled to see him too. He didn’t recognize the Dark Jedi, whose identities were hidden behind cowls; however, their leader was the last Sith he wanted to see. Vericcho.

Three guards and a woman—probably a maidservant—were dead at Vericcho’s feet. He smiled toothily when he saw Jaeln, but otherwise made no sudden motion. Strips of linen rested in his hand, probably from the dead maidservant’s dress. One of the Dark Jedi was in the process of beating a second maidservant, and the other Dark Jedi was trying to restrain the princess herself. They were disobeying orders, being in here. Jaeln was responsible for these targets.

“Vericcho? What’s going on here?” Jaeln asked fiercely.

“Ah, Jaeln,” Vericcho cooed. “Just the star I was hoping to see tonight. Join us, would you? The spoils here are excellent.”

“Why are you here?” Jaeln asked.

“We are earning our just rewards. Can you believe they wanted to kill this royal beauty, her mother, and all their courtesans? What a waste. I’ll take them alive or dead, Jaeln, but they are so much better alive. They don’t quite sound the same when they’re dead.”

“You’re sick,” Jaeln nearly shouted. “Leave. Now. You have your own mission to attend to.”

“Killing the Republic diplomat to Alderaan,” Vericcho said, mimicking De’dlay’s high-pitched, nasally voice as best as he could. “Who cares? I can do that later, when the fighting is at its peak. Right now, I want to whet my appetite.”

The princess cried something unintelligible in the distance. Her sudden outburst angered her captor, one of the Dark Jedi, and he struck her in the face. Jaeln moved toward them, but Vericcho halted his advance, standing in between Jaeln and his target. Jaeln started to move around him, but a Force push from Vericcho kept him back.

“Jaeln, what happened to your face?” Vericcho asked, mock sympathy in his voice, “Did Calay get you with her claws last night? You have to mind those-”

Jaeln swung his lightsaber, now activated, at Vericcho’s throat. The other Marauder coolly grabbed his own weapon and blocked the attack. The two Dark Jedi activated their lightsabers as well, but they stabbed their hostages before turning their attention to their guest.

“What do you think you’re doing, Jaeln?” Vericcho asked.

Jaeln ignored him. He was tired of Vericcho’s attitude, and this was the perfect time to deal with him. Lunging at his opponent, Jaeln’s thrust was narrowly dodged by Vericcho. When his allies attempted to defend him, Jaeln used the Force to throw one of the emptied wardrobes at them, smashing both of them underneath it. Vericcho returned his attention to Jaeln after inspecting the stabbed princess. Jaeln proved a better duelist than his sadistic opponent, and he easily kept the duel in his favor. Fasin had gotten lazy teaching his students the art of lightsaber dueling, it seemed. What was a Marauder if he couldn’t kill another Force-sensitive? A few feints and Jaeln successfully caught his opponent off-guard. A quick vertical cut severed Vericcho’s weapon arm, and without a lightsaber, Vericcho could do very little but plead for clemency before Jaeln cut off his other arm as well.

Vericcho whimpered, gasping as he stepped away from his opponent. “Hold on, Jaeln!”

“I always thought you looked better without arms, Vericcho,” Jaeln mocked his defenseless foe.

“Oh, I see what this is about…” Vericcho hesitated, and then took a step back. “Listen, I didn’t mean it. You have to understand, there is a certain-”

“Save it. You crossed the line.”

“We’re Sith, Jaeln. There is no line. I was only looking out for myself.”

Jaeln smiled. “You’re right. And so am I.”

Grabbing the lightsaber Vericcho had dropped, Jaeln ignited it and drove it into its owner’s skull. Vericcho gasped in shock, and his breath escaped for the last time as he fell to the floor.

Once Vericcho and his allies were dead, Jaeln returned his attention to Eliorae. He approached the princess, who was lying on the ground with a lightsaber wound in her chest. Her maidservants were all dead, but she seemed to be struggling to stay alive. Her labored breathing was faint in comparison to the artillery fire outside, but it was loud enough that Jaeln noticed it immediately. The Sith Marauder thought he heard the sound of her sobs between an occasional gasp for breath, but she wasn’t crying. She was laughing.

“Eliorae,” Jaeln said, staring at the princess.

She did not respond to him and continued laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“You…” she gasped for breath, and Jaeln could tell she did not have much time.

“Me?”

“You lose…” she said between breaths. “The princess… escaped… you lose.”

Jaeln frowned when he realized that this was a decoy to distract the Sith until the real princess escaped. “I can track her down.”

“You don’t know where she’s gone.”

Jaeln’s rage boiled inside of him. First Vericcho insulted him, and now his prey evaded him like a wounded animal! Activating his lightsaber, the young Sith cut the woman’s throat with his lightsaber. He growled in fury, but his anger wasn’t quelled. Without her, Jaeln didn’t have any way to find out where the princess had gone, but he didn’t care. His anger prevented him from seeing the effects of his actions. When he had calmed down, he could try and reach out in the Force and sense her, but amidst all the chaos compounded with the hundreds of individuals inside the castle, honing in on one fleeing person he had never met would be difficult.

Sorely defeated, Jaeln abandoned his hunt for now. He needed a moment to clear his head, or else he would return to the fray blinded by rage.

*** ***

It was almost sunrise. The Sith troopers and their droid companions had entered the city several hours ago, and they had carved a bloody path through the city on their way to the castle. Alderaanian policemen were gunned down in the streets, uncoordinated and not armed well enough to fight such a brutal enemy. Civilians were rounded up across the city while Sith artillery batteries rained laser fire and heavy projectiles onto their homes, their businesses, and those unfortunate enough to remain in hiding. Several of the city's larger towers had fallen, and the walls of the glimmering capital were no more. Communications had been cut off, preventing the royal family from calling for help; even if they could, it would have been useless. Sith war droids were attacking every city in a six kilometer radius.

The citadel held out against its Sith attackers for some time. The building could only be entered through a single door, permanently locked from inside the castle itself. While Calay worked on opening the door, the Sith troopers stationed outside the citadel were subject to blaster cannon fire and grenades from above. By the time the citadel was opened,—and quickly conquered for the Sith—the road below was comprised of nothing but scattered, burnt Sith corpses and ditches large enough to serve as their graves.

The Sith troopers and their droid units entered the castle from the ground floor, slowly capturing room after room. The Alderaanian guardsmen, though few in number, proved able to bunker down in rooms and at the end of the castle’s long halls, slowing the advance of the Sith infantry drastically. In the end, their efforts were futile, and all surviving royalists fell back to the throne room on the sixth floor.

The royal family and their advisors had fallen. Only the king remained, holed up in his throne room with the last of his traditional guards and his Force-sensitive personal guardsmen. He was tenacious, and his refusal to surrender cost the Sith time and lives. King Sigmund III Latona’s last true defense was a metal door protected by a shield that separated his throne room from the remainder of the castle. The shield had fallen, and the door had been destroyed by a Sith battering ram. It had been crude, but effective. The door was breached, and Sith troopers poured inside the throne room.

The king’s throne stood at the farthest end of the room, surrounded by streaming banners suspended from balconies overhead, showing the fanciful coats-of-arms of each noble house and their familial color. Directly above his throne, a stain-glass window displaying the signing of Alderaan’s first treaty with the people of Coruscant provided the whole room with enough light to see every corner with clarity. Glowpanels lined the floor from the entryway down the purple carpet that led to the throne itself, and other stain-glass windows were built behind the decorative pillars on the far left and right of the vast room that separated the regal throne itself from the entrance.

Alderaanian guardsmen, wearing red-and-black armor and equipped with blaster rifles and vibroswords, filled the space between the throne and the doorway. There were hardly any left, numbering about fifty in all. Closer to the throne, after ascending the steps to reach the king, a number of Force-sensitive guardsmen stood by the king, defending him from harm. The Sith troopers had poured in by the dozens, taking advantage of the spacious room and the equally wide doorway. Blaster shots raced back and forth across the chamber, some aiming for the Sith troopers and their droid allies, others aiming for the king himself.

This had gone on for at least an hour. The Sith seemed unable to push through the royalist lines, even when the surviving Sith and their Dark Jedi minions arrived to turn the tide against all the king’s men.

Jaeln hadn’t reached the throne room. The sound of his footsteps against the old floorboards leading to the king’s position was his only company. As he ran through the halls to provide assistance to his Sith allies, he took notice of the corpses that began to pile up across the floor. Sith troopers were strewn about the halls, covered in blood from their own wounds and circuitry from their destroyed droid companions. They had taken heavy losses, but for every Sith corpse, three dead castle guards could be found nearby. He relished the results of this part of the battle, but he was still distracted.

He had tracked the princess from the palace into the countryside beyond; it had taken some time, but it had proved fruitless. The guards who tried to stop him were unable a dark side adept of his caliber, and he killed anyone who got in his way. When he was sure the princess was out of his reach, he half-heartedly returned to the battle. He had to return, either to learn the outcome of the attack, or to receive his punishment for failure.

The throne room doors were smashed in when he arrived. Green blaster fire flew out from inside, and Jaeln had to activate his lightsaber to safely enter the throne room. An entire squad of Sith soldiers was dead at the entryway, having stepped over a fragmentation mine set by the king’s forces. At this point, the Sith troopers were making their last push against their Alderaanian foes. What little cover the royalists had been using—the pillars, artificial barricades, and temporary barriers—was destroyed by Sith heavy weaponry, and they were falling back toward the throne itself. The king had since left his throne, accompanied by his personal contingent of Force-using guards, and joined the battle himself.

When Jaeln entered the room, De’dlay noticed his former pupil’s arrival and turned to his opponent, a Zabrak Force-sensitive warrior fighting with a blue lightsaber. A simple nod from De’dlay caused the Zabrak to turn his attention from De’dlay and rush at one of the other Jedi in the throne room. To Jaeln’s surprise, the Zabrak Jedi bypassed the Sith soldiers, who could not hit him as he raced through the throne room. He thrust his lightsaber into the back of an Arkanian Jedi, who cried out in shock as the lightsaber emerged from his chest. Some words were exchanged between the two, but Jaeln didn’t know what they said. He was confused, but it seemed evident that the Zabrak was a double agent for the Sith, and he was waiting for Jaeln to arrive so he could betray his allies.

Calay killed the Gran Jedi she was fighting, cutting off his head with her vibroblade when he turned from her to decry the actions of his erstwhile Zabrak companion. While the other Sith Marauders continued to engage their opponents, De’dlay motioned for Jaeln to follow him. Protecting themselves from the blaster fire of the few Alderaanian guards with their lightsabers, the two Sith approached the king, who was in the process of fighting two Dark Jedi with his own vibrosword.

Calay used the Force to reach the king before De’dlay and Jaeln, and she managed to disarm him by slicing at his unguarded hand with her blade. The king shouted as he lost his weapon, but he didn’t realize that Jaeln and De’dlay had been approaching him the entire time. The two Sith grasped at his arms, restraining him as Calay elbowed him in the chest and sent him to his knees.

The king was defenseless now, his long white hair covering his wrinkled brow and gaunt face. His clothes, more suited for diplomacy than combat, were lightly covered in sweat, but the oils on his scarlet robes and black leather armor created a light fragrance in the air that itched Jaeln’s nose. The king struggled against Jaeln’s grip, but he proved stronger than the old king, and he and De’dlay kept him restrained until Calay called out to the surviving royalists. After threatening to kill the king unless they dropped their weapons, the battle ended. No Jedi—except the traitorous Zabrak—survived the final moments of the battle, so the regular guards were rendered leaderless.

While the guards were discarding their weapons, a haunting feeling crept up on Jaeln like a sudden plague, and he felt weaker than before. He looked at De’dlay, but he didn’t seem to be affected. The dark side was overpowering Jaeln’s senses—no, it was crushing his entire body under its power, threatening to drive him into the ground. From the doorway to the throne room, a single individual, levitating at least half a meter off the ground, drifted toward the Sith leaders that surrounded the king. De’dlay barked at the Sith troopers to line up near the wall, and they did so without question. The droids remained behind to ensure that none of the Alderaanian guards got a surge of valor and tried to save their liege, and the Zabrak remained where he was. Jaeln recognized that the dark side power that was wearing away at his might stemmed from this cloaked man.

The man wore a cloak that was thrown over his head in a hood, and only his chilling blue eyes were visible beneath it. The clothes beneath his cloak couldn’t be seen, but Jaeln could see the end of his robes and combat boots dangling underneath his cloak like the legs of a puppet. As he got closer to the throne, Jaeln felt colder and colder; sweat poured down his face and arms even as his legs felt numb beneath him.

De’dlay’s eyes faded from their normal brown coloration and suddenly began to glow a bright yellow color. “Kneel,” he commanded, his voice fluctuating wildly. “You stand before Lord Preux, Master of Alderaan.”

Calay noticed the change in De’dlay’s eyes, but she said nothing. She and the rest of the Sith, including the surviving Dark Jedi, bowed as Preux stood before the king himself. Jaeln was glad to bow; his legs could hardly support himself, and he eagerly knelt before the leader of the Sith.

Preux waved his hand and De’dlay’s eyes returned to normal. “You did well, De’dlay. I commend you for your actions,” he said. His voice sent chills down Jaeln’s spin. It did not sound natural, and each word seemed interlaced with a darkness that he could not comprehend.

“Of course, Master,” De’dlay said, his voice normal again.

“King Latona,” Preux hissed, addressing his captive. “You have lost, it seems. My pawns were more numerous than yours.”

“I knew it was a mistake allowing you to settle here!” King Latona growled, struggling to break free from Jaeln’s and De’dlay’s grip. “Damn you, and all your Sith!”

Preux shook his head. He used the Force to grab the sword King Latona had dropped and flipped it upright, so its blade faced the king. “You may let go of the good king now.”

“You monsters! You’ll destroy us all!” the king shouted.

“I’m sorry, Sigmund. Your life is done, your family has fallen, and you have failed.”

Once De’dlay and Jaeln let go of the king, he tried to attack Preux, but he only found himself falling headlong into his own sword.

“My son still liv-” The king didn't even finish before he fell to the ground with his blade jutting from his back. His body spasmed for a few moments before he died.

“Sir,” Calay whispered to De’dlay, “Who was responsible for killing Latona’s son?”

“No one was responsible,” Preux said, overhearing her. “His son is already dead. His ship was attacked by Sith nearly two years ago. He never returned to Alderaan.”

Jaeln shifted his gaze from Preux. His power in the Force seemed accurate based on the accounts he had received, but his physical appearance left something to be desired. Jaeln expected to encounter a massive, imposing figure with tattoos and ornate robes. Instead, Preux himself was nearly Jaeln’s height, and he simply appeared taller because the Force let him float. Nevertheless, Jaeln realized that all appearances could be deceiving; his aura alone was enough to humble Jaeln.

“What shall we do now, Master Preux?” a Sith Marauder asked.

“I am the new sovereign of Alderaan. The Sith shall rule now, and I shall bring in a new era of prosperity and peace.”

“Peace is a lie, Master Preux,” De’dlay pointed out. “We have gained what we have because we fought for it. And now we have it, you want peace?”

“We fight for peace, De’dlay,” Preux said with a sigh.

“That is not the way of the Sith, Master,” De’dlay countered.

“You have never understood.”

“You share nothing with me.”

“Ignorance is ignorance, no matter the reason.”

“Master Preux, we have won today. The fighting is over.”

Preux scoffed. “And you desire more bloodshed! Perhaps I was right about you from the beginning. I can sense your dark thoughts, and I know you are envious of my power and my knowledge. But they are beyond you, and you cannot have them.”

De’dlay paused for a brief moment, but Jaeln could tell he was taken aback. “I do not understand, Master. The rush of battle has come over you. I should inform the soldiers to depart so we may talk in private.”

“So you may stab me in the back while we are alone?” Preux hissed. “Your machinations are as shallow as your understanding of the Force.”

“Preux, I do not-”

“Silence! I know you have worked against me from the very beginning,” Preux said. Jaeln was surprised to hear sadness in his voice. “Betrayal is the way of the Sith, is it not? Even if I was to praise your actions, you have failed to learn the most basic tenant of your kind. Authority belongs to those who have the most power. You have failed in your task to surpass me, so you have tried to turn my own servants against me. But you have failed that, as well. Calay, restrain him.”

De’dlay was taken aback by this entire ordeal. It was true; Jaeln could sense a desire for power within him, but the Nikto did not seem prepared to fight Preux himself for the title of Sith Lord just yet. The fact that Preux was acting preemptively to stop De’dlay’s ambition must have been the reason he was so startled. De’dlay knew Calay would try to restrain him, and he activated his lightsaber to engage her. He blocked Calay’s first strike, but a stasis field paralyzed him and rendered him defenseless.

Jaeln could feel De’dlay’s power in his mind, and he heard his voice. He was calling out in the Force, begging Jaeln to save him. This was the traitor he was searching for. The Sith Marauder pondered it for only a moment; he realized that De’dlay had defeated himself. It was his fault that he angered Preux, when this should have been a moment of total victory for the Sith. Not only would Jaeln have to fight Calay, but he would also have to oppose Preux, and Jaeln knew by the Sith Lord’s aura alone that he could not defeat him here. He could do nothing to save his Sith Master.

“You did away with Raen Benax, and now I will see you no more. You dishonored Fasin for his loyalty to me, now I will shame you for your disloyalty. You captured Dynatha and tortured her. Now, captured, you will suffer. Get him out of my sight,” Preux ordered.

De’dlay drifted into a dark side-induced comatose state before the Sith Marauders took him from the throne room. Calay bowed before her master, and Jaeln followed suit, not knowing what else to do.

“What shall we do now, Master?” Calay asked.

“Alderaan is mine, Calay. Your services will not be needed as of now. Return to the academy and tend to it until De’dlay’s and Fasin’s successors can be determined. Advise the Sith Marauders and ensure they compete for his position with vigor and selfishness.”

Calay nodded and turned to leave. Jaeln hadn’t noticed Fasin’s death, but apparently the old Cathar had failed to survive the fight. He would have to ask Calay about his death later. Jaeln muttered farewell to Calay, but she did not hear him. Turning his attention to Preux, he asked: “What do you want me to do?”

“Jaeln, stay with me here for now. You and I have much to discuss, about the Sith and your duties now that I control Alderaan.”

“As you will.”

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