This is going to be an ongoing short story about how Sirrus came back to the DB after his failed insurrection against the Emperor's Hammer. I have had an idea about this for awhile now and if you don't mind spoilers you can read Sirrus' Wiki entry for a very general outline of how this story will end. However, even if you have read my Wiki entry, there are going to be lots of subplots and character development along the way, which could serve as stories on their own. This may very well end up being novel-length as I am pretty much going to write what I want at the pace I want. Anyway, I hope someone reads this and enjoys it.
Lying among the dozens of corpses, Sordo struggled to muster the energy to move. He could not. Instead, he stayed inert, a still form not all that different from the slain Cathar who had fallen in battle beside him. He wondered why, though heavily mauled, he still clung to life, his body stubbornly clinging to this painful existence even though his spirit was without hope. As he pondered his brief life, he realized that, in comparison to his deceased comrades, he had had the least to live for. So why did he still breathe?
Long ago, the planet of Cathar had been home to countless hives of enormous, vicious insect-like creatures called Kiltik. Nocturnal by nature, they ventured from their lairs under the cover of night to seek sustenance, and in so doing destroyed what little fauna and flora survived in the harsh savannahs that made up most of the world's surface. In the ancient past, the Cathar had gone on blood hunts to cull the Kiltik, proving their heroism while also bringing balance to their fragile environment. When Cathar was brutally assaulted during the Mandalorian Wars, it was thought that the Kiltik were driven to extinction, just as the Cathar nearly were. It was one of the small serendipities that had arisen out of a truly dark chapter in Cathar history.
It was also a false presumption. Now, almost four thousand years since the last Kiltik had been seen, the huge bugs had returned. At first there were only rumors, excited stories blamed on desert heart and idle minds. But when those few lush areas known for their abundance turned barren, it became clear that something was ravenously satiating a powerful hunger. Some speculated that the Kiltik had burrowed deep underground -- so deep, that they had only just come out on the opposite side from where they had started. The more spiritually-minded suggested that the great spirits wished to challenge the Cathar again, to test their strength. It was a challenge the clans accepted, but not all were successful.
Sardo's clan had been one that failed. They had managed to penetrate far into the Kiltik nest nearest their city, killing guard after guard, until they had come face-to-face with the queen. It had been an epic battle and Sardo had seen the Elder of his kinfolk – a gritty survivor of innumerable scraps – torn to pieces before his very eyes. None of the other warriors had fared any better. After what had probably been hours but had seemed like minutes at the time, the fight was over, and although the queen was mortally wounded, no grand procession would be returning home with heads held high. If Sardo and any other survivors made it out of the hive, they would receive only opprobrium. No one would sing a threnody even if they all died. There was nothing to be celebrated in such an empty victory, which had come at so high a cost. A Cathar clan was supposed to go up against an enemy and triump decisively, not destroy itself in the process.
Death, it was said, was supposed to be a calming experience, a respite from the torments of life. The Cathar knew all too well that life was rough and often brief, and taught their children so. Yet as he waited for death to come, Sardo felt only anger. He had not been strong enough to defend his father and his littermates, who had perished because of his weakness. He felt his blood run hot at the thought of his city, now populated only by the very young and the elderly, and how hard things would be for them. He gnashed his teeth and wished that he could have another chance, this time with his martial skill more refined, his weakness purged…
"It is not too late, Sardo."
As if awakened from the dead, Sardo turned his head to his right and then his left. He did not recognize the voice and saw only the dead surrounding him. With all his might he raised himself slightly, squeezing out a low growl that echoed in the subterranean tunnel. "Who is there?" Then he collapsed, lay still and listened.
"There? No one," the deep, booming voice declared. "No one but Sardo. You are a sole survivor. The rest are souls, not survivors."
"What?" Sardo asked. His head hurt enough from his wounds; such riddles made him frustrated. "Show yourself! Come out!"
"I cannot do either," the voice said. "Quite impossible. Why don't you come to me? Say, in half a decade or so. But there is something I need you to do first."
"I will do nothing but die!"
"No. Not likely. Cathar are renowned for their innate healing abilities. Also famous for being excellent hand-to-hand fighters. Kittens with claws." The disembodied voice gave a light laugh. "Those claws may have failed you today, but you have other weapons at your disposal. You are stronger than you think. But you must realize your potential."
"I want you to go to Eos, the moon of Aurora. If you don't like the scenery, don't worry. You'll soon be moving on. I didn't care for the company much myself…" The voice trailed off, but returned in a few moments. "You will get an education… and a new purpose. Now your anger is like good lump of clay. They will mold you and temper you, transform you from the simple beast you are into something more…"
"What do you mean?" roared Sardo. "What will I find there?"
But there was no answer, only silence. Once again, he was alone with his thoughts and the bodies.
He growled in impotent rage. He reckoned that the voice had been nothing but madness brought on by the pangs of indescribable hurt that were slicing into his sides. Yet... He could not deny that he was beginning to ache less. The throbs were subsiding. Could he really recover from his injuries? By some miracle, would his own body patch itself up and steal him back from the brink of death? And if so, if the voice had been right about that, perhaps the voice had not come from creeping insanity after all…
Rolling onto his stomach, he extended his right arm, digging claws into the ground. He felt the strain as he lurched forward. His teeth ground together and a grunt escaped his lips. Dragging himself like this was more terrible than anything else he had ever endured in sixteen years. Tears welled up in his eyes and trickled down his furry cheeks. It would be a difficult journey out of the Kiltik hive, but he would leave and do as the voice commanded. It was all he had left.
Life had always been cheap on Nar Shaddaa. Like the center of a drain, it seemed all the grime and dregs collected there from all across the galaxy, and for all the talk of honor amongst thieves, such honor existed more in theory than in practice. Betrayal was commonplace, and it was considered incredibly naïve not to have at least half a dozen back-up plans when pulling a job for when (not if) your partners backstabbed you. And that was in the good days.
Now things were bad. A ruthless and devious Rodian gangster named Gion the Black was waging war on the criminal empire of Fotta and Mogga, a pair of Hutt siblings, in the hopes of seizing their lucrative territory. Gion had initially had the upper hand, but the Hutts were not going down without a fight. Most of the original soldiers were dead, to the degree that few mercenaries and bounty hunters on-planet were looking for work anymore. However, things had also escalated to the point where "collateral damage" was common – meaning that entire blocks had been blown up, hundreds of innocents killed (insofar as anyone on Nar Shaddaa was innocent") and profits all around were down. Although negotiations had been off and on for months, few thought the war would be over anytime soon.
"Gion is in it to win it. He's not giving up until the Hutts are dead."
"Word on the street is Fotta and Mogga are asking their clan for all the help they can get. Apparently a small army is coming in from the Outer Rim!"
"Gion will probably hire an even bigger one! This whole moon is going to be a war zone!"
"So why worry about it? I wasn't planning on living forever."
"Let's enjoy ourselves while we can!"
The booming business that the various pleasure quarters were experiencing was clear evidence that much of the populace were doing just that.
Among those so inclined was a group of pirates making their way through a district colloquially known as Comfort Corner. All of the buildings housed male and female (and everything in between) life forms that, for a price, would allegedly do virtually anything requested. Many stood in the doorways, whistling to prospective customers, while others sang bawdy songs and laughed amongst themselves.
The leader of the pirates, a ruggedly handsome man named Veld Quigg, was receiving a great deal of attention. Due to his massive size, he was hard to ignore. For no reason in particular, he went into one of the brothels and his men crowded in after him. They were led to a room that was so tastelessly decorated with vulgar pictures and messily arranged flowers that it would have put someone from a more sophisticated background on edge. The pirates, however, took no notice of the shabbiness of their environment.
"Bring us something to drink!" Quigg demanded. After some alcohol was retrieved, poured and served, Quigg raised his voice again. "Bring us some girls!" The order was given in the same surly tone he had used to order the refreshments.
Four women – two Twi'leks, one human and one Zeltron – soon appeared. They were hopelessly outnumbered, but it did not seem to bother them. They sandwiched themselves between the pirates as best they could, helping the men drink while laughing at their jokes and chatting with them about whatever they wanted to talk about. Once they were drunk enough, the men started to raise the question of "going somewhere private" – including what they wanted, what turn they would go in and what exactly would be done.
"This one's mine."
Veld Quigg had wrapped a ham-sized hand around the left arm of the Zeltron. The other pirates did not say a word, but the Zeltron suddenly found herself completely ignored by all the others.
"What's your name?" the woman asked.
"D-Don't you wanna know my name?"
It was easy to understand why Quigg had suddenly become so single-minded. Even if the Zeltron race were not able to release pheromones to enhance their attractiveness, the woman was so stunningly beautiful in her own right that she could have been picked out from the rest by anyone with an even passing taste in human and near-human females. She had rich, vibrant blue hair that contrasted nicely with her bright, pure pink skin. A green leather bikini hugged every curve, so much so that if it were any tighter it would have had to be inside her. Quigg was not known for his self-restraint and he was about to slip into a frenzy just looking at her.
Leering with lust, Quigg put his hand on top of hers, which was resting on her knee. Giggling, she brushed it away, but this only made Quigg bolder. As she started to rise, he put his arm around her thin waist and drew her to him.
"What are you doing, running away?" he laughed. "Don't you like me?"
"Let go of me!" she protested.
"I want you. Let's go someplace private."
"Alcohol… I'll go get us some more."
"I don't want any."
"…I have to use the ladies' room."
"Are you going to leave and send some other [Expletive Deleted] in here for me?" Quigg shook his head. "I don't want another one. I want you. And I don't have to pay you. I take what I want for a living."
He tried to rub his cheek against her lowered face, but she turned her head away. "Stop it! Stop!" Suddenly, she raised a bended arm and slammed the end of her elbow into Quigg's nose. The jolt led to her freedom as his arms went flailing. As she stood upright, she saw the pirates, including Quigg, turning their minds from making love to snuffing life.
"Kill them," a voice in her head said. "Kill them all."
She saw the pistols being withdrawn from their holsters and in moments she was staring down a range of barrels aimed at her head. She backed up against the closest wall, pushing up against it as if it might swallow her, coughing her up on the other side. But there was no feasible route out of the room. She was trapped, with no other choice but to meet the eyes of her killers. And she could not even do that. She flung her head to the side, her hair covering her face, her eyes jammed shut. As she heard a pistol fire, she threw up her hands – pure reflexes, an act of futility that came from the gut and not the head.
In her ears crackled the unmistakable sound of electricity. She felt something hot on her fingertips, then in her palms and down her arms and finally through her entire body. It was the shot from the lasers, she felt, coursing through her veins, turning her insides to mush. She was dying. She would be dead. The pain was searing, as intense as being thrown into the heart of the sun. She wailed long and hard, a scream coming straight from the bottom of her stomach. She slumped and fell, a pile of pink and blue and green on the ground.
It took some time before she realized she was alive. She was still hurt, but that was it. Had they only grazed her? If so, why didn't they finish her off? If they were making her wait for it, torturing her, why weren't they speaking? She let out an incoherent rambling of squeaks and groans, so choked up was she with fear. Gradually, she opened her eyes and through the moist tears she saw that the room was full of dead people.
"Well done. Well, in a way. A pity about your hands."
She looked down. There were charred holes along her fingers and on her palms, like someone had stuck her hands in an oven and cooked them unevenly. The agony returned and another howling moan came bubbling up.
"Some unsolicited advice: invest in some gloves. Now, if you're quite done feeling sorry for yourself, it's time to get up and get out of there. Your owners aren't going to be happy you killed their clients… as well as their other property."
She saw that the three other prostitutes were dead as well. They had been the closest thing she had had to friends. Had she killed them? Killed all of them? How?
"Oh, don't worry about them," the voice said. "You probably did them a favor. A lifetime humping the detritus of the universe? Yeah, no, thank you. Granted, they weren't as lucky as you, but so very few are!"
She put her hands to her head and cried. "Stop! Go away! Leave me alone!"
"That's completely out of the question," said the voice matter-of-factly. "I need you, Marlenis. You don't mind me calling you that, do you? I know it's the name the slavers gave you, but it's not like you have any other names. Not yet. I suppose you could adopt a pseudonym, like so many of us seem to do… Or used to…"
"Who are you? What do you want?!"
"Don't get hysterical. This is important. You need to find a planet called Aurora in the far reaches of space. There is a moon called Eos. Ask around in enough places and you'll find it. There, they'll teach you to be a better class of person. But not much better."
Marlenis sniffled, still overcome with shock and hurt. "But… What killed them?"
"That's easy. You did."
Mos Evenstad lay at the foot of Mount Ridabu. It was a prosperous little community, too large to be described as a mere village, yet not populous or bustling enough to be called a true city. Here one saw no traces of the depravity or degeneracy associated with other places like Mos Eisley. Disruptive elements simply were not permitted to enter. Although Tatooine was not generally a welcoming place, Mos Evenstad was considered a serene oasis, so dull that life there was synonymous with anything soporific.
That was how Colonel Gerlun Posshin, a retired veteran of the Galactic Civil War, preferred it. He had taken up residence in a small house just outside Mos Evenstad proper. He had once been something of a hero, having been instrumental in reversing Republican fortunes in the Koornacht Cluster campaign. Having been offered a diplomatic job to some remote backwater, Posshin had chosen instead to collect his pension and spend his twilight years moisture farming – a venture he was not all that keen on, having been quite dilatory to even secure the basic equipment required to make an earnest go of it. Mostly, he spent his time eating, sleeping and gossiping with his neighbors.
Eating and gossiping done, Posshin was working on his third hobby. Fast asleep in his bed, he was totally ignorant that someone had broken in through his living room window, had turned his study inside out and was now proceeding to ransack his storage shed. Even if the darkness of the night did not occlude the trespasser from being detected, Posshin's neighbors – also retirees– would have been too overcome with torpor to sound any kind of vociferous alarm this late in the evening.
Despite these advantages, Jevan Mallery took few chances. He was, as usual, well-armed – a laser rifle strapped to his back, a pair of blasters hanging from his belt and a conspicuous vibroblade strapped to his right leg. He had never used any of them. He relied on intimidation when he could not avoid confrontation, and usually that was enough. If he were ever forced to use them, he would have had about as much use for them as a bantha would with a starfighter. Many called him a coward, and Jevan confessed his behavior could be regarded as recreant by most. He just thought he was smart.
Case in point: about two weeks ago, he had been having a drink at some hole-in-the-wall cantina in Mos Eisley, minding his own business, when a pair of Trandoshans had come up to his booth. They had tried to pick a fight, questioning Jevan's masculinity and threatening his life. Jevan had just told them he didn't want any trouble and even offered to buy a round to ameliorate the situation. The thugs laughed him off and eventually went away. If anyone had watched the exchange, they would have thought Jevan had backed right down. Yet a more perspicacious observer would have noticed that not once did Jevan flinch or drop a single bead of sweat. He hadn't been the slightest bit afraid of a couple of drunken idiots. What had bothered him were the consequences if he had gotten in a tussle. What if he killed one or both of them, and one of their relatives or partners decided to hunt him down for revenge? What if, in the ensuing shoot-out that would have transpired in the bar, some innocent bystander got mowed down? Jevan was always thinking about the odds, and he reasoned his ego could have taken a few morons thinking they scared him.
Robbing Colonel Possin was also a solid bet. The mark was an old man and the locale was the very definition of sleepy. The only trouble he was encountering was finding the antique he was after.
Posshin had, in the course of his career, done his fair share of looting. One particular piece of bounty was a dagger encrusted with jewels that had once belonged to some petty warlord – who, as fate would have it, had been the last surviving member of a famed noble family. Posshin had, obviously, no idea of its worth, or else it would have no doubt been given to some New Republic museum. An anonymous collector at Cloud City wanted to make sure that never happened and that the heirloom ended up in his possession. At that point, Jevan had been hired and given his objective.
Now the mission was close to completion. All he had to do was find the dagger. But as he tossed boxes aside, pried open crates and mulled over bags, his frustration grew. He could not spend his whole night searching and he had almost exhausted every place in the storage shed where the dagger could have been hidden.
"You won't find it here," he heard a voice say.
Jevan wheeled about on his heels, pulling out both his blasters. But as his head swiveled, he saw no one there.
"You won't find me, either," the voice said. "At least not now. But you're not really looking for me, yet. Would you like to know where the dagger is? You could reach out and feel it if you wanted…"
Jevan arched his eyebrows, ready to pull the triggers on his pistols. "Who is this? Where are you?"
"I could answer those questions, but I suspect you'd like to get out of there first. If you want the dagger, it's in Posshin's bedroom. He keeps it under his pillow. The old fool thinks it's a lucky charm. Has no idea how valuable it is."
Jevan cursed under his breath.
"Yes, it is unfortunate, but if you want those credits, you're going to have to go in there and take it. And unless you have a real slight touch, you're going to wake him up… or make sure he never wakes up again."
Biting his lower lip, Jevan slowly put his blasters away.
"You're thinking it over, aren't you? Wondering if someone's life on your conscience is worth the credits. Now, I wager you've done a lot of things to bother your conscience before. For example, while Posshin doesn't know how much that dagger is worth, you do, right? Instead of giving it to the collector who hired you, you could take it to a museum. You'd probably even get paid for your 'discovery'. That's not beyond the realm of possibility, is it?"
Crouching down, Jevan undid the leather strap that kept the vibroblade against his leg. He wrapped his slender fingers around the hard, metallic hilt and removed the weapon from its sheath. He kept the blade facing the ground.
"But it's also possible," the voice in his head was saying, "that the museum wouldn't pay you as much as the collector will. You have to go with the sure thing. That's the smart thing to do. Because peace of mind doesn't pay the bills, doesn't put food in your stomach, doesn't keep your little spaceship running. And, when you boil it down, you can handle the guilt. Not everyone can, but you can."
Exiting the shed, Jevan stealthily snuck back into the house, making his way down the main corridor that separated the three rooms. He had been in the living room and the study. Only one door remained, and he could hear Posshin snoring inside. He placed a finger on the button that would open the door with a whoosh of air.
"Once you start to walk the road you're on, you're committed. Even if you gave that dagger to a museum for free and devoted the rest of your life to good works, no amount of charity would ever exonerate you of your sins. So as the sins pile up, you learn to set them down. Just like a bunch of bricks on your shoulders. You focus on what motivates you. You focus on the greed."
Jevan pushed the button. The door slid open, the air flushing out with the sound of a giant sighing. He wasn't sure, because he moved like a flash, but he could swear Posshin stirred right then. Maybe he didn't. At any rate, he definitely stirred when the vibroblade plunged into his chest. His eyes bulged out of his head and a scream traveled up his throat. Jevan put a hand over his mouth and, putting weight on the blade, shoved the old man back onto the bed.
"Nicely done. A silent kill. You didn't want to kill him. You don't like violence, do you, Jevan? Neither did I. It's funny, considering the line of work we both went into." The voice smacked its lips. "But you proved yourself. You didn't let your personal feelings vitiate your resolve to get paid."
Jevan reached under the dead man's pillow and felt for the dagger. He found it, and the bone scabbard was cold to the touch. He didn't even to pause to admire it as he slung his backpack off his back and stuffed it inside.
"Thanks for the tip," he whispered. "I never thought being crazy would be so helpful."
"Crazy? No. Like I said, the guilt doesn't bother you. I'm a friend. You know women with beautiful bodies but with no personalities? I'm a man with a beautiful voice but no body."
"It must be nice not having to worry about showering and shaving." Jevan hoisted the backpack back onto his body. "Say, if I get caught, would you testify for my defense? You'd be the most effective witness in an insanity plea ever."
"Hardly. I didn't tell you to kill him, just where you could have found the dagger. And I don't like you well enough to lie for you." The voice paused. "Another tip for you. Need a place to lay low? There's a moon called Eos far out where few dare to go. I'd suggest you head there next."
"I've heard about that place," Jevan said. "The Imperial Remnant is out there. Why would I want to go there?"
"Don't worry about the Remnant. I couldn't stand them either. Thankfully, they won't be cramping your style – at least not for much longer. Believe me. Putting up with them would be worth the gain you're going to get – something worth more than any amount of credits."
"Oh? Like what?"
"Not much. Just immeasurable power."
It was mid-afternoon when the shuttle approached the bleak, sterile plain. The air was a bland beige color and the sound of sand shifting under the wind was unremitting in the background. Slowly but surely, shadowy figures slouched to meet the craft as the distance between it and the planet's surface lessened. The shuttle landed and, with a low hiss, the rear doors opened, a ramp was extended and two individuals emerged from within.
A flurry of excited cries in broken Basic filled the air.
"Happy welcome, Jedi!"
"You want place to eat, sleep?"
"You teach us to become Jedi?"
These were the Ysanna, the descendents of those few Jedi who had remained on Ossus after it was scoured of life by a supernova in the days of the
Old Republic. Prior to that tragic and mysterious event, Ossus had been a celebrated site of Jedi learning and lore, with a magnificent library whose secrets were now being uncovered. It would have been entirely possible that this invaluable font of knowledge would have been lost forever if Luke Skywalker and his pupil Kam Solusar had not, through their interactions with the Ysanna a decade ago, discovered the hidden history of the planet. Since then, various agencies had launched archaeological digs for lost holocrons and Force-attuned artifacts in Ossus' ruins. In this scramble for Jedi artifacts and Jedi wisdom, however, none were more interested than the nascent New Jedi Order that Skywalker had established. Expeditions from the Jedi Academy were regular.
Bondar was leading one such expedition today. He was a Shard, an inorganic crystalline creature residing in a modified droid in order to move about. He had been, for most of his lifetime, a member of the Iron Knights, a clandestine organization of Force-sensitive Shards that had lived in secrecy since being excommunicated from the Jedi Council millennia ago. The Jedi of the past had not approved of inorganic Force-users. After members of the New Jedi Order encountered them a few years ago, the Iron Knights were invited to join the Order, which thankfully was now free of bigotry. As few Jedi Masters were still living, many of the experienced Iron Knights were now being employed as teachers at the Academy. Bondar was one such mentor.
Bondar's padawan (and his companion on this expedition) was Mazix Tula, a Zabrak that had been recruited only months before. In terms of personality, the master and the apprentice could not have been more different. Having spent much of his life as an immobile crystal, Bondar was patient and deeply analytical, used to spending years both motionless and deep in thought. Mazix, in comparison, was by nature impetuous and self-assured, so confident of his actions that they were practically reflexive. Having never tutored someone so unlike himself, Bondar often scolded his charge to the point of being vituperative. Mazix's pride chafed at the abuse, and in being under another's authority in general.
When they were not locked in an argument, Bondar often tried to reach out to his padawan as best he could. "Your piloting abilities are improving," he said, walking straight away from the shuttle and paying no attention to the Ysanna natives that had welcomed the shuttle and were now bombarding the Jedi with questions. "We had almost no turbulence in our descent." His voice was a digital buzz, his droid translating his native tongue into Basic.
"What turbulence, Master?" Mazix scowled. "There wasn't any turbulence."
Bondar's efforts at building a bond were rarely rewarded. "The New Republic Archaeological Corps was quite specific in the location of the caverns. It should be less than a mile from here."
"Good. We would not want you to rust, Master."
"Rusting is not a concern. This droid is well-protected against it."
"That was a joke, Master."
After a short and uneventful trek, the Jedi entered the entrance to the caverns. The floor was dirt, littered with pebbles. Daylight seeped in through cracks in the earth, illuminating the hard rock that made up the walls and ceiling. Disparate drawings surrounded them, crudely colored with primitive paint. The Jedi of the Old Republic had not done these, but the Ysanna, who revered places like this. They were dimly conscious of their Jedi heritage, although most were unaware that each and every one of them were potential Jedi themselves. Jedi blood flowed in their veins, after all, and many used the Force – albeit largely unconsciously and for simple, mundane tasks.
"Are you going to tell me now why we are here, Master?" Mazix asked.
"I suppose now it is relevant," said Bondar. "A Ysanna chieftain told the Archaeological Corps about this place. However, after a thorough inspection, nothing relating to the Jedi could be found. I came here to see if I could sense something that the archaeologists had been unable to detect, as they were blind to the Force. It could be that the Ysanna looted this place long ago, but there is a chance that something may be hidden here…"
"What are we looking for?" Mazix placed a hand over a sketch of what resembled a man attacking a four-legged beast with a lightsaber. The martial scene made him touch his own lightsaber, his fingers stroking the hilt.
"Anything, anything at all," Bondar replied. "However, considering you are not as receptive to the Force, it is unlikely you would sense anything without a strong Force signature – in which case, I would have felt it once I entered the cave. Your presence here is more about appreciating a part of our history. Ossus, it is said, was once a center of culture and learning, unparalleled in the whole galaxy…"
Mazix did not like being told he could not do something. "Why are some things beyond my ken, Master? I am a Jedi, just as you are."
"You are a padawan," Bondar snapped. "There is distinction in all things, including your role within the Order. You are meant to observe and learn, to study and be enlightened. There is more to being a Jedi than wielding a lightsaber and being able to call upon the gifts the Force offers us."
Mazix bristled. "I know that, Master."
"And yet I have had to say it."
"Silence!" Bondar raised a hand. "You are distracting us both. I must concentrate…"
The two walked on in silence, Mazix fuming all the while. His mind vacillated between scorn for his master and boredom. He felt feckless, a child being escorted by a self-righteous, pusillanimous parent. He had once called no man master, a lone trader operating on the fringes of space. He had been very adept at taking care of himself; if he had known how paternalistic the Jedi Order was, he would never have joined them. The Force forfend that he actually decide a few things for himself! Still, his desire to return to his old life had not yet defeated his eagerness to become something better than what he was, to make a difference in the larger scheme of things. However, if Bondar's perfunctory manner continued to exacerbate his already bitter feelings, it could very well precipitate his abrupt resignation from the Order.
"Wait." Bondar suddenly halted and Mazix came close to crashing into the back of the droid.
"What is it, Master?"
"Be silent, please." Bondar turned and looked fixedly at the wall to the left of him. "Here," he said after a few moments. Placing a hand on a small depression, he gave a push. The depression sunk even deeper into the rock. The sound of granite being dragged across granite filled Mazix's ears, and he had to put his hands over the sides of his horned head. Bondar remained as he was, safe inside his droid.
Through a screen of dust, a doorway had appeared. Bondar strode forward. Mazix peered after him, but did not follow.
"Is there a problem?" Bondar called from the darkness.
"There's no light!" Mazix said.
"Oh, of course," Bondar said. His droid whirred and a beacon extended from its chest. It turned on with a flash, providing more than enough light for Mazix to see where his master was standing.
The room was about twenty feet high and twice as long. In the middle was a stone sarcophagus, ornately decorated with symbols that neither Jedi recognized. Its top had been pushed aside and partly shattered, an assortment of chunks lying on the ground beside it. The ceiling, walls and even the floor were carved with what looked like historic scenes from Jedi history. A virtuoso had clearly done these, unlike the primitive scrawls outside. Despite several shelves also being found in the walls, they were bare. It seemed that the hidden entrance had not prevented lootings from finding the crypt.
"There is nothing here," Mazix declared, stepping inside the room. "A desolate tomb."
"You are wrong," Bondar said plainly. "I felt a relic of some power. Something potent from the past remains."
Rolling his eyes, Mazix peered inside the sarcophagus. "Nothing here. The graverobbers took the bones, if there were any to be had. It seems that these Ysanna have not so much worshipped their Jedi ancestors as burgled them."
"It may not have been the Ysanna," Bondar said. "Off-world visitors have come to Ossus many times in the past. It is said the Imperial Remnant followed Master Skywalker here when he first rediscovered the planet, including Dark Jedi. At any rate, there is something still here. I can feel it, and the Force does not lie."
Mazix rolled his eyes again. Folding his arms, he turned to the far wall and examined it, thinking that he might find some clue in the engravings. But they were meaningless to him and probably would have puzzled even the most well-versed scholar of esoteric Jedi chronicles. He was about to give up when his eyes fell upon something strange – a sharp break in the art, around 20 centimeters long and a few inches wide. As he came nearer, he realized that there was something inside the wall, held in place by the stone. Something thin and dark was wedged into the recess.
"Is this… a lightsaber?" he asked aloud. It seemed to be, but it was unlike any he had seen before. The hilt looked organic, the color of tree bark and with a similar texture. At the top and bottom were golden rings with a bright red button just below the pommel. In contrast to the rock, the lightsaber appeared alive, and Mazix swore he could feel something pulling his hand to grab it, to pull it from its niche and liberate it…
"No!" Bondar shouted, his voice loud and harsh. The strident tone knocked Mazix out of his trance. He was dumbfounded as he realized that he had, unconsciously, placed his hand around the antique lightsaber and had removed it from its alcove. Overhead, there was a rumbling like thunder. Small rocks began to fall at first, then large pieces. Bondar put up his hands, calling upon the Force to suspend the stones above their heads.
"You must return it!" Bondar yelled, the translator built into his droid screeching. "This is some sort of trap! Hurry, or we'll be killed!"
Mazix looked first to the lightsaber in his hand and the expressionless robot that was visibly straining now. It had no face to speak of, but its body language could articulate what Bondar was feeling, more often than not. He moved to return the lightsaber, to slide it back into the nook…
"You've already made one really bad decision in your life," a voice inside his head said. "Are you going to make another one?"
"What? Who?" Mazix's eyes darted around. Other than Bondar, there was no one else. "Am I going mad?" he wondered.
"You'd have to be mad to give up a relic of that power," the voice said. "That lightsaber belonged to Mador, a Jedi Master who existed before the Great Sith War. His disciples did not take any pains to safeguard his other material possessions, but his lightsaber… They enshrined it and sought to ensure that no one else might take it for themselves."
"Mazix!" Bondar once again shook Mazix to his senses. "Return the lightsaber! The entire cavern is going to cave in… I cannot hold it!" Indeed, the droid was beginning to bend, as though a great weight was on its shoulders.
Meanwhile, the voice in Mazix's head casually went on. "It should be noted that Mador's disciples assumed altruism. They suspected someone without scruples might, on their lonesome, sneak in and take the lightsaber. They also reckoned that if a Force-sensitive did hold up the collapsing ceiling after the weapon had been seized, his compatriots would not abandon him to die."
Mazix understood. He stared hard at Bondar – no, not even at Bondar, but the shell that housed Bondar, who in truth was nothing more than a piece of rock with a personality to match. With his constant criticism and cold demeanor, he had failed Mazix, obviating him from growing as a Jedi. Mazix had tried, desperately, to adopt the lifestyle being imposed on him, but it he had not been able to. He had to accept the fact that he was not meant to turn off his own brain and postpone his will. He would make his own way in the galaxy, but he would not return to the ignominious life of a mere trader. He would blaze a unique trail, tailor his new identity according to his own specifications.
He resisted the urge to engage in some last minute raillery at Bondar's expense. There was no clever pun, no ephemeral but meaningful exchange. In fact, Mazix did not even look at his master as he rushed out of the room, through the tunnel and out into the daylight. He did hear, however, the sound of metal being crushed as the cave fell after him. It brought him so much pleasure to hear it that he almost forgot to be grateful that he had not died in his hasty and hazardous escape.
"A good choice," the voice in his head said. "It is a shame, though, that you chose to follow those fools on Yavin 4 in the first place. That was your other mistake. But you can change that as well."
"I don't know who you are," Mazix said aloud. "Some ghost left over from a dead age, maybe. At any rate, I realize my mistake and I won't be following anyone else again."
"Good, good," the voice said. "You are not a follower. But that does not mean you should turn your back on guidance. Only an idiot assumes he knows the way when he is lost. There is a place you could go… A school not for simpletons and children, but for those with aspirations, ambition…"
"Return to your shuttle. I will give you the coordinates for a moon in a far-off system. You should hurry, though. The place you are going won't be there
"Why would I want to go someplace if it's going to be destroyed?"
"Oh, it's not being destroyed," said the voice. "An old arrangement is being destroyed. And a new beginning is coming. And you, Mazix, are going to play
an important role in it."
Beneath the waters of Yridia II's vast ocean was a castle. Within this castle resided some of the most powerful and merciless personalities in the galaxy. The castle was known as Castle Tarentum, and its denizens were high-ranking members of the Dark Jedi clan of that name.
Clan Tarentum belonged to the Dark Jedi Brotherhood, which had until the year before been aligned with the Emperor's Hammer, a leftover fleet from the Galactic Empire which, although deprived of the authority once granted to it by the now dead Emperor, still sought to throw its weight around as if Palpatine and Darth Vader still lived. It was little surprise then that such arrogance and totalitarianism alienated the Brotherhood. Last year, the tipping point had been reached, and ties had been severed. Allegiances had to be chosen, to remain with the Hammer or to seek a new life with the Brotherhood. At the moment, the Brotherhood was attempting to secure a new headquarters, having lost their old bases – save for Clan Tarentum, which was content to reside where it historically had. The Yridia system was theirs, and the security of their situation meant they could consolidate while the other clans uprooted themselves and desperately searched for new demesnes.
Maxamillian von Oberst was quite content to not worry about finding a new home. His apartments in the southwestern tower of the castle were pleasing to his tastes, and after having spent a long stretch in exile for offending some ridiculous Imperial protocol, he was glad to be able to kick up his heels, open a finely aged bottle of Corellian wine and reflect on past conquests and memorable tortures. He was just about to pour the first of what would be several drinks when his intercom came alive.
"Master," said one of his many servants, "there is a guest here for you."
"Is is Khyron or Zero?"
"Then send them away."
"But, Master, she says it is important."
"It can wait."
"She says it cannot, Master."
Oberst slammed a fist upon the expertly crafted dining table. "This had better be of the utmost urgency, or else you will soon be in possession of a superfluous anal cavity," he said darkly.
There was no response. Instead, a few minutes passed until the door to his residence slid open. A statuesque woman with chocolate-colored skin walked in, her hips swaying in a hypnotic motion. She looked like she could have been a tribal queen on a jungle world – green highlights in dreadlocked black hair, feline eyes with a yellow tint, full cheeks and plump lavender lips. A black robe hung over her slender, athletic body. She stopped several feet from Oberst in his chair; although she was a Knight, judging from the lightsaber she carried with her, he was not in the mood to go through the trouble of standing and offering her any kind of formal courtesy.
"Yes?" Oberst prompted.
"Marshal, I have had a vision," the woman said, bowing in supplication. "I am Hadima Lerenga, a priestess in the Order of the Krath."
"Ah, yes," Oberst said, crossing his legs. "I have heard about you. It is said that you are gifted with the ability to reach out into the Force more acutely than most." That she had been mentioned to Oberst did not elicit a clear reaction from the woman, although that implied that a luminary such as Khyron or Zero had spoken of her.
"I was meditating upon my veranda this morning when I received a vision. These are not unusual. They always reflect something that has happened, will happen or is happening that impacts the Force greatly. I have seen planets destroyed, entire species exterminated, innumerable murders and indescribable suffering."
Oberst exhaled. "So far, all you have done is made me very, very jealous. Get to the point."
Hadima nodded. "This morning, I saw something different. A temple on a remote, primordial world. Grey, cracked stones. Blood. A naked man, lying in his own waste – a gibbering fool. I did not see what this meant in regards to the Force. However, several hours later, I remembered the man's face. He had a great more facial hair in my vision, and was covered in grime and filth—"
"Get to it."
"It was Sirrus," Hadima said. "There are only a few holocrons that he made when he was High Priest of the Krath, and even those are of dubious value, but I remembered what he looked like. I am sure that the madman in my dreams was him."
Sirrus had moved in the same circles as Oberst many years ago, when the relationship between the Emperor's Hammer and the Dark Brotherhood was ironclad. Starting out as a bounty hunter, Sirrus had later become a Jedi and had risen through the Brotherhood ranks. However, his erratic behavior and clashes with authority made him equally infuriating and dangerous. After crossing the line one too many times, he had gone from a personage of note to public enemy number one and was hunted in those few areas where the Empire still held control. Oberst, Khyron and others had prevented the Brotherhood from going after their former comrade intensely, but rather than making himself scarce, Sirrus had organized a terrorist campaign and even spearheaded a miniature rebellion. In the end, though, the small insurrection was crushed and Sirrus had been defeated, betrayed by one of his former partners. It was whispered that, instead of killing him, she had jettisoned Sirrus into deep space. At any rate, he was presumed dead – or had been.
Oberst rapped his fingers upon the table. "Lying in his own waste, you say? That sounds like him, I admit." He shrugged. "I should have known that he was too out of his wits to stay dead."
Hadima arched an eyebrow. "Although I do not know his exact location, my strong connection with the Force and his imprint on it could lead me to him. It could be possible to track him down, if you wished it."
Waving a hand, Oberst snickered. "Nice try, but I could not care less about Sirrus. He was of little value when he was eccentric. If he's gone off the deep end and is slumming it in strange temples on provincial worlds, I have even less interest in him now." He stroked his chin. "However, a journey to this world of yours might be worthwhile, after all. You said that these visions of yours are usually brought on by events that disturb the Force in a major way?"
Oberst steepled his fingers. "Sirrus never even reached the rank of Jedi Master. There's no way he could have reached out to you using his own powers. There must be something else at work… something much more powerful, and related to the Force. There might be something that Clan Tarentum… That is, the Dark Brotherhood could gain from a little jaunt to this backwards world of yours. I'll requisition a spacecraft and assign you a squad to go with you; you'll set out in a few days."
"A squad? Me?" Hadima's face changed for the first time, from calmness to anxiety. "Marshal, I had just wanted to pass on the information…"
"And so you did," Oberst said. "And you hoped to gain my favor. Your body betrayed nothing about your eagerness to win points with me so you might progress within our hierarchy, Knight Lerenga, but your heartbeat increased when I said that I knew who you were. And it began to race when I surprised you by revealing my lack of interest in Sirrus' whereabouts. Now your heart is practically in your throat because instead of gaining favor the easy way, you're going to have to go on a field trip and get your hands dirty."
Hadima smiled. "I was wrong to hide my motivations, Marshal."
"Not wrong," Oberst said. "You just wasted your time. Anyway, if you return with something good, you might just see your stock rise with me… and a few others. However, if it turns out you have wasted my time as well as yours… You and your little party might as well not return to Yridia."
"And what of Sirrus?" asked Hadima.
"If you run into him, the Force be with you," Oberst said. "If you end up needing his help in this mission of yours… even the Force will not help you."
Unique among the other Houses of Clan Tarentum, House Cestus had its home in a wrecked Star Destroyer, the Corsair. The ship had crashed into the surface of the moon Koros, making it no longer viable for space travel. Yet the members of Cestus had refused to forsake it, and instead continued to utilize it as a safe haven. It was not as glamorous as the clan's undersea castle by any means, but it was functional. The Empire had installed training facilities on its spacecraft long ago with the understanding that pilots and soldiers alike would have to hone their skills while taking part in deep-space operations. Dark Jedi now practiced with the same machinery, the droids and the simulators that the Imperial forces once used in its doomed struggle with the Alliance and later the New Republic.
Sordo stood in one of the immense training chambers, surrounded by more than a dozen other warriors, all Dark Jedi like himself. Most belonged to the lower ranks; a handful had risen as high as Jedi Knight, the lightsaber hanging at their sides declaring their achievement for all to see. Most were humans, unlike Sordo, who was a typical Cathar – large, stout, with feline-like features and covered in golden brown fur. But his body language was similar to theirs – arms crossed, back against the wall and his eyes firmly set on the two men fighting a practice bout.
He was watching so intensely he did not notice the cloaked woman enter the room and sit down in the corner opposite him.
The fighters were going back and forth, trading blows with their training lightsabers. These were not as deadly as the real thing, but it was still desirable to avoid contact with them. On top of that, usage of the Force in training was not uncommon and made duels more interesting. Although a duelist with a more proficient understanding of how to manipulate the Force could have been said to have had an unfair advantage, fairness was not something that the Dark Jedi were overly concerned with. If one was unable to match his foe's power, it behooved him or her to improve. Handicapping the superior combatant invited complacency and incompetence.
Seizing an opportunity, one of the fighters presently dueling used the Force to "push" the other, who went flying through the air. As he limped back to his seat, Sordo could see that the man's thigh had swollen to the size of a tree trunk. Unable to sit down, he dropped awkwardly to one knee and extended the wounded leg out before him.
"Next!" came the summons from the man on the floor, a large human with a broad shoulders and a pronounced sloped brow. He was nothing but sheer muscle, and he stood even a few inches taller than Sordo. Yet despite his size he moved gracefully and effortlessly, each attack or defense flowing into the subsequent action. His chest was full with pride and he stared defiantly out at the other Jedi.
His name was Buchka, and he was considered a prodigy. Never before had a Force sensitive, so freshly introduced to his potential, progressed this quickly. Although he was still a new recruit relative to other candidates, he was soon in line to receive his lightsaber. This made him a rival to Sordo, who had more slowly but surely come nearer to that honor. As much as he hated to admit to it, it looked like Buchka was about to take the prestige from out from under him. He was showing his dominance on the training floor, and there were enough Knights present for it to matter.
"Next!" Buchka declared again.
Sordo took a step forward.
"Really?" Buchka smiled as he raised an eyebrow.
"I'm not going to just step aside for you," Sordo said, the contempt oozing in his words. He took his training lightsaber in his hand and brought it to life with a hiss. He gambled with speed and went for a quick stab. Buchka easily blocked it.
"Really?" he asked again, this time the juvenile sarcasm even thicker.
Sordo felt the Force bearing down on him. It was heavy, but it was also fleeting, like a gust of wind in a hurricane. He set his feet and resisted, going only ten feet back before he halted. Buchka was using the Force to put distance between him and his opponent, playing with it – but not fully controlling it. This looseness was more than what most young acolytes possessed, but it was not mature. It was like a child playing with a disruptor rifle: even in such meager hands one could do great damage.
But in choosing to use the Force this way, Buchka had made an error. The Force was more potent than any lightsaber; it was a Jedi's true weapon. The lightsaber was more of a tool, a physical complement to the spiritual power. Buchka did not realize that, and that was his weakness.
Reaching out with his arm, Sordo envisioned his hand around Buchka's throat. His fingers squeezed together and in response Buchka contorted as oxygen was denied to his brain. Turning red, he choked and staggered, his hands going to his throat. He fell to his knees, writhing in agony, and the pained expression in his eyes showed complete submission toward the rest in the dojo.
"Finish him," a voice said.
"Leaving himself open like that? He deserves to die," another said.
It was as much about self-interest as it was the Dark Side and its lack of mercy. Sordo and his comrades had been shut off from feelings of compassion and clemency for some time; forgiveness and altruism were foreign concepts to them now. If Sordo killed Buchka, it would mean the playing field in training would be more level and, besides, if he dabbled in the Force but had not mastered it, it was right for Buchka to be culled from the Brotherhood.
The loser slumped to the ground, dead. Sordo watched as his body was dragged away. He had dispatched his rival quite masterfully, in front of a sympathetic audience; it would only be a matter of time before he was promoted to Knight and given his lightsaber.
His mind was alive with the thought of it when the hooded woman who had entered earlier arose and approached him. It was not strange to see the style; many in the Brotherhood favored the anonymity offered by cowls and hoods. He was, however, caught offhand by the fact that she seemed to want to talk to him. Sordo had no friends.
"Who wants to know?" he asked, heading for the exit.
" I am Hadima Lerenga, a priestess in the Order of the Krath."
She pulled the hood away, revealing a stunningly beautiful (by human standards) woman with rich brown skin and yellow cat-eyes that mirrored Sordo's own. Her hair was black and green and hung in dreads about her long, slender neck and head. In Sordo's opinion, she was halfway towards attractive; like a female of his species that had been shaven bare.
"I have orders from Maxamillian von Oberst for you to come with me. A unit is being assembled, and you have been selected—"
"I have other concerns at the moment."
"You have been selected for promotion to Jedi Knight. You will be receiving your lightsaber shortly."
Sordo stopped in his tracks. "How do you know about—"
"We needed some exceptional individuals for this unit. You have demonstrated incredible prowess with the Force and were due for a promotion. The promotion is yours – provided you accept the assignment."
Sordo's face scrunched. He had hoped that killing Buchka would have put him over the line. Now he was being told that there was another hoop for him to jump through. Although he, like all his peers, had been taught to gain leverage over his enemies when possible, he grated at the idea of leverage in general. He preferred direct routes rather than subtle influence.
"I suppose my choice has been made for me," he said at last.
Hadima smiled. She produced a lightsaber and held it out to him. "No, you are simply making the only choice that can be made. Congratulations." After Sordo had taken the weapon in his hand, inspecting it for its validity, she arched a brow. "Tell me, have you ever heard of a man named Sirrus?"
It had two hours since the Zabrak named Mazix Tula and the human Jevan Mallery had sat down together at the table with Marlenis. She wondered how much longer she would remain sane.
"So, where are you from? Because that's been a pretty confusing topic for me."
"Please leave me alone."
"All Iridonians are Zabrak, but not all Zabrak are Iridonians, right? Iridonians are only Zabrak who come from Iridonia. You guys sure get around."
"See, everyone calls me a human, but in reality I'm a Corellian… And I identify more with my planet than I do with my species…"
"But, when you think about it, you don't have a choice over either. And that brings up the whole subject of free will…"
Marlenis slammed her hands on the table. "Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. Please, if you don't shut up, I'm going to let him kill you and claim it was
"I'm rambling because I'm tense," said Jevan. "The question is: am I tense because you're tense, or am I am making you tense by being tense?" He
had observed that the woman was unmistakably a Zeltron – with her pink skin, ebony hair and a body built for pleasure. As a species, they were known for being both able to induce emotions by producing pheromones as well as being able to feel the emotions of others.
"What do you have to be tense about?" Mazix asked, leaning back in his chair. His rough grey skin gave him a rock-like appearance, and combined with the horns jutting from his head, his appearance seemed to fit with his bristly, stoic demeanor.
"Out of nowhere, I'm picked from House Tridens to become part of some sort of unit. I'm given a promotion to Jedi Knight and a lightsaber, but then I'm told it might as well be a posthumous honor because the promotion depends on me going along for the ride. I don't know any of you."
Marlenis shrugged. "So?"
Jevan looked at her like she was an idiot. "This is obviously important. And its success depends on us working together as a team. Yet I don't know any of you. I don't trust any of you. Of course I'm worried. What happens when we stumble into a life or death situation?"
"Is that why you joined the Brotherhood?" asked Mazix sardonically. "Were you expecting a peaceful life of meditation and serenity?"
For a moment, Jevan turned ashen. He cleared his throat and pushed away strands of his long, chestnut-colored hair from his face. "Of course not. But I didn't join to go throw my life away on some suicide mission. I mean, why else would they have chosen us? Why are we so special?"
Mazix shrugged. "Why not? We've all recently attained the rank of Knight, yes? Perhaps we so impressed our superiors that they put our names forward when this little expedition of ours was proposed."
Jevan chuckled. "Now who is being naïve? If we had impressed our superiors, that would be all the more reason for them to send us on a suicide mission. They would want to get us out of the way before we usurped their positions."
Shaking her head, Marlenis interjected. "That's not why we were picked. I wasn't last in my class, but I wasn't first either."
"Then there must be something else to it," Jevan said, tapping a finger against his thin lips. "If I was putting together a team, I guess I would choose people with special talents… Abilities that no one else had." He held up a hand. "I have no shame in admitting I was a criminal before I joined the Academy."
"A member of the Exchange?" Marlenis asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Nothing so glamorous," Jevan replied with a smile. "I was something of a jack-of-all-trades, although I specialized in relieving certain people of their property at the request of others." He nodded toward the Zeltron. "And what, pray tell, were you doing before you decided to follow the Dark Side?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Marlenis said darkly. Jevan suddenly felt so cold a shiver went don his spine. Clearly, she wasn't just being shy. He turned to Mazix.
"No," he said, almost as coolly.
"What do you mean, 'no'?"
"No, I'm not going to tell you about myself. I am not going to tell you about my past, about the Zabrak or what my favorite color is. I am here because I had no choice if I wished to receive my rank. My only interest is seeing that our mission, whatever it is, is carried out."
"Be mysterious if you like," Jevan said. "I think it's pretty clear what you two bring to the table. She's obviously a microphysicist and you're the comic relief." He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms, a smile playing upon his lips.
Unable to stand much more, Marlenis stood and began walk around, casually inspecting the interior of the ship they were on. It had several hours since she and Mazix had been taken from the Sword's Sheath – the space station in the Itanna Belt that served as the headquarters for House Gladius – and since Jevan had joined them they had been locked in aimless conversation. She was tense, as Jevan had observed, and had been so ever since the dark-skinned human woman with the hood had approached her. And while she was curious about the mission she had been forced to make her own, her anxiety also stemmed from the prospect of more spaceflight in the future. She detested it; she much preferred the assurances that came with terra firma.
"I have a bad feeling about this," she thought aloud.
"We know," Jevan said, "because we have bad feelings, too."
"Sit down," grunted Mazix. "Pacing won't help."
Marlenis returned to the table. "I wonder where we're going."
"That will be made clear soon enough," a voice said. All three Jedi turned to see the woman who had earlier given each a lightsaber, a promotion and their orders – Hadima Lerenga, or so she said her name was. Behind her, making her seem tiny in comparison, was a hulking cat-like creature with thin eyes, wheat-colored fur and a flowing black robe. He did not appear happy.
"This is Sordo," said Hadima, motioning to her companion. "He is the last part of our special unit. Now that you all have been gathered, we can begin the briefing."
The table – or so it had seemed at the time – that Marlenis, Jevan and Mazix had been sitting around suddenly came to life. Cracks appeared on the circular surface, which was seemingly made of the same material as the rest of the ship. Plates slid away as a projector emerged, snapping with electricity. A holographic projection of a tall, handsome man dressed in an ornate red robe with yellow stripes buzzed into view.
Marlenis stroked her chin. With his brown hair, bright hazel eyes and sly look, the man in the hologram bore an uncanny resemblance to Jevan. "Relative of yours?" she asked.
Jevan shook his head. "He's not good-looking enough. Besides, he's got a lightsaber. There are no other Jedi in my family... that I know about, anyway."
"He's also a member of the Brotherhood," Sordo said. "You can tell by the decorations he's wearing."
"Very perceptive," Hadima said. "Indeed. This was… is… Dark Adept Sirrus, a lost member of the Brotherhood. He was, some time ago, a High Priest of the Krath, amongst other things. He was known for his strong distaste for the Emperor's Hammer… The feeling was mutual."
"Before his time then," Jevan observed. The Emperor's Hammer was a part of the Imperial Remnant and, until the previous year, had been a sister organization to the Brotherhood. That relationship had come to an abrupt halt after repeated friction over the Hammer's heavy-handed manner, with the Brotherhood severing all connections and choosing instead to follow its own path. It had been an acrimonious split, but neither side was interested in turning the schism into a war.
"Sirrus was quite the troublemaker. Eventually he forced the hand of the Hammer's Grand Admiral and he was charged with sedition and treason. Not content to disappear, Sirrus attempted to raise a small fleet of mercenaries to attack the Hammer. Unsurprisingly, he was unsuccessful. He was presumed killed, although there had been some gossip that he had escaped… Placed inside an escape pod and sent into deep space, or so it was said. Even if the rumors were true, it was assumed that he would have died anyway… By crashing into an asteroid, entering a planet's atmosphere and burning up… However, we have reason to believe he may have survived."
"He's alive?" Marlenis asked.
"Possibly. I have had visions of him alive, but… incapacitated. And since I do not know if my visions depict the past, present or future, there is no way of knowing if he is still living. Either way, it is irrelevant. Our mission is obviously not a search and rescue. If a Jedi is either unable or unwilling to return to the Brotherhood, what good are they to us?"
"So, what is the point of this mission then?" said Mazix.
"Having barely reached the status of Elder before his disappearance, Sirrus' connection to the Force was not strong enough for him to contact me. And even if he developed such a connection to the Force later, he would not know me now to reach out to me. No, there is another reason he appeared in my visions. Either he has stumbled across something that has made his presence in the Force that much stronger, or…"
"My visions are always about some major event involving the Force. Something has happened, will happen or is happening involving Sirrus… and the impact upon the Force is considerable. It has been decided that we are to investigate, with the primary objective to determine whether this particular event can be used to the Brotherhood's advantage… or whether it is a threat." She rolled her shoulders. "Or we could find nothing at all."
Jevan grumbled. "Great. So we have no idea what we're going up against. This event of yours could be anything! A planet-destroying device leftover from some secret Imperial project… Or maybe Sirrus slaughtered a monastery full of pacifistic Jedi monks."
"This is all moving so fast," Marlenis protested. " Can you tell us why we four were chosen for this?"
Hadima shrugged again. "Consul Oberst selected you," she said. "If there was anything special behind your selection, I was not made aware of it."
Sordo raised a hand. "So, where is Sirrus? Where are we going?"
"I do not know," said Hadima.
The four Knights shared quizzical looks.
"After I have my visions, there is a… residual connection," Hadima continued. "I can no longer see or hear what was in my vision, but I can feel it. It is like walking through a room you know intimately with the lights off. You cannot see where you are going or what is ahead of you, but you know the way by heart."
"Except you've never been there before," Jevan said darkly.
"That is highly probable," Hadima said. "Other than my homeworld and the Yridia system, I have not traveled anywhere else."
"Fan-tastic," Jevan said, his words dripping with sarcasm. "So we have no idea where we're going, with no idea what we will find when we get there."
"That is correct."
"And can I opt out of this fool's errand?"
"Yeah, didn't think so."
Sordo made a low, rumbling noise. "There is rarely reward without risk."
Jevan arched a brow. "Doesn't the Dark Side teach us to profit with as little risk as possible?"
"And do you know of many opportunities where something can be had for nothing?"
"He is a common criminal," Mazix told the Cathar.
"Hey!" Jevan protested. "I never said I was common!"
"Enough," Hadima said, her tone firm but not exasperated. "I will confess that I too was less than pleased when I was told I would be investigating all this personally. I had hoped that informing my superiors about my vision would be sufficient to secure recognition. Unfortunately, I was wrong. But now that we have been brought together, we must avoid acting like petulant children." Her eyes flashed at Jevan. "As the Brotherhood does not reward failure, we must focus on completing on our mission, not complaining about it."
"So, are we just going to take off and wander around the stars until it 'feels' right?" Marlenis asked.
"We will have to fly, manually, yes, and it will take longer than if we had coordinates we could simply enter into a nav-computer," Hadima said. "However, things are somewhat complicated by the fact that I am not a pilot. That is where REX comes in."
Hadima nodded and then turned in the direction of the cockpit. "REX, could you come out here?"
Hovering above the ground thanks to a wide repulsorlift base, a cylindrical-shaped droid floated into the room. Its head, flat at the bottom and curved at the top, was human-like, with two rounded eyeholes and a vocabulator as the "mouth". It had three limbs with claws on the end, and it waved one of these in the general direction of the assembled Jedi.
"This RX unit used to pilot a tourism vessel before it was appropriated by the Brotherhood," Hadima said. "Apparently, this adventurous unit got lost and stumbled into Brotherhood space when it was supposed to go to the Bogden sector. It was reprogrammed to make it less… venturesome, as well as to remove its rather obnoxious, high-pitced voice. Anyway, I will be informing REX of the way, and he will be the one flying us there."
"So, where to first?" asked Jevan.
"The Outer Zuma Region," Hadima said. "To be specific, the Kakani sector. I can feel a 'pull' in its direction and – as Marlenis said – it 'feels' right."
"I know of that place," Mazix interjected. "A lot of ships are supposed to have mysteriously disappeared there. Probably nothing but smugglers and cargo haulers amusing themselves over drinks, but… Well, they talk about the laws of physics ceasing to work… Paranormal activity… Stuff like that."
"And you believe that?" Sordo said with a chuckle.
"No," Mazix said, defensively. "But something may be out there, and we don't know what it is."
There was a long pause, and then Jevan spoke, with more meekness and somberness than he had used so far. "I know what's out there," he said. "Pirates."
"Oh?" Mazix smiled, bemused. "And how can you be so sure?"
"I know," Jevan said with a gulp, "because I ripped them off."