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Knights of the Old Republic: Hands of Evening/11-12

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< Knights of the Old Republic: Hands of Evening

Chapter 11

Jhosua…

Jhosua…

The armor whispered from its resting place atop a full-body mannequin. Glistening in the moonlight pouring in through the window of their apartment, the simple breastplate glimmered like a strange apparition. Jhosua had been watching it since he had settled into bed. Obsessed with protecting it, Jhosua tried to believe Verita’s assurances every night that it would be fine away from him for a few hours. The few hours he actually slept.

This entire scenario was crazy. He knew something was wrong. He knew that armor shouldn’t speak. He knew armor could not influence ideas. And armor definitely could not convince him that multiple personae dwelt within him. Yet in the back of his mind, the voice of the armor called out to him. Staring at him with its own vacuous eyes, it begged him again and again to put the armor back on.

“Jhosua…”

This time, it was not the armor’s voice. Stirring in his bed, Jhosua turned away from the armor for a moment. Verita was already asleep, nestled cozily against his shoulder. Her arms were draped around Jhosua’s waist, doing her best to stay warm beneath the light blanket thrown over them both. She repeated her dreary call, whispering for him in her dreams, pulling him from his own introspection and his focus on the breastplate.

Jhosua’s heart raced. The armor beckoned, and he wanted to be with it again. Doing his best to steel himself, Jhosua used his other hand and stroked Verita’s cheek. She couldn’t have been awake because she was terrible at pretending otherwise, but she reacted immediately. Smiling, she unconsciously tried to pull herself closer to her lover. He winced as she fumbled about in her sleep, kicking at his sore leg. He grumbled under his breath, and she replied to his displeasure with another curious smile.

Once she was settled, Jhosua found himself tracing the scar at her side. When he was this close to her, he could almost feel the pain it caused her. The deep gash snaked from the back of her left shoulder all the way to her hip. It was easy to conceal the wound despite its size; Jhosua hadn’t even noticed it until recently.

She was hesitant to talk about it at first. It was only after several days of tenacious convincing that she yielded to his request. Verita explained to him that she received the wound as a Sith prisoner. They had experimented on her as a captive, she said, to prepare the scientists and torturers for another, more important target. After months of pain, her mind snapped, and she gave in to the dark side of the Force. She tried to escape, but she was confronted by Sith Masters. It was a Sith’s lightsaber that left a bitter memento of her failure.

His finger ran across her scar again, and Jhosua realized that the armor seemed to have lost its hold over him. Verita flinched slightly when he reached for her hands, so he gave her a quick kiss on the forehead as thanks. His gratitude elicited a cheerful giggle from the sleeping Force-sensitive, and Jhosua was sure she knew what was going on.

That was fine by him. Verita’s presence seemed to weaken the armor. He could not explain it, but when he was with her, the armor lost its mesmerizing qualities. It was still beautiful, of course; he struggled to take his eyes off of it. However, that beautiful shell hid a darker evil. Verita provided him with the love he needed to overcome that evil.

With a quick yawn, Jhosua closed his eyes and smiled. I love you, he thought.

Without the armor to shield him from the Force, Jhosua’s mind was open to the dreaming Force-user at his side.

I love you, too.

Jhosua had hardly closed his eyes when his comlink started beeping. Grumbling, he reached toward his bedside footlocker to try and shut it off. While his hand crept about searching for it, he unintentionally knocked it off its resting place and it fell under his bed. Jhosua scowled. What luck, he thought. Pulling himself from Verita’s embrace and out of bed, he went to recover it.

Verita noticed his absence immediately. “Geryon…” she muttered in her sleep. “Don’t… why… where are you going?”

Geryon. Jhosua had heard her mention that name before when he rescued Verita, then known by her Dark Jedi moniker of Lamiya, from Dantooine. She refused to tell him who he was, and she even insisted that she had never said the name at all. Jhosua pressed the issue, but she was just as eager to avoid it. She assured him that she and Geryon had never been romantically involved. He was confused, but he was content with that.

Keeping one of his hands in hers to let her know he was still there, Jhosua scooped up his comlink from the floor. It was still beeping, albeit quieter now.

“This is Jhosua Weros. Who is this?” he muttered into the device.

“Ah, Jhosua. Good. This is Selias; I do hope I’m not disturbing anything.”

Jhosua glanced at Verita’s sleeping form. “Only my sleep. What is this about? It’s really late…”

“I know, and I’m sorry to wake you.” Despite her apology, her voice betrayed an obvious lack of concern. “We just got a big lead.”

“Can’t this wait until morning?”

“This cannot wait. If we do not move now, Paelopia may not be around to see the sun rise tomorrow.”

The mention of her name roused Jhosua from his dreary stupor. “Did you find her?”

“We know where Pavor is keeping her. Contact Verita and meet us at the Rabol Gardens near the outskirts of the city. We’ll talk there.”

“Should we bring anything?” Jhosu asked.

“Just the weapons you need,” Selias replied. “It’s too risky for us to keep talking like this on an open channel.”

Selias disconnected before Jhosua could respond. Trading the comlink for the shirt he left on his nightstand, Jhosua left the bed and went to fetch his weapons from the other room. Verita stirred in her sleep, realizing that Jhosua had left her side. He hesitated to turn on the lights and wake her for sure, so he wandered around in the dark to find his other clothes.

“What’s… going on, Jhosua?” Verita mewed. “It can’t be morning already…”

“It’s early. Selias and her company want to meet us at the Rabol Gardens. It’s important,” Jhosua explained while throwing on a combat vest.

“Fine.” Verita let out an exasperated sigh as she rose from the bed to find clothes to wear.

Jhosua slipped on the rest of his clothes. “I’ll start the speeder. Meet you in the garage?”

“Yeah. See you then.”

*** ***

The ride from their apartment in the western district of the city to the gardens on the opposite side had been uneventful and quiet. Verita was too tired to say anything, and Jhosua was too focused on piloting their speeder. Upon arrival, Jhosua parked their vehicle just outside a grove of bafforr trees; Selias had been waiting nearby, and she led the tired pair into the garden.

“Selias, what’s going on?” Jhosua asked.

The Togruta raised her hands and shushed him.

“Selias…!”

The Togruta continued through the grove. Jhosua stopped to wait for Verita, who was tired and lingering behind. It was obvious that she had no idea what was going on either. Jhosua wasn’t regretting his decision to trust Selias—not yet, anyway—and hoped he wouldn’t have to. Making sure Verita was okay, Jhosua continued after their silent guide.

After some time of walking in silence, the enigmatic Togruta reached a waiting Varlet-class luxury transport stationed in the outskirts of a wroshyr forest. Selias beckoned them into the craft with a few waves of her hand. Jhosua glanced at Verita, but she just shrugged. Sighing, Jhosua nodded and trusted that everything would be explained shortly. Selias followed Jhosua and Verita into the ship just before it took off.

Muttering something about a lack of space, Jhosua grabbed one of the thicker cables that dangled from the busted ceiling to secure his footing. He continued walking, at Selias’s behest, passing terminals and communication systems that dominated the aft section of the ship. The ship took off during their trek, and the going was slow until they reached the front of the ship where the other passengers were waiting. Jhosua was hesitant to sit with the eight warriors already against the walls, but Verita was too tired to care.

“Do you want to tell us exactly what’s going on, Selias?” Jhosua asked, trying to keep the anger out of his voice.

“You should know I never intended to keep you in the dark,” the mercenary leader replied. “I just didn’t want our conversation to be eavesdropped on. This is far too important; time and secrecy are of utmost importance now.”

“Fine. We’re here now, in private, so spill everything,” Jhosua urged.

“We have reason to believe that Paelopia is being held in a vacated building at the western corner of the city. What’s more, Pavor will be personally monitoring her imprisonment there,” Selias explained.

“How do you know?” Jhosua countered.

“Scuttlebutt says.” Selias shrugged. “We picked up on a rumor a few days ago, and Kerre sent out a few of our agents to confirm that Pavor had relocated something or someone to that building.”

“It could be a trap,” Jhosua mused. “She might not even be there. You said it yourself: you don’t know what he moved into that building.”

“It’s always a trap,” Kerre noted dryly from his seat. “But if we’re prepared, then it’s that much less effective.”

“My thoughts exactly. Besides, if the rumor is true, then she is being held hostage to draw the Jedi here out of hiding.” Selias motioned toward Verita. “They think she’d surrender herself to save Paelopia.”

“But they don’t know about me,” Jhosua realized.

“Nor the amount of mercenaries under my command,” Selias replied. “We can use that to our advantage.”

Verita rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “I take it you have plan? Or are we rushing in blindly, hoping that we’ll be able to rescue Paelopia and escape undetected?”

“Of course we have a plan!” Selias looked insulted. “It starts with you two getting suited up. If you don’t mind, there are two crates back there, by the broken terminal. Put on the armor and take the weapons you find inside.”

Verita lingered in her seat, too tired to move. She didn’t need armor, but Jhosua figured it couldn’t hurt. Opening one of the crates, his heart skipped a beat when a triangular visor stared back at him from inside. The traditional helmet of the Mandalorian Neo-Crusader, coupled with a complete suit of armor, was waiting for him.

As if he hadn’t seen enough of this armor. Some soldiers had fought in the Mandalorian War and watched these monsters invade cities, slaughter millions, and burn entire planets. Jhosua was too young to have fought in those battles, and he had engaged Mandalorian soldiers at Wayland after the war ended, but he had seen enough of them to last a lifetime.

“I am not putting that on!” he managed to say. “I will die before I wear that armor.”

Selias frowned. “Grow up. The Mandalorians were defeated nearly a decade ago. They’re not coming back. Our boss acquired that armor for dirt-cheap, and it works. You be grateful.”

“They’re monsters,” Jhosua shot back. “It doesn’t matter if they’ve been defeated; the scars they left on the galaxy remain. I refuse to equip the armor used to commit atrocities that-”

“You’d do well to save your preaching for elsewhere, brat,” Ranz hissed from his seat. “Some of us actually have the age and skill to remember those ‘atrocities’. Some of us have survived battles against you and your Jedi companions.”

Jhosua paused and eyed the other soldiers in the hold. He had not noticed it before, but all of them were wearing some variation of Mandalorian armor. Some wore the breastplate of the Neo-Crusader, while others donned gauntlets, pauldrons, or greaves. The rest of their outfit was completed by standard Republic Army gear. Despite Ranz’s comment, none of the mercenaries wore the characteristic Mandalorian helmet.

“My unit is mainly comprised of rogues and mercenaries from both sides of the Mandalorian War,” Selias explained. “Grizzled old veterans and wash-ups who need a leader.”

“Some of us picked the wrong side, and we paid for it,” Kerre sighed. “Others lost the credits we earned as winners, and the rest of us fought for the winners just to join the losers in the next war.”

“We’re thinking of calling ourselves the Bad Luck Brigade,” Selias noted in a cynical tone.

“But we’re not done,” Ranz added. “Not by a long shot. Even if I have to fight for the Republic someday, I’ll continue to fight until glorious battle takes me!”

“You aren’t a Mandalorian, then?” Jhosua asked Selias.

The Togruta chuckled grimly. “No, no. I just so happened to be lucky enough to leave my home behind before the Sith pummeled it back to the stone age.”

“Dantooine, then?” Verita wondered aloud.

“Taris. Good guess, though.”

Jhosua’s gaze returned to the armor. “You’ve yet to give me a compelling reason to wear this.”

“You don’t have to wear it if you don’t want to,” Selias replied. “But it’s just a suit of armor, and it will provide you with more protection than your current gear.”

Against his better judgment, Jhosua pulled out the yellow armor to examine it. There were a few burns in the arms that would have to be patched up sometime, but it was altogether in good condition. This suit of armor had been used by a Mandalorian commander, leading countless troops, to raze an untold number of worlds. Jhosua felt sick. He hated even looking at it, but he knew that his clothes wouldn’t defend him in a firefight.

“You can just throw it on over your clothes,” Selias instructed. “The armor was created to accommodate various species.”

“Indeed. Do us a favor and spare us the sight of your unclothed, scrawny frame,” Ranz remarked.

Jhosua ignored the insult. He continued to inspect the armor as though he was still pondering whether or not to wear it. It was his pride or his life. Trading his outermost layer of clothes for the yellow suit of armor, Jhosua was surprised by how comfortable it was. In passive defiance, he refused to wear the helmet or the breastplate, accepting his coveted dark armor as suitable protection. Withdrawing a blaster pistol from the bottom of the crate, Jhosua added it to his inventory of weapons that included an old sniper rifle and vibroblades.

“Good, it fits,” Selias said with a smile.

“Touching down in ten minutes, Commander, “Kerre noted.

“Make sure your weapons are primed and ready to go,” she said to her men and the two guests. “I don’t want any excuses; you all have time to prepare.”

*** ***

Selias’s transport touched down in a grassy field about two hundred meters from the building Paelopia was apparently being held in. Selias ordered Kerre, Jhosua, Verita, and four others—including one of the two Stereb they had defeated at the club—to join her during the attack. Ranz and the rest of her operatives were to remain with the ship to monitor communications and provide backup if necessary.

The area between Selias’s landing zone and the building itself was completely exposed. Between them and the building was nearly half a kilometer of open terrain. Jhosua chuckled, realizing that he would have been scolded during a military drill if he had picked such a poor deployment area. Luckily, the boxish three story building in the distance was hardly a military garrison. It was probably lightly guarded and poorly defended, so much so that it lacked external defenses.

Jhosua crept through the low grass toward the once-abandoned building, scanning the windows on the various levels. It was dark, but the planet’s satellite and a multitude of stars shone brightly upon the open field. There was nothing stopping guards inside the building from seeing them; it wouldn’t be hard to identify their advancing group. Worried that he was being watched, Jhosua sprinted the rest of the way and joined Selias and her mercenaries in the shadow of the building’s electric fence.

“I suppose you have the password to open the gate?” Jhosua whispered to Selias.

“Afraid not,” the Togruta replied. “But it shouldn’t be too hard to get inside.”

“Oh? What’s your plan, Selias?” Verita asked.

“Simple. The electric fence is newer than the building. Its generator must be around here somewhere—probably outside. You will jump over the gate with your Jedi powers and defeat the guards on the other side, and then disable the generator,” she explained.

“How many guards?” Jhosua asked.

“Only three. None of them skilled in comparison to you.”

“Fine,” Verita muttered. “I’ll do it.”

“If the generator is damaged, the fence’s current will go down. But you have to be quick,” Selias added. “The guards report in ten minute intervals. We only have until then to get in and get out.”

“I’ll be fine.” Verita leapt over the fence in a single bound.

At Selias’s behest, Jhosua sat down in the grass while the rest of her units paced about the fence. The brisk night wind crept into the gaps of his armor, and he muttered something about the cold while he waited. He could feel his eyes getting heavier as time passed, with nothing in particular to do or look at. They were always in danger of being seen, of course, but for whatever reason he wasn’t worried about that particular occurrence.

Dozing off, he didn’t even realize that the power went down. Commanding the Stereb to break down the rusted metal door, Selias ensured that their path inside was clear before leading her troops into the compound. Inside the courtyard, the mercenaries activated the lights attached to their blaster rifles and scoured the area for security. By the time Jhosua awoke and entered the courtyard, Selias was already placing small breaching charges on the front door.

“All clear, Commander,” Kerre muttered hoarsely.

“Here we go,” Selias growled. “Jhosua, you’re at my six.”

“What about Verita? Where is she?” he asked.

“I don’t know, but I’m sure she’s fine,” Selias assured him. “She’ll help Kerre and his group clear out hostiles on the first two floors. We need to make a beeline to the topmost level.”

One of the mercenaries triggered the switch, causing the durasteel door to implode on itself. The dampened explosion wasn’t as loud as Jhosua thought it would be. The guard standing behind the door was knocked back by the crumpled frame, alerting his two companions across the hall. Selias and her team stepped inside two at a time, letting streams of orange fire fly into the midst of the two guards opposite of their position.

Jhosua was the last one to enter. By the time he was inside, the last guard in the hall was already dead. The darkened room was illuminated slightly by the lights attached to the mercenaries’ rifles. Kerre took two members of Selias’s team and began scouring the individual rooms for other guards. Jhosua’s blood was already flowing; he was not even doing anything yet and he could feel the adrenaline fueling him. Selias bid Jhosua to follow her to the next floor. The Stereb led the way while Selias and Jhosua followed the other armored mercenary behind the giant humanoid. Jhosua’s footsteps became synchronized with his heartbeat, and both were moving at an alarming pace.

Their Stereb ally hammered his fists into the first guard they met, smashing his helmet into a crumpled mess. The other three, including Jhosua, opened fire at the small contingent of guards stationed at various doorways across the hall. Jhosua’s shielding shimmered, outlining his body as red blaster fire hit it with increasingly rapid pangs. Squeezing the trigger on his pistol with excessive force, orange bursts from his blaster lit up the darkness and faded against his target’s shields.

After trading several volleys of blaster fire with their opponents, Jhosua’s efforts were rewarded. One of his shots ripped through his target’s light armor, burning a sizable hole in his chest. Selias confirmed a kill of her own from her earpiece comlink, and the Stereb had thrown another guard through the wall in anger. The other guards, weakened and disoriented in the darkness, retreated even as orange blaster fire soared by them.

“We need to pursue them! Now!” Selias ordered. “If they warn Pavor, it’s all over!”

Selias and her squad chased after the fleeing enemies. Jhosua was already panting aloud and nearly fell over himself and then a dead guard trying to keep pace with the others. Each shot he had fired caused his vision to blur, and the sound of his blaster resounded in his ear even after the firefight was over. He was just grateful to be conscious at this point. Clambering up the stairs in a tizzy as though he were part of a comedy routine, Jhosua managed to take only a few shots at the guards before they escaped his sight.

Finding themselves on the topmost floor with a locked door in front of them, the guards seemed to realize that their fates were sealed the moment they left their posts. One of them tried banging on the door, hoping that they would be let inside, but the others turned to face the intruders. Selias hurled a sonic grenade to greet them. With a quick hiss, the projectile released a sonic boom to incapacitate them.

By the time Jhosua and the others arrived, the guards were clutching their ears and sobbing in pain. Jhosua noted the look of pity on Selias’s face as she ordered them to be shot.

“This is it,” Selias said with a sigh. “This door- this is Pavor’s room.”


Chapter 12

“Have you heard from squad four?”

“No. When were they supposed to report in?”

“Twenty minutes ago. Something’s not right.”

The two guards walked right by where Verita had been waiting. The Force-sensitive had positioned herself at the damaged generator behind the building, hoping someone would come to investigate. These two thugs probably didn’t even realize the power was down. Leaving her hiding spot, Verita moved to trail the two wandering guards.

Verita matched her own footfall with her targets’ steps. With a bit of luck, she could follow them to wherever the remaining guards were stationed and finish them all off at once. From there, she could meet the others and finish this mission. She was so pleased with herself, she forgot to mind her footing. As the guards turned to walk around the corner of the building, Verita heard something crackling beneath her boots. She recognized the leaves immediately.

“What was that?” one of the guards asked.

By the time he turned around, Verita had already stepped forward to attack. Placing one hand just above the guard’s left temple and the other at his chin, she quickly twisted his head. Her attack, coupled with the strength and speed the Force provided, was enough to snap his neck with a hushed pop. No trouble at all, she thought.

The other guard shouted when he realized Verita was behind him. By the time he had spun around, the body of his partner was lying in the grass at their feet. Ducking under his blaster rifle entirely, Verita jabbed the other guard in the chest with the hilt of her lightsaber and then ignited it. The piercing beam of light followed a sudden snap-hiss, and the guard let out a slight gasp as he tumbled over, dead.

Verita sighed as she deactivated her blade. Two dead guards were at her feet and she still had no idea where the other guards were—and there were others—or where her companions were. She had defeated the courtyard guardsmen and destroyed the generator, but Selias and her mercenaries had left her behind. Despite the fact that the building’s layout was no doubt simple, Verita didn’t want to risk getting lost.

As she stood outside the building, contemplating on whether or not to return to her former hiding place, a window shattered overhead. Jumping out of the way to avoid the jagged shower of transparisteel shards, Verita also narrowly avoided being crushed by a body that had been thrown from the window. Besides being torn up by bits of transparent metal on its way down, something in the dead body cracked upon impact.

With no other leads to go on, Verita determined that it was better to find a group of guards to hunt elsewhere than linger here. With a Force-assisted leap, she jumped from the ground to the open window. Brushing away the shattered window bits in the pane with the Force, Verita continued inside, lightsaber activated.

“Incoming! Incoming!”

Two figures concealed by the darkness of the room pointed their blaster rifles at Verita. In her alarm, she placed her lightsaber at her chest to defend herself, but that did not mollify her startled guests. Deflecting a few of their orange blaster shots with her own orange blade, Verita was careful to avoid hitting them directly in case they were allies, confused in the dark.

“Wait, wait!” Another figure stepped up. “You’re the Jedi, right? Jhosua’s friend?”

“Yes, I am. Verita,” she added. “Are you one of Selias’s men?”

“Right. Kerre,” he pointed out. “Are you okay? Where are Selias and the others?”

“I’m fine, but I don’t know where they are. Weren’t they with you?”

“Well, yes. But I figured you’d be with them.”

“That’s no good,” Verita muttered. “Have you checked the topmost floor?”

Kerre shook his head. “Not yet. We just cleared out floor two. This is the last room. You ought to-”

Verita winced in pain, tumbling over herself and interrupting Kerre. The presence of the dark side hit her like a kick to the chest, clouding her ability to use the Force properly. The sudden disconnect caused her moment of weakness. She had not even noticed its presence during her time lingering and fighting below. She had sensed Pavor and his thugs in the club, and they had no such power; there had to be someone stronger than them here.

Kerre asked her what was wrong, but she ignored him. Something—no, someone—was trying to call out to her. She could not tell who it was, but the Force kept pounding her with warnings. Vague warnings, but warnings all the same. In a brief moment of clarity, she sensed Jhosua. He was weak and had been hurt, but he was okay.

But his armor… I shouldn’t be able to sense him, she realized.

“Get to the top floor! Now!” Verita shouted, alarming the others. “Selias and the others need your help!”

Kerre snapped to attention. “Y-yes! We’ll get there, but what about you?”

“Don’t worry about me.” Verita glanced at the window behind her. “I think I can find another way in.”

*** ***

The impact knocked him backward and forced the wind out of him. Lying on the ground, Jhosua was surprised to be alive after that blaster shot had hit him. Smiling ruefully, he knew it had been a lucky shot, but a good shot; if not for his dark armor, he would have been dead.

The Stereb who had helped them get inside had not been so lucky. Stepping on a mine as he charged inside, he was killed instantly. Selias and her armored companion followed Jhosua inside, and they too were met with blaster fire. From outside, it didn’t seem like there was anyone inside besides Paelopia. Her bound, hooded, and altogether helpless form was placed in view of the doorway like a mocking trap, and they had fallen for it.

This entire room had been set up to draw Selias and her men inside. Unlike the others, this room ran on a backup generator, and the glowpanels exploded with light after Jhosua and the others had entered. Paelopia’s captors were hidden against the back wall: three Gamorreans armed with war-axes, a stout Houk with what seemed to be a blaster cannon, a Human swordsman, and several single-horned Advozsec. Pavor stood in their midst, safe from attack and hovering over Paelopia with his blaster pistol.

A Sakiyan had urged Jhosua and the others to stop fighting as they traded blaster shots. When they didn’t listen, they were incapacitated by blaster fire. The Sakiyan moved in between the two groups with a haunting smile on his face. His bald cranium was twice the size of an average Human’s, and he was taller and more muscular than Jhosua. Wearing jet-black armor that contrasted his milky white skin, his dark cape and charcoal robes resembled Verita’s old Dark Jedi attire.

“Selias Siital. I’m impressed by your skills,” the Sakiyan spoke in a smooth, cultured tone, clearly mocking her. “Had I not prepared for your arrival, I would never have expected you to enter my compound. Unluckily for you, I am always prepared.”

“Just… let the girl go.”

Selias struggled to stand, and the Sakiyan laughed at her attempt. Extending his fingers, lightning raced from his digits, encircling in the air and striking at the defenseless Togruta. She let out a pained cry as the energy crackled around her armor and her skin. Jhosua could smell the charred flesh from where he was.

“Tell me, is this your first hostage situation? Do you always race headlong through the front doors to rescue your captives?” the Sakiyan asked drearily.

“It’s my policy.” Selias forced a smile as the lightning died down. “And I don’t race. I pace myself.”

“Indeed. Your pacing is not enough to convince me to spare you… but you have your uses.” The Sakiyan wandered closer to Selias. “For now, I just need one of you alive.”

Commanding the awesome power of the Force, the Sakiyan lifted Selias’s disabled armored companion from his resting place against the wall. Jhosua heard a few of Pavor’s thugs chuckling; they knew full well what was about to happen. With as much power as he could muster, the Sakiyan pulled Selias’s companion toward him and then launched him back at the wall. A collective gasp was heard as he punched through the wall and landed in the broken room behind it.

“Do you see what I am capable of?” the Sakiyan cackled. “Gaze upon me and my powers and fear me, lesser beings! I am beyond your comprehension; my dark powers will crush your spirits. As your strength dies, the terrors I inflict upon you will cause you to beg me to end your life! I am Darth Odren!”

“You don’t… scare me.” Jhosua couldn’t bring himself to stand, but he could balance himself on one knee. “Take a slug to the head, Darth.”

Using his sniper rifle without its scope was awkward at best, but he still managed to take a shot. Darth Odren disappeared from view as soon as Jhosua fired, and Jhosua’s slug smashed into the wall opposite of him. Before Jhosua could redirect his shot to hit Pavor or one of his thugs, the Sakiyan dark-sider reappeared before him.

Kicking Jhosua in the face, Darth Odren unleashed a barrage of Force lightning upon him. Jhosua could smell the ozone around him, but the attack itself proved harmless; snaking around him, the energy was absorbed by his black armor. The Sakiyan gaped at Jhosua’s invulnerability to his attack and tried to fuel it with more energy.

“Surprised?” Jhosua spat.

“Your armor…? It absorbs the Force? I must have it!” Darth Odren growled.

Grabbing Jhosua by the hair, the Sakiyan lifted Jhosua just high enough so he could elbow him in the face. Desperate to defend his armor, Jhosua let instinct take over—clawing, biting, and struggling—in his attempt to escape his attacker. But the dark-sider’s raw power, coupled with Jhosua’s fatigue, meant a few more hits to the face sent him into unconsciousness.

Wasting no time, the Sakiyan released the armor’s locks just above Jhosua’s shoulders. Completely forgetting about his victims, his minions, and everything else around him, Darth Odren replaced his own suit of armor with Jhosua’s breastplate in several swift motions. In awe of his trophy, he hardly noticed Selias struggle to her feet. Once she was up, she pointed her blaster at Darth Odren.

“Master Odren, watch out!” Pavor called.

A few of Pavor’s thugs fired at Selias, forcing her to only fire a few quick shots before reactivating her shields. The few red blaster shots fired at her ricocheted off the shielding, and she turned her attention back to Darth Odren. To her dismay, he was still alive; her shots had missed.

“You are fools, all of you.” The Sakiyan unleashed another burst of Force lightning on Selias, overloading her shields. “Did you think any of you stood a chance against me? This attack was a sham! You are the real hostages, and your presence will draw out your wily Jedi friend!”

Selias groaned. He knows the Jedi is here…? she wondered.

Pavor and his men were about to relax and let their leader take over when Kerre raced into the room. With a holler, he called the other mercenaries inside. Throwing his only frag grenade into the crowd of thugs, he hadn’t even realized that Paelopia was lying in their midst. Selias wanted to condemn them for their cocksure attitudes, but she was fading in and out of consciousness.

Two of the Advozsec and the Human warrior were obliterated immediately. The rest of Kerre’s team joined him as the explosion cleared; luckily for them, Paelopia had not been harmed by the explosion or the resulting shrapnel. Kerre and his allies stood side-by-side and unleashed a stream of orange fire from their rifles. Pavor was no commander, and his thugs were forced to fend for themselves while he fled. Some joined him and scrambled about in confusion while a few stood their ground and returned fire.

Once the firefight had begun, Kerre broke off and raced toward Selias. Removing an emergency medpac from his belt, he gave his commander a few combat stims and kolto patches for her wounds. The stimulants pulled her from her weakened state. It took her a few seconds to realize what was going on before she struggled to stand.

“No, Commander!” Kerre urged. “You need to rest; let us fight!”

Selias punched his arm. “I’ll rest when I’m dead, you pathetic idiot. Let me be!”

Although he was quite enamored by his newfound protection, Darth Odren pulled his gaze away from it. Once his attention had returned to the scene around him, he realized that reinforcements had arrived to save Selias. Hovering toward them, the dark-sider forced Kerre to turn his attention toward the Sakiyan. Selias used the distraction to break away from him and make a beeline toward Paelopia—she had been lying unnoticed and helpless at the room’s center.

Blaster fire soared by as the Togruta kept her head low. A stray blaster shot scored a Gamorrean to her left in the chest, keeping her from having to engage the lumbering thug. Diving forward, she reached Paelopia just as an explosion rocked the building. Pavor had already fled and his guards were spread thin; there was no one defending the hostage. Selias scooped up the motionless woman and carried her away from the firefight.

In the midst of this commotion, the back wall cracked ever so slightly. Within seconds, the cracks had spread throughout the wall, getting larger and more veinous. Crumbling into tiny bits of broken duracrete, the hole left behind revealed the black sky beyond the room. Realizing that his true target was here, Darth Odren repulsed Kerre and his men with a Force wave.

Verita leapt into the room from an unseen vantage point, bronze lightsaber in hand. Spinning around, the wounded Houk criminal fired his rotating blaster cannon at the incoming Force-sensitive. Throwing her blade at him, she rolled forward to avoid the incoming fire. The whirling blade deflected a few shots into random directions before it cut the hulking alien at the waist and returned to its standing owner.

“I’ve been expecting you,” Darth Odren called. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”

“I’m here now.” Verita spun her lightsaber overhead. “Leave the rest of them alone.”

The Sakiyan scoffed. “They were bait. Nothing more.”

Verita called upon the Force, leaping through the air with heightened speed and impressive distance. Her lightsaber came down on the Sakiyan, but he had prepared himself for an attack and stepped out of the way. Recovering upon landing, Verita performed a low spinning attack that Darth Odren bounded above. Using Force lightning to counter, the dark-sider sent Verita flying backward.

Finding herself on the ground, Verita jumped to her feet with a Force-assisted backflip. Unfortunately, Darth Odren was already standing before her. Grabbing her lightsaber hand with a superhuman grip, the dark-sider punched her defenseless chest several times. As each hit made contact, Verita felt her eyes water and breathing become harder. Satisfied, Darth Odren tossed her with a telekinetic burst.

Verita’s back hit the wall just centimeters away from where she had leapt inside. Pulling herself forward, she could still stand. Good. And yet Darth Odren arrived quicker than she anticipated, racing toward her at a blindingly fast speed. A few more blows to the chest sent Verita back to the wall; an open hand strike to the jaw caused her to bite her tongue and fall over.

Dazed, Verita used the Force to prop herself back up, but Darth Odren had expected her to recover. A Force push from the Sakiyan threw Verita through the wall entirely. Tumbling through the air, Verita couldn’t quite make out the sky from the ground in the darkness. To her surprise, her descent was slowed down by a telekinetic bubble; she hadn’t done it, but she was thankful for it. Freefall from ten meters was dangerous.

Verita tasted the murky earth on her lips. Lovely, she mused. Her body was fine, as far as she could tell. However, as she reached for her lightsaber, she felt something burn in her left forearm. It was then that the rest of her body reacted to the fall, and pain shot through both her arms and across her torso, causing her to be momentarily paralyzed in pain. She did her best to bite back a scream, but she was unable to reach her weapon.

Darth Odren drifted to the ground and stood in front of Verita. His lightsaber floated from his belt and activated in midair in a fanciful display of Force-prowess. Holding the red blade between Verita and her lightsaber, he smirked at the sight of her injured form.

“I do not intend to kill you. No, you are too valuable to waste. But know this: I will drive you so close to despair and torment that you will beg to escape the pain. You will become my apprentice willingly.” The Sakiyan laughed and added: “The dark side will take you, and we will rule the galaxy.”

“With you?” Verita struggled to laugh with him. “I’d never join you.”

“We shall see.”

Verita closed her eyes to focus. Force-sensitives tended to use telekinesis to pull or push something in a straight line. In this situation, she needed to be creative. Grasping her lightsaber with her mind, she felt about for the activation switch. The bronze blade burst forth to meet Darth Odren’s near the ground, whirling about and nearly cutting off its feet as it traveled in a wide semicircle around his blade and into Verita’s hand.

On her feet immediately, Verita struck at Darth Odren with all her might. Blocking her attack with one hand, the Sakiyan shook his head in disgust and pushed her away from him. On the defensive, Verita realized that she had to utilize a one-handed guard, lest she cause further pain to her left arm. Without her familiar two-handed grip, she could hardly repel the Sakiyan’s attacks. Keeping her defense simple, she moved around hoping to tire her opponent.

Up and down Darth Odren’s attacks fluttered, as though the crimson blade was an extension of his pale limb. Wielding his blade with one hand just like Verita, he proved far more capable a duelist in that regard. He moved in circles around her and nearly struck inside her guard several times. He aimed for her shoulders and her waist with small, precise cuts that took almost no effort. The more Verita tried to defend herself, the more exhausted she became.

Darth Odren backed away from her, leaping on top of a jagged rock near the powerless fence. He invited Verita to approach him with a wave. She raced forward at his behest, slicing at his thighs with a wide horizontal swing. The Sakiyan jumped over her; once he was safely behind her, he cut along a vertical plane. Verita spun around and forced her bronze blade to intersect with his. He missed her face, but only barely; Verita could smell her burnt hair.

She retreated from him, placing several meters between them. Darth Odren didn’t intend to give her time to recover. Rushing in, he performed a vicious low sweep that would have cut off both her feet. As he stood up, Verita struck at him with a series of V- and X-shaped cuts. The attacks seemed to catch Darth Odren off-guard, and he fell back into a defensive position.

“Not bad,” Darth Odren muttered. “I will enjoy twisting your spirits. You will make a powerful apprentice.”

“I thought I told you your efforts were useless. I won’t join you,” Verita spat.

“I sense much fear in you, young Jedi,” Darth Odren replied. Silent for a moment, she sensed him reaching into the Force. “Now let me exploit your fears. Embrace darkness!”

The Sakiyan extended his hand, releasing a gloomy miasma from his palm. Verita placed her lightsaber forward to defend herself, but as the shadows drifted closer, it proved ineffective. The thick haze spread around her, covering her surroundings in an empty darkness. Her sight abandoned her—not even her lightsaber could penetrate the shadows—as she stumbled into the blackness.

Time was distorted in this place. She wasn’t quite sure where she was anymore, but she knew that she had to escape. The darkness had not touched her, leaving her alone but surrounding her entirely. Groping around in the emptiness, her other senses were just beginning to become attuned to the shadows when she heard something.

Fire crackled in the distance. She struggled to listen to it and figure out where it came from, but it seemed to be all around her. Her eyes forced themselves shut as the smell of burning wood and dry earth filled her nostrils. Tumbling, she found herself lying on the ground near a damaged turret in the clearing of a forest. But that’s impossible… where am I? she thought.

The wind rustled through her hair. Blinking away the strange sensation that had overcome her, she realized just how weak she was. Her arms felt like they were going to fall off, and there was no way she could force herself to stand. Glancing about, she realized that there were several serpentine sentients lying around her. Sluissi? She had not seen Sluissi since-

“Master, this one is alive.”

A pale-skinned Sakiyan rushed toward her, purple lightsaber in hand. He was clothed in gray robes covered by a dark cuirass, and he looked so familiar—Verita knew she had seen him somewhere before. A tall Human male with equally pallid skin approached the two of them. He was bald; parallel tattoos atop his head traced their way from the back of his head to just above his brow. Wearing a red skintight combat suit with a gray cape draped over one shoulder, his giant form stood over Verita and inspected her.

“This one,” the tall Human muttered, “is the one Lord Revan wanted. She is the key to retrieving the catalyst.”

“She seems injured. I don’t think she can fight back,” the Sakiyan noted.

“Take her to the Leviathan. I will ensure that she is prepared for Lord Revan’s visit.”

Suddenly, Verita knew exactly what was going on. She was on Sluis Van, alongside the local Sluissi population and a Republic force, fighting against the Sith under Darth Revan. She had been leading a squad of Sluissi during the Republic’s final push against the Sith and their Iridorian mercenaries, and then a missile had landed nearby. It had been a lucky shot, but the explosion had been merciless. Her squad had been decimated, but she survived.

The Force told her most recent memories—her torture at the hands of the Sith, her fall to the dark side, her time with Jhosua—was actually fabricated by her mind. Even her encounter with Darth Odren, where she was outmatched and nearly defeated, was an apparition in her mind. Everything beyond her escape from Sluis Van was simply a precognitive warning about what she would go through.

But she couldn’t relieve it. Not for real. She wouldn’t go through it again.

She felt herself shaking. Screaming, she tried to batter away the Sakiyan. He wasn’t gentle, pulling her arms and forcing her to her feet. He had a smile on his face; the Sakiyan kneed her in the gut, amplifying his strength with the Force. Verita gasped, and she vomited blood. Her breath left her as everything around her returned to normal.

“Did you see your greatest fear?” she heard the Sakiyan ask.

Darth Odren remained, looming over her like a thrilled predator, but those burning surroundings faded away. She was again on Derra IV, lying on the ground, with Jhosua and the others in the building overhead. She was practically on the grass, kneeling at his feet, and his lightsaber hummed close enough to her face that it was burning more of her hair.

“I gave you but a taste of my power. Shall I force you to live through it in its entirety? How many times shall you review it?”

Verita felt tears streaming down her face. The terror of having to relive her pain under the Sith, coupled with her battered body, broke her will. She couldn’t force herself to get back up. She couldn’t even find her lightsaber.

Before Darth Odren could get raise his hand to strike at Verita, they heard a voice from the building. Darth Odren turned his attention to the hole in the wall on the third floor and saw Selias and her companions waiting for him. With a shout, Selias ordered her companions to fire at the Sakiyan. The dark-sider scoffed at their efforts, spinning his red blade in a flurry to block their blaster fire.

“Do you see this? This is futility. The dark side is infinitely more powerful than you can even imagine. I can tap into your rage, I can expose you to your fears, and I can revel in your weakness. I am stronger than you and your friends. Nothing you can do will stop me! I am invincible, and you will be my apprentice!”

*** ***

Jhosua was lucky he found a window. He left Selias and her allies on the third floor to distract Darth Odren, firing at him to draw his attention away from Verita—and him. It was risky attacking Force-sensitives; the first thing Jhosua had learned as a soldier was to leave rogue Force-users to other Force-users. But Verita was wounded, and their blasters were useless.

Lying prone on the table he had positioned near the window, Jhosua placed his sniper rifle so he could see the Sakiyan through his scope. It would be a tough shot, in any case. Even from here, it was a bad angle and he was very close to Verita. Zooming in, Jhosua ensured that he kept the weapon steady. He could see the whites of Darth Odren’s eyes, and he could see him deflect the shots from Selias and the others with ease. He was incredibly skilled; he could keep up his whirling defense until their power paks ran dry, and then he would kill them all.

Watching the Sith as he blocked their attacks, Jhosua noticed his pattern. Selias and the others were simply firing at him repeatedly, allowing him to create a flowing defense that flowed back and forth, not alternating in any outstanding way. It was quick, and Jhosua could hardly see where his lightsaber was at any given time, but it was evident as he watched.

Jhosua closed his eyes. “Verita, help me,” he whispered. Watching Darth Odren, Jhosua pulled the trigger the moment his crimson blade blocked a shot aimed at his face.

*** ***

The Sakiyan’s blade drifted to the left, blocking an attack aimed at his chest. As it worked its way counterclockwise around his body fast enough to block incoming shots, he was hit by a sniper’s slug. The Force had warned him, but he had gotten so used to deflecting the mercenaries’ orderly shots he couldn’t defend himself. He died immediately.

His head burst like a rakmelon, sending black blood and bits of flesh splattering on the ground. Verita retched as the smell of cerebral fluid and puss reached her. His grotesque remains were further violated by Selias and her team; they refused to stop firing until they were sure Verita was okay. His body, headless and riddled with blaster fire, was thrown to the ground in an bloody mess. A quick wave from Verita alleviated their fears, so Selias ordered her soldiers to cease fire and called for Jhsoua to meet them below.

It took nearly fifteen minutes, but Selias and the surviving members of her team met with Jhosua and Verita in the courtyard, some twenty meters from where the Sakiyan’s corpse remained. Selias’s ship arrived just beyond their position, dispelling more mercenaries and a technician or two to assist the wounded. Ranz took the incapacitated Pavor and placed him inside the ship for safekeeping.

“Are you okay, Selias?” Jhosua asked.

“Me? I’m better than okay—I’m fantastic.” She lit a cigarra. “I caught Pavor, killed his men, killed his boss, and saved the hostage. All in all, I’d say this is an amazing damn day.”

“You’re not injured?”

Selias laughed in between puffs. “Not at all. Thanks for the concern.”

“What about you? You took quite a beating from the Sith,” Kerre noted, handing him a kolto patch.

“Not at all. I got off lucky. Besides, I have Verita to watch out for me,” Jhosua said with a smile.

“I’m fine, thanks,” Verita added from her stretcher.

“Don’t be so dour, Jedi,” Selias said cheekily. “You’ve had your fun, you’ve saved your target, and you have a mighty fine man at your side.”

“What?” Verita tried to turn her head, but it hurt. “H-he’s not…!”

Jhosua looked offended.

“I mean…” Verita sighed. “What I meant to say was-”

“Commander,” one of the mercenaries interrupted. “Paelopia wishes to speak with you.”

The freed prisoner joined the company of combatants. Standing in their midst, Jhosua noted that her features were bonier and more rigid than he remembered. Her arms and legs, in particular, were emaciated and colorless. She had no physical scars, but he imagined that she was traumatized by the entire ordeal. The dark rings under her eyes and the sunken lips spoke where words could not. She had a nutrient pouch in her hand, but she hadn’t opened it.

“Hello…?” she asked in a hushed, raspy voice. “You are Selias, correct?”

“Yes, that’s me.” Selias smiled and removed the cigarra from her mouth. “It’s a pleasure to finally speak with you, Paelopia.”

“And you. I hear… I owe you my life,” she said.

“Think nothing of it. I was just doing my job,” Selias insisted. “If you are to thank anyone, you ought to thank these two strangers. Especially Jhosua. He tried to save your life back at the bar.”

Paelopia turned to face Jhosua and performed a slight bow. “I remember you. It seems I was mistaken before, not allowing you to help me. You have my deepest gratitude. If there is anything I can do to repay you, know I would.”

“Your gratitude is enough,” Jhosua assured her.

“You’re welcome,” Verita muttered.

Paelopia pulled a bag of credits from underneath her robes. Turning to Selias, she extended the bag to her. To Jhosua’s surprise, the Togruta’s eyes alit with a strange fire, and she stomped her foot.

“You put that away!” she growled.

Paelopia shrunk back. “I… I just thought I could-”

“No! I refuse to take your money.” Selias shoved it back at her. “That’s how this whole debacle started; you need all the credits you can spare. Don’t insult me by trying to pay me. You told me that your husband died and left you in debt, right?”

“Yes… Bramhon. Bramhon Atronis. He and I fled Taris before it was destroyed, but… he had to work so hard to ensure I could live comfortably. He took so many jobs, and… and… mercenary work is hard work, Ms. Selias,” she paused for a moment. “I didn’t realize he had worked up so much debt until… until…”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to remind you of that,” Selias said, her own voice softening.

“It’s okay. I didn’t mean- he was very kind. I loved him… I loved him so much…” she sobbed.

Paelopia mumbled something about meeting the wrong people and something about Bramhon’s debts. Selias turned to Jhosua and eyed him pityingly, hoping he would do something. Jhosua shrugged; he didn’t know what to say. Selias sighed at Jhosua’s obliviousness and embraced Paelopia.

“It’ll be okay,” she whispered. “Don’t cry… I want to help you. I know what it’s like… what it’s like to lose someone close to you.”

“You… you do?” Paelopia sniffed.

Selias stared into the distance. “Yeah. It’s tough. You cry a lot. You start to wonder how in the seven hells you’re going to live without them. Life will never be the same again, I can tell you that. But you know what? You get better. Someone once told me that we are all fighting—fighting to keep on living, to honor and remember our loved ones. I don’t think he was right, exactly, but he was encouraging at the time.”

“What are you trying to say, Selias?” Jhosua asked pointedly.

“Shut up.” Selias glared at him, and then turned to Paelopia again: “Your husband was a great man; he loved you, but I know he didn’t want you to live like this. You have to pick yourself up. You have to fight those feelings of despair and weakness. But you have to keep the memory alive. Remember and live.”

“Yes… yes. You’re right. But… I don’t know how to live now!”

“That’s okay. I wouldn’t either. But I can help you. We’ll help you, but only if you want us to,” Selias said, waving at the rest of her mercenary crew. “I know how hard being a mercenary is. We respect your husband’s work, and we know what he had to do to ensure you wouldn’t suffer. But don’t worry. Just because he lived a hard life doesn’t mean you have to. We’ll find you a place to call your own.”

Paelopia nodded, drying her tears. “Thank you.”

“Of course. Head back inside, then.”

“Oh. One more thing,” Paelopia muttered.

“What is it?”

“Bramhon’s last mission… he and his party were searching for a rogue Jedi in the Mid Rim. They tracked him to an uncharted world, but…”

Jhosua nodded. “They didn’t survive.”

“No…”

“Normally, I’d go check it out,” Selias began, “but I have to take care of Pavor and Paelopia. Once I’m done with that, I have to report to my superiors. I can’t act until they give me the okay.”

“We’ll do it,” Jhosua spoke up. Reaching for the armor he wore, he sighed. “Paelopia deserves justice, and… I need to rid myself of this armor.”

“What?” Verita asked. “But Jhosua, you just got it back from Darth Odren!”

“It’s evil, Verita. I… there’s just something about it. It’s haunting. It’s a relic of a war that’s been won. I shouldn’t even have it, but here I am. I only took it from him because it’s not safe here,” Jhosua explained.

“So you and Verita are going to defeat the rogue Jedi, and then you’ll stash the armor away on his frontier world,” Selias realized. “Splitting up and burying the pieces across the system would be particularly effective.”

Jhosua nodded. “Good idea. We’ll try that.”

“Paelopia, could we have those coordinates?” Verita asked.

“Of course. One moment: his datapad is in my things.”

“Kerre!” Selias called out to him.

“Yes, Commander?” he wiped his gloves of a bit of blood and some wasted kolto.

“How are the wounded?”

“They’re fine, Commander. Both of them should make a full recovery.”

“Good. I want you to accompany Jhosua and Verita on their trip,” Selias ordered.

“… Commander?”

“I can’t officially order you to, but they may need your help. Until I contact the boss, you’ll be my liaison between us, okay?”

Kerre nodded. “If they don’t mind.”

Jhosua shrugged. “Verita?”

“I have no problem with it,” she said.

“Then it’s settled.” Selias lit another cigarra, discarding her old one. “Jhosua, you’ll go to Bramhon’s world and find that rogue Jedi he was hunting. Take him out and hide your armor.”

“Sounds good,” Kerre mused.

“Oh,” Selias whispered to Jhosua, “you better bring Kerre back alive. If he dies, I’m recruiting both of you to take his place, do you hear me?”

“Don’t worry. He'll be safe with us,” Jhosua replied.

“Great,” Selias said cheerily, receiving the datapad from Paelopia and giving it to Jhosua. “I hope the Jedi feels better. See you on the spacelanes.”

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