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Knights of the Old Republic: Hands of Evening/26-27

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< Knights of the Old Republic: Hands of Evening

Chapter 26

Ralina Venli was almost sprinting through Mercium’s Glorious Citadel. Slaves scampered away from her in droves, giving her and those following her a wide berth. No doubt they were informed that Ralina was to be allowed to see the Hutt upon arrival. As she and her company moved deeper into the Hutt’s base, slaves became harder and harder to find as guards took their place.

Ralina was the first to reach the Hutt’s chamber. Posh and Kerre arrived after she did, and Manda tailed them. Jhosua brought up the rear, leading a shackled Verita by a lengthy chain. The two Vodran guarding Mercium’s door eyed the group suspiciously. Ralina knew they didn’t recognize Jhosua’s group, but she had hoped they would not ask any questions.

“Who is the newcomers?” one Vodran guard asked. “Where is Master Rashinodies?”

“Let us by,” Ralina said flatly. “We have business with your master.”

“Answer the question,” the other guard ordered, pointing his blaster at her. “You know no one gets by with their weapons.”

“The big lizard is dead,” Jhosua spoke up. He motioned toward Verita. “She killed him.”

The first guard’s eyes widened. “W-what? Impossible! Where is he? Where is Rashinodies?”

“I don’t have time for this,” Ralina grumbled. “Kerre. Posh. If you please.”

Kerre released a short burst of fire from his blaster carbine, burning several gaping holes into the second guard’s chest. The other Vodran jumped in fright, accidentally firing his blaster into the air. Posh fired a single shot, hitting the surviving guard in the throat. Once they were sure the two guards were dead, Manda moved forward to hack the door control panel.

“How long do you need?” Ralina asked.

“It’s a simple design, but I haven’t used brute force to break through door security in years. Five minutes?” Manda mused.

“If only Fetcher and Jon were here,” Posh muttered.

“I’m doing the best I can!” Manda shot back.

“All right, all right,” Ralina said. “Enough. Posh, you and Kerre are our best shots-”

“Thanks a lot,” Jhosua quipped.

“… Stay outside and watch for other guards. Let us know if things get ugly.”

“Will do,” Kerre replied. “Are you sure you’ll be okay, Ralina?”

“We’ll be fine. Are you ready, Verita?”

“Always,” the Force-user responded.

“Good.” Ralina turned back to the door. “Manda, how’s it going?”

“I think… I want to say…” Manda gritted her teeth. Cutting two small cables with a microblade, she was rewarded for her efforts and the door to Mercium’s room slid open. “Got it.”

“Under five minutes, too,” Posh noted.

“Here we go,” Ralina said under her breath.

Mercium the Hutt’s Twi’lek slaves were hand-feeding him some sort of multi-colored fruit delicacy when Ralina and her companions walked into the room. The Gank killers around him noticed that they had their weapons with them, and they reacted accordingly. The dozens of armored guardsmen surrounded the Hutt and his slaves in silent unison, raising their blasters to threaten Ralina and her companions. The Hutt chortled behind them, activating his translator droid with one of his sticky hands.

“Ralina Venli, I am pleased to see you back to us so soon,” Mercium’s floating droid announced. “I take it your cargo was secured safely?”

“Yes, indeed, your Grandness.” Ralina bowed lightly and then pointed to Verita. “I present to you the Jedi who was haunting Anobis.”

Jhosua pulled on the chains he was carrying, forcing Verita forward so she was in clear view of the Hutt. At first, Mercium smiled. His tongue lapped around his mouth, and his stubby arms reached out as though to embrace her. The other slaves giggled coquettishly, knowing the Hutt’s mannerisms well and finding them amusing. Even from her position near Ralina and the others, Verita visibly recoiled at the Hutt’s ogling.

Mercium growled deeply at her distaste and regained his composure. “She is attractive, to be sure. However, that… is not the Jedi I requested.”

“Nonsense,” Ralina said. “She was the only Jedi we found on Anobis. You said it yourself: Anobis is an empty world on the frontier.”

“No. Traya said the Jedi was an elderly male. This is not the Jedi she spoke of! Where is Rashinodies?” Mercium asked.

Ralina sighed. She had hoped that Mercium would fall for their initial plan; it was faster and more guaranteed to work in their favor. If he had taken Verita into his harem, she would have been invited into his presence sometime later and then she could have killed him with her Force powers. Once the Hutt and his guards were dealt with, Ralina could rescue Fetcher and all of them could flee the planet. However, it seemed he knew something about the Jedi that was requested. Qual was already dead, so there was no sense in continuing this charade. Their next plan was more risky, but she suspected that—as long as neither side could move against the other—Fetcher and the rest of her crew would be safe.

“We’re holding your lieutenant hostage,” Ralina explained. “He is sedated and imprisoned in our ship. We will return him to you when we know that Fetcher is alive, and he is returned to us.”

Mercium roared at them. He shouted something in Huttese that his hovering droid did not translate, and the Gank killers around him moved to shoot down Ralina and her crew. Seconds before they fired, Jhosua allowed Verita to go free, allowing her to break the weakened restraints she was wearing. Activating her hidden lightsaber, Verita leapt between Ralina and the Gank warriors, deflecting the incoming bolts with ease.

The Gank killers were visibly disturbed by the Jedi and her lightsaber, and they stopped firing immediately. It seemed that, even a thousand years after the Jedi had subdued the bloodthirsty Gank, they still had some traditional fear of the mystical warriors. Mercium, too, was stunned by the Jedi’s sudden freedom, but he did his best to conceal it.

“As you can see, the tables have turned,” Ralina said. “This fight has been stalemated, Mercium.”

The Hutt cursed in his native tongue. “Do not think you have won, smuggler! There are many more guards where that came from, and-”

“My lord, the Grand Mercium!” a holographic image of one of the Hutt’s Klatooinian slaves appeared near the throne. “I beg your forgiveness, but I have urgent news!”

“What is it?” the Hutt asked in Huttese, not taking his eyes away from his guests.

“There are Republic ships inbound, my lord!”

“Republic ships?” Mercium repeated. “Here? Are you sure?”

“They are not broadcasting any signals, but they display the insignia of the Republic. There are only three of them; they appear to be dropships.”

“Move the slaves into position to engage their forces,” the Hutt ordered. “How long until they land?”

“About five minutes, sir.”

“Do they have any support?”

“Not that we can see.”

“Those dropships could not have just come out of nowhere,” Mercium insisted. “Keep searching!”

“You seem to be having problems, your Grandness,” Ralina said after the conversation was translated by Jhosua.

Mercium forcibly disabled the holographic image. “No, Ralina Venli. We both have problems.”

“What?”

“Do you think those Republic forces will let you escape here if they find you? Do you think they will keep your Shistavanen friend alive when they find him?”

Ralina glared at the Hutt. “What are you suggesting?”

“I suggest we cooperate—for the moment. After these Republicans are dealt with, I will return the Shistavanen to you. You, then, will return Rashinodies to me.”

“Fine,” Ralina said, eliciting gasps from her companions.

“Excellent. Go, then. I will tell my slaves that you are going to assist them.”

Ralina bowed her head and turned, leaving Mercium’s presence. Manda and Jhosua were stunned by the captain’s eagerness to work with the Hutt again, and it took them a moment to follow Ralina. Verita watched the Gank killers and the Hutt, backing out of the room with lightsaber in hand. Once they were all outside, Ralina closed the door behind them.

“Captain, what are you thinking?” Manda asked.

“You can’t work with that slimeball,” Posh agreed.

“He’s not going to return Fetcher to you,” Jhosua said.

“Calm down, all of you. I know that.” Ralina glanced at the closed door. “Here’s the plan: all of you will go out and aid Mercium’s slaves as little as possible. Find the nearest Republic combatant and surrender to them. You should be safe under their jurisdiction until the fighting is over.”

“What if they don’t intend to take prisoners?” Verita asked.

“They will. Republic soldiers tend to, don’t they, Jhosua?” Ralina asked, winking.

“Generally.”

“If they’re not interested in your surrender, flee to the Hound’s Sapphire,” Ralina ordered. “We’ll all meet up there in four hours.”

“What about you?” Kerre asked.

Ralina withdrew her blaster pistol. “I’m going to save Fetcher.”

*** ***

Rashinodies stirred. His eyes shot open, and instinctively moved to sit upright. However, his arms and legs were tied down to the cot he was lying in with climbing rope; he could not move. He felt weaker than usual, and there was a ringing in his head as though he had been exposed to a sonic boom. Struggling, he could not muster the force to tear away at his bonds.

Turning to the side, he realized that sedatives were being pumped into his arm through an intravenous drip. That explained his weakness. No doubt the work of Ralina and her rogues. Their drugs would have kept a Human comatose, but they were too weak to keep a Trandoshan unconscious. Taking his time, Rashinodies scratched away at the bindings along his wrists with his lengthy claws until they tore. After some time, he heard the ropes snap, and he tore his entire right arm free. Using his newfound freedom, he removed the drip from his arm and released his other limbs.

Rashinodies jumped to his feet and assessed his surroundings. He was no doubt back in the Hound’s Sapphire, but where was the crew? They could have been on the bridge, but he suspected that they had left someone just outside this room—which seemed to be an abandoned dormitory—to guard their prisoner. Whoever it was, Rashinodies knew he could defeat them. That red-haired Human only managed to best him on Anobis because he took the Trandoshan by surprise. Now, surprise was his to exploit.

Approaching the door slowly, Rashinodies positioned himself just underneath the door panel. He delayed his assault for a moment, allowing strength to return to his body after being unconscious for an indeterminate about of time. With a loud roar, Rashinodies slammed his fist into the door panel and leapt forth, claws barred.

To his confusion, there was no one outside his makeshift cell. In fact, the ship itself seemed to be powered down, if the lack of internal lighting was any indication. Was the ship still on Anobis, or had they fled elsewhere? No, Mercium had that Shistavanen—they called him Fetcher—captive, so that meant the Hound’s Sapphire had to have returned to Caillte. That was fortunate for Rashinodies, because he knew his way around the planet; with a bit of time and a few weapons, he could fight his way back to Mercium’s stronghold.

Rashinodies worked his way out of the Hound’s Sapphire, recalling the path he took to leave while they were preparing to engage Qual on Anobis. Before he left, he made sure to raid their armory, taking a blaster carbine and several vibroblades for himself. Disembarking from the ship’s boarding ramp, the Trandoshan scanned the area around the dusty plains he found himself in. Unfortunately, Ralina had opted not to land on the plateau designated for them. That meant Rashinodies had to navigate his way back to the Glorious Citadel using natural landmarks and the system’s star.

He had been walking for about ten minutes when something in the sky caught his attention. Focusing on several dark figures above him, Rashinodies watched their indiscernible forms transform into descending dropships. They were too far away for him to see clearly, but he knew they were not Hutt ships. Had Ralina called for reinforcements? The thought of Ralina summoning enemies here made his blood boil. She and her pitiful crew would pay for this indignity.

Rashinodies knew exactly what to do. Forgoing his original plan of meeting with Mercium, he turned toward three towering pillars in the distance. Just beyond them, near the hills that separated him from the Glorious Citadel, the Mandalorians had built an impressive quad missile turret long ago. It was there that Rashinodies would rain deadly fire upon Ralina and her allies.

His tongue flickered delightfully at the thought. It would be a glorious day for Mercium and all of his servants.

*** ***

“How are we doing, Oryan?” Lucius asked.

Oryan returned his attention to the holographic map before them. “All dropships have landed. Beginning the attack… now.”

Mercium the Hutt was on Caillte. It was almost unreal. The GenoHaradan intended to sell something to the Hutt’s underlings on Caamas—their datapads suggested slaves. Using all the clues they had assembled from various journal entries and datapad commentary, Dynatha and her allies figured out exactly where the Hutt was hiding and how to reach him. Defeating all their enemies under a week was quite an accomplishment, even for a mercenary gang like Dynatha’s.

Despite their prowess, Mercium the Hutt proved an able and wily foe, as always. Wherever he was hiding on Caillte was not visible from orbit, and the crew of the Whirlng Fire had not seen it while descending either. Oryan offered his assistance, using a subspace transceiver to control droids he had built on Herzob and load them into dropships. After several days, the automated vessels were finally landing. From a rocky alcove about two kilometers away from the nearest dropship, Lucius and the others could safely monitor the progress of Oryan’s combat droids. Until the Hutt was found, there was no reason for them to exert themselves on slaves and thugs.

Mercium the Hutt was the reason that Lucius and his crew had met Tserne and Dynatha in the first place. Lucius and his companions freed several of the Hutt’s slaves in a daring raid on one of his compounds, and Mercium pursued them with a vengeance. The GenoHaradan—who were evidently frequent allies of the Hutt—sent Tserne and Dynatha to aid Mercium. It was then that the two of them defected from the guild of assassins and joined Lucius and his party. Finding the Hutt gave Lucius a chance to finish the job he had started.

“Even if Mercium is around here,” Raxsus spoke up, “do you think he’ll fall for it?”

“It’s a chance we have to take. No matter where he is on the planet, he must have seen the droids. Whether they’re close enough to him to get a response from him, I can’t say,” Oryan replied.

“Why do the ships have Republic markings?” Dynatha asked.

“They were abandoned near Herzob during the Exar Kun War,” Oryan said. “I take everything I can find—derelict ships, damaged hovercars, droids—and tinker with it.”

“Plus, seeing the Republic on his world will probably terrify the corpulent slug,” Raxsus laughed.

“That was the intention,” Lucius agreed. “How long do you think the droids will last, Oryan?”

“This dry and windy weather has no real affect on them. If you are referring to the battle, it would depend on the number of enemies. They’re capable combatants, but they are outdated models and weren’t designed for more than guard duties.”

Dynatha and the others watched the tactical map. About sixty blue dots—each representing a squad of eight droids—were moving away from their starting position, programmed to wander in random directions until they found targets. About thirty seconds later, to the east of the droids’ landing zone, several hostiles appeared on the holographic display. Then, in near perfect unison, all the droids rerouted themselves to intercept and destroy.

“Looks like we have our first enemies,” Tserne noted.

“There are a lot of them,” Dynatha said, trying to count the red flashing dots.

Syrook growled, and Raxsus nodded in agreement.

“Hutts are gangsters,” Raxsus drawled. “It would be expected that, even after Lucius raided his compound, he’d have a bunch of slaves left over.”

“But where did they come from? They couldn’t have just materialized,” Dynatha wondered.

“Logic dictates that if we did not find his base in our sweep of the planet, his base must either be underground or within the mountain,” Oryan noted. “In either case, we would do well to investigate.”

“This seems to be the crag where the enemies emerged from, marking the beginning of a small mountain range,” Lucius said after examining the map.

“So it’s time to move out, then.” Lucius scooped up the blaster rifle at his side. “Are you ready to move?”

“Ready!” was the reply.

“Good. We’ll split up for now, but we’ll meet back at that mountain where the Hutt’s base should be. Oryan, stay here and monitor our communications and the droids.”

“Affirmative.”

While the others gathered their weapons and extra power paks, Dynatha turned to Tserne. “Could you let me borrow a vibrosword, Tserne?”

Tserne looked puzzled. “Why? You’re not fighting, are you?”

“I…” Dynatha hesitated. “I know that I’ve been forcing you to fight for me because I won’t fight for myself.”

“I don’t fight because you force me to. I fight because you choose not to. I understand that,” Tserne said. “But I still have to protect you.”

“That’s not right, I don’t think. If you’re going to fight for me, I should at least be prepared to defend myself. And…” Dynatha bowed her head. “I want to protect you, too.”

Tserne handed her one of his blades. “Be careful.”

“You too, Tserne.”

*** ***

Ralina sidled against the wall. Holding her blaster pistol in one hand and a vibroblade in another, she waited for the two Nikto guards walking by the corner to move on. They had not seen her, and they continued down the hall until they were well out of sight. Ralina remained against the wall until she could no longer hear their footsteps. Once she was sure they were gone, she wasted no time turning the corner and heading in the opposite direction.

According to the Duros servant she had accosted, the infirmary was in this hallway. If Mercium had an ounce of trustworthiness in his criminal being, Fetcher would be there. Scanning a few of the doors—they were all closed—around her, she cursed herself for never learning to read or speak Huttese. If she survived this, she would change that. Finding no other choice but to search them all, Ralina moved toward the first door.

The mechanical door slid open, revealing a hearty Weequay dressed in white. He was facing away from the door, barking orders at several medical droids as he treated the wounds on an equine slave. Ralina smiled at the thought of her luck. This pristine room must have been the medical ward. In the farthest corner of the room, Fetcher was resting in a cot. A wave of relief washed over Ralina when she saw the Shistavanen; she could not believe that the Hutt actually ordered his slaves to tend to his wounds.

Ralina tried sneaking across the room, but the Weequay noticed her before she had made it halfway to Fetcher.

“Who… who you? What you here for?” the Weequay stammered in garbled Basic.

“I’m here for the Shistavanen. Mercium requested I take him,” Ralina said, appearing as professional as possible.

“Patient? Mercium say?” the Weequay doctor reached for his comlink. “I ask Mercium. Make sure.”

Ralina shot the Weequay, striking him in the chest. The medic clenched the wound and muttered something under his breath. He stared at Ralina until he hit the ground, unconscious. Ralina had no quarrel with him, and her blaster had been set to stun; she would only need a few seconds to save Fetcher anyway. When the doctor awoke, he would have a harsh pain in his chest and a headache, nothing more. Stepping over to Fetcher’s resting place, Ralina was relieved to discover that he was okay. His wound had been patched up and bandaged, almost concealing it underneath the healthy patches of fur around it. His breathing was normal, and he was not connected to any machinery.

“Fetcher?” Ralina whispered. “Fetcher?”

“Nrgh… five more minutes…” he muttered.

“Very funny. Fetcher, get up!”

One of the Shistavanen’s eyes flickered open. “Good to see you, Captain. Where… are we?”

“Mercium’s generous medical facility. It’s nice, and I suspect it’s healthier than the rest of his citadel, but I’m here to get you out of here anyway.”

“All right. Give me a minute; I don’t know if I can stand.”

“Take your time,” Ralina encouraged him. “Just don’t take too long.”

Fetcher pulled himself so he was sitting up, and then he positioned himself so he could place his legs on the floor beneath him. While Ralina scanned the entrance of the infirmary for passing guards, Fetcher made sure both of his legs were in working condition. Touching the wound on his chest, he grimaced.

“You know, Rashinodies is actually a pretty good shot,” Fetcher quipped.

“Do you want to keep complimenting him, or do you want to get revenge?”

“The latter option, if you please. Hold on…”

With a hushed grunt, Fetcher pulled himself out of the cot and took a few steps forward. It seemed as though his legs worked fine, but he noted that when he moved forward the wound in his chest burned. Nevertheless, he could walk. If he could walk, he could probably fight if necessary.

“You all right?” Ralina asked.

Fetcher smiled toothily. “I will be in a few hours.”

“We’re going to walk it off,” Ralina joked.

“Don’t let me keep you waiting then. Let’s go.”

*** ***

Mercium’s slaves rushed at the droids heedlessly. There was no preparation involved, and there was no clear leader. The thrallmasters were just as clueless as the men they commanded, leading them in disorganized groups. Despite their vast number, Mercium had not yet fielded his full force; many were caught up in the single elevator that led to and from his Glorious Citadel. The elevator could only hold so many slaves safely, so it would be a long time before his entire force was mustered. Of course, neither the Hutt nor his Gank killers took to battle themselves.

Oryan’s droids had already turned from their random paths to face the incoming slaves. There were significantly less of the droids than their organic counterparts, but they had several advantages—they were organized, they had grenades, and they possessed shield units. Grouped in small fireteams, the droids did not even have to aim to hit a target, but they were droids; their accuracy was always deadly and efficient.

Red blaster bolts raced forth from Mercium’s slaves. A few seconds later, the droids responded in kind with green bursts. Streams of energy filled the air between the two armies, clouding the air with noxious gases that would occasionally combust as more blaster fire passed through it. The systemic blaster fire from the droids killed one slave after another, leaving their dead bodies in various heaps across the plain. On the other hand, the concentrated shots from the slaves managed to destroy droid shielding and chasses, scattering broken fragments around their allies’ feet.

Posh and Manda watched the battle from a distance. Jhosua’s group left them behind after leaving the elevator, leaving the two members of Ralina’s crew to fend for themselves. Jhosua, Kerre, and Verita were each several times stronger and more competent in battle than either of Ralina’s crewmembers, and Ralina’s crew was more interested in staying away from the battle itself. Besides, most of their opponents seemed to be droids. They could not surrender to droids.

“Posh, do you think the captain is okay?” Manda asked.

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Posh said, glancing around them for cover just in case.

“Should I contact her? She has her comlink, right?”

The Gran wandered toward a bunch of rocks in the distance. “The captain’s fine, Manda. She’ll meet us at the Hound’s Sapphire soon enough. For now, though, we should find some cover to hide from these droids.”

Manda nodded, but she still seemed preoccupied by her concern for Ralina. Posh led the way, occasionally glancing over his shoulder at his companion and the battle going on behind them. As far as he could tell, it was confined to the plains situated just in front of Mercium’s base, but there was a chance that the droids had scouting groups elsewhere. With that in mind, he doubled his pace toward their destination.

“Do you really think these rocks will work?” Manda placed her hand on one of them. “Most of these are too small to protect us from blaster fire.”

“If we just stay here, out of sight, we’ll be fine,” Posh countered. “Would you rather be out there, in plain view of those droids?”

“Why are we over here, though?” Manda continued. “The ship is on the other side of the battle!”

Posh grumbled under his breath. “What are you talking about? The ship is a couple kilometers in front of us.”

“If you say so.”

“I say so,” Posh stressed, sitting in the shade of one of the taller stones. “Just relax.”

Manda halfheartedly relented and sat down next to him. Once they were both behind cover, Posh took a moment to replace his blaster’s power cell. He had grabbed a new one before leaving the Hound’s Sapphire, but he hadn’t had time to actually switch it out. While he pulled open his blaster to feed it ammunition, Manda took a moment to try and contact Ralina on her comlink. As expected, there was no response.

Posh had finished restoring his blaster’s power when he heard the sound of footsteps beyond the group of rocks. Turning to Manda, he realized that he was not imagining things; the look on her face told him she had heard it too.

“What do we do?” Manda whispered.

“Just stay still. They probably don’t know that we’re here. They’ll walk right by us,” Posh said, trying to be as inaudible as possible.

Posh and Manda sat behind the rock, breathlessly waiting for their enemies to come into view to their right or their left. To their surprise, there was only one—he made enough noise for four, however. A tall man in light armor and wielding a blaster rifle walked by the garden of rocks they were hiding in. At first, Manda thought it was Kerre without his helmet, but she realized his armor was different.

“Do you think that’s one of the droids’ controllers?” Manda asked.

“Could be. Just let him pass for now,” Posh said quietly. “He might have friends.”

“But he may have the control for the droids! If we kill him, we could shut them down!”

“We’re not trying to help Mercium’s slaves, you know,” Posh replied. “The more men he loses, the less we have to fight.”

Just before the armored Human disappeared from view, he spun around without warning. Despite Posh’s best efforts, their opponent must have heard their banter. Posh and Manda fled from their resting place as blaster fire flew in their direction. Manda scrambled behind another decently sized rock while Posh dove for cover behind two smaller, jagged stones.

Behind cover, Posh could see the Human’s blaster bolts soar overhead, occasionally making contact with the rocks around him and sending sparks and pebbles into the air. Manda was taking heavier fire than him, and he could see chunks tumble away from her choice of cover. It would only be a matter of minutes before the rock she was hiding behind fell apart; then, she would be exposed to blaster fire.

Popping up from behind cover, Posh fired several shots from his blaster toward their Human foe. Most of his shots missed, but one made contact with the Human’s chest and dissipated against his energy shield. Frowning, Posh rued the fact they had forgotten most of their equipment and ducked to avoid the Human’s return fire.

Now he could hear the blaster fire breaking away bits of his cover, tearing at the stones and sending the remains onto his head. If he could fire back—if he had a shield of his own—and force the Human into cover, Manda would have a chance to reposition herself. As it stood, they were receiving no such luck. The Human was in total control of the situation, and Posh was surprised he hadn’t moved in yet.

Posh heard someone fire a slugthrower in the distance. Then, suddenly, the blaster fire stopped.

*** ***

Jhosua held his sniper rifle steady. Perched inside a crevice of a mountain near the entrance to Mercium’s citadel, he could see the entire battlefield from his lofty position. To the south, the droid invaders were fighting the Hutt’s slaves. Far to the east, Jhosua could just barely make out the Hound’s Sapphire, visibly beyond the mountains’ peaks.

Keeping radio contact with Verita, Jhosua had traded off between scouting the area around her for hostiles and picking off some of the combatants in the plains. Without additional ammunition, he was stuck with the twenty or so shots he had left in his rifle; those were about two dozen shots he needed to make count. If he saw one droid with a particular high kill-count, he disabled it with a shot to the leg. If a thrallmaster began rallying his troops for an offensive, Jhosua would put a slug in his chest. When he wasn’t protecting his friends, it was his job to ensure that the battle continued for as long as possible.

While he was surveying the battlefield for more targets, his comlink picked up feed from an additional source. It was mired with static and it was nearly impossible for him to tell who was on the other end, but droids and slaves didn’t use comms. Searching the area through his powerful scope, Jhosua tried to locate his allies.

Ralina, Fetcher, and Kerre were still inside the base—that much he knew for sure. Verita was circling around the battle itself to investigate the initial drop zone, but she was not in any danger. After a few minutes of searching, he found Manda and Posh. They were nearly six hundred meters from the battle itself, situated far to the west of the Hound’s Sapphire, and the battle separated them from their ship. They were under attack by a single enemy, who seemed to be flushing them out of their natural cover.

Nearly nine hundred meters away, Jhosua could hardly make out the individual features of either of his allies or their foe. However, as long as he could see his target, he was assured that he could make his shot. Adjusting his rifle, Jhosua fired a single shot toward their opponent. To his dismay, his shot missed the intended target, and the slug landed just next to the enemy’s feet. Even though Jhosua missed, the shot was enough to startle the gunman and force him to give up on Manda and Posh. Fleeing from the area, the target began a long sprint toward Mercium’s base.

Not content with wasting ammunition on a running target, Jhosua turned to examine the rest of the battlefield. His comlink was quiet now, and he hadn’t received any other requests from Verita. The battle itself was going smoothly, with no side having an advantage over another, leaving Jhosua to monitor the situation quietly.

As he settled in, several missiles flew forth on the opposite side of the mountain range, near the Hound’s Sapphire. The projectiles flew over the mountains and landed about a hundred meters from the battling armies, effectively startling many of the slaves and the droids they fought. Although he couldn’t tell what had fired from where he was perched, Jhosua knew the only things large enough to attack from that range were turrets and mobile artillery. Neither of them was a good thing.

With a light sigh, he slung his rifle over his shoulder and placed his comlink on his belt. The rest of his party was preoccupied, and since there was no other way of dealing with the long-range weapon, Jhosua began the long climb down from his sniper perch to deal with it himself.

*** ***

Rashinodies reveled in the power he had obtained. The cockpit of the quad turret was cramped, especially for a Trandoshan, and the controls were a bit counterintuitive. None of that was important. He had activated it easily enough and now he was raining down concussion missiles on the enemy that had landed just across the mountains. While the targeting computer updated itself to match the tactical readout of the surrounding area, he fired a few warning shots.

From his position, he was invincible. The mountains served as an unscalable wall to defend him. The moment any of Mercium’s opponents tried to climb the mountains, they would be bombarded by ferocious missile fire. Even if they chose to retreat instead, they had no chance of escape; despite its size and age, the weapon startled even Rashinodies with its accuracy. Of all that could be said about the Mandalorians, it could not be said that they did not know how to build weapons of war.

The turret’s computer locked onto several targets of note—Ralina’s ship behind him, Mercium’s other ships, docked around the citadel itself, and several other ships he did not recognize. While it would have been glorious to destroy Ralina’s precious vessel, it would have displeased his master. Mercium had employed Ralina primarily because her ship was the quintessential smuggler’s ship, and he wanted it for himself. With clandestine compartments, a modified hyperdrive, and weapons strong enough to combat a small cruiser, it would make an excellent addition to the Hutt’s personal fleet.

Instead, Rashinodies turned to the new arrivals. There were several dropships docked just within view of the Glorious Citadel, and there was a single, larger vessel even farther away than they. The Trandoshan was convinced that these all belonged to the enemy. Cackling, Rashinodies targeted the dropships—which had landed quite close together—and fired several times, sending a volley of missiles in their direction. His shots soared over the mountain and disappeared from view. He could not confirm their destruction visually, but his computer told him that all his targets had been destroyed.

Now that those who dared attack Mercium the Hutt could not escape on their dropships, it was time for their primary vessel to be destroyed. Rotating his quad turret to the west, Rashinodies used his targeting computer to line up a shot directly at the last enemy ship in the area. This one was much farther away, and it was significantly larger, but Rashinodies was certain he could destroy it with one round of fire.

As he made the last adjustments to the angle of his guns, he heard a loud crack. Bobbing his head upward, Rashinodies saw that the glass casing that shielded the cockpit of his turret had been hit by something—it looked like an arrow. Before he could assess the situation, another arrow flew forth from just above the three rocky spires that the turret was resting under. This time, the arrow penetrated the glass itself, flying forward and striking Rashinodies in the chest. The reptilian warrior let out a feral cry and stared at the barb inside him. Ralina and her crew had stolen his armor and shields when they captured him, leaving him defenseless against even this crude weapon.

Rashinodies heard a victorious growl. Glancing up from his wound, Rashinodies saw a Wookiee warrior standing on one of the rocks towering overhead. He had a longbow in his hands, and he glowered at the wounded Trandoshan. Disgusting. The Trandoshans and Wookiees had been fighting each other for thousands of years, and there was much enmity between their species. Even though Rashinodies had long since left his ancestral home on Dosha, to be wounded by such a primitive beast was an insult. He would not die by this furred mongrel’s hand.

Releasing the restraints that kept him in his seat, Rashinodies stood up in the turret’s cockpit. He had no idea how the Wookiee had snuck up on him, and he had no idea where he had come from, but he did not care. All that mattered was exacting retribution on him for the wound that had been inflicted upon him. Rashinodies reached for his blaster pistol, but the Wookiee was quicker. Leaping at least four meters from the rock, the Wookiee landed on top of Mercium’s lieutenant, crushing him under his weight. Rashinodies struggled to free himself from where he was pinned down, writhing about and trying to bite the Wookiee.

His larger opponent placed his longbow inside the cockpit, just centimeters from Rashinodies’s face. The Trandoshan’s arms and legs were effectively pinned underneath the Wookiee, so there was no harm in leaving his weapon there. Withdrawing a ceremonial knife from his bag, the Wookiee showed it to Rashinodies and brought it close to his head. The Wookiee snarled contemptuously at the pinned Trandoshan, and he took his time preparing the weapon in a ritualistic fashion.

Rashinodies could not bear the humiliation. This Wookiee had wounded him with one of his simple weapons and denied him a chance at personal combat. Being beheaded with a rusty blade was only adding further insult to this already abominable situation. He only wished that he could have killed more of Ralina’s allies first.

Syrook’s blade slit the Trandoshan’s throat, causing his blood to spill out across the cockpit. He died in an instant.


Chapter 27

Ralina and Fetcher sprinted through the halls of Mercium’s base. There were a few guards and slaves lingering inside the citadel, but most of them had been sent to the surface to deal with the invaders. Of those that remained, no one said anything to Ralina or Fetcher as they made their way toward the elevator. Most of them did not even notice the two escapees. At the Hutt’s behest, they were too busy fortifying the citadel in case the battle reached his base. Ralina could not have asked for a better time to flee from Mercium and his allies.

They were quickly approaching the elevator when they saw Kerre standing against the wall at the corner, blaster rifle at the ready. He was focused on the passageway around the corner that led to the elevator itself, but he noticed Ralina and Fetcher as soon as they arrived. Pulling her own blaster pistol from its holster, Ralina joined Kerre against the wall.

“Ralina, who is this?” Fetcher asked.

“His name is Kerre. He is one of Jhosua’s companions,” Ralina explained. “You remember Jhosua, don’t you?”

“Vaguely.”

“Good.” She turned toward their armored companion. “So, Kerre, what’s going on?”

“Someone’s coming down the elevator,” he grunted.

“Should that be disconcerting?” Fetcher asked.

“Mercium’s slaves have not received an order to return to the citadel and the rest have already ascended. I’ve received no word from our allies, so it must be someone else.”

Ralina peered over Kerre and glanced at the elevator. “Who do you think it could be?”

“We’re about to find out.”

The elevator doors slid open, revealing a Vultan male and a slightly younger Human female. The Vultan donned standard issue combat armor and was carrying a heavy repeater; his Human companion had a vibrosword but lacked armor. Neither of them were aware that Ralina and her companions were so close, rushing into the base without any caution at all.

“They’ll be here in seconds,” Fetcher noted.

“Be careful,” Ralina ordered. “Aim for the Vultan first; he’s heavily armed.”

Ralina and Kerre prepared themselves for attack while Fetcher took Kerre’s position against the wall. Listening to the footsteps of their targets, Fetcher waited until the last possible moment to extend one of his arms, causing the Vultan to run right into it. The collision sent the Vultan flying to the ground, knocking the wind out of him. Once he was down, Ralina and Kerre stepped out from behind the wall and opened fire.

Kerre’s shots at the Vultan were absorbed by his target’s energy shield, and Ralina missed the incoming female entirely. Before Kerre could burn away at the concussed Vultan’s shields, he was pushed backward by an invisible force. Ralina knew immediately what was going on, but she couldn’t have stopped it. The Force-sensitive girl closed the distance between herself and Ralina in a single bound. Coming up from a crouch, her elbow caught Ralina in the jaw, causing the smuggler captain to bite down on her tongue and hit the floor.

Fetcher howled to distract the girl attacking his captain. Charging forward, he swiped at the Force-user, but his lithe opponent rolled out of the way and recovered her footing just out of his reach. A Force push to the chest caused Fetcher to double over in pain. Still aching from his earlier chest wound, Fetcher couldn’t do anything from stopping the girl from kicking him in the face.

By the time Fetcher was on the floor, Ralina had recovered. Lifting her blaster pistol, she aimed for the girl’s back. She reached for the trigger and silently hoped that the girl didn’t turn around, but she stopped when she felt the cold edge of a blade against her neck. She couldn’t see any weapon, but she heard hushed breathing behind her. An invisible foe?

“Drop your blaster,” a voice said from behind her.

Ralina kept her weapon in her hand. She was not about to give up now that she was so close to freedom. However, she recognized that she and her allies had lost their advantage. She had lost her chance to hit her Force-sensitive target. The Vultan, too, recovered his footing and his heavy repeater, making escape close to impossible.

“Good work, Tserne,” the Vultan said. “Cut her throat. We’ll keep moving.”

Ralina’s eyes widened. She knew that name.

“Tserne?” Ralina raised her hands in surrender. “Tserne DeLarane?”

The other woman looked at Ralina intently. “Do you know her, Tserne?”

Ralina carefully turned her head—the blade made a fine cut across her neck—and saw that she was indeed being accosted by Tserne. He had been invisible until now, but at the woman’s calling, he had faded into view. He looked healthier and stronger since Ralina had last seen him on Polus, but it was definitely the same person. While she was still traveling with the Jedi, Ralina had left Tserne behind on Polus; it was that, or none of her crew would have made it off the planet alive. She was surprised that he was still alive, but she was glad for it. She hated the idea of leaving him on that icy planet, but she had made her choice. She only hoped Tserne held no ill will against her for it.

“Ralina Venli?” Tserne spoke at last.

“Yes… yes! You do remember. It’s me, Ralina.”

“Where did you go?”

Ralina knew he was referring to Polus, and her gaze dropped to the floor. “I’m sorry, Tserne. I didn’t mean to leave you there. You have to believe me; if I could have come back for you, I would have. I just wanted to protect my crew.”

Tserne eyed her for a moment. Those eyes almost seemed to ask if she ever considered him part of her crew. He was not the same man she had known, an amnesiac with a penchant for sarcasm. Something about him seemed aloof, bitter. What happened after he left her crew? Had her actions turned him into that? Ralina had no idea if she was going to survive. But then, if she didn’t, it would have been her own fault. She had left him to die, after all, and it was only fair that he exact his revenge now.

“Don’t worry about it, Captain,” Tserne said, dryly sarcastic. “Dynatha, these are good people. We’ve no quarrel with them.”

“Nonsense,” the Vultan shot back. “If they’re working for the Hutt, they’re our enemies.”

“We’re not working for Mercium,” Ralina snapped. “We were forced into servitude after he seized our ship. Now we have enough leeway to escape—you just got in our way.”

“Are we just going to let them go, then?” the Vultan asked.

“What choice do we have?” Dynatha replied. “What else can do we do?”

“What are your plans, then?” Kerre spoke up, recovering his footing.

“We’re going to eliminate the Hutt,” Tserne said.

“Let us go with you, then,” Fetcher said. “Like we said, we have a score to settle with the Hutt. There will be strength in numbers.”

“No, that’s not good. Why should we trust you?” the Vultan asked.

“What’s not to trust, Raxsus?” another voice called from the elevator.

Ralina’s heart jumped into her throat. That was his voice. Lucius Velle emerged from the elevator with his blaster rifle at his side. Although his hair was cut short, and he was more toned than he was, he hardly looked a day older since Ralina had last seen him—nearly eight years ago, now—as a starfighter pilot in the Republic fleet. As her fiancé. To disappear from her life so suddenly, she swore that he had died. He had to have died.

What was he doing here?

Ralina could barely utter his name. “Lucius?”

“Ralina?”

Ralina couldn’t find the strength to move. While their respective crews stared on, Lucius and Ralina were both beyond words. Since the day when Lucius had been shot down by Sith forces, Ralina had lost all hope of seeing her beloved again. She had dedicated the rest of her life to making the Sith pay for his death and to ensure she would never lose anyone close to her again. Her mind was racing with questions, and she couldn’t even say anything to him.

When Lucius had defected to the Sith Empire, he had done so out of necessity. He had survived getting shot down, only to land on a Sith member world. He had gotten lucky, and the Sith mistook him for one of their own. Lucius was forced to break all ties with his former life—including his military history, his name, and Ralina. Climbing the Sith ranks as Vaerk Luus, he feared the day he would have to face his love in combat. That day never came, but that meant he never saw her again, either.

And now, here they were. From the farthest corners of the galaxy, they had been brought back together again. Words fell short of the overwhelming shock, confusion, and joy that overcame them both. Ralina was the first to move. First one step, then two. Before long, she had reached Lucius. They stood face-to-face again, just like they had on the night he had proposed to her, in the fields of Telos.

And then she slapped him.

“Lucius! You unscrupulous nerfherder!” she shouted. “Where the hell have you been?”

He was stunned. “R-Ralina! I…”

“Where have you been?” she asked again, this time quieter. Gentler. “I’ve missed you, Lucius. I’ve… I’ve missed you… so much…”

She took the last step, entering his arms and pressing her face against his chest. Despite her best efforts, she could not hide her tears from her crew or his allies. Lucius wrapped one arm around her and ran his other hand through her hair. Her hushed sobs were barely discernible above his calming voice, assuring her that everything would be okay.

“Lucius… Lucius…” she choked on her words. “Why…?”

“It doesn’t matter now. Neither the Republic nor the Sith can separate us.”

Ralina nodded. She tried to say something, and she wanted so badly to ask him so many questions. Where he had been, why he had not contacted her, whether or not he still loved her as deeply and madly as she loved him. Those questions could wait. For one, because she was embarrassing herself in front of her friends. Plus, the fact that he was here, holding her, comforting her, allowing her to hit him, meant that he still cared, at least a little.

Fetcher glanced at the others. “We should let them be alone for a bit. There’s no point waiting here anyway.”

“Shall we reconvene at Mercium’s chambers, then?” Kerre asked.

“None of us know the way,” Raxsus chimed in.

“Leave that to me,” Fetcher replied. “I’ve been there more times than I would like, so I can show you all the way.”

“I’ll contact Oryan and tell him to inform our allies of this new development,” Dynatha said. “If you want, I can contact your companions as well.”

“Then let’s go,” Raxsus said.

*** ***

The area outside of Mercium’s throne room was deathly quiet. The two guards Ralina’s companions had killed were still lying against the wall, and no one seemed to care that they were there in the first place. No replacements had been appointed; in fact, it hardly seemed like there were any guards left inside the Hutt’s citadel at all. For all the power and wealth he had, Mercium was defenseless now.

Dynatha waited near the door. Tserne was at her side, while Raxsus and Syrook lingered near the wall opposite of them. Ralina, her entire crew, and Lucius had reassembled mere minutes ago and were gathered near Raxsus. Kerre had contacted Verita and Jhosua separately, and the three of them stood close to Dynatha. Only Oryan remained outside, establishing a single comlink channel for all of them and monitoring the last of the droids.

“Shall we proceed?” Fetcher was the first to speak. “If we delay too long, the Hutt will certainly begin to prepare his defenses.”

“You’re right. Let’s not waste any time,” Dynatha agreed. “Everyone ready?”

There was a silent affirmation from her companions. Using the Force, Dynatha slid the door open and let them inside. Not wasting any time, they all filed into the Hutt’s chambers, revealing their presence to Mercium the Hutt—who, as usual, seemed to be expecting them.

“Ralina Venli, what is the meaning of this?” if the translator droid’s voice was any indication, the Hutt was furious. “You are to be on the surface, fighting against the invaders!”

“There are no invaders, Mercium. There are only allies,” Fetcher said. “Our allies.”

It did not take long for Mercium to realize his hostage had been freed. Towering over the others, Fetcher drew quite a bit of attention to himself. Then, taking another glance at Ralina’s party, Mercium realized just how many of them there were. Dynatha knew that she and the rest of Lucius’s crew would be familiar to him. They had all met before, after all. They had met, and each of them had in some way or another betrayed him. The Hutt bellowed in disgust. He had not forgotten the losses Lucius she and the others had inflicted upon him. Slaves had been freed, compounds had been raided, and battles had been lost. He knew Tserne and Dynatha, and he hated Ralina and her crew, but they were not the targets of his anger. No, he was furious with one of them, and one of them alone.

“Lucius!” he roared. “Lucius Velle!”

“It’s been too long, Mercium,” Lucius greeted him calmly. “I don’t suppose you’re happy to see us?”

The Hutt shouted something to his Gank killers. His intentions were clear even without a translation. The armored guardsmen moved in to kill, and Verita stepped forward to defend them, just like before. Her bronze lightsaber traveled in wide figure eights and circular loops, intercepting blaster shots and sending them back toward the Hutt. Dynatha joined the defense, using the Force to create a semi-transparent barrier between her friends and the blaster fire.

Between Verita’s sword and Dynatha’s shield, the Gank killers’ attacks proved useless. Blaster fire ricocheted around the Hutt’s throne room, scaring away slaves and killing Gank warriors. The redirected red bolts tore up the wall behind Mercium and destroyed the decorations he had collected over the course of his tenure as a crime boss. One of the shots hit his translator droid, causing the Hutt to curse in now-unintelligible Huttese. No longer endangered by blaster fire, the rest of their allies fired at the Gank killers. Lucius, Raxsus, Syrook, Kerre, and Jhosua made quick work of the Hutt’s surviving guards. With all of his slaves gone, Mercium the Hutt found himself alone with Ralina and her allies. Her crew and Lucius’s companions had their weapons drawn and ready in case the Hutt had something planned.

“Jhosua, would you mind translating for me?” Ralina asked. “Make it as insulting as possible.”

“It would be my pleasure.”

“You see this, Mercium?” Ralina unclipped a metallic globe from her belt. “This is a thermal detonator. It’ll turn you from a giant sack of organic waste into atomized organic waste. It’s amazing what military tech can do these days.”

Ralina activated the explosive’s countdown timer. While her companions left the Hut’s chambers, Ralina placed the device on the floor in front of her. Jhosua concluded his speech with a few outstanding and punctuated curses in the Hutt’s native tongue, and then he left the room with the others. Mercium writhed about on his throne, seething quietly. He knew he was beaten. Once Lucius and Fetcher had left the room, Ralina turned to join them.

“It was a pleasure doing business with you, your grandness. We are off to raid your coffers and smuggle any remaining valuables you have. Consider this our payment to you since you did not pay us.”

Mercium the Hutt shouted at her as loud as he possibly could. In a single, disgusting motion, the Hutt leapt off his throne. Ralina’s heart skipped a beat; she did not realize something so fat and so lazy could actually move on its own. Crawling on his belly like some sickening serpent, Mercium pulled himself toward Ralina with his tongue drooping out of his mouth. Turning around, Ralina ran out of the door and screamed for someone to shut it behind her. Dynatha complied, slamming the durasteel door closed before Mercium reached them.

Mercium’s body slammed into the door, making a large dent in the durable metal. Startled, Ralina and her companions ran back a few meters and pointed their weapons at the door. Expecting the Hutt to burst through the door at any second, they waited in silence. Before he could try again, they heard the thermal detonator explode from behind the door. The force of the blast sent the durasteel flying from its place, landing in front of Fetcher and Posh. To their relief, there was nothing left of the Gank killers, the throne room, or Mercium the Grandiose.

“He’s dead.” Ralina dropped her blaster. “We did it.”

“We’re free, Captain,” Posh agreed.

“So we are,” Fetcher muttered.

“Then we’re done, too,” Dynatha said, relieved. “Our mission’s done, Tserne!”

“Ralina, let’s rendezvous at your ship,” Lucius said. “We have to pick up one of our own, but once he’s in tow, we’ll join you.”

“Promise?” Ralina asked, half-jokingly.

“Of course. Raxsus, Syrook. Let’s go grab Oryan so we can get off this rotten planet. It still smells too much like Hutt for my tastes.”

*** ***

The Hound’s Sapphire was only a Lethisk-class armored freighter. Its weapon systems and engines had been modified for smuggling purposes, but its interior could still only hold about a dozen passengers. Nearly tripling the size of her crew, Ralina realized that she would not be able to comfortably accommodate everyone. She had realized this while stockpiling her ship with treasures from the Glorious Citadel, and she did her best to not be too greedy. Once she had returned to the ship, she gave the rooms to the newcomers while she and her crew inhabited the bridge.

Verita had retired to chambers set out for her, and Jhosua was quick to join her. Neither of them had had a chance to rest over the past few days, and Verita was still weak from her fight with Qual back on Anobis. Raxsus and Syrook took up residence in the ship’s engine room, despite the fact Ralina insisted they pick rooms for themselves. Kerre positioned himself in the starboard observation area, preferring to stay out of everyone’s way. Oryan resigned himself to the ship’s other observation area, if only because it had a droid recharging station.

Lucius had joined Ralina on the bridge with the rest of her crew, and Tserne and Dynatha had opted to join them. All of Ralina’s comrades were spread thin throughout the Hound’s Sapphire, but the ship still felt unnecessarily crowded to her.

“Captain Venli, it is good to see you at the helm of the Hound’s Sapphire once again,” Jon’s automated voice announced over the loudspeaker.

“Jon?” Ralina spun around in her captain’s chair. “Where have you been?”

“Mercium the Hutt placed a restraining bolt on me after we landed on Caillte last time. Since then, I have been unable to communicate with you. Your cyborg compatriot was kind enough to free me from my disabilities and restore my access to the ship’s mainframe.”

“It’s a good thing Oryan noticed that,” Posh said. “I didn’t even notice you were gone, Jon.”

“I appreciate your concern for my wellbeing,” Jon said in a fluctuating tone, to represent scathing sarcasm. “If I may, Captain?”

“Go ahead, Jon.”

“You recall the shipments Mercium was having us collect?”

“Yes. What about them?”

“The Hutt had not sent slaves to collect them from the Mercantile Gem so I took the liberty of investigating them while you were interviewing the Hutt. What I found was… unexpected.”

“What do you mean, unexpected?” Fetcher asked. “Details, Jon.”

“The crates contained holocrons. Jedi holocrons.”

“Holocrons?” Ralina repeated. “Are you saying Mercium was sending us around the galaxy to collect Jedi trinkets?”

“Why would Mercium need those?” Manda wondered aloud. “Can’t they only be used by Force-users?”

“I believe I can answer that.”

Ralina and the rest of the crew turned toward the entrance to the bridge, where an unknown figure stepped into view. None of his features were identifiable: his hands had rags wrapped around them as though they were bandaged, his head was entirely covered by a thick turban and heavy cowl, and a white robe covered the rest of his body. Tserne jumped to his feet immediately, and Fetcher and Posh grabbed their blaster rifles in case the intruder meant them harm.

“Who are you?” Ralina asked. “How did you get on my ship?”

“Who I am is not important. I simply am.”

“That makes no sense,” Lucius said.

“Answer my question before I have my crew put blaster bolts into your chest,” Ralina ordered.

“Let me answer your question, then. Mercium the Hutt was working with the surviving Sith of Darth Revan’s Empire, collecting Jedi holocrons from across the galaxy—destroyed enclaves, Sith vaults, and collectors—through his agents. You were one of those agents, Ralina Venli.”

“He was working for the Sith?” Fetcher asked. “How did we not know this?”

“His alliance was tenuous and created in fear. To avoid retribution from the Jedi or the Sith, he used you as an intermediary. As you collected holocrons and tomes, he assembled a collection in his citadel. Once the Sith determined they did not need him anymore, they would have killed him and taken this world for themselves. With the knowledge he had collected at their disposal, they would have been incredibly powerful.”

“How do you know all this, sir?” Dynatha asked.

“I have been watching Mercium the Hutt for some time. You were the first to stand up to him. You were the ones fated to defeat him. However, this sector may no longer be stable. Without the overarching influence of a Hutt mogul, smaller criminals may rise up to engulf this space in their terror.”

“But individual planetary governments could also form,” Posh noted. “Perhaps unite against criminals and make this sector inhabitable.”

The enigmatic figure chuckled. “Perhaps. The future is ever moving. For now, though, you must do what is right. You must gather the holocrons you had unwittingly given to the Hutt and return them to the Jedi.”

“How?” Lucius asked. “Don’t you think the Jedi would be suspicious of the fact we have so many of their priceless tools and artifacts?”

“I have already explained to the leader of the Jedi the situation that has arisen,” the intruder said. “You have nothing to fear. She will contact you when you return home to Telos, Ralina Venli.”

“I don’t like this,” Ralina said. “It sounds shady to me. You sound shady.”

“Why don’t you explain yourself. How do you know so much about us? How could you receive an audience with a Jedi leader?” Fetcher questioned.

“It is the Jedi who receive audiences with me,” their guest replied. “But your questions only lead to more questions. You have a greater duty now, Ralina. There is someone who needs your help.”

“What?”

“Go to Antared V. An old friend is in need. You were not prepared to help him before now. With your newfound power and able friends, you can now act. You are his only hope.”

Ralina stared at him in disbelief. “Do you think we’ll go just because you told us to? Do you think we’ll collect all those holocrons because you demanded it of us? You’re not our employer; you don’t tell us where to go.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. I demand everything from you. It is your choice whether you will do so. Your hesitation precedes you, even though your destiny is already shaping. Summon your courage, Ralina. All will be made clear in time.”

“Hah! I don’t have to listen to you,” Ralina shot back. “I do as I please. You’re only wasting your time with your babbling.”

“Indeed. Dynatha Aris?” the figure searched the bridge.

“That’s… that’s me, sir.” Dynatha waved.

“This is for you.” An octahedral holocron floated from the inside of his sleeves into Dynatha’s hands. “The last one to receive this gift feared its power and forsook it. So now, his responsibilities and its power belong to you.”

“I… what is it?” Dynatha asked, holding it in one hand.

“Be strong. All will be made clear in time.” The figure turned to leave. “Captain Ralina Venli, do not forget: collect the holocrons from the Hutt’s citadel and travel to Antared V.”

Ralina scoffed at him. Then, as quickly as he had appeared, the white-robed figure disappeared from their sight. She and her crew stared into the distance, thinking he may have fled quickly or faded into invisibility. It was as if they had seen a ghost materialize and proceed to disappear before their eyes.

“Captain, what should we do?” Manda stammered.

“We’re getting off this planet,” Ralina said, spinning her chair back around. “I’ve had enough of this place to last ten lifetimes.”

“And the holocrons, Captain Venli?” Jon’s voice asked.

“Forget about them! Let’s get out of here. Fetcher, Jon, fire up the ship.”

“Yes, Captain,” came the reply.

Dynatha approached Ralina. “Captain. At the very least, do you not think we should visit Antared V?”

Ralina rolled her eyes. “Don’t let that inane seer scare you, Dynatha. On my ship, I do what I want. And we’re getting out of here. Sit back, please.”

Once Dynatha returned to her seat, Ralina activated her chair’s holographic map. Although she put on a bold front, Ralina quietly pondered the words of their visitor. If what he said was true, and she had an old friend waiting for her, she could not imagine who it could be. All of her old companions were either dead or nowhere near Antared V. Her curiosity began to get the better of her. What was going on there that was so important that she be chided by some unnamed stranger?

“Everyone take a seat,” Ralina ordered, clearing her mind. “We’re getting out of here.”

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