The lights were disabled. Although they would have liked to say the darkness made them depend less on their eyes and more on the Force, that wasn’t entirely true. The real reason for the darkness was due to the fact the lighting was permanently disabled in this section of the ship. The lights hadn’t worked for as long as the pair had been in it—admittedly, not long.
The Nautolan warrior moved first. His green hands withdrew the metal cylinder resting on his sash and held it near his chest. Extending his reach, the Nautolan flicked a small trigger on the cylinder, revealing the viridian blade of his lightsaber in its radiant splendor. The blade’s subtle glow revealed the Nautolan’s bulbous eyes, head-tresses—dangling like thick locks of hair from his scalp—and illuminated the robes he was wearing. However, the light was hardly enough to pierce the thick darkness around him. His lidless eyes provided acute low-light vision, but it didn’t help him enough.
His eyes scanned the otherwise featureless blackness before him. The tips of his fingers danced on the hilt of his weapon, lightly rapping against its metal surface. He wasn’t nervous. He had fought foes far stronger than his current opponent. However, the rush of battle always rattled his emotions. He trained himself to quickly subdue his violent, base emotions and steady the adrenaline rush that threatened to race through his veins. It was almost instantaneous, but it could be quicker. It could always be quicker.
His opponent finally revealed himself as an azure lightsaber blade sprung to life in the opposite corner of the room. The distance prevented the Nautolan from seeing any of his opponent’s features, but it didn’t matter. As long as they could sense each other, they could fight.
The other combatant moved first. At one moment, he was standing where he had begun, and then he was gone. Like a flash, he appeared at the Nautolan’s right side, lightsaber in hand and ready to attack. The dim blue light of his foe’s weapon revealed his Human features, although only vaguely. The Human’s blue eyes revealed a ferocious and wild nature, fueled by passion and instinct, while his subtle smile betrayed the fact he was enjoying himself. The Human’s otherwise harsh features did not go unnoticed by the Nautolan, but their duel distracted him from the Human’s face and made him focus on their lightsabers.
The Human combatant’s attacks were disconnected but powerful, and the Nautolan entertained the thought that his foe actually wanted to kill him. That is, if he could land a blow. The Nautolan’s swift parries and wide defensive arcs kept the Human’s azure blade away from his body at all times. The Human barely managed to penetrate this defense and struck at the Nautolan’s arm, but it only scathed the hems of the Nautolan’s blue and loose-fitting robes, causing the warrior no harm.
The Nautolan had only barely avoided his foe’s latest attack. He deduced that his opponent’s strike succeeded out of luck, not skill. How could it have been? The Nautolan, a trained and able warrior, had been properly schooled in the ways of the lightsaber for his entire life. He assumed his opponent could not say the same. Besides, he convinced himself that this was a training exercise. His goal was to gauge his opponent’s success, and properly discern his level of skill. He would have to go easy on his foe, if only a little.
When the Human’s attacks started to become separated by long pauses, the Nautolan figured his opponent was tiring. This weakness was common amongst beginners, and it inspired the Nautolan to go on the offensive. Switching his stance so his lightsaber was away from his chest and pointed at the Human, the Nautolan warrior advanced. He struck high at first, but diverted his attack to the Human’s poorly defended lower body. The Nautolan’s blows were fluid and synchronized, but he was still holding back. Strike after strike landed on the Human’s blue defense, and the Nautolan’s foe struggled to repel the continuous stream of attacks.
“You’re doing quite well,” the Nautolan said at last. His voice rang with a hint of joviality, and he now had his own smirk on his face. He could not hide the fact that he was pleased with the direction this duel was heading. “But you still need to practice. You’re tiring far too quickly, Raen.”
Raen’s blue eyes remained determined as ever, still focused on the viridian lightsaber he was parrying. “Don’t underestimate me, Gaiel.”
“I am not underestimating you. It’s a fair assessment based on what I’m seeing.”
“Then you’ll have to see more clearly,” Raen noted.
Gaiel swung his viridian blade toward Raen’s shoulder, but the Human combatant deflected the blow with ease. Their two weapons met, as they had been, colliding in midair. This type of bladelock was not uncommon, and Gaiel was certain he could break Raen’s defense and end the duel. To his surprise, Raen struggled against Gaiel, using his own brute strength to repel Gaiel and his weapon. With his momentum halted, Gaiel found himself on the defensive yet again as Raen attacked the Nautolan’s suddenly exposed torso.
Gaiel’s whirling viridian shield blocked Raen’s first wave of attacks, but the Human was getting close to forcing Gaiel to succumb to his attacks. The Nautolan stepped backwards, narrowly avoiding a strike to the chest, and used his extra distance to leap over Raen. It would be risky, but he estimated that the ceiling was just high enough to give him the space he needed. Calling on the mystical energy known as the Force, Gaiel bounded just over Raen’s head and landed several meters away from his opponent. He knew that he only had seconds to recover before Raen was upon him again. He placed his weapon between himself and Raen’s rapidly approaching figure before Raen’s azure blade clashed with his own. With a wall behind him and Raen standing before him, Gaiel’s options were limited.
The Nautolan mused over the rapid change of pace in the duel. He had not expected Raen’s sudden increase in power and stamina. He had been training Raen for only a few days, but there was already improvement. The Human’s former training as a Sith acolyte gave him an edge over most Force-sensitive learners; however, it also hindered him. Gaiel knew all about the Sith and their dedication to the dark side of the Force. They were fueled by base emotions: rage, lust, hate, and pride. These feelings gave them some power—like Raen’s sudden vigor now—and temporary dominance, but they would never truly succeed. For Raen to overpower Gaiel, he would have to let go of his Sith teachings and replace them with the power of the light side of the Force.
As a Jedi Knight, Gaiel Remus’s skill was greater than that of his pupil’s. Neither of them would admit it: Gaiel was too humble, and Raen was too proud. But Gaiel knew it, and he knew that Raen did as well. Gaiel did not need to convince himself that he would ultimately win this duel.
Gaiel deflected Raen’s next attacks, sending them back with relative ease. Although Raen’s attacks had been conjoined and harmonious for a brief time, he was beginning to tire and relapse into his standard disconnected swings. As the Human attempted to recover his offensive, Gaiel struck at Raen’s weapon arm, burning the Human’s wrist with his lightsaber. Under normal circumstances, Raen’s wrist would have been severed cleanly, but the Nautolan had adjusted the strength of his lightsaber to accommodate their training exercise. Nevertheless, the strength of the blow was enough to send Raen’s blade into the air. Raen was disarmed, and Gaiel had won.
His pupil had other ideas. Without a lightsaber, Raen dodged Gaiel’s second strike and positioned himself on Gaiel’s right. He planned on striking at Gaiel’s throat and then capturing his viridian lightsaber for himself. However, Gaiel avoided Raen’s first attack and kicked Raen in the torso to foil any further attempts to disarm him. Once Raen realized he had failed, he placed his hands behind his bowed head. The action must have been particularly shameful for the young Human, because Gaiel sensed anger stemming from Raen. The Nautolan frowned, switched off his lightsaber, and helped Raen to his feet.
“You did well, Raen,” Gaiel said.
“Not well enough,” Raen grumbled. His eyes were still downcast, and his hands were stuffed into his trouser pockets.
“This is Captain Venli, to our guests,” a female voice announced over the ship’s comm systems. “We’re approaching Polus. We could use you on the bridge.”
“I suppose we should join Miss Venli on deck?” Raen murmured.
“Captain Venli,” Gaiel chided his pupil. He knew Raen was just trying to stop him from talking about his pupil’s defeat, but Gaiel found this issue more pressing. “Please try to respect her. She was generous enough to delay our payment until we reach Polus. Don’t infuriate her more than you already have.”
“I haven’t done anything to her.”
“You picked a fight with her in the bar on Dantooine!” Gaiel said.
“She started it.”
Gaiel sighed. “Raen, you sound like a child. I don’t care who started what. I just want you to show her a bit of respect… at least until we disembark.”
“As you wish.”
Raen recovered his lightsaber from the ground before joining Gaiel outside the training room. Their eyes had to adjust to the hallway’s pale lighting as it reflected off the red floorboards of the Hound’s Sapphire. Aside from its technical problems, Gaiel was fond of the quaint vessel. The Hound’s Sapphire was a Lethisk-class armed freighter owned and captained by Ralina Venli, a Human smuggler of some renown in the Outer Rim Territories.
Gaiel was worried about working with smugglers. Smugglers were criminals, after all, and they stood in contrast with everything the Jedi Order fought to protect. His doubts were assuaged when he met Ralina’s engineer and weapon’s specialist, Delvin Cortes. His friendly demeanor and practical attitude led Gaiel to doubt what he had assumed as a Jedi learner. Perhaps not all criminals were evil? Gaiel sensed that Ralina and her crew were not bad people, in spite of their actions. Regardless of his thoughts, the smugglers had been kind—if wary—of their two Force-sensitive guests, and Gaiel felt it proper to reciprocate their hospitality.
Ralina Venli slouched in her captain’s chair. Her mind was racked with pain, and an intense migraine was pounding at the inside of her skull. Her blue eyes were dazed by the dim lights of the Hound’s Sapphire’s bridge, and she squinted as though there was a harsh spotlight shining upon her face. The vicious pain in her forehead and face was accompanied by a low ringing in her ears. No matter what she did, she felt absolutely miserable. Nothing could cure her.
Gritting her teeth in agony, the captain used a single hand to batter her long, silky black hair from her face. As much as she hoped otherwise, her hair would not shield her from the lights and sounds; it would only get in the way. Besides, the droplets of sweat that fell from her dark locks would run down her bronze-colored face, causing additional discomfort.
Her eyes struggled against her, trying to force themselves closed. Ralina was so very tired. Caf and stims had kept her functional, but only barely. Now, in union with the onset of migraines and other pain, her self-induced sleep deprivation was unleashing its full wrath upon her. She wasn’t torturing herself. It wasn’t her fault. It was the fault of those damnable Jedi.
Ralina rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers. The Jedi were a strange group. Her profession dictated that she be distrustful of all law enforcement officers. The Jedi were even more mysterious than most peacekeepers, and thus more suspicious. She had a hard enough time trying to justify her time in the Republic Navy with her smuggling ventures. Now she had to convince herself and her crew that they could escort Jedi across the galaxy without worrying about reprisal.
She wouldn’t believe it. The Jedi had been respectable—or at least, the Nautolan was enough for both of them—and polite; however, she couldn’t guarantee their goodwill. She feared the Jedi would try to apprehend them once they had reached their destination. It was an irrational fear based on the previous actions of her Force-sensitive guests, but she could not overcome it. If anything happened to her crew… she would not be able to forgive herself. So the captain continued to forgo sleep.
Manda approached Ralina while her eyes were heavy. The Devaronian was far more optimistic and free-spirited than Ralina, and she enjoyed teasing the rest of the crew with her impish antics. Ralina’s relationship with Manda had been strained due to Ralina’s recent decisions, particularly inviting the Jedi to travel with them. Nevertheless, Ralina knew that she was loyal.
Manda had the strangest appearance of Ralina’s crew. Her magenta hair covered her entire body aside from her face and the digits on her arms and legs. Her large canine teeth and long, pierced ears were rather noticeable traits of her species, but they did not compete with the bizarre color of her dyed hair. Ralina once asked Manda to return her hair to its natural color, but the Devaronian would hear nothing of it. The captain eventually discovered that she dyed her hair to distance herself mentally from her time as a slave on Nar Shaddaa when she had last kept her natural hair color.
“Captain,” Manda began, her voice lively and light, “are you okay? You don’t look well.”
“I’m fine,” Ralina replied. The ringing in her ears returned in earnest, and the captain winced at the returning pain. “I’m just ready for the Jedi to leave.”
“Make that two of us.”
“Three,” Jon, the ship’s artificial intelligence, noted. “The Jedi are most peculiar as far as sentient beings go, and their enigmatic nature confounds my internal sensors. I will be most pleased when they depart, and I’m sure Ralina will be as well. Her sleep patterns will finally revert to normal, and her youthful and serene figure will return as well.”
“Sleep patterns?” Fetcher, the Shistavanen pilot and engineer, spoke up. He was a giant compared to the rest of the crew. His gait and terrifying lupine appearance were enough to frighten Ralina’s enemies. Unlike Manda, his fur retained its natural ebony color. “Captain, have you not been sleeping well?”
“Why would you ask that? Of course I have!” Ralina barked. The migraines were still wracking her head with pain, and she could hardly keep herself in her seat. “I’ve just been restless, that’s all!”
“Is she lying, Jon?” Fetcher asked.
“Affirmative, Fetarollias,” Jon replied, using Fetcher’s real name. “Since the arrival of the Jedi, Captain Venli has received less than half of the suggested hours of sleep per rest cycle.”
“How much?” Manda asked.
“More than enough! I’m fine!” Ralina snapped.
“How much, Jon?” Fetcher repeated.
“About eight and a half hours, total.”
“What?” Fetcher asked. His gruff voice was not angered, but shocked. Ralina knew that he pitied her, even though he could not express his sympathies verbally. He had never been good at getting his emotions across. “Captain-”
Manda reached out her hand and placed it on Ralina’s shoulder. “With all due respect-”
Between the pain in her sinuses and forehead, and the lights and sounds around her, Ralina could hardly maintain consciousness. The voices of her comrades were not helping. Slapping Manda’s hand away, Ralina refused to be comforted. “I said I’m fine. Return to your posts! That’s an order!”
Fetcher glanced at Manda. They couldn’t do anything else, so the Shistavanen returned to the Hound’s Sapphire’s primary controls while Manda made her way back to the navicomputer and communication’s terminal at her desk. Ralina watched as her crew returned to their posts. They didn’t understand. They could not understand. Leaders like herself had to endure hardships and take risks to protect their allies. And they had to endure them alone. Ralina had long since convinced herself of this, and it had served her well so far. She had lost very few under her command.
Focusing on any particular subject was difficult. The pain in her head caused her thoughts to bounce around in her head, and she could hardly concentrate. Nonetheless, her mind’s eye carried her back to a single individual. Lucius Velle.
As she struggled to recover her bearings, Delvin Cortes entered the bridge. Their weapon specialist and assistant engineer, the dark-skinned Human male was an invaluable part of Ralina’s crew. Like most of her crew, he had no semblance of upper-class society. His black, greasy hair was tousled, heading in every direction as it scattered atop his head. He wore an orange-brown flightsuit that was horribly dirty and stained with oil, grime, and residue from the ship’s engines, and his face was equally dirtied. However, his expression was somber and lightly chiseled by battles prior to joining Ralina’s crew, and it drew attention away from the mess he found himself in.
“Captain, the Jedi are coming now,” Delvin said. His voice had a deep and resonate tone, almost like Fetcher’s, without the gruffness.
Ralina sighed. “I understand. Keep your cool, everyone. Just let them be—this is almost over.”
Sure enough, Gaiel and Raen joined the crew on the bridge after Delvin had settled in. The Nautolan’s robes were a dark blue color, while Raen’s were red; however, both of them wore a flowing brown cloak over their loose-fitting robes. By their appearance, Ralina could have mistaken them for travelers—beggars, even—that presented no harm to her or her crew. However, it was a dangerous idea to entertain. Their lightsabers were hidden, but Ralina knew that they had them on their persons. They always did. Whenever she had tried to confiscate them during their meditation, she had been foiled.
Gaiel bowed when he saw Ralina on her chair. “Captain Venli, how is your ship? And how close are we to Polus?”
Ralina waved her hand slightly, motioning for Gaiel to stand. “My ship is fine, thank you. But I don’t have time for your small talk, Jedi. The Hound’s Sapphire is fifteen minutes away from Polus, and we’ve already arranged a landing zone.”
“Excellent. You don’t mind if we wait on deck, do you?” Gaiel asked.
“Of course we mind,” Manda muttered. “You’re pretentious, you’re rude, you’re creepy, and-”
Ralina glared at her. She didn’t need Manda upsetting the Jedi and causing trouble. Her navigator held her tongue, and Ralina continued. “You can wait here, Jedi. We’ll be coming out of hyperspace momentarily.”
Polus could have been mistaken for an uninhabited ball of ice and rock from its skies. Mounds of snow and ice draped over the planet’s surface, hiding any soil and vegetation under meters of frosty white sheets. Life was scarce on the planet’s surface, and vegetation trembled in the face of the vicious blizzards and stinging hail that served as a constant reminder of Polus’s natural power.
The locals, too, struggled to inhabit the planet. In spite of hardships, the Pyn’gani who lived on Polus managed to create a primitive society. They were incapable of spaceflight, and they were not represented in the galactic community, but most of them did not care. They were too focused on surviving the harsh environment and making a living for themselves and their families. The Pyn’gani managed to create small villages centered around hot springs and geysers near the planet’s many mountains. Using technology obtained from offworld traders and merchants, the Pyn’gani exploited these hydrothermal vents and used them to create heat and energy for their people.
The Hound’s Sapphire was lucky enough to arrive on Polus during a period of calm weather. Fetcher guided the ship through the skies of Polus into a spaceport situated in a village near the planet’s single frozen ocean. Although Fetcher and the rest of the crew tried to convince Ralina to stay on the Hound’s Sapphire and rest until she felt better, the captain would have none of it. She would accompany her crew onto the planet until the Jedi paid her the money they owed her for escorting them to Polus. Once it was agreed that the crew would join the two Jedi, the entire company disembarked from the ship and set foot on Polus itself.
Raen was not impressed by the hangar Ralina’s crew had chosen to dock their ship. Scanning the building, he had deduced it had been hastily and cheaply built—probably by offworlders—to accommodate merchants or smuggling vessels that arrived on Polus. The Pyn’gani never removed the steel frame that held up the duracrete walls, but Raen did not know whether they had simply forgotten or if they had been purposely left standing.
When his eyes drifted from the hangar’s interior to his companions, he noticed that Gaiel and the rest of the crew were already on their way out of the hangar. Gaiel called out to Raen, hoping that he would keep up with them. The Nautolan didn’t have to worry; Raen wasn’t about to run off. They needed each other, for the time being. Since Raen’s unofficial induction into the Jedi Order, Gaiel had become his pseudo-master. Raen sensed the Jedi Knight’s displeasure in the responsibility, but Raen did not particularly care. The two of them would have to work together if they wanted to complete this mission and part ways.
Raen had agreed to complete a single mission with Gaiel, and then head with him to Coruscant to stand trial for his actions against the Jedi Order. His crime. He had killed the Jedi Master Tor’chal, an Ithorian sage, during a struggle at his father’s manor on Alderaan. It was a one-sided battle, because Raen had caught the Jedi Master by surprise and overpowered him in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, he had killed him.
At the time, Raen savored his victory. It was sweet, and he felt invincible. How many other Sith learners could have claimed to have slain a Jedi Master? That had been well over a year ago. Now, after traveling the galaxy and meeting some of the members of the Jedi Order, his opinions were muddled. He had done his duty, and how had the Sith repaid him? They tried to kill him as well! Raen convinced himself they were jealous of his skill, and the dark side had bolstered their arrogance and turned it into fear. Fear of what Raen was, and what he could become.
Why had he wanted to kill the Ithorian? Was it out of hate, or was he simply obeying the commands of the Sith? He was not sure. Whatever the reason, Raen was now forced to pay penance to the Jedi Order. His judgment would come, but not yet. He would not go to Coruscant until he took his revenge on De’dlay and all the other Sith on Alderaan—those cowards. They had used him as their tool, exploited his awesome powers for their own gain. He had been their loyal hound, but no more. He would show them what they feared. He would break down everything they had built. If only he could return to Alderaan.
Gaiel and Ralina called out to Raen, deriding him and demanding that he keep up with their company. The young Force-sensitive begrudgingly followed them out of the docks—which did not have a dockmaster or any sort of personnel—and entered the streets outside the hangar. The village was made up of about forty huts, each made with duracrete and stone. The streets themselves were wide and almost entirely covered with snow; however, there were some areas where snow had been shoveled into mounds away from the streets to make it easier to travel. It was not snowing, and the weather itself was mild for this planet, but the harsh temperature kept most Pyn’gani indoors. Therefore, the streets were mostly empty, and the village seemed dead to the offworlder visitors.
Ralina sneezed violently as a cold wind blew in to greet the offworlders. None of the crew was dressed for Polus’s weather, and only Fetcher and Manda, with their fur coats, were remotely comfortable. The rest of them, including the Jedi, were starting to shiver and lose body heat in the cold.
“Who’s idea was it to leave the ship without coats?” Raen asked. He was bitter and uncomfortable, and he tried to make it as clear as possible by his tone.
“Certainly not ours,” Fetcher countered. “You Jedi were so eager to leave the ship that we practically rushed out—and now look! We couldn’t even grab any gear.”
“Raen, please,” Gaiel muttered. “Drop the issue.”
“Your captain is sick! Who cares about getting off your ship? Don’t you even care about her well being?” Raen shot back, ignoring Gaiel’s advice. He didn’t care about Ralina, but he knew that he could exploit her crew’s affection for the captain.
“I’m not sick!” Ralina snapped.
Fetcher hunched over, positioning himself closer to the snow like a great beast about to pounce on its prey. The Shistavanen revealed his teeth to Raen. Fetcher’s hostile movements were not lost upon the young Alderaanian, and he reached for his lightsaber. Truthfully, he would not have minded getting a chance to cut Fetcher apart. He was too bold for his own good.
“You dare insult my loyalty, boy?” Fetcher asked. He wouldn’t attack until he was sure Raen was goading him on.
“No, I don’t doubt your loyalty, dog,” Raen spat. “I doubt that you think things through well enough to keep your leader safe.”
“Raen!” Gaiel shouted. “Back down!”
“We could just return to the ship, Fetcher,” Delvin noted. “The captain would benefit from the rest, and the Jedi could complete their business while we wait back at the Hound’s Sapphire.
“No! We stay with the Jedi until we get paid!” Ralina shouted to make herself heard over another gust of wind. “Even if we have to follow them to the farthest reaches of this frozen hellhole, we are going to get paid!”
One of the few Pyn’gani natives still outside took notice of the spectacle. Standing about half as tall as Raen, he was unnaturally short, and he trudged through the snow with a thick cane to relieve the pain on his hunched back. He wore a black parka with a white scarf, concealing most of his face. He had some trouble traveling through the snow, but he managed to make his way toward the arguing group.
The Pyn’gani—who had gone unnoticed by the offworlders—tapped his cane on the ice between himself and Ralina. The rest of the crew and the Jedi quickly diverted their attention from their own issues to the old man before them. “Excuse me, offworlders. Are you in need of assistance?”
“No,” Ralina said bitterly. “We’re just fine. Thank you.”
“Are you sure?” the Pyn’gani replied. “Your group isn’t dressed for the cold weather, and you could get deathly ill very quickly. I may not be a augur, but I know how to interpret the weather—it’s going to get very cold, very soon.”
Gaiel looked at his companions and stepped forward. “My associates may be unwilling to accept your help, but I am. If the weather will begin to worsen as you say, I’ll take whatever aid you can give.”
“Very good,” the old Pyn’gani said. “I will take you to my hut. Follow me, it’s not very far.”
The aged native’s eyes glistened as he motioned for the company to follow him. Raen glanced at Fetcher, and their eyes met. They gave each other a warning glare before returning their attention to the Pyn’gani. Raen thought Fetcher should consider himself lucky. He would keep his life. Under any other circumstances, the Shistavanen would be dead. Gaiel’s amicable nature and eagerness to accept charity had kept him from having to kill Fetcher today. However, the Nautolan was too trusting. This was a bad idea.
“Gaiel,” Raen whispered. “Are you sure this is wise? He could be leading us into a trap. He doesn’t even know us. No one would be willing to help out a group of strangers.”
“He’s offered to help us,” Gaiel replied. “I sense no deception or ill will from him. Besides, some people are naturally charitable.”
“No one is this kind. He must want something in return.”
“You’re too cynical.”
“And you’re too trusting,” Raen noted.
“If you would like to remain out here,” Gaiel began, smiling slightly, “feel free. But I’ll gladly spend some time indoors, away from the elements.”
Raen bitterly acquiesced to Gaiel’s point. Raen did not believe Gaiel was so naïve as to believe this Pyn’gani was harmless, or at least lacked an agenda. However, he knew he could defend himself in the event of a trap, and decided against taking action. As Gaiel followed the old native, Raen was close behind them.
The smugglers were as hesitant as Raen, and they remained where they were for some time. Ralina eventually let out an audible sigh and signaled for her crew to follow the old Pyn’gani and the two Jedi. The group followed the slow-moving native through the village, traversing the wider streets and avoiding the snowy banks. The old Pyn’gani clearly knew where he was going, but some of the smugglers were having difficulty navigating the snow banks.
After they had passed most of the other houses in the village, the old Pyn’gani and his guests reached a small hut in the farthest corner of the village. The abode was made out of some type of clay, and there was no metal or duracrete to be seen. It was hardly large enough to serve as a stable, and Raen was worried that it wouldn’t even fit all of their company. Regardless, the old Pyn’gani told them to head inside and make themselves at home while he went to gather some herbs and spices.
Raen heard Fetcher mumble something about seeing Hutt slaves with better homes as they entered the old native’s dwelling. To their surprise, the inside of the hut was quite warm. The clay on the outside concealed the metal interior, and the main room contained a large fire burning inside a primitive furnace. The fire was fueled by a massive stock of tinder and dried foliage; where the dead vegetation had come from, none of the guests was quite sure. The rest of the main room was quite bare, including the walls. However, several chairs were positioned in the opposite corner of the room, almost as if the old Pyn’gani had been expecting guests.
A Human male was tending to the fire while the company entered the old Pyn’gani’s home. He was about Raen’s age, but he was considerably more muscular. His build was evident due to the fact that he only wore fur trousers and no shirt. Scars were etched into his light skin, and various designs and markings covered his body in the form of tattoos and paint. His raven-black hair was long in the front—descending in front of his face and concealing most of it—while remaining fairly short in the back. When he saw the offworlders enter, he grabbed the spear that was resting on the floor nearby and pointed the weapon at Ralina.
The captain was hardly expecting the young man to point the weapon at her, and she reached for her own blaster as quickly as she could. Raen swore quietly. He knew that this was a trap. His lightsaber was in his hand as the young man stepped back to throw his weapon. As the smugglers and Jedi moved to defend Ralina, they realized the fire-keeper was unable to throw his spear. In fact, he couldn’t move at all. Confused, Raen watched as the spear was wrestled out of the young man’s grip and he was thrown to the ground by an invisible force. The fire-keeper cried out in an unknown language, and he began to thrash about wildly.
The spear was floating on its own now, dancing in the air and suspended by some unseen power. Raen had his lightsaber withdrawn and activated now, and he shouted for the specter to reveal itself. It did so. The being slowly faded into view, his appearance taking shape as his invisibility was cast aside. The phantom revealed itself to the crew and the Jedi, and to the young man it had pinned down.
The figure’s emaciated appearance and pale skin startled the old Pyn’gani, who had only just arrived. He cried out in terror, worried that an evil spirit had entered his house. Raen would have decried his idiocy in any other instance; however, Tserne DeLarane certainly did have the visage of a ghost. Tserne’s long blond hair was tattered and descended from his scalp, racing toward his shoulders and down his back. The tips had even begun to collect frost. He held the young Human’s spear in one of his skeletal hands and a curved, serrated knife in the other. From his position behind his captive, Tserne was safe from any attacks from the young man and kept the spear out of his reach.
Raen noticed Ralina’s surprise when Tserne revealed himself. As far as he knew, Ralina kept the ghastly figure locked away in some storage chamber in the Hound’s Sapphire, and with good reason. Despite his deathly appearance, he also had a dry, lifeless attitude that Raen could not stand. He had all the qualities of a killer, and Raen could not understand why Ralina would include him in a crew comprised of motley, but not murderous, criminals.
He had only seen Tserne twice: once before the Hound’s Sapphire had left Dantooine, and immediately after their departure. Ever since, Raen had not encountered Tserne. The captain was not Force-sensitive, so she did not know that a powerful—and uncomfortable—aura emanated from her caged crewmate, but Raen could sense it. Even with his weak empathetic and Force-sensing capabilities, he knew that something was wrong with Tserne DeLarane.
“Please! Don’t hurt the boy! He didn’t mean any harm. I did not tell him beforehand that he should have expected visitors,” the old Pyn’gani begged.
The boy stopped struggling as the old man chided him in their native tongue, but Ralina’s ghastly crewmate did not release his grip on his captive.
“Tserne,” Ralina said, sternly. “Release the kid. Now.”
Without a word, Tserne released the young man and dropped the spear. Raen thought the old Pyn’gani’s friend would lash out at Tserne, but he didn’t. The old man approached the young man and continued to speak to him in their native tongue. Tserne left them alone and headed into the crew’s midst.
“How did you get off the ship, Tserne?” Ralina whispered hoarsely.
“Picked the locks on my binders,” Tserne murmured.
“Don’t do that again! From now on, you remain with the ship unless I tell you otherwise. Are we clear?” Ralina ordered.
He sighed mournfully. “Yes, darling.”
The old Pyn’gani coughed, getting the attention of the Jedi and the smugglers. “Again, I apologize profusely for the actions of my protégé. Please, make yourselves at home. My belongings are yours. If you’re tired, feel free to pull up a seat.”
“We won’t be staying long,” Gaiel noted. “We’re actually on a mission, and we will be heading out once the weather improves.”
“A mission?” the old Pyn’gani muttered. “What sort of mission would you be undertaking here on Polus?”
Gaiel hesitated. Raen could tell that he was unsure if he should share their task with this visitor, even though Gaiel had not doubted the old man’s kindness before. Raen mentally screamed at the Nautolan. If he divulged anything about their mission, it could be compromised.
“Do you know of the Sith?” Gaiel asked.
The elderly native’s eyes twinkled again. “I do. What of them?”
“They have a base of operations somewhere on Polus. We were sent to… investigate their headquarters and report back to our superiors.”
“Are you Jedi Knights?”
Gaiel was taken aback by the question. The smugglers, who had spread about the main room in an attempt to remain warm, all turned to the old Pyn’gani. Even Raen twitched slightly. He was a Sith spy—Raen knew it. It would explain why he was so willing to take them in upon their arrival. Raen reached for his lightsaber again, and he noticed that the old Pyn’gani’s associate instinctively took notice of Raen’s action and reached for his spear.
“Yes,” Gaiel said. “We are Jedi Knights.”
The Pyn’gani smiled. “Excellent! I, Cthor Ux, have had the pleasure of aiding two Jedi Knights in a single season. The goddesses’ smile upon our household, Uxen.” The elderly Pyn’gani glanced at the young man, who had relaxed himself and no longer reached for his weapon.
“Excuse me?” Gaiel asked, confused. “Did you say you’ve helped another Jedi recently?”
“Yes, by the goddesses it’s true,” Cthor answered. “Another Jedi came to my hut, and he told me many things. He told me that, as village elder, it would be my responsibility to aid him in the fight against the Sith forces that now inhabit Polus. He told me that he had a dream, and other Jedi would soon arrive. He performed wondrous deeds throughout the village, and he healed my protégé of a disease that had crippled him since the last hunt.”
“Who was this Jedi?” Raen asked.
“He called himself Celsus Djan.”
Raen was jarred by Cthor’s words. Celsus Djan was here? Impossible. The Jedi Master had been on Taris, and he and Raen fought against bounty hunters sent by Raen’s former Sith masters. Their meeting had not been friendly, but the two Force-sensitives had learned to help each other. Without Celsus’s help, Raen probably would not have escaped Taris. They parted ways, but Raen assumed that the Jedi Master returned to Coruscant after tending to some sort of personal matter. Raen assumed all Jedi needed permission from the Jedi High Council to attend to missions? What was he doing on Polus?
“You said Master Djan was here?” Gaiel asked, still a bit surprised.
“He is here, Sir Jedi,” the old Pyn’gani replied.
“Where is he now?”
Cthor pointed to the east. “He crossed the vast ocean and arrived at the Ak-Alluz military facility two days ago. He has not contacted us since.”
“We need to go there,” Raen told Gaiel. “He could be fighting Sith, and he could need our help.”
“I don’t think someone as powerful as Master Djan would need our help, Raen. But we could help him all the same,” Gaiel answered.
“No way!” Ralina spoke up. “We’ve done enough for you Jedi. You’ve led us from one end of the galaxy to another, and for what? Picking up another Jedi? Where are our credits?”
Gaiel winced. “Captain Venli-”
“Don’t ‘Captain Venli’ me, Jedi!” Ralina snapped. She stood up, with some help from Fetcher, and marched toward the two Force-sensitives. “I’m done. I tried my best to accommodate for your wishes, but no more! I will not allow you to force us to carry along another Jedi without payment.”
“Captain Venli,” Gaiel continued, “we are not forcing you to do anything. You may-”
“We’re not leaving until we get our credits, Jedi!”
“Very well,” Gaiel said. Raen knew the Nautolan was seething, but he did his best to conceal it from the smuggler. “I’ll admit it: I don’t have the payment I promised you. I don’t think I’ll be able to pay you in the near future, either. So you can either leave us to our own business, smuggler, or you can follow us until we’re done here.”
Fetcher growled softly as Ralina reached for her weapon. As smugglers, her crew often associated with lowlifes and other criminals. However, they were almost never denied their payment. In fact, only Jedi had denied them payment in recent memory. And when they didn’t get paid, they got even. Ralina’s crew was a ragtag bunch, but they were able to fight. However, the captain knew that she couldn’t force her companions to fight against Jedi. Their powers made them far too strong for any of her crew, even Fetcher’s physical strength and Tserne’s unnatural skill at killing.
What could she do? The Jedi refused to pay, and she couldn’t take them down. They could abandon the Jedi to their fate, but Ralina knew that meant their entire trip was for nothing. If they remained with them, there would be far too much tension for Ralina to handle. They were smugglers, not a charity. They didn’t work for free.
“Fine,” Ralina spat, moving her hand away from her blaster’s holster. “That’s an easy choice. We’re leaving. You can find your own way off the planet.”
Ralina moved to the door, and Manda followed her with a large grin on her face. No doubt she was happy to be rid of the Jedi. However, Delvin intercepted the captain on her way to the door. He stood between Ralina and the exit, much to her surprise.
“Hold on, Captain. Are you sure that this is wise?” he said.
Ralina raised a curious eyebrow and frowned. “What are you talking about, Delvin?”
“I’m talking about leaving the Jedi here on Polus,” Delvin continued, his voice now a hushed whisper. “We brought the Jedi here on our ship, and we allowed them to have unmonitored access to it. They know our names, our ship’s identification, and what we’re capable of. If we abandon the Jedi now, and they survive, the Order won’t be too pleased with our actions.”
“I don’t see what you’re getting at,” the captain admitted.
“Captain, we should try to appease the Jedi, if for a little longer, so they permanently look over our less-than-legal deeds,” he explained.
“You want us to remain with them—for free—despite the fact we don’t know where they’re going and what danger they’re heading into?”
“Just so they don’t turn us in later?”
“Yes,” Delvin repeated. “It would be useful to have Jedi allies in the future.”
Ralina was silent for a moment, but she finally shook her head. “I hate it that your foresight makes more sense to me than my desire for credits. Fine. We’ll stay.”
Gaiel nodded. “Glad to hear it, Captain Venli.”
“If you plan on following Celsus Djan, Sir Jedi, you will need transportation,” Cthor said. We have local beasts that can carry you there-”
“Don’t worry,” Fetcher interrupted. “If we’re going to be… traveling with the Jedi… then we can take the Hound’s Sapphire to this military facility. I’ll need the coordinates, though.”
“Very well,” Cthor replied. “I can do that for you. However, I would ask that you take Uxen and some of our warriors with you. I would not know what to do if your company and Celsus fell in battle because you were outnumbered.”
“We’ll do that. Their ship has more than enough room for a few more,” Gaiel spoke up, ignoring any glances Ralina shot at him.
“I’ll get you the coordinates then, Sir Jedi. Wait a moment, let me make sure I give you the right ones.”
“This is the place. I can see the military base in the distance,” Fetcher announced. Directing the Hound’s Sapphire through a light snowstorm was slightly more dangerous than in clear weather, but the two Jedi had convinced the smugglers that they needed to reach Celsus as soon as possible.
“They could have defenses,” Gaiel noted. “Fly us in slowly, and drop us off about two kilometers from the base.”
“Drop you off?” You think we’re wearing these snowsuits for show?” Ralina asked bitterly. “No, we’re following you for the time being.”
Raen scoffed. “They wanted to leave us to die on this frozen wasteland, and now they won’t leave us alone.”
“I heard that, Jedi,” the captain replied. “Keep your stupid comments to yourself. Let’s go. The rest of the crew and that old native’s friends are already waiting for us to land.”
Fetcher slowly surrendered control of the ship to Jon, and the ship’s artificial intelligence directed the ship into a safe landing zone while Fetcher followed Ralina and the Jedi. The Hound’s Sapphire landed on a small plateau of snow and rock. Although it did not appear capable of sustaining the ship’s weight, a quick geological scan confirmed the plateau’s hidden strength. The entire company—Jedi, smugglers, and local warriors—disembarked from the Hound’s Sapphire, leaving Jon to monitor and protect the ship.
The group stood at the edge of the plateau, using their vantage point to view the military base in the distance. Raen could hardly see the entire base due to the snowstorm that was blowing in, but he could tell the base itself was hardly that large. The small central hub was surrounded by three spiked bulbous structures, and it seemed that the Sith had done their construction in haste.
Gaiel shivered. “I’m going to be glad when we’re off this ball of ice, Raen. It’s far too cold for my liking.”
“We should try to find Celsus soon, then,” Raen noted.
Fetcher walked by the two Jedi, withdrawing a pair of binoculars. “You Jedi complain quite a bit. Be grateful you’re not fighting in the snow. That would be difficult.”
“It’d probably get my blood flowing,” Gaiel countered.
Fetcher was still looking through his binoculars. He ignored Gaiel’s remark and shifted his lupine eyes back and forth. “We were lucky that we avoided a close-range drop. They have several anti-air turrets positioned around the base. None of them are too large, and they probably aren’t too accurate, but they would have damaged our vessel.”
“Any defenses for taking down infantry? Turrets or gun-placements, perhaps?” Ralina inquired.
“I don’t think so, Captain. They seem primarily concerned with defending themselves from atmospheric attacks.”
“Let’s go, then,” Ralina ordered. “No point in waiting up here until we freeze. Let’s raid this place and be done with it.”
The company began to make their way down the plateau. Difficulty arose when the light snowfall evolved into a vicious blizzard. Raen cursed their luck as the snow lashed at their clothes and into their exposed faces. The snow-covered sides of the plateau proved difficult to descend, but they surrendered speed for caution to ensure that everyone reached the ground safely. Ten minutes after they had left the ship, they had hardly traveled half a kilometer, and most of Raen’s allies were already tired, bitter, and uncomfortably cold. Their vision was hindered by the ice and snow, and they found themselves engulfed in a vast sea of white emptiness.
The company pressed onward in spite of their fatigue. Raen was almost at the head of the party, although Fetcher and Gaiel were leading the group. As they progressed, they found themselves within the sights of a single, ivory-armored soldier. Exhausted as they were, the two Jedi hadn’t sensed him, and he was almost invisible in the snowstorm, visible only by the silhouette of his personal energy shield—which glowed with a subtle green aura—gave away his position. The company recognized the Sith trooper immediately. He shifted his view toward the company, and he must have noticed their approach. The soldier moved his comlink toward his oblong visor, hoping to radio for assistance.
Realizing that they had been spotted, one of Uxen’s men threw his spear at the soldier. The soldier’s shielding and armor were curiously ineffective against the primitive projectile, and he flew backwards as the weapon became lodged in his chest. Bright crimson blood stained the soldier’s armor and the snow around his body, and the company was relieved to discover that the attack had been fatal. His body was almost enveloped by snow by the time the company reached his corpse. His comlink was still active, and his superiors at the base were still attempting to get a response from the dead soldier.
Delvin destroyed the comlink with two shots from his heavy rifle. “They’re going to figure out he’s dead, but they won’t be able to pinpoint our position if we keep moving.”
“Then what are we standing around for?” Ralina asked. “Let’s go!”
A rumbling sound in the distance prevented them from going very far. The crew activated their shields and prepared their weapons. From inside the snowstorm, a large eight-wheeled armored vehicle emerged, getting closer to their position. Its chassis was covered in snow, but the massive plow placed in the front of the vehicle allowed it to navigate the blizzard with relative ease. It came to a stop about eight meters from the company, and revealed its port side to them.
The large portside doors opened with a groan, and several squads of Sith soldiers disembarked in an orderly fashion. As before, the native warriors wasted no time attacking these new enemies. Flying spearheads pierced their targets, and several Sith soldiers died before the shooting even began. The Sith captain, wearing red armor that unnecessarily stood out in the snow, ordered for the Sith soldiers to advance and open fire.
Raen activated his lightsaber as the first blaster shots flew by his head. The blue blade activated with a dull noise, and he battered away a few shots headed toward him. Another quick swing sent a stray shot back toward the soldier who fired it. It was difficult to maneuver in the inclement weather and thick snow, so Raen remained in his position and deflected blaster shots that threatened him. Gaiel was at his side, and he focused less on defending himself and more on ensuring the safety of Ralina, her crew, and the natives.
Their allies were having difficulty fighting the Sith. Three natives had fallen, and another was wounded. The other warriors had retreated behind mounds of snow, but they could not fight back without their spears. Ralina’s crew was fairing little better. Ralina, Manda, and Fetcher traded blaster shots with the Sith soldiers, using Gaiel for defense. Delvin provided them with some degree of cover fire with his heavy repeater, although he was under fire as well. Tserne had faded out of sight, and he was using his invisibility to approach the soldiers and kill them at close-range.
Blaster fire continued to fly between the Sith soldiers and the company of offworlders and natives in spite of the mounting casualties on both sides. Of the nine or so natives they had taken with them, there were only four left. The Sith soldiers were losing men quickly due to the presence of the Jedi, and they had left than half of their total soldiers remaining. The Sith captain commanded that his soldiers arm themselves with grenade launchers and slugthrowers to secure the battle for the Sith. The Jedi could not deflect grenades or slugs with their lightsabers, and the Sith knew it.
As the Sith temporarily retreated back into their vehicle to switch their weapons, their vehicle began to shake violently. To the surprise of all the combatants, the transport floated into the air, turning on its side as it found itself suspended above the ground. The soldiers spilled out of the vehicle, falling into the snow below. Once the transport had been emptied, it also fell. As it hit the snow, it crushed most of the soldiers and threw others across the snowy battlefield. Ralina’s crew moved in, taking advantage of the strange situation and killing the remaining soldiers.
“Good work,” Ralina said to Gaiel. She approached the Jedi with a slight smirk on her face, and Raen figured it was the happiest he had seen her since they landed. “I seem to have underestimated what you Jedi are capable of in a pinch.”
“That wasn’t us,” Gaiel replied, still scanning the area around them.
Ralina paused for a moment, but she did not realize the implications of Gaiel’s statement until a figure emerged from behind the Sith transport. He was clothed in the snow garbs of the native Pyn’gani and had one of their spears resting across his back. His face was covered, so it was nearly impossible for them to see what he looked like, but his identity was obvious due to the violet lightsaber in his hands.
“Master Djan?” Gaiel called out to the new individual. He kept his own lightsaber in his hands, just in case.
The individual stepped closer to the company, who had regrouped by now, and his weapon was still active. Once he was within striking distance of Gaiel and his companions, he spoke: “My name is Celsus Djan. Who are you?”
Gaiel breathed a sigh of relief. “My name is Gaiel Remus, a Jedi Knight. This is Raen Benax, and these are our companions. We were looking for you, Master Djan.”
Celsus murmured something to himself before tilting his head toward Raen. “Did you say-”
“Hello, Celsus,” Raen said with a smirk. “It’s been some time.”
“You’re right. It’s been far too long. I’m damn glad to see you, Raen. I was planning on assaulting this Sith base by myself.”
“Don’t,” Gaiel interrupted. “We’re here now. Let us help you, and we’ll all return to Coruscant.”
Celsus hesitated for a moment, but replied with a terse ‘of course’. He shook his head. “It will be a hard fight, but we’ll triumph. Three Jedi cannot fail.”
“Hold on,” Ralina said. “They came up here to meet with you, and you don’t even give them a moment to catch their breath? And who are you to start barking orders, especially to us? We don’t even know who you are.”
Celsus’s gaze drifted toward the captain. “Who’s this?” he asked coldly.
“Ralina Venli, smuggler,” Raen noted. “She brought us here.”
“I see,” Celsus responded. He crossed his arms, considering his next words carefully. “Miss Venli, this matter is of no concern to you. If you are not comfortable taking orders from someone else, you may kindly return to your ship. This is Jedi business.”
Gaiel perked up. “Master Djan, I’d advise against-”
“You mind your tongue, Jedi! We’ll stay here as long as we see fit,” Ralina shot back. “We’ve been dragged across this miserable ice-pit by you Jedi, and I’m just about tired of following orders. We’re going to stay here as long as I damn well say we’re staying, and I’m not leaving until I get my payment. So if you want our help, you will work with us. You will not be commanding us, Jedi.”
Raen frowned. She had quite a mouth for a petty thief. If she wasn’t careful, Raen would gladly silence her. Celsus had been startled by the young woman’s sudden fervor, and he crossed his arms again. This time, he was bemused by the smuggler’s response. Raen was very eager to convince Celsus to leave them here and abandon them to their fate, but he knew Gaiel wouldn’t agree. Therefore, he said nothing.
Celsus shrugged. “Very well, Miss Venli. Do as you see fit. If you or your company endures any casualties when we enter the base, I will not be responsible.”
“How are we going to reach the base?” Gaiel asked.
Celsus pointed toward the Sith transport behind them. “You think I left it intact for it to become part of Polus’s landscape? Most of your group can remain in the back of the transport, while we drive it into the Sith base.”
Gaiel nodded. “Does that sound fair, Captain Venli?”
The captain begrudgingly nodded.
“Very well,” Celsus said. “Raen, Gaiel, join me in the cockpit. We’ll open the rear doors so the rest of you can get in.”
The three Jedi headed into the cockpit of the transport, which was actual fairly large and could have fit up to six individuals comfortably. Celsus took the driver’s seat while Raen and Gaiel took seats near the back. As promised, Celsus opened the back doors and waited for Ralina’s crew and their native allies to enter the vehicle before closing the doors. The keycard to power the vehicle was still inside, and Celsus activated the transport with relative ease. The engine took a moment to start, but once it did, Celsus began the trek to the Sith base using the dashboard’s radar-guidance system.
While they were still driving, Gaiel turned to Raen. “What do you think?”
“About what?” the younger Force-sensitive asked.
“What about him?”
“He… he isn’t how I pictured him,” Gaiel admitted, before lowering his voice to a whisper. “Was he always like this?”
“Not exactly,” Raen explained. “But he was never particularly emotional and friendly, either.”
“It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
The Nautolan’s eyes drifted off. He seemed lost in thought, or at least, caught up in a memory. He clasped his hands together and rested his head on his fists. “Master Djan is famous in the Jedi Order. He’s a legend—an icon. His skill with a lightsaber is legendary, and he is learned in the Force like the knights of legend.”
Raen considered Gaiel’s words for a moment. When he had met Celsus on Taris, he hardly seemed special. Raen almost bested the Jedi Master in lightsaber combat, and he did not remember Celsus possessing any unnatural talent in the Force. In fact, when Celsus had been brought to heal the brother of Selias, one of Raen’s friends on Taris, he failed to cure him.
“He didn’t seem that special to me,” Raen said, sighing. “Just another Jedi.”
“Just another Jedi? No, Raen. He’s one of the greatest Jedi of our generation. He molded an army of settlers and mercenaries into a force strong enough to repel Mandalorians from Mechis III. He trained Syme, one of my friends in the Order, and Syme’s skills surpass my own because of it. His lightsaber skills are on par with all our Jedi Councilors. No. He’s not just another Jedi.”
“You describe him like he’s some sort of hero.”
“Maybe he is, Raen,” Gaiel mused. “Maybe he is.”
While they were still talking, Celsus pulled up to the Sith base’s garage and activated the vehicle’s radio. “This is Captain… Enon,” Celsus said, reading the name off of the deceased Sith captain’s ID. “We took out the intruders near checkpoint seven.”
“Roger that, Captain,” the Sith operator on the other end of the transmission replied. “How’s your unit?”
“Well, there was a single Jedi, and he caused us trouble. Took down six guys. He couldn’t stop our grenade launchers, and his allies were terminated after he died.” Celsus replied.
“Very well. Opening the garage door. Stay put until the doors are fully open.”
“Of course,” Celsus said. “Enon out.”