As this is a rather lengthy story, I have broken it down by a one chapter per post format.
The tiny glow of a holoprojector coming to life briefly illuminated the darkened room, casting a wild array of shadows across the floor. In the midst of the new light source, the translucent, miniature figure of a middle-aged man wrapped in brown robes stood with his arms folded.
Despite the low-quality of the hologram, it was easily apparent to anyone watching the holo’s face were easily apparent to anyone watching that his entire demeanor was that of a man exhausted to the point of breaking. Nevertheless, the figure’s face was set in determination, and a small, amused smile crossed his face before speaking.
“If you’re watching this now, you’re either enormously powerful, related to me, or simply lucky. If it’s either the first or last condition that you meet, this holocron won’t be much good to you, unless the boring memories of a former Jedi mean anything to you. In any case, if you do fall under the above conditions, you won’t find much insight here.” He paused for a moment, as if collecting his thoughts.
“This is my explanation, I suppose you could say,” he elaborated quietly. “This is my testament.”
You often hear people talk about Jedi as if they were gods among men--omnipotent warriors and wizened sages par excellence. And, to a certain extent, those people aren’t entirely wrong. But they’ve got another thing coming if they think Jedi have all the answers.
Which, sadly, is the way the we Jedi often think of ourselves.
This place is too beautiful to deserve all the fighting.
Cool wind, the sure herald of a thunderstorm, whipped across the face of the Jedi Knight Ses-Cae Desdina as he surveyed the wreckage of the recent battle. Although the fighting itself had only stopped a few hours ago, the sheer amount of debris, mangled bodies and shattered droids that littered the plains of Dantooine was enough to strike a melancholy chord in the Jedi’s heart.
The battle had been fast and furious. Outnumbered by more than four to one, the Republic task force under Mace Windu had managed to break the back of the separatist army through the ancient military truth of quality over quantity. The droids, poorly led, poorly equipped and poorly designed, had still managed to nearly overwhelm the offensive force through sheer firepower… a strategy which, Desdina admitted to himself, had almost worked.
While Master Windu had led the main force to victory, Desdina had commanded two full battalions of clone troopers in an end run around the left flank of the droid army. His force had laid into the weak flank with savage ferocity, easily overwhelming the outmaneuvered droids and cutting deep into their lines. Once in position, he’d provided an anvil to complement Windu’s hammer, ensuring swift, total victory with as few losses as possible.
Master Windu had already commended him on his planning, and the clones serving under him had expressed their thanks multiple times. He knew that he should be pleased with his performance, both strategically and on the battlefield itself, but Desdina felt decidedly hollow in the aftermath of the carnage.
A peaceful man by nature, he had never before drawn his lightsaber in battle before, and found himself reluctant to start now. Granted, he practiced with the elegant weapon more than was natural for a man with such inclinations, but Desdina had always felt tied to the blade. In honing his body and his skills, the Jedi knew that he was also honing his mind to the keenness demonstrated in the battle itself. And yet--
The knight sighed. In his most private heart of hearts, he had to admit that lashing out at the droids had felt… good. Very good, in fact. Like there was no other place in the galaxy that he belonged, even. But the thought that his entire philosophy was built on something so opposed to the one thing in the universe he was “ good” at bothered him immensely.
And a Jedi’s path isn’t one of death and war, he reminded himself for the tenth time since the war’s outbreak several months ago.
He’d been involved with two other operations so far, but each was so minor that it barely mattered. Dantooine was his first “real” battle, as well as his first independent field command. A smile crept over his face as the image of cheering, freshly victorious clone troopers popped into his mind’s eye. And though Desdina wasn’t near deluded enough to believe that their exuberance could be directed at him, he couldn’t help but feel pleased at the success of his maneuver.
A small, polite cough behind him jerked the knight from his reverie. His smile broadened at the familiar sound of his padawan pulling him back to the real world, and Desdina turned to face her.
As his bright green eyes turned to meet her soft brown gaze, Desdina marveled at how much Mara Celan had grown up in the decade she’d spent in his care. The shy, quiet girl had blossomed into a confident, almost overly talkative young woman, and Desdina felt a swelling of pride as he regarded her.
“You wouldn’t be gloating, perchance… would you master?” she questioned innocently. Although he knew that the girl was well aware of the answer, she couldn’t resist teasing her mentor in the aftermath of his success.
Not that she’d handled herself in the fight with anything but the utmost courage and skill, he reminded himself. She’d fought alongside him for the entirety of the battle, aiding him in cutting a swath through the thickest parts of the Separatist lines. Mara had complemented his movements perfectly, fighting by her master’s side in perfect harmony. Their presence, coupled with a spearhead of clone armor and infantry, had utterly broken the droid army’s strongest points, opening up the rest for the thoroughly successful sweeping maneuver that had helped carry the day.
Without Mara, Desdina admitted to himself, the battle wouldn’t have come off nearly so well. Not that he’d tell her that to her face; the last thing he needed was for the highly skilled young woman’s ego to swell more than it had already.
“Quite the contrary, padawan,” he assured her smoothly. “Simply mourning my choice of apprentice, that’s all. The young exhaust me.”
“Sure they do,” she laughed, her musical soprano ringing across the bluff. “Just because you’re getting old, master, doesn’t mean you have to go lying to me. You’re not very good at it.”
“Yes, well, to each his own. Although it’s not like you’ve ever been able to lie to me with a straight face either, squirt.” She winced slightly at the old nickname, and Desdina kicked himself for forgetting how much she hated it. Mara might be almost as tall as most girls her age today, but he remembered the years she’d spent as a tiny, petite girl. And while she was still on the small side today, at least the gap between her and “everyone else” was less than it had been. Not that she always felt like it, he remembered.
But, commenting further would only lead to awkward apologies and half-meant reassurances, and so Desdina tactfully changed the subject. “You did well out there today, Mara. I was very proud of you.”
The slight tan she’d acquired during the past few days was woefully inadequate to hide the blush that crept across her face. Her master’s inclination toward sarcastic humor made his rare moments of seriousness all the more meaningful to Mara, and she was truly grateful for the compliment.
“Thank you, master,” she responded quietly, still taken aback by the sincerity of his remark. Then, diverting back to their running jest war, she allowed a smirk to cross her still girlish features. “Covering your back is a full time job, you know. Why, if I let my guard down for one second, you’d--”
“Am I interrupting?” The deep, commanding voice of Mace Windu punctured her remark just as she was warming up the punch line. Still, common sense mandated that when Master Windu spoke, everyone else went silent, and both Mara and her master were well versed in exercising common sense on such occasions.
While Mara fell silent, Desdina answered. “Not at all, Master. My padawan and I were just discussing the success of the battle.”
Windu nodded thoughtfully, suppressing a smile at the Corellian’s poor cover up. In truth, he’d been eavesdropping for the majority of their conversation, and he had to concede the girl’s point. Ses-Cae really is a terrible liar.
But that, he reflected in amusement, was not such a bad thing in a Jedi. After all, deceit was about as far from the Order’s ideology as possible… unless, of course, it was aimed to help the greater good, if such a thing existed. And whatever he lacked in deception, the younger knight’s planning and formidable field leadership skills, had truly helped win the day, so Mace willing to overlook the poor deception. Instead, he offered an amused smile.
“You both performed brilliantly today,” the older man admitted with feigned reluctance. “So brilliantly, in fact, that the I’ve recommended you for a senior command. As of our meeting a few minutes ago, the council unanimously supported my recommendation.” Windu suppressed a smirk at the blatant shock on the faces of the other Jedi, and kept speaking.
“We’re giving you command of three legions under General Kenobi,” he continued, picking up on the intent look that flared up in the Corellian’s eyes. “You’re to leave for their task force over Muunilist within the hour. May the Force be with you.”
Both Jedi bowed to the dark-skinned master, who reciprocated and turned to leave. As he stepped out of earshot, Mara cracked a wry smile to her mentor.
“Think he heard everything, master?”
“Of course he did,” Desdina grumbled half-heartedly. “He hears everything. But look on the bright side: all he heard was your constant insubordination and the makings of more gray hair for me.”
“Master, your grays don’t need my help,” she winked back at him, amused by his long-suffering, comic protestations about her own inadequacy as a padawan. Mara knew her master well enough to understand that, if he’d truly thought anything of the sort, she’d never have heard a word about it. Neither would anyone else, for that matter: if there was one thing her master excelled at (Besides fighting, she thought darkly), it was keeping speaking no evil.
Which had never prevented him from pointing out her mistakes in the past, but that was purely constructive criticism. Unlike the never ending battle of cynicism and sarcastic humor waged between them.
Mara was fairly certain she would miss that the most when the time came for her to take the trials.
Desdina snorted derisively. “I’m not in the grave yet, O Most Faithful Padawan of mine. But I’m keeping score of each hair that loses its color prematurely.” He shook his head in mock sadness. “And blaming you for each and every single one. In the mean time, though, we’ve got work to do. Is your starfighter prepped?”
Mara nodded obediently, secretly glad that he’d emphasized a light-traveling philosophy during their time together. It certainly made for fast packing, at any rate, which had helped them slip out of more than one nasty diplomatic situation. Desdina put a hand to his bearded chin thoughtfully.
“Let’s get going, then. We’ve got some old friends to see… ones who will be more understanding of the stresses you padawans place on formerly sane Jedi Knights!”
“Master, don’t fool yourself,” she sighed dramatically. “We both know you were never sane.”
The wars affected each one of us to the core; not even the Council foresaw the damage that the fighting would do. When our old friends talked to us, they might as well have been talking to strangers. They’d have gotten about the same emotional response, anyway.
Obi-Wan was different. I never really figured out why, to be honest, but he maintained his good humor throughout the entirety of the conflict. And while some of us--most of us--lost our faith in the Way Things Were, I don’t think he ever did. Maybe he knew something we didn’t; maybe he just had stronger convictions; or maybe he was just wiser than the most. But, whatever the reason, Obi-Wan always remained Obi-Wan.
If only the rest of us were so fortunate.
Obi-Wan allowed a small, exhausted smile to spread across his face as he surveyed the ruined cityscape around him. To Kenobi’s eyes, the capital city of Muunilist hadn’t been much to look at before the Republic assault. And while that didn’t excuse the savagery of the Republic attack, or the loss of innocent life in the final, frantic Separatist defense, the Jedi couldn’t help thinking to himself that the city needed a makeover anyway.
Which probably won’t get us in the locals’ good graces, he thought darkly as his bright eyes surveyed the damage.
The attack hadn’t been particularly easy, given the Separatists’ desire to hang on to the stronghold, but in the end the Republic armies had battered it into submission. Heavy artillery had pounded the defenses from afar while battalions of Clone troopers stormed the keep-like layout of the upper city. Kenobi himself had personally led the commando team charged with capturing the city leaders… a mission that had succeeded brilliantly, saving the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians as the droid army was shut down.
Obi-Wan’s frown darkened as his thoughts went to the actions of his padawan. While the talented youth had led their starfighter forces to an overwhelming victory in space, he’d also charged off headlong after an unknown pilot who challenged his ego… one who just happened to be a dark Jedi and masterful duelist. Anakin had nearly died at her hands; all of his troopers had died at her hands. Kenobi knew that he should be grateful the boy wasn’t harmed, but his padawan’s pride--along with Anakin’s refusal to listen to anyone--aggravated him beyond all else.
Patience, he silently chided. You make it sound as if you were any different at his age. And you never had people telling you that you were the Chosen One your whole adult life…
The familiar whine of Delta-7 repulsors jerked him back to reality, and a wide grin spread across his still-youthful features as he craned his neck upward. The private landing pad had been silent, leaving him alone with his ruminations. All things considered, Obi-Wan decided, the arrival of his old friend was a welcome distraction from the dark thoughts echoing through his mind.
Ses-Cae and he had grown up together in the Temple, although he had a year or two on the Corellian. Back then, though, the gangly, awkward, thoroughly under confident boy that he was couldn’t have cared less about the difference in age. Obi-Wan had needed all the friends he could get, and while Ses-Cae wasn’t the most… orthodox Jedi by any stretch of the imagination, at least he was kind.
Jedi business played havoc on friendships, Obi-Wan had decided long ago. Due to their constantly shifting assignments, the two hadn’t seen each other face-to-face in years, though holo-correspondence served adequately to keep in touch from time to time. Granted, that was mostly just a channel of frustration over padawans, Jedi business and the general state of affairs in the galaxy at large, but it was enough to satisfy both old friends.
Though he’d never let the Corellian know it, Obi-Wan had been more than a little concerned for his friend’s wellbeing at the outset of the war. Though strong in the Force and better than he let on with a lightsaber, Ses-Cae had always carried a strong concern for the livelihood of all sentient beings he encountered; more than once he’d reminded Obi-Wan of Qui-Gon Jinn, another self-styled maverick who more or less followed his own judgment first and foremost. That style had, over the years, set Obi-Wan at odds with both his old friend and his old master, and he couldn’t say that he looked forward to seeing the war’s effect on Ses-Cae.
As the sleek Jedi vessels set down gracefully, Obi-Wan realized that he’d plastered a frown on his face, yet again, that reflected the darker concerns in his mind. Deciding that such a solemn (or, as his padawan was so fond of describing it “boring”) expression wouldn’t serve the occasion well, the Jedi Knight relaxed his tight facial muscles into his usual easygoing smile.
Ses-Cae exited his fighter first, and Obi-Wan couldn’t help but wonder if the Corellian’s old distaste of flying was still with him. Certainly it had been as of a few years ago, when he’d been forced to pilot a smuggler’s vessel (carrying political refugees, of course) through the middle of a local blockade. While Obi-Wan had always found it strange that a Jedi hailing from the planet that boasted the loudest about its abilities would hate flying so much, he’d given up on teasing his friend over it long ago.
Desdina stood shakily from the pilot’s chair in the tiny snub fighter, but hopped out with all his usual grace. Yep, Obi-Wan confirmed silently, repressing the broad grin that welled up he still hates flying.
Ses-Cae bowed to his old friend. Obi-Wan reciprocated elegantly before turning his attention to the strikingly attractive padawan who had moved beside her master. Mara--Her name is Mara, I think, Obi-Wan remembered--smiled far less shyly than she once would have, and offered a bow. Though not a man of passions for the most part, Kenobi allowed his eyes to linger just a moment before returning her bow--and prayed that Ses-Cae hadn’t seen.
I’d never hear the end of it… he’d mock me until the Force takes us both, Obi-Wan smiled to himself.
“Welcome to Muunilist, old friend,” he said out loud. “Greatest rubble pile in the Outer Rim.”
“Your men certainly were thorough, Master Kenobi,” Desdina answered dryly. “I was beginning to wonder if anything was even remotely intact…”
Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow at his friend’s typical cynicism. “I believe the Seps heard you were coming, Ses-Cae, and decided to wreck as much as they could before you got here. I’m sure they wanted to make an impression on a character such as yourself.”
The Corellian snorted incredulously, and waved a hand in dismissal. “At least they’ve got some common sense. If I’d seen more than five buildings standing, by the Force, I’d have torched the whole planet.”
Beside him, Mara suppressed a mighty roll of her eyes as the banter between the two friends went on. Two of them, she thought darkly. How am I going to stay sane?
“Obi-Wan, I think you’ve met my padawan, Mara,” Desdina changed the subject delicately before amending “…but it was several years ago.”
“A pleasure, padawan,” Kenobi nodded to the young woman, who smiled in turn.
“I’m honored to meet you, Master Kenobi,” she answered before mischievously grinning. “But, for the sake of my sanity, please tell me that you and my master won’t keep up this, er, ‘witty’ dialogue much longer?”
“Keep it up? Me?” Though he tried his best to sound hurt by the concept, Obi-Wan couldn’t resist grinning. “A common misconception, my dear. Everyone knows he eggs me on. I’m only defending myself.”
“Mara, I could mention the time Master Kenobi ‘defended himself’ against an angr--”
“On second thought,” Obi-Wan interjected hastily. “Perhaps I am in the wrong. We certainly don’t want to go digging up any old horror stories, now do we?”
The small holo-emitter on his wrist chirped to life, and the Jedi turned his attention towards the miniature figure of a clone trooper it displayed. The tiny, armored projection saluted his general, who narrowed his eyes at the unexpected interruption.
“Yes, commander?” Obi-Wan asked patiently, regardless of the slight irritation he felt at the intrusion.
“We’ve just finished loading the last battalions for the next phase, general. The fleet is ready to move out at your command.”
“Excellent, commander. Keep the fleet on standby for the moment.” Kenobi’s voice, though flushed with relief at the nature of the news, still carried its authoritative tone, and the clone commander saluted, then killed the link.
“If you two would care to join me aboard the Reproach, I can brief you then.” Obi-Wan gracefully slipped away from the landing pad, leaving the master and apprentice alone again.
“I didn’t realize there was to be a follow up operation so soon, master,” Mara commented offhandedly as she slipped back into the small pilots chair of her Delta-7. “Do you think it’ll hurt the morale?”
“Better offense than defense, my padawan,” Desdina replied calmly. “The men may be tired now, but there’s nothing to put them in good spirits like taking the fight to the enemy… and winning.”
Mara nodded thoughtfully, wondering privately when her master had found the time to study up on all the military theory. Between their near-constant string of diplomatic and combat assignments over the past few months, she’d barely found time to relax at all. But to hear her master speak now, she
almost was an old hand at military tactics. Mara sighed as she lifted the small fighter off smoothly.
Some things are best left unsolved, anyway, she mused as the ship pulled into orbit.
Obi-Wan looked out over the room. Jedi knights and clone officers chatted idly in anticipation of his announcement, and he tried to ignore the burning sense of nervousness building in his gut. He was a general, not a spineless corporate s giving a speech to board members! Mentally, Obi-Wan reproached himself as he stood at the head of the conference table.
The thirteen select individuals--six Jedi and their clone subordinates, along with his own--fell silent as he rose, and Obi-Wan smiled pleasantly. Then, in his best lecturing voice, he began to speak.
“After the success at Muunilist, the council has decided to support my recommendation to keep the pressure up in this sector. We’ve broken the back of the Sep’s Banking Clan allies, but strategically we’re vulnerable to a counterattack.”
He keyed the holo-emitter on the long low table, and the space above erupted into a swirling mass of stars. Obi-Wan danced his fingers across the controls, focusing the display on the sector. “As you can see here,” he continued as the image closed in “our position is isolated. Cut off. We are outnumbered behind enemy lines, ladies and gentlemen.” Obi-Wan’s piercing blue eyes found each of the gathered officers and knights, and he nodded slowly to the group.
“But not for long.”
War has a funny way of changing a man’s perception of the world around him. Calm, analytical detachment degenerates into horror and madness. You can write off the deaths of a hundred men, or a thousand, or a million with cold logic, at least from the command deck. But being down there, in the dust and fire, is a whole different story.
Some are affected moreso than others, but everyone is touched in one way or another. And when the blood starts pounding in your ears, and the acrid stench of scorched plasteel and flesh stings your nostrils, and all you can see is death… that’s when you realize the most how deeply you’ve changed.
Normal people are like that, anyway. But Mandalorians are anything but normal.
Rain splashed heavily against the scarred helmet, though the enormous man underneath could have cared less. While the thick jungle of Cappo II produced more precipitation than any world he’d ever known, his thoughts were occupied with something far more pressing than rainfall.
Underneath his helmet, Nau-Kote Chaelos grinned. Whoever built these things had a few screws loose himself, he mused silently as he scanned their target. His macro-binocular enhanced vision fell on the antics of the nearly two dozen B-1 battle droids guarding the entrance to the power-generator complex and, for a moment, the big man’s grin faded. For a proven warrior such as himself, there was no honor to be gained through the slaughter of worthless opponents… but war, he reminded himself, was not about honor. And, for better or worse, the poor droids were about to be put out of their misery.
He raised his hand lightly into the air, gesturing to his troops in the complex Mandalorian battle language. While he hadn’t particularly been thrilled when Jango Fett, pride of the Mando’ade, had asked him personally to help train the newly created clone army, Nau-Kote had to admit that the men worked beautifully together. The Kaminoans themselves disgusted the old warrior, who despised their indifference to their poor creations. The long-necks would just as soon kill these clones as wash their hands, the warrior had thought darkly, and often.
Well. He may not have been able to stop that, but here in the field they were his boys. The ARC troopers were the pride of the Grand Army of the Republic, and a potent (if slightly unstable) weapon for their masters. Which was thanks, in a large part, to the training and care of the Cuy’val--the hundred-odd Mandalorian warriors hand-picked by Fett to oversee their training and development.
Nau-Kote refused the pay offered to him; he was the lord of the Khaela clan, after all, and needed no payment for the honor of training warriors for battle. But his clan had no need of him, for the moment, and he had to admit to looking forward to the thrill of battle once again. The end of the Death Watch a decade ago at the hands of surviving True Mandalorians--such as the Khaela--had been his last real challenge, and Nau-Kote was easily bored with the everyday aspects of domestic life.
His mind wandered to his family. His wife Aria and their infant son Telcaa, safe and isolated on the rain-drenched clan world of Khaela. His young brother Teroch, leading the clan in his absence. His daughter, Naia…
A set of grenades thudded into middle of the stunned droids. Programmed by a true fool, they turned to stare at the explosive devices for a moment before being reduced to burning rubble. The surviving units, meanwhile, found themselves quickly cut down by a sudden hail of blue-tinted blaster fire. Nau-Kote smiled proudly, despite himself. The clones may have been bred from good stock, but their performance and training was all his doing.
Simultaneous to the frontal assault, three other disruptions popped up at intervals along the entire perimeter. Unsure of where to strike, the stunned and confused personnel inside were forced to disperse their troops to guard all points of entry to the vulnerable generator complex… which was exactly as Nau-Kote had counted on. Exactly ten seconds after the explosion, he hissed the Mando’a word for ‘Begin’ over the comlink, and seven ARC troopers charged into the blown front door.
The team itself needed no words to communicate the procedure; his training had seen to that. Working smoothly as a single entity, the men stormed from room to room. Nau-Kote smiled for an instant as his men cut down befuddled battle droids and half-awake personnel with equal ease. Though droids never needed to rest, their biological counterparts did; and while the body cycles of different species controlled their sleep patterns with a dizzying array of diversity, night remained the best time to catch the enemy off guard.
And so they had struck in the darkness, just a few hours before dawn. ARC teams were small, but brutal; ask them to fight a fixed battle, and they’d meet with the same success as anyone. Stick them behind enemy lines, though, with surprise and fear on their side, and they could wreak havoc with frightening effectiveness. As their fire tore through the droids and biologicals inside the base, Nau-Kote suppressed a swelling of pride in his chest.
Once inside the main control room, the commandos turned it over to the team electronics expert for maximum destructiveness, while the rest covered the man’s back. Though the reactor controls were almost certainly locked by command code, there were ways around that, as anyone familiar with such operations knew well. But, whether it was done through the use of hacker droids or more subtle devices, anything that could be locked could be unlocked. The beings at the reactor were most assuredly not on any great security alert, Nau-Kote though to himself, so the codes present couldn’t be too intricate…
Just under a minute later, the clone moved from his console with a nod. “Three minutes, no reverse.”
Desdina nodded, and didn‘t need to tell the troopers to get moving. The way out, as predicted, was much easier than the way in, although blaster fire claimed the left arm of his former point man. The Mandalorian himself took the man’s spot, grinning in feral love as his weapon scorched a trio of approaching droids in the final hallway out.
When the team breached the exterior of the base, the stench of burning circuitry and scorched metal filled the air. At the entrance lay the broken shells of dozens of battle droids, cut down in their prime by the mobile chain-cannon manned by a trio of ARC troopers a few meters out. As the commando team filed out of the building as a pack, the men began to break it down; a signal from Nau-Kote, though, told them to leave the surprisingly mobile weapon behind.
We don’t have time to mess around with toys, he thought darkly as his troopers uniformly broke into a near sprint away from the base. The Mandalorian couldn’t say he blamed them; reactor explosions, after all, had a funny way of cutting short one’s lifespan. Luckily for all of them, the answer to that was coming their way rapidly.
The LAAT gunship is a beautiful thing, Nau-Kote smiled to himself as the graceful craft floated down from the skies. The confusion in the interior of the base, combined with the elaborate stealth configurations equipped on the newer models, served to nullify any incoming fire from the ground. Chaelos smiled under his helmet as the team boarded the assault shuttle, then broadened his grin as the power plant below erupted into a wall of fire that scorched everything just under a kilometer around it.
The fact that the thing was a primary source of power for three nearby CIS bases was just a nice side effect.
Regardless, it didn’t take long for the ship to rendezvous with the Acclamator-class assault carrier Perdition, hanging low in the sky as planned. Their mission, and dozens like it, marked the beginning of a surprise blitzkrieg to take the steamy jungle planet. Nau-Kote privately wondered to himself if the other missions had met with equal success, but his attention turned momentarily to the sight of hundreds of small dropships hopping from the planet to the fleet of ships hanging low in the sky. The Mandalorian smiled at the efficiency of the Republic personnel as the gunship landed in the main hangar. The giant man turned to his squad as he lifted the Mandalorian helmet away from his face.
“Rest up,” he boomed in the commanding tone that seemed to comfort his soldiers so well. “Half an hour ‘til next op. And I guarantee you it won’t go so easily. I’ll see you back here and suited then.”
He didn’t have to tell them how well they’d done, or how proud he was of them. He didn’t have to; each of them could read his feelings as well as he could, and the pride in his facial expressions and tone told them more than any words could. As the troopers dispersed, though, a single, blue-pauldroned soldier remained. Nau-Kote’s smile widened as he turned toward the lone trooper.
“Did I forget something, Naia?”
The trooper removed her helmet with a fluid, practiced motion. While the androgynous effect of phase one clone trooper armor certainly masked the shapely figure underneath, Nau-Kote’s daughter flashed one of her amused smiles at her father. Not for the first time, the Mandalorian thanked the gods that she took after her mother, and not his own massive form.
“Nothing, father. Except to tell the men how well they performed.” The cold music of Naia’s voice washed across the space between them, brightening the sallow, scarred features of her father.
“They don’t need to hear it from me,” the warrior responded gently. “And neither do you.”
While his own presence among the clones may have been an oddity, his small, petite daughter was a genuine anomaly. Granted, allowing her to train with the clones, under his guidance, had been his major stipulation when agreeing to Fett’s proposal. Fett himself was fine with it, although the Kaminoans--prudes to the end--were concerned about her influence. Specifically, they were concerned about her ‘Polluting the minds’ of the ARC squad she’d trained with.
Fett had almost been forced to physically restrain the angry, towering Nau-Kote when the long-necks implied that his daughter wasn’t good enough. Unscrupulous though he was, the giant man had to admit that the former Mandalore could be unnaturally persuasive when he chose to be. At least persuasive enough to keep him from breaking the presumptuous Kaminoans in half, anyway.
But whatever doubts the aliens had harbored about Naia’s effect on the others, they couldn’t argue with her prowess. She’d grown up with the clones for almost a decade, and although she’d only been eight then, Naia had always possessed a fighter’s spirit. The future ARC troopers became her friends and comrades, and while they now appeared physically older than she herself, Naia was well aware that each of them still thought of her as their big sister.
Which suited her father’s purposes beautifully, given the sense of family he’d incorporated into the team throughout their training. It didn’t take much imagination for the genetically identical troopers to think of each other as brothers, or to view the old, scarred Mandalorian giant as their patriarch, but they’d accepted Naia with an easy grace that had made Nau-Kote sigh in relief.
She nodded her understanding. The unspoken words of praise meant as much to her as they did to the clones, and even though he was her father, Nau-Kote had never treated her as anything but another warrior in front of the clones. Alone, though, he favored her with a fatherly smile.
“Come on, kid,” he boomed enthusiastically. “The general wants to see us.”
When I first saw Nau-Kote, I couldn’t believe that any human could be so large; the phrase ‘giant’ wouldn’t have done the man justice, honestly. Granted, I myself am well below two meters, but even a Wookie would be hard pressed to top the old man’s height.
Or his strength.
Or his courage.
Or his honor.
But even more bizarre was his daughter. I know nothing about genetics, understand, but I confess to being clueless as to how such a large man could create a creature as tiny as she. It was easy to dismiss Naia, as I soon came to know her, as a fragile wisp of a girl with no place on the battlefield. But like so many other things, I was wrong about that, too.
I don’t see how the men can stand wearing this, the knight groused silently. Can’t move worth a damn, and when you do its slow, and sitting down--
Wrapped in the Jedi style of Phase One armor, Desdina turned his eyes moodily at the tactical displays aboard his command ship. Though his entire task force only carried three complete legions of soldiers--elements from the 358th, 151st and 472nd--they were proving more than adequate to overwhelm the startled droid defenders of Cappo II.
The initial string of commando missions had knocked out key power generators and weapon installations across the entire Separatist defense grid, and his soldiers had moved ferociously into those openings as per the pre-ordained battle plan. So far, the casualties all around had been light, but, then again, the main combat force had only been deployed for a few hours.
He checked the tac map again. The 358th legion had secured the only major settlement on the northern continent in the first hour of operations, and the 472nd was mopping up the last pockets of resistance along the major droid foundries in the eastern equatorial archipelago. The only hotspot, at the moment, seemed to be coming from the fortified city of Nagasuul--the major CIS base on the planet and the home of Force-knew-how-many droids. It was to this spot that the Perdition was headed with four other Acclamators and all the reinforcements he could spare.
Desdina looked down at the chrono. Almost an hour until the reinforcements are in position. Too long.
The door to his command room hissed open, and the Jedi found himself staring up at the largest human he’d ever laid eyes on. Nau-Kote Chaelos, he reminded himself, taken aback for a moment at not encountering another clone.
The big man wore the traditional armor of a Mandalorian war-chief, and carried himself with all the dignity of a veteran many times over. With his scarred helmet clutched at his side, Nau-Kote’s even more scarred face regarded the Jedi with what seemed to be a mix of skepticism and uncertainty. He’s sizing me up, thought Desdina with a near-smile. He wants to know why I haven’t hit the ground yet.
“Commander,” he greeted the Mandalorian evenly. “A pleasure.”
“General Desdina,” Nau-Kote boomed--Probably unintentionally, thought the Jedi with an almost imperceptible smile. “My men are at your command.”
“Excellent.” His bright eyes fell on the comparatively tiny individual next to the big man, widening in surprise as he beheld the trooper’s decidedly feminine face. A pair of large blue eyes met his own, set into a smoothly angled face wearing a stern, military impression. The girl’s dirty-blonde hair fell around her ears in an efficient, if still striking, fashion.
She can’t be older than Mara, Desdina decided as he studied her face. Ever the picture of elegance, the Corellian’s appraising gaze was coupled with a polite smile. “Aren’t you a little short for a clone?”
The girl’s face blossomed into a smile, and the big man beside her let out a rumble of laughter. “General Desdina,” the Mandalorian gestured to the girl. “Meet Naia, my daughter and student.”
“Aha. A pleasure, Naia.” Coruscant dignitaries, at this point, would have extended their hand regally for the Jedi knight to kiss, but the girl only smiled shyly. Though ignorant of Mandalorian greeting customs, Desdina decided that playing it safe would be most advisable, and nodded pleasantly to the girl. The Jedi then returned his attention to her father. “Commander, how soon can your troops be ready?”
The Mandalorian’s answer came almost immediately, and with all the confidence Desdina would have expected from one of his stature. “Ten minutes, General, and they’ll be in the drop bay.”
The Jedi’s eyebrow arched in surprise. “Ten minutes. Excellent.” He keyed the tactical map again, and the hologram magnified the area of a fortified city. “This, Commander, is the Confederacy base at Nagasuul. The 151st Legion has been hammering away at the outskirts for the last hour, but the droids outnumber them almost five to one. Reinforcements are on the way, but they’re taking too long. I’m going to personally oversee the battle, and to help hold the line until the backup can arrive.”
Desdina’s elegant features suddenly broke into a decidedly feral grin. “And your men are coming with me. I’ll meet you in ten minutes, commander. May the Force be with us all.”
The Jedi turned gracefully and stalked out of the room. Behind him, the two Mandalorians traded looks.
“He won’t last ten minutes,” Nau-Kote predicted flatly, with a small sigh of resignation. “Too much Jedi pampering and not enough military discipline, if you ask me.”
His daughter turned her large eyes on the door their general had swept out of, and she shook her head slowly. “I don’t think so, father. This one’s got steel underneath those Jedi robes.”
Her father raised an eyebrow quizzically at her disagreement. It wasn’t often that the two of them didn’t see eye-to-eye on military matters, and Nau-Kote knew that Naia’s judgment on such things was typically sound. And… there was something about her words that the old man hadn’t heard in her before. A sad, almost wistful note tone had dropped into her voice, and Nau-Kote couldn’t place it for the life of him.
Instead of fighting her about it, though, he merely harrumphed. “Hmph. We’ll see, Naia.” His eyes found the same spot she’d been looking at, and he nodded again.
Wars are fought on dozens of levels. Everyone from the Chancellor to lowest logistics officer plays his own part, whatever it may be. My place was destined to be multi-layered from the get-go, although it took me a long time to realize it.
Jedi knights, understand, are the most efficient engines of destruction known to man. Oh, sure, they may not be able to lay waste to planets singlehandedly, like a good warship can, and they’ll be cut down rather easily by a few dedicated opponents. But the effect they have on the men is incredible.
We hear a lot about the heroes of old from the ancient epics. The kind of figures that were willing to take a stand when no one else would, and the kind to hold back the tide when all hope is lost. That, in simple terms, is the true power of a Jedi knight. We are, always have been, and always will be the ones to place ourselves in the thick of a losing battle and light the way for the others.
We’re mortal and fragile; pathetically so, as a matter of fact. But when a soldier sees a Jedi knight charge headlong into a platoon of battle droids with his fiery sword, hewing metal and rending flesh like a demon, it gives them something to fight for. It gives them a leader; more than that, it gives them a champion.
But that role doesn’t suit a lot of Jedi. Not many are willing to put themselves at risk that way; Force knows I certainly was hesitant about it, at first. But there comes a time when every real man has to draw a line in the dust and say to his enemies “You will come no further.”
That time came a lot sooner for me than most others.
Sheathed in protective armor, Gamma Five-One-Seven tried to despair out of his voice. Originally the captain of Bravo company, the trooper had witnessed his brothers and friends be cut down by a hail of fire emanating from three fortified positions in the hills above them.
“Keep it coming, pilot! Keep the fire up, or we’re all dead men!”
The air support from the orbiting task force had been the single factor preventing the total annihilation for the 151st Legion. While the Seps might’ve outnumbered and outgunned them on a mortifying scale, the Republic’s first stage of the operation was to destroy their fleet. But for that single, saving grace, the battle at Nagasuul would have already been lost.
The captain grimaced privately as he ran over the events of the past hour. In accordance with the general’s plan, the 151st had launched its attack on the southern Confederate citadel at precisely the same time the other legions had begun their attacks. But what the general hadn’t anticipated was the extent of Separatist defenses surrounding the fortified base. Behind a thick, impenetrable shield wall, artillery poured down on the attackers from the word go. And while commando missions had been conducted against a primary generator and several of the nastier gun emplacements, they had failed to dismantle the shield itself.
Phase two, for the 151st, had been a disaster. Once it had become apparent that the shield wall couldn’t be breached, the clones had begun a calculated fall back out of the artillery’s range. That had saved a lot of their armor and heavier weaponry units, but the infantry grunts had taken horrifying casualties in the subsequent Separatist counterattack. They’d been pushed back across the plains surrounding Nagasuul to a hastily erected series of trenches and pre-fab bunkers, none of which were adequate to shield the troopers from the hail of fire descending upon them.
Five-One-Seven knew that he shouldn’t think on the situation with such bitterness, but he couldn’t help it. His own Bravo company had been at the center of the counterattack, and had been cut to pieces in the final moments before reaching cover. Well over half his command lay dead or dying out in the no-man’s land before them, and the captain couldn’t help but wonder if any help was coming. Oh, sure, from the way the flyboys were talking, the General was sending reinforcements their way…
Supposedly, anyway, the trooper thought darkly. Sure is taking his precious t--
A rocket exploded less than five meters from his current position, and the trooper winced as half a dozen of his brothers were vaporized in an instant. Groans came up from his fellows, but their captain silenced them by popping up from his cover just long enough to fire a trio of rounds into the mass of droids approaching the dug-in Republic position. The trooper then ducked back down, barely avoiding a stream of red-tinted plasma that arced over their hiding spot.
Where the hell are those reinforcements!
A sudden explosion rocked the area in front of them, and the captain poked his head up to see what had happened. A pair of starfighters--Jedi starfighters, he amended silently--were swooping above the field gracefully, raining down blaster fire on the thick droid lines. The metal-heads were certainly firing back, though; as he watched, one of the fighters took a nasty hit from a Hailfire rocket that sent the little ship careening into the middle of the droids.
“Come on!” he urged his troopers, taking advantage of the enemy's momentary preoccupation with the fighters. The surviving Bravo Company members opened up on the thick, exposed Confederacy lines at his command, and Five-One-Seven grinned as the first rows of battle droids were cut apart under the fire.
The downed fighter pilot had chosen to crash into the same area as the clones’ fire, although he'd leapt free of the craft in the final seconds before its fiery death. The captain didn’t pay much attention to the pilot, by himself… until a dozen Advanced Recon Commando troopers landed beside him.
I’ll be damned, the trooper thought to himself as he watched in wonder. The droids had chosen to focus on the Jedi, whose light blue blade was cutting through them marvelously. The commandos, on the other hand, poured fire into the droids with frightening efficiency, creating a bubble in their lines that was just too good for Five-One-Seven to pass up.
“Help them out!” he barked to the troopers around him, smiling under his helmet as the ragged Bravo Company members surged forth from their fallback positions. Vengeance would be sweet for the tired, brutalized soldiers, and they pursued their revenge with all the tenacity of a wounded rancor.
It took the captain a few moments to realize that, behind all of them, a line of heavy walkers was contributing to the growing wedge in the Separatist lines. Their cannons rained fire down the droids, whose programming was poorly suited to the instant adaptations necessary for the drastically changing situation. Five-One-Seven silently thanked the gods that the droids' penny-pinching creators had chosen quality over quantity, for the metalheads weren’t taking the change of pace well at all. The boldness of the clones, despite being outnumbered, outgunned and beaten back, seemed to take each of the droids by surprise, and their firing computers struggled to adapt to the new targets.
All the while, the Jedi and his commandos were pushing the droids back. Never more than a dozen meters in front of the main lines, the warriors lashed out with anything they could get their hands on. The Jedi’s lightsaber fell heavily here and there, moving in a near-constant blur of motion that both shielded him and efficiently cut his foes in the same stroke.
Minutes crawled by, and more clones fell. The Jedi’s team had lost several of its men already, and his own Bravo company survivors had fared much worse, but they were winning despite it all. The AT-TE’s behind them lashed out angrily at the thinning droid lines, and the skies filled above them with Republic fighters and transports.
The city’s shield wall abruptly fell; Five-One-Seven didn’t know why or how, but at the moment he wasn’t about to question the good fortune. His good humor fell with equal swiftness, though, as he realized that, from behind them, a fresh swarm of droids was emerging to cut the Republic forces apart.
Five-One-Seven closed his eyes for a moment as he scanned the horde of metal approaching them. He’d heard that, at the start of the battle, they were outnumbered by an order of five-to-one. Looking out over the sea of Confederacy automatons, though, the captain couldn’t help but think that they now faced a force many times more powerful than that, and he closed his eyes in silent despair.
But at the moment all seemed lost, a change came over the windswept battlefield. An explosion rocked the city shield wall generators, taking them down for good. Then the largest batteries were destroyed from above, as the Acclamators swept down from the heavens with beautiful grace. Reinforcements in the thousands landed where the turbo laser fire didn’t, cutting in on the startled defenders from all sides. In a span of less than five minutes, Five-One-Seven had seen the battle turn from hopeless massacre to monumental victory.
The clones, presenting a solid wall of armor, flesh and fire to the stunned droids, approached the fortress with deadly certainty. In his armor, Five-One-Seven smiled.
The Seps never had a chance, after all…
Why they made this armor white is beyond me, Desdina thought moodily as he surveyed his dismal appearance. Dust and carbon scoring caked the formerly pristine shell that had saved his life more than once in the battle, and his outer-robe smelt of burnt cloth and plasma fire.
A sudden, familiar stirring in the currents of the Force drew a smile from the knight. “Not much of a state to accept a formal surrender, is it Mara?”
Behind him, the brown-haired girl shrugged. “Good enough for these lowlifes, master. And, in my professional opinion, it’s a vast improvement over your normal condition.”
“I forgot how much of a professional you were,” Desdina chuckled dryly. “Must be getting senile in my advanced old age.”
“You were slowing everyone down on the battlefield, master. I’m sure the commander was just thrilled.”
“Ha. When I got there, they were moving backward. All things considered, I don’t think he’s got any room to complain. Although,” he added quietly “your work on the shield generator was top-notch, Mara. We couldn’t have done it without that strike.”
She flashed a brilliant smile at his approval, absently brushing back a loose strand of brown hair from her eyes. “You ought to hear the men talking, master. Even the 151st troopers know how much of a victory this was, for all of us. They’re blaming the whole success on your planning, along with that little stunt you pulled on the field. Of course,” she added, switching back to her usual tone “I have to keep setting them straight about what an oaf you are, but to hear them talk you’re pretty much the best thing since… well, ever.”
“Between the two of us, padawan, I tend to agree more with you. But I’m not about to let them know that. And also just between the two of us, several other offensive maneuvers didn’t go nearly as well.” Desdina sighed as the latest reports echoed freshly in his mind. “Attacks have stalled on three other planets in the surrounding systems. I hear it was especially bad at Messan. Obi-Wan’s instructed us to divert there personally as soon as things are wrapped up here.”
“But first you have a surrender to accept,” Mara reminded him, determined not to let her master get ahead of himself too much.
“Ever the diplomat. Well,” he sighed, not looking forward to the ceremony at all in his current state “we might as well get this over with. Come on, Mara.”
The two of them fell in step through the corridors of the Nagasuul administrator’s palace. Unlike Muunilist, Cappo II had been captured relatively intact; Desdina attributed that to the fact that the jungle planet was little more than a colony world and droid foundry, instead of a major home planet for a Separatist sub-faction. The locals couldn’t do much about the enormous droid armies that had been imposed on their land before, but they were quite keen to hand things over to the Republic once it became apparent that the Separatists had lost the battle.
Desdina smiled. Technically, Cappo II--and the entire system, for that matter--had been ‘liberated’ by his army as part of General Kenobi’s broad offensive strategy. In reality, though, the world had signed over to the Republic almost instantly, and even as he moved to sign the formal surrender, bureaucrats were already finalizing the system’s admission.
The knight paused momentarily at the entrance to the council room of the palace, steadying himself against the whirlwind of thoughts tearing through his mind. Then, with Mara at his side, he strode majestically into the unadorned circular chamber to oversee the proceedings.
Although the inhabitants of Cappo II encompassed individuals from a wide variety of species, humans seemed to be the most numerous among them. They were represented by a human female at the ceremony: a short, plump woman with steel-gray eyes and hair that had just begun to lose its pigment. She regarded the Jedi with as much dignity as she could master, and stared into his eyes proudly.
“General Desdina,” she intoned in a rich alto. “As acting administrator of Cappo II, I formally and unconditionally surrender to your army. My aides have drawn up the formal papers acknowledging both our surrender and secession from the Confederacy. They await only our signatures.”
The Jedi nodded politely, keeping the stern expression in place. “As representative of the Galactic Republic,” he replied with his commanding baritone “I accept your surrender in the spirit with which it is offered. Every effort was made to spare the lives of your civilians, Madame Administrator, and the Republic will take good care of you.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly, but he was telling the truth. He’d given explicit orders not to harm the civilians or to damage their infrastructure if at all possible, and every instance of sabotage in the hours before the battle had been directed at Confederate military targets. Desdina could see the war in the older woman’s eyes. He knew that her pride pleaded with her not to lie down and surrender to the latest conquerors of her planet… but her common sense told her that doing so was the best way to ensure their continued survival as a colony world. And so, rather than spit forth a biting comment about the (light) civilian casualties, she merely nodded and gestured to the documentation.
He‘d glanced over the paperwork beforehand, and he recognized the legal language associated with such a document. Fortunately for him, his aides had also looked things over, and if there was anything they hadn’t liked, they certainly hadn’t mentioned it to him. As far as Desdina knew, the articles of surrender were airtight, providing for a temporary police state until “the immediate threat to the citizens of Cappo II could be neutralized.”
Then he signed the data pad with an overly elaborate stylus, and cemented the victory in the name of the Republic.
Things moved quickly after that battle. Before I knew it, the council was calling on Mara to take her trials as a Jedi Knight. We were barely a year into the war at that point, and I have to confess that I wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable separation from my apprentice.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Mara was certainly skilled enough, as she proved time and time again in my campaigns, and her maturity and confidence were never in question for even a moment. But when you’ve had a student that long; when you’ve guided their grown and development; when you’ve watched them grow from a shy, timid child to a confident young woman; when you realize that, finally, there is one other person in the galaxy that you can count on to save your life, no matter what--when all this and more has passed between you, there comes a bittersweet moment when you have to release this young creature that you’ve guided so long, and pray to whatever gods you worship that her wings are strong enough.
And when you look at her for the last time as a master, you suddenly realize just how empty you’ll feel when she’s gone.
Staring at her slender form, in the mirror, Mara could barely believe how much she’d grown up in the last few years. All her life she’d looked forward to this moment… but now that it was upon her, all she felt was nervous tension in her stomach. Mara couldn’t help it; all she’d known for over a decade was apprenticeship to Master Desdina, and the thought of their imminent separation sent a wave of sadness through her.
All good things must end, she reminded herself absently, brushing aside another errant strand of brown hair that had fallen in front of her eyes. That is the way of the Force.
She chuckled lightly at the old, familiar adage of Master Yoda. While the little master was certainly correct about the inherent impermanence of all things--what was life, after all, if not an eternal stream of change?--the fact didn’t do much to make her feel better. Mara sighed in resignation as the reality of an independent life filled her future. There was no place in such a life for an emotional connection to the man who’d become a second father to her, and Mara quietly pledged to herself that she wouldn’t let their strong bond prevent her from taking the next steps in her training.
But… the familiar, soothing presence of her master suddenly filled her senses. Moments later, the door to the living room of their large, two-bedroom quarters opened silently, and Ses-Cae Desdina flowed into the room gracefully.
Mara ran her hands over her form one last time, straightening out any wrinkles in her plain tunic and robe. Though she usually couldn’t read the emotions of others nearly as well as the masters of her Order, it didn’t take one with Yoda’s perceptiveness to detect the bittersweet pride in the Corellian. He was happy for her, without question; more than that, she even suspected that he’d had a hand in securing permission for her to begin the trials. But along with the fatherly pride came a sense of sorrow, and Mara privately wondered if it was for the same reason as her own melancholy.
Like father, like daughter, the girl smirked to herself as she stepped out of her bedroom to greet her master. As usual when dealing with the Council, Desdina had dressed in his best robes--the ones reserved exclusively for diplomatic functions, formal gatherings and other such occasions. While almost identical to his normal attire, these robes had none of the rugged, threadbare quality of his other, more frequently-repaired clothes.
Mara’s brow narrowed slightly as she beheld his face. Though she often joked with her master about his age, she’d never particularly though of him as old. Quite the opposite, actually: while many of the other masters of the Jedi Order carried themselves as though they bore the sum of the galaxy’s problems on their back, Desdina possessed a lighter, more amused view of the universe around him. He’d maintained his youthfulness while others had allowed themselves to despair. Granted, he wasn’t physically old in the least; Mara remembered him looking much the same at twenty-five human years as he did at thirty-five. She’d heard a rumor that his family was particularly long-lived, but discounted it as mere superstition.
All that aside, the lines around Desdina’s eyes--lines that showed themselves more and more when he smiled, nowadays--were particularly pronounced as Mara regarded him. His powerful shoulders slumped in just so that she noticed, and even his normally bright eyes seemed slightly dulled. Her frown became one of concern, but she changed it to a smile in the hopes of brightening his mood.
“So how do I look?”
He studied her appearance for a moment before nodding in approval. “Like a Jedi Knight,” he answered solemnly. Then the corner of his mouth twisted into an amused smile, and his voice returned to its usual assuring tone. “Shouldn’t be much of a stretch, considering that you’ll be one in a few moments.”
“My teacher: master of the obvious,” she laughed lightly, thinking to herself that she would miss the banter most of all. He dutifully rolled his eyes, though, and answered in true fashion.
“Only because certain padawans of mine have the habit of missing things right in front of them,” he sighed. “Over the years, I must have forgotten that not everyone needs me to point out things like that all the time.”
Mara giggled at that, and her memory flashed back to his frustrated lectures on why using the Force to turn the holo-net programs on was considered bad form amongst the Jedi. The fact that he still hadn’t convinced her was something that she chose to keep from him, but his point about her inability to notice the obvious was entirely correct.
“Master,” she said quietly “since we’re talking about the obvious, here, I think there’s a few obvious things I ought to say before the ceremony. I know that things were difficult in the beginning, for both of us, but I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. Or for a better friend.” She caught his large hands in her own, and squeezed them lightly. “If anything good becomes of me, it’ll be because of you.”
For a moment, Mara could almost see his large eyes watering. Then the lapse was gone, and the strong, unbreakable man was back in control. He smiled down at her, absently brushing a strand of hair from her eyes, and allowed the depth of his fatherly affection to pass between them through the currents of the Force. He could see her stiffen slightly as the unspoken emotion filled her mind, but then smiled as she relaxed under the gentle stream of caring.
“You’ve always known me too well, Mara. And if there was anything I could say that you didn’t already know, I would tell it to you now.” Desdina’s smile turned mischievous as he spoke. “But you already know the joy you’ve brought me over the years, and how highly I think of you. You’ve made me very proud, Mara. But you already knew that, too.”
He could see her struggling under the impact of his words, trying to keep her emotions under control with limited success. But Desdina was nothing if not graceful, and he gently wrapped his apprentice in an embrace.
“Come on, Mara. It’s time.”
Oh, padawan, he thought silently as the two of them stepped out of their quarters. How I will miss you.
I went to war again shortly after Mara was knighted. My former padawan was assigned to diplomatic missions along the core, helping to keep things together, so I saw little of her after we parted on Coruscant. Oh, we kept in touch through the holo-net, but the bond between us was never as strong as it had been. I suspect that this was intentional on the part of the Council, but I’ll never be able to prove it. And even if I could prove it, Master Yoda would never admit to any deliberate action.
I fought alongside Obi-Wan’s force throughout his campaigns. When the droid general Grievous launched his counter-offensive, I placed myself in the thick of things. Nau-Kote became my chief advisor and closest friend, and I found myself paying more and more attention to his lovely daughter as the days passed.
The Jedi Code suggests that love is anathema to all the ideals of the Order. I would debate that until the stars turned cold, if I could, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Council is too set in its ways to deviate from the traditions. But what is a bond in the Force if not a bond of love? What is caring for another person’s wellbeing if not a product of love? What is it to lay down one’s life for another, if not the ultimate testament of love?
About twenty-two months into the war, I was recalled to Coruscant briefly for a ‘special operation’ at the behest of my old friend Quinlan Vos. I didn’t know what it would entail, but I assumed it would get messy. Well, it did, but not in the way I was expecting.
Many would say that it was during this time that I ultimately began to fall. That may be so. But it doesn’t mean I would change a thing.
Come on, Jedi. I don’t have all night.
The young woman rolled her eyes impatiently as she glanced down at the chrono for the fifth time in as many minutes. The acrid stench of smoke wrenched through her nostrils again, and the young woman curled her lip in disgust. Places like this were good for one thing and one thing only--drink. And while she couldn’t say that the prospect of heavy intoxication was among her higher interests, it certainly seemed good enough for her prey.
The young woman smiled, studying herself in the bar mirror again. Alderaanian by descent, her shock white hair and cold blue eyes combined with her dancer’s build and creamy, pale skin to paint a portrait irresistible to any man.
Even a Jedi? she asked silently to herself as she toyed with the rim of the untouched drink in front of her.
Tracking down the Corellian’s habits hadn’t been easy, but the girl who called herself Bria Do’ran had plenty of sources to keep her informed. From that point, the whole game rest lay in her ability to drug the unsuspecting knight and take him captive… provided she could catch his attention first, anyway.
Bria’s pale eyes narrowed in contempt for the Jedi. By all accounts, he was a dangerous man; they wouldn’t have sent her after him, otherwise. Her target was Ses-Cae Desdina, the hero of half a dozen battles and a perpetual thorn in the side of the Confederacy of Independent Systems. But somewhere along the way, the warrior’s Corellian heritage had turned on him, and he in turn had turned to drink to escape the nightmares that supposedly plagued his just sleep. Again, Bria’s lip curled.
For whatever reason, her master wanted the fool alive… and Count Dooku was nothing if not particular about his orders. Well, fine, the girl laughed to herself. That suits me just fine.
Through her powerful connection to the Force, Bria detected a drunken Twi’lek taking a sudden interest in her. Deciding that killing the fool would be decidedly against her purposes, Bria reached out through the Force to gently place a maintenance droid in his way… then hid a snicker as he collided into a serving droid and a pair of enormous Barbarel spacers.
While the scene before her drew a smirk, it was the handsome, bearded man at the entrance that caused her features to blossom into a radiant smile. Ses-Cae Desdina strode into the bar with purpose, and eyes everywhere turned to view the Jedi. By now, Bria though to herself he’s got to be a regular around here. Wonder how his superiors like that…
The girl studied him intently as he swaggered towards the bar. Not for the first time, Bria found herself attracted to his confident grace and powerful build… but, at the same time, she knew that, being a Jedi, he would spurn whatever advances she made on him. Even if other men would have killed for those advances.
The corner of Bria’s mouth twisted upward in amusement. She’d always been beautiful; even as a child, she remembered using her appearance to get whatever she wanted. As she’d grown up, Bria had learned to use her beauty as a weapon. Men would give anything to be close to her, and her temperament enjoyed the feeling of power over them.
At eighteen, she killed for the first time. He was a merchant’s son--attractive and well born, but lacking in the mental department. Bria had relished the feeling of omnipotence as she watched the life drain from his eyes. She had thrived on the joy of the kill, become addicted to the power coursing through her veins.
It’s ironic, she thought to herself, not for the time. I have to take life to feel alive. Bria’s smirk broadened as the Jedi sat down next to her.
Oh, my Jedi. You make this too easy.
“Corellian whiskey,” he nodded to the droid bartender.
“One for me, as well,” Bria interjected, looking over to Desdina with a charming smile. “Corellian drinks have such… texture.”
The Jedi’s bloodshot eyes searched her face questioningly. Coming up blank, he smiled courteously. “I’m sorry, have we met?”
The Alderaanian girl lightly ran her tongue across the white teeth of her lower jaw. “Not yet, master Jedi. We could always fix that, though.”
Though Desdina snorted in amusement, Bria could see the interest flare in his brilliant eyes. Isn’t that adorable, she though to herself, careful to use all the mental shielding techniques taught to her by Count Dooku. The Jedi’s tempted… come along, good knight. Give in to it.
After a moment, the droid returned with their drinks. Desdina accepted them gratefully, setting them down between himself and Bria. “On my tab.”
“Yes, sir,” the droid acknowledged before puttering off to another happy patron.
“I’m Laora,” she interjected, feigning a semblance of meekness. While she may not have cared all that much about introducing herself to the fool, Bria knew that men seemed to prefer the shy, timid type. At least, the girl mused as she lightly traced an index finger along the rim of her glass they always have in the past…
Something flickered in the Jedi’s eyes, but his smile remained. “Laora. That’s a Corellian name.”
Bria looked away ‘shyly’. “My parents were Corellian,” she answered quietly, praying that the Jedi’s powers couldn’t penetrate her mental barriers.
A sympathetic look fell across Desdina’s face as the meaning of her words set in. “I’m so sorry.”
That’s right… pity me, Jedi. Pity me and desire me. My master has need of your talents.
“I was little when they died,” she said out loud, trying not to think about her real parents. They’d always had so much faith in her, and loved her above everything else. That must be why they’ve turned a blind eye to every wrong thing I’ve ever done, Bria thought absently. “I don’t remember them very much.”
The Jedi reached for his glass. “I have no memory of my family. All I’ve ever known is the Jedi Order.” He lifted the drink gingerly to his lips, sipping the fiery liquor with relish.
Bria reciprocated the maneuver, smiling faintly to herself as his eyes followed the glass to her bright lips. That a boy. Eyes on the prize, Jedi.
The whiskey burned her throat on the way down, then settled with familiar warmth in her stomach. “So…” she tried again. “What’s a Jedi Knight doing at this sinkhole?”
“Forgetting,” he said simply, promptly taking a larger drink from the glass. He shrugged. “Even a Jedi needs a distraction once in awhile.”
“I see.” She could feel the desire rolling off him, mixed with frustration and melancholy. Deciding that her time had come, Bria placed a hand gingerly on his wrist. “Let’s get out of here. There’s far more distracting things to do than drink bad liquor in a dive like this.”
The Jedi stiffened momentarily, and Bria could almost see the struggle in his mind. And while the battle between desire and duty wouldn’t normally have torn a professional like Ses-Cae Desdina, she’d caught him in a frame of mind where he just didn’t care. In the end, there was only one possible outcome.
Desdina smiled at her obvious suggestion. “I think that’s a good idea.”
I have you now…
While the safehouse she’d picked may not have been among Coruscant’s finer establishments, it was more than suited to her minimal needs. A simple three-room suite, the apartment would have been cramped with more than two people living there at any given time. Thank the gods I won’t have to be here much longer, she thought to herself as she looked in the mirror.
The Jedi awaited her in the bedroom. It had been almost too easy to get him there, she reflected with a moment of hesitation, but his desire was certainly genuine. She’d felt the same fire from too many other men to believe that he could fake it, Jedi training or no. Deciding that the repressed members of the Jedi Order must be more wound up sexually than a Twi’lek in heat, Bria smiled to herself in the mirror.
Whatever his reasons, Desdina had played right into her grasp. In a way, she almost felt sorry for the man in the next room. Save for desire, she’d never sensed anything from him but compassion for others, and in a way it would be a shame to hand him over to her master, broken and betrayed. But, on the other hand, it would be much more of a shame for her to face Dooku’s wrath, and if she had to choose between her wellbeing and his… well, there was really no contest.
So she would hand this captive over to her master, as she always had in the past. But for the first time ever, Bria knew that she would regret it. In their exchanges during the walk to her apartment, she’d come to be genuinely interested in the confident, thoughtful Jedi knight. Perhaps…
Perhaps after he’s been turned to the dark side, we can pursue something, she thought idly as she inspected her figure in the mirror one last time. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be grateful that I’ve… liberated him from his chains.
A shadow fell across her face as she realized the impossibility of such a hope, but she quickly suppressed any sorrow that she might have felt. Regardless of her personal feelings, it was time to finish the mission; the tiny stun blaster in her hand would see to that well enough.
Bria stalked back to the bedroom, ready to fire as soon as the doors opened. But barely a second after the entryway had slid open, a warning alarm sounded at the back of her mind, as the distinct feeling that something wasn’t right washed over her.
And then she felt the weapon ripped from her hand by an impossible force. Dully, she realized that Desdina had disarmed her effortlessly… and that, in her ruminations, she’d been too stupid to bring a backup!
Bria found herself staring at the Jedi knight in shock. He sat on the bed calmly, a sad, disappointed expression on his face. His lightsaber remained clipped at his belt; and as she watched, he removed the primary power pack from her small, holdout blaster, tossing the now-useless weapon aside. He shook his head slowly.
“I wish you hadn’t tried that,” he muttered quietly, not quite meeting her large, stunned eyes.
Anger gradually overcame her shock, and Bria felt the power of the dark side coursing through her again. She’d been played from the very beginning--not only had the Jedi known exactly what she was doing, he’d stopped her without so much as lifting a finger.
Visibly shaking with rage and frustration, Bria fixed the knight with a piercing stare. “You lied to me this whole time.”
“I admit that the deception wasn’t particularly pleasant to me, but I wanted to see if my information was actually correct.” Desdina met her eyes sorrowfully. “Unlike some, I choose to be certain before trapping a potentially innocent person.”
Something about his tone bit deep into her anger, although Bria couldn’t discern exactly what it was. The fury she’d felt began to die down, replaced by… guilt? It can’t be guilt, she decided after a brief moment of panic. You’ve never felt guilty about anything before!
Regardless of the new emotion tearing into her, Bria met his sad stare defiantly. “You’re on one side of the war, Jedi. I’m on the other. I don’t have to explain myself to you.”
“No,” he agreed unexpectedly. “You don’t. And even if you did, I don’t think I could understand how someone as beautiful as yourself could be so full of hatred… Bria.”
His use of her real name threw Bria even further away from her hatred. No one had called her by it since she’d left her parents; as far as everyone else, even Dooku, knew, she was Laora. A deadly, beautiful weapon, and nothing more. But this Jedi had done his homework, apparently, and hearing the name from someone besides herself rocked the white-haired girl to the core.
Desdina’s expression shifted as her hate ebbed away. His sorrowful gaze became one of compassion, and he rose from his place on the bed. The Jedi approached her without anything resembling hesitation, and crouched slightly to stare into her eyes.
Bria was never quite certain of exactly what transpired between them in that instant, but she could feel concern for her pouring from Desdina. Whatever else he thought, whatever else he was… the man actually cared about her. After years of being seen as nothing more than a weapon or, even worse, a sexual plaything, Bria found that the genuine concern in Desdina’s eyes destroyed whatever feelings she’d once had about her place in the galaxy.
In that instant, the darkness inside her was broken. Whatever need she’d felt for power had gone, replaced by something infinitely stronger and more incomprehensible. At the same instant, Bria discovered the ability to care for someone outside of herself; and as she stared into the Jedi’s eyes, the girl realized that she'd just given up everything she had once been.
Then she was pressing her lips against his passionately, only half-surprised when he matched her energy with the strength of his own desire, and the two lost sight of whatever oaths or fealties were already upon them.
For Ses-Cae Desdina and Bria Do’ran, in that instant, nothing else mattered.
The next day, I informed the Jedi Council that Bria had eluded me. They were, of course, understandably puzzled by this; how could I, one of the greatest champions of the Jedi Order, fail to capture a mere Dark Acolyte of Count Dooku?
I suspect that only Master Yoda was wise to the true nature of my lie. Not that I saw any harm in it, understand; I cared deeply for Bria, but I didn’t think I loved her. Not in the forbidden way of the Temple, anyway. I visited her a dozen times over the next few weeks, enjoying the bliss of our union, but it didn’t go any deeper than that for me.
To this day, I’m not sure if she was aware of that or not; certainly she knew how deeply I wanted happiness for her, and how much I believed in her redemption from the dark side. At any rate, I suspect that she guessed my intentions quickly; she disappeared, without a word, after a few weeks. Did something happen? Did she realize the impossibility of our future together? Did she succumb to the pull of the dark side, and return to her master’s service?
I suppose that there are some things I’m simply not destined to know. Whatever the reason, I felt an emptiness when she left. That’s not a sign of love, I tell myself. Just my concern for her. That’s all.
Of course, being such an accomplished liar, I can recognize my own fabrications better than most anyone else. I didn’t realize then how deeply I felt for her, I suppose, but there isn’t much I can do about it now. Wherever she is, I just hope that she’s happy.
I rejoined Obi-Wan’s force after my time on Coruscant was finished. The war was in a lull, at that point, so no one had really missed me. Nau-Kote and Naia were certainly pleased to see me, anyway. They said that I looked different. More mature, somehow, or more experienced.
Well, maybe I was. Love’s funny, like that.
“Well,” the giant man noted sourly “this certainly is a hell-hole, isn’t it?”
Privately, Desdina agreed with his second in command, but for morale purposes he kept silent. It was obvious that the men detested the sun-baked world of Kahrana, but there wasn't a great deal he could realistically do about it. Until they wiped the Separatist staging base off of the dusty little world, his four legions--almost forty thousand ground troopers, walker pilots, artillerymen and officers--weren’t going anywhere.
Desdina suppressed a sigh as he scanned the distant, heavily fortified Confederate base through the macrobinoculars in his hands. The intelligence reports placed the total droid strength at upwards of a million deactivated units, but it would take the ‘Seps a good long while to bring that kind of fighting power to bear.
We’re not going to give them that much time, Desdina thought privately. Kick them where it hurts before they can do anything about it….
His corps had been deployed to Kahrana as a flanking maneuver for General Kenobi’s latest operation. A three-system-wide campaign, the objective of the offensive was to do as much damage to the Separatist forces as possible in rapid succession. Command didn’t care about securing most of the worlds within the objective systems, as all but Virujansi were uninhabited or barely developed. Kahrana, and half a dozen targets like it, were nothing more than staging points for the Separatist army, deployed in a wide pattern to protect them from the relentless assaults by the Republic forces.
Predictably, Kenobi and Skywalker had gone after Virujansi themselves... leaving their capable subordinates to wipe the Separatist bases off of the other, not so vitally important worlds in the system. Their single objective was the destruction of all battle droids warships and bases on their target planets, and Desdina aimed to meet that objective spectacularly.
Which brought him to Kahrana. Along with Nau-Kote’s team of ARC troopers, he’d landed on the planet stealthily for preliminary reconnaissance and, if necessary, pre-battle sabotage. Regardless of the success or failure of his mission, though, his fighting force was even now on its way to the sun-baked planet, loaded with his veteran army and yearning for a battle. Based on the recon work he’d already completed, Desdina knew they would get their wish and more.
“We’ve seen worse, commander,” he said out loud. Though the Mandalorian wore his standard armor, Desdina could tell when Nau-Kote was fixating him with an incredulous look. Now was certainly such a time.
“Whatever you say, sir.” The large man scanned the exterior base defenses thoughtfully. While their present target may not have been the main fortress of the Separatists on the planet, it was the largest storage point for their deactivated, expendable automaton army. Nevertheless, the base was ringed with heavy turbo-laser and anti-air batteries--and, if intel was right, a heavy shield generator. All together, the defenses promised heavy losses to any foe foolish enough to try a frontal assault.
Nau-Kote’s eye caught something, and the big man gestured for his companion to examine one of the defensive fronts of the base. “It looks pretty nasty on the south ridge, sir. They’ve got almost as many big guns as all the other approaches combined; doesn’t make sense tactically, but I’d guess they’re trying to cover something there.”
Desdina followed his subordinate’s gaze, smiling slightly as he intuited the reason for the extra defenses. “That’s got to be their shield generator, commander. How long before the fleet arrives?”
“Forty-five minutes, sir. My guess is that they’ll be able to overwhelm any starships in orbit quickly, but not quickly enough for our purposes down here.”
“Agreed. The other generals should be starting their attacks in the next half-hour or so, so all bases in the system will go to code three alert.” He frowned thoughtfully. “If we could get in, do some damage, and get out before the alert begins, we might just make things easier on the legions when they arrive. Alright, commander. Take five of the men and head for the hangar. Try to secure an assault transport to get us out of there when the time comes.”
Desdina put a hand on his chin thoughtfully, considering how to say the next part. “I’ll take Naia and the others to the shield generator on the south ridge,” he said casually, hoping that the explicit mention of his daughter would slip the Mandalorian’s attention. “Regardless of contact with us, exfiltrate your men in thirty standard minutes.”
Nau-Kote nodded. The plan made good tactical sense, considering that the division of such a small force provided for increased probability of success for at least one of the groups, but something bothered him. After a moment, a smile spread across his helmeted face, and he realized what it was.
“Keen to take my daughter with you, eh Jedi?” The large soldier chuckled in amusement, but to his credit Desdina didn’t even blink. “Well, that’s fine with me. But bring her back by…” Nau-Kote checked his chrono “twenty-one hundred. Can’t have her staying out late, now can I?”
The Jedi cracked a wry smile. “Get yourself back here by twenty-one hundred, commander, and then we’ll talk. Until then, may the Force be with you.”
“And, er, also with you,” Nau-Kote responded awkwardly, never really what to say in such a scenario. Desdina’s smile broke out into a rare chuckle, and the Mandalorian reddened under his helmet.
“Can’t say I’ve ever heard that response, commander. But, all things considered, I’ll welcome it.” Desdina’s eyes hardened, and he lifted his own helmet into place. “Now go.”
While infiltrating a base perimeter was far more easily said than done, Desdina couldn’t help but be impressed with the ARC troopers’ professionalism as they slipped past the electronic surveillance gear standard to such installations. The trick was anticipation of highly monitored points along a base, avoiding such intersections like the plague and, finally, knowing when to throw discretion to the wind.
Slipping into a base alone wouldn’t have been too difficult for most Jedi knights. Trained in using the mind before the lightsaber, most Jedi were well versed in staying out of sight until the opportune moments. Desdina, for his part, had already used the natural infiltration techniques--ingrained into him by the years of training--half dozen times in the few minutes they’d been inside the base, and he was quickly losing patience with the stealthy approach.
The base layout, as with many such installations, was purely utilitarian. Nothing more than a series of massive, armored storage sheds housed the nearly one million deactivated battle droids stpred in reserve at the facility, and besides a small hangar, administrative office and barracks for biological soldiers, there really wasn’t much to the place.
As the half-dozen intruders crept through the alleyway between two of the smaller barracks near the south ridge defensive wall, Desdina’s eyes fell upon their target. It was, indeed, a starship-grade shield generator designed to protect the base from any orbital bombardment, and it was heavily guarded. The knight’s quick count came up with at least a score of droid soldiers watching over the installation from various vantage points, and he could see no obvious way to get to the thing without attracting far too much unwanted attention.
The Jedi rubbed a hand over his beard thoughtfully. Think, Ses-Cae. Frontal assault gets you all killed, but stealth seems impossible. So what do you do…
“Naia,” he whispered in summons to the short trooper, who came up beside him. “I’m going to create a diversion in exactly one minute. Take that thing down and get out while I keep the bucket heads occupied.”
“Got it, sir,” she replied with uncharacteristic nervousness. The Jedi frowned slightly at the change in her tone, but shrugged it off.
“I’ll meet up with you at the hangar. Now then…” his hand reached down to retrieve the lightsaber from his belt “I’ll be seeing you.”
Reaching deep into the currents of the Force, Ses-Cae propelled himself into a powerful vertical leap to the top of the six-meter high barracks. Naia lost sight of the Jedi after that, but the nervous tension inside her remained. Don’t get yourself killed, general, she pleaded silently. I’d hate to tell my father that you died on my watch…
An explosion sounded from somewhere to the north, and Naia’s grip on her weapon tightened as all but a few of the droid guards scurried away. Gesturing about in the complicated battle sign language used by the ARC troopers, the girl indicated which of the commandos would shoot which droids. The designated troopers took aim, and with her signal, opened fire.
The droid guards were wiped away before they knew something was wrong, and then the team was storming towards the installation with fury. She could hear, in the distance, the commotion that the general’s distraction had caused, but Naia gave it no further thought as she reached the weak point at the generator’s base. Without instruction, a trio of the commandos detached the thermal detonators from their light battle-kits, setting them at equidistant intervals around the cylindrical base.
Then, without hesitation, the team was gone again, vanished into the commotion of the squalling alarms. Behind them, the massive generator erupted in fire, then toppled over onto the nearest barracks. Whatever chance this place had for survival, Naia thought to herself. It just went up in smoke. Now if only the general got out…
As he watched the explosion triumphantly, a feral grin of victory spread across the normally tranquil face of Ses-Cae Desdina. His ‘diversion’ had been altogether too simple; all he’d actually done was to quietly commandeer one of the heavy turrets along the western line of defenses, point it at the nearest target, and open fire. He hadn’t even stayed in the thing for long--just enough to send a fiery signal to the guards around the generator.
And the bucket-heads took the bait, he thought with a smirk as he hefted the shut down lightsaber beside him. A part of him longed to throw himself into the combat wholeheartedly, but Desdina was no fool. No Jedi, regardless of power, would survive for long against an entire encampment of battle droids, especially with said opponents on high alert. Still, getting out was proving to be more of a problem than he’d anticipated, which made him hope that the other commandos had managed to escape.
After his initial ‘distraction’, the Jedi had launched himself away from the turrets with all of his strength. He’d landed gracefully in the shadows of one of the major storage sheds, but droid patrols were sweeping through the area relentlessly. He’d been forced to dispatch a trio of them already, as the scrap piles at his feet attested, but he knew that it was only a matter of time before someone raised the alarm. When that time came, the Jedi didn’t look forward to facing the insurmountable odds around him, skill or no skill.
If you want to get out, you don’t have much time. The fleet’ll be calling down the fire on this place any minute now… Desdina shook his head sourly, praying that Nau-Kote’s force had secured the hangar for their extrication. Something told the Jedi that being killed by the bombardment of his own capital ship fleet wouldn’t look very good on his record.
Another explosion caught his ear, this one in the direction of the hangar bay. Deciding that his men had been revealed in their attempt, the Jedi through caution to the wind and raced along towards the sound of the noise. Sure enough, as he leapt to the top of another building for a vantage point, Desdina could pick out the individual noises of clashing blaster rifles exchanging fire. Letting the Force flow through his powerful muscles once more, the Jedi sprinted in the direction of the clamor and launched himself into the air gracefully.
As he landed a few meters away from the large, gray hangar, Desdina surrendered himself completely to the Force. Throughout his entire body, muscles relaxed into a state of fluid power. His vision became clear, separating battle droid from foe with preternatural ease. His lightsaber, held loosely in his left hand, came alive with a snap-hiss of light blue fire.
And then he was laying into the stunned battle droids who, until that moment, had believed clones to be their only targets in the vicinity. The presence of a Jedi knight in their midst, slashing and hacking while they struggled to even get a bearing, seemed to buckle the entire formation of them… much to the delight of the remnants of the pinned-down ARC trooper squad, who poured fire into the confused droids with vengeance. Between Desdina’s blade and the angry fire of the commandos, the nearly three dozen battle droids were quickly dispatched.
As the Jedi beheaded the last of the B-1 units, the eight remaining troopers---which included, much to Desdina’s relief, both Naia and her father--moved wordlessly towards a standard Separatist assault shuttle. The round, heavily armed flyer may not have been easy on the eyes, but it would get them out safely.
Hopefully, Desdina thought to himself ruefully as his conscious mind reclaimed control. The residual euphoria and adrenaline still pounded in his ears, and he was aware of more than one pair of eyes staring at him in fascination as the squad boarded the shuttle. The Jedi shut down his blade quietly, drinking in the near-awe coming off the soldiers around him.
Then Naia was lifting the assault transport off, and their escape was complete. The turbolaser fire from the Republic fleet began to rain down even as the little craft raced away from the doomed base. Desdina moved up to the copilot’s seat tiredly, leaning his head back in exhaustion as he lowered himself into the chair. Beside him, Naia smirked.
“Wear yourself out, sir?” she asked innocently, her face still glowing with adrenaline. Desdina smiled.
“The Force has been known to do that. All things considered, though…” The Jedi shrugged, and Naia turned back to the controls with a secretive smile. For an instant, Desdina was half-tempted to intrude into her private thoughts. With an almost imperceptible shake of his head, the Jedi dismissed the idea as quickly as it had come to him.
Beside him, Naia frowned. “Transmission from the flagship, general,” she reported dutifully before putting it up on the big screen. The familiar shapely face of his former padawan stared seriously at them, and Desdina exchanged a brief, worried glance with Naia as the signal came through.
“Good thing I sensed you aboard, master. The fleet almost lit you up.” Mara’s tone was uncharacteristically grave as she spoke, and her soft brown eyes were hardened with determination. Despite the distance between them, Desdina picked up the tumultuous mix of emotions in his old apprentice that could only mean one thing: Bad news. Wonderful.
“Thank the force for small favors,” he responded with more ease. “Since when are you attached to the command, Mara?”
“Since General Kenobi sent me personally to warn the fleet.” Mara paused, choosing her words carefully before elaborating. “Just over two hours ago, he received confirmation of success on five out of the six targeted staging points in his campaign. He’s already started his attack on Virujansi, and is so far meeting with overwhelming success. But the legions on Derenin III are running into a slaughter. Since you’re the closest, he’s ordered your force personally to relieve them as soon as possible.”
The Jedi’s frown deepened at his padawan’s news. It was well known that, when Obi-Wan used the words ‘as soon as possible’, what he really meant was ‘Right the hell now, dammit.’ Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy. Desdina’s own assault had been synchronized to fall a good three hours after primary assaults on other outposts in the region, mainly due to logistics errors on the part of the fleet administrators. That had infuriated the Jedi to no end, but it had also given him ample time to execute his preliminary sabotage and destroy the main, deactivated Separatist force on the planet.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t even begun his main assault yet due to the planning. Granted, the initial string of commando missions such as his own had annihilated nearly three quarters of the Separatist strength on the planet, but he couldn’t just pull out now! Desdina put a hand to his forehead as it began to throb.
“Always the bearer of good news, I see,” his deep voice tried to laugh. “Orders are orders, I suppose. Instruct the 472nd legion to continue the assault on the Kaharana. I’m not interested in taking the planet, but I want the Seps wiped off this rock. All other units will depart with me on our way to reinforce Derenin.”
“Understood, master,” Mara inclined her head respectfully, then grinned broadly. “I’ll see you soon.”
Desdina nodded, smiled, and severed the connection. Despite the bad news, his face looked strangely contented to the girl beside him. But if the Jedi had bothered to look her way, he might have noted the strange, envious expression in her large eyes.
A pity he’ll never notice them, Naia thought to herself bitterly, wishing for just a moment that her presence would affect the Jedi like that of his old apprentice. Quelling the jealousy with military discipline, Naia danced her hands across the controls of the small shuttle, racing as fast as possible towards the graceful fleet of Venator- and Victory-class Star Destroyers, Carrack-class light cruisers and assorted support vessels hanging in the upper atmosphere of the sand baked world.
Even as the ship accelerated towards the fleet, numerous LAAT gunships and assorted heavy transports careened towards the planet. Loaded with infantry, armor and heavy weapon units of the 472nd legion, Desdina knew that they would be able to break the Separatist defenses without much difficulty. He only hoped that the situation on Derenin would be able to be resolved so easily…
Idly, the Jedi knight found himself studying the fine lines of the girl beside him. Naia was attractive, but not beautiful, as Bria had been. Nor was she as personable as Mara, though she certainly got along well with the troops. Still, there was no denying that something about the blue-eyed woman intrigued the Corellian--whether he admitted it or not.
As his eyes roamed the lines of her face, drinking in the cheekbones, nose and deep blue eyes, Desdina decided that he was wrong about her. Naia was beautiful; not in the same way as Bria, perhaps, but in an inexplicable way she far outclassed his old flame. And unlike Bria, Naia neither needed nor wanted his assistance in anything, really.
Maybe that’s part of it, the Jedi mused silently as he continued to examine the woman’s features. Bria practically threw herself at you; Naia seems perfectly content to let you come to her. That’s alright, Ses-Cae, he grinned to himself.
You always did love a good chase…
Now, there’s an old saying in some parts of the galaxy that sums up the nature of ‘Intelligence’ perfectly: “Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” When intel analysts file reports for the military, more often than not they’re taking a blind stab in the dark. Sometimes they hit something, and sometimes they don’t.
Someone screwed up big time about Derelin III. I don’t particularly know who, nor do I care. Well, scratch that. I do care, but there’s not much I can do about it now.
General Teira Dafan had taken a full corps of clone troopers to that miserable little world, backed by a fleet the size of my own. But whereas my operations met with overwhelming success, hers seemed to be plagued by a streak of miserable luck. Oh, sure, I know some would argue that “There’s no such thing as luck”, but quite honestly I know better. All Corellians know better. That’s just how we are: we see the odds, and we take our chances regardless. And when luck smiles on us, we embrace it.
But when it turns its back on you… well, all I can say is that war is the absolute worst time. Luck never gave Teira half a chance, nor most of her men for that matter. Granted, they’d broken the back of the Confederate fleet by the time we arrived, but operations on the ground were a disaster.
Not only did the Separatists outnumber the four legions by a factor of something like a forty to one, but the nasty ionic storms of that wretched planet made most of our air support useless. Not only couldn’t we bombard the metalheads from above, we couldn’t even send down the gunships for anything but landing. The shields could take the interference; the sensors couldn’t.
Even now, I can still remember the flight down. As the LAAT descended through the blanket of planet-wide storms, I’d never wished more fervently that my feet were on solid ground again. It’s no secret that I don’t care much for flying; give me dust under my boots, though, and I’m your man.
So I went down to Derelin III. I placed myself at the center of the maelstrom, and I lead my men straight into hell. And when we came out, well, all of us were a little different.
“By the Force, general,” the soldier commented offhandedly. “This new Phase-Two stuff makes our old gear look like children’s toys.”
A low rumble of laughter escaped Desdina’s throat at the trooper’s enthusiasm. He had to admit that it was well-placed, considering that the new armor was light years ahead of the old designs; even he felt comfortable in it, for once. Granted, the corps under his command had only just been issued the new uniforms less than two weeks before, so they were still getting used to some of the bugs… but, by and large, the increased flexibility, functionality and attention to detail on the new rigs really did put the old gear to shame.
“Why do you think I’m wearing it, commander?” he replied good-naturedly. Not many Jedi were known to wear the same uniforms as the clones, but Desdina was nothing if not observant. He understood the mentality of the clone troopers because he spent so much time among them. The troops considered Jedi, for the most part, to be just a few steps short of total insanity. To them, rushing into battle without even a helmet was the epitome of madness itself, regardless of how good one was with the lightsaber. The fact that an individual such as himself, who happened to be better than most with his chosen weapon, would wear armor anyways went a long way to raising him in the eyes of his men.
That, he reflected cynically, and the fact that I win.
The muddy, wet world of Derelin III was a nightmare for his standard armored cavalry tactics, but the lighter, more efficient armor didn’t hamper the infantrymen at all. Unfortunately, the gross numerical disadvantage faced by the Republic forces necessitated the inclusion of at least some heavy equipment, no matter how poor the terrain itself was. Besides the fact that such weaponry was essential to any hope of victory for the beleaguered clones, armored tactical maneuvers happened to be Desdina’s forte. Clone infantrymen were his anvil, true, and special forces were his scalpel, but nothing beat the sheer mobility and firepower of heavy armor. The fact that so few Jedi took the time to learn that fact spoke ill of their adaptability, but Desdina had paid special attention to the lessons of history.
Unlike his counterparts in the Separatist army, who continually insisted on sending masses of cheap, expendable--and totally inefficient--infantry to the slaughter at the hands of the Republic forces. Still, in a situation wherein Republic heavy walkers were immobilized, the air support was rendered incapable of helping and the infantry found itself outnumbered by an unknown margin, Desdina could not realistically expect to win.
To that end, the Jedi had drawn upon the lighter, repulsor-powered IFT-X hover tanks of his command. Generally he would’ve used such vehicles for support only, given their dangerous susceptibility to ion-based and anti-repulsor weaponry, but they were the best he had under the circumstances. Over three hundred of the fast little things, drawn from his entire fleet, were forming up even as he looked over the tactical maps.
His battle plan was risky, but Desdina was once again completely out of options. His three legions had landed in chaos, finding the battered, demoralized and exhausted troopers of the previous attacking force in near full retreat. Desdina’s opening counter attack had saved the survivors from the legions for the moment, but each of the units had taken more than fifty percent losses in dead or wounded. Of their leader, the Twi’lek knight Teira Dafan, no trace could be found; some of the forward line units had witnessed her attempting to stave off scores of battle droids, but no one had actually seen her die.
Still, the jaws of the Separatist army were closing in on the small perimeter the Republic troops had been forced back to. Desdina had performed a calculated tactical retreat to the plateau, where the rocky soil provided sufficient base for his heavy artillery and walker units to provide support. The nearly seven legions under him were glad of their presence, given the conventional wisdom that, if not for the walkers, the battle droids would have already massacred the lot of them already.
Looking out over the lowland bogs surrounding his fortified ridge top, though, Desdina wasn’t so certain that the Separatists wouldn’t massacre them regardless. But of course he let nothing on to the men under his command. The troopers were already demoralized enough without their general despairing on them.
The clone commander chuckled nervously, then peered back through the macrobinoculars in his armored hands. Long range scanning on the muddy, dank world was impossible; the ion storms saw to that. Likewise, communication with any ships in orbit was impossible from the surface, meaning that messages would need to be hand delivered to the fleet via a courier shuttle.
“Look, sir,” he said quietly, pointing in the direction of his gaze. “Those are Hailfire tanks they’re bringing in, though they don’t seem to be making much progress. Don’t know if it occurred to the Seps that their rollers might not be much use.”
Desdina’s own electronically enhanced view brought a smile to his face. “Commander, inform SPHA-T units Echo three and Beta five that we’ve got some target practice for them. Fifty percent of total fire from each walker; these paper towels the metalheads call ‘tanks’ won’t need a full burst.”
As Desdina watched the big machines swing their comparatively large cannons into place, Desdina couldn’t help but think that the Self Propelled Heavy Artillery (Turbolaser) was a genuine godsend to his men. The things were his favorite ‘toys’ out of every weapon in his arsenal, and they’d broken the back of more than one Separatist stronghold nicely.
His subordinate returned from dispatching the order, and Desdina studied the armored man for a brief moment. Apparently, the commander had once been a captain in the 151st legion; as such, he’d personally witnessed Desdina’s actions on Cappo II that had turned sure defeat into overwhelming victory. The trooper had been field promoted twice since then, and now commanded his entire legion. He’d even taken a name, as was customary among such soldiers: Commander Longshot, loyal supporter of his general.
In theory, all ‘basic’ clone troopers were born with the same mental capacity. Having lived among the clones for so long, Desdina didn’t buy that for a minute. Longshot was gifted even amongst his gifted brothers, and his general couldn’t help but think that something besides a genetic fluke was responsible. Regardless of the cause, though, Desdina was glad of his reassuring presence.
Together, the two watched in satisfaction as a dozen bogged down Hailfire droid tanks exploded brightly. The Separatists had been testing their defensive perimeter for the better part of twenty-four hours, and still hadn’t committed themselves to a full-scale attack. Granted, the Republic forces wouldn’t even have had time to get their heavy units in position atop the fortified ridge if not for the brilliant rearguard war waged by his light armor units, but the fact of the matter remained that they had been given plenty of time to consolidate the defenses before the bulk of the Separatist army arrived in earnest.
The Jedi was grateful for their hesitation; not only had it given him more time to prepare his defenses (and whittle down the enormous army of his opponents ever so slightly), but seeing the Separatist cowardice seemed to be raising the morale of his soldiers considerably. He’d even had time to evacuate the nearly three thousand wounded troopers from the other legions, leaving only healthy, well-fed and well-equipped soldiers in the surface-side fighting body.
As a tactician, though, Desdina was dreading whatever trump card the Confederacy was waiting to play. When their plan of attack came, all Desdina could do was react to it; that was part of the reason he detested defensive operations so much.
Still, the Jedi thought as he looked out over his battle-ready army it could be worse.
No sooner had he thought it than the sound of heavy cannon fire rocked his ears. Jerking his gaze to the tactical map, Desdina barely had time to register a sea of incoming droid units before the power went out in the command bunker.
The Jedi cursed silently, grasped a hand on his lightsaber and stormed out of the post. “Commander,” he called over his shoulder “I want main power back online by the time I get back.”
Longshot saluted his general calmly, even as the sound of more fire rained in around them. “Yes sir, general. We’ll get right on it.”
Setting the helmet over his head, Desdina raced to the nearest BARC speeder bike available to him. In situations like this, establishing a presence at the forefront of his army would go a long way towards winning the battle. When the men saw their general putting himself in the same harm they found themselves in, it seemed to inspire them to fight harder.
Meanwhile, the Jedi keyed a transmission out to the commander of his light armored units, hidden carefully a few kilometers away. The holoemitter on his speeder popped to life with the miniaturized form of Nau-Kote, proudly leading the light armor with his daughter.
“Commander,” Desdina said evenly as he fired up the speeder bike “begin the maneuver. Unleash hell.”
The Mandalorian saluted, and Desdina cut the transmission. After all, his men were dying; he didn’t have time to sit around chatting tactical orders to his units! Not for the first time, Desdina silently thanked the force for the high degree of independence stressed in the command structure of the Grand Army of the Republic. Then, without further delay, he roared off to face the oncoming tide.
How is this POSSIBLE?
Safely behind the front lines, Separatist general Chon Vanthe raged at the inefficiency of his soldiers. The droids outnumbered the pitiful clone forces by a margin of nearly thirty-eight to one, and still the Republic dogs drove them back! When their assault had started four days ago, Vanthe had beaten it back furiously. He’d driven the pitifully broken infantry before his army like a few leaves chased by a hurricane. And yet somehow, through some trick of fate, that same army was now annihilating his attack forces.
It’s as if they weren’t in any danger all along! he cursed silently.
Vanthe’s forward units were reporting horrifying casualties. Pinned down by walkers and artillery atop the bluff occupied by the Republic army, his own battle droids were being cut down in swarms. The forward assault units were all but wiped out already, and his reserves were making their way to the front with agonizing slowness. Of the nearly one and a half million battle droids deployed on Derelin, his intelligence suggested that anywhere from a tenth to a quarter of his units were already wiped out against the Republic defenses, and the situation seemed to be decaying rapidly.
The second wave began its sluggish advance against the merciless fire pouring down from the plateau. The tac map displays continued to register the loss of far too many droids for the gains they made up the hill. Every time a sizable force seemed to make any kind of advance up the hill, it was mercilessly cut apart by the hail of close-range infantry fire from the concentrated legions. Vanthe pounded his fist against the control panel in anger.
His eyes widened in near panic as a slew of fast-moving vehicles popped out of nowhere over the bogs to the east of his main lines. Whatever they were, they split the Separatist reinforcements neatly in two, driving a hard-hitting wedge directly through the middle and leaving a trail of destruction in their path. Here or there, one of the units exploded, but the infernal machines were decimating his forces without much difficulty.
Then, from the fortified encampment, a mass of Republic infantry and light walkers surged forth beyond the heavily defended perimeter. At the head…
Vanthe’s eyes narrowed as his forward scouts were cut down by a Jedi knight. He’d already killed a Twi’lek Jedi a few days before, striking her down in single combat with only a fair amount of difficulty. This Jedi, though, seemed to be cut of a different cloth. He charged in front of the Republic lines fearlessly, laying into the battle droids with sobering effectiveness.
Vanthe grinned and made for his speeder.
Dark Acolytes, they were called. The name was nothing if not accurate, but I never found them to be much of a challenge. They were our counterparts, sure, but they were not our equals. Any Jedi knight worth his salt was able to cut through most of them in a fair fight, but understand that they rarely gave us a fair fight.
Chon Vanthe was a coward. He was a pitiful excuse for a human being, and an equally poor excuse for a leader. But, whatever he was, he also served as the catalyst for my ‘fall’.
Not that I fell, understand. I embraced my true nature. Not the dark side, and not some hateful, power-hungry mania, either. I had, until that point, held myself in check. Deep within my heart, there was a primal instinct to destroy all in my path; to unleash my true power upon my unsuspecting foes, and to take joy as my blade cut them down.
I did not fall to the dark side. I didn’t kill any innocents. I didn’t even break the Jedi Code, except for my romantic transgressions. All I did--all I have ever done--was to accept what I am. And when I revealed my true nature to the Jedi, they couldn’t abide--or couldn’t handle--what they saw.
Am I to blame? Certainly. But people--and I use the word loosely--like Chon Vanthe were the reason I was forced to embrace my darker side. And I killed him for it.
Mara smiled triumphantly as her blade cut deep into a Separatist AAT, and she leapt away from the mortally wounded tank fervently as it exploded behind her. Rupturing the fuel lines to the repulsor was an old trick, but provided with the proper cover any trained Jedi could pull it off with ease.
Her master’s battle plan had worked beautifully. The clone legions had invited the droid armies to attack their position, and the Separatists had accepted wholeheartedly. Then, the Republic troops had cut down the droids that advanced in horrifying numbers, while for the most part taking only light casualties themselves. They’d fought the battle droids to a standstill, then began pushing back with a vengeance. Just when the counterattack was in full swing, Desdina’s light tank units cut a swath of destruction through back of the battle droid lines, trapping and annihilating even more of the automatons.
The battle was still only in its third hour, but even Mara could sense impending victory in the air. As she charged headlong into the nearest mass of battle droids, emerald saber flashing mercilessly, Mara felt herself fall in tune with the army of clone troopers following her.
Mara finished off the last of the droids with a slash to the head, then frowned as a ripple in the Force caught her attention. She turned to confront the source of the disturbance… then widened her eyes in horror as they focused on the new arrival. A powerfully built, pale-skilled, bald human roared toward her on a speeder bike. Outstretched in his right hand was a crimson red lightsaber… which descended in a stroke to her head that Mara barely had time to parry before he roared past her.
The human brought the bike to a stop, dismounting with unnerving confidence. As Mara looked over his muscular body, tattooed head and furious eyes, the shadow of doubt fell over her mind. She’d never before faced a truly hostile individual trained in the lightsaber arts before, and though she’d always done well in the practice against her master, it didn’t take a genius to see the world of difference between friendly sparring and life-and-death combat. Nevertheless, she steadied herself gracefully as he approached, dropped into a ready stance, and raised her blade.
The man in front of her wasted no time in attacking, and Mara was momentarily horrified by his strength. The full force of his first swing rocked through her body, despite the fact that she’d caught his strike in an elegant parry. The man’s swing nearly carried him off balance, but he nevertheless followed up by a vertical slash towards her head. Mara backstepped gracefully, allowing his over-powered attack to come down on empty air, then stabbed inward with the classic Makashi duelist’s poise.
Her opponent managed to block the attack, but not before he’d realized that the pretty girl before him was capable of striking back. When he next swung, Mara noticed, it was with far more caution than he’d shown previously. Still, she countered the horizontal cut without much difficulty.
Is this the best he can do? Mara wondered idly as she countered the cut with a neat slash towards his throat. Fear welled up in his eyes as her blade missed by inches, caught by his own desperate block.
Whatever uncertainty Mara had felt was gone, replaced by all the authority and power worthy of a Jedi Knight. She advanced upon the big man, drove him before her, made him fall back again and again. As the droids drew back to watch the combatants, a space opened around them.
Mara again knocked his blade aside, but this time backhanded the man viciously across the face. Pain and anger misted in his eyes as he drew back, yet again. And then the man sneered.
“Kill her,” he ordered the battle droids, who complied with ruthless efficiency. Mara was good for her age; very good, in fact. But she couldn’t stop fire from all around her for long, and soon the deadly energy found its way past her guard.
As she lay dying in the mud of Derelin, Mara’s mind reached out to touch that of her friend, general and former master.
Goodbye, Ses-Cae, she thought as red mist descended over her vison. I will miss you.
Desdina had just finished dispatching a trio of super battle droids when the shockwave passed through him. The Jedi clutched his heart in agony as the pain wrenched his chest, although it took him a few moments to discern the cause. Then, as the faint whisper touched his mind, Desdina realized the horrible truth of the situation.
Guided by the Force, Desdina propelled himself towards the place of her death; whatever had killed her was not long for the world. From the back of his mind, a small voice reminded him quietly that revenge wasn’t the way of a Jedi… but that voice was just a whisper against the storm of anger building inside him.
To the soldiers that witnessed him in motion, it seemed as though a completely different individual inhabited their general’s body. His natural composure was gone, consumed by the great and terrible power of his fury. The awe-inspiring warrior emboldened them, made them drunk on his power, and allowed them to surge forward even more decisively against the breaking droid army.
Desdina allowed the rage to wash over him as slashed into the droid lines yet again. His blade spun in a constant blur of destruction--anything in his path was forfeit, as the wake of burning and broken droid shards in his wake testified.
When he came to the place where Mara had fallen, Desdina found a man standing over her corpse in triumph. The bald man knelt to retrieve Mara’s lightsaber, and didn’t seem to notice Desdina until the Jedi was almost on top of him. He barely raised his weapon up in time to block the first strike.
Vanthe, for his part, stared in horror as the Jedi raced toward him. Clad in clone trooper armor, the cape of Jedi generals and a hood raised over his helmet, Desdina seemed to Vanthe, for a brief moment, like some otherworldly angel of death. And as the Jedi’s blows began to rain across his own blade, Vanthe realized quickly that he was completely outmatched.
The man moved with demonic speed, hammering strikes all across the Dark Acolyte’s own defenses. Despite personal training by Count Dooku, Vanthe couldn’t keep up with the prowess of the Jedi, and began to grow desperate as he stared into the implacable T-visor of the other man.
A high slash. A low feint, followed by a true cut to the hip. A stab, then another high slash. Vanthe was driven backward yet again, and his opponent seemed to be enjoying the battle. Suddenly, with an elegant, controlled flick of his wrist, the Jedi crossed through Vanthe’s defenses effortlessly.
A searing pain tore through his right arm, followed by the numbness and shock of agony. Vanthe sank to the ground, screaming in pain as he fell. Above him, the Jedi stood triumphant. As the Vanthe watched in horror, the Jedi raised his blade to deliver the killing blow.
At the top of the arc, the victorious knight paused, as if debating whether or not to take the life of the man who’d murdered his fellow Jedi. Something seemed to click in him, and for a moment Vanthe couldn’t do anything but stare in disbelief at his luck. He’d done it! The Jedi would let him live! All he had to do was not anger him, and…
The blue weapon whipped down through his neck with a sudden flash of pain, and the world of Chon Vanthe went dark for the last time.
As the Dark Acolyte’s head hit the ground with a dull thud, Desdina let out a deep, mournful breath. The man was pathetic; if the Jedi hadn’t wanted to terrify him so, Desdina could have finished him in the first few strikes. In retrospect, he reflected, the man wasn’t even worth killing. A small feeling of remorse welled up inside him… remorse that was quickly drowned out by sorrow as his thoughts fell to his fallen padawan.
Mara’s form looked peaceful, despite the burns across her body. A content expression rested easily on her sleeping face, and she’d even folded her hands serenely before she died. Desdina gently removed his own helmet sadly, oblivious to the increasingly distant sounds of battle. A small, cool breeze passed near his face, and for a moment a gap in the omnipresent storm clouds allowed a few rays of light to fall upon the scene.
The teachings of the Jedi Order mandated that death was merely the next beginning, but at that moment Desdina would have given anything for the girl to open her eyes one last time. Tears of anger and regret welled in his bright eyes. A thousand memories of their time together flashed before his eyes--her shyness as a young girl, and the pleading look in her eyes as she silently begged him to take her as his apprentice; her awkward teenage years, and her struggle against the natural hormones of that age; her smile as she told him how old he was, without meaning a word of it; her laughter and her tears, joy and sorrow, all manifested in the mind’s eye of her old master.
Through his tears, Desdina planted a tender kiss on her forehead. Mara had been everything and more he could have hoped for in a padawan. Instructing her in the ways of the Force had given him a purpose; watching her grow and learn had given him immeasurable pride; seeing her broken, dead shell of a body left him wracked with despair.
Without another word, Desdina lifted Mara’s body in his arms. He’d lost plenty of good soldiers in the past day, but somehow, none of it seemed to matter. His great victory felt empty and hollow, while his shame at cutting down Mara’s murderer gnawed in his soul.
It’s time to take you home, little one, he thought sorrowfully to himself as the encampment came into his view. You’ll never know how much I’ll miss you, Mara…
From then on, I was a wreck. I’m not ashamed to admit my failures, and my state of mind in the aftermath of Derelin III was certainly a failure. I tore through my enemies without mercy, whenever and wherever I found them. My army and I hunted the Seps across the stars, hammering them to dust then packing up and leaving again. And wherever we went, victory followed us. My men liberated a dozen small planets and moons in the next eight months, but no one seemed to notice my continual descent into the darkness.
Or, perhaps they did notice. But if they did, they didn’t care. Given the bleakness of the situation, we needed all the victory we could get. I provided them that, in the middle of the darkest patch of the war.
Duro fell days after we wiped the Seps off of Derelin. The new droid general, Grievous, brought the full weight of the CIS war machine to bear on the core worlds of the Republic, and we lost a dozen key planets in only a few months. The worst part of it was this: I knew, in my heart, that I could succeed against him where the others were failing. I knew that I could beat any battle plan he threw at me, and that my men would triumph no matter the odds. This was not arrogance, understand, but history-backed fact.
But I didn’t go up against him. How could I, when Obi-Wan kept sending my force on side missions? We were the best of his armada, and yet he was always reluctant to throw us into a full on battle. Sending my corps to wipe droids off a moon was child’s play, as far as we were concerned. Nau-Kote and Commander Longshot shared my frustrations, but were helpless to do anything about it.
And then there was Naia. After Mara’s death, the two of us became… close, I suppose you’d say, although there was more to it than that. We bonded somehow, over the frustrations of the next few months, until the two of us could barely stop from looking at each other. Her father, of course, noticed all of this; I even suspect he urged her on, the old dog.
I made the first move exactly a month after Derelin. I can still remember the passion and release as the two of us broke whatever barriers remained. The emotional and physical energy flowing between us was stronger than anything I’d felt before; if there is such a thing as love, I believe that I discovered it then.
The Jedi Council wasn’t pleased. But, I’m getting ahead of myself again.
Desdina opened his eyes slowly against the bright morning lights. As his vision focused on the grinning face in front of him, a contented smile spread across his own features.
“Morning.” Naia’s crystalline voice purred contentedly in his ear, and she moved in for a good-morning kiss. As their lips touched, though, her nose wrinkled in amusement.
“Alright, Lord Morning-Breath,” she laughed musically “come back to me after you get cleaned up.”
Absently running his hands over her side, the Jedi smiled drowsily. “That’d mean getting up, though,” he pointed out observantly, enjoying the peaceful feeling surrounding Naia.
“We can’t just lie here all day,” she countered, then let out a small, husky laugh. “Scratch that. I suppose we could, but it wouldn’t say much about out discretion.”
“Kriff discretion,” Desdina proclaimed. “I’m tired of sneaking around about our relationship.”
Naia laughed again. “Silly Jedi. Always forgetting that you’re not supposed to do this sort of thing.”
The young woman rose from beneath the covers and stood; Desdina found his eyes intently roaming her body as she stretched luxuriously. Naia knew full well how much he enjoyed her form, and being something of an exhibitionist at heart, she was all too glad to show off for him. Then she padded off to the sonic shower, gesturing invitingly for him to join her.
With a false sigh of resignation, Desdina rose from his own place on the bed. After all, he reflected it doesn’t get much better than having a beautiful woman in your shower…
Seated in his office aboard the Venator-class Star Destroyer Fortitude, Desdina sighed. While paperwork was generally something he left to his staff officers, the planning of battles was always primarily his prerogative. And as he looked over the initial reports concerning the world of Boz Pity, Desdina knew that any offensive would be costly and brutal.
He put a hand to his head. In all likelihood, Kenobi wouldn’t even bother to place him in the main battle. His old friend had shown a decided lack of faith in the Corellian lately, either because of his abilities or for some other reason. Granted, Desdina couldn’t particularly think of a reason for his childhood friend to distrust him so; it wasn’t as if he’d ever actually lost a battle. And unless Kenobi had found a way to intrude upon his rather unorthodox personal life, Desdina couldn’t think of any real reason why he’d fallen out of favor.
Whatever Kenobi felt, it was apparently echoed in the council. They’d received the news of his success on Derelin with lukewarm attitudes, and only Master Windu had complimented him on the overwhelming victory. Granted, they’d just lost Duro at the time, so he could forgive them for being a little glum, but something was apparently eating away at the council. Whatever it was, it had caused him to fall from grace in their eyes.
The desk chime sounded an incoming message, and Desdina keyed the receiver. His chief of staff, a clone commander by the nickname of Sandstorm, bowed respectfully. “Yes, Commander?”
“Sir,” he answered in the unmistakable voice of a clone trooper “General Kenobi has made contact. He’s requesting to speak with you.”
An imperceptible crease of worry fell across the Jedi’s brow, but Desdina merely nodded. “Of course, Commander. Patch him through.”
“Right away, sir.” His chief of staff saluted, then replaced his own image with that of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Desdina smiled at his own friend, regardless of their differences over the past several months.
“What can I do for you, Master Kenobi?” The sound of ‘master’ was bittersweet in his mouth--it was common Temple gossip that Desdina himself was being purposefully denied the rank despite his accomplishments and skill. Conventional wisdom held it that the Corellian was easily as talented as most masters, but that his rogue streak had a large part to play in his continued position as a Jedi Knight. Regardless of the real reason, something soured in Desdina as he addressed his old friend by the title that he himself was being denied.
“Good to see you, Ses-Cae,” Obi-Wan’s smooth tone replied evenly. “Actually, I’d prefer to discuss this with you face to face, if its convenient.”
Desdina bit his lip, but nodded. The battle plans for the Republic counter offensive could wait until later, he decided. “Of course, Obi-Wan. I can head down to the temple at once.”
“That would be best,” the other man nodded pleasantly. “I’ll see you shortly. Kenobi out.”
Ses-Cae let out a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. Something--whether intuition, pessimism or a glimpse of prophecy--told him that he wouldn’t like whatever his old friend had to say. And despite his love for the Temple, lately it didn’t seem quite the home it once had. Regardless, Desdina rose and made for the fighter bay. Whatever the news was, he would deal with it when he arrived.
Obi-Wan Kenobi was pouting. Anyone who knew him could sense it, but he wouldn’t have admitted it in any case. Granted, anyone who also knew his present assignment also couldn’t deny the fact that he deserved to be pouting, but that didn’t matter. Whether or not he liked it, he still had a job to do… even if it meant alienating one of his oldest friends and best field generals.
The sleek Actis Eta-2 Interceptor set down gracefully on the Temple landing pad, and Obi-Wan attempted to paste a semblance of a smile across his face as Ses-Cae Desdina stepped out from the craft. He’d heard that the Desdina family was a long-lived one, and it was likely that his old friend would likely look much the same at fifty as he had at thirty-five. Still, the war had been hard on both of them, and even Desdina’s family history couldn’t protect him from the deep lines at his eyes and light gray patches forming in his neatly trimmed beard and hair. Even his deep green eyes seemed faded by the conflict, although Obi-Wan knew that, if anyone had reason to look older from the war, it was Ses-Cae.
He bowed lightly to his old comrade, who as usual reciprocated elegantly. Then, forced smile still in place, Obi-Wan opened his mouth to speak.
“Good afternoon, old friend,” he began as pleasantly as he could. Seeing that Desdina wasn’t buying any of it, he allowed his smile to fade slightly. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Likewise, Obi-Wan.” The past few months had been hard on both of them, as the forces of the Open Circle Armada had been stretched thin fighting the grand Separatist offensive. Despite being in Kenobi’s command, Desdina rarely saw his friend. Whatever apprehension he might have felt at Kenobi’s news, the Corellian certainly was glad to see him.
“So,” Desdina laughed lightly as they began walking away from the landing pad “what have I done this time?”
Obi-Wan’s expression blanked immediately at the accuracy of Desdina‘s question. This is going to be harder than I thought, he worried to himself, doubting even further in his ability to present the other man with the council’s mandate.
As he noticed the change in his friend’s face, Desdina frowned. “I was kidding, Obi-Wan.”
Kenobi ran his tongue along the roof of his mouth thoughtfully. “I know you were,” he answered in a quiet tone. “But this isn’t something to kid about.”
His friend opened his mouth, but apparently thought better of whatever it was he’d planned on saying. Instead, Desdina simply nodded slowly. “I understand.”
“No, Ses-Cae, you don’t. You don’t understand at all.” Obi-Wan looked from side to side, making sure that they were alone in the corridor, then lowered his voice. “You’ve been the topic of every non-war related discussion the Council’s had in the last week. They’ve come to view you as, well, somewhat unstable.”
“What do you mean ‘unstable,’ Obi-Wan?” A quiet anger had slipped into Desdina’s voice, but he didn’t particularly care. After the death of his padawan, his view of the Council--so set in their ways, so sanctimonious, so ready to condemn what they couldn’t understand--had dropped dramatically. To hear that they considered him some kind of maverick instilled a cold steel into Desdina’s heart; if the sacrifices he’d made for the Council and their thrice-damned traditions didn’t give him just a little leeway in their eyes, well, so be it.
Obi-Wan sighed heavily. “Among other things, they’ve discovered your execution of that agent on Derelin, your romances with two separate individuals, and the general recklessness you seem to throw into battle.” His sad, blue eyes regarded Desdina regretfully. “You shouldn’t have lied to me, Ses-Cae. I know what it’s like to lose someone you care about, and more importantly I’m your friend.”
“You would also have gone straight to them.” Although the Corellian’s tone was not accusatory, it was remarkable to Obi-Wan how venomous it sounded. “You’d have thought you were doing the right thing, of course, but the end result would have been the same.”
“Wake up, Ses-Cae! How many battles have you been forced to fight on the sidelines? How many times have we tried to keep you away from situations wherein you would be tempted to call upon your emotional power?” Obi-Wan shook his head.
“No, my friend. I wouldn’t have gone to the Council about you. You’re a good man, regardless of your choices. And I wouldn't risk turning a good man into a bitter, hollow shadow of himself over rules!” Kenobi’s voice had risen as he made the final declaration, but he still couldn’t bring himself to meet his friends eyes.
“Is that what you think I am, Obi-Wan?” Desdina asked quietly. “A shell of my former self?”
“I think that you’re a brilliant field commander, a talented warrior and a good friend. But you are also proud, stubborn and rebellious, and that is precisely the reason the Council has lost faith in you! The fact that you’ve lied point blank to them--to me, Ses-Cae!--has only cast you further from their favor!”
Desdina's expression turned even colder, and his rich voice lowered angrily. “Whatever I am, I am because of my own choices, Obi-Wan. If I don’t follow orders to the letter, it’s because I can see a better way. If I’m stubborn, it’s because I have to be to make changes. And if I’m proud, which I have never denied, it is because I know when I am right.” Desdina shook his head in frustration. “And I am right about my relationships. I don’t believe that love is the enemy of the Jedi Order, Obi-Wan. If anything it’s the epitome of our beliefs."
“You were always like that, Ses-Cae,” Kenobi responded wearily, knowing that his old friend would not consent to the Council’s will. “Even as a boy, when you got the both of us into trouble, you could always see the justification in it. But you are not dealing with childhood transitions. You’re facing expulsion from the Jedi Order!” His voice turned to a desperate plea to his fellow knight.
“Please, Ses-Cae. Don’t give them reason to turn you out. You’re the best field commander I have! You’re a good Jedi, old friend, but you are on the precipice this time! Do you understand what that means?”
Something clicked in Desdina’s eyes, and Obi-Wan prayed that his appeal had made it through the innate stubbornness of his old fiend. Then, whatever understanding in the Corellian’s eyes faded away, replaced by the iron determination that Kenobi had come to dread. Slowly, sadly, Desdina shook his head.
“War has a funny way of doing things, Obi-Wan. If you’d come to me a year ago, I would have agreed in a heartbeat. I would have submitted my sins to the Council and begged their forgiveness.” He smiled sadly at the other man. “But I can’t anymore. The things I once believed in simply don’t seem as important as they once did. Making nice to the Council, even, doesn’t seem as important as it once did.”
However much he may have disagreed with his friend, and however much he may have fervently wished that Desdina would reconsider his decision, a part of Obi-Wan understood. He didn’t like it, by any means, but he knew where the Corellian was coming from. Obi-Wan even managed a sad smile, nodding his comprehension and, ultimately, his forgiveness with a slight inclination of his head.
“I know,” he simply said, placing an hand on his friend’s powerful shoulder in a brotherly touch of forgiveness. “Come along, Ses-Cae. The Council will need to hear this.”
As much as I hate to admit it, exile from the Jedi Order cut me deeply. In my pride, I wanted to be above their scorn, to laugh it off without a second thought. But these were the beings I’d looked up to my entire life; I couldn’t just ignore their disdain, no matter how distant I’d become from them.
Master Windu, I suspect, was the only one who really understood. He’d seen darkness as well, and lost his own padawan to it. He knew what I was and wasn’t capable of, and if nothing else, he recognized that surrendering was not in my nature. At my trial--a pre-concluded affair, if ever there was one--he said nothing. But I could tell what he wanted to say from the look in his eyes.
He wanted to forgive me. He had forgiven me, I think, but he wanted his peers to forgive me, as well. Eleven looks of scorn fell upon me that afternoon, and only he had the decency to show any empathy. But of the other Council members, it was Master Yoda’s disappointment, I think, that cut me the worst. In me, I think he saw the failings of Jedi such as Qui-Gon Jinn and Count Dooku, both of whom had lost the true path of the Jedi.
I also saw remorse in his eyes--remorse for the state of the galaxy, for the war, and for what knights such as myself had to go through. He didn’t forgive me for my transgressions, but on some level I think he, too, understood why I could not turn away from them.
“Worthy of exile this council finds you, Ses-Cae Desdina,” the small master announced with a hint of regret in his voice. “Abandoned the teachings of the Jedi Order you have. Abandon the trappings of Jedi Knighthood, you must now. Record now your final words as a Jedi.”
The tiny alien fell silent, awaiting the errant knight’s testament. The trial had been swift and short, as Desdina had made no pretense about defending himself or his innocence. Despite the man’s obvious culpability, Yoda couldn’t help but feel a great deal of sorrow at his exile. Desdina had done all that his superiors had asked of him and more. He’d fought on a dozen worlds and won at every turn. He’d upheld the principles of the Jedi, insofar as he believed in them. And while it was regretful that he should be exiled, Yoda couldn’t help but wonder privately if the human might even have been correct, in a way, about the council’s prejudices against all emotional attachment.
Certainly Master Windu seemed to share his feelings, but in deference to the will of the other Council members the dark skinned Jedi had stayed silent throughout the proceedings. It didn’t take one of Master Yoda’s perceptiveness to see the turmoil within the other human, or his dissatisfaction at losing an individual such as Ses-Cae Desdina.
The former knight stared defiantly at the room around him, his piercing gaze falling on each of the venerable masters in turn. Only Yoda managed to match the stare evenly, while the others had all averted their eyes after a few moments of contact. Then, in the deep, rich tone that reminded Yoda so much of another proud, fallen knight, Desdina began to speak.
“I stand accused of betraying the principles of the Jedi Order. I disagree; all I’ve done is dispute the principles that you have claimed as those of the Jedi. I’ve defended the innocent with my sweat, blood and honor, and I have fought the terrors of the Separatist army as faithfully as any of you. I have loved, yes, but I have not disgraced myself in doing so. Looking at each of you, I can see the contempt and distrust stamped across your faces; it doesn’t take a mind reader to detect such things.
“Let me repeat a proverb for you, masters: 'The hand of time writes all our lives. And, having so written, it takes back not a single word.'” Desdina’s defiance seemed to increase, and the currents of the Force stirred around him as his tone raised passionately. “Neither do I take back a single word, masters.
“I come from a long line of exiles. This is well known among you. I wonder privately which of you looked at my name when I was brought here and thought to yourself ‘Will this one fall, too?’ I can answer your question, masters. I have not fallen. I have not betrayed the Jedi. I have done nothing but that which was asked of me, and if I have desired the love and support of another, well, may I be condemned a thousand times for my transgression.”
“The Jedi Order has been my life for thirty-five years. In all of those years, I have sought to do nothing but goodness, and to help those without any help whenever I could. I have fought and bled for those principles; my men have fought and died for those principles; my padawan gave her life defending the principles you cast me out for violating.
“I don’t think any of you can know how deeply that wounds me. But I forgive you, masters. I forgive each and every one of you. Everything you do to me is done in the name of what you consider right.” Desdina lowered his eloquent voice to a near whisper as he finished his piece.
“I have done nothing but what I think is right, masters. Condemn me for it and cast me out for it, but I’ve done nothing more than any of you. If nothing else, remember me for that.”
The former Jedi fell silent, and silence descended upon the stunned council members. Even Yoda, who had seen such things before, found himself without words for a few moments. Then, remembering his place, the elderly Jedi cleared his throat.
“Heard and noted your testament is. Sorrowful I am that you could not see the truth of our view, Ses-Cae Desdina.” He sighed regretfully, acutely feeling the weariness of each one of his nearly nine hundred years.
“Exile you from the Jedi Order, we do,” he announced sorrowfully. “But your lightsaber, keep. Though a Jedi’s weapon it is, remind you of your past it will. A light in darkness may it be to you when all other lights have faded. With my forgiveness, go.”
Yoda could feel the eyes of Master Windu keenly study him, but said nothing. Before them, Ses-Cae Desdina bowed to the council members for the last time as a Jedi knight. Then, without any semblance of hesitation or regret, the Corellian left the chamber with his customary grace and dignity.
“Not a word, Master Windu,” Yoda whispered as the dark-skinned master leaned in close. “Not a word.”
“Such is the way of the things,” Obi-Wan Kenobi said sorrowfully as he watched the repetition of the trial on the holoprojector. “Don’t ever fall in love, Anakin.”
Beside him, the young warrior nodded with barely a moments hesitation. “Of course not, master,” he tried to laugh around the lump in his throat. “What ever makes you think I would?”
I left the military service of the Republic at the same time I left the Jedi. I could see the feeling betrayal in the eyes of my men, but I think they understood why I couldn’t stay. People say a lot of things about clones. Some believe that they’re soulless automatons, and some consider them little better than droids. But they’re far, far beyond that. They’re just human beings, like the rest of us. Granted, human beings with half the lifespan and twice the physical hardiness, but humans nonetheless. And that’s why they could understand my reasons for leaving.
Nau-Kote and his daughter left with me. Both of their tenures had expired with the last of their ARC trooper squad, but still they stuck around to help me out. Now, though, as I found myself without a home or a life, they took me in to theirs.
The only residence I’d ever known was the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. Between the sprawling cityscape and the abhorrent decadence of that world, though, I never really considered it home. Oh, the Temple itself was nice enough, as was the sense of purpose the Jedi always seem to have… but it wasn’t home. I was told, once, that “Home is the place you’ll give anything to see again.” Until I came to Khaela, I had no idea what that meant.
And when we arrived on that gem of a world, I could barely believe my eyes. To think that Mandalorians, of all people, could settle somewhere half as beautiful! I’d never known a place that called me as powerfully as that planet… especially when the sunsets dipped below the horizon, and the radiant clouds of dusk painted the sky in a plethora of colors. I knew then that I’d found my home. I’d lost everything, sure, but what I’d gained more than made up for it.
And if you ask me, that’s really all that matters in the end.
As the figure's last words faded into nothingness, a powerful hand flicked the projector off. A chime at the door brought his head around quickly, and the Corellian smiled at the familiar presence of his wife.
"Everything alright, Ses-Cae?" Naia's crystalline voice asked quietly. "You're never up this late."
His smile adopted a reassuring quality. "I'm fine, love. Just finishing off my journal."
"Oh," she said dumbly, still half asleep and not even close to understanding what he meant. "That's nice."
"Go back to bed, Naia," he laughed. "I'll be there in a minute."
As the lithe woman left him alone, once again, Ses-Cae turned his attention back to the projector.
"Computer," he told the device quietly, "erase all entries."
The little machine spun frantically to comply with his request, and Ses-Cae smiled to himself.
whew...sure is a big one...
it counts for 49 (!) pages and with those 2 reviews its 1 DSS for you.
if you have 1 page more, and 8 more reviews, you can have another 4 DSS's
choice is yours.
Since this message board isn't the best place to read text I converted this story into a Word doc. I thought I'd upload it for a while so people don't have to go through the hell of cutting and pasting this forum.
I've only got through Chapter 1 so far. As a story I'm enjoying it so far. I'd have liked you to have taken a little more time out to describe the people and the place in the story. At the moment, apart from a few mentions of peoples features along the way I've had to make up a lot of the imagery myself.
If I have a critism it's that you make all the same grammer mistakes that I do, Kel. I tend to overuse the comma too because I still write the way I think or talk. It's much better for the reader if you simply shorten your sentences by breaking them up so the information flows into the brain more easily. The exception is long descriptive sentence with lots of commas that probably contain a list of things.
Barring the going through a list of things I tend to just use commas now to break the sentance structure for when I want to add additional information in the middle of a sentence. This tends to be for an on the side thought a character may make, although sometimes just an exception to the statement, that doesn't belong in the main text of the line.
In general, just consider "if I were saying it out loud would I REALLY need to pause for breath there". There is just something jarring about having a sentance broken in places when it doesn't need them all.
As I say, I tend to make the same mistakes and it just makes it harder to read. You stuck a "though" at the end of the sentence (as you would probably say) but in text it is unneeded. I'm guilty of that one a lot ...though. You also started a sentence with an "And" which is a big no-no (same goes for "But").
There are lots of little rules like this that I'll probably add to as I go through your story. I'll add to them as the crop up. More than rules they are lessons of "fake your way in grammar".
ADDITIONAL: At the start of chapter 2 a sentence goes "..., anyway" ...again, something you'd do in your head or speak out loud. Either scrap the comma or decide if it's worth having the anyway at the end of the sentence.
Tavik, this story is great!
I agree with Werdna that you should say it to yourself and ask if you really need a pause. Your story didn't "dwindle" towards the end as much as many pieces of writing do, instead it maintained the excitement all the way through (which is a good thing).
There were a few grammatical or spelling errors occasionally, but nothing major that completely detracted from the integrity of the story.
When writing your next story, you may want to proofread the entire thing by reading it aloud to yourself or someone else so that you can catch small errors in the writing easily. You may also want to try using more "colorful" words (not curse words
)- words that really paint a picture with detail, without making such long descriptions so that it gets boring.
Once again, great job, I look forward to seeing what pieces of writing you create.