Referius gazed at the inactive transmitter in his hand, reflecting.
He hadn't always been Referius. As a boy, in what seemed a different life, his name had been Aiko. But as he matured from childhood to manhood, he had slowly left that identity behind. Ten years ago, when he took the name Referius, there had been hardly a trace of Aiko left in him.
And now who am I? Referius wondered. Referius would never sell out his master, yet here I am, about to do just that. Who have I become now?
Referius continued to gaze at the long-wave transmitter in his hand, summoning his courage. Finally, as he took a deep breath, he activated it. A moment passed. Then a voice broke the static.
"This is Master Roto Blell of the Jedi Order," the deep baritone said. "May I ask the reason for your transmission?"
"I have... information on Overlord Arkadas... that seems pertinent."
"Hold, please. I'll put you in touch with the appropriate Jedi," Master Blell replied.
This is a mistake... This is a mistake... the voice whispered over and over in Referius's head. But whether it was his own string of thoughts or the voice of something supernatural and sinister, he did not know.
Finally, his transmitter chimed.
"This is Master Peilea Janu of the Jedi Order, coordinator of the taskforce charged with the capture and defeat of Overlord Arkadas. You have information?" a female asked, her voice echoing in a proboscis.
A Rodian, then, he thought.
"Arkadas is..." he paused long enough that he was sure Master Janu was wondering if she had lost the connection. Finally, he spat out, "Arkadas is on Teca VI."
Now it was Master Janu's turn to pause.
"I see," she finally answered. "And you are also on Teca VI?"
With the seismic charge out in the open, he found he could breathe easier now.
"We'll dispatch a Jedi to meet you planetside. We already have one in the sector—he'll be there as soon as he can reach you. And I'll tell him his contact person is...?"
"They call me Referius," he answered.
As the cockpit cover to his starfighter lifted, Jedi Master Talik Sol breathed deeply; the scent of Teca VI would always smell sweet to him. A thin smile appeared on the wan face of the Muun Master. It felt good to be home.
Talik flexed his shoulder muscles, then stretched, reaching his thin arms high overhead. The flight had been relatively short, but ever since his long stays in bio-stasis, he appreciated the feel of even simple muscle movement. He took a deep breath again, feeling his lungs expand and contract, then gazed out at the surface of the planet.
He had landed in the Flats, the near-desert area just north of the planet's principle village, Kheferna'a. Talik had never spent much time in the Flats. Very few sentients lived in this northern region. They all tended to dwell in Kheferna'a or south of the village, where the farming was much better.
Next to the village sat the Draykonwol Forest, far closer to Kheferna'a than when Talik had last been on Teca VI. Draykonwol trees were natural conduits of dark side energy. Talik remembered the last time he was here, how he had tried to get rid of the trees. The natives would not go near them, so he would try to cut them back himself. The trees themselves seemed to conspire against him; they germinated and grew fast, and it seemed for every one he cut down, two would grow in its place. While he had barely managed to hold the forest at bay then, it appeared to have grown greatly in his absence.
And to the west of the village, over the tree line and the natural curvature of the planet, Master Sol could just make out the top of a fortress. Talik smiled as he remembered the days when he had resided there. Then he scowled as he realized that Overlord Arkadas almost certainly lived there now.
The Jedi had been searching for Arkadas for months now. Over the course of a few decades, Arkadas had carved out a small empire among a handful of sectors. The Republic had been happy to leave him alone for years... until recently, when some of his commanders had begun making raids on Republic cargo ships along the Hydian Way. Now that Arkadas had become an annoyance, the Republic wanted him eliminated. But first, of course, the Jedi had to discover on which planet in his empire Arkadas resided—he had done an excellent job of keeping it secret. Luckily, someone had recently contacted Master Janu with a tip that Arkadas ruled from Teca VI. Talik had already been searching for Arkadas in the sector, and had been immediately assigned to follow up on that tip.
Of all the planets in his empire, he had to pick this one, Talik thought. He would not allow Arkadas to continue his reign of tyranny from Teca VI. He would do his best to restore this planet to its former glory.
Master Janu had selected Talik for this assignment because of his familiarity with the sector and particularly with this planet. He was supposed to report to her now that he had made planetside, but it could wait. He didn't feel like speaking with another Jedi at the moment.
Looking out into the distance, Master Talik Sol could see the planet's red sun setting on the southern horizon.
It seems my journey to Kheferna'a will have to wait until morning, Talik thought to himself. But that was fine. He had waited decades to return. He could stand to wait one more night.
This is a mistake, Referius thought, gazing at the distantly setting sun as it dropped below the horizon. Why was he bringing the Jedi into this? If he wanted to defeat Arkadas, he should do it the old-fashioned way and remove him himself. There was a reason for the traditions. Why invite the Jedi to meddle in private affairs?
If I'm not powerful enough to defeat Arkadas, then he should continue to reign, Referius reminded himself. But it was too late for that. He was inadequate, and he had summoned the Jedi. He could not turn back now.
He sighed. Tonight would be another sleepless night. Referius had nothing to do but wait for the Jedi to arrive, and then utilize that Jedi's help in a task that should have been solely his.
Unless... Unless I kill the Jedi...
No! Despite Arkadas's best efforts, despite Referius's own past, he had never been able to bring himself to hate the Jedi. Despite all the infuriating contradictions between their lofty ideals and their real-world practices, Referius knew that deep down, despite all the times he thought he truly felt hatred for them, he only really felt envy for the Jedi. Envy for a life that he still thought greater than the one he currently lived.
"Lord Referius?" a shrill voice spoke out of the darkness. The dusks had always been surprisingly short on Teca VI.
Referius turned around, cursing himself for failing to sense the approaching figure. Once again, he could not hide his inadequacy even from himself. The Force refused to let Referius master it, always remaining out of reach. It would not grant him the power he so desperately sought.
"Yes, Rindel," he spoke to the dark figure. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me."
"You know, I took an awful risk coming here to meet you," Rindel returned. "If Arkadas finds out—"
"Arkadas is not who you should worry about," Referius shot back, scowling. "You know better than any of us that there is a greater evil at work."
Rindel stepped deeper into the dark and softened his voice even more. "You mean the boy? But he is just a child."
The child was the reason Referius had summoned the Jedi.Through the Force, he sensed a great evil in the boy, and knew that nothing good would ever come of him. Arkadas's obsession with training the child only served to drive home Referius's impression. Referius knew it made no sense—he was just a child, as Rindel said—but when he had first met with him, the evil radiating off the boy had been overpowering. So much so that when he had been unable to convince his master to dispose of the boy, he had summoned the Jedi.
Exasperated with Rindel's lack of foresight, Referius sighed. "He may be a child, but he is still dangerous," he said in a sad voice. "Not even Arkadas knows just how powerful he is."
The other spoke up. "The master thinks he can control him."
Referius shook his head. "In the end, he will pay for his arrogance with all of our lives." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, shiny object. "Once you find where he keeps the child, contact me. If things fall apart, use this."
For a moment, there was silence.
"I can't. I won't. When Arkadas finds out, and we both know he will, I will be dead," the dark figure whimpered. Referius could sense the man's fear as an overwhelming wave rising up inside his smaller frame to shake even Referius's confidence.
"If you don't, I will kill you here where you stand," rumbled Referius, his hand still extended, holding the device out for the other to take. "The choice is yours."
A small hand, shaking with fear, reached from the cloak in the darkness.
"I pray that you know what you are doing," Rindel said as he took the device. "If you are wrong, then we will all be dead."
The dark figure disappeared into the shadows, returning to Arkadas's castle.
Referius turned and started back toward the camp. The poor fool doesn't realize we are already dead.
His lightsaber flashes twice and three warriors fall. He grins at his own handiwork. But there is no time. He counters a blaster bolt meant for his back, and he becomes a ball of energy, his blade looping and dancing as the area erupts in chaos.
But there is something deeper... some sort of undercurrent... a reason for this fight...
He awakes, and he feels as though he is underwater. It is dark. The darkness threatens to close in on him. He tries to scream. It is swallowed by the darkness. The neverending darkness. The darkness that will bury him forever and ever and ever and—
He's in bed. The room is softly lit by a candle. There is soft breathing beside him. Still sleeping. He smiles. He is content. The candle flickers. Darkness. It is dark. He is still screaming. No one can hear him. It is dark, and he is silently screaming and no one—
Master Talik Sol awoke, gasping for air. He wiped the sweat off his brow as he pressed a button to open the Jedi starfighter's cockpit, allowing the faint breeze of Teca VI to wash across his face. Talik smiled. He had awoken from nightmares of his experiences in bio-stasis every morning since he had emerged from that state. But this morning, he awoke on Teca VI. By his estimation, that alone made it the best morning yet, despite the dreams he had been having.
Master Sol hopped lightly from his craft and quickly changed his clothes, putting on a new undergarment, tunic, and pants. Throwing his robe back over his shoulders, he looked at the sky. It was clear, and he gazed at the stars above him. Teca VI's lack of heavy industry meant that the stars shone brighter here than on any other planet Talik knew of. Nevertheless, he knew he needed to start moving. Kheferna'a lay in the distance, and he looked forward to meeting with the natives. He set out on foot at a moderate pace in the direction of the village.
He had not gone far when he caught sight of a pair of objects off in the distance. In the bright starlight, Talik could tell they were racing toward him, and appeared to be two darkly clad figures on swoops of some sort, capes billowing behind them. They wore hoods over their heads, obscuring their faces, but Talik could at least tell that they were humanoid. He turned towards them and waited.
The two neared, failing to slow down, and Talik realized they had to be hostile. In fact, the swoops were angling toward him, apparently intent on running him down. Just as they were about to reach him, Talik sank into a crouch and rolled out of the way of the first one, ignited his pale blue lightsaber blade, and sliced into the second swoop's front maneuvering fins. Its rider leaped free of the swoop as it careened out of control, landing deftly on his feet and igniting a lightsaber of his own, its blade glowing blood-red.
What?! Talik Sol was shocked. Why would Arkadas have Force users working for him?
The Jedi had very little time to ponder the question, though, for the dark warrior leapt towards him. Talik parried the blow, then launched himself sideways and into a spin. By now, though, the first swoop rider had left his vehicle and ignited a red blade similar to the other warrior's. Though this newer warrior was thin and appeared less athletic than the first, both were tall and advanced towards him confidently. Talik lowered himself into a defensive posture, waiting for the pair to start the attack.
Both warriors engaged Talik in unison, one swinging for his head, the other for his midsection. Talik ducked the higher blow and parried the second, then tried to go on the offensive himself. But the two continued to advance, and Talik found himself forced to move backwards as they overpowered him. They attacked with identical fighting styles, sacrificing speed for precision and moving almost slowly as they took strokes meant to maximize effectiveness. While Talik felt confident he could have taken either one in man-to-man combat, the two together posed a challenge. And here in the Flats, there was no terrain he could use to try and separate the warriors.
Glancing around, Talik could tell he would have to try something risky in order to gain the advantage over these two warriors. But what that was, he didn't yet know. And as the dark pair forced him backwards, he knew he had to reach a decision soon.
The two warriors again struck simultaneously, and Talik grimaced as he contorted himself in order to block both blades.
Suddenly, an idea occurred to him. It was risky, yes; but if he could pull it off, the duel would certainly turn in his favor. He just had to find a way to put a little distance between the warriors and himself. Lowering into a defensive crouch, Talik steadied himself. He would only get one shot at this...
The small Jedi Master sat upon a pillow in his chambers, deep in concentration. He stretched out his senses, looking for answers to many recent disturbing events. He searched for Kyba, the Devaronian Jedi sent out to investigate rumors of the continued existence of the Sith, but could not find him. Instead, the Jedi found a barrier between himself and his query—a hazy wall of misdirection and obscurity. A wall of the dark side.
The Master opened his eyes, frowning with concern. A chime went off, alerting him that someone waited at his door wishing to see him.
"Enter," the Jedi called. The door opened, revealing the elder Rodian Jedi Master, Peilea Janu. At the small Jedi's beckon, the Rodian entered.
"I am sorry to disturb you in your meditations, Master Yoda, but—" she stopped, seeing the solemn expression on Yoda's face. "—is everything all right?"
"Confusing, things have become," Yoda said, looking up at Janu and shaking his head. "For almost a millenia, peace we have had. No sign of the Sith, did we see."
"Perhaps Kyba was wrong?" Janu reassured. "He was going off of questionable information."
Yoda nodded to himself, grunting as he considered her words. There hadn't been any sign of the Sith since the Ruusan Campaign, but in the time since there had been many with Force talent who had aquired some form of training, and through lack of discipline fell to the dark side and then, in their greedy power, fancied themselves to be Sith. Nonetheless, the Jedi were obligated to follow up on each lead and rumor, if for nothing else then to eliminate a danger. Yet in comparison to the Sith, these were a relatively minor threat.
It was two weeks ago the Temple had last received word from Jedi Kyba. His message was short but concise.
"Master Yoda, Master Janu," the devilish-looking Jedi had said, "in my hunt for Overlord Arkadas, I met with a man named Marr Phes who has worked as an informant for me before. During our conversation, Phes claimed to have knowledge of the ancient dark side Order of the Sith existing into the present day. Phes claims that after the Ruusan Campaign, a Sith named Darth Bane attempted to reestablish the Order in secret. Bane instituted a rule that there could only ever be two Sith at one time, a master and an apprentice. He did this so the Sith would remain undiscovered by the Jedi."
"Trust this Marr Phes, do you?" Yoda had asked.
Kyba had paused, looking uncomfortable. "I don't see how the Sith could have existed all this time undetected. But I also am surprised by Marr's knowledge of Sith lore. It seems to go much deeper than that of the general public. Our records do show the existence of a Darth Bane at the time of the campaign, but this name does not appear on any public record searches. Marr claims he spent time apprenticed to the current Sith Master."
"Does he exhibit any dark side training?" Master Janu had inquired.
Here, Kyba had answered definitively. "Yes, Master Janu. Marr has most certainly had some Force training. And in all my years knowing him, I've always sensed a great anger in him."
"And what of Phes's future?" Yoda had asked. "Consumed by the dark side, is he still?"
"No, Master. Admittedly, he does have a great hatred for the Jedi Order—he has no idea I am contacting you with this information. But along with his anger, I also sense an intense remorse. I believe Marr Phes can be saved."
Yoda had urged Kyba to help rehabilitate Marr Phes, and attempt to discern the location of this Sith Lord. Kyba had not responded since.
Yoda closed his eyes again, deep in thought.
"With the dark side, a puzzle the truth always is."
"Do you believe this information Kyba received has merit?" Master Janu asked skeptically. Yoda opened his eyes and regarded her with mild amusement.
"Not yet born, was I, when the Ruusan Campaign ended," Yoda said. "It had already been over 100 years, then." Yoda stood up, grabbing his gimer stick, and walked towards Janu.
"Almost forgotten even then, the Sith were," Yoda continued. "'Destroyed, they were,' is what my master told me. Yet destroyed were the Sith, even before his life. So certain was he, as we all were."
Yoda stopped before Janu and looked up at her, his eyes both sad and weary.
"Forgotten, they were. All remember pieces of history, but Sith lore, I think not. Think someone who is not Jedi would know of those things, do you?"
After the Ruusan Campaign, the Jedi had discovered many Sith holocrons, as well as many other relics, that contained lore about the Sith that no one would ever know about. The Jedi took them to the temple on Coruscant, locked away for all eternity. No one would ever know what they contained unless they were a Sith... or unless there was something the Jedi missed.
"Well, no, but don't you think it odd that we never discovered this ourselves?" Janu asked. Yoda sighed, shaking his head solemnly.
"No," he said gravely. "Searched for Kyba through the Force, I did. But find him I could not. Only the dark side did I encounter."
Master Janu looked at Yoda, her face a mixture of shock and disbelief.
"So obviously that means there is someone who is skilled in the dark side, but I'm sure it cannot be the Sith."
"Sith or not, Kyba must look into this. In the meantime, ponder this further, I must," Yoda said. "Later. What is it that you came here for, hmm?"
"One of our bio-stasis units released for a field mission has failed to report in. Master Leej wants to know if you wish to send out a recall."
Yoda made a face of pure disgust. Of all the things the Jedi practiced, he found this most distasteful. Bio-stasis was cruel even to criminals, but it was still considered a viable option for rehabilitating Jedi on the verge of a fall. The Senate had instituted the practice when a Fallen Jedi had wreaked havoc upon Coruscant. Political meddling in Jedi affairs was bad enough, but they crossed a line when they claimed something as inhumane as bio-stasis was acceptable. But public opinion was strong in its favor, and the Jedi had no choice but comply with it. The Jedi tried to alleviate this by treating it as a meditative trance; audio played at all times, reciting the Jedi Code, essential Jedi teachings, and other Jedi philosophy, all in the hopes of creating true rehabilitation. This did nothing to change how distasteful the practice was. Having only been head of the Jedi Council for a few years, Yoda did not yet have the influence to end this practice. But soon he would, and what an apology he would then give to those he would release. He began to shake his head fervently.
"No!" Yoda said firmly. "Leave him be. Important mission, he has. No one knows Teca VI better. If this Arkadas is to be defeated, leave Master Sol alone, we will."
As one of the dark warriors' blades buzzed close to his arm, Talik swung his own blade in a wide arc, putting some much-needed distance between himself and the attackers. The two sidestepped away from each other, and Talik hurled his lightsaber in the gap between them, springing backwards in a massive backflip away from his opponents. As the pair leapt into the air after him, Talik pulled his own lighstaber back towards himself, blade first, and embedded it in the chest of the more athletic one.
But the thinner warrior was nearly upon him, and Talik had no time to retrieve his own blade. He dove to the side the warrior brought his lightsaber in a downward slash that nearly separated Talik's head from his neck. Talik rolled into a backwards somersault, then reached out and Force-pulled the dead warrior's lightsaber hilt from the corpse's hand into his own. He raised and activated it just in time to parry a hard strike. The two traded blows for a few seconds, but Talik knew it would not be long now before the fight was his. He parried another strike, then drove his blade into the shoulder of the dark warrior, causing the warrior to drop his saber. Talik spun and buried his lightsaber in the warrior's gut. With a gurgle, the warrior fell to the ground, dead.
Out of breath, Talik sank into a crouch, then called his own blade to himself and clipped it back onto his belt.
Force users? the Jedi Master wondered to himself. He had never heard reports of Arkadas employing Force users before. Clearly, there were things about this warlord that the Jedi didn't know. This was the first time in his long life that Talik had ever seen a red lightsaber blade, and he couldn't help but think it didn't bode well for this mission.
But it's too late to turn back now, Talik thought, rising from his respite. No matter what secrets Arkadas might have waiting for me, Teca VI must be freed from his grasp.
A look of resolve crossing his face, and Talik proceeded toward Kheferna'a.
At dawn he entered the village, his long shadow preceding him down the streets. A collection of young children were the first to see him, and they went before him, crying, "He has returned! The great Jedi Talik Sol has returned!"
A smile came to Talik's lips. So they remember me. Even the young ones have heard of me.
Talik turned to the closest child. The Tecans, natives here, shared the elongated skulls and thin builds of Talik Sol's own Muun race, but their skin tended towards a much bronzer hue, and their heads were covered in topknots of straight, dark hair.
"Where is your master?" Talik asked. The boy looked down. Talik turned to the street, which had begun to fill with adults as they exited their homes, drawn by their children's shouts. "Can anyone tell me where your ruler is?"
The adults and older Tecans averted their eyes. Slowly, a small boy came forward and, unspeaking, pointed toward the tallest tower of the large castle overshadowing the village.
"My old domain," muttered Talik Sol. Just as I suspected. He paused, then knelt before the young Tecan.
"Little One. The Ruler in the tall tower—does he ever come down?"
The young child shook his head slowly.
"Who enforces the law here?"
"I do," came a voice from down the street. Turning, Talik Sol watched as the newly-gathered crowd parted to reveal a tall, coarse human male striding towards him. The man wore armor over a muscular build, and had shortly cropped brown hair with a short but thick beard to match. "You can call me Referius," he said.
Master Talik Sol drew back his hood and locked eyes with the approaching figure. Though Master Janu had told him Referius was his contact, Talik felt something dark about the man. He could sense Referius was Force sensitive, and recalling his earlier encounter with the dark warriors, Talik hesitated. It seemed almost as likely that he should prepare for combat as for courtesy.
Referius lowered his head in a slight bow, and gave a military salute.
"Jedi Talik Sol of legend, I presume?"
Without taking his eyes off the man, Talik nodded. "Yes—Master Talik Sol, now."
"The Tecans here need your help. They live in constant fear of Lord Arkadas. Only you can restore freedom to these people."
"You do not count your lot with theirs?" Talik asked, noting the request did not indicate that Referius himself needed Talik's help.
Referius let out a dry, sour laugh. "I am not a Tecan, am I? Lord Arkadas brought me to this world."
"And though you enforce his law, you do not care for your master?"
Referius shook his head. "He is my master in name only. The amount of suffering he has inflicted on these people has convinced me that he has ruled long enough. His dark warriors strike during the night at those who displease him, and he has claimed the wealth of this world for himself, leaving nothing but table scraps for the Tecans. He oppresses the natives and rules with an iron fist. They deserve justice."
Talik Sol looked away. Referius's words felt scripted, but that did not mean they weren't sincere. He was still unsure if he trusted Referius, but it looked as though he had no choice.
Referius's next words interrupted his thoughts. "Come with me, Master Sol. We have plans to make."
The Jedi nodded, and followed Referius as he led him towards one of the larger homesteads and ushered him inside. Though the room had windows, they were located away from the sun at this early hour, and so the interior remained dark.
Referius offered Talik a seat at the plain wooden table in the center of the room.
"Thank you, Referius," Talik said as he took the seat. Referius remained standing.
The man wasted no time on pleasantries, and paced the room while he spoke. "I contacted you when I did because Arkadas has already moved the majority of his forces off-planet in preparation for a new conquest. He has but thirty men to guard the main entrance to his fortress. That is why we must strike now, when he is at his weakest."
"Thirty men? No force field? No automated defenses?" Talik's voice made clear his doubt at the prospect.
A pained look crossed Referius's face; he was apparently choosing his words carefully. "Arkadas's... philosophy is one that emphasizes secrecy over brute force. Teca VI is a primitive world, and any large, complex tech that could be used for defense would have to be brought from off-planet, and would therefore be traceable. Arkadas preferred to keep his location secret first and foremost. The few automated defenses that he did have in place have already been moved off-planet."
Referius came to a quick halt, his arms raised in mid-gesture. Then he turned to face Talik directly and continued. "But let me assure you, next to secrecy, Arkadas values skill. The thirty guards at the front entrance will be well-trained. I'm certain it will take everything that you and I have to overcome them."
"Just the two of us?" Talik countered, thinking of the Force users he had already faced. "I appreciate your faith in the Jedi, Referius, but the two of us are not strong enough to defeat all of Arkadas's men alone if they are trained in the Force."
A strange look crossed Referius's face. "Not all of them." He started pacing again and continued. "I am glad the Jedi sent you, Master Sol. The people of Teca VI all know of the time you spent here. You must know a secret or two that can aid us in our fight against the Dark Lord without endangering the lives of others here."
Dark Lord? Talik frowned, thinking again of the Force users he had encountered. Surely this was just another title a tyrant had bestowed upon himself?
Talik brushed the thought aside. "It seems my reputation precedes me," he said. "But how is it that the children were able to recognize me when I entered the village?"
"Why, your image is depicted in our children's storybooks," Referius answered. "They've been in existence since long before I arrived on Teca VI, telling of your exploits..."
Master Sol tried at first to suppress a grin, but recognizing he could not, gave in and allowed it to form on his lips in its entirety.
Referius stopped speaking, then asked, "How is it that you were the Watchman here long before I can remember, yet you're no older than I am?"
"I have found... methods of evading the effects of age. I was Jedi Watchman of this planet for fifteen years, all occurring before your birth. When I first came to this village, it was called Keestai, meaning—"
"—Jewel, I know. I'm fluent in the mother tongue."
"Yes. I made it my base of operation, and used to reside in the tower, now home to your 'Dark Lord.'" Master Talik Sol paused, a shiver running down his spine as he again contemplated the possible implications of that title.
"You lived in the fortress? That's not very Jedi-like," Referius said.
"Perhaps not, but the Tecans insisted upon it. My master came to this world and overthrew its former tyrant. In thanks, the Tecans offered him the tyrant's residence, the fortress. The Jedi Council felt a Jedi presence would be prudent while the Tecans formed a new government, so we accepted."
After a moment, he continued. "When my master entered the Force, I went from Chargeman to Watchman of this planet. In thanks for my service, the Tecans allowed me to rename the city, which I dubbed Kheferna'a."
Talik paused for a moment, reflecting on the past.
"The name of the city has been changed in your absence," Referius said. "It is now known as P'tanng." Talik grimaced at this news, but didn't speak up. In the mother tongue, 'P'tanng' meant 'Place of the Fallen.' He'd have to update this in the Jedi archives.
"So," Referius asked finally, once Talik had failed to fill the silence, "If you were the Watchman here, why did you leave?"
"War," Talik answered simply, then elaborated. "The Jedi were called to serve the Republic in the Elrood Conflicts. And when the Conflicts were over, our ranks were spread thin, and it was decided we could no longer spare a Watchman for every backwater world."
Master Talik Sol thought back. Back to his pain at being told he would not be returning to Teca VI. Then, years later, discovering it had been taken from the Republic by Warlord Guile. Talik had joined the forces opposing Guile in the hopes of returning to Teca VI. But it was not to be. However, Master Talik Sol had been among the taskforce that finally defeated Guile. Though it had not been his lightsaber blade that slew Guile—thinking of this, he touched the silver hilt at his side and pictured his own pale blue blade—he had witnessed it. Then, even after the Warlord's death, through strange politicking, Teca VI had failed to reenter the Republic. The Jedi Council reassigned Talik to duty on Coruscant, and when Talik opposed—
Talik shook his head, not wishing to express these thoughts aloud.
"And you've served the Jedi throughout the galaxy since?" Referius asked.
"Yes," answered Talik, perhaps a bit too hastily. Referius gave him a quizzical look. There was no way Referius could have known about Talik's years in bio-stasis. But did he suspect? It appeared not—Referius now turned away to stare out the window upon the village.
"Your past shows how much you value these people's lives," Referius said. "So again, I must ask you—surely you know a secret or two that will allow us to defeat Arkadas without putting the Tecans' lives at risk?"
Talik thought for a moment. "Are you and Arkadas aware of the secret entrances into the fortress?"
"The secret passageways throughout? Of course."
"No, not the passageways—the entrances. There are two secret entrances."
Referius paused for a moment. "I'm not," he answered. "And though I can't say for certain, I don't believe that's a secret Arkadas would keep from me."
Master Talik Sol nodded. "Good. But even if we utilize a secret entrance, even if Arkadas's forces are small right now, we still cannot do this alone."
Referius rubbed the knuckles of his right hand against his bearded cheek. "Master Sol, with all due respect, I summoned a Jedi so that I would not have to call upon these people."
"Referius, I will do my best to spare their lives, but if all we have is the two of us to capture Arkadas, then victory is far from assured."
The warrior gritted his teeth, then let out a sigh. "Alright, I'll recruit who I can."
Talik nodded. "Good. How many do you think will join our cause?"
The grizzled warrior thought for a moment. "Eight, maybe ten."
"No more than ten?" gasped the Jedi Master. "The Kheferna'a I knew would have offered a hoard of brave Tecans."
Referius offered a grin of straight but yellowed teeth. "Well then, welcome to Arkadas's P'tanng, Master Jedi."
Talik Sol could do nothing but offer a sad nod in response. "I'll give you all of today to recruit whom you can. Tonight, we shall camp near the Western Gate," Master Sol announced, "and tomorrow at dawn we will begin our trek through the forest."
"It will take all of tomorrow," Referius said.
Talik made a face of disgust. In his time on Teca VI, he had kept a well-maintained path through the forest that kept a journey on foot to a much shorter duration; by speeder, the trip could formerly have been completed in less than half a standard hour.
"In that case," Talik said, "We'll plan to camp tomorrow night just within the forest, and stage our attack the following morning."
Referius nodded. "That should work. While I'm out recruiting, you can make yourself at home in this room. But I ask you to respect that this is my home, and to stay out of the rest of the rooms."
Talik nodded. "Of course. And I thank you. You're sure that you don't want my assistance in the recruiting?"
"No, Master Jedi," Referius answered firmly. "This is my mission and my task to bear. I'll meet you at the Western Gate at sundown." And with that, he exited the homestead.
His feet heavy, Rindel shuffled up the stairway toward his room. Unbeknownst to his master, Rindel had spent a long night journeying through the forest from the nearby village, thinking of how things had turned so ill for him.
At one time Rindel had been the elected leader of this planet, only to have it conquered by Warlord Guile on his watch. Warlord Guile was at first intent on executing him, but Rindel had managed to find a way to worm himself into Guile's good graces, and became Guile's majordomo.
When the Jedi killed Warlord Guile, Rindel claimed credit and maneuvered himself back into the position of leadership, and through political manipulation managed to eliminate opposition and prevent the Republic from returning to the planet and contradicting his claims.
After some time, the Tecans grew to forgive him for his failure in character when Guile was in charge and he managed to rule the planet in relative peace. That is, until Arkadas arrived.
Arkadas was everything Guile was and more. Rindel resolved himself to resist Arkadas or die trying, but he was captured almost immediately, and rather then execute him, Arkadas forced him into submission and service. Once again Rindel found himself the majordomo of a tyrant, a despicable boot-licker who was deservably reviled by the Tecans.
But now he had a chance to redeem himself, or at the very least make an escape and try to start a new life elsewhere. Still, his fear of Arkadas made it difficult to make any true plays toward power. He was apprehensive at best about Referius and his plottings, and often worried that by helping overthrow Arkadas he might just find himself under the thumb of Arkadas's heir.
But he had no choice. The course of current events left him no other option, and at least there was some small hope that with the Jedi involved, the plan might not only be successful, but Rindel might be able to leave Teca VI... or perhaps even return to his former glory as ruler.
Rindel spent the remainder of the walk trying to strengthen his resolve and find some grain of courage. He did find some courage, and a little satisfaction, in realizing that he was plotting against his master and wandering the forest without Arkadas knowing.
At least, Rindel hoped his master did not know. Arkadas had a horrible way of discovering things Rindel wished to keep secret.
Not long ago, such sneaking around at night would have been much more difficult. But in the previous weeks, Arkadas had moved most of his forces off-planet. Rindel felt a hint of nausea as he recalled the conversation he had shared with his master nearly a month ago.
Arkadas had approached Rindel with a hint of glee in his eye. Rindel had cringed at his approach; such looks from Arkadas usually meant someone was about to experience a great deal of pain, and usually that someone was Rindel.
Arkadas had stopped and stood in silence. Unsure of himself, Rindel responded in kind, afraid to speak up for fear of a harsh reprimand. But this time, there were no threats, no physical acts of violence directed at him. Instead, his master presented him with something much worse.
It was the smile of a corpse—the smile of death itself. It carried with it the pleasure of a rancor about to feast, or a Sarlacc as it senses a bantha herd approaching unaware. It was the smile of something that would consume both body and soul, and above it sat eyes as black as the void of space itself, and perhaps ten times as cold.
Arkadas shook his head, and then suddenly burst out in a laugh. There was nothing malicious in this laugh, unlike so many others. The laugh of perverse amusement, perhaps, but not the kind of laugh the master gave when inflicting pain. Still, Rindel tensed at the sound, and though he didn't realize it until much later, he had lost control of himself in his fright and had soiled himself.
"My dear Rindel, you are by far the strangest creature I have ever met!" Arkadas chuckled. "To tremble in such a manner is unbecoming of one of my aides."
Rindel took a deep breath and tried to compose himself as best he could. Luckily, he could see that his master was not angered by his lack of dignity, so he relaxed just a bit.
"What is your pleasure, Lord Arkadas?" he asked cautiously.
Arkadas grinned wider, his eyes growing colder. Weak and pathetic. Rindel didn't need his master's supernatural powers to know what Arkadas was thinking—he saw it in his master's eyes. That's what Arkadas thought of him: that he was trivial and worthless.
"I think I've had enough of your world, Rindel," Arkadas said, his voice taking the tone of mock sadness. "I've stayed here far too long, and I feel the need to move to bigger and better things."
Rindel felt the elation of a podracer pilot entering the homestretch of a race in first place.
"Indeed," Arkadas replied. "I've already started a major deployment of my forces off-planet, and soon I too shall be gone."
Arkadas looked into Rindel's eyes, and Rindel could feel Arkadas searching him for something; hope, maybe? In turn, Rindel did his best not to betray his feelings.
"I'm sure my absence will create a void in leadership here," Arkadas stated, giving his voice a thoughtful air, still watching his servant.
Rindel's chest lightened, and he felt the hope Arkadas had been searching for. It lifted his shoulders and made him stand just a bit straighter, an internal strength stronger than the rays of Tatooine's twin suns. It was the strength of remembered dreams from better days, the glimmer of previously-held power.
"I-I'm sure someone will manage to maintain order in your absence, Master," Rindel offered hesitantly, trying to appear uninterested in taking control himself. He immediately knew he had failed miserably.
Rindel met with Arkadas's death-smile once again.
"I'm sure you're right." Arkadas turned to walk away, then stopped, his back turned to his servant.
"I shall not forget how well you have served me," he continued. "When we arrive at our new home, I'll be sure to upgrade your living quarters."
Rindel's heart sank in his chest.
"W-we, Master?" Rindel nearly spat the words out, as if his vocabulary was nothing more than vomit.
"Of course, Rindel!" Arkadas laughed. "You didn't possibly think I would leave you behind, did you?" Arkadas turned to face his servant, and Rindel could see his master's glee.
What have I done to deserve this lot in life?! Rindel internally screamed, all hope leaving him.
Arkadas gestured towards the window. "Those people out there, they have no appreciation for dedication, Rindel. They see you as a betrayer, a monster, and they would just as soon tear you apart, limb from limb, as they would look at you!
"I, on the other hand, recognize commitment and drive for excellence! Such servants as you are few and far between, and I shan't leave you here to die when you can serve me still!"
Rindel lowered his head, the reality of what his master was saying hitting him. He wanted to deny it, wanted to run, wanted to tell his master he would take his chances, but he couldn't. He knew that there was no escape, and his master knew it, too.
Arkadas turned and walked out of the chamber.
"Be prepared, Rindel, for we shall be leaving before long."
There were many times since Arkadas conquered the planet that Rindel wished he was dead, but at that moment such wishes had evaporated for all eternity. He already lived the life of a walking corpse. There would be little difference between his present life and his state after death.
Then Referius approached him about a plot to overthrow Arakadas, and he immediately agreed to take part. He had no other option.
Reaching the top of the stairs, Rindel proceeded down the hallway, opened his door, and collapsed into his bed. With any luck, his master would not summon him for a few hours, and he could catch up on some much-needed sleep.
But luck, it would seem, was not with him today. Not five minutes had passed when Rindel heard a crisp knocking at his door.
"Yes?" he called hoarsely.
The door opened, revealing one of the few guards who remained on Teca VI.
"Rindel, Lord Arkadas requests your presence in the main tower overlooking the village. He bids you hurry," the guard said.
"Th-thank you, soldier," Rindel responded, forcing himself to stand. A servant's work was never done.
Rindel hurried down hallways and up flights of stairs until he arrived at the designated tower. Arkadas stood with his back to the door, gazing out the main window.
His weariness replaced with fear, Rindel slowly approached his master. The hooded figure gazed calmly into the distance, his hands clasped behind him. From this height, Rindel could make out the crowd of people who surrounded a newly-arrived Muun Jedi.
"The Jedi have come, Lord Arkadas!" Rindel said, his stomach in knots as it always was when he addressed his master. The shock of seeing the Jedi had caused him to speak out of turn. Catching himself, he tried to eliminate all hope from his voice as he spoke again, leaving only the fear. "Shall I go make preparations for your departure?"
"Not so fast, Rindel," the cloaked figure responded calmly. "I prefer to see what our visitor intends to do. Come watch with me."
Rindel took his place at his master's side, biting his lip to keep from whimpering. He looked back out the window, wringing his hands in a vain attempt to alleviate his discomfort. Though he had been quite tired minutes before, being in his master's presence kept him wide awake.
"If I may say so, my lord, I feel that someone as important as yourself should take the Jedi as a serious threat." Rindel cringed, waiting for his master to lash out at his comment. Seeing his master do nothing, Rindel continued before he could lose courage. "I've heard many stories of them; they have superhuman ability! Most of our forces have gone already, and I fear the remaining forces cannot stand against a Jedi! I don't want to see you killed! Let us flee, Lord Arkadas!"
Though Rindel knew his master had great powers, he had no doubt Arkadas wouldn't bother to utilize them for Rindel's protection. All thoughts of freedom had evaporated as his cowardice took over. If he could just prod Arkadas to leave the planet now, taking his guards and servants with him, then Rindel knew he could survive without ever having to encounter the Jedi. Mere weeks before, Arkadas had been so set on leaving Teca VI. Now, with most of Arkadas's forces gone and a Jedi planetside, his master could do nothing but stare out the window.
The cloaked figure gave Rindel a brief look, then turned back to the window. "Look there, Rindel," said Arkadas. "It seems we have been betrayed."
Rindel looked out to see a figure walking towards the Jedi. His face became one of recognition, and his eyes widened, and his breath left him. He quickly regained himself. "Isn't that your apprentice, my lord?"
"Yes," Arkadas replied. "It seems Lord Referius has an agenda of his own. I'll see to hi—"
Arkadas stopped short. Rindel recognized Arkadas's behavior; he was utilizing his powers. Slowly, a grin played across Arkadas's cruel face.
"My lord?" Rindel whimpered, certain that Arkadas had sensed the plot and Rindel's part in it.
Arkadas turned towards Rindel. "Go to the antechamber and make preparations for a feast," he said. "We shall have company. A celebration is in order."
Rindel's face dropped suddenly, sweat oozing out of his troubled brow, his anxiety now joined with complete relief and profound disbelief. "You intend to dine with the Jedi? If I may say so, my lo—"
Rindel immediately stopped. Arkadas's eyes turned red and yellow, the grin now a ferocious scowl. The atmosphere in the room became extremely tense. Rindel felt every hair on his body stand on end, and he began to shake in fright. "I'll tend to it, my lord!"
As he scurried towards the door, an armored soldier rushed into the room, obviously out of breath.
"Lord Arkadas!" the soldier panted. "We have received reports from our advance scouts that Marr Phes's ship, the Hadrian, has entered the atmosphere of Teca VI and is approaching this location."
"I know," Arkadas said casually. "Launch all our remaining fighters. Force him to land—shoot him down, if you must."
"As you wish, my lord. What do you wish for us to do about the crowd gathering down in the village?"
Arkadas turned to face the soldier. "Leave them be. Fortify the front entrance and tell the soldiers to be ready to act if necessary."
The soldier snapped to attention. "Yes, my lord." He saluted, turned sharply, and exited. Rindel took the opportunity to follow the soldier.
As the door slammed shut behind him, Rindel could barely hear Arkadas mumble to himself.
"So it begins."
"Kyba! Two fighters coming in portside!"
Jedi Knight Kyba'rev'Sarnic raced to the rear cannons, responding to Marr Phes's yell. Anger welled up in the Devaronian Jedi's chest. He didn't know why Marr had forced him to come to this backwater planet anyway. Teca VI was not going to bring him any closer to hunting down the Sith.
A blast rocked the ship just as Kyba leapt into the gunner's seat.
"Kyba! I need you back there, now!" Marr Phes yelled.
"Calm down! I'm here!" Kyba yelled. He let loose a string of fire on the nearest ship, causing it to break off its attack.
Kyba gritted his teeth. He still wasn't convinced that the Sith even existed, no matter what Marr said; this whole thing felt like a pit stop on a fool's errand. He wanted to be reassigned back to hunting down Arkadas. That was a mission he was sure he could resolve.
Such thoughts are not Jedi thoughts, he reminded himself. His emotions always seemed to get the best of him, creating in him a bloodlust that was never quite satisfied. He managed to control it and prevent the Jedi from seeing it. If they sensed it in him, they obviously thought he had it well under control. He reminded himself that if the Jedi Council wanted him investigating the Sith, then that was his mission—no matter the likelihood that it was a dead end.
Kyba swung the rear cannon around and brought it to bear on the other port-side fighter. It, too, dropped back now, joining the one that had previously attacked.
But now he saw another fighter approaching from starboard.
"Marr," he called, "There's another fighter coming in. Three against one odds—are you sure the Hadrian will hold together?"
"She will with me piloting," Marr responded.
The fighters were coming in closer now. Forced to make a decision, Kyba concentrated his cannon on the two portside fighters. The bloodlust welled up in him again, but he fought it down, forcing himself to remain emotionless as he continued to fire.
The starboard ship opened fire.
Two shots rocked the Hadrian before Marr Phes reacted, swinging the ship hard onto a vector outside the line of fire. A laugh emitted from the cockpit.
Phes would enjoy this, Kyba thought to himself. He swung the cannon towards the starboard fighter and fired, catching it dead-on. A small explosion emitted from one of its engines, and the fighter began losing altitude and trailing smoke.
"Got him!" Kyba yelled.
His victory celebration was short-lived, however, as the two portside fighters separated and opened fire in earnest.
Marr juked the ship to the right, pitching Kyba off-balance and slamming his horns into the wall beside him. The Jedi Knight quickly grabbed hold of the gun emplacement and brought himself back into position. One of the fighters was gaining altitude and now fired down upon the Hadrian. Kyba focused on the fighter that was more immediately behind them; it seemed an easier target.
As Marr brought the ship into a steep bank, Kyba sent a few bursts of laserfire at the nearest ship. It took some hits, but managed to keep flying. Now Kyba shifted his attention to the fighter above them. Swinging the cannon to point straight at it, he squeezed the trigger and let loose another stream of laserfire. The fighter barrel-rolled out of the way and responded by shooting directly at Kyba's gun emplacement. Marr dropped the ship down a few meters, keeping the damage to a minimum. Still, Kyba scowled. He didn't appreciate being shot at.
He swung the cannon up once again and unleashed a hailstorm of fire. As the fighter continued to dodge, Kyba felt the anger welling up inside his chest.
I want him, Kyba goaded himself on, squeezing the trigger tighter. And I've almost got him.
Kyba leaned forward, anticipating the kill.
The Hadrian rocked.
"Kyba, what're you doing back there?" Marr Phes shouted. "We're taking fire from the fighter behind us!"
Kyba looked and saw that what Phes said was true. By focusing so intently on the one fighter, he had completely neglected the other.
And, he reminded himself, I let myself get caught up in my anger.
Kyba took a deep breath and removed his finger from the trigger. He needed to let go of his anger before he fired upon the other ship. He couldn't make it personal.
Kyba was thrown forward, chin slamming against the cannon and further opening the cut on his lip.
"We've lost our main engine!" Marr screamed from the cockpit.
"What?!" Kyba gasped, as silvery blood trickled down from a gash on his red-skinned jaw.
"You heard me—we're going down!"
Kyba cursed himself.If he had only been able to continue firing...
As the shipped rocked to one side, he realized he had to focus on his present circumstances rather than dwell on his past. He strapped himself in and braced for a rough landing. Life with Marr Phes was always an adventure, but rarely did he and Kyba seem to get in over their heads so quickly.
As the surface of Teca VI rushed up at him, Kyba only hoped that this would in the end make another great story to tell, rather than one for others to recount about how he met his demise.
"Yer insane if you think you'll be takin' me and mine fer your crazy idea!" the old man yelled at Referius from his doorway. "Now get yerself gone, before I call the guards on yeh!"
"But don't you see? This is your—" Referius instinctively moved as the old man slammed the door in his face. "—chance?"
Referius sighed, rubbing his unshaven chin with a hand worn not by advanced age, but by a hard life. He had knocked on nearly every door in the city, trying to find people who were willing to stand against Arkadas. This man was already the exception; most slammed the door at hello. More than a few called for the guards the moment he mentioned fighting. He had given up trying to find the fittest candidates. It was now a matter of finding someone—anyone—to take up arms.
It didn't take long for Referius to understand exactly how well Arkadas had subjugated the populace. True, after living here for so many years, he should have known. But he had always assumed that somewhere, deep down, the some of the Tecans still wished to fight. Apparently, he had been wrong. Every single person he tried talking to was acting purely out of fear; he could feel it through the Force. But he had sensed something else. Hope—hope that he would somehow succeed in his venture. Unfortunately, that hope met with an undercurrent of despair that overwhelmed and crushed it. If Referius went through with this and failed, Arkadas would surely take it out on the populace. Perhaps it would be another mass execution to show the Tecans who was in charge, and the price of collusion.
It only took a few city blocks before Referius was reminded of how quickly news travelled here. People ducked into any and every doorway at his approach. Lights were put out, and more than once he heard door locks engaged as he drew near. The old man aside, it seemed to Referius that people feared even associating with him.
And with good reason, Referius admitted to himself.
Understanding didn't build a militia, though, and Referius was running out of time. He only had one neighborhood left before the entire village was exhausted. He held some small optimism; this section of town was the seediest part, the most likely place to find mercenaries and thugs, people on the run from Arkadas's law, or maybe just a few rebellious beings looking for a cause. He held some small hope, but he knew it was just as likely to be a bust as everywhere else.
And if he found no one willing to fight, what then? Did he and the Jedi stand any chance of dispatching Arkadas themselves?
I should be taking care of Arkadas by myself, he reminded himself. If it did end up being just him and the Jedi, it would have to suffice. He sighed. It seemed he had just assumed that all he would need to do was summon the Jedi, and Arkadas would disappear. Now he was seeking to bring the natives into the fight—natives who could lose their lives—all because Referius was not strong enough to defeat his master alone.
And what of Arkadas's secret, buried deep in the castle? A boy, strong in the Force. A boy who embraced evil. No one here knew about him, but Referius did. He had even met the boy once, and it had taken a week for the chill to leave his bones. What would he and the Jedi do with the boy? Worse yet, what could the boy do with them?
The thought did nothing to improve his outlook. All Referius could do was continue knocking on doors and hold on to whatever hope could still be found on this forsaken world.
Marr Phes slammed his fist against the control panel of the Hadrian. His crash landing had been more-or-less successful; he had spotted a clearing and had managed to bring the ship down softly enough to walk away from. But the damage they had sustained from that fighter's lasers would keep the Hadrian from flying again anytime soon.
"Stang!" Marr cursed, slamming his fist down once again. Years ago, he would have been able to avoid getting shot down like this. If he could only give in to his anger like he used to, he knew the Force would become his tool to implement, and he wouldn't have to deal with the humiliation of being out-flown. All he had to do was call upon that anger again.
But no; Marr Phes had renounced the dark side and everything else he had learned under the tutelage of his Sith Master long ago. He had forced that anger back down inside of himself, no longer allowing it to dictate his actions. Nevertheless, he knew that his anger still existed within him, a pot simmering inside his chest.
Right now, that pot threatened to boil over.
Leaping up from his seat, Marr turned and yelled back behind him, "Kyba! Are you alright?"
"Fine," came the weak reply.
Marr grumbled and worked his way back to the rear gun emplacement, shaking his shoulder-length hair away from his scarred face with a growl of frustration.
"Stang, Kyba, the Hadrian won't be airborne again unless I can find parts to repair her," Marr said.
Kyba emerged from the gun emplacement and stepped onto the main deck of the Hadrian.
"Yeah... Sorry I couldn't hold off those kriffing fighters," Kyba said, shame in his voice.
"It's not your fault. I just wish I could still fly like I used to," Marr answered, disgusted.
"Marr," Kyba said, "It's okay. You've got to let your anger go."
"Letting my anger go isn't going to get the Hadrian airborne," Marr Phes countered.
Marr sighed. He and Kyba had been friends for years, and Marr knew that he would not have escaped the dark side's hold on him without Kyba's help. But sometimes he wondered if Kyba understood how much Marr still struggled with the dark side. Not a day went by that he didn't still feel it calling to him, reminding him of his former power.
"C'mon, my friend, let's step outside and see how much damage she's sustained," Marr said. He reached over and flipped a large switch on the wall, lowering the exit ramp. Hopping down, Marr led the way outside and into the thick forest of Teca VI.
Kyba let out a low whistle.
"Fierfek, Marr, we're lucky you found this clearing," Kyba said. "This forest is denser than a Wookiee's scalp."
"Yeah, well, we're not out of the gundark's nest yet," Marr answered. Looking up at the sky, he continued, "We're lucky, though. The Hadrian doesn't seem to have trailed too much smoke. They're going to be hard-pressed to discover where we landed."
Marr took a deep breath as he prepared to turn and examine his ship. The Hadrian was his pride and joy; he would kill himself with grief if they couldn't get her flying again. Steeling himself, he turned to examine his crimson ship more closely. As his gaze fell upon the rear engines, he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Look," he said, pointing at the engines, "it's not as bad as I thought it might be. The main repulsor generator's damaged beyond repair, but I think the engine itself is intact. We just have to replace the generator."
"You have a way of getting us the parts we need?" Kyba asked.
"It's not going to be easy," Marr answered. "I've got a lot of enemies on this planet."
"No kidding," Kyba said, gesturing towards the damaged frame of the Hadrian.
Marr thought for a moment. His biggest obstacle to repairing the Hadrian would be Aiko; he'd have to avoid the man at all costs. Marr tensed. Just thinking of Aiko made his pulse rise, and he found himself fingering the lightsaber hanging from his belt.
None of the acolytes here would act on their own. Even if they had the resources, none would aid him without the permission of their master. They were all pawns of Arkadas.
Which left Marr one option. His breath caught in his throat. Was he really willing to meet up with his former master? Marr shook his head. It was his only remaining option.
"Kyba," he announced, "I need you to stay with the Hadrian. The pilots who shot us down could come looking for us, and we need someone here to take care of them—and to guard my ship."
"Sure thing, boss," Kyba said with a smirk.
"And Kyba—they could be Force-sensitive."
Kyba gave Marr a quizzical look. "Alright... If you say so. You know where you're going?"
Marr swallowed. "Yeah. I'll probably be gone overnight. See you tomorrow."
Marr turned and trotted into the thick forest, thinking to himself. Out of the gundark's nest and into the krayt dragon's belly.
The sun is shining brightly on the field. It is a beautiful day, and he runs through the field, laughing. He can't recall any other time in his life he has felt so care-free, such joy.
He stops and looks around. Off in the distance he sees the fortress, his home. How he has grown to love Teca VI and its people! They welcomed him, treated him as if he was one of their own, it was like being a part of a—
...a family. It is all so new and so wonderful. He knows such things would be frowned on by the Jedi Council, but they are so far away, and everything here is so immediate, so fragrant, so intoxicating. Well, what the Jedi do not know will hurt no one.
He catches motion out of the corner of his eye, heading into the tree line. He turns and starts running again, grinning from ear to ear. He vaguely recalls how unusual it feels to smile, how he had only done so out of polite courtesy before, a smile strictly of form and function but devoid of emotion. But that was a different time, a different life. Now his smiles have meaning, and they come often and freely, and in these days it feels unusual not to smile.
He enters the tree line and looks again. Nothing. He stops and calms himself, stretching out with the Force. He senses a lifeform hiding behind a tree not ten meters from his right. His smile growing wider, he leaps into the air, vaulting a branch in the tree and dropping behind the woman hiding below.
She turns to face him. She is startled at first, and then she giggles. His smile fades as his jaw drops. He is in awe of her. It is she who is smiling wide now, and the sun is reaching through the branches and caressing her golden hair, making it shine and glitter like a supernova.
He is breathless. He has always been stunned by her beauty, but in this moment he fully understands that there is nothing in the universe that could ever be more beautiful, more inspiring then the woman he sees before him.
She steps closer to him, and he opens his arms to her, their lips coming together in a lover's embrace. Nothing could taste sweeter then her lips, and in this moment he feels more alive than he ever thought possible. Being one with the Force is nothing compared to being one with her.
He lowers to the ground, and gently takes her with him. Nothing else in the galaxy matters but her, his lover, his soulmate. He loves her, and she loves him, and they are lovers, and they are together, and nothing can ever take that away. He would never allow it. As long as she will have him, he is hers, and nothing will ever change that.
The sun sank towards the mountains in the distance, coloring the sky in various shades of red. Master Talik Sol began his approach to the Western Gate, arriving just as the sun disappeared, its exit ushering in dusk.
In the fading light, the Muun Jedi could make out five figures before him. One, a native, sat in the dirt with mud smeared on his face, and even the briefest observation made it known he was playing a solitary card game without a full deck. He was tall and thin, even lanky, and looked as though he hadn't seen true combat once in his life. The next recruit, a white-furred Togorian, looked more promising. He stood at attention and appeared battle-hardened. Talik shifted his gaze to the next recruit, a near-human, who sat on a straw bale picking his teeth with a metal knife blade. His glowing yellow eyes peered out through stringy black hair, and even with the limited lighting Talik could see how pale his skin was. A young Tecan boy stood next to the bale with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. He couldn't be more than fifteen, just entering Tecan adolescence.
"Disappointed?" Referius asked from his position at the end of the line. In the remaining light from the now-set sun, Referius looked even more haggard than usual. He rubbed the knuckles of his right hand against his grizzled cheek.
"You've only managed to recruit four troops, Referius?" Master Sol asked, a hint of worry in his voice. "I had certainly hoped for better."
Referius set his jaw and fixed Talik with a determined stare. "You are not the first to wish the defeat of Lord Arkadas, nor the first to lead resistance. The Tecans know what they are up against."
Talik sighed. "So, who do we have?"
Referius slowly pointed to and introduced the beings in the same order Talik Sol had evaluated them. "Your company: May I introduce the self-titled Baron Jak Resta-Ja, Grom, Vade Fortowun, and Darzik."
"My friends call me Saves," Vade Fortowun said in a soft, oily voice.
"Why is that?" asked Talik.
Vade smiled, his yellow eyes widening. "Because, faith is what saves."
Talik turned to the youth standing next to Vade. "And you?" he asked Darzik. "What do your friends call you?"
Darzik, by far the youngest of the group, looked up at him. He was a bit overweight for the reed-thin Tecans, but his build actually made him look more athletic than anything else.
"I have no friends. Well, other than Referius," said Darzik.
"You think he is a friend?" barked Baron Jak Resta-Ja, wiping his dirty hands on opposite sleeves. "You think he cares what happens to you? He is only after his own goals!"
Grom, the Togorian, looked up, flexing a hairy paw as he did so. Of the four that Referius had brought to Talik, Grom was easily the most polished. He towered over the others, and his straight-backed posture and grim expression suggested this would not be his first combat mission. Even his armor, though aged, looked high quality.
"Then why would you fight alongside him, Jak?" Grom asked.
"Because it's the only fight around," Jak shot back.
Talik approached him. "That's not good enough, Jak. If you're to fight with me, I need to know why you'd be willing to put your life on the line."
Jak met his gaze with pain in his eyes. "Everything I could be, Arkadas stole from me. I have nothing left to lose. Is that good enough for you, Jedi?"
Talik nodded, satisfied. Then he looked up into the muscled, feline face of the Togorian. "What about you, Grom? Why do you fight?"
Grom gazed down at his paws, clearly struggling to form the right words. "Because... it's what I'm good at. And I like feeling useful. ...And the cause is just."
Talik proceeded down the line. "And you, Saves? You're clearly not from Teca VI. These aren't your people. You don't owe anything to anybody."
"Except to myself." The conviction in the pale figure's voice was unmistakable.
Finally, Talik reached the young Tecan. "Darzik, why is one your age offering himself for battle?"
Darzik's scowl deepened. "I may be young, but I can fight just as well as you!"
Talik Sol smiled inwardly, but was careful to keep it from migrating to his lips. He certainly didn't want to offend the boy.
"I did not question your ability, young one. Only your motives."
"I have no one. No one to care for me, and no one to care about me. Maybe it's time I proved I'm worth caring about to my people."
Talik took a moment to digest this, then nodded. All four of the troops sounded reliable. Under normal circumstances, he might hesistate to accept help from some who were so clearly new to the battlefield, but this was not a normal mission. His personal care for Teca VI meant that he was committed to succeeding at all costs, and he currently needed every man he could get.
Talik looked at Referius. "You can furnish these men with weapons?" he asked. Referius nodded. "In that case, I recommend we move just beyond the outskirts of town to set up camp."
Referius nodded to Grom, who snapped to attention. "All right men, let's move out!"
"Who appointed you leader, shine boy?" Jak barked.
Saves started making a hissing noise, which Talik realized was laughter.
"The Baron apparently thinks he should command," Saves said.
"And why not?" Jak Resta-Ja asked. "I outrank all of you!"
"That's enough!" Referius said. "Everyone, let's get to the campsite."
Master Talik Sol ignited a glowrod as they made their way down the street. In the new light, he again examined each soldier. The Togorian, Grom, was clearly an offworlder. No one here could have gained the battle-readiness his body language portrayed. Jak, a native, was just as clearly not a suitable warrior. Talik hoped he would at least prove competent, but was far from assured of such. Vade "Saves" Fortowun spoke in the raspy whisper of one who was not to be trusted, but what he had spoken of great faith had left Talik convinced that Saves was in fact reliable, at least in this situation. He only hoped that the man proved decent in combat.
Master Talik Sol's eyes fell upon Darzik. In the light from his glowrod, he could tell that there was something familiar about him. Talik could see some human in him, some Tecan, and even some... Muun?
"Darzik!" Talik called, but the boy was busy stepping into line behind Grom. He tried again.
"Darzik, can I have a word with you?" The young boy looked confused, but nodded and dropped back from the rest of the group.
Talik took a deep breath. He didn't want to get his hopes up, but Darzik might be the link that connected his past to his present. The boy might be able to fill in the gaps in Talik's own fuzzy knowledge of history. And maybe, just maybe, Darzik could point him in the direction of what he'd been searching for all along.
Kyba'rev'Sarnic gazed out the frontal viewport of the Hadrian at the landscape of Teca VI.
Ever since landing here, he had felt uneasy. He had dismissed it as anticipation of hostiles finding the ship and inevitable combat, maybe even a Sith showing up, ready to fight. But nothing had approached, and though he never sensed any danger, still the unease lingered.
Surrendering himself to the Force and lowering his head, Kyba shut his eyes. Almost immediately, he sensed the dark side, radiating from the Draykonwol trees that surrounded him. Well, that would explain the uneasy feeling, he thought.
Ignoring it, he went deeper into the Force. Even through durasteel, he felt the near-floral scent that was also emitting from the trees, inviting him, and the trees seemed much more alive now, whispering ancient secrets of souls come and gone. He sensed the musky air on the outskirts of the forest, where it thinned and revealed the soil beneath, pulsing with nuances imprinted by the confident steps of Marr Phes. Kyba's eyes opened. The Devaronian Knight had indeed grown strong.
Kyba turned and strode towards the nav computer, then parted his robe to the side and sat. His fingers danced around the keys, bringing up a detailed map of his surroundings. His pilot had a plethora of system maps aboard his pristine ship that would rival those of the Jedi Archives. Kyba wondered what important business his companion could be taking care of on such a grim planet. Per Kyba's request, Phes had promised to lead him to the alleged Sith, but Kyba was going to be forced to endure several business stops along the way in order to track the Sith Lord down. Teca VI was the first.
Marr Phes, Kyba thought. He had been friends with the wayward Force user turned opportune businessman for years. Phes had always been a valuable contact, full of information that others wanted to keep secret. So, after being assigned to discern the location of Overlord Arkadas, conqueror of a hundred systems, Kyba's first stop had been a cantina on Feriae Junction where he could consult his old friend.
Kyba had arrived disguised as a warlord representing a spice cartel. He put out the word that he was looking for smugglers, then took a seat at a table in the back of the cantina.
He didn't have to wait long. Marr Phes soon came sauntering over, taking a seat across from Kyba and propping his boots up on the table between them. Phes worked as a bouncer at this cantina, but often took smuggling jobs on the side.
"Lord Elver," Marr said with a grin, using Kyba's alias, "it looks like you've put on a few pounds since we last met."
Kyba grinned, glancing down at the enlarged belly he wore as part of his disguise. "What can I say, Marr? The years have been good to this spice warlord."
"But your eye, Lord Elver!" Marr cried, indicating Kyba's fake prosthetic—another component of the disguise. "Surely you didn't meet a combatant who could equal your fighting skills?"
"One combatant? It was three!" Kyba answered, making it up as he went. "Sure, the first two were no problem. But the third would've rivaled the strength of a juiced-up Wookiee with the training of... well, me." Kyba threw out a smile. Phes's face brightened.
Their conversation was interrupted as a waitress walked up with a plate full of food.
"Here you are, Lord Elver," she said, placing a steaming plate of Rokarian dirt-fish before him.
Marr laughed. "You eat like no one I've ever met in my life. Only the Force knows how you remain so fit."
With a grin, Kyba dug into the food, slurping loudly.
"You've got the manners of a Gamorrean, you know that?" Marr continued
"At least I don't have the looks of one," Kyba retaliated.
With a quick glance behind him to make sure they were alone, Marr leaned in close and said, "Well, kark, Kyba, what brings you back to Junction?"
"Something in your neck of the galaxy this time, you son of a murglak," Kyba answered. "I'm trying to learn what planet Overlord Arkadas is ruling his territory from."
Marr's eyebrows shot up, but the man said nothing. Hoping to prompt a response, Kyba continued. "I've spent days meditating, but the Force won't reveal to me where he is."
"Perhaps the masters of your order should have informed you that in fact you are in control of the Force, Jedi Kyba," Marr Phes said absent-mindedly. The two often jested about the nature of the Force, but Marr's mind was clearly elsewhere.
Now Kyba leaned forward. "What is it, Marr? Do you know?"
Marr gave a slow nod. "I spent years in Arkadas's territory. That's where I learned how to wield the dark side." Marr paused for a moment. "That's where I was trained by a Sith."
Kyba was taken aback. He and Marr Phes had been through a lot together. Over several years they had developed a close friendship. However, while Kyba had long known that Phes was trained in the dark side of the Force, Marr had never said anything about the Sith. He didn't believe it, but at the same time he couldn't believe his friend would lie to him.
"You were trained by a Sith?!" Kyba asked. "Marr, what are you talking about? The Sith are long extinct!"
"That's what your arrogant Jedi Masters tell you, huh?" Marr replied. "You think the Sith can be defeated so easily? Can stay dead?"
"Look, Marr, I know you take training where you can get it, and we've talked about some dabbling in the dark side you've done, and I always thought it was nothing more then that. But the Sith? That's much more intense then dabbling. The Sith required full commitment and let no one go. And do you really think they could have stayed hidden for so long? Surely it was just someone who fancied himself a Sith Lord?"
Marr sat back, his face turning dark. He shook his head emphatically. "You should know I'm not that naïve. As far as staying hidden goes, the dark side offers many tricks to aid with that. And the Sith aren't what they were—they're much stronger now. Before, their power was diluted among many who called themselves Sith. But after the Battle of Ruusan, the lone surviving Sith, Darth Bane, instituted a rule requiring there be no more than two Sith at a time. It concentrates their power... and it makes them much harder for your Jedi to discover."
"If what you're saying is true, Marr, then it's bigger than Overlord Arkadas," Kyba said. "This needs to be looked into."
"You want me to take you to a Sith Lord?" Marr asked, incredulous.
Kyba nodded. "If you really were trained by one, Marr, then I need to look into this. Could you take me to him?"
Marr leaned back in his chair, deep in thought. For a long while, he said nothing. Finally, he leaned forward.
"Alright, Jedi Kyba," he said. "I'll take you to the Sith who trained me. We'll just knock on his door and waltz in."
Kyba sighed. "I need you to help me do this, Marr. This person needs to be stopped, especially if he is a Sith."
"That would be foolish," Marr said. "As soon as I get near him, I could end up right back where I was."
"Or, you could finally claim a victory over the dark side and put your past behind you," Kyba leaned in, his face concerned. "Please, Marr. We can do this….we need to do this."
Marr threw his hands up in the air. "Fine, but let's get a few things clear. Number one, I call the shots. You're riding with me, on my ship, in my territory. So you'll do as I say. And number two, if you're riding with me, you can't expect me to take us straight there. I have other things to attend to, as well. Business things. So you'll have to be patient. We clear?"
Kyba nodded. "Alright, those are fair terms." Kyba rose and raised his voice, suddenly back in character. "You're hired! We need to leave immediately, or I'm docking your pay!"
Even thinking back on it now, Kyba was astounded. If Marr had been trained by the Sith, how had he kept it a secret for so long? It made Kyba question a number of things about his relationship with Marr—while not their friendship, certainly a number of Force techniques his friend had taught him. Throughout their experiences together, they had learned much from each other. Over time, the Jedi Knight had helped heal some of the scars on Phes's soul, his teachings helping to defeat the anger and hate that resided within. Phes, meanwhile, had taught Kyba a thing or two about immense power. And, Kyba quietly admitted to himself, the dark side.
But not just the dark side—the way of the Sith. Were the techniques Phes had taught him even more sinister than he had thought?
Who was influencing who more?
Kyba shook his head. This all hinged on Marr actually being trained by the Sith. Though Phes claimed the ancient Sith Order survived to the present day, Kyba remained skeptical.
Nevertheless, after his conversation with Marr, Kyba had contacted the Council without his friend's knowledge—Marr would never understand his bringing the Jedi Order proper into this—and they had agreed with his decision to halt his work on Arkadas and instead pursue the lead on the Sith Order. This charge brought with it both relief and frustration.
Are they blind? Do they not sense my struggles? Hunt down a possible Sith with a possible Sith apprentice? Why is their judgement so off?
Still, the Devaronian Knight hated to admit it to himself, but he took no pleasure in posing as a warlord peddling spice, yearning instead for combat and soon after, resolution.Yet, although this new mission held promise of just these things, he feared that it was nothing but a wild bantha chase, and the delay puts his chances of finding Arkadas at risk. In his heart of hearts, despite his friendship with Phes, Kyba was convinced that the Sith didn't truly exist anymore.
Certainly, Phes must have learned how to wield the Force from some dark master. But such a threat as the Sith could not have stayed quiet for so long without the Jedi knowing. He longed to complete this mission and resume his pursuit of Arkadas, a mission that could truly prove fruitful. It wasn't that Kyba desired conflict. But he did desire the sort of resolution only a lightsaber could bring.
Flicking on a small holoprojector he pulled from his robe, Kyba watched blue light escape from its technical prison, erupting into a hologram of a dark hooded figure.
"Arkadas," the valiant Knight muttered. Kyba had been one of several operatives working in cohesion to hunt down and depose the warlord. He had not heard from Master Sol in weeks, not since Kyba had told Talik that he was now charged with following up on a lead regarding the Sith Order. Kyba assumed their lack of contact meant Talik had been making progress. Having fought alongside the fellow Jedi in the past, he knew Talik could more than hold his own.
He leaned back and stared at the still image, his brows deepening, his left hand meeting the hilt of his lightsaber under his grey robes. He thumbed the cold pommel, a sudden fury rising in him, begging to be unleashed. It didn't matter to him that they were dark thoughts. Perhaps he should have recited the Jedi Code. Perhaps he should have called upon the tutelage the grand masters of the Jedi had instilled in him. Perhaps, even, he should have left the forest and its insidious influence. But he didn't much want to. All Kyba could think about was driving his azure blade through the dark being.
A mere arrest will not serve justice, Kyba told himself. Such morbid thoughts let his anger lead him back to memories of old. Villains would not have the best of him again. Jedi Kyba's dark trance ended abruptly as he crushed the holoprojector in his grasp.
Sighing, Kyba composed himself, reprimanding himself and letting his anger go. He opened his palm and allowed the broken parts to spill onto the floor of the Hadrian.
He hoped Marr would have the resources to repair the ship soon. While he wished that his friend wasn't so secretive about what they were doing on Teca VI or who Marr was meeting with, Kyba understood the desire to keep matters private.
A low buzzing reached the Jedi's ears. He cocked his head, listening. The sound grew louder. Slowly turning, Kyba hit the switch to lower the ramp, then walked down it and outside.
Glancing up at the sky, Kyba could tell that the buzzing noise came from a fighter passing over the area, looking for his downed ship.
They hadn't found him yet. But they would. And when they did, he'd be ready.
After traveling in hyperspace with Kyba for the last five days, Marr Phes found the smell of Teca VI's lush forest both intoxicating and refreshing. It had been a long time since he'd last set foot on this planet, and in truth he had missed it very much. He had almost forgotten how strongly the air buzzed with an energy that made his skin tingle. The dark side was immensely powerful here—the enormous Draykonwol trees saw to that.
Though not natural to Teca VI, the trees had been brought here two hundred years ago. They began as only a few trees that quickly grew and multiplied, eventually becoming a huge forest. Phes knew that they were killing off all other plant life, and if left unchecked, would eventually cover every square inch of the planet.
Marr remained unsure of the welcome he'd receive. If he bumped into Aiko, it was sure to prove hostile. But even if he managed to avoid Aiko, his welcome from Arkadas could prove just as deadly.
Marr shuddered. Arkadas had surely only grown in power since they had last met, and Marr had nearly lost his life at that meeting. The lightsaber wounds on his chest and back still burned from time to time, and the scars on his face served as a reminder of their last confrontation every time he looked in the mirror, but his deepest wounds were psychological. It had been infuriating to realize that even at his best, Arkadas still far outmatched him. Now that his dark side use was out of practice, he had no doubt that if Arkadas wished him dead, he wouldn't survive this encounter. He only hoped that Arkadas wouldn't then hunt down Marr's ship, find Kyba, and destroy him as well.
Despite his status as a Jedi, Kyba had always been a good friend to Marr. Though his training by Arkadas had instilled in him a hatred for all things Jedi, Marr had managed to make an exception in the case of Kyba. For Marr, Kyba was a friend first and a Jedi second. In truth, he hardly even thought of his traveling companion as a Jedi—Kyba seemed much more independent of the Jedi Council and the Order itself than Marr's mental picture of the typical Jedi. Kyba often operated independently of the Jedi Council; he knew Marr hated their meddling, and so had undertaken this mission to locate the Sith without the Council's involvement or knowledge.
Should I have told Kyba what we're up against? Should I have even brought him along? Marr wondered. He had long yearned to return here. When Kyba had come to him and said he was looking for Arkadas, Marr had been unable to restrain himself from telling Kyba of his training at the hands of the Sith. He felt such a complex mix of pride and shame about that training that he himself could not anticipate how he would feel about it from one moment to the next. He was incredibly proud of the power he had attained—of how great a force to be reckoned with he had become. Yet he also felt immense shame at the darkness into which he had entered to achieve that power. He struggled daily to come to terms with the fact that his greatest achievement had come at the price of great evil within himself.
So, though Marr had revealed to Kyba his Sith training, he had been careful to never say that Arkadas and his former Sith Master were one and the same. He told himself he had come back to destroy Arkadas and with him all record of Marr's own dark past. But Marr knew that there was a part of him that didn't yet want the Sith destroyed, a part that was still loyal to the Sith cause, however deep he had buried it. It was the same part of him that enjoyed the energy of the Draykonwol trees, despite how much he hated himself for it.
He knew that he could never regain his former strength without once again bowing before Arkadas and pledging himself to the Dark Master. Would he do it? Marr wasn't sure. But he was sure that as long as Arkadas lived, he would still have that option.
For now, Kyba had no idea that this was anymore than a business stop of Marr's. He had no idea that Arkadas or a Sith Lord dwelled on Teca VI, let alone that they were the same individual.
Lost in thought, Marr looked up to discover he had nearly reached his former master's private courtyard.
Marr came to a stop, steeling himself. His former master had always had an incredible ability to manipulate him; the old man always seemed to maneuver Marr into feeling just how Arkadas wanted him to feel. And here, where the lure of the dark side was so strong amidst the power of the Draykonwol trees, he knew he could not risk falling victim to his master's ploys. His first loyalty was to Kyba, and only after that could he concern himself with keeping his options for future power alive in Arkadas.
Marr straightened his shoulders. Only a display of confidence could put his master off balance. As he marched boldly towards the rear entrance, he couldn't help but notice the lack of security. Much had changed in his absence; he had expected the usual welcome. To his surprise, nothing appeared to be waiting for him at all. He reached out with the Force and felt a handful of dark warriors patrolling the great walls nearby, but no sign of the once mighty security forces. All around him he felt men, women, and children whose presences were dominated by an overwhelming sense of fear. He had been gone a long time; perhaps more had changed than he had first believed.
As he walked up the steps to the castle, two of the warriors he had sensed stepped to intercept him, yelling for him to halt. Never showing any intent to stop, he lifted his arms as if to surrender. Before the warriors got any closer, lightning fired out of his fingers and slammed into the two men like a sledge hammer. The lightning hurled the two helpless guards off their feet and slammed them into huge marble pillars. Without breaking stride, he casually stepped over them and walked into the castle. After looking around for a bit, it became apparent that the upkeep had been neglected for quite some time. The illustrious banners and wall decorations were nowhere to be seen, and the remaining furniture appeared worn and ill-attended, no longer polished to a shine. Even the stone walls seemed to lack a glow they had once held. He remembered a time when this old relic was the envy of seven systems; it was a shame to see it in this condition.
He hesitated slightly before opening the doors to the Rear Antechamber. He knew that what he looked for was close—very close. Abruptly the huge doors swung open, revealing a lone figure in a dark maroon robe, an ornate belt around his waist.
"Ahh, Lord Phes. It has been almost ten years, hasn't it? It is good to see you again," said the man, standing in shadow.
"Lord Arkadas," Marr Phes spat. "How do you know I have not returned to kill you?"
Chuckling to himself, Arkadas stepped from the shadows and drew back his hood, revealing his cleanshaven scalp, and answered, "I know because it is not possible. And secondly, if I knew you were coming, do you really think I wouldn't have some idea of your motives?" Walking out into the courtyard, he continued, "I need your assistance. I trust that once I explain to you the situation, you will not be able to reject my offer. I believe you will want to help achieve our goals."
"Do not presume that we share the same goals, old man." Phes was taken aback by the Dark Lord's announcement. Did he really know I was coming? he wondered. But he continued, "I did not travel halfway across the galaxy to be played as a pawn." His confusion quickly gave way to anger. "I was fool enough to follow you once. I will not make that mistake again."
Arkadas stopped to nudge the limp body of the unconscious guard with his boot. He laughed to himself as he looked up at Phes.
"I sense that you have learned much in our time apart. Nevertheless, you lack a certain darkness that will give you untold strength, a darkness you know only I can teach you. Soon we shall see if you have grown stronger or weaker in your absence." Looking out into the forest, Arkadas continued, "I have been betrayed by my new apprentice."
To Marr, the story sounded strangely familiar. He stood, lost in thought, thinking back to a time long gone—and though he hated to admit it, he longed for that time. The venom of the old man's next words brought him back to the present.
"His weakness is his heart. He lacks the true dedication to fully embrace the dark side. Of course, I've known of this weakness for quite some time. He is powerful, but still lacks skill. Overall, he is an ideal apprentice; unfortunately, I believe him lost. I think you are familiar with him... you remember Aiko, don't you? He has been rechristened Lord Referius in your absence."
A brief flash of rage arose in Phes's chest that he was quick to mask with a laugh. He would not allow his former master to think that his emotions still ruled him.
"Aiko is your new apprentice? You've become more pathetic than I had imagined, Arkadas."
Without missing a beat, the elder man continued, "I have learned that he has secretly petitioned for the aid of the Jedi."
The smirk on Mar Phes's face instantly vanished. Aiko had no right to bring the Jedi Order into this. Realizing that he had done the same thing, he hated himself almost as much as he hated Aiko. He realized then that he had no intention of leading Kyba to the Sith Lord, and so he focused his hatred away from himself and onto his old rival. Marr's green eyes seemed to glaze over, turning yellow and red. "Your apprentice has just signed his own death certificate."
Looking somewhat pleased, the hooded figure interrupted, "My sources at the Temple have informed me that the Jedi Council has dispatched a Master of their order. He is unaware of the true nature of the threat."
This was not at all what Phes wanted. He needed time to assess Arkadas and determine his own best course of action. Meddling by the Jedi Order would help no one. Voicing his concerns, he replied, "The Jedi must be dealt with immediately. He cannot be allowed to spread the word that the Sith exist."
With a slight smile, Arkadas put his arm around his former apprentice. Leading him back into the castle, he said, "Come. Tonight we will celebrate, for tomorrow we kill Jedi."
As Master Talik Sol approached Darzik, he felt his chest tensing. If this boy wasn't the key to his past as Talik hoped... if he was wrong, and Darzik had no Muun ancestry... But no, he must press on and find out.
"Darzik, you said that you have no one. But what of your parents?"
Darzik shrugged. "I never knew my father, and my mother, Swil'La—"
Swilla! The name inspired within Talik a burning he had not known for years. Her breath like the honey from the flowers of Felucia, her hair shining with the radiance of Tatooine's suns, her smell like the dew upon flowers in the early morning on Alderaan, her tender skin, her lips—
Talik halted his train of thought. Darzik was far too young to be her offspring. But what he said of his father...
"Who was your father?" Talik asked.
"Some spacer," Darzik spat out.
No. Talik frowned. There was no connection. Yet gazing at Darzik's face and the shape of his jaw—the strong chin, wider than most Tecans', with a dimple in the middle—he could not help but notice how closely it matched Swilla's. Surely it was no coincidence. But how?
Ah, Talik thought. Unless—
"Darzik, spell your mother's name in the dirt."
The two came to a stop in the middle of the road. Night had fully set in now, but Master Talik Sol raised his glowrod high as Darzik knelt down and etched "Swil'La" in the dirt. Yes. In the Tecan dialect, the capital L indicated the Tecan was the child of another who bore the same name, and the apostrophe indicated the child's parents had died, confirming Swil'La was the orphan daughter of Swilla, named and raised by the village.
"What can you tell me of your grandmother?"
Darzik shrugged. "Only what the villagers have told me. She was killed in a skirmish for power—a rift caused by the loss of our Jedi Watchman—when struck by a stray blaster bolt."
A terrible grief overcame Talik. His Swilla was dead! Somehow, perhaps through the Force, he had known, but held out hope anyway. Blind hope, a lover's hope.
Coupled with the grief was profound guilt. 'A rift caused by the loss of our Jedi Watchman', the boy had said. Talik felt shame and anger at this. It was all his fault! If he had returned, if he had left the Jedi Order, if he had stayed with Swilla...
Talik forced the emotions back. He had to finish this mission, and he needed to focus. Grieving and guilt would have to wait.
Unaware of the turmoil passing over Talik's face, the boy continued. "My mother was still in her belly, and the doctors rushed to save her. Although she was premature, she survived. The villagers said some magical force must've spared her."
Yes. Some magical Force indeed. But not strong enough to save Swilla.
"And your mother?"
"She was abducted by space pirates and sold into slavery when I was only a year old."
The ache in Talik's hearts swelled once more. The loss of his beloved, and the daughter he never knew he had. He could have protected them. He should have.
Master Talik Sol rested his hand on his grandson's shoulder.
"You will never have no one again," he whispered to Darzik.
Referius finished pounding the last stake into the ground, completing the set-up of his tent. Glancing up, he saw the silhouettes of Talik and Darzik entering the campsite. They looked up at the row of tents Referius had set up with the others, then slowly made their way over to him.
"Excellent work, Referius," Talik said. "I didn't know you were going to take the time to set up a tent for Darzik and myself as well."
Referius shrugged. "They don't take long, and with the light fading, we figured you'd appreciate it."
Talik nodded. "That I do. I'll see you in the morning, Referius."
"See you," Referius answered, and watched Talik and Darzik find their way to their tent. Referius and the others had set up three tents: one for Talik and Darzik, one for Grom and Saves, and one for himself and Jak. As he turned and crawled into his own tent, Referius heard from Jak's deep breathing that he had already nodded off.
Referius slowly crawled into his sleep sack and rolled over onto his back. He closed his eyes, but sensed that tonight would be another sleepless night. Sleep—what was it? Something others did but he could only dream of. Between the tossing and turning, there was no way he could get any rest, and on the rare occasion when he was able to find his way into slumber, it was often interrupted or haunted by memories. Referius could never overcome his past—how he was trained as a Jedi, but failed to become a Padawan.
"Not taken by a master have you been, and too old you've become to continue training."
Those words still echoed through his mind. For years he had attempted to hide what he'd learned. He didn't want to have anything to do with the Force or using it. But that all changed when he met a shadowy figure who offered to finish his training.
If I only knew then what I know now, he thought to himself. If I was a better Jedi, I would have known then.
Just as he was drifting off into some much-needed rest, Referius felt himself jolted back to full consciousness. He scowled. He'd been so close to sleep. What had woken him?
Listening intently, Referius caught the sound of a very low hum coming from outside the tent. There was only one device that made that hum: a lightsaber.
Quick as he could, Referius flung himself out of the entrance to his tent, drawing his blaster pistol as he went. Despite his Force training, or perhaps in spite of it, Referius still preferred blasters to lightsabers.
A brief flash in the Force alerted Referius to duck; as he did so, a scarlet blade sliced through the air where his head had been a second before.
Referius somersaulted forward and drew his other blaster pistol, now holding one on each side. He glared at the warrior who stood by the tent with a lightsaber in hand—one of Arkadas's many minions. Whether he had been sent here by Arkadas himself or simply decided on his own to crash Referius's party, Referius knew not. Luckily, his solution to either scenario was the same: he had to kill this dark warrior.
With a grunt, Referius fired a series of blastershots that forced his opponent backwards. However, the dark warrior soon began circling, avoiding Referius's shooting and deflecting it harmlessly away. The warrior brought his circle in closer and closer until he was near enough to strike.
Curse the Force, Referius thought. Why am I not strong enough to hit him?
The warrior suddenly launched a stab right at Referius's gut, but Referius managed to dodge sideways, and then spun and landed a kick squarely on the warrior's jaw. As his opponent fell backwards, Referius seized the opportunity and pounced, firing both his blasters straight for his opponent's chest. The shots struck true, and with a soft exhale, the warrior collapsed.
Three lightsaber blades hissed to life on all sides of Referius.
So, my friend, he thought, glancing down at the corpse, you did not come alone.
Referius turned and assumed a defensive posture.
"L-Lord Referius?" came the quivering voice of Jak Resta-Ja from behind him.
"Go and wake the others, Jak," Referius said evenly. "This is more than I can handle alone."
Marr Phes and Arkadas sat at a large table, heaping with every food imaginable. Dewback steak perfectly done, gendrick salad, nerf burgers, Bothan ale—anything wished for lay on the table in abundance. They sat in silence, the only noises coming from cutlery scraping dishes as the two ate.
Two guards stood at either side of the entrance, with two more along the opposite wall. Marr Phes occasionally eyed them between bites. After a while, he decided to be the first to speak.
"Afraid I'll attack you?" he baited Arkadas. Arkadas smiled at him, but did not reply. Marr Phes continued. "Not that these fine beings could hope to stop me if I did, but that would probably afford you a chance to escape, now wouldn't it?"
Arkadas broke out into a hearty laugh. "Oh, Eharl, how I've missed your simple humor." Marr Phes felt the anger rise in his chest with the comment. Arkadas seemed not to notice. "Really, if I thought you were a threat, I would have dispatched you myself by now. I find it odd that since our last meeting you still believe you could ever be my equal, let alone now."
"You know I renounced the name Eharl long ago," Marr Phes spat out, choosing to focus his rage on the first and least offensive part of Arkadas's remark. He flashed an angry glare at Arkadas, but as he did so he felt a throb of pain in his chest. The anger quickly dissipated as the pain reminded him of their last meeting. Marr Phes had dared challenge him, and lost. Arkadas spared him his life, but the scars remained. And the pain.
"I think you're slipping," Marr Phes said as he bit into a piece of spiced takarian root. Arkadas raised an eyebrow. "For whatever reason, you have left the fortress largely unguarded, and now you must face a Jedi."
Arkadas shrugged. "Teca VI is of no importance to me anymore; I have already moved most of my forces off-planet. I shall be leaving within weeks as it is, once I have finished my preparations for departure. My remaining dark warriors can defend this city. It matters not to me."
"Isn't that rather foolish?" Phes pressed. "What if there were more Jedi?" At that, Phes saw an expression pass over Arkadas's face. It was gone almost as soon as it came, but Phes had seen it. Was it fear? No. Anticipation?
"You forget I have sources. I know who is to come and who is not. If the Jedi suspected I was here, I'm sure I would know."
"They do know you're here. Why else would they come? This isn't a Republic world."
"No, they do not know I am here. They think they are after Overlord Arkadas, evil hopeful tyrant. They do not understand the real threat. That is why only one Jedi has been dispatched." Arkadas leaned towards Phes, and in a conspiratorial tone added, "You should've realized this by now, my friend. Perhaps you are the one who is slipping."
"Why do you always provoke me?" Marr asked, his voice rising. He could feel Arkadas's manipulative tendrils seeping into him, despite his desire to resist.
Arkadas sighed and took a long draft from his glass. Marr felt his impatience growing. Finally, Arkadas continued. "There is much to be done. I want to see how powerful you have become."
Marr Phes laughed abruptly, determined to maintain control of the conversation. "Funny that you say that. I came back to you to discern the same thing, and I find you sitting on a paper throne, with all sorts of vermin groveling at your feet. It's truly pathetic." Taking the offensive, Phes laced his next words with venom stronger than that of the largest Vorpal snake. "Tell me again—how did you gain this world? Pull out a glowrod and tell the primitives you were the Sun God?"
"No, I did it the same way I conquered Vespa IV," Arkadas calmly replied, as if lecturing a child. Marr Phes's anger threatened to consume him. Though he knew Arkadas had to be the stronger, it was all he could do to keep from drawing his lightsaber. Vespa IV. Marr Phes's homeworld.
"You look angered, my former apprentice," Arkadas continued. "I know you are upset that I took control of your world. You should be glad. If I had not arrived, I never would have found you. You would still be a simple farmer. Now you are a god amongst men."
"Enough!" Marr shouted, standing up and spilling his drink all over the table. "What good have you brought to my life? Teasing me with lessons in trifles, never teaching me the true power of the dark side!"
"Nonsense," Arkadas answered calmly. "If you failed to grasp the power of the dark side, it is only because your cowardice kept you from truly embracing it. I had nothing to do with that."
"Of course not!" Marr's arms began to shake as his rage grew. He couldn't think straight. "Just as you had nothing to do with the murder of my family?"
Arkadas shrugged. "They were an obstacle on your path towards true mastery of the dark side. I freed you of them."
"How dare you speak so callously of my dead parents!"
Without realizing it was happening, Marr Phes found himself leaping across the table towards Arkadas, his lightsaber suddenly in his hand, its violet blade coming down on his former master. The blade came to a sudden halt as Arkadas's own blood-red blade caught it with a block.
"Now this is the rage I've always known you capable of," Arkadas whispered. "But you must learn to control it, rather than letting it control you."
And with that, Arkadas struck.
"Master Jedi! Master Jedi!" The loud cry woke Master Talik Sol from his slumber. Shaking off the sleep, he let out a slow groan as he opened his eyes to gaze at the dark roof of his tent. Some Jedi had a gift for remaining alert even while sleeping. Despite, or perhaps because of, Talik Sol's habitual nightmares, the Jedi Master slept very deeply. It seemed he could only wake fully aroused when those same nightmares jolted him from his slumber.
Moving his glance from the tent above to the figure before him, he saw by the faint starlight seeping through the open tent entrance that it was the native Jak who had woken him. Jak crouched over him, a look of alarm on his face.
"Jak," Talik started. "In the middle of the night, surely there's a good reason—"
He stopped short as he felt a burst of warning in the Force. Looking up and out the entrance, he caught sight of a dark figure outside the tent firing a blaster rifle right at Jak's head. Talik Force-pulled his lightsaber from its resting place near his feet, sending it spinning into his hand, and ignited it. The still-emerging blade barely caught the bolt and sent it back towards the shooter. Talik watched as a red blade emerged in the dark figure's hand and deflected the returning bolt down and into the ground.
So, he thought, there are more dark warriors on Teca VI.
Talik rushed out of the tent to see that the rest of his crew was already engaged in battle with a number of dark figures. Grom had managed to pin down one figure under a barrage of rapid laserfire as Referius circled, dodging deflected bolts and angling for a clear shot. Another dark warrior stood off to the side, trying to get himself a clear shot at Referius.
"Sol!" Saves hissed from off to his side. "There's another enemy hidden in the trees!"
But Talik's focus was on the figure that had fired into his tent. He adopted a battle stance, glaring at the warrior who had fired on Jak a moment before. The warrior met Talik's gaze, and the pair stood frozen for a moment. Then the dark warrior leaped towards Talik, bringing his blade down in a powerful overheard slash.
Talik leaned back, parrying, then turned his block into an offensive stroke that forced his enemy to take a step back. Talik pressed his advantage, but the enemy struck back quickly, showing no hesitation. As the pair traded blows, Talik realized that this warrior's fighting style shared the deliberate maneuvers of his previous attackers that morning; this opponent must have been trained by the same individual.
Talik ducked beneath a blow and performed a leg sweep, bringing his opponent to the ground. But behind the warrior, Talik caught side of Darzik exiting a tent.
"Darzik!" Talik almost screamed. "Get back inside that tent!"
"But—" Darzik started to argue.
Talik barely sidestepped a swing from his opponent, who had now regained his footing.
"No!" Talik howled, fear gripping him. He swung wildly for his opponent, but called to Darzik, "I can't lose you, too!"
Distracted by Darzik, Talik found himself on the defensive. Still, he couldn't take his eyes off his grandson, even with the risk it put him in. Talik ducked a blow and watched Darzik obeying his order, reentering the tent. Still, even as he parried another blow, Talik's anxiety remained as a pit in his stomach that made it hard to breathe. When he looked at Darzik, all he could think of were his lost years with Swilla.
The dark warrior planted a kick to Talik's chest that sent him tumbling to the ground. Nevertheless, he managed to roll into a backwards somersault that saved him from his opponent's next attack.
I've got to end this, Talik thought. I've got to get out of this fight so I can protect Darzik.
Leaping to his feet, Talik went on the offensive with a swing for his enemy's head, hoping the warrior would fail to anticipate the sudden attack. Instead, the figure's blade met his in a saber lock. As they held it, each trying to overpower the other, Talik realized his opponent's slight figure had to belong to a Tecan.
"Stay away from this planet, Jedi," the Tecan spat. His decision to speak for the first time caught Talik by surprise, but he managed to keep his composure and maintain the saber lock.
"This fight does not concern you," the dark warrior continued. "It is only the traitor Referius I wish to deal with."
"What do you mean, traitor?" Talik asked, glancing in the direction of Referius. He and Grom appeared to have defeated their opponents.
The warrior's eyes widened, and with a cough, the Tecan fell to the ground. Talik caught sight of a knife planted in the warrior's back.
"Master Sol!" Saves hissed. "You kept him still long enough for me to kill him with a knife throw! Excellent teamwork!"
"Saves," Talik yelled, berating his subordinate for killing the dark warrior at such an inopportune time, "you've got to—"
"Enough!" a voice howled, interrupting him.
Talik turned toward the voice and felt as though a tidal wave of fear had hit him in the face. So strong was his terror that Talik fell to his knees, his trembling legs no longer able to support him.
Before him stood a dark warrior with a blood-red shoto held to the throat of Darzik.
Marr Phes hurtled backwards, striking the far stone wall and collapsing to the ground. Arkadas advanced towards him. Shaking himself and struggling to refill his lungs with air, Marr scrambled to his feet.
Arkadas was upon him now, slashing downwards. Marr blocked the stroke, but found himself forced to give ground to the still-advancing Sith Lord.
Arkadas struck again and again, clearly in control of the duel. Marr Phes knew his own movements were carefully directed by his former master; he moved only where Arkadas wanted him to move.
"Why do you toy with me?" Marr gasped. "You're clearly the stronger—why don't you end it?"
Arkadas laughed, simultaneously taking a diagonal stroke that forced Marr sideways. "If I wanted to kill you, you would have been dead before you entered my castle. No, Phes, I believe in you. I believe in what you can become. Your anger is great—if you can learn to truly master it, you could become a Sith Lord for the history books."
"I want nothing of your Sith!" Marr howled. "If it hadn't been for you, I would have lived out a peaceful existence with my family on Vespa IV!"
Despite his protests, Arkadas's words stung Marr. He did want the greatness Arkadas offered him.
As if reading his thoughts, Arkadas countered, "A peaceful existence? You truly think that would have satisfied you? Oh, Marr, someone of your power deserves so much more than a life at the mercy of others. You deserve to rule them."
Marr hated the way Arkadas's words rang true. He hated that he allowed Kyba to talk him into coming here. But most of all, he hated that he wanted to be here. His rage nowhere near subsiding, he executed a two-handed upward slash in an attempt to take control of the duel. Arkadas responded with a precise stroke towards Marr's abdomen, forcing him to roll away in a dodge.
"Marr, I've sensed through the Force that the Sith Order has reached a shatterpoint," Arkadas said. "Its future is in flux. Now more than ever, I need a powerful apprentice by my side. You could be that apprentice."
Marr ached to fill the role, to become that person of power who deserved remembering, but he refused to let Arkadas know that.
"Enough of your lies!" Marr screamed. "I hate you, Arkadas! I want nothing to do with your Sith! I've chosen a different path now!"
"Really? Look at yourself, Marr. Your hate has made you powerful, but you can't control it. I can teach you how. I can restore you to your former glory, and more besides."
Marr aimed a blow for Arkadas's head. Before it could connect with its target, however, Marr felt himself lifted through the Force and hurled backwards. He collided with the strong wooden table, striking his arm painfully. Marr struggled to stand and prepare for Arkadas's next attack, but it never came. Instead, Marr heard the sound of Arkadas's lightsaber deactivating.
"Enough of this pointless bickering," Arkadas rumbled. "Marr, listen to me. You know I have always had your best interests at heart. Have I ever led you astray in your training? Have I ever taught you anything but what you needed to know to attain true power? Have I not brought you a better life than the meager one you would have been forced to suffer through without me?"
Marr took a deep, calming breath. Though he might hate to admit it, what Arkadas said was true. Deactivating his lightsaber, Marr slowly nodded his agreement. "You did help me escape my former trivial fate," he admitted carefully. Then he scowled. "But why? Why so many worlds?"
Arkadas walked towards Marr. "I cannot remain anywhere for too long. If I do, the Jedi may discover where I am. It is tradition that my protégés and myself remain hidden from them until it is time to show ourselves. When they get too close, I leave."
"But why not just hide on a world? Why must you always rule it?"
"And let the world's government assist in the search for me? I have cultured an image for a purpose; to disguise my true nature." Arkadas sighed. "You still fail to understand."
"Then help me to understand!" Phes pleaded, rising to his feet. "I know all about the Ruusan campaign, and how there can only be two Dark Lords. I know the need for secrecy. But you make yourself a big target. You practically invited the Jedi to your door. It doesn't make sense!"
"To hide in plain sight is to be perfectly hidden," Arkadas responded. "The Jedi are weak and blind. I would need to blatantly declare myself to them before they would learn who I really am."
Arkadas returned to his chair.
"Some would say that I am a conqueror," Arkadas said. "I think of myself as a liberator. I was for you. But there are always those who envy the powerful, mainly because they desire it for themselves."
"Then you seem to desire to be most envied," Marr Phes replied. "You grab power as if you were a Jawa in a droid factory."
Arkadas chuckled. "It is necessary. The Sith were meant to rule. You listen long to those who speak of my evils and short to those who tell you why my actions are justified. I desire power not for myself, but for everyone."
Arkadas walked towards Marr Phes. "I am a liberator. I am a healer. I seek to eliminate the corruption and suffering in this galaxy. Those who cause it hold most of the power. They would be hard to usurp." Arkadas reached out, placing his hand on Marr Phes's shoulder.
"And, of course," he continued, "there are those, even more corrupt and powerful, who wish to ensure they maintain that power."
"The Jedi," Marr Phes said, the hatred rising again in his chest. Phes felt it burn throughout his body. Years before, Arkadas had lectured Marr repeatedly on the evils of the Jedi. In their years apart, despite his friendship with Kyba, Marr maintained a hatred for the Jedi Order.
Arkadas took his hand off Marr's shoulder.
"Yes, my friend," Arkadas said. "We eliminate the Jedi, and then, as they would say on Tatooine, the Krayt loses his teeth and scales. But of course, we take small bites, like a womp rat. Soon, we will be the sarlacc."
Marr Phes grinned. "And then we crush them all!"
"Yes!" Arkadas smiled, then slowly turned to leave.
"Now I retire," he said to Phes. "I suggest you do the same. We have a galaxy to save tomorrow."
"Good night," said Marr Phes. He turned his gaze toward the door and watched Arkadas leave the room. Once he had, Marr turned back towards the table and grabbed a cup. He took a long drought, then slammed the cup down and wiped his chin.
"Yes. One dead Jedi at a time."
Master Talik Sol could only watch as Darzik struggled to put on a brave face, yet the boy's eyes were wide as he took in the mini-lightsaber held mere inches from his neck.
Talik heard a lightsaber ignite behind him.
"Baulder!" Referius yelled, stepping into Talik's line of sight. Referius held a lightsaber that shone with the same red tint as the shoto pressed to Darzik's throat. Talik felt Grom, Jak, and Saves all standing behind him, but he only had eyes for his grandson.
"Baulder," Referius continued, "Your fight isn't with that native boy. It's me you want."
"That's right, Referius," the dark warrior—Baulder—snarled, "But I'm happy to shed blood that you're ultimately responsible for. After all, this little insurrection was your idea, wasn't it?"
Talik struggled to breathe. Darzik's jawline quivered, the same jawline that had been Swilla's. With Darzik gone, she would become nothing more than another component of the memories that threatened to drive him insane every night. Darzik had been a gift from the Force that grounded those nightmares in reality, that let him know his love for Swilla had been real. But now—
Slowly, Talik rose to his feet.
"Baulder!" he called, a strange confidence seeping into his voice. "I don't know what your quarrel is with Referius, but that boy's life belongs to me. It's not yours to take."
"Oh?" Baulder responded. "And what makes him your property?"
"He is my grandson," Talik answered, twitching a finger. Baulder's mouth fell open and he clutched for his throat. In doing so, Baulder dropped his shoto, and Darzik leaped into the air, putting as much distance as he could between Baulder and himself. But now Talik only had eyes for Baulder. With his grandson safely out of range, Talik lifted his hand, leveling the fingers at the dark warrior, and used the Force to snap Baulder's neck. With an eerie crack, Baulder collapsed to the ground, the warrior's life extinguished.
Talik whirled, his lightsaber meeting the one Referius held and sending it flying into the distance. Barely managing to dodge Talik's still-whirling blade, Referius sunk to the ground. Talik brought his blade to rest mere inches from Referius's throat.
"And now, Lord Referius," Talik said, "It is time you are honest with us. You and I both know there are bigger things happening here than you led me to believe. Explain yourself."
"I…" Referius hesitated. "I need your help in defeating Arkadas."
"I know that!" Talik hissed, bringing the tip of his lightsaber closer to Referius's throat. "But who are these warriors? How do they know you? And why do you own and wield a red lightsaber?"
"Because…" Referius's eyes seemed to be searching his surroundings for a suitable answer, but his gaze finally came to meet Talik's own. "Because I am a Sith apprentice. And these are dark acolytes, trained in the dark side but not in Sith ways."
Talik was taken aback. Sith? It couldn't be, yet he knew somehow that it was true.
"And your master?" Talik pressed, already knowing the answer.
"Arkadas," Referius said.
"I should kill you where you lay!" Yet he is still useful for this mission. Talik shut off his lightsaber and turned away from Referius. So, Arkadas was a Sith. That would complicate things indeed.
Talik heard a lightsaber igniting behind him and felt a foot catch his ankle, this time forcing Talik to the ground. Looking up, Talik saw that Referius had apparently Force-pulled his hilt back to himself, and now held Talik in the same way Talik had just held Referius.
"What about you?" Referius demanded. "You're much too young. You said you've avoided aging. How?"
With his hilt still in hand, Talik felt confident he could overpower Referius if he didn't want to answer the question. Nevertheless, he saw no harm in responding.
"I've been in bio-stasis."
"Why? Who put you there?"
Talik paused, but again decided to answer.
"The Jedi," Talik said.
He batted away Referius's blade with his own, but Referius offered him no resistance. Turning away, Talik slowly walked back to his tent. Having acknowledged what the Jedi Order had done to him, Talik felt a loathing well up in him that made him nauseous. The memories came flooding back—memories Talik had retraveled so many times in his mind that while he felt no need to relive them, he knew he could not stop himself from doing just that. His retreadings left the memories raw and vivid, like a scab that wasn't allowed to heal.
After the Elrood Conflicts, Talik had requested to return to Teca VI. He had been denied.
Talik Sol had grown violent, wishing to return to his lover, wishing so strongly that the Jedi were able to sense his true motives. It was very important to them that the Jedi retain no attachment, and they felt Talik's jeopardized his standing as a Jedi. In punishment, and supposedly in hopes of reforming his character, they froze Master Talik Sol—who had been appointed Master during the Conflicts, as Jedi were always promoted quickly during wartime—in bio-stasis. While in bio-stasis, Talik did not age, but was not susceptible to the normal madness-inducing conditions of freezing.
This was due to an unusual element of the Jedi's form of bio-stasis: when one risked unrest, they were plunged into a vivid reliving of their lives. It was hoped that coupled with audio played of Jedi teachings, the Jedi would learn the error of his ways and be reformed. Unfortunately for the Jedi, rather than the result they wanted, this reliving had the opposite effect on Talik. He was reminded of his governing Teca VI first as a Padawan while he was his master's Chargeman, and then, when his master entered the Force, his quick promotion to Knighthood and sole governance.
To make matters worse, the constant reliving of the past meant he kept revisiting his relationship with Swilla, and he was filled with an infinite sadness and grief. He resolved never to forgive the Jedi.
Then the Jedi defrosted him, promising that a successful campaign against Warlord Guile would ensure his freedom from the bio-stasis. Guile's Union of the Blind was wreaking havoc throughout Teca VI's sector, and the Jedi knew there was no one who knew the sector better than Talik. The Jedi put him in charge of a taskforce whose sole mission was the elimination of Guile. Cut the head off the dragonsnake, they reasoned, and the whole Union would fall. Talik poured his heart and soul into the mission, hoping that he could stop Guile before Swilla was killed in the conflict—
She was already dead
—and eventually be reunited with her. He would be free, he would leave the Order, and they could be together. But in the end, it had been a newly-knighted Jedi named Kyba who actually slew Guile, and the Order kept Talik from returning to Teca VI. Talik didn't respond well to that. So he was put back into bio-stasis.
But this time was different. The time outside of bio-stasis had allowed Talik to think clearly about what bio-stasis was like, and he reasoned that if he could look at his situation objectively and without the unrest that would simply force him to relive his life, he could maintain his wits.
Put back into bio-stasis, Talik discovered that his plan worked beyond even his wildest dreams. He discovered techniques and pathways to the Force that the Jedi would frown upon, and he reveled in the rebellion and this new understanding. He took advantage of his newfound awareness and gained access to the Force in ways no other Jedi had before him. He could manipulate things outside of the bio-stasis field, and when powerful enough, released himself from bio-stasis. The Jedi, of course, could never know, and Talik set sensors through the Force that told him well ahead of time if the Jedi were to check on him, so that he could re-enter bio-stasis shortly before they arrived. But, when free of bio-stasis, Talik deepened his connection with the Force so that he could achieve the same level of connection he had gained while in bio-stasis, achieving that perfect peace.
The first thing Master Talik Sol did was develop an ability to prevent aging, using his experiences from being frozen in bio-stasis as a jumping-off point. The technique was not yet perfect—far from it; at first, he could only curtail the effects of aging when in deep meditation, but recently he had gained enough control that he could be more active while still reaping the benefits of the technique. It no longer took a deep meditation to avoid aging. This technique had done more for Talik than simply thwart aging, however; Talik could feel himself becoming more and more powerful. He had long justified his actions, but he had to admit to himself that his newfound ability would probably be considered unnatural by the Jedi Order at large. It didn't matter. Compared to spending time in bio-stasis, Talik saw no alternative to perverting the Force in this way.
The Jedi had recently released Talik from bio-stasis for a second time with a new mission to eliminate the evil tyrant Overlord Arkadas, known to be somewhere within Teca VI's Sprizen Sector, though the specific planet where he resided was unknown. And once again, they had promised Talik that a successful mission would mean his freedom.
Talik knew better.
From the moment they had assigned him the mission, Talik had not intended to complete it. He had hoped that after a few weeks he could simply slip off and lose himself in the galaxy. But when the Jedi assigned him to follow up on Referius's lead on Teca VI, Talik's plan had changed. Before, he had thought that returning to Teca VI would be too risky—the Jedi would expect him to do that. But when they had assigned him to the planet, Talik knew he had to take the opportunity to go.
And when this is all over, must I leave? Talik asked himself. Is there no way I can stay?
He knew such wishes were impossible... and yet, if he could overthrow Arkadas... if he could assume the title of Ruler of Teca VI for himself...
No; the Jedi would surely track him down.
Besides, Talik berated himself, Arkadas is a Sith Lord. He will not fall so easily.
This suddenly reminded Talik that Kyba, the Jedi he had worked with years ago on the Warlord Guile mission and who had originally been working with him to track down Arkadas, had been reassigned to find the Sith.
How ironic that I have now stumbled upon them, Talik thought. He took Guile from me, I'll take Arkadas from him, and he can go into bio-stasis!
The Muun Jedi let out a sigh. Lost in thought, he had made it back to his tent. He slowly crawled inside. While these new developments might have seemed at first glance to change his game plan, he knew that in the end, defeating a Sith Lord and ruling Teca VI without the Jedi noticing was something he just wasn't powerful enough to do.
One task at a time, Talik reminded himself. I take out Arkadas, and then I deal with my own fate.
Sliding into his sleep sack, Talik rested his head on his pillow and tried to take advantage of the hours of darkness he had left.
Tonight was going to be another sleepless night.
Curse that Jedi! Referius thought as he stumbled back to his tent, rebuking himself for how easily the Jedi had disarmed him and taken information from him. Another episode of conflict. Another episode to remind him of his inadequacy.
Referius collapsed onto his sleep sack. Jedi Master Yoda's words, spoken so very long ago, rung in his ears.
Dedication you have, young one. But dedication to what, hmm? The Jedi must be dedicated to the highest of ideals, to the Force itself. Not dedicated to strengthening yourself. Only secondary, that is, and only then to serve others.
Yoda had spoken those words when Referius was still full of hope and energy as a youngling in the Jedi Temple. Such memories seemed as though they belonged to another person; they were while he still went by his birth name of Aiko, before he had assumed the title of Darth Referius. He remembered how hard he would train, and how even though he had a hard time keeping up with the others, he never complained. Even if he had to work twice as hard as everyone else, he knew that one day his efforts would pay off. One day he would become a Padawan, and with his master he would travel the stars. Then one day he would become a Jedi Knight and save the galaxy!
But a master never came. Aiko was passed over for apprenticeship. Master Yoda came to him one day and told him he was not going to become a Jedi, but would still serve the galaxy greatly in the Agricultural Corps. Aiko's dreams were shattered in that moment: all his hard work, his best effort, was not good enough. He was not good enough.
Aiko cried that night, and in the morning, when he was supposed to leave for Dantooine for his new studies, he skipped his charter and fled into the lower levels of Coruscant. He managed to survive by wits and training alone for several years, eventually leaving the planet, making his way to systems outside the Republic's control. He wandered from planet to planet, a drifter who never stayed in the same place for too long. Eventually he found his way to Teca VI. Here he had met Arkadas.
Arkadas said he sensed his power, and asked why he was not training to be a Jedi. Aiko opened himself up to him, and the Sith held him as a father would a son, patting him on the back and telling him everything would work out fine. Eventually, the Sith Lord began training Aiko in the Force, but also began using him for his own purposes.
It was only when Arkadas's apprentice Darth Eharl renounced his Sith name and fled the planet that Aiko was given the name Darth Referius. He had worn that title with pride for the first few years—he had sensed that it meant he had truly accomplished something.
But as time went on, Arkadas's interest in Referius waned until it became clear to Referius that he was nothing but a placeholder until Arkadas could find someone more powerful—someone worthy of the title of Sith Apprentice. Despite Referius's best efforts, he had failed once again. His connection to the Force was simply not strong enough.
And now here he was, trying to deny his lack of strength and call upon the strength of others to overthrow his master. He should have trusted his earlier instincts—this task belonged to him alone. No others could interfere. The Rule of Two demanded it.
Yet Referius had to admit to himself that it was not so much the violation of the Rule of Two that stung his conscience, but his willingness to sacrifice the lives of others for his own private cause. And if this was the case, then Referius's true failing was his inability to toss all other concerns aside in pursuit of power.
As a Sith, shouldn't I be willing to sacrifice the lives of others if it suits my purposes?
He rolled onto his side, his frustration consuming him. He was exhausted—exhausted from lack of sleep, exhausted from the night's fighting, and exhausted from the painful reliving of these memories. Sleep called to him, and for the first time in many nights, Referius found himself able to answer that call. He dozed off, his feelings of incompetence disappearing as he relaxed into a dreamless sleep.
The days were long on Teca VI, and today seemed like one of the longest Marr Phes could remember. He sat, slouched in a plush but uncomfortable chair, and stared out the huge bay window. His elbow leaned on the armrest, chin resting in his hand, with his mind deep in thought. He hated the way this planet made him feel, he hated himself for coming back, but most of all he hated Arkadas.
Arkadas could awaken in him old feelings of rage that Marr had thought long gone. He knew that the influence of the dark side-enhancing Draykonwols on the planet was not helping things as the trees tempted him with power and called to him to draw on his anger. Yet he knew, too, that the hatred that Arkadas induced in him came from deep inside himself. Perhaps Marr would never overcome this; perhaps he had studied with Arkadas for too long, from too young an age, to ever be fully free of his master's grip.
He had been just barely fourteen years old when he was brought here to Teca VI, but he had already been under Arkadas's tutelage for ten years at that point. When he was younger and sure that no one was watching him, he used to weep for his father and mother. Years before his arrival here, he had asked Arkadas what had happened to his family. It was one of the only times the Dark Lord had ever shown him kindness. Marr Phes remembered the sad look on the old man's face as he knelt down and put his hands firmly on his shoulders. The Dark Lord looked him in the eyes and disgustedly whispered, "The Jedi killed them."
Years later, here on Teca VI, he had discovered the real truth. One night when the Sith Lord was off-planet, Marr Phes had stumbled onto an intoxicated Rindel. He had sat, joking and drinking with the majordomo for hours. Unbeknownst to the former ruler, Marr was using the Force to lighten his tongue. That night, Marr Phes learned of the horrible fate that had befallen his parents.
Rindel told him that it had been Arkadas who murdered his family. He knew that his giftedness in the Force had sealed his family's fate. They were dead, and it was all because of him.
Just another reason to want Arkadas dead, he thought to himself.
Of course, this was not the first time he had wanted to kill Arkadas. He had tried once, and failed. And yet that attempt had been more out of his hatred for Aiko than his hatred for Arkadas. Funny how these things developed. Perhaps if his rage had been directed at Arkadas rather than Aiko—now Referius, Marr reminded himself—he would have been able to defeat the Sith Lord. Perhaps.
As the regret weighed on Marr's shoulders, memories almost ten years old began to bubble up in his mind. He remembered the anger he felt upon hearing Arkadas appoint Referius—still Aiko at that point—Commander of Arkadas's Security Forces. Marr Phes, then Darth Eharl, had been groomed for that position since childhood; he was clearly the presumptive heir. When tragedy struck the former commander during a training accident, and Arkadas announced a ceremony to be held on one of his trophy worlds to name a replacement, it was assumed by all that it would be Eharl. Everyone at the ceremony had stood numb in disbelief—how could this be? Magistrates from other planets Arkadas controlled, ambassadors from neighboring systems, business associates, and high ranking security force members all stood in shock, not quite understanding what had just happened.
Looking back, it was obvious why the Dark Lord had snubbed him. The position would allow the apprentice too much power, too much control. Arkadas knew that Eharl was already beloved by the people; he knew that if appointed commander, the security forces would follow him into hell itself.
That is why I was not chosen, why Arkadas humiliated me, Marr told himself. The all but inevitable argument that followed later that night between Aiko and Darth Eharl quickly deteriorated into yet another fight, a duel that once again ended with Arkadas stepping in and saving Aiko's life. But something was different that night; Eharl did not stop when Arkadas commanded him to do so. He reached out with the Force and began choking his surprised master. The choke was almost instantly countered by the Dark Lord, and Eharl paid the price yet again, just narrowly escaping death. That night, he received the beating of his young life, and learned a lesson he carried with him to this day: never attack something you can't kill. At times, it was the only check on his infinite anger.
Even though he hadn't been able to resist doing so, Marr knew now that coming back here was a bad idea. The years he had spent away had been the best in his life; the adventure of traveling the stars, navigating the dangers of the galaxy, had brought more satisfaction than his years in Arkadas's tutelage ever had. He had found himself—had reclaimed his soul. No longer was he a servant of evil; the perspective taught to him by Kyba had been life changing. The Force was so much more than what his former master had showed him. Marr Phes had arrogantly thought he would come back and destroy all knowledge of his association with the Sith. He would make himself a clean slate, free to live his life as he pleased. But that plan was fragile; it could easily fall apart before him. It already was.
Shaking these memories from his mind, Marr focused on his next move. If he really wished to destroy his connection with the Sith, he would need to let Kyba know what exactly was going on.
And do I really wish it? he asked himself. Marr knew he should. But he had been so powerful once. No, I must not give in. I don't need that power anymore.
Marr knew he had to commit to telling Kyba the truth. Telling Kyba would solidify his resolve to eliminate Arkadas and his past. He would be sure to rise early the next morning and make his way back to the Hadrian to check up on his companion. He didn't know how, after being taught to hate Jedi for twenty years, he had been able to bond with Kyba, but he did know that he greatly valued that bond. It would torture him to no end if Kyba were to die as a result of Marr's actions here.
Marr grimaced. Planning had never been his strong suit; Arkadas had taught him to act. Perhaps once he leveled with Kyba, the Jedi could put something together and ensure the destruction of the Sith, and with it the destruction of Marr's shameful past. No longer would he be at the mercy of Arkadas's manipulations. He could finally be free of his anger. All he had to do was kill the Sith Lord.
Marr walked over to his bed and collapsed upon it. Even with Kyba's help, he would need every ounce of his strength if he hoped to defeat Arkadas. And that would require a good night's sleep. Marr only hoped such a wish was possible.
The room lay silent, a complete void, empty of both noise and color. No light shone into it, no evidence of even the faintest glimmer of life, save one presence in the center of the abyss; and though the room was in a complete state of darkness, the darkness emanating from this presence enveloped and even grasped the entire room with a darkness that came not from lack of light, but from the very soul.
Arkadas sat quietly, deep in meditation. So entranced and still was he that if it were possible to view him, one would think him a corpse. However, inside his mind, he was very much alive, and as he stretched out with his senses he could feel the life outside of him, outside this vacuum.
He could sense Marr Phes a few rooms away, his anger appearing to Arkadas's senses like a rogue star in the most desolate reaches of space, a beacon to which Arkadas was drawn. He could feel the hatred, the self-loathing, and the fear, but he could also sense the hope. The hope soon faded, to again be swallowed by his rage, and the deepest feelings of despair. He knew Marr Phes must be thinking of his parents again.
Arkadas had known all along that one day Marr would discover the secret about what had happened to his family. But despite the rage he sensed Phes felt towards him, he knew his former apprentice would never truly blame him for killing his parents. A lie told to someone young enough and interwoven with a half-truth would bury itself deep inside where it could never be fully eradicated. Phes knew the Jedi were even more corrupt than Arkadas could ever be, that they were the true enemy. He knew Arkadas was dedicated to eliminating their taint, as an obsessive maid would scrub away at a stubborn stain, and that desperate measures were needed, even if that meant orphaning a little boy who had a greater destiny. Marr Phes would never confront Arkadas for this because he knew, from a certain point of view, that Arkadas had spoken the truth all those years ago—the Jedi had killed his parents, and because of this, in the deepest parts of himself, Marr Phes hated the Jedi even more then he hated Arkadas—even more than he would ever consciously comprehend. But it was there, and Arkadas directed it as a composer would a symphony to what would soon be the completion of an epic masterpiece.
Arkadas honed in on Marr's anguish, feeding on and reveling in it, as he sensed Marr attempting to fall asleep. Yet sleep does not come easily to those consumed with rage, and Arkadas was able to dwell on Marr's frustration and anger as his former apprentice tossed and turned. The seconds gave way to minutes, then hours, as Arkadas continued to gain strength from Marr's suffering. Finally, Marr Phes's frustration gave way to sleep, and the gorging came to an end.
Arkadas turned his senses outside the castle. He reached across the forest, sensing it teeming with a myriad of unintelligent life forms, the Force resonating strongly among the Draykonwol trees, and reached towards the village on the far side. Arkadas sensed his traitorous pupil, Lord Referius, near the presence of the Jedi he had seen earlier in the town square. Though his apprentice slept, Arkadas could still feel his presence consumed with anticipation and fear, no doubt related to his newly-developed mission to destroy his master. Before becoming his apprentice, Referius had always been eager to please, but now that Arkadas had shown him the true potentials of the dark side, it seemed that Referius was horrified by what he saw. That he was planning something naturally followed from this. It was too bad; Referius really did have potential. But the Sith Order was far greater than his undeveloped apprentice; Referius stood no chance.
Turning his focus back inside the compound, Arkadas sensed a familiar presence, alert and awake in its quarters when it should have been sleeping.
Rindel, Arkadas said to himself. So eager are we.
Arkadas knew that Rindel and Referius had been plotting against him for quite some time. Rindel wore his emotions on his sleeve; he was by far the easiest to read of any individual Arkadas had ever encountered. This, combined with tracking Rindel's movements in the Force and going through the personal documents in Rindel's room—documents that Rindel for some reason thought were safe from prying eyes—was enough to fully alert Arkadas to all of Rindel's conspiring.
Arkadas was hardly surprised the night he found out Lord Referius was planning to overthrow him. It was expected, and despite Arkadas's best efforts to make his apprentice slip, Referius managed to hide his intent well. Arkadas was impressed by his skill, but could never forgive Referius for his lack of vision. Using Rindel was a fatal error, and the time grew near to capitalize on that error.
Arkadas sensed a change in Rindel; the servant's mood shifted from trepidation to the faintest glimmer of resolve. The servant seemed to be leaving his quarters and moving towards Arkadas and his meditation chamber.
Whatever Rindel's plans for the evening, Arkadas would not allow them to enfold as the servant intended. And whatever his mission, he would no doubt return to his quarters afterward. Arkadas's instincts cried out to him; the time to play his first hand had come.
Arkadas rose, the lights activating as he did so to reveal a room barren of any furnishing or color. He exited the room through one of its side doors and into a long hallway, then worked his way to a set of stairs winding up to the levels above. He lightly ascended, walked down another hallway, and then came to a stop in front of a door.
On that door, clearly written in the planet's home language upon a plaque made of Draykonwol wood, was the name "Rindel." Arkadas opened the door, entered, and turned off the lights, taking a seat at a nearby table.
After several minutes of waiting, the door opened. Rindel entered hurriedly, looking both ways before closing the door. He ordered the lights on, then turned.
The sudden sight of his master sitting there made Rindel jump so violently that he would have left his skin in a heap on the floor, if such a thing were possible. Despite his best efforts, his eyes grew wide with fear.
"Good evening, Rindel," Arkadas said mildly. "Restless tonight, are we?"
Rindel looked down at the floor and fidgeted about, wringing his hands nervously.
"N-no... I mean, yes, m-my lord!" Rindel stammered. Rindel moved away from the door and went to the opposite side of his room, sitting down on his bed, his eyes never rising to meet his master's. "It has passed, though. I am very tired now."
Arkadas just sat, grinning broadly and saying not a word. Yet all the while his eyes held an anticipation that, had Rindel seen it, would have caused his hair to turn white with terror.
"Is everything all right, my lord?" Rindel asked hurriedly, trying to act concerned, though betraying his obvious distress.
"I'm afraid not, my servant," Arkadas declared. "It seems…" and now his words oozed with venom, "…I have been betrayed."
Rindel twitched and shifted in his seat, still refusing to meet his master's gaze.
"I know, my lord. Remember? I was with you at the window, watching that treacherous Referius?" Rindel said, finally looking up at his master pleadingly. "He disgusts me, my lord, after all that you have done for him."
Arkadas sat back in his chair and fixed Rindel with a penetrating stare. After a few seconds, the servant lost his nerve, and once more his bloodshot eyes fell towards his bed. The tiredness in Rindel's eyes indicated that he had been up all night, no doubt working up the nerve to do whatever it was he had intended.
How deliciously pitiful, Arkadas thought to himself.
"Yes, Lord Referius is quite treacherous," Arkadas finally stated. "I have known of his duplicity for some time."
Rindel flinched at the words, and cast the Dark Lord a skittish glance.
"Is that right, My Lord?"
"Yes. Unfortunately, it appears that Referius is not the only person who is suffering from a lack of faith."
Arkadas rose from his chair. Rindel looked up, panicked, and in terror shrank onto the bed, as if the mere inches he gained could hide him from his master's wrath.
"I-I don't know what you mean, m-my lord!" Rindel spat out, his voice quivering.
"Oh, I think you do," Arkadas said, standing before the bed and towering over Rindel's shaking figure. "Lord Referius seeks to destroy me and take over. He needed someone who could help him. We both know who that person turned out to be."
"Not that I am completely without understanding," Arkadas continued. "I knew it would happen eventually. I can hardly blame you."
Rindel looked up at the Dark Lord, a glimmer of hope flashing across his miserable face.
"Truly, my lord?" he asked tentatively.
"Of course," Arkadas said matter-of-factly. "You were once the leader, then I took control. It hasn't been easy on you."
Arkadas turned and started walking back towards his chair.
"No, my lord. It has been quite a challenge."
"I can see that. Referius offered you an opportunity to reclaim your dignity. He filled your head with visions of victory and shared power, and soon you came to believe in him."
"Oh, absolutely, my lord." Rindel nodded vigorously, his voice emphatic.
"Unfortunately, he no longer has a use for you. Now he sends you to kill me, knowing that you will fail, and die," Arkadas said sympathetically. Rindel's face became one of shock and disbelief. Arkadas turned to face him, reaching to his side. "But I always appreciated your efforts. Now, in your death, you will serve me still."
Suddenly, Rindel pulled a small, round device from his pocket and held it out before him as if it were a shield. With his thumb he flicked a trigger, and a red light started blinking on its surface.
"I-I was going to throw this into your meditation chambers!" Rindel cried hysterically. "But now you will kill me, and if I'm going to die, then you go with me!"
"Don't do it, fool!" Arkadas yelled. Rindel looked from Arkadas to the thermal detonator in his hand, then back to his master. Arkadas held out his hand. "Give me the device! I still have a place for you, just—"
"No!" Rindel said forcefully. "For too long have I cowered under you, did all that you asked... terrible things! My deeds haunt me! I hate you!"
"Rindel, hand it to me!"
"NO!" the servant bellowed, and the thermal detonator tumbled towards the floor.
Arkadas used the Force to throw himself backwards and through the doorway, slamming the door as he crossed its threshold.
Before he could hit the ground, a shockwave caught him and hurled his body against the far stone wall.
"Unh—" Arkadas struggled to catch his breath, but felt the floor underneath him shaking, sending him tumbling to the ground.
The wall behind him shook, and Arkadas hissed in pain as one of the stones fell from it and struck him on the shoulder. The entire wall buckled. Arkadas struggled forward, trying to escape.
But it was too late.
The stone wall collapsed forward, right on top of Arkadas, and he simultaneously felt the floor beneath him disappear.
That imbecile Rindel!
Arkadas screamed aloud as stones fell all around him, and he was being buried—buried alive by his own fortress. The pain engulfed him, and Arkadas couldn't think anymore. All he knew was that unless he did something now, all his plans—his very life—had come to an end.
Kyba jolted awake.
Glancing around, the Jedi found only darkness and a slight hum coming from the Hadrian's low-level systems. Kyba reached out into the Force and sensed nothing other than the now-familiar low throb of the dark side emanating from the Draykonwol trees. He shook his head. Something had woken him.
He leapt lightly from his bed and threw on a cloak.
Have they finally found me? he thought. Kyba had been waiting all day for the scouts to arrive. The suspense was killing him—he just wanted to confront them and be done with it.
Sighing, Kyba wandered to the ship's main cabin and lowered the ramp, then proceeded outside. He listened carefully for several moments, but only heard the soft sounds of Teca VI's nocturnal wildlife.
Surely something woke me, he thought to himself. He took a few cautious steps down the ramp. Still nothing responded.
Kyba threw a nervous glance to the heavens above, but his attention was quickly diverted by the Draykonwol branches that obscured his vision and threatened to clamp down on him like an eerie ghoul clenching its crooked digits. Experts considered the Draykonwol trees an anomaly in the Force. Master Koshu, Steward of the Archives, had told Kyba legends of such trees manipulating currents in the Force, directing their prey wayward to a dark end, their victims' pillaged life force seeping into the trees' roots. Koshu had warned Kyba not to trust the giants of the wood, but this was the first time the Devaronian had come across the mysterious entities in bark and branch.
Kyba had spoken to Master Koshu about the Draykonwols some twenty years ago, when preparing for a mission that he had thought would take him to Teca VI. He had served under Jedi Master Talik Sol, who knew the planet and the sector well, to lead an army against Warlord Guile and his Union of the Blind. They had thought that Teca VI would be the site of their clash; as it had turned out, Guile's army managed to subjugate a number of systems much more easily than anticipated, and Teca VI was well behind enemy lines by the time the Jedi caught up with Guile. Instead, the Jedi's army of Noble Spartan Guard clashed with Guile's Union of the Blind on Amorris. Meanwhile, Master Sol used the massive battle between the forces as a diversion while he and a taskforce including Kyba went after Guile himself.
Kyba smiled, remembering the incident with pride. He had been the Jedi who had taken Guile's life.
Shaking himself out of his memories, Kyba glanced upward once more, but saw nothing but the early rays of sunlight beginning to lighten the sky. Still not convinced that whatever had woken him was harmless, but feeling foolish standing outside in these early hours of the morning, Kyba strolled back into the ship, raised the ramp, and returned to his quarters. He would have to do his best to get back to sleep for a few hours longer.
Arkadas gasped, his entire body tensing as he used the Force to hold back the stones around him. He was buried under layers and layers of rock, trapped in a tiny cavity that he was digging out through sheer will and manipulation of the Force. Beads of sweat welled up on his forehead. If his concentration were to break, he would be crushed beneath an avalanche of stones.
How could this be? he wondered bitterly to himself. Arkadas prided himself on his ability with foresight. All Sith made a habit of reaching into the dark side to portend the outcome of their various plots, but Arkadas had proven far superior in this than even most Sith Lords.
It was many Sith generations ago that the Sith Master Darth Cythraul had foreseen important events for the Sith would occur on Teca VI and thus brought the Draykonwol trees here to aid in the effort.
But it had been Arkadas who had seen how these events would unfold. It was Arkadas who helped Rindel behind the scenes, unknown to him, ensuring Teca VI would remain out of Republic control. It was Arkadas who carefully orchestrated his rise as an "Overlord" and his eventual landing here. It was through his foresight that he devised the plan to create the perfect storm that was about to develop here now, where the true apprentice that would lead the Sith to victory would rise, stronger than ever before.
He thought of how he had stood right out in the open and practically dared the Jedi to challenge him. How it had reinforced his opinion of the Jedi's weakness, that they could not see their true threat right in front of their faces. At least, not until he wanted them to.
He had cultured a reputation as Overlord Arkadas. He had carefully planned his every move, just enough to gain the Jedi's attention, but not enough for them to justify intervening on a non-Republic world.
Admittedly, the most dogmatic of his predecessors would no doubt chide him for breaking the Rule of Two in allowing his failed apprentice to live. Yet to have killed him as tradition expected would have prevented this present opportunity to launch the Sith towards their ultimate destiny. When all the pieces of this plot were in place, he started harassing Republic cargo ships, knowing this would force the Jedi to act.
The Jedi, his ancient enemies, now pawns in his end-game.
When the time was right, he followed his pattern as "Overlord" and began planning a new conquest, and timed the order of the bulk of his forces off-world, leaving just enough to challenge the Jedi, just enough to avoid their sensing of the trap. And they couldn't; the Darykonwols kept them from sensing him. Most of his forces that remained were ordered to guard key areas, leaving the path he had foreseen the Jedi would take largely unguarded.
And they did take that path... just as he had planned. By now they realized their true threat, as he had sought to ensure when it was too late for them to turn back.
Everything had gone exactly as he had foreseen. Every thread of his plot was coming together perfectly.
Yet here he was, buried beneath a mountain of rock, only the force of his own will keeping him alive. He had never foreseen this happening.
How? Did the dark side forsake me?
The Sith Lord snarled, stretching his palms upward as he called upon the dark side. He felt the stones around him beginning to shake.
I am the master of my destiny, Arkadas thought to himself, filling the thought with as much hatred as possible as he bathed himself in the dark side. I control what happens. The dark side and the Sith shall prevail.
The stones shook even more, and Arkadas could sense many of them sliding off to the sides. The rock pile that trapped him was slowly disappearing.
No, obviously my command of the Force is just as good as it ever was. Arkadas considered this. He had heard in the past that sometimes the dark side would betray its users, giving them false premonition or weakened strength. The dark side was as devious as it was cold, and it liked to test its users. Those who failed to overcome were too weak to continue.
This angered Arkadas more than anything. I am not weak! He scolded himself. But he could not escape the fact that he was here, all of his careful planning at risk. He could not escape the knowledge that despite his power, despite his foresight, everything he had so carefully orchestrated was about to be brought to ruin by someone as pathetically simple as Rindel.
The hatred and rage built up inside him. I will not fail! He could feel every nerve on fire, his every sense screaming to him, his very bones vibrating with dark, terrible power. I've been bested by a powerless, cowering, bumbling idiot!
NO! I AM THE MASTER!
Arkadas let loose feral a scream, horrible in its beastliness, and the rock pile collapsed outward, spilling away from him, an avalanche in all directions except downward upon Arkadas.
As the final stones rolled away from him, he took a deep breath, reveling in the power of the dark side. He vaguely felt a gash that ran the length of his chest, still an open wound. His weakened legs could barely hold him upright. His arms ached. But he was alive.
Through victory, my chains are broken. The Force shall free me.
Arkadas surveyed the damage to his fortress. Rindel's thermal detonator had managed to destroy much of the southern face of the building. Arkadas now stood two levels lower than Rindel's room; the explosion had destroyed much of the floor on the level above him, and the one above that. In addition, a gaping hole appeared in the outside wall for many levels. Luckily, the lower levels of the castle were untouched, leaving the fortress structurally sound and secure.
Still, Rindel's dying act left Arkadas feeling exposed. He had been played like a fool, and had nearly forfeited his life as a consequence. The responsible parties would pay.
Sounds of military footsteps reached Arkadas's ears, and he turned to see a handful of his guards marching into the room in lockstep.
"Lord Arkadas," the chief guard called out, "are you alright?"
"Yes, Lieutenant Locke," Arkadas said, using the Force to steady himself and project an aura of control. "It seems Rindel decided to make an attempt on my life. The fool should have known he'd be no match for me."
"I see, my lord."
"We won't bother to repair this hole; we'll be off this wretched planet soon enough. In the meantime, post guards here to watch for any air-based attacks that could exploit this weakness."
Lieutenant Locke hesitated. "But, my lord... We're short-staffed as it is."
"I understand, Lieutenant. We'll just have to pull guards from the main entrance. Leave the rear entrance unguarded if you must. Take as few as possible, but don't allow this hole to be a threat to our security."
"Yes, my lord. And my lord, it seems Marr Phes has just left the compound. Would you like me to send a tracking party?"
Arkadas made a face. "No, Lieutenant, we can't spare the men. Besides, we already have two teams on the ground combing the forest for his ship. They have their orders to prevent Marr Phes from leaving the planet at all costs. We will have to count on them to come through." And, Arkadas admitted to himself, all of my Force adepts are already at work in the field, and without one of them, my men stand no chance of tracking Phes. Arkadas could only hope that Phes was doing as he had foreseen. The Sith Lord felt he was in control again, but after his failure to anticipate Rindel, he knew everything was up for grabs. Unfortunately, there was little time to meditate on this.
Arkadas noticed the Lieutenant shifting his feet and snapped out of his thoughts. He glanced down at the Lieutenant impatiently.
Lieutenant Locke looked nervous. "One more report, my lord. It seems your acolytes in P'tanng have failed to report in."
Arkadas breathed a sigh of relief. It would seem that some things are still occurring as foreseen, he thought to himself.
But what if the dark side fails me again? Arkadas had risked everything for this moment, had purposely left himself exposed. What if everything goes wrong?
Arkadas cursed. Though he had foreseen it, this recent lack of vision made him freshly nervous to know there was nothing now to impede the advance of his wayward apprentice and the Jedi through the forest.
Except the dark side, he reminded himself. If I fail now, it is only because I am too weak. The thought fueled his hatred, making him stronger. The doubt went away.
"Thank you for the report, Lieutenant," he said, then turned and began making his way to the lower levels of his fortress. He needed rest and meditation, but first he had other matters to attend to. It had been years since he had last put to use his studies of Sith alchemy. Arkadas grinned. The time had come to once again create monsters.
Talik Sol groaned and opened his eyes to see Referius peering in through his tent's front opening at him.
"Master Sol, I know it's early, but we need to get moving if we want to make it through the forest today."
Talik sat up and nodded. "You're right, Referius. I'd hate to hold us up."
Rising and closing the tent's entrance, Talik quickly changed into his day garb. He exited the tent to find everyone else already awake and preparing to leave.
"Sorry for the delay," Talik said, reaching over towards the tent and collapsing it, then vacu-shrinking it. He tossed the now-miniscule tent to Referius.
Referius slid the tent into his pack, then tossed Talik a ration pack. "Here's breakfast."
"Thanks," Talik said. He was quite hungry. "Lead the way."
As Referius led the troops into the forest, Talik watched Grom drift up to march next to him. Talik glanced back behind himself to see Darzik bringing up the rear. Slowing his pace until Darzik caught up to him, he fell into step beside the youth.
"Uh, hi, Master Sol," Darzik greeted the Jedi nervously. "So you're, uh, my grandfather?"
Talik smiled. He felt such pride for the boy. It was fulfilling to see his and Swilla's relationship embodied in the young being. "That's right, Darzik."
"Wow," the boy said. "I've never really known any of my family—I thought they were all dead or gone from my life. And you're so young!"
"Yes," Talik answered. "I've been in bio-stasis."
The two continued walking, falling into an awkward silence.
"How old are you now, Darzik?" Talik asked, finally breaking the quiet.
"Fifteen," the boy answered.
"Fifteen... Just coming of age, then," Talik said with a grin.
Darzik shrugged. "I guess. But I've been on my own for a while now, so I figure that maybe I've come of age a little sooner than most."
"That's why I joined you and Referius—I've learned to fend for myself. You'd be surprised how useful I'll be in a fight."
Talik gave a slight shake of his head. "I don't know how much fighting you'll do, Darzik."
The boy scowled. "What do you mean? That's what I signed up for. And we both know attacking Arkadas's fortress will require every blaster we've got—"
"—Except yours," Talik interrupted. "I'm not willing to put your life at risk."
"Master Sol, I know you're my grandfather, but I really am ready for this, or I wouldn't have signed up. At least give me a chance to prove myself."
Talik sighed, but gave no answer.
The two walked side-by-side for a little while, unspeaking. Talik thought it very unfortunate that this lad had never met his grandmother. She was such a radiant being, so full of life. It was hard, in fact, to think of her as a grandmother; Talik still pictured her as the young beauty she had been when he had known her.
"Darzik, did the townspeople tell you very many stories about your grandmother?" Talik asked.
Darzik frowned. "Not really. At least, not anything that I haven't already told you. Just the miraculous stuff surrounding my mom's birth, I guess."
"Come now, surely they've told you something?"
Darzik thought a moment. "Sorry, Master Jedi, I really don't think I know much about her."
How could the boy not care about Swilla? Talik wondered. "Darzik," he said, disgust seeping into his voice, "you've never been curious enough about your own grandmother to ask any questions about her?"
Darzik's eyebrows shot up, and he flinched. "S-sorry, Master Sol. I guess I never thought it was that important. My beginnings just seemed so lousy, I didn't think it would do much good to look to the past."
"What are you talking about?" Talik asked, a hint of anger in his voice. "Your beginnings weren't 'lousy'—you should have more respect for your ancestors!"
This time, Darzik took a visible step away from Talik.
"I'm sorry, Master Jedi."
Talik sighed. He knew he shouldn't come down so harshly on the boy. Yes, Darzik should have known more about his heritage, but the fact was that he didn't. Talik would have to accept this. He ignored his slip in allowing emotion to dictate his behavior. Now was not the time for reflection.
Softening his tone, Talik said, "I'm sorry, Darzik. I didn't mean to snap. You said your life's been hard. Do you want to tell me about it?"
Darzik seemed to relax. "Sure! No one's ever really cared before. It's nice to have someone take an interest in you."
"Yes," Talik nodded, "it is."
"Well, when my mom was kidnapped, I was so young that I can't remember her. That was really tough. I wish I could remember her—wish I had had more time to get to know her. But I didn't, so I try not to think about it. That's what I mean about trying not to think about the past. Anyway, I was taken in by this older couple that lived down the street from Mom..."
As Darzik continued talking, Talik glanced down at the path in front of him. It was frustrating for him to see it in such disarray; the deeper they went, the darker the forest grew, and the more unkempt the path became. The troops had to periodically climb over logs and step around large plants. The going was very slow. And on a personal level, it was painful for Talik to see his gloried world of Teca VI in such disorder. There was no other option except defeating Lord Arkadas.
Sith Lord Arkadas, Talik reminded himself. And here he was, in league with a Sith Apprentice. Though he had sensed that Referius was speaking earnestly about his desire to defeat Arkadas, a Sith was sure to have tricks up his sleeve. Talik would have to keep an eye on him.
Talik could see Referius up ahead, flanked by Grom and Saves. The three were talking amongst themselves. Talik scowled. What could Referius be planning? Perhaps he hoped to defeat Arkadas and become the sole remaining Sith Lord? Talik wished he had learned more about Sith history, but all he knew was that they were supposed to have been defeated during the Ruusan Campaign. That was so long ago—how had they remained hidden for all this time? What sort of a form had the Sith Order taken since then? As Talik recalled, the Sith had always been prone to infighting. Was that all this was? More infighting between rival Sith?
Talik began to feel that he might be in over his head. Protocol demanded that he contact the Jedi immediately and await instructions. They would likely send other Jedi to assist in eliminating the Sith. That would mean Kyba would probably be sent, and Talik wasn't inclined to let Kyba have anything to do with this. Not this time.
However, Talik realized he was in a precarious position. If this was Sith infighting, then he was doomed. With Referius's help, he might be able to take out Arkadas. But he didn't doubt that when the fight was done he would be in no condition to defeat Referius as well. He had been operating under the belief that Referius was sincere, but he couldn't help feeling he was the pawn in the Sith apprentice's plot.
Talik shook his head. It seemed foolish of Referius to reveal the Sith Order to the Jedi just to overthrow his master. But perhaps there were other Sith? The warriors he had fought so far were clearly not Sith; their lack of skill betrayed this.
Could there really be no more than two Sith now? And if there were, would Referius really risk becoming the only Sith alive, the only one to carry on the Order?
Talik frowned. So many questions. And not even a hint as to how to learn the answers. The only thing he knew for sure was, whatever was in motion here, he was beyond the point of return. He would not call the Jedi. He would take Referius on faith, and hope for the best. If everything worked out, he would defeat the Sith, and then he would leave the Jedi. He could take Darzik off-planet with him and raise the boy, escaping into the stars. Then Talik would be free.
Jedi Kyba threw up his hands in disgust. He had been waiting vigilantly for an attack to come all morning. It was now mid-afternoon, and yet there was still nothing. Had the enemy truly not found the Hadrian yet? Had they given up searching? Kyba felt a little disappointed. He had been growing increasingly eager for the conflict.
Kyba stepped toward the nav map projector and turned it on, then cycled through the images until he came to a surface map of Teca VI. Evaluating it, he determined that he and the Hadrian must be sitting somewhere south of a village labeled "P'tanng." Northwest of him was a fortress of some sort.
Which way had Marr gone? To the village, or to the fortress?
Phes should be back by now, the nerfherder, Kyba thought, and groaned aloud. He was sick of waiting. His fingers twitched at his side, ready for action.
Taking a deep breath, Kyba made a decision: he had waited for Marr Phes's return long enough, and he was sick of being cooped up in the spacecraft. With the village of P'tanng just a short dash away, he felt he'd have time to go there and see what was keeping Phes, then make it back without anything happening.
His choice of action determined, Kyba hurried outside and took a few steps into the forest towards P'tanng. He pulled the grey hood of his cloak over his horns, then unconsciously reached down to touch the hilt of his lightsaber, assuring himself. The mere action of entering the Draykonwol forest made him nervous.
Using the Force to brush the goosebumps off his skin, Jedi Kyba calmed himself. Reaching out through the Force, he thought he sensed a small group of individuals ahead, but the sensation disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced. Is it the trees playing tricks? Stretching out again, he was unable to locate them. Kyba pushed the questions and doubt aside; he didn't need answers right now. He just needed to make it to P'tanng.
The Knight ignored the increasing darkness as he pressed deeper into the dense forest. His calf muscles expanded and contracted with kinetic energy, midichlorians worked alongside mitochondria, and Kyba bolted towards the village.
The Devaronian Jedi raced along through the forest, enjoying the empowerment he felt as he channeled the Force into physical exertion. He pushed himself to travel faster and faster, relying on the Force to sense the most unobstructed path through the dense vegetation. He had never felt so strong.
After racing several kilometers from the Hadrian, Kyba came to a dead halt, letting his body lift up and drop slightly before blasting into the air, executing a perfect Force Jump. He flew towards a massive Draykonwol in front of him, landing gracefully on one of its fattest branches. Feet and hands connecting with branch after branch at amazing speed, the Knight reached the top of the large Draykonwol in seconds. Pupils narrowing, his vision shot out like a blaster bolt ahead, finally focusing on the constructs of P'tanng that reached above the tree line.
Two-thirds to go, he told himself, and with that casually dropped back down to the surface of Teca VI.
To his right crawled a white spider he identified as a gnarltree in its first stages of life. Soon it would take root and mature into the lesser of the two major species of tree on the planet. The creature scrabbled along, then broke pace towards a patch of undergrowth.
Kyba's attention shattered as he sensed a sudden surge in the Force, alerting him to danger. The Knight backflipped a few yards back, then yanked his lightsaber hilt from his belt. It buzzed to life in blue magnificence, its faint light casting over the gloomy surroundings and increasing Kyba's ability to see in the dark shadows cast by the trees. He briefly mused that he hardly needed the glow at this moment. His senses were on overdrive.
Pencil-diving from tree tops above, a trio of dark figures landed softly, stretching out in an offensive stance around the Knight, ready to pounce on their game. Two were dressed in the garb of foot soldiers, but the third emanated a strong Force presence that led Kyba to believe he had undergone Force training. Kyba locked eyes with the closest soldier, feeling his presence in the Force. He came off as incredibly confident, clearly too sure of himself.
Probably a cocky mercenary from the Outer Rim, Kyba thought. The Knight smiled, happy to finally have an opportunity for combat. The enemy's Force presence hardened into determination as he fired a shot from his blaster.
The propelled bolt was fast. Kyba was faster.
Kyba threw the saber into a backward thrust and caught the blaster bolt with the tip of his blade. Bouncing back, the bolt hurled towards the man, finding a new home in the offender's tracheal duct and embedding itself with a soft, gruesome gurgle. The man dropped to the forest floor, life quickly fading.
But the other two soldiers had already begun to advance. The first was a woman with dark eyes and even darker eye sockets who held a combat staff, while the second, the one with the strong Force presence, held a vibroblade in one hand and a green lightsaber that hissed to life in the other. Apparently some sort of fanatic, this second warrior's face was adorned with red and white tattoos and symbols, likely denoting his membership in some dark side cult. Kyba's muscles tensed.
A dark side cult? What game are we playing at? Kyba wondered. What was Marr not telling him?
Kyba ducked a blow from the woman's staff as he countered a strike from the warrior's lightsaber with his own. Maintaining the lock with the warrior, he managed a kick to the stomach of the woman, sending her reeling.
But the kick had thrown Kyba off-balance, and the fanatic capitalized, forcing him backwards. As Kyba gave ground, he watched the woman regain her footing. Sinking into a crouch, Kyba parried another lightsaber blow from his opponent, then executed a front flip high over the warrior's head, coming to rest right in front of the woman. Raising her staff, she lunged at the Jedi. Kyba easily split the weapon in two with an upward slash, only to bring his blade down in between the neck and the shoulder of his assailant, cutting her down.
He spun to face his final opponent, whose face was locked in a maniacal grin as he slowly advanced towards Kyba. The warrior clearly was not put off by how quickly Kyba had defeated his two companions. And Kyba sensed in the Force that his opponent was just warming up.
But now there was no time to think, for the warrior had raised his blade in an aggressive stance, and Kyba knew he had to give himself over to the battle.
Referius tucked the remains of his ration pack into his backpack.
"Grom, d'you have anything left over?" Referius asked.
"No, sir," Grom replied.
"How could we have anything left?" Jak grumbled. "That wasn't enough for a mid-afternoon snack, let alone dinner."
"Alright, folks, if we're done eating, let's get going," Referius said before anyone else could complain.
Jak was right, of course—the rations weren't much at all. The only reason Referius had anything left over was that he had no appetite right now. Knowing he would soon confront his master left his nerves on end.
And I should be making this journey alone, he scolded himself yet again.
Referius squinted ahead into the darkness. Even in the middle of the day, so little sunlight trickled through the dense tree line overhead that it was hard to see; now that evening was wearing on towards night, it was more difficult still.
The troops silently rose and trudged on. Grom soon fell into step next to Referius, up in front of everyone else. Referius smiled to himself. He liked Grom, even though the Togorian was militarily rigid and lacked a sense of humor. Referius was pretty confident that Grom had been on Teca VI as long as he himself had been here, having seen and spoken with him in P'tanng on many occasions over the past several years. Though he had never gotten to know Grom well enough to call him a friend, Referius did consider the two of them to be on good terms with one another.
"Bloodstinking troubling road..." Referius could hear Baron Jak Resta-Ja muttering to himself a few meters behind him.
"Grom," he said softly, "Why exactly does Jak call himself a baron?"
"Sir, I hear that back when Rindel first ruled Teca VI, Jak's father was a baron. Even though Warlord Guile killed his parents and nearly everyone else that ruled the planet, Jak decided that he had inherited his father's title."
"Did you know Jak's family?" Referius asked.
"I did not," Grom answered. "I arrived on the planet shortly after they had been killed."
"Really?" Referius said. "In the middle of the Union of the Blind's subjugation of the planet?"
"Sir." Grom paused. "I was a soldier in the Union of the Blind."
Referius's eyebrows shot up.
"Surprised?" Grom asked.
"No—well, yes, I guess actually I am," Referius answered. "I just know that Guile's rule was somewhat of a reign of terror, and I wouldn't have associated you with that."
"I could say the same for you and our present regime," Grom answered.
"I... guess that's true."
Referius and Grom fell into an awkward silence that was finally broken with Saves's approach.
"I don't like these woods," Saves said.
"Really? I think they're my favorite place on Teca VI," Referius responded. Here alone Referius felt as though he could reach out and command the Force as he always dreamed of. The dark side was so thick here he could drink it.
Saves glanced around. "Well, it's nothing like the forests of my homeworld. Those are warm, welcoming places. They don't feel so... dark."
"Where exactly is your homeworld?" Referius asked.
"Far away from here," Saves answered. "Very few of my people have ever left our region of the galaxy. I was one of the lucky ones to escape."
"Escape?" Grom asked.
"That's right," Saves said. "Our planet was conquered by enemies over two hundred years ago. The people of my homeworld have been oppressed ever since. In truth, that's what makes me want to—"
Saves suddenly jerked his head upright, his eyes flitting around nervously. "Something isn't right here."
Referius reached out in the Force to see if he could sense anything. The surrounding area all seemed equally bathed in the dark side, until he sensed something large up ahead. Its presence registered as even darker than the surrounding forest, if that was possible. And it seemed to be headed their way.
"Master Sol?" Referius called.
"Yes, I sense it, too!" the Jedi called back, his lightsaber igniting mid-sentence.
Now Referius could feel the ground beneath his feet beginning to shake. He steadied himself and drew a heavy blaster pistol from its holster.
"I have a bad feeling about this..." Grom muttered.
The troops all froze for what felt like a lifetime as the rumbling grew larger and larger.
Finally, Referius felt a surge in the Force as the ground burst open several meters in front of him and a giant, ugly worm-like creature shot up. Its mouth, a perfect circle of teeth and dripping saliva, was large enough to swallow Referius in two bites. It resembled the native boorslug in structure and coloring, though boorslugs were much smaller and non-aggressive, not to mention they didn't have any teeth. Its resonance in the dark side told Referius that this could only be a boorslug that had been turned into a monster... a monster created by Sith alchemy. His master had sent this challenge for him.
"Open fire!" he heard himself yell as the worm attacked.
Kyba struck first, launching himself at the Force-sensitive warrior, his blue blade meeting the warrior's green in a saber lock. Kyba pushed hard, his focus intensifying as he tried to outmatch his opponent's strength. The warrior struggled, but held his own. Kyba grew frustrated, and his bloodlust boiled up. With a howl of fury, Kyba pushed in hard, forcing the warrior back a step. The man sneered and backed off, putting distance between himself and Kyba. The pair circled, looking for an opening.
This time the warrior struck first, utilizing his saber and his vibroblade in unison as he closed the distance between the two. Kyba snarled as he parried a blow from the lightsaber, then dodged the vibroblade, but he was losing ground. In an effort to buy time, Kyba used the Force to backflip away and up into a tree. He came to rest perched on a large tree branch.
Kyba glared down at his opponent. As they held each other's gaze, the Jedi Knight realized his anger had grown throughout their battle. Taking a deep breath, he tried to release it. The Draykonwols made it difficult; it seemed the air was already filled to capacity with the dark side, and it was just as likely that he'd take it in as let it out.
The warrior below him howled and hurled his lightsaber at Kyba. Kyba dodged to the side, escaping the blade, but it sliced through the branch and brought him crashing down to the forest floor.
Kyba landed square on his back, but had to immediately roll to the side to avoid a slash from his opponent's vibroblade. Kyba leaped to his feet as the warrior Force-pulled his lightsaber back to himself.
Kyba's arms tensed with anger, but he fought the urge to give in. He and the warrior threw themselves at each other and met strike with counterstrike in a brilliant dance of blue and green. Slashing and circling, dodging and slicing, Kyba fought to keep his breathing even and his anger in check as he matched pace with his opponent. The warrior's technique struck Kyba as very unique; he utilized precise but almost slow attacks, moving very deliberately.
Turning it up a notch, the warrior jabbed low at Kyba with his vibroblade while bringing down his green sizzling blade on top of the Jedi. In answer, Kyba back-stepped and countered the green blade with his own blue one. It was in this moment that his opponent capitalized. Holding the block with his saber, the dark warrior brought the vibroblade in his other hand down and stabbed Kyba in the thigh.
The wounded Jedi fell to one knee, the vibroblade still sticking out of his thigh, as a twisted, toothy grin grew on his enemy's face. Kyba braced himself for his foe's inevitable coup de gras. The dark warrior stood before him, wearing the same wicked grin, chuckling.
He's enjoying this, Kyba thought bitterly. He didn't understand. He could feel the warrior's skill in the force, and it wasn't enough. Kyba should've won this fight with ease.
It's the trees, Kyba realized. I'm fighting their influence, and he's completely in his element.
The warrior began to move forward. Kyba raised his lightsaber to ward off the attack, knowing that it wouldn't matter.
But the warrior didn't attack. Instead, he stabbed in briskly and pulled away before contact. Kyba swung to deflect the blow and hit dead air. The warrior chuckled loudly. It was obvious the warrior was toying with him, taunting him, adding insult to injury.
Kyba felt his anger rising up again. He was not going to be the plaything of this warrior or this forest.
With a yell, the Jedi Knight leaped to his feet and lunged at the warrior, the vibroblade still set in his thigh. He moved blindingly fast, his lightsaber a blur of speed and ferocity. The warrior fell back, the grin now replaced by a look of shock. Kyba kept pressing the advantage, eventually backing the warrior against the trunk of a tree. Kyba struck once more, and the warrior barely managed to block the blow. Their sabers locked. Kyba found himself in a position to repay the warrior's favor.
Holding the blade lock with one hand, Jedi Kyba reached down with the other and pulled the weapon from his thigh. Sneering, he casually brought it up and slit the warrior's throat. Short on breath, Kyba tore a piece of cloth off his robe and used it to wrap his thigh wound. The power behind this attack was immensely strong, that was for certain.
I shouldn't have allowed my anger to get the better of me, he told himself. He knew better than that. To kill the warrior was fine, but it needed to be done objectively, coldly, without pleasure. Kyba knew he had failed in that respect.
The trees... who was influencing who...
His breathing returning to normal, Kyba reached down and scooped up his opponent's ornate hilt and examined it. It was very decorative, with rare metals embedded along it that formed symbols similar to those tattooed on the fallen warrior's face. The top held eight dark claw-like structures that reached up toward the blade emitter. The hilt itself seemed to be emanating dark power, though Kyba wondered whether that wasn't a trick of the Draykonwol trees.
Pressing his finger against the jeweled activation button, the lightsaber unleashed a faint blood-red blade.
Huh? Kyba thought to himself. When I fought the son of a murglak, this blade was green.
Curious, he extinguished the blade, then used the Force to search inside the hilt until he found what he was loking for: an internal switch. Activating it, the familiar green blade burst to life from the emitter.
"Multiple crystals," Kyba muttered to himself.
The Jedi Knight deactivated the lightsaber, then clipped it to his belt and took a step forward, wincing as he did so from the pain in his wounded leg. Wishing he had some bacta, Kyba reached down toward his wound and channeled the Force to begin the healing process. He closed his eyes and focused for several minutes, until the pain began to subside.
Suddenly, Kyba felt a surge in the Force of another approaching figure. Not in any condition for another fight, Kyba leapt high above ground, coming to rest on a branch two body lengths above, his forearms resting on his knees.
But now, as the Force presence drew nearer, Kyba identified it as his good friend Marr Phes. Sure enough, there was a rustling of branches, and then Phes slipped quickly into view.
Kyba gave a small cough to draw Phes's attention, then met Marr's upward gaze with a grin. Marr squinted into the tree until a look of recognition dawned on his face. The look was quickly replaced by a look of angry confusion.
"Kyba, why the kark aren't you guarding my ship?" Marr cried.
Kyba looked away nervously. "Uh, well, I don't think it was ever discovered. No one ever came by, so I went looking for you. That's when I ran into those three warriors..." His voice trailed off as he gestured at the corpses strewn about below.
"You nerfherder!" Marr cried, not even bothering to take his eyes off of the Jedi. "I told you I have enemies on this planet. We've got to get back to that ship!"
"Wait, c'mon, Marr—"
But Marr was already racing back toward the ship. Sighing, Kyba dropped from his perch to the forest floor below. The pain in his leg was still there, but he called upon the Force to give him strength and took off, not quite matching his companion's all-out sprint. He would have to hope that when he caught up with Marr, the Hadrian was still in one piece.
Talik took a step backward, stunned by the size of the worm before him. The sound of both Referius's and Grom's blasters as they began to fire, though, was enough to shake him out of his initial shock.
"Spread out! Surround it!" Talik yelled. The troops quickly obeyed his command.
Talik took a step forward as the worm let out a hoarse shriek. Catching sight of his grandson, Talik turned to face him.
"Darzik!" he bellowed over the noise. "Get back!"
"I can do this!" Darzik yelled back, barely audible as the worm continued to scream as it lunged at Darzik.
"No!" Talik cried.
Talik sprinted towards Darzik, yanking Darzik away just as the worm bit down where the boy once stood.
"Darzik, I can't risk losing you," Talik pleaded. "Please, stay behind me." Darzik scowled, but did as he was told.
The Jedi turned back to the battle before him. The worm's tough hide prevented either Referius's or Grom's blaster bolts from doing much damage. Talik grimaced. The creature's Force presence was like a well of the dark side, sucking all the surrounding energy inwards. Talik already felt weary, and he had yet to even engage the worm in battle.
As he watched, Baron Jak squared to face the worm.
"Frumpy letcote!" Jak yelled, raising a holdout blaster and pointing it at the worm. The worm's two large eyes focused in on Jak, and it reared back its head.
"Jak, look out!" Talik cried. But as he did so, the worm spit a great glob of goo on Jak. It coated him from the waist down and instantly hardened, virtually immobilizing him.
Talik leaped into action, racing to Referius's side as the warrior continued to pepper the worm with blaster fire. The blaster bolts finally seemed to be having some effect; the worm let out a few painful bellows and shuffled backwards, away from the semi-circle of Referius, Talik, the frozen-in-place Baron Jak Resta-Ja, Saves, and Grom.
Suddenly, Talik felt another disturbance in the Force. Focusing in on it, Talik felt another sinister well of the dark side approaching.
"Referius, I think we're about to have more company," Talik hissed. Referius looked confused, then a dawn of recognition passed over his face as he also sensed the incoming beast.
Talik spun ninety degrees as another giant corrupted boorslug, this one smaller but no less of a threat, burst forth from the ground. It reared its head back, then crawled forward so that its entire body emerged from below ground. Talik was already sprinting toward it, lightsaber held high.
The great worm moved to face him head on, and spit a glob of goo similar to the one the first worm had spit at Jak. Talik threw himself to the side, barely dodging the goo but hitting the ground hard on his shoulder. Taking advantage of Talik's fall, the worm advanced. As it drew in close, it reared up, towering over Talik completely.
The Jedi Master rolled onto his back and held up his lightsaber in defense. He locked eyes with the giant worm for what felt like an eternity.
Then, suddenly, Saves was flying through the air and landed on the worm's back, a look of triumph on his face. The worm expanded and contracted, trying to shrug him off. But Saves nimbly climbed up the monster, its quivering muscles doing little to slow him down. As he reached the top of the worm, Saves buried a knife into the side of its head. The creature let out a moan, then collapsed.
Suddenly Talik caught sight of the original worm moving toward him, with Saves and the second worm's corpse between them. Grom and Referius had apparently been distracted by Saves's attack, and the worm had taken the opportunity to break through their lines of fire.
In seconds, the worm closed the distance between them and let out another horrible bellow. It gazed down at Saves, then opened its mouth wide and descended straight towards him. Saves let out a ghastly scream, the worm coming down mouth first on him. The worm reared up again, and Saves was gone.
Talik felt numb. But there was no time to dwell on it; the worm was already slinking towards him. He snarled, raising his lightsaber and sprinting towards the worm. It spit a glob of hardening goo, but Talik managed to dash to the side and land a glancing blow on the worm as he shot past it.
Referius and Grom leaped into the action too, their blasters firing like mad. The worm groaned as it spun to face them, but Referius, Grom, and Talik presented a united front. Under Grom's and Referius's cover fire, Talik advanced until he was close enough to strike. The worm continued to shrink backwards, sensing it was out-gunned and outmatched. Talik looked up into the great creature's eyes and sneered, then slid his lightsaber deep into the monster's stomach. Pus immediately spilled out, and Talik sidestepped to avoid being covered in it. He moved his saber in a wide circle, cutting into as much of the worm's internal organs as he could. The worm gurgled and thrashed, then finally grew still; though its eyes remained eerily open, the worm slowly curled over to one side, then came to rest on the ground, dead.
Panting for breath, Talik strode back over to Referius and Grom.
"We got that sleemo," Talik muttered, uncharacteristically swearing. The loss of Saves had put him in a foul mood.
Darzik approached from the opposite direction, clearly agitated that he had not been allowed to engage the Sith worms.
"Master Sol, you should have let me fight!" Darzik whined.
"Be quiet," Talik said.
"If you had let me fight, I could've made sure we didn't lose Saves!" Darzik continued. "You've got to give me a chance to prove myself!"
"I said be quiet!" Talik hissed.
Darzik was wrong, of course. The boy didn't know how to fight. And with him in the battle, Talik would have had to spend all his time protecting him. It would have been completely self-defeating. Why would Darzik say such a foolish thing? Talik thought bitterly.
"Let's get Jak out of that hardened goo," Talik said. "Then we can get moving again."
Talik trudged over to Jak, who was angrily beating his fists upon his entrapment.
"Here, Jak," Talik said, almost gently. He ignited his pale-blue saber again, and used it to slowly cut Jak out.
"I wanted that son of a space slug," Jak said. "And now no Saves."
Not now, Talik thought to himself. I can't talk about Saves now. He couldn't think about the loss of Saves just yet. There were more important things to focus on for now, and dwelling on the young man's fate would only prove a distraction.
"We have to get moving, Jak," Talik said. Then, to Referius, "How much further do we still have to go?"
"Talik," Referius said, "We're practically there. Another hour and we'll be at the front gates."
"Alright," Talik announced, "Then here's the plan. We march for another forty-five minutes, then set up camp for the night. It's dark, and we're tired. We rest for most of the night, then rise shortly before dawn to infiltrate the fortress using the secret entrance."
Referius scowled. "Why wait? We need to confront Lord Arkadas now! He obviously knows we're coming!"
Talik shook his head. "No, Referius. We've just fought a battle, and we've spent all day on our feet. We need to rest before staging our main effort."
"If we stop now he'll just bring more to bear against us. But if we attack tonight—"
"—then we risk everything," Talik interrupted. "We're in no condition to continue. We have to take the chance or we have no hope." His remark had clearly caught Referius off guard; the Sith apprentice fell silent as he realized Talik was right. "Now let's march."
The group trudged on in silence. Talik was sure his companions were thinking of Saves, but he refused to do so. Mourning Saves had a place, but not until they had ensured that his death was not in vain. And that could only be done if their mission was successful.
Talik contemplated different scenarios, thinking of how they would have to handle a variety of possible circumstances. Would Arkadas be tough to locate? Would he have many of his forces patrolling the fortress? Talik tried to account for every possible contingency.
"Alright, Master Jedi," Referius announced. "We're fifteen minutes from the fortress now."
"Then let's pitch our tents and get some shut-eye," Talik said. He grabbed his tent and went a little ways away from the rest of the group. He didn't much care to deal with other people tonight. Not even Darzik.
Master Talik Sol pressed the button to construct the tent, and it folded itself into place. He bent over and anchored it to the ground, then quickly crawled inside and wedged himself into his sleep sack. Whether sleep came soon or not, now he could at least be alone.
It seemed to Kyba that his dash back to the Hadrian went quicker than his first trip away from it. Perhaps this was another trick of the Draykonwols, or perhaps he had simply overestimated how far he had previously traveled.
He came upon the Hadrian to find Phes gazing up at it suspiciously. Despite Marr's obvious unease, the ship appeared just as Kyba had left it.
"There, you see? It's fine," Kyba said. To prove his point, he stepped forward and punched in the code to lower the ramp. It groaned to life and slowly dropped to the ground as usual.
As the Jedi Knight was about to step onto the ramp, Marr suddenly grabbed his arm and pulled Kyba off. He immediately spun around to protest, but the look on Marr Phes's face said it was serious. At that instant, his danger senses went off, and suddenly they were both sprinting back the way they had just come.
The ship exploded violently, sending flames and shrapnel high into the air and ripping through the trees. The aftershock of the explosion threw them both off their feet and forward.
Hitting the ground, Kyba felt himself skid into a tree. Looking up, he could see that Marr Phes had landed, still in one piece, several meters away. Sparks and flaming bits of wreckage drifted down towards him.
From the ground where he lay, Kyba watched Marr climb to his feet. He could feel the anger emanating from his companion. Kyba grimaced. He knew how fond of his ship Marr was.
Seeing Marr glancing around, Kyba propped himself up on one elbow and called out, "I'm over here. I'm fine, but I think I hit a kriffing tree."
Marr's gaze fell upon Kyba, but rather than a look of concern, Marr's face was filled with pure hatred.
His friend stalked toward him, Marr's lightsaber coming to life as he approached.
Kyba attempted to rise, but the pain in his leg made it difficult.
"My ship's been destroyed because of you!" Marr screamed, pointing his lightsaber at Kyba ferociously.
"Hey, that's unfair," Kyba countered. "You've kept me out of the loop this whole time, how am I supposed to know what to do?"
Kyba rotated around and pressed his back against a tree trunk, using it to help him to his feet.
"Why can't you just follow orders?" Marr howled, his rage still building. He was now within striking distance of Kyba. "Jedi scum!"
Kyba took a deep breath. Marr periodically experienced episodes of hatred for the Jedi Order, but none had ever been directed at Kyba personally. Not to mention, Kyba reminded himself, that I've never done anything as terrible as getting his ship blown up on him before.
As Marr raised his violet blade to point it at Kyba's chin, the Jedi could only hope that his friend was not yet beyond reason.
Referius longed for the days when he had been called Aiko and the world had been a simpler place.
I'm sick and tired of people doing my dirty work for me, he thought to himself. Saves is now dead, and it's all my fault.
Referius rolled over to face the immobile body of Jak Resta-Ja. The baron had fallen asleep immediately, but Referius continued to toss and turn.
Why did I rally these troops? Referius wondered. The problem had gnawed at him since he had first worked up his courage and contacted the Jedi. Yet now, for the first time, the solution seemed obvious. If he was a Sith, then the transgression of allowing others to assist him in defeating his master made him unworthy. Yet if he was not a Sith, then his willingness to sacrifice others for his selfish goals was even worse.
Either way, Referius could see that he was faced with one clear conclusion: this should be his task and his alone. Bringing the natives into the matter was terrible, and bringing in the Jedi even worse. There had to be something he could do about it. The death of Saves was the breaking point—no one else should have to die because of his inability.
Referius sat up, his decision made. He would face this challenge alone or die trying; it was as simple as that. Though Master Sol knew of a secret entrance into Arkadas's castle, Referius would not be able to utilize it without also utilizing the help of his companions in the coming battle, which he would not allow himself to do. He would have to mount an assault on the front entrance all on his own. Slowly inching out of his sleep sack so as not to wake Jak, Referius reached for his weapons.
An old friend had once said that it was easy to tell how much trouble Referius was expecting by the number of blasters he was packing. Today he strapped on both of his hip holsters, two more blasters to his belt, two shoulder holsters, and a rifle. He then threw on his long, flowing duster, and almost as an afterthought picked up his lightsaber hilt and hid it away inside one of the pockets. With a deep breath, he opened the tent and turned to face the Dark Lord's fortress.
"Uh... Lord Referius?" Jak's voice came softly from inside the tent, still laden with sleep. Referius didn't respond, but instead darted out of the tent. Jak would surely wake the others; Referius would have to get a head start if he didn't want them putting their lives at risk.
Sprinting along the path, Referius used the Force, amplified by the Draykonwols around him, to plot his course. The darkness and the lack of Force sensitivity in the rest of the party would slow them down. Referius only hoped that by the time they arrived, there would be no fight left to have.
In a matter of minutes, Arkadas's fortress came into view. Slowing his pace slightly, he caught sight of a handful of guards up ahead, as was to be expected. To his pleasant surprise, they numbered fewer than he had anticipated—perhaps Master Sol's secret entrance wasn't so essential, after all. With a smile, he pulled the blaster rifle from his shoulder and proceeded to go to work.
Marr Phes brought his violet blade even closer to Kyba's throat.
It would be so easy, he thought, to teach him a lesson for his disobedience. Just a simple flick of the wrist...
Marr watched as Kyba swallowed visibly.
"Hey, friend," Kyba gulped, "Think about what you're doing. After all we've been through together, you don't want to do this."
Marr felt his rage bleeding into his arms. "Who are you to tell me what I want and don't want?" Marr yelled. His hands were shaking with fury now. It was practically out of his control whether he struck Kyba or not. "'After all we've been through together.' What a joke! After all we've been through, you should know better than to disobey me!"
"Marr, I don't even know what's going on! You've got to communicate with me!"
"You've got to trust me!"
Kyba's gaze flickered to the lightsaber blade at his throat, then back to Marr. "I do trust you, Marr," Kyba said in a softened tone, "But I got impatient. I'm sorry."
"You should be!" Marr cried, but he already felt his anger dissipating. Was it even his anger? Or was it just an effect of the Draykonwols? "You destroyed my ship!"
"That's not true, Marr," Kyba said, pleasant but firm. "Someone destroyed the Hadrian, but it wasn't me."
Marr took a step back as his friend's words registered. As he did so, he caught sight of Arkadas's distant castle through a break in the tree line overhead. Kyba was right—someone would pay for the Hadrian's destruction, but it shouldn't be Kyba.
The Draykonwols whispered. Marr's anger rose.
"Listen to me, Kyba," he bit out, "You're not to blame for this. But I know who is."
Marr turned away from Kyba, moving towards Arkadas's fortress.
"Marr, what's going on?" Kyba asked. "What are we dealing with here?"
Marr looked over his shoulder and said one word: "Sith." He watched as his Devaronian companion's eyes grew wide. Kyba's apparent shock was enough to bring Marr to a halt again.
"Kyba, it's time I leveled with you," Marr declared. "I was trained here on Teca VI by a Sith Lord. And that Sith Lord and Overlord Arkadas are one and the same." Marr paused, taking a deep breath in an attempt to steady himself. If he could manage to keep his anger in check, he might be able to think clearly enough to come up with some sort of plan. Finally, he continued. "We must be very vigilant, my friend. We cannot afford to be taken by surprise again." Marr watched as the shock on Kyba's face transformed into recognition as all the puzzle pieces fell into place. "Remember the concentration technique I taught you," Marr said. "I need you at the top of your game."
Kyba answered, "And you must remember the calming technique I taught you. You cannot fall prey to the dark side, not here. Its grip is too strong, and will not be easily broken."
They stood, staring at each other for a long, awkward moment.
"I need to call this in," Kyba said. "The Jedi need to know this. They need to send others to assist."
"No," Marr said emphatically. "The Order stays out of this. Besides, what are you going to call with, the ship's radio?" He gestured violently in the direction his ship had been. "And we don't have any time. Arkadas plans on leaving the planet soon."
Kyba didn't move. He held his chin, thinking. Marr turned to leave, but turned back when he sensed his friend was not following.
"Hey, look," Marr said softly, "We can do this, and there's another Jedi on the planet making his way to Arkadas, so there you go. Problem solved. Can we go now?"
Marr sensed Kyba's confusion; the Jedi was clearly shocked at the prospect of another Jedi on Teca VI. But he had no time to waste waiting for Kyba to make sense of it. Turning away and breaking into a run towards the castle, Marr yelled over his shoulder, "Try not to fall too far behind, Jedi!"
Marr knew who was behind the Hadrian's destruction. Only one man could sink so low—Aiko.
No, Marr Phes reminded himself, he's Referius now.
Marr sensed Kyba's diminishing Force presence behind him; the Jedi Knight had finally decided to move, and was now struggling to keep up with him. But that was alright. This fight belonged to Marr Phes, and Marr Phes alone.
Warriors fell like hail in a winter storm. A tornado of blaster bolts ripped through the finest guards the Dark Lord had to offer. Once he'd depleted the power supply from his rifle, Referius hurled it to the ground and drew a pair of twin blaster pistols. These suited him much better. While he knew the firepower was less, Referius felt their rate of fire easily made up for that. He had never understood why blasters were looked at as clumsy and random—he had always preferred the projectile weapons to lightsabers, and in the hands of someone with Force training, they could be just as deadly. More so than the Jedi were willing to admit.
As he made his way into the Great Hall, Referius hesitated. Not that this was easy, but shouldn't there have been more resistance? Even with the reduced forces on the planet, Referius was sure Arkadas should have had more to throw at him.
Is this a trap? he thought to himself. It doesn't matter. This has to be done.
Referius stretched out with the Force to determine if any guards remained. It felt like the eye of a storm. All around him he sensed nothing but calm, yet he intuitively knew that the worst was yet to come.
What does Arkadas have to throw at me now? he wondered.
"The prodigal son returns," an all-too-familiar voice said from the darkness.
Marr Phes raced towards the castle at breakneck speed. It grew closer and closer every second. He could see the rear entrance not too far in the distance. A lone guard stood nervously gazing into the darkness.
Without breaking stride, Marr leaned forward and darted into the nearby shadows. Finally, he came to a halt and examined the guard. It was a young Tecan, barely old enough to be considered an adult. Marr sensed no Force aptitude in this one.
Leaping from the darkest of the shadows into the starlit evening, Marr flew through the air and landed, cutting the distance between him and the guard in half. The youth looked like a ronto caught in beamlights, and stood rooted to his spot, his eyes wide. As Marr sprinted towards him and pounced, the guard finally remembered to raise his blaster rifle and take aim, but it was too little too late. Marr buried his lightsaber hilt in the man's stomach, igniting it through his abdomen. With a cough of surprise, the guard collapsed.
Marr threw open the doors to the Rear Antechamber, not bothering to look back. As he raced through the room and down a dark hallway, he heard loud explosions and blaster fire. People screamed, and through the Force he could feel people dying.
Marr came to a stop, then took two steps back the way he had come. He placed his palm against a gray brick on the wall of the hallway. A small green light lit up, followed by a series of beeps. A section of the wall just to the side of the light slowly lowered down into the floor, revealing a dark opening. Marr quickly raced down the steps, not bothering to close the secret passageway behind him. Though he wanted this fight to be his, he didn't want Kyba to be left too far behind. When Kyba came across this entrance, he would surely conclude that it was the path Marr had taken.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Marr Phes proceeded forward. After passing a series of attaching corridors and hallways, Phes finally reached his destination. Hearing voices on the other side of the door, he stopped and looked through the peephole.
"Impressive, most impressive," Arkadas spoke again, stepping out of the shadows and pulling back his hood so Referius could see him properly. "It would seem I trained you a little too well."
The Sith Lord waded through the sea of bodies that were once his dark warriors and guards, pausing for a moment at each to examine them.
"It is a pity. I was rather pleased with their performance until this point." He looked up at Referius. "Very few could have accomplished what you have. I take it as a compliment to myself."
Referius dropped both blasters and reached into his duster, pulling out his last pair.
"Where is the child, Arkadas?" he asked.
Arkadas answered the question with a laugh. "You fool! Do you believe those toys can harm me?"
Referius knew that blasters would prove no match for Arkadas's dark powers, yet he couldn't help but feel that they were his best option.
"Where is the child?" he yelled. "You don't know what you are dealing with, Arkadas!"
The Dark Lord sneered at the comment.
"You dare to presume that your weak vision is better than mine?" he said, grinding his teeth. "You pathetic fool, jealous of a nine-year-old boy!"
The words shot out like blaster bolts.
"You're afraid that he will become more powerful than you, as you should be. He already is more powerful."
Arkadas's words cut through Referius like a saber blade.
"Arkadas, it isn't about me being jealous. I was loyal to you. I still am. But the child is dangerous." Referius's emotions threatened to overwhelm him. Why was everything he did a failure? He couldn't even convince his own master of the threat the boy posed. "You cannot control him, why can't you see that?"
Referius pleaded his case. "It's as if he's found a way to block your Force visions about him." The seasoned warrior fought back tears of anger. "He will not stop at destroying you. He will destroy the entire galaxy."
Referius swallowed the lump in his throat.
"He will be a Sith one day, and he will not destroy the galaxy. He will rule it!" Arkadas held his hand out to Referius. "I have foreseen it. It is the ultimate goal. You will do your part and train him with me. Cast your petty grievances aside and look at the bigger picture."
"He must not be trained, and if that means I have to kill you," he said, locking both blasters into firing position, "then I will."
Referius fired both blasters at the same time, kicking off as many shots as he could. His eyes closed and he used the Force to guide the shots. Arkadas enter a Force-powered spin, launching himself sideways, and avoided the blows. Then, to Referius's surprise, the blasters exploded in his hands.
What happened? he thought to himself.
With speed only the Force could grant, Marr Phes shot out of the opening and into the Great Hall. In what seemed to be one move, he ignited his violet lightsaber and deflected multiple shots. With his free hand Marr reached out and used the Force to implode Referius's twin blasters. He stood, breathing heavily, and stared down his longtime rival. Instantly, he was consumed by the anger and hate he had been attempting to keep at bay. If looks could kill, this confrontation would have been over the second it started.
Hate and rage so blinded Marr Phes that he barely heard Arkadas laugh. "It would seem the entire family is here," the Sith Lord proclaimed with pride. But his tone changed, becoming laced with venom as he continued, "Now we will see which one of you is better suited for my needs."
Marr Phes grinned. He would make short work of Referius, who had always been his inferior.
Phes lunged toward the tired old warrior, lightsaber ready for the kill. Referius was unarmed, so this was going to be an easy kill. The brilliantly glowing blade split the traitor's duster in half—but to his surprise, Referius escaped entirely. He stood for a split second, reminding himself that even though Referius was not half as powerful, he was the best Marr had ever seen at mind tricks. Referius had already stepped away, leaving his duster behind.
Marr Phes pivoted just in time to block Referius's lightsaber. The warriors' sabers crossed. Over Referius's shoulder, Marr could see Arkadas laughing... and, just beyond him, the figure of Kyba lurking in the shadows, still within the doorway Phes himself had used to make his entrance. The Jedi had found his way here.
Marr felt a sudden calm and peace wash over him. He knew it came from Kyba as the Devaronian Jedi focused his energy on Marr. Reaching deep inside, Marr utilized Kyba's projected energy, twisting and morphing it to achieve a new balance. Now he was ready for war; now he would make Referius suffer.
"You should not have touched my ship!" Marr screamed.
He unleashed a blinding attack, his lightsaber just barely connecting with Referius's flesh. Cauterized burn marks formed instantly on Referius's right arm, upper chest, and face, just above the left eyebrow.
Referius staggered back, howling in pain. Marr caught sight of Arkadas sneaking away, the Dark Lord stopping briefly to look at his two pupils—one former, the other current—his twisted smile still visible as he disappeared into another secret passage. In the Force, Marr sensed Kyba moving to follow the Sith.
Referius took advantage of Marr's distraction to compose himself, then stepped in to reengage. Marr Phes noticed Referius moving in and faked a strike at Referius's side. Referius instantly responded, intercepting the blow with his own lightsaber. With their lightsabers both engaged, Phes caught the failed apprentice with a backhand to the face that sent him reeling towards the far wall. He followed up with an overhand slice that nearly cleaved his opponent in two. At the last possible second Referius ducked the killing blow and rolled to the side, leaping up and back while simultaneously kicking Marr Phes. Referius landed softly on his feet and quickly Force-pushed Marr into an ornate table.
Marr Phes easily rolled over the top of the table and landed on his feet.
"What in the galaxy makes you think you have a chance at besting me? In all our history together, not once were you able to defeat me," Marr Phes said as he circled around for another attack.
"That was when I was Aiko," the grizzled warrior responded. "You can call me Darth Referius now."
"So I hear," Marr growled, "But changing your name won't change the fact that you've always been a weakling." Using the Force, Marr lifted and hurled multiple objects at Referius, turning them into missiles.
Referius became a blur, blocking almost everything that was thrown his way. But the sheer ferocity and volume of Marr's attack began to wear him down. Marr laughed. Victory was within his grasp. Channeling the Force more strongly now, Marr leaped towards Referius, when suddenly Referius's lightsaber came flying towards him. He barely managed to avoid the thrown blade.
At that instant Referius was on him, connecting with a knee to the face, causing Marr to drop his own lightsaber. Before he could recover, Referius connected again, hitting him with a vicious left hook to the kidney. The blow knocked Marr Phes to his knees, and opened him up for a right cross to the temple.
Quickly, Referius used the Force to call his lightsaber back to him. "I've told you many times, Phes, do not ever underestimate me," said an angry Referius. Lightsaber in hand, he walked up to his battered opponent. "I'm sorry, my brother, but I cannot allow you to interfere with my plans again."
Referius reached back to deliver what would be the killing blow. Marr growled and blasted Referius with the Force so hard that he flew off his feet and slammed into the ceiling. Marr slowly rose, knowing he had bought himself a few precious seconds. But he would need more than that. Again he used the Force to lift Referius off the ground, and with a flick of the wrist slammed him into the wall. Referius collapsed, unconscious.
Suddenly, a blaster bolt struck him from behind. Marr Phes screamed out in pain, a severe burning sensation coming from the new wound in his back. He spun around, blindly reaching out with the Force and choking the life out of his attacker. The lifeless body hit the ground with a soft thud. Phes walked up, kicking the body over so he could see the face of his attacker. It was a young Tecan from the village. His mix of Tecan and human was familiar to Marr from his time as an apprentice on the planet.
Darzik. Yes, that was his name.
Sensing danger, Marr called his lightsaber back to him, catching and igniting it in one fluid motion, then spinning to decapitate another would-be attacker. The body collapsed down onto its knees, arms twitching, before it fell forward. Bending down, Phes reached out and lifted the head; this one was the village loudmouth, Jak.
Marr Phes had won a hard-fought victory, but was injured and needed time to recover. He looked down at Referius, still unconscious. Marr was impressed; Arkadas's new apprentice had been well prepared for this confrontation. This day, for the first time ever between the two, Referius had proved to be Marr's equal. Still, this was an appropriate victory for a Sith. He had proven his superiority, even if just barely so.There was no honor in killing a defenseless opponent—Referius had earned a reprieve.
Marr Phes dragged Referius into the secret passage Arkadas and Kyba had disappeared into. Setting him down, Marr reached up and sealed the secret passage behind them. He then set about finding his Jedi friend, hoping that he was not too late.
He stands in the chamber of the Jedi Council. The Elrood Conflicts are over, and he is awaiting orders. He can barely repress a smile. He is eager to return to Teca VI... to return to Swilla. It has been too long. Too long since he has seen her beautiful face, too long since he soaked in her radiance, too long since he tasted her lips...
He requests to return to his duties on Teca VI. They sense his anticipation. Questioning. He grows impatient. They say Teca VI no longer needs a Jedi guardian. They assign him to duty on Coruscant. Senate security. He protests. They look disturbed. An admonition. He tries to justify himself. They sense his attachment. A warning. He leaves the chamber...
He reports to his station in the Senate Hall. He can't escape his anger, his bitterness towards them, his overwhelming sense of loss. He gets arguementative. He ignores his masters. He neglects his duties. They summon him. He goes. They lecture him. He becomes angry. He makes a threat. Their eyes are wide. They understand now.
Suddenly he is in bio-stasis. A recording is playing. Tranquility. Peace. The Jedi Code.
Something is wrong. He is awake. He can see out of the biostasis pod. Swilla is there, and corrupted boorslugs are attacking her. He tries to help her. He can't move. He screams, but no one can hear him. Swilla falls. The boorslugs are eating her! He pounds his fists against the container. They enter the room. They look down at her and laugh. They laugh at her. They laugh at him.
Finally they let him out. There are no worms. There is no sign of Swilla. They are talking. Guile. Teca VI conquered. Yes, he will take out Guile. War. Death. General Kyba in charge. He is constantly ordered away from Teca VI. A final offensive. Guile is dead.
He is on board the command ship. Reports coming in from Teca VI. Many Tecans have been slaughtered. He must see that Swilla is all right. Kyba contacts them. They insist the task force return. No diversions. No! Swilla!
A loss of control. A lightsaber in his hand. Death. Jedi and soldiers fall. Surrounded. A stun bolt. Blackness.
He is back in bio-stasis. He can see out again. Master Yoda is there. Yoda walks towards the bio-stasis pod.
He begs to be let out. Yoda shakes his head. A lightsaber ignites crimson red in Yoda's hand. The Master lifts his other hand. In it, Swilla's severed head. It's Darzik's head. It's Swilla!
Yoda grins, his face like a skull. Yoda laughs maniacally.
Talik was thankful when Grom woke him from the nightmare. At least, he was grateful until he found out why he was wakened.
Referius had left camp. Jak was awake to witness it and woke Darzik. They woke Grom, but decided to leave without waiting for the Jedi to be wakened.
Talik was in a foul mood. First the nightmare, now this. Granted, he had nightmares ever since his first sentence to biostasis, but none had ever been this bad. Now to make matters worse, Darzik was gone, and he sensed the boy was in serious danger. He quickly grabbed his gear and pursued them.
"Grom, how could you let them get ahead of us?" Master Talik Sol said as he sprinted towards the fortress.
"I told you, Master Sol, they left before I could wake you," Grom answered.
Talik's breath was short, and not just because of how hard he was running. Images of Swilla being eaten alive kept flashing through his mind. He knew it wasn't real, but knowing didn't change that Swilla was dead, and he couldn't stop it. The grief was almost unbearable. If anything had happened to his grandson...
The Jedi raced towards the entrance, barely taking in the field of bodies strewn about him. He opened the door to the Great Hall. Glancing around quickly, it was obvious that a huge battle had occurred—by the look of things, one he had barely missed.
Talik's eyes fell upon the body of his grandson, lying awkwardly on the floor. His breath caught in his throat. Talik stumbled forward and closed the distance between himself and Darzik's body. His only link to his past, to Swilla—his only physical clue that it had not been just a dream—destroyed so simply. Talik struggled to process it. He had not even witnessed his grandson's death; it all felt too surreal, almost as though he should be able to go back in time and fix it.
Kneeling down, he lifted the boy, cradling the dead body in his arms, and the Jedi Master sobbed.
Kyba dashed down the passageway, his steps echoing in the dimly lit corridor. He could sense his quarry ahead, just barely traceable in the Force. Though Arkadas had a solid lead on him, Kyba could track him well enough to know which turns to take. His leg ached, still hampered by his earlier battle with the warrior in the forest. He would have to hope that despite his injury, he was up to the task of confronting this Sith Lord.
The Jedi sensed Arkadas come to a stop up ahead, apparently having reached his destination. Kyba continued down a few more twists and turns, then came to a stop outside a door. Through that door, he could sense a high concentration of the dark side. Steeling himself, he opened the door wide with the Force.
Kyba found a dimly lit room with a figure in a flowing dark robe standing near the far wall. The Jedi entered, his lightsaber in hand but not yet ignited. Behind him, the door quickly slammed shut.
"Welcome, Jedi," the robed figure said. "It has been far too long since I last met one of your kind."
"I assure you, the pleasure is yours only, Arkadas," the Devaronian responded. He surveyed the room, noting that every inch was lined with wood, painted black. "Nice room. Draykonwol?"
"Yes," Arkadas replied. "It radiates the dark side most strongly. In here, I feel—" he looked around for a second, then looked back at Kyba, "—whole."
"And to think I thought you nothing more than a criminal," Kyba stated, a small amount of respect seeping into his voice. "I never thought—"
"That I was a Sith?" Arkadas finished. "Of course you wouldn't. We're all dead. At least that is what the hypocrites you choose to follow tell you."
Arkadas gestured towards himself, executing a short, graceful bow.
"Allow me to reintroduce myself. I am Darth Diabolicus, Dark Lord of the Sith," Arkadas said. "Welcome to your new destiny."
"I am Kyba of the Jedi Order, and I have only one destiny, Sith: to destroy you," Kyba said, igniting his blade, its blue beam reflecting off the polished black of the floor. Diabolicus stood, unmoving. "Prepare for your own destiny."
Diabolicus laughed a shrill, cruel laugh. He walked off to one side, shaking his head. Kyba shifted into a fighting stance, but the Sith Lord's behavior made him hesitate. Kyba remained transfixed in place.
The Sith Lord stopped after a few paces and turned back towards the Jedi.
"Do you realize how pathetic you are?" Diabolicus asked pointedly. He gestured towards the Jedi. "Don't the Jedi use the Force for knowledge and defense? Is it not a rule that you never attack? And yet you draw your weapon. Tsk-tsk," he clucked, shaking his head. Kyba shifted in his stance, unsure of himself.
"We make exceptions for the Sith," he said, feigning confidence.
"Then by all means, take advantage of your exceptions. Strike me down." The Sith Lord approached the Jedi, his arms outstretched. "Prove to me before I die that the Jedi are truly a corrupt order, one that preaches one standard and follows another."
Kyba arm's ached to begin combat. He could feel the power of the Draykonwol wood, hear it whispering to him to attack, to let go. But he remained conflicted. Frustrated by his own indecision, he flashed his blade forward as if he could ward off the Sith Lord.
"Not another step forward, Darth," he said with resolve. Surprisingly, Diabolicus obeyed, turning his back to Kyba and walking back to where he had originally stood.
"You disappoint me, Jedi," the Sith Lord said. "You follow their every dictum, like a dog eager to please his master, if only for the scraps from his dinner."
"That's enough!" the Jedi said forcefully, taking a step towards the Sith. Why couldn't Diabolicus simply draw his blade and allow the fight to begin?
"Not that I entirely blame you," Diabolicus said, turning to face the Jedi. Kyba saw that a lightsaber hilt was now in the Sith's hands. "They have lied to you since they kidnapped you from your parents."
"You're going too far!" Kyba yelled, taking another step towards the Sith. He could feel his anger growing, anger at how the Sith Lord was controlling this confrontation, how he weaved his lies with truth, and how bitterly that truth resonated. He felt a glimmer of hatred expanding in his chest, hatred for this Dark Lord who used the more questionable nature of the Jedi against him, and he hated himself in some small way because he found himself agreeing with what the Sith Lord said.
"They say to use the Force for knowledge, and yet they actively deny it to you, and horde it for themselves," the Sith continued. "They make you take tests, they control your development. Why? So you can grow into your power? Or is it so they can control it? Control you?" Diabolicus turned and started pacing.
"You don't know what you're talking about," the Jedi said, lowering his blade a hair.
"Oh, I don't?" The Sith Lord asked. "I sense the pull of the dark side within you. I feel that you have caressed it before. You know the Jedi ask the impossible when they tell you not to use the dark side, that there is no emotion. And you understand that the dark side is where true power lies."
"My past mistakes are none of your concern!" the Jedi exclaimed, raising his blade. He started towards the Sith. Diabolicus glanced at him, continuing his stride.
"They deny it to you," Diabolicus said. "Yet they allow it for themselves. You did not know? Even your Master Yoda delves into the dark side."
"That's a lie!" Kyba said, moving quicker.
"No!" Diabolicus shouted. "Look inside yourself, you know this is true. The Jedi Code is a lie. You, my friend, are a lie."
"No!!" Kyba shouted, closing the distance between them with a strong jump. He lifted his blade back over his head, bringing it down in a move that would split the Sith Lord's head in two. Suddenly, he saw a flash of red, and his enemy's blade was there, blocking his, mere inches from Diabolicus's head. The Sith Lord was laughing.
Kyba shifted back, then lunged in with a swift strike to one side, followed by a counter to the other. The Sith Lord deflected each blow with ease. Diabolicus stepped in with two quick blows, then followed them up with a spin leading to a sweep at knee level, which Kyba manage to avoid by leaping backwards.
"Not bad," Diabolicus said. "I admit, I'm somewhat impressed, but you could do much better. Why do you hold back?"
Diabolicus lunged in with a quick stab at the chest. Kyba deflected the blow, but Diabolicus countered by twirling his blade out and up, bringing it over his head and to his other side, ending in a swift downward strike toward Kyba's head. The Jedi managed to block the blow, and countered by pushing up, then spinning, bringing his blade around in a move that would slice open the Sith's gut. The Sith Lord easily stepped back and brought his blade down, laughing mockingly as he did so.
"Is this your best?" Diabolicus goaded. "Kill me!"
Kyba felt his anger building, but there was no time to control it. How much strength remained in his injured leg was an open question; the only answer was to end this encounter as soon as possible. Yet with Diabolicus controlling the entire duel, Kyba had no chance of winning.
The Sith Lord slowly brought his blade up, leaving his sides exposed. The Jedi responded by taking a strike to one side, only to find that the Sith had managed to meet the blade with his own, again laughing.
Frustrated, Kyba pressed in with a flurry of attacks—one side followed by the other, high and low, each attack a split second after the last—and his arms became a blur of motion. The Sith deflected each blow, but fell back from the sheer number of the Jedi's attacks. Kyba continued to press forward, increasing the intensity of his onslaught. He found it hard to maintain this speed for long, though, and soon found his blade locked with Diabolicus's, a wide grin on the Sith's face.
"Much better!" Diabolicus commended. "I think you have reached the height of your present ability."
The Dark Lord pushed forward with his blade, knocking Kyba back a couple of steps. The Jedi winced as his weak leg momentarily bore all of his weight. He called upon the Force to strengthen it, but even that was exhausting.
Diabolicus gestured with his free hand, his smile broadening.
"Now, if you gave yourself over to your hate and anger, you would be much more able. You will never win this way." Diabolicus leaned in, his grin fading into a scowl. "As you are now, you are far too pitiful and weak."
With a flash of anger, Kyba brought his blade up and took a quick swipe at the Sith Lord's head, only to find it no longer where it had been a moment before. The Sith Lord came in with two quick attacks, which Kyba barely managed to block. Jumping back, Kyba regained his posture. The Sith Lord laughed and shook his head condescendingly. The Jedi felt his rage burn hotter.
Suddenly the Sith Lord jumped in, attacking with such speed and ferocity that Kyba barely managed to bring his blade up in time. The Sith pressed hard, and Kyba fell back. The Jedi took a quick jab, achieving a glancing blow on the Sith Lord's side.
Diabolicus fell back, snarling in pain.
Emboldened, Kyba lunged forward, again bringing all his speed and skill into a flurry of blows. He could feel the Sith Lord weakening, the smell of victory floating through the air. The Sith Lord's face dripped with sweat, his expression becoming one of concern.
Suddenly, the Sith Lord winked, then deftly jumped up and over the Jedi, landing and spinning around with a high attack, which Kyba managed to deflect. But the Sith's ruse had led him to become overconfident, and now he was out of position and off-balance. Diabolicus came in close, his blade flashing in sweeping attacks to the head. Kyba fell back, barely blocking each blow. The Sith Lord spun and came down low. As the Jedi parried the attack, he sensed another danger. The Sith Lord ignited a second lightsaber and simultaneously brought it over in a quick slice towards Kyba's neck. Kyba fell back, barely dodging a killing blow. He tucked himself up and rolled back, coming out in a defensive stance. Diabolicus walked calmly towards him, a crimson blade in each hand.
"Now you pay for following their lies," the Sith said, and almost before Kyba realized it, Diabolicus was upon him, twirling his blades in multiple directions, attacking at random. It was all Kyba could do to block and dodge the blows; he could feel himself tiring as he neared the end of his strength. He fell back, deflecting a blow and rolling to one side, managing to avoid the attacks, but each strike from the Sith came closer to hitting the mark.
Diabolicus continued to spin and jump and twirl, his blades blending into one solid wall of energy. His movement was so quick that Kyba could no longer tell which blade belonged to what arm.
Kyba knew he was going to die. The thought managed to build up his anger, but it was supplanted by his frustration at being so highly overmatched. This Sith had intended to show his superior power, and Kyba was convinced. He saw no other options. He was already on the edge, maybe it was time to jump. He could give himself over to the dark side...
No! He would not follow that road. Still, just the thought brought new vigor. He leapt in to attack, and found his strength building as he failed to keep his anger in check. He made a quick jab towards the Sith, and Diabolicus moved to deflect it. However, the blow was quicker than any the Jedi had produced before, and the shock of the strike threw the Sith off balance. Kyba capitalized, pushing forward with a series of strong attacks. Diabolicus fell back, stumbling and rolling to one side to avoid a quick sweep from the Jedi.
Kyba let out a slight laugh as he moved in on Diabolicus. The Sith fell back, then with a yell jumped again, up and over Kyba's head. Kyba turned to deflect the blow he knew was coming, but failed to block the second attack from the side. The Sith brought his blade up and out, chopping the Jedi's saber hilt in half. Kyba watched the blade wink out, sparks shooting from what was left of the handle. He looked over at the Sith, and Diabolicus made a pushing gesture with one hand. Kyba felt himself shoved hard by the Force, and he flew back into the door behind him, hitting it so hard that it broke loose, Jedi accompanying Draykonwol shards into a room behind. As Kyba hit the ground, he saw a shiny cylinder fly from his robes and skitter off across the floor. The lightsaber he had gained from the acolyte in the forest came to rest a few meters from where he lay.
Kyba looked towards the door to see Diabolicus walking into the room, a blade on either side. The Sith Lord's eyes sparkled maliciously, his grin both cruel and excited. Kyba felt his frustration come to a head.
What do I have to do to kill him? he asked himself. The thought that he could not succeed stung his very soul. He looked up at the Sith Lord, then back towards the lightsaber on the floor.
"Take it," Diabolicus chided. "Use it. It was meant for you."
For so long, Kyba had battled his inner demons, had fought to keep the dark side at bay. Yet it was a never-ending quest; his anger always threatened to get the better of him. Perhaps it was time to admit that the dark side was indeed stronger than Jedi Kyba could handle.
A child of virgin birth, the Chosen One, the one who will bring balance to the Force. A young boy with blond hair and blue eyes, full of innocence and hope. All will turn out right. Wait—betrayal. Death. The entire Jedi Order eradicated, best friends fighting. A figure in black, wearing an evil helmet, breathing heavily—the Chosen One? But how, how could he turn to the dark side? He was meant to bring balance to the Force. Who could have caused the greatest hope to turn to the dark side? SIDIOUS!
Referius awoke to find Marr Phes dragging him by the leg down a secret passage in Arkadas's stronghold. He was careful not to betray that he had regained consciousness just yet; Marr Phes, former apprentice of Arkadas, and Referius had a rivalry going back years.
But, Referius reflected, Phes isn't Arkadas's only former apprentice. It seems I've joined that rank as well. This brought him in a strange way closer to Phes. It was odd to feel this hint of kinship with one who had been a rival for so many years.
As Phes pulled Referius one way, then another, Referius made an effort not to smile. Phes had never learned his way around these passages. True, he hadn't been to Teca VI in ten years, but even while living here, Phes had taken little interest in learning the routes of these secret passageways. Referius could sense Phes's frustration and embarrassment in the Force, no doubt made all the greater from his injuries in their fight a short while ago. Still, it was refreshing for Referius to see someone else struggle with inadequacy.
Inadequacy... perhaps Referius had finally been granted his reward for that. After so many years of struggling to properly connect with the Force, it had granted him a vision that painted a more complete picture of the future than even masters like Yoda had probably ever seen. Referius felt a peace he had never before known in his life; the Force had trusted him with a vision, and now he placed his trust in the Force.
"Spast," Marr Phes said aloud, coming to a halt. Phes let go of the leg of his rival and looked around. "Where in the Nine Moons am I?"
"Lost and going in the wrong direction," Referius said. Marr turned to see Referius's eyes open. With a snap-hiss the blood-red saber of the dark warrior extended to Referius's neck.
"Do we have to do this again?" asked Referius. "I have a serious kriffing headache."
Marr looked at the older warrior.
"Give me one reason to spare your life," he said as brought his saber blade in just a bit closer to Referius. Referius looked Marr dead in his eyes.
"Oh, I can give you more than one," he said. "Our friends need our help, you're lost and I know the way out, and the Prophecy of the Chosen One is in danger..."
Seizing the opportunity, Referius Force-pushed Phes against the far wall. With a thud Phes hit, dropped his saber, and bounced back toward Referius who caught him by his neck, squeezing tightly. "And I'm really not in the mood."
Referius felt Phes attempting to struggle in his grip, the look of shock and fear in his eyes. Referius understood fear. For his entire life Referius had feared he would amount to nothing.
But now that fear was gone. With his vision of the future, the vision of the Prophecy being in jeopardy... and the knowledge of his own death... he had nothing else to fear.
Slowly, he lowered the other warrior, letting up on his grip until Phes was safely on the ground.
"You should have killed me when you had the chance," Phes said. He threw a sharp uppercut that would have knocked Referius's head clean off, had he connected. Referius moved out of the way just in time to connect with a left cross. Phes was able to recover quickly enough to strike back. Referius blocked and countered expertly. Phes still seemed to think himself the superior, and Referius knew he could use that in a fight, if necessary. But a fight was not what he had in mind.
Referius said, "It isn't your destiny to die at my hands, nor is it mine to die at yours." Phes looked confused by the statement.
"And don't worry, both of our lives will end soon enough," Referius finished.
"Aiko—Referius—you ruined my life!" Marr Phes bit out. "Look at me. All I am now is an empty shell of a man!"
Referius chuckled in spite of himself. "Phes, look at me. I've never been anything more than that."
Phes grabbed Referius roughly by the shoulder. "After all you've taken from me, how can you say that?"
Referius clapped his hand on Phes's shoulder in an almost affectionate gesture. "Phes, you can't keep blaming me for your problems. We both know I've never been your equal. Arkadas played us off against each other, but that doesn't mean we have to be bitter rivals."
"Referius, you took what was rightfully mine," Marr Phes protested.
"You mean the position as commander of Arkadas's security forces?" Referius asked. "How could I not take the position? I thirsted for power, too. I'd always been not quite good enough. How could I turn down such an offer?"
Phes lifted his gaze to meet Referius's own. The two stood staring at each other for a long moment.
"In all our years as rivals, I've come to know you well," Marr Phes finally said. "You might even say I've come to respect you, in a way. I can tell that you're being honest with me, Referius. And I guess I don't have much choice but to trust you now."
"That's good," Referius answered, glancing down the corridor, "Because the Force has granted me a vision of the future that revealed great peril for the entire galaxy." Seeing that Phes was listening, Referius continued. "After you left Teca VI, Arkadas happened upon a boy with a natural attunement to the dark side. This boy will grow to be one of the most powerful Force users in history. He will eventually cause the Chosen One to turn to the dark side and destroy the Jedi Order."
Marr Phes let out a cruel laugh. "And this bothers you? Have you learned nothing from your Sith Master?"
"Nothing compared to what I've learned from the Force itself," Referius countered. "Listen to me, Phes: What has the dark side ever brought you, truly? Power, yes. But happiness? Fulfillment? No. For you just as well as me, the dark side has brought only frustration and left us unsatisfied."
Referius couldn't tell if Phes believed him or not, but he continued regardless.
"The Force has given me this vision, Marr. In my last moments, I will finally accomplish something. We can stop the corruption of the Chosen One, Marr. We might—we will—die trying, but we can stop it."
Marr Phes shook his head. "Who is this Chosen One you keep babbling about?"
"He was foretold of in an ancient Jedi prophecy." Referius felt his heart swell with feelings he had thought long gone, left in another self. "The Prophecy says he will be chosen by the Will of the Force to bring balance to the galaxy. This is bigger than you or me, Phes. Much, much bigger. And that's why we must stop Arkadas from leading this young boy he has found down a path towards the corruption of the Chosen One."
Referius was pleased to see that Marr looked thoughtful. He was truly considering what Referius was telling him.
"How long have you been planning this, Referius?"
Arkadas's newest former apprentice grinned. "Since I had that Force vision ten minutes ago." Then he grew serious. "I've known this boy was dangerous for a long time, and have been trying to garner the courage to do something about it. A few days ago, I finally forced myself to take a course of action. I... I contacted the Jedi about Arkadas."
"Why would you contact the Jedi?!" Marr demanded.
"I told the Jedi that Lord Arkadas could be found on Teca VI," Referius said. "I didn't tell them that he was a Sith—at least not then. I wanted to tell them as little as possible, but still ensure they dispatched a Jedi to the planet. And they did—they sent Master Talik Sol, the Jedi of Tecan legend. In the past few days, he and I built a small fellowship to confront Arkadas."
"A small fellowship, huh? It must have been some of them that I killed in the Great Hall after our duel."
Referius felt as though he'd just taken a blaster bolt to the chest. "Who—who did you kill?"
"That young mutant, Darzik, and the village idiot, Jak."
Referius scowled. He felt rage welling up in his chest, but he reminded himself that he was ultimately to blame for those deaths, not Marr. "That's it—no one else dies for me," Referius bit out. "We're taking Arkadas down, just the two of us."
Referius turned to run down the corridor, but Marr grabbed him by the shoulder, stopping him. "Referius... I have a friend here, too. Since I left Teca VI, I met a Jedi named Kyba. He's... cared for me like a brother. I recently told him I was trained by a Sith, and I brought him here. While we were fighting earlier, he went on to confront Arkadas alone."
Referius felt his eyebrows shoot up. "Then we've not a moment to lose!" he cried as he raced down the corridor with Marr at his side.
Kyba of the Jedi Order lay helplessly among Draykonwol splinters, at the mercy of Darth Diabolicus, Dark Lord of the Sith. Time slowed. Kyba thought back months—years. Images and sounds flashed in his mind.
"They have lied to you since they kidnapped you from your parents."
Whispers of the Devaronian's mother, pleading with the Jedi not to take away her son.
"Don't the Jedi use the Force for knowledge and defense?"
Sights of General Kyba on Amorris, leading hundreds of the Noble Spartan Guard, as well as Draykonwol Berserkers with hell-bent minds, against Warlord Guile's twisted Union of the Blind.
"A corrupt order, one that preaches one standard and follows another."
More images of Kyba leading an unholy alliance crafted for a holy purpose across the bloodied fields and forests.
"Is it not a rule that you never attack?"
Glimpses flashing of the armor-clad and caped Knight, slowly approaching an aged, rusty-helmed man, shaking with fear, barely grasping a pitchfork pointed at Kyba, his eyes removed from their sockets.
"And yet you draw your weapon."
A vision of Jedi Kyba igniting his lightsaber, his eyes white, in front of a dawn full of red clouds, bringing the weapon in a downward slash across the helpless man's chest.
"You follow their every dictum, like a dog eager to please his master, if only for the scraps from his dinner."
Images of Kyba receiving the highest honor for bravery and leadership in front of his peers for his victory on Amorris, the severed head of Warlord Guile in his grasp, only to be given another mission as a Jedi Knight.
His entire life was a lie.
Snapping back to reality, Kyba tilted his head to glance over at the hilt of the warrior from the forest. He had fought his anger long enough. Now he embraced it. He called for the weapon, already up on his feet, charging the Dark Lord, activating it in mid-air with the Force. Its crimson blade glowing like the anger burning within his soul, it met his hands and clashed with the blades of Darth Diabolicus.
Overpowering Diabolicus's lock, Kyba launched an upward slash followed by a downward strike, then finished with a mid-section slash. In a whirlwind of red, Diabolicus managed to block all three strikes, backing towards the end of the room, his face a twisted smile. They began a synchronized lashing of red. Diabolicus's technique made clear to Kyba who had taught the dark acolyte of the forest—and it was just as clear that Diabolicus was far superior to that acolyte.
Moving faster, Kyba brought his blade into an overhead swing that crackled upon one of the blades of the Sith Lord. Downshifting all of his power, he dragged the saber down Diabolicus's until it came in contact with the hilt and later his hand, the blade crawling off the top and down his forearm, scraping burnt flesh and exposing bone. Darth Diabolicus recoiled with pain and let loose a feral snarl, dropping the saber from the injured hand, bringing a deadly backslash upon Kyba with the other. The Knight barely managed to escape death, the blade singing hairs on the back of his neck.
Diabolicus scurried further back, his wounded hand tucked under his arm. Hell-bent on quenching his bloodlust by taking the life of the Dark Lord, Kyba moved in. The two blades met again, glowing brighter as if they too were rivals in a heated battle. Though Diabolicus countered the powerful slashes and strikes of Kyba, the Knight felt his own power continuing to grow—greater than it had ever been before.
The Jedi slashed downward, Diabolicus's blade racing to block it, when suddenly the Dark Lord shifted his weight and pivoted, his blade following, so that he missed Kyba's blade. Too late Kyba realized what was happening, and could only watch as the Dark Lord's lightsaber caught him with a glancing blow to the arm. Kyba's saber fell to the ground, but before shutting off it carved a path along the Sith's leg. Diabolicus screamed in pain and fell to the floor with a heavy thud.
Darth Diabolicus cackled, his voice a heady mix of agony and ecstasy. "Good. Use your aggressive feelings, Jedi. Draw your power from your hatred."
The rage-filled Jedi's lightsaber flew through the air and came to lie in the hand of his uninjured arm, its pommel pointed to the heavens, its blade to the depths beneath Diabolicus.
I have fought the dark side for so long... Can I not fight it a little longer? Kyba wondered. It was true that his anger had always been an obstacle. But it was an obstacle he had learned to combat, if not always keep in check. If anything, he had learned how to come back from the brink of unrestraint.
As if to settle the matter, Kyba suddenly sensed his good friend Marr Phes nearby, and the warm bond of friendship immediately cooled down the flames within him. The fiery blade shut down. Images flashed before his eyes of their trials and shared teachings, of Marr learning to curb the anger within him as he spent time with the Jedi Knight. Kyba realized all the good he had brought to fruition with his life spent as a Jedi. Hatred vanished within; Darth Diabolicus's words were poison no more.
The Sith lay on the floor, oblivious to Kyba's sudden change of heart. Diabolicus started to laugh in a twisted manner. "Your hate can give you a strength you've never dreamed of." He began to rise. "But only with training." Putting a hand on the unmoving Knight's shoulder, he said, "I can teach you how to use it in ways the Jedi would think impossible. Join me!"
Kyba pivoted his head to look at the evil master and stepped back. "Never. I'll never turn to the dark side."
Kyba locked eyes with Darth Diabolicus, the surprise etched on the Sith Lord's face.
Diabolicus snarled. "If you will not use the dark side, then you will be destroyed by it!"
With that, lightning shot out of his wounded hand, dropping Kyba as if he were a crate of durasteel. The lightning tore through Kyba, not just paralyzing him but draining him of the remaining energy he had. He fell to the floor in agony.
Diabolicus brought his hands together, grinding his shattered knuckles, cracking and popping bone and sinew into place, then Force-pulled his remaining lightsaber to him and clipped it onto his belt.
"Filthy Jedi," he crooned, and approached the Knight's quivering body. Kyba reached for his lightsaber.
"You would have made a good Sith—too bad," Diabolicus said as the Jedi found his weapon.
"I'd rather die a Jedi than apprentice myself to you, Diabolicus," he proclaimed, Force-activating the internal switch and bringing to life a brilliant, green blade as he lay there, letting out a proud grin.
"Then I'll grant you your wish," Diabolicus snarled, crimson blade coming to life as he smashed it down towards Kyba's shoulder, scoring a glancing blow that caused Kyba to drop his saber. The green glow extinguished like a suffocated candle flame as Kyba's grip on the hilt collapsed. Diabolicus shot more lightning at the Knight, Kyba's body lifting up into the air as the Sith Lord's arm rose. Kyba was thrown into agony once again, but that was hardly the worst of it: with a massive Force push, Diabolicus sent Kyba flying towards the far wall. Kyba collided with it in a blow that reverberated throughout his entire body as he collapsed to the ground.
The injured Knight struggled against the blackness that threatened to overtake him. His breath short, Kyba reached out to the Force and managed to settle into a healing trance. But, deep down, he realized he did not have long to live.
"You've got to give me a chance to prove myself!"
The words echoed in Master Talik Sol's mind as he gazed at the lifeless corpse that was Darzik's body and gently stroked the boy's face. For a brief moment, he thought he was looking at Swilla.
If only I had given him that chance, Talik thought, he wouldn't have felt forced to take it for himself. He had wanted to protect his grandson, and it had pushed Darzik into entering a situation for which he was not prepared. And it was all Talik's fault.
No! Talik thought bitterly. It is not my fault! His tears burned on his cheeks, melting from tears of sorrow into tears of grief-stricken anger. Darzik's life should not have been forfeited. Someone had actively killed him, and that someone would pay for this transgression. Talik clenched a fist, and every ornate window of the Great Hall shattered instantaneously.
The Jedi Master sprang to his feet and let loose a beastly howl that reverberated throughout the hall, carrying into the night. He felt a bloodlust as he had never felt before, and simply could not keep it in.
Leaping into the air, he called upon the Force to hold him in place, levitating. Hissing menacingly, he produced waves of Force energy that rolled outwards from his body, slamming into his surroundings. Two grand columns in the hall splintered and cracked; pieces of furniture flew around the room and shattered on walls.
His past was lost to history forever now, and not by accident; it was stolen by the Jedi, and just when he thought he would recover it, someone had ripped it from him by killing Darzik. Talik could not overcome that thought. The rage it created in him only seemed to build, and he could do nothing but allow it to flow out of him and into these violent Force waves.
Finally, Talik lowered himself to the floor, all the way to a sitting position. Catching his breath, the Jedi felt emotionally exhausted. His lungs had grown heavy; even the mere task of breathing seemed to require a laborious effort. In a life full of emotional moments, this one stood out as having an air of finality that the others had not. Sitting there, Talik felt the tears begin to come again—this time not just for his grandson, but for the acts he had thought himself incapable of, the rage to which a Jedi must not succumb.
It is only because of the influence of the Draykonwols, he told himself, and knew it to be a lie almost before he thought it. He himself had lived in this castle long enough to know the trees' effects could not influence those within its confines.
Slowly, Master Talik Sol rose.
"Come on," he said hoarsely to Grom, "We've got to catch up to the others."
The Togorian gave him a startled look, as though he had been certain Talik had forgotten about him.
"Yes, sir!" Grom barked.
Talik walked up to one of the walls and entered a secret passageway—a passageway he had used on multiple occasions during his time on Teca VI. Grom followed. As the Jedi Master took a step forward, he froze. He sensed a flash of emotion from a familiar presence. Could it be Jedi Kyba? Honing in on it, the presence became much more vivid. Yes, Kyba was here. And with him a presence bathed in the dark side. Kyba must have followed his Sith lead to its conclusion here on Teca VI.
"Come," Talik spoke aloud to Grom. "There is another Jedi here, and an evil Sith Lord. We must tread carefully."
As they wandered down the dark corridor, Talik trusted Grom to keep up with him. Having spent so much time in these secret passages, Talik navigated them as quickly as possible, taking shortcuts he imagined Arkadas didn't even know about. Though he used the Force to guide his movements, Talik was soon able to utilize his other senses as well. He could faintly hear shouts and the sizzle of lightsabers up ahead.
"This way!" he yelled back to Grom, who was following at a distance. His companion was hard-pressed to keep up with him. The sounds grew steadily louder, until finally they came to a stop. In his intensity, Master Talik Sol ran headlong down the pitch-black corridor, going only by memory and the Force. Finally, he came to a stop outside what he knew was the securest room in the building: his former meditation chamber and sparring room.
Grom finally caught up, panting for breath. A motion from Talik told him to be quiet.
Talik concentrated. In this room, he sensed the weak life force of Kyba, and what must have been Arkadas's dark presence.
Using the Force, Talik opened the door. Black-painted Draykonwol wood covered every wall of the room, a new addition since Talik had left. A gaping hole had been ripped in the rear door, through which Talik sensed Kyba's heart still beating faintly. And just through the rear door, between Kyba and Talik, stood Dark Lord Arkadas, waiting.
As Grom formed up at his side, Master Sol boldly advanced across the room, igniting his lightsaber.
"You're going to pay for what you've done, Arkadas," he announced.
Arkadas gave him a look of disgust.
"That's Darth Diabolicus," he chided. "And surely you know better than to threaten a Sith, Master Jedi?" A lightsaber appeared in his hand, and Master Talik Sol realized he was about to engage in a fight more difficult than he had anticipated.
Referius raced towards the door to Arkadas's chambers. It sat slightly ajar, with just a hint of light spilling into the corridor from the room beyond.
"Right here," Referius announced to Marr Phes, motioning with one hand. The pair darted inside, only to find the room empty. But just beyond, through a gaping hole where the rear door had formerly been, Referius could make out the figure of Grom.
Referius bounded across the room. Marr followed, and the two stepped through the hole. Referius's attention was immediately drawn to Master Talik Sol and Lord Arkadas, who stood in combat poses, glaring at each other over their ignited lightsaber blades.
'Talik!" Referius called out.
"Kyba!" Marr yelled almost simultaneously. Referius quickly glanced over and saw a Devaronian Jedi, broken and bleeding against the side wall. His Force presence indicated that he was deep in a healing trance.
Referius saw Talik's gaze shift to meet his own. The anger in the Jedi's eyes was plain as day.
"Darzik is dead!" Talik spat out.
Referius turned to Marr. "Oh. Uh, yeah," he said. "Marr, you remember Darzik?"
"The kid I killed after we fought?" Marr asked.
Referius swallowed a lump in his throat. "Uh, yeah. That was Talik's grandson."
A look of confusion overtook Marr's face.
Spast! Referius thought. This is not how this should be going.
Talik glared over at Marr, turning to face him and completely ignoring the Sith Lord that stood near him. The room shook as Sol's eyes glazed over with hate. Decorations from around the room and on the walls started flying around the angered Jedi Master like a mini tornado.
"Uh-oh," Marr mumbled to his companion. "I've really upset him, haven't I?"
"That's safe to say," answered Referius. "But it's not too late to change this. We've got to work together."
Marr's glance fell towards his friend Kyba. "He needs help," Marr said.
Referius looked at Marr, then to Arkadas. "You worry about your friend. I'll take care of Talik."
Marr looked back at Referius. "You know, you don't have a lightsaber."
Referius's apprehension morphed into determination. "Oh. Well, I don't think Kyba will be using his for a while."
Diabolicus listened to his former fool-of-an-apprentice Referius unwittingly goad the Jedi Master with deep amusement. Referius's own words were doing much to upset the Jedi and bring him closer to the dark side. The thought of it caused Diabolicus to laugh. He stopped short, having heard something of great interest.
Talik had a grandson? Diabolicus thought.
The Sith Lord looked over to Talik, who still stood in the middle of a mini-tornado. Of course! He hadn't noticed before, but there was a subtle resemblance between the Jedi and the Muun boy that had been travelling with them.
Diabolicus concentrated on the Jedi, and felt the taint of the dark side; the Jedi had used it before. He knew that this was Talik... his sources had informed him that this would be the Jedi sent. He was also aware the Jedi had been released from biostasis for this mission. Deducing a connection, Diabolicus reached deeper, and sensed the Jedi's grief, and his growing animosity towards the people he felt caused it.
"Master Talik," Diabolicus whispered, lowering his blade and taking a step toward the Jedi. "It seems we share the same enemy."
The Jedi stood unmoving, debris from the room swirling around him. The Sith Lord felt the hate emanating from the Jedi, like dark clouds before a severe storm. He knew that despite the Jedi's refusal to respond, the Jedi had heard him. He continued.
"I do not wish to fight you, Talik," Diabolicus said. "I wish to help you. The Jedi denied you your life, your family." The Jedi's anger grew. "They took you from your home, punished you for finding love. They knowingly and willingly denied you of it. They actively ensured it."
The Sith Lord moved ever so slightly closer. The Jedi was now a maelstrom of negative emotion, and the Sith Lord saw his jaw clench, his knuckles turning white from the strength of his grip upon the lightsaber.
"You came back to find her dead," Diabolicus improvised, trusting that it must be true. "Now your grandson, your final link to your former life, has been stolen from you. All because of these—" —he nudged his head towards his two former apprentices— "—Jedi sympathizers. The Jedi visited upon you the greatest evils. They will never release you. If these two win today, the Jedi will return to Teca VI and rule, but you will have to flee, die, or return to bio-stasis."
Diabolicus sensed the Jedi bracing himself for attack. The Sith backed up slightly, bringing his lightsaber up just in case the attack came his way.
"Use your hate, Talik," Diabolicus pleaded. "Use the dark side. You have before, and you live a life of eternal youth. It has made you powerful! Let your hate flow through you! Join me, and together we will seek justice for the atrocities of the Jedi!"
Diabolicus saw Marr Phes moving towards the fallen Kyba, and Referius approaching with a look of weary focus. He looked to the Jedi, who still stood unmoving.
"Fight me, and if I don't destroy you the Jedi will, and continue to do unto others as they have to you. Join me! Seek justice for the fate of your family!" Diabolicus screamed at the Jedi. "Whatever you are going to do, do it now! Choose!"
Master Talik Sol, standing in the middle of a self-created tornado, closed his eyes. He turned his focus to the Force and reached out. He sensed the man Referius had called Marr, murderer of the last of his family, as Marr kneeled near Kyba. He sensed the panic in Marr, the fear for Kyba, the fear of what could come. But along with it, he sensed a general anger emanating outward, an anger at the circumstances Marr found himself in. He sensed fear. Doubt. Weakness.
His concentration shifted to Kyba, whose life force was barely detectable. The Devaronian was on the brink of death. Kyba. Glory hound. In Talik's mind, Kyba represented to him all the Jedi: the corrupt, self-righteous gravel-maggots who dared to call themselves an Order.
Near Kyba stood Grom, the Togorian. Grom was nothing more than a blind servant to orders, one who would fight and die at the command of another. He is a fool. Grom deserved no consideration.
Between Talik and the others stood Referius, unarmed. The failed Sith who called the Jedi to do his dirtywork. Pathetic. Nevertheless, Talik could sense Referius's grim determination to do what must be done, whatever the outcome.
And behind and to the side of Talik Sol himself, he sensed Arkadas—Darth Diabolicus. Talik could sense the twisted glee the old man was experiencing over this clearly planned moment. Was that all this was to the Sith Lord, a game? Was Talik nothing but a pawn?
With shocking realization, Master Talik Sol decided it didn't matter. Whether Diabolicus was corrupt or not, Talik knew one thing for certain: the Jedi were the ones that destroyed families. They were the ones that claimed lofty ideals and contradicted their own rhetoric. The Jedi created the Sith by their own rigid apathy. They started the bloodshed of the Sith wars over their own flawed ideals. The Jedi were the true evil.
Master Talik Sol's eyes flew open, and he let out a yell of bloodlust that reverberated off the walls, assisted by the Force in its strength. He raised his open hand to the heavens.
In one fluid motion, Talik closed his fist, crushing all the objects floating in his tornado into chunks of debris. Simultaneously, Referius reached forward and Force-pulled Kyba's lightsaber from the floor, grabbing a hold of and igniting it. But it was too late. Talik had already redirected his arm forward, and upon doing so, all the debris around him flew forward in a storm upon Referius, Grom, Marr, and Kyba. Talik continued to batter them, over and over, almost without concentration, losing himself to the dark side. The pieces, though small, existed in large enough numbers to cause great harm to those in the room with him.
In his dark rage, Talik had no way of knowing who lived and who died, or whether any or all of the persons in the room with him were even injured by his onslaught.
Only one thing did Master Talik Sol know for certain: he had started down the dark path, and his destiny would be much richer for it...
Darth Diabolicus strained to hold in his laughter as he watched the maelstrom of destruction and rage the Jedi unleashed. Every pawn had played his part to perfection; every plot, every lie, every decision Diabolicus had made had culminated into this one moment. The dark side had ensured the Sith Order's destiny for generations to come.
Diabolicus avoided or dodged the debris that came his way, using the Force when necessary. He really wasn't at much of a risk—the Jedi focused his hatred before him, not so much behind him, so the Sith Lord capitalized on his position.
"Yes!" he yelled to Talik. "Good! Now you are free! Now you will no longer be denied your life, your feelings! Kill them!"
He watched as the Togorian who had arrived with Talik tried desperately to avoid the debris, tucking and rolling out of the way, then crawling to a corner of the room. Diabolicus watched him do so with amusement, and when he saw the Togorian rise to one knee, pull out his blaster, and take careful aim, the Sith Lord reached out with the Force and redirected a chunk of shattered transparisteel, already airborne from Talik's onslaught, toward the warrior. It struck him quickly and brutally, separating his head from his neck. The Togorian's hands tightened by reflex, and a blaster bolt flew from his rifle as his body fell to the ground.
Diabolicus saw Referius trying in vain to deflect the debris with his borrowed lightsaber, but the flying particles overwhelmed him. The Togorian's death shot streaked directly for him, but he managed to twist and deflect the bolt. He paid for doing so, as a large projectile hit him in the head. Blood erupted from his skull and he fell to the ground, still trying to deflect the swarm of death that orbited around him. When he hit the ground, a large cloud of metallic and transparisteel shards rained down forcefully upon him. He rolled out of the way, managing to escape the lion's share. Diabolicus sensed Referius's time was coming to an end, and instead of watching him die, the Sith Lord turned to the others.
Marr Phes lay next to Kyba, doing his best to shield the dying Jedi from the carnage Talik unleashed. Marr's body took most of the damage, sparing Kyba. Marr had cuts and puncture wounds all over his body, and Diabolicus could feel his frustration and agony in the Force. Each blow that struck Marr sent a new wave of pain into the Force. Soon the pain was so intense and frequent that the waves became a constant stream. Blood flowed from a gash in Marr's forehead downward, covering his eyes.
But as Marr Phes wiped his forearm across his face, he lifted his now-visible eyes to stare at Diabolicus. Amused, the Sith projected his voice into his former apprentice's head.
"Fool. Now you know why I wanted you here," the Sith voice echoed inside Marr Phes's head. "Thank you very much. You have helped me greatly."
Marr Phes, unable to move or focus his powers back at the Sith, could do nothing but watch Diabolicus gloat.
This made Diabolicus cackle. He looked around at all the carnage and mayhem—the dead and mangled, the brutalized and shredded yet still barely clinging to life—and then looked towards Talik with admiration and eagerness. He was impressed by how powerful the Jedi had become by unleashing his fury. Finally, he could set his true plans in motion! Finally, after all this time, he had found someone worthy of becoming a Sith!
Diabolicus let out a tremendous laugh, then focused his attention back on his new apprentice.
"Kill the Jedi! Finish them!"
"Kill the Jedi! Finish them!"
Even through the wind, Master Talik Sol heard Diabolicus's words with a sharper clarity than he had ever heard before. The Muun felt his eyes blazing in a way he was sure only the dark side could grant as he saw anything and everything in the room. He sensed Grom's flame of life extinguished. He felt Kyba's heart struggling to beat, heard Marr's labored breathing, saw Referius lying unmoving on the floor. Talik looked at the destruction he had caused, and was pleased. But at the same time, he felt a fear of his own abilities appearing in his heart, a fear of what he had become.
Talik's gaze locked onto Kyba. Kyba of the Jedi Order. The Jedi Order that had imprisoned him for all those years, the same Order guilty of any number of atrocities committed in the name of the Force. Kyba must die. Talik would punish Kyba for the wickedness of his actions, for not coming to the true light of the Force, the light found only in darkness.
Master Sol looked to Marr. Marr, who had slaughtered Talik's grandson in cold blood. Marr, who had extinguished the flame of Talik's last living relative. Marr, who showed no remorse in murdering a fourteen-year-old boy. Marr must perish. Talik would discipline Marr for the lack of morality behind his actions, for abandoning the true light of the Force, the light found only in darkness.
Talik Sol shifted his vision to Referius. Referius, who stood as a fool between Talik and his true enemies. Talik focused his rage on Referius's already limp body, directing the howling winds at his figure. Referius must be annihilated. Talik would rebuke Referius for thoughtlessly giving away his loyalty, for abandoning the true light of the Force, the light found only in darkness.
Master Talik Sol of the Sith Order dropped to the ground, the wind stopping as quickly as it had started, the room becoming eerily quiet. Talik, Disciple of Diabolicus, landed on all fours, beastlike, pinning his lightsaber to the ground beneath his left hand.
Talik Sol, Dark Acolyte, leapt forward in an aerial front flip and ignited his lightsaber in midair, bringing it to bear upon his enemies. His hate had made him powerful indeed.
Marr Phes felt the storm subsiding. He looked at Kyba. Seeing that the Jedi had managed to escape most of the harm from the Force whirlwind and remained in a healing trance, he looked himself over.
Marr could feel blood running down his face, and his head throbbed. As he shifted to look himself over, he felt terrible pain over every inch of his body; his clothes were soaked with blood, and his skin was raw with cuts and bruises.
His gaze shifted over towards the Sith, to see Talik crouched down on all fours, looking towards them. The look on his face made Marr Phes shudder. Such raw, unabashed hatred. He looked feral. Rabid.
Suddenly, the former Jedi leaped into the air, igniting his saber and coming down on him hard. Phes quickly ignited his own lightsaber, bringing it up in time to just barely block the blow.
Talik snarled at him in rage.
Marr Phes swung his blade hard and to the side, then reversed the stroke, cutting it short to slice toward his opponent's abdomen. Talik's blade met his, and they locked for just a moment.
In that moment, Marr Phes looked into the former Jedi's eyes, and his blood turned cold. Talik's pupils were now red, outlined in a sickly yellow. He had seen those eyes before, long ago.
It had been a duel. He pressed his advantage. His master punished him, slicing his chest, the whole time with those same demented eyes...
Marr Phes pushed back to release the lock of the blades, clutching his chest with one hand as the memories brought back the pain. Talik circled like a Sea Leviathan that smelled blood, his face intense with rage, a cruel and maniacal laugh escaping his lips. Phes couldn't stop looking into those eyes, and he found himself hoping they would not be the last thing he ever saw.
Referius felt as if he had just been buried in an avalanche. Debris completely covered him. He faintly heard the sounds of lightsabers clashing, but he also heard a distinct ringing in his ears, so it was hard to tell what was actually going on.
He forced himself to his feet, feeling as though he had just been stabbed. He coughed suddenly, and tasted blood. He felt lightheaded and dizzy, and struggled to breathe. His nose had shattered when struck by a hunk of shrapnel from the Fallen Jedi's tornado, so he breathed through his mouth, each breath bringing a new wave of stabbing pains. Broken ribs. Concussion. Severe blood loss. He was surprised he was still alive.
He finally managed to rise to his feet, swaying as he tried to maintain equilibrium. He looked over towards his rival, Marr Phes, to see him engaged in a duel with the Dark Jedi. He started to take a step in that direction when he heard the familiar snap-hiss of a lightsaber behind him.
He turned to see Diabolicus standing a few feet away, his crimson blade pointed towards the floor. The Sith's eyes glittered malevolently in the glow of his blade, and a demonic grin appeared on his face. A second lightsaber hilt hung from Diabolicus's belt, unused. Clearly, the Sith Lord believed he would only require one to defeat Referius. As he winced in pain, Referius recognized that Diabolicus was probably right.
Referius remembered the lightsaber he had appropriated. Looking around, he saw it lying a few feet from him. He stretched out his hand, calling on the Force to bring the saber to him, when he felt a wave of the Force slam into him, throwing him back. Referius hit the wall hard, his body exploding in an eruption of pain. His every nerve on fire, screaming for mercy, Referius's vision blackened for a moment, then returned.
Diabolicus walked towards him. The sneer on his face remained, as if it were permanently affixed. The Sith Lord gestured over to Talik, but kept his attention fixed on Referius.
"Not bad, wouldn't you agree?" Diabolicus said casually. "He's everything you could never be. Powerful, knowledgeable, and completely dedicated."
Referius spat at the Sith's feet, his emotions now in as much agony as his body as he was once again confronted with his own ineptness. He couldn't help but long for the days when he had been a simple Jedi Youngling at the Jedi Temple. He felt as though he had been a completely different person then; yet he knew somewhere, buried deep down inside, was the same Aiko who had once studied with Yoda.
"Thank you so very much for calling the Jedi for assistance," Diabolicus taunted. "Exactly what I needed."
Referius realized, finally, that he had been played for a fool. In calling for help, he had summoned his replacement. He knew the Rule of Two; it was obvious what the Sith intended. Very well. If he was to die, he would die as a Jedi would. Not as a Sith, nor as a broken, empty shell of a man. He would find his way back into the light side, he would fight with everything he had, and he would face his destiny with honor and dignity. He was Aiko once more.
Aiko reached out for the light side of the Force and felt its gentle touch, like meeting an old mentor from childhood. He let go of his anger, and felt a strange sensation as though he had stopped breathing—but then, in the place of breathing, it was as though someone else breathed for him. Aiko felt the joy of putting his life in the hands of the Force.
He once again called the lightsaber to himself. Again he felt a Force-push from Diabolicus, but he countered it with the Force himself, just enough to remain standing and catch the lightsaber. Diabolicus's Force-push was more powerful than his own, though, and it overcame him, throwing him forward and to the side, into another wall. A star field appeared before his eyes, and his vision went blurry. He tried to stand, but fell.
Shaking his head, he managed to clear his vision. Instinctively, he lit his blade and brought it up in a defensive pose, blocking a killing blow from the Sith.
Aiko slowly rose to his feet, blocking another pair of blows from his former master. The two brought both their blades back, preparing to unleash powerful blows.
They swung at each other simultaneously, their sabers clashing in a burst of light. The Sith pushed forward, brutal and precise. Aiko blocked and parried, then pressed in himself, deftly slicing images into the air before him to get the Sith to step back. The Sith did so, and stumbled on some debris.
Aiko came in quickly to take advantage, his hatred for Diabolicus rising in his chest. The Sith brought his blade up, deflecting the attacks. He tried to turn the battle back in his favor, but Aiko was relentless, pushing in on him with everything he had.
Within the reach of victory, Aiko felt renewed and energized as his anger grew. He pressed forward, eager to prove he was not inept and end the Sith's wretched existence. Diabolicus fell back, only to find Aiko coming up on him, blade swinging. But Aiko hesitated as he realized his anger was once again overtaking him. He recentered himself and set his mind at peace, letting the Force flow through him. The moment's hesitation allowed the Sith to step back and away, positioning himself for another attack. Aiko pressed forward again, but Diabolicus struck, and Aiko found himself stumbling backwards, his body exposed. He barely brought his saber up to deflect Diabolicus's next stroke.
The two opponents swung for each other and their blades met in a saber lock. Refusing to tap into the dark side now, Aiko took a deep breath and once again felt the light side course through him. It was an unfamiliar feeling to put his trust completely in the Force, rather than attempt to rule the energy field himself, but his refusal to die in the dark side made it easier. Feeling like one possessed, he broke the lock and countered Diabolicus's next strike. Aiko pressed forward again, reversing one of his parries into what was sure to be the killing blow.
But the Sith was quicker, knocking the blade aside and pushing Aiko again with the Force. Aiko flew backwards, landing hard on his back. He slowly rolled to his side and pushed himself up onto his knees. His body screamed in fits of agony, convulsing as he coughed. Blood flew from his mouth. In an effort of sheer willpower, Aiko suppressed his natural instinct to reach out to the dark side and compel the Force to heal and reinvigorate his body. Suddenly, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye.
Aiko watched Talik use the Force to shove Marr Phes, and as Marr flew back, the Dark Jedi turned his attention to Kyba, raising his saber high, ready to bring it down.
Duty. Honor. Sacrifice.
Aiko threw his lightsaber at the rabid Jedi, using the Force to help propel it. Talik stopped short his killing blow, sensing the danger, and turned, deflecting the blade and sending it flying across the room, out of Aiko's sight.
Talik turned back towards Kyba, raising his blade for another attempt at the killing stroke. But Marr Phes had recovered and jumped in at the last second, igniting his lightsaber and blocking the fallen Jedi's blow.
Satisfied, Aiko turned his focus back to the Sith Lord, and the last thing he saw was Diabolicus's crimson blade coming down on him, then blackness.
Marr Phes saw Diabolicus take the swing; he saw the head of the man he had once known as Aiko fly away from his body, but Marr did not have time to mourn. Talik was intent on adding another death to the conflict, and Marr Phes focused on ensuring that the sacrifice of the former apprentice to Darth Diabolicus would not be in vain.
He risked a glance at what remained of Aiko's body. So strange that the two, once bitter rivals, would now be fighting this battle as allies. Marr had once held so much hatred for the man; if he could overcome that, he could overcome anything.
Marr Phes turned his focus back to the task at hand, countering a powerful blow from Talik. If he could manage to keep the Dark Lord and the crazed Jedi separated, he would have a small chance of surviving. Individually, they were two of the most powerful Force users he had ever seen, and together they would be an unstoppable juggernaut. Marr Phes knew that if he could buy Kyba a few more minutes in his healing trance, he would once again be able to enter the contest. It was obvious to him that the odds of surviving this were not very good; in fact, they were as close to nonexistent as he had ever seen.
Striking and counterstriking with the insane Jedi, Marr Phes began luring his opponent towards the far end of the room. There, just past the double doors, was an exit to the courtyard. Out in the open, he would have more room to maneuver and fight. As he fell back, he noticed Kyba beginning to stir. That alone was enough to replenish his spirit. He fought harder than he had ever fought before, all the while retreating towards the courtyard.
Dark Master Talik Sol was enjoying his new battle prowess. He toyed with the weakened Marr, playing a felinx-and-rodus game where he allowed Marr to think he was winning. Talik let his opponent lead him into the courtyard, and it was there that he struck.
With a sudden flourish of his blade, he made a stab for Marr's stomach. But to Talik's surprise, Marr's saber was there to stop him. Frustrated, he faked a blow to the side, then repeated the original maneuver. But Marr's blade blocked Talik's once again.
Talik lashed out in anger, letting the dark side take him. Spinning and slicing, striking as rapidly as possible, he moved in on Marr. Over Marr's shoulder, Talik glimpsed Diabolicus entering the courtyard.
Talik aimed a blow at his enemy's head. Marr ducked just in time, then kicked the fallen Jedi in the shoulder, spinning Talik around. Talik sensed rather than saw Marr raise his saber overhead. Summoning the Force in his empty hand, he pointed it behind him and blindly fired a blast of Force energy at Marr who, with his blade held high for the finishing blow, was unable to counter it. Marr was thrown backwards and to the ground meters away, giving Talik time to recover.
Marr slowly stood up, stumbled, then regained his footing. The battle was clearly taking its toll. Hoping to capitalize on Marr's weakness, Talik rushed upon him, leaping high into the air, lightsaber twirling overhead. Marr went to deflect the blow, but at the last moment, Talik moved the saber to his other hand and caught his opponent with a glancing blow to the shoulder. Marr reeled. Talik closed in, moving his lightsaber back to his dominant hand. Taking a step forward, he swung with all his might for the failed Sith, the man who killed Darzik.
Marr's blade met Talik's own in a saber lock. As they held each other's gazes, Talik snarled. He could feel fear radiating from Marr, and fed on it. As his strength grew, Talik tried an unorthodox move: he slid his blade down the shaft of his opponent's lightsaber, toward the hilt. As he closed in upon it, he caught Marr's upper fingers, and Marr leapt backwards in pain. His index finger had been completely burned off, while his middle dangled uselessly by a flap of skin. Marr buried the useless fingers of his left hand in his right armpit, then struck back at Talik, their sabers locking once again.
Still feeding on Marr's outpouring of emotion, Talik quickly overpowered Marr, and in a quick flick of the wrist sent his enemy's lightsaber flying, clattering uselessly to the ground in the distance. Glancing at the lightsaber, Talik reached out with the Force and snapped the hilt in two.
And suddenly, Talik's supply of emotion from Marr dried up. A complete calm had overtaken his opponent. Marr slowly lowered his right hand and put it behind his back, then matched it with his left, still quivering from its recent injury. And with that, Marr raised his head, gazing distantly at the stars shining brightly above him, and opened himself for attack.
Talik struck quickly, cutting Marr in half with a vertical swipe. Anger coursed through Talik's body at being deprived a kill of one groveling at his feet, begging for mercy. He thirsted for the death of one who would die wracked with emotion.
Suddenly, a lightsaber ignited in the distance. Kyba stumbled forward, weak, but ready to prove his worth. Talik grinned. A Jedi. Here his revenge would begin. Here he would make the Jedi suffer.
Kyba raised his blade and locked eyes with Talik. Talik, in turn, pointed his blade at Kyba. Talik sunk down ever so slightly, coiling his leg muscles in preparation for a leap towards the Devaronian. The fallen Jedi snarled, and his body tensed to pounce.
Then out of the darkness behind Kyba emerged Diabolicus. The Jedi did not notice the Sith Lord; through the Force, Talik discovered the Dark Lord was completely undetectable.
"No!" cried Talik. But it was too late. Diabolicus, moving as fluidly as a river, picked up Kyba with both his hands and summoned Force Lightning directly into his body. The lightning coursed through the Jedi unhindered, and the Jedi convulsed. Lightning shot out of his eyes and mouth. It played greedily across his skin. His clothes started smoking. Diabolicus let go, and the Jedi fell to the ground, lifeless.
"No!" Talik shrieked, turning on Diabolicus with a rabid ferocity. "The Jedi was mine!"
Talik pounced on the Dark Lord. Diabolicus calmly raised his hand, and Talik's entire body went stiff. He could feel Diabolicus inside his mind, an alien presence clamping down, hissing in his ears, and making it impossible for him to think. Talik staggered backwards, trying to resist, but found he could not. He was too exhausted from the battle—an exhaustion that he had not realized he was carrying with him until now. Talik felt Diabolicus's mind consuming his entire body now, spreading outwards and down his arms, towards his hands. Suddenly, Talik felt a jolt of pain in his wrists, and with a cry of agony dropped his saber. Diabolicus raised his blade towards Talik, and the Fallen Jedi sank to a crouch, rage exploding from his eyes.
"Why!?" Talik screamed. "Why did you deny me my revenge!?"
The Sith lowered his lightsaber and shut it off as he gazed at his new apprentice. Diabolicus walked towards Talik, his face a mask of sympathy. As he did so, he reached into his robe, where he had a small remote switch hidden, and flicked it on. Deep within the castle, several small red lights flashed to life, blinking slowly.
"I had no choice," Diabolicus said sadly. "I know how much you desire to kill the Jedi. There are greater Jedi than Kyba waiting for you. This one was nothing."
"Had no choice?" Talik said as he stood up. Diabolicus felt Talik's rage ebbing as confusion took its place. "Do you dare to lie to me?"
Anger flashed over the Sith's face briefly; then he replaced it with a look of concern.
"We have much to discuss, Talik Sol," Diabolicus said. "Kyba was not the real threat, but only a waste of time. Tell me, which would you rather eliminate, Kyba or all the Jedi?"
"You know the answer," Talik growled. "The Jedi Order is my true enemy."
Two large droids entered the courtyard, one grabbing the body of Marr Phes, the other grabbing Kyba. They turned and left with the bodies. Talik looked at them curiously, and turned as if to ask the Sith a question, but the look on Diabolicus's face stopped him short. The Sith Lord glared down at him cruelly.
"Then we will not waste our time on insignificant individuals, and instead devote our efforts to the eradication of the Order as a whole," Diabolicus said. "You will set into motion events that will destroy the Jedi. Do you desire to learn the ways of the Sith and exact your revenge?"
"Yes," Talik said emphatically.
"Very well," Diabolicus responded, igniting his lightsaber and extending it over Talik's head. He slowly lowered it, guiding Talik down onto one knee.
"The world of Chandrila once suffered a terrible epidemic, many millennia ago," Diabolicus said. "A plague. Many millions died. Eventually, scientists there found that if they introduced a modified form of the virus into the bodies of those infected, the modified virus would kill off the disease.
"You know how the Jedi operate. You know the inner workings of the Republic. And you will learn the ways of the Sith. The Jedi are the disease that threatens to kill the galaxy. The Republic is the carrier. You will be the plague that kills the plague."
Slowly, he brought his red saber to Talik's left shoulder, then to his right.
"You are now my apprentice. A Sith."
"Yes, my master," Talik said.
Diabolicus motioned towards his new Sith Apprentice.
"Then rise, Lord Plagueis, and together we will bring about a new age."
Darth Plagueis rose to his feet, a phoenix reborn from the ashes of his own death. No longer was he Talik Sol, former Jedi. Now he was something more, something better. Something much more powerful.
He started to say something, but sensed a sudden panic in the castle. Looking at his master, he saw that Diabolicus seemed to sense it as well, and together they left the courtyard. Upon reentering the castle, a soldier ran up to them.
"Lord Arkadas!" the soldier said hurriedly. "We must evacuate the castle immediately! Explosive devices have been found throughout the castle!"
"Then disarm them," said Diabolicus as he walked off.
"Sir!" The soldier interrupted. "There are too many. They are set to explode within the next five minutes! Your ship has been prepared, and the child is safely on board. I will escort you to your ship."
"No!" Plagueis yelled angrily. "I came here to protect this world, this castle! I will not allow it to be destroyed!" He turned to race down a nearby corridor, but stopped when his master spoke.
"It is too late, my apprentice," Diabolicus said emphatically. "The Jedi who infiltrated our castle planted these explosives to ensure our deaths. Would you seek to satisfy them?"
Plagueis turned back towards his master, overcome with hatred for the Jedi. "I will NOT let them destroy this castle!" he screamed.
"Search your feelings, my apprentice. You know there is nothing here for you now. If you go to stop what they have done, you will die, and the Jedi will continue to spread their corruption. You have left your past behind you—your destiny and true power await you elsewhere. You must leave with me, now!"
Plagueis felt as though his hearts were rending in two. Though he wanted to protest, he knew his master was right. There was nothing here for him anymore. Everyone he cared about was dead. Now the one place he loved the most in the whole galaxy was about to be destroyed, and all because of the Jedi. He would not allow them to destroy him along with all he held dear; he would endure, and exact his vengeance on the Jedi Order. Plagueis nodded to his master, and they followed the soldier to the ship.
"Blast!" Plagueis said, stopping. "I need to get my lightsaber." He started to turn back.
"Leave it!" Diabolicus said. "It is a Jedi weapon. Its owner is dead. You will build a new one, one worthy of use by a Sith."
Together, they made it to the hangar bay. Plagueis saw the droids who had carried off two of his enemies' bodies entering a ship towards the front of the hangar. Two ships lay immediately in front of him; A TL-1200 light freighter with the known markings of the forces of Overlord Arkadas, and a worn-out YT-700 Corellian freighter that looked to be in such a state of disrepair that it was impossible to believe it could ever leave the ground, let alone break orbit.
Plagueis sensed and heard another ship taking off, but looking around he saw nothing. He heard his master calling to him and turned. Diabolicus was passing the TL-1200 and entering the more decrepid of the two ships. Ignoring the mystery of the unseen ship, and confused about the choice of transport, Plagueis followed.
Entering, Plagueis saw that the dilapidated exterior hid a drastically different interior. The ship was outfitted with tech that appeared quite modern and in excellent condition.
"Take off immediately," Diabolicus ordered the soldier. "Pre-determined course. And use the cloaking device."
"Yes, sir!" The soldier saluted, then spun and hurried to the cockpit.
A cloaking device? Plagueis thought again of the ship he had noticed but could not see. He didn't know such technology still existed, especially in the scaled-down size needed to fit on this kind of ship.
"The Sith have maintained a small stash of hibridium for our own use," Diabolicus explained as if reading Plagueis's thoughts. "It powers the cloaking device. There is none left in the galaxy other then what we have. We've perfected the technology, but eventually will have to find a different power source."
The two Sith went back into the crew space and buckled in as the engines flared to life. It wasn't until after he felt the ship lurch off of the ground that Plagueis noticed a small boy sitting to his right on the acceleration couch. He looked not much older than nine, but his calm face and inquisitive eyes showed him to be much wiser and more intelligent than any normal child could ever be. His thin figure and pale complexion made him look almost sickly.
"Who is this?" the child asked Diabolicus.
"This is my new apprentice, Darth Plagueis," Diabolicus responded.
The boy looked Plagueis over, up and down, his eyes scrutinizing every facet of the apprentice's being. The child stared at him, and their eyes locked. The ship suddenly pitched sideways. Plagueis found himself breaking eye contact with the boy as he realized the castle had just exploded. His former self was truly dead now; there was nothing left for Talik Sol, only a destiny awaiting Darth Plagueis.
"I thought there were only two," the boy said, and Plagueis glanced up to find the child's eyes still on him.
"There are," Diabolicus said, amusement in his voice. "You are not a Sith. Not yet."
The Sith Lord gestured towards Plagueis.
"Lord Plagueis here will teach you everything you need to know about the Jedi and the Republic. In time, you will be ready, and then you will become the apprentice."
The boy smiled shrewdly. Plagueis understood what his master had said. Eventually, he would have to kill his master, or be killed by the boy. By the look on the child's face, he knew that the boy found some cruel delight in this.
"I found him on Alderaan during one of my travels," Diabolicus said to Plagueis, gesturing toward the child. "The locals called him Palpatine—Old Alderaanian for 'Child of the Darkness.' I sensed the power within him immediately, and was quickly impressed by his intelligence."
Plagueis could see why the Alderaanians would give the boy that name. It didn't take the Force to be able to sense that there was something dark about the child. His eyes betrayed his obvious intelligence, but Plagueis could also see in them a deep, shrewd malevolence.
"Are you familiar with the Prophecy of the Chosen One?" Diabolicus asked, suddenly changing the subject.
Plagueis was stunned by the question. No one was supposed to know of the Prophecy other than the Jedi.
"Of course. It says the Chosen One will become a Jedi and will restore balance to the Force," Plagueis replied, puzzled as to why the Sith Lord would mention it. Diabolicus laughed mockingly.
"Yet another Jedi lie," he derided. "The original Prophecy only said a being strong in the Force would be born fatherless, and this child would one day restore balance to the Force."
Plagueis looked at his master quizzically. Diabolicus elaborated.
"The Jedi in their arrogance assumed that the Prophecy meant the Chosen One would be a Jedi, and so blinded were they by their corruption they felt it must mean that 'restoring balance' was the destruction of the dark side, returning the Force to its natural state. Fools. They obviously are too far gone in their corruption to see the truth."
"And that is?" inquired Plagueis, intrigued.
"The dark side is the natural state of the Force!" Diabolicus said. "We are all born with emotions, with passion. We all have hopes, and dreams, and desires. That is our natural state. The light side and its adherants, the Jedi, insist that you deny these things in order to be a part of them, and it has created nothing but destruction and turmoil in the galaxy since. The light side is the corruption of the Force, and it is that which must be destroyed. Only when we are free of our chains and can act freely in our natural state will the Force be in balance."
Plagueis sat back. He had never thought much about the Prophesy. It was considered by the Jedi to be a moot point, since they had always assumed the Sith were destroyed. But everything the Sith Lord was saying made perfect sense. How many Jedi had struggled with denying the emotions they could not avoid? How many were ripped from their homes, from those they loved and who loved them, being told they had to be Jedi and follow their ways? How much evil had been wrought by the Jedi and their strict, unbending adherence to their philosophy? True evil was the absence of emotion. True evil was devoid of love, of compassion, of mercy. It was cold and uncaring. The Jedi certainly fit in that mold.
A sudden realization hit him. The Jedi insisted that the Prophesy meant the destruction of the dark side. How could the dark side possibly be destroyed, when it was the emotion that all beings held in them that led to it? It was impossible. To do so would be to destroy nature itself. Plagueis now fully understood the corruption of the Jedi.
The Sith Lord continued. "The Prophecy was known before even the Sith Order existed. The first Sith were once Jedi just like you, and they were cast out when they discovered the truth. The truth has been passed down among the Sith ever since. We tried to pass the truth on to the rest of the galaxy and free them from the Jedi corruption, but it was too deeply intrenched. They could bring too much to bear. Darth Bane realized this and how much endless destruction the conflict was causing. It was a perpetual stalemate. So, Bane destroyed the Sith Order as it existed then and created a new order, knowing eventually the Prophesy would come true and the truth would prevail.
"Now, when I found Palpatine, he was nothing more than a street urchin. He told me he never had a father, and his mother was murdered when he was very young. He survived by his wits and strength alone. I took him in and gave him shelter. One night I was deep in meditation, and I had a vision. This child will restore balance."
"How?" Plagueis asked skeptically.
"He will help the Jedi Order destroy itself, and then reform the Republic," Diabolicus answered. "He will sweep away the veil of corruption and confusion and return the Force to its natural state. The Galaxy will be united. Bane's gamble was a risky one. Since the end of the Sith Wars, when our numbers were reduced to one, the Jedi have grown even more powerful and bloated. The dark side has suffered for it, as the Jedi utilize only a small portion of what the Force has to offer. The balance is lost. But I have noticed that, over the last few years, the dark side now grows stronger, since this boy has been alive. He is the Chosen One, and we will do what we must to get him in position to do what must be done."
"But I thought I was to destroy the Jedi!" Plagueis said, his voice growing hostile.
"You are vital to doing just that!" Diabolicus hissed. "Don't worry, you will get what you deserve."
Plagueis was about to question further when the soldier walked into the crew space, saluting to his master.
"What is it?" Diabolicus asked.
"Lord Arkadas. We have entered hyperspace. We were not detected."
"Excellent. You are relieved until needed, Lieutenant Locke," Diabolicus said.
The soldier spun and walked towards his quarters. Diabolicus lay down and stretched out. Plagueis sat back, his chin is his hand. He obviously had a lot to think about, a whole history to review and revise with these revelations.
"Where are we going?" Palpatine asked.
"If you are going to achieve your destiny, we need to get you where you will be best able to start," Diabolicus said. "We are going to Naboo."
The training remote zipped across the room, hovering for a moment before lowering itself, feinting to the left, and then whizzing right and up. A small bolt of energy issued from it, and met with another emission of energy—the small green blade of a lightsaber. The wielder, excited at having deflected the shot, dropped his stance and lifted up the visor he wore that had been blinding him.
"I did it, Master, I did it!" the Bothan youngling squealed.
The rest of the younglings shut off their lightsabers and lifted their visors, looking at the small Bothan curiously. They heard a sigh come from the front of the room, and promptly faced forward, except for the Bothan, whose eyes sparkled with glee.
Master Yoda was pleased with the child; he was very gifted, very strong in the Force. One day he would make an excellent Padawan, and perhaps even go on to serve on the Council. But he needed to remember his focus.
"Very good, young one," Yoda chuckled. "Do you think, do it again you can?"
The youngling nodded enthusiastically, lowering his visor over his eyes and lighting his blade.
The remote again moved gracefully around the room, shooting out sparks of energy. Again, the Bothan deflected the blow. Excited, he lowered his lightsaber and reached for his visor when another bolt of energy shot forth and hit him in the stomach. The youngling jumped in surprise. The bolt didn't hurt, but he had felt it all the same, along with embarrassment.
"A Jedi must always be ready to defend himself," Yoda said calmly. "Lower your guard, you must never do. Control your emotions, and the Force let your ally be."
The old master walked towards the Bothan youngling.
"Very well, you have done," Yoda said to him softly. "Proud of you, I am. But only after the threat has passed do handiwork we admire."
"Yes, Master Yoda," the child said obediently.
The door to the room slid open silently. Master Yoda turned his head and saw Master Peilea Janu there with a look of urgency on her face.
"Enough for today," Yoda instructed the younglings. "Away, put your training lightsabers. Time to return to your rooms and study, it is."
As the children groaned, Yoda approached Janu.
"What is it?" Yoda asked.
"We have been asked to meet the Chancellor in his office immediately," Janu replied.
Yoda nodded. It was not unusual for members of the Jedi Council to be summoned to see the Chancellor, but it was unusual for Janu to be so urgent. Something was happening.
"Very well," Yoda responded. "Go, we shall."
Yoda gazed across the ornate desk at Chancellor Mezzileen, who sat flanked to one side by his aide. Yoda himself had Master Janu at his side. Before them on the desk was the holo-image of a Tecan man who seemed quite jubilant.
"Greetings to you, Havil Kour," the chancellor said courteously.
"Greetings to you, Chancellor Mezzileen," the Tecan responded, bowing. "I wish to inform you that the Jedi Master you sent has been successful."
The chancellor nodded, smiling. Yoda's eyes widened, an expression of relief washing over his face.
"The Jedi entered the fortress of Overlord Arkadas two standard days ago," Kour continued. "Not long after, the fortress exploded. No ships or speeders left the castle. After everything settled, we searched the rubble and found the bodies of the traitor Rindel and what we believe to be Arkadas in the courtyard near where the hangar was. Upon searching further, we found evidence that Arkadas had set off explosives throughout the castle, but apparently failed to escape in time. The charred wreckage of his personal transport was found nearby. We are liberated, and we owe this all to Master Talik Sol."
Yoda nodded approvingly, his relief growing.
"There with you, is he?" Yoda asked. "Speak with him, I would like."
Havil Kour's expression changed to one of sorrow, tears threatening to flood his eyes.
"No, Master Jedi," Kour replied sadly. "All that we found of him is this." Kour held up the hilt of a lightsaber, badly charred.
"We are afraid his body was destroyed in the explosion."
Yoda's eyes fell, and slowly, grief-stricken, he bowed his head.
"We will send a Jedi to your world immediately, Havil," the Chancellor said. "We will re-establish the protection of your world while you rebuild your government."
"No, Chancellor," the Tecan responded, his voice terse. "We are already in the process of reformation, so it is not necessary. Even if it were, we would not accept. Too many times have the Jedi failed us. Master Sol will always be honored among our people, but we will honor no other Jedi."
"Of course I understand," Mezzileen replied. "Then allow me to authorize funds to be sent to your people, to help you through this time of renewal."
"That would be appreciated, Chancellor. A diplomat is en route to Coruscant now, in the hopes of negotiating trade agreements with the Republic. Please show him hospitality."
"Most certainly. Good day to you, Havil Kour."
"And to you, Chancellor Mezzileen of the Republic." The Tecan bowed, and the holo-image faded.
Master Yoda sat for several seconds without saying a word. Talik was dead. The bio-stasis had denied his potential to grow in the Force. It had impeded his ability. Yoda realized that the Jedi had failed Talik, as well as all those still imprisoned. He had failed them.
Looking over towards the Chancellor, Yoda's eyes narrowed with grim determination.
"A tragedy, this is," he said.
"A tragedy?" the chancellor responded, baffled. "Hardly. A tyrant has been slain, a people freed from his clutches. Soon they may even rejoin the Republic."
"Politically, I do not mean," Yoda spat out disgustedly, shaking his head. "Very good, this event is. Tragic, the loss of the Jedi is."
"Of course," Mezzileen said sympathetically. "How callous of me. I want you to know that he will always be considered a hero of the Republic, as well as to the people of Teca VI. That is the best honor I can offer."
"No, Chancellor. One other thing to honor him can be done," Yoda said shrewdly. "Abolish placing Jedi in bio-stasis, we must."
"I can't do that!" the Chancellor said. "Only the Senate can do so, and it will take years!"
"Nevertheless, do this we must," Yoda replied. "Propose it to the Senate, you will. The backing of the Jedi Council, you will have."
Master Janu stepped off the transport that had just taken her from Coruscant to Utapau. It had been several weeks since Master Yoda and Chancellor Mezzileen had convinced the Senate to take up the issue of abolishing the practice of placing questionable Jedi in bio-stasis, and the measure seemed to be on the fast track to ratification.
The Council had been notified that the bodies of Kyba and an unidentified male human had been found on Utapau. Janu left immediately to investigate. She was impressed with how the Utapau people had managed to build their society despite the conditions of their world; sinkholes were everywhere, and the people had built their cities on the cliff faces of these holes, protecting them from the weather and predators that dominated the prairies above.
She walked into one of the buildings, and met Chavun, the Utai who had discovered the bodies. They hopped into a sky speeder and left the safety of the sinkhole on a course that led them out into the open range.
After nearly a half hour of travel, they came upon an oasis of trees on Utapau's windswept surface. There she could see the vague forms of two bodies lying on the ground. She walked up to them, noticing right away that there was not much left of them; scavengers had no doubt been feeding off of the remains. Kyba's body, all things considered, appeared to be whole, but the other was not. She saw that he had been neatly cut in half, top to bottom, the wounds cauterized.
"Killed by a lightsaber," she said to herself. She walked around the area, looking for the weapon, but found nothing.
"Did you remove anything from this site?" she asked the Utai.
"No, Master Jedi," he replied nervously, glancing around the area. "I did not stay long. I saw the bodies, and took the ID tags off of the Jedi's body before leaving. I found nothing else."
Janu sensed no deception in the being, and turned her attention back towards the carnage. She studied Kyba's body, and noticed scorch marks on what was left of his flesh and clothing. She touched them, and could sense the taint of the dark side.
"Electrocuted," she said. She looked him over, but could find no other evidence of what had happened to him. She shifted her attention to the other body. Reaching into his tunic, she found his identification. She knew what the name would be even before she read it.
"I'm sorry, Master Jedi?" the Utai asked.
Janu looked over to him, rising to her feet and walking towards the speeder.
"Nothing," she said. "I need to contact Coruscant. We must go back. When we return, send some people out here to retrieve the bodies and bring them to my ship."
In the Jedi Temple, Yoda sat on a cushion, looking at the holo-image of Janu.
"There aren't any signs of anyone else. By all appearances, it seems they fought each other," the image of Janu explained. "I would guess Master Kyba killed Phes, but was wounded in the fight and died soon after. However, I have failed to find any weapons."
Interesting, Yoda thought. His brow furrowed.
"Sure you are, no weapons were found?" Yoda asked.
"I am sure," the holo-image replied. "I can only presume that some scavenger or semi-intelligent creature took them."
"Yes, attracted to curiosities, some creatures are," Yoda said, not entirely convinced. "Any clues to the Sith from Marr Phes, did you find?"
"None. I am having the bodies retrieved and brought to me. Then we can examine them further, but there isn't much left of them. I doubt we'll find anything."
"Very good. When to Coruscant you return, talk further we will. May the Force be with you, Master Janu."
The image bowed, then flickered off. Yoda sat there in silence, thinking about what had transpired. This scenario did not sit right with him; he could feel it with all his being that something else was behind all of this, unseen. He stretched out with the Force, and again found the events obscured by the dark side.
Yoda knew in that moment that Kyba's report of Marr Phes's ties to the Sith was true. Even if they learned that the two were killed by another, as Yoda suspected, it would likely be dismissed as a dark side devotee who was only calling himself a Sith. However, the amount of dark side influence needed to blind him to the truth was beyond the ability of a pretender. The Sith existed still, and had neatly and effectively erased any trail that would lead back to them. They were still out there, plotting in secret, unknown, undetected, and the Jedi could do nothing about it. The thought made Yoda's blood run cold.
He got up, grabbed his gimer stick and left the room. He would go now to instruct the younglings, and he would work harder with them. If the Sith ever revealed themselves again in his lifetime, the Jedi would be ready.
The ship came out of hyperspace, appearing to suddenly unfold out of nothingness, far outside the boundaries of the star system. Moments after it so suddenly appeared, it faded away again into the blackness of space.
A quick crackle of static burst over the intercom, then the pilot's voice announced, "We have reverted to realspace. Cloak initiated successfully, without detection. Estimated time till arrival on Naboo, fifteen minutes."
Darth Plagueis continued to pace back and forth the length of the cabin, like a caged nexu waiting to be unleashed. He had too much pent up energy to sit. His future lay along a new path now; Jedi Master Talik Sol was no more.
Plagueis saw Palpatine look towards the comm speaker, his face full of anticipation. The journey had been long, and Palpatine no doubt looked forward to leaving the confines of the ship and breathing some real air almost as much as Plagueis himself did.
"Excellent," Darth Diabolicus said, responding to the comm speaker. "Send a distress signal to my forces. State that the astrocomputer made a miscalculation and entered the Naboo system too close to the sun. Sound panicked, then cut the signal off."
"Yes, Lord Arkadas!" the pilot's voice replied over the comm. Diabolicus smiled.
Plagueis stopped suddenly, spinning towards Diabolicus. "Where exactly are the rest of your forces, and why are you lying to them?" he asked. Diabolicus had spent the trip training Plagueis in tapping into his hatred and anger and in bending the Force to carry out his bidding, but he had not spoken at all of their battle plan. "How long will the conquest of Naboo take?"
Diabolicus offered a slight chuckle. "It's true, I am lying to my forces. Upon hearing our pilot's message, they will no doubt assume that our ship has suffered a fatal mishap."
"But why would you want them to think that? Where are they?"
Diabolicus glared at him. "Do you always ask so many questions at once? You squawk like a mynock."
Palpatine laughed, a cruel laugh that sounded as though it belonged to one twice his age.
Plagueis scowled at his Sith master, but said nothing.
"Ah, silence. Now that's more like it," Diabolicus said. Talking slowly, no doubt in an effort to torment Plagueis all the more, Diabolicus continued. "I have sent my forces ahead to Shelith II in the Outer Rim, on the far side of the Core Worlds from Teca VI. They used a circuitous route to arrive there without even entering the Mid Rim, but we were scheduled to use a secret, indirect path through the Galactic Core to save time.
"The route requires us to temporarily enter realspace in the Naboo system to change to a new jump vector. Since we are not using known hyperspace lanes and traveling a largely untested route, the possibility of us meeting a foul fate at Naboo is definitely plausible. My forces won't dare to enter Republic space to search for us or verify this ship's destruction and risk confrontation with the Republic."
"And this helps our cause how?" Plagueis interrupted, unable to remain silent.
Diabolicus shook his head. "Really, your behavior is more becoming of a monkey-lizard than a Sith apprentice. Patience. I am explaining. You must see the big picture, you know.
"Now, my forces have standing orders to conquer Shelith II under the command of my general, Buccrha Me'Theliak. Or perhaps I should say my former general; for us, the time has come to forgo conquest. Everything is in place; we will go into hiding until the galaxy hands itself to us."
Plagueis was shocked by this statement. Forgo conquest? Diabolicus had just spent years ruling a handful of systems, and now that he had taken Plagueis as his apprentice he wanted to forgo conquest?
But his master's insults still stung him, so he chose his words carefully.
"Master, if we are to rule the galaxy, why would we allow your general to begin ruling a portion of it without us, when we could just as easily rule?"
Diabolicus nodded. "It's true, we are allowing Buccrha to rule without us. But what is one planet when we seek to dominate the whole of the galaxy? Let Buccrha conquer Shelith II; let him conquer the entire system, the entire quadrant! We are to take the galaxy, and Buccrha will fall as easily as a pawn ever does. The ultimate goal of the Sith is at hand, and plans are in motion that cannot be undone without putting a millennia's worth of plotting and set-up at risk. Trust me, Darth Plagueis. It is only a matter of time. Time, patience, and careful positioning."
Plagueis shook his head. All this might have satisfied Diabolicus, but Plagueis saw no reason to stick to a millennium of plotting if it hadn't managed to produce results yet.
"And exactly how are we going to kill the Jedi on this backwater planet?" he asked, his hostility apparent.
Plagueis saw Palpatine roll his eyes and open his mouth to comment, but Diabolicus raised a hand to quiet him.
"Patience, my apprentice," Diabolicus said calmly to Plagueis. "We survive by practicing the strictest patience. A Sith who acts impulsively and recklessly is a dead Sith. We do what we have done for generations: we sit and wait for the proper moment."
Plagueis turned abruptly, a grunt issuing from deep within him. He returned to his pacing.
"We sit and wait while they continue to spread their poison!" he yelled.
"That is stupid. We wish to reform the galaxy and rule it. Why sit back and let it self-destruct?"
"We are patient. We pick our opportunities," Diabolicus replied, his voice calm, but a hint of anger seeping onto his face. "We act when situations are at their most favorable. Failure is never an option. Do you wish to fail, my apprentice?"
Plagueis stopped pacing, slumping his shoulders.
"No," he admitted. Hiding seemed foolish, but he had to agree that failing was more foolish still.
"Very good. Remember: failure equals death. We must always succeed, even if in order to do so we require ourselves to sit and wait."
"Good," Diabolicus said. "This is not to say we will be doing nothing. We have a great many things to accomplish, to set into motion. Every action of ours will lead to one ultimate outcome."
"The destruction of the Jedi," Plagueis said eagerly.
"Yes. We must be patient. Do you finally understand?"
"Excellent!" the Sith Lord proclaimed. He then turned towards the child. "You understand as well."
Palpatine looked up at Diabolicus, his grin never leaving his face.
"Of course, my lord," Palpatine replied confidently. "I will be most patient, and when I act it will be decisive."
"Very good." Diabolicus patted the boy on the shoulder proudly. "I have foreseen the future. I have no doubt you will do just that."
A thought suddenly occurred to Plagueis. "Master, I've been thinking about what has happened. You said Kyba was on the verge of turning. The Jedi knew my past and let me go to Teca VI anyway. Are they truly so blind as to not see the dangers?"
Diabolicus grinned. "The dark side is ascending, Lord Plagueis. It clouds events, confusing the Jedi's judgment further than what it already is. The Force tricks them to ensure things go as necessary to assure balance."
Plagueis thought back to when his master killed Kyba, how he was invisible in the Force. He understood.
"So this is what is going to protect us as we hide on a Republic world?"
"In plain sight." Darth Diabolicus grinned. He looked over to his new apprentice shrewdly. "Provided we are patient and don't do anything foolish."
Plagueis nodded, taking the hint.
The intercom speaker buzzed to life, the voice of the pilot bursting from it.
"We are going to enter atmosphere in thirty seconds."
Suddenly tired from his pacing and arguing, Plagueis walked over to the acceleration couch and buckled himself in, as did the others. The craft lurched slightly as it broke into the atmosphere.
The ship flew just south of the city of Theed, continuing west over the plains until it reached the vast swamps. It flew in low, disturbing all sorts of wildlife, then came to a clearing and hovered. Below it, a hole opened in the ground, like a mouth ready to feast. The ship lowered into it and the hole closed once again, devouring the ship completely.
The ship lurched to a halt, and a green light came on over the passenger's heads, indicating that they had landed. They got up and walked to the exit ramp.
Darth Plagueis saw that they were in a vast, underground hangar. To his left he saw a speeder and a swoop, as well as several droids. To his right stood a large, arched doorway. Palpatine stopped alongside him, his mouth open, eyes lit with awe.
"This place must be huge!" Palpatine said reverently.
"Quite," Diabolicus replied as he walked down the ramp. "We have everything we need. Individual quarters. A secure computer core linked to the HoloNet, as well as to our own offline database, which is highly encrypted. A large training room. Provisions. Water."
"This must have taken forever to build," Plagueis said.
"Over twenty years. It is never easy to do things of such grand magnitude in secret."
"You knew you would be here before you knew of the boy or me? Your plots go deeper than I thought."
Diabolicus smiled, looking at his apprentice wryly.
"I did not jest when I told you we have been plotting for millennia. You presume much if you think I knew nothing of you, my apprentice. I built this for you."
"For me?" Plagueis asked in disbelief.
"Yes. I knew one day you would come to me, and I must be ready for you. Here you will do what you must to ensure the destruction of the Jedi. This, for you—and for us—is now home."
Plagueis looked around, his face breaking into a twisted grin. He thought of everything he had been through, all that he had endured. This place was vastly different from the Jedi Temple or the Senate Rotunda—much more barren, yet at the same time more full of opportunity. Here he could explore his abilities, perfect his ability to avoid aging. He thought of Swilla. He could learn how to prevent others from dying. Maybe he could even learn to create life, maybe find a way to bring her back to him. It was all possible here. Here, he was able to leave behind his former identity as a Jedi and make himself anew. Here he was free.
He glanced down to see Palpatine looking up at him, his eyes wide. Looking at the boy, he finally understood what he had to do. They would prepare the galaxy for their emergence, and together, he and Palpatine would destroy the Jedi and conquer the Republic; together they would rule the galaxy. This boy was the key.
"Well, let's go then," he said to the child. "I have a lot to teach you. Let's talk about the Jedi."
Darth Plagueis held out his hand, which Palpatine grabbed, and led him towards the door. Behind them, Diabolicus erupted with a hearty laugh—one that would be heard, and felt, throughout the galaxy for years to come.
The revenge of the Sith had begun.
Palpatine sat alone in his meditation room, deep in thought. It had been years since he had come to Naboo with his masters, and in that time he had learned a great deal about the Jedi, the Republic, and the political system of the planet he was on. Naboo had promise; it was a terrific gateway to political ascension. But he was still not ready. He was on his way to becoming a young adult, and still he did not know all he needed to know. He had learned a great deal, and even knew some Sith secrets, though no one knew that he had found the hidden location of the Sith Holocrons, nor that he had learned how to use them and pored over them every night, soaking up the ancient knowledge like a sponge.
What Palpatine needed to learn could not be taught by a holocron. What he needed was Darth Plagueis's most guarded secret: how to defy death and time. He had hounded Plagueis incessantly, but the apprentice Sith would not give the secret. Palpatine was ready to become the apprentice. He felt he was even ready to become the master. But he could not do what he intended to do without the secret, so he had to act as if he was still learning, as if he was still unwilling or unable to step up as an apprentice. And now he was approaching adulthood. All this time wasted in this swamp, the only satisfaction killing Gungans that happened to stray too close.
Diabolicus probably sensed that he was acting, of this Palpatine was certain. But his master was a cruel man. He would find it more entertaining to watch Palpatine suffer and grow enraged at his lack of forward movement then to press for his pursuance of his destiny.
But Palpatine, deep down, understood why he was made to wait. The time was not right. When the time came, all would be set to where it should be, and the Republic would face its greatest and most lethal threat. Palpatine was patient, and he was cunning. He had waited and waited for opportunities to be in his favor. Then he started plotting.
Now was the time when he would set his plot into motion. His patience and far-sighted thinking would finally pay off. He rose to his feet and left his room, walking down a short corridor to the chamber of his master, Darth Diabolicus. Taking a deep breath and suppressing a grin by replacing it with a look of fear and worry, he entered.
The era of Darth Sidious was about to begin.
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